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THE DEEP ONES: "The Empire of the Necromancers" by Clark Ashton Smith

The Weird Tradition

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Feb 23, 2012, 10:26am Top

Feb 23, 2012, 10:33am Top

I'm going to be reading this one out of The Return Of The Sorcerer: The Best Of Clark Ashton Smith, which I've placed on hold at the library.

Edited: Feb 27, 2012, 9:53am Top

I really like this story.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 2:36am Top

It's after midnight where I am, and I just finished my re-read of the story, so I'm gonna go ahead and start.


This story is so satisfying to me on so many different levels that I scarcely know where to start.

Okay... do you all know that Bruegel painting The Triumph of Death?

"The Empire of the Necromancers" is kind of the prose equivalent of that.

Writing about Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (to which "The Empire of the Necromancers" almost seems to be a sort of weird sequel), along with certain other prose pieces by Poe , H. P. Lovecraft said they "are assuredly poems in every sense of the word save the metrical one, and owe as much of their power to aural cadence as to visual imagery." He could have been writing about "Empire of the Necromancers" as well.

Some favorite passages:

The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. Before the time of its telling, many epochs shall have passed away, and the seas shall have fallen in their beds, and new continents shall have come to birth. Perhaps, in that day, it will serve to beguile for a little the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.


Chamberlains and princes of old time were their cupbearers, and stringed instruments were plucked for their delight by the slim hands of empresses with golden hair that had come forth untarnished from the night of the tomb. Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.



Dumbly they obeyed the dictates of their tyrannous lords, without rebellion or protest, but filled with a vague, illimitable weariness such as the dead must know, when having drunk of eternal sleep, they are called back once more to the bitterness of mortal being. They knew no passion or desire. or delight, only the black languor of their awakening from Lethe, and a gray, ceaseless longing to return to that interrupted slumber.


Belaboring The Obvious Dept.:

The phrase "rode in an evil mockery of Death on his pale horse" is of course a reference to Revelation 6:8:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (KJV)

Feb 29, 2012, 2:47am Top

Interesting to note that there's also a Brian Stableford series called The Empire of the Necromancers:


Feb 29, 2012, 4:52am Top

Since we talked about it in last week's thread, I'll note that, as shown in the opening paragraph, the "dying earth" theme is far more evident here than in later Zothique tales (or at least those I've read).

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 8:39am Top

>6 AndreasJ:

If Ryan Harvey's chronology is correct (http://www.blackgate.com/the-fantasy-cycles-of-clark-ashton-smith-part-iii-tales...), EotN was the 1st Zothique tale Smith composed, so he would naturally be more likely to include information on his newly-created world here.

Harvey writes:

“The Empire of the Necromancers” is frequently cited as Smith’s greatest work of short fiction. It is an ideal curtain-raiser for his most fully realized fantasy opus.

Hard to argue with that one.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 8:41am Top

> 4

I actually found the allusion to the biblical Apocalypse a little misplaced, in that -- presumably -- since "the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten," no one would know that reference in "the latter cycles of Earth," and yet CAS claims to "tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide."

Feb 29, 2012, 8:43am Top

I hadn't thought to connect this one with Poe's "Masque," but it is indeed a provocative juxtaposition, Art!

Feb 29, 2012, 8:46am Top

The necromancer's names were so clunky that I wanted them to be anagrams. No dice, though. The best I could come up with was "Momma Rut" and "Doom Ass."

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 9:09am Top

The flow of "The Empire of the Necromancers" is just about perfect, but I would have been just as happy with it if it had gone on and on. No wonder Smith liked the Zothique setting well enough to continue it in other stories. I was very pleased to meet our two nefarious necromancers from the isle of Naat right off the bat, nicely (if reverse-chronologically) bookending last week's discussion of "Necromancy in Naat".

>4 artturnerjr:

Perhaps Bruegel, although the dead in Smith's tale seem much more orderly!

Interesting to note that with "Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.", the idea of necrophilia is dealt with efficiently and bluntly in this very first Zothique tale.

Also echoing last week's tale is the extremely gruesome fate awaiting the necromancers. You know, in all of the CAS I've read before, I haven't encountered anything quite as ghastly as some of the imagery that is found in these last two stories we've discussed! Not that I'm complaining. ;)

Lines like this reminded me of Ray Bradbury, especially his tales of Uncle Einar and his ancient family:

The dead emperors and empresses stirred, like autumn leaves in a sudden wind, and a whisper passed among them and went forth from the palace, to be communicated at length, by devious ways, to all the dead of Cincor.

Feb 29, 2012, 9:15am Top

>10 paradoxosalpha:

I was thinking "Matador" and "Sadismo"!

I find that with a lot of Smith's names, I need to say them out loud to myself a couple of times (quite amusing to observers, I'm sure). After that, they're a little easier to deal with. :P

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 6:49pm Top

>8 paradoxosalpha:

That's an excellent point. That hadn't occurred to me.

>9 paradoxosalpha:

Thanks! Like his buddy HPL, CAS liked to riff off Poe a lot, and "Masque" seems to have a particularly fertile source of inspiration for him. (Another example would be "The Isle of the Torturers", which, as the Harvey article I mentioned in #7 reminded me, deals in part with a plague called "The Silver Death".) I just flashed on the notion that Zothique is a world in which Darkness and Decay and Death really hold illimitable dominion over all.

>10 paradoxosalpha:

Do you think so? I found all the proper nouns in the story to be darkly euphonious and Dunsanyesque.

ETA: Someone else who picked up on Dunsany's influence on the nomenclature:


Feb 29, 2012, 9:43am Top

>11 KentonSem:

Bradbury, along with Gene Wolfe and HPL, is one of the blurbers on the CAS paperback that I read this out of.

I love Wolfe's blurb:

No one imitates Smith. There could only one writer of Clark Ashton Smith stories, and we have had him.

Feb 29, 2012, 9:52am Top

From the notes on "The Empire of the Necromancers" in A Vintage from Atlantis:

CAS wrote, "There is a queer mood in this little tale; and, like my forthcoming "Planet of the Dead", it is muchly overgreened with what H.P. once referred to as the 'verdegris of decadence'".

Lovecraft called it "great - one of the best things I've seen lately, & I'm immensely glad to learn it has landed with Wright".

The Empire of the Necromancers" was voted the most popular story in the September 1932 issue of Weird Tales.

Feb 29, 2012, 10:15am Top

>15 KentonSem:

Thanks for posting. :)


Because I'll use any excuse to post his work, here's a small repro of the great Albrecht Dürer's The Revelation of St John: The Four Riders of the Apocalypse*, featuring Death and his pale steed in the foreground:

*The original German title of the piece (Die Offenbarung des Johannes: Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter) is, of course, even cooler.

Feb 29, 2012, 10:43am Top

Here's the J.K. Potter illo for "Empire" that's in my copy of Rendezvous in Averoigne:

Feb 29, 2012, 10:44am Top

Oh, and a picture from this tale by the inimitable Richard Corben:

Feb 29, 2012, 10:51am Top

Is that a lich wearing a skeleton?

Feb 29, 2012, 11:04am Top

>19 AndreasJ:

Obviously a steal from the necromanticly awesome John Entwistle (bass player for The Who):


Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 2:24pm Top

>17 paradoxosalpha:

Thanks! I've always liked J.K. Potter's work very much. That one in particular captures the mood of the story quite well.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 4:11pm Top

Just finished The Hunters from Beyond by CAS in Strange Tales 1932. Great story. Also starting Bal Macabre by Meyrink in the same issue.
The wiki on CAS suggests that the suicide of REH, the death from cancer of HPL and the rapid deaths of his parents was the reason for his not writing after that. Interesting. Any confirmation of that from other sources?

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 7:07pm Top

>22 tros:

In An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, S.T. Joshi writes:

By 1935 {Smith's} enthusiasm for writing fiction began to wane, and he turned to the carving of weird sculptures...

So it sounds like CAS' fiction-writing muse was not what it once was even before the deaths of Robert E. Howard, HPL, and his folks. Considering how much of his inspiration for fiction writing seems to have been derived from his correspondence with REH & HPL, and that he was largely writing fiction in order to support his parents, it's hardly surprising that he gave it up almost entirely after the four of them had passed away.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 10:02pm Top

Invalid parents were a big motivation for weird stories. Bassett Morgan also turned to writing as a way to support her ailing mother. After her mother's death, she quit writing.

Edited: Mar 1, 2012, 7:19pm Top

>24 tros:

It's also interesting to note that many of the early Weird Tales writers considered themselves poets first and fiction writers second. As writing poetry was about as financially remunerative then as it is now (i.e., not at all), they ended up turning to fiction writing to pay the bills.

Mar 1, 2012, 11:51am Top

Evidently, REH committed suicide after his mother's death.

Mar 1, 2012, 2:33pm Top

>25 artturnerjr:
i.e. rather than e.g.

I think it's partly an age thing - poetry is easier to produce at a young age (I think I think)

Mar 1, 2012, 7:23pm Top

>27 bookstopshere:

Edited. Thanks. Dumb mistake.

You're probably right re: youth aiding the poetic imagination. Writing poetry requires seeing the world from a fresh perspective, which is something young people naturally have a leg up on.

Edited: Mar 2, 2012, 9:10pm Top

You know, the Potter illustration makes me realize this story is somewhat reminiscent of Beckford's Vathek: Bad sovereigns come to a bad end in the most exotic manner that the author can muster.

Mar 2, 2012, 1:27pm Top

Mar 2, 2012, 5:04pm Top

>30 paradoxosalpha:

Well done, my friend. I thought the bit about Smith being an "extraterrestrial version of Edgar Allan Poe" was particularly apt.

It really is a great pleasure coming back to a book that you read when you were younger and discovering that, no, it wasn't just naïveté, this thing really is as good as you remember it being; it's even better when you discover layers that you didn't even realize were there the first time through. 8)

Mar 2, 2012, 6:01pm Top


Mar 4, 2012, 8:51am Top

>32 paradoxosalpha:

...and I see now it's a "Hot Review". 8)

Mar 4, 2012, 9:15am Top

> 33

Deep Ones keep putting me over the top!

Mar 4, 2012, 10:00am Top

>34 paradoxosalpha:

That's what we're here for. :)

Mar 4, 2012, 12:14pm Top

Nice review. Might have to take a look at Rendezvous.

Mar 4, 2012, 1:40pm Top

You can see the complete TOC for Rendezvous at its Wikipedia article.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 6:53pm Top

I can resist anything except temptation. ;-)

It's in the mail! All your fault! ;-)

Actually, found a great deal. Gracias!

Mar 5, 2012, 1:06pm Top

> 38

Glad you found a bargain. The 1988 edition?

Mar 5, 2012, 2:56pm Top

Yeah. Price will probably escalate, as with most Arkham.

Edited: Mar 7, 2012, 9:00pm Top

Just got Rendezvous in Averoigne. Fantastic book, in more ways than one!. I think I'll dive into The City of the Singing Flame.

Mar 7, 2012, 6:46pm Top

>41 tros:

The City of Singing Flame

I read that for the first time while listening to the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY soundtrack on headphones. What a trip!

Mar 7, 2012, 7:54pm Top

Bradbury mentions it in the intro as his childhood favorite.
Also mentioned that earlier pub was based on faulty copy which was corrected for the first time.

Mar 7, 2012, 8:15pm Top

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