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The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by…

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

by Clark Ashton Smith

Other authors: S.T. Joshi (Editor)

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Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is surely one of America’s most intriguing and unique authors, a poet and writer of tales of horror, fantasy and science fiction. Born in a small town in Northern California and living nearly all his life in the log cabin build by his parents, Smith didn’t attend school beyond the eighth grade due to psychological problems; rather, all of his learning occurred at home – he read voraciously and committed much to memory, including an encyclopedia and a dictionary cover to cover; he taught himself French and Spanish; he devoured book after book, such classics as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As an adult, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Smith was a prime contributor to the pulp fiction magazine, Weird Tales, and, like Lovecraft, whom he befriended and carried on a live-long correspondence, Smith used his own nightmares as raw material for his fiction.

This fine Penguin edition is a treasure, including many short stories, prose poems and poems along with an informative Introduction by literary scholar, S. T. Joshi. As a way of sharing a taste of what a reader will discover in these pages, I have focused on one short story from the collection, Ubbo-Sathla, noting a number of themes from the tale, themes that recur in much of the author’s work. Also included is my write-up (copied from one of my other reviews) on yet another tale from this Penguin collection: Mother of Toads.

Metaphysical Investigations and Esoteric Language -
The tale begins: “For Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the newmade Earth.” For Clark Ashton Smith, fiction was as a way to explore big philosophical questions: Where do we come from? What is the foundation of life in the universe? And these questions are asked in the most arcane, inscrutable language. As the author himself stated: "My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.”

Magical Object and Occult Literature -
Similar to the young man entering an antique shop filled with curios from around the globe, as in Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin or Théophile Gautier The Mummy’s Foot, Paul Tregardis walks in an antique shop and finds “the milky crystal in a litter of oddments from many lands and eras.” And, oh, how that magically enchanted, arcane object quickly becomes the nucleus of occult unfolding. Added to this: "Tregardis thinks of his own explorations in hidden lore: he recalled The Book of Eibon, that strangest and rarest of occult forgotten volumes, which is said to have come down through a series of manifold translations from a prehistoric original written in the lost language of Hyperborea." Little does Tregardis know, walking out of the shop with his new crystal will bring the book of his memory to life.

Wizards and Sorcery -
As per vintage Clark Ashton Smith, that remote, secret book, The Book of Eibon was purported to have been the handiwork of a great wizard, a great wizard in touch with the heart of the heart of all power within the universe. We read: "This wizard, who was mighty among sorcerers, had found a cloudy stone, orb-like and somewhat flattened at the ends, in which he could behold many visions of the terrene past, even to the Earth's beginning, when Ubbo-Sathla, the unbegotten source, lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime. . . But of that which he beheld, Zon Mezzamalech left little record; and people say that he vanished presently, in a way that is not known; and after him the cloudy crystal was lost." With a wizard and sorcery added to the equation, our narrator is in for unexpected twists to his adventures.

Weird Bending of Time and Space -
The more our young narrator peers into his newly purchased crystal, the more all of the normal boundaries of time and space expand and take on strange forms. “As if he looked upon an actual world, cities, forests, mountains, seas and meadows flowed beneath him, lightening and darkening as with the passage of days and nights in some weirdly accelerated stream of time.” Is he in twentieth century London or some other past and future time? Or, as unfathomable as it might seem, two or even all three together? It is hard for poor Paul Tregardis to tell. In this and in many other Clark Ashton Smith tales, it is left to us as readers to fathom our own conclusions, as nebulous as they might be.

Dreams, Nightmares, Hallucinations -
Paul feels something very strange, as if he is under the influence of hashish. The walls begin to wobble as if they are made of smoke; all the men and women in the streets begin to appear as so many ghosts and shades; the whole scene takes on the cast of a vast phantasm. Is Paul dreaming or hallucinating? Could be. But many the time in a Clark Ashton Smith tale, a dream or vision quickly slides into an unending nightmare. Recall the author mined his own nightmares during protracted illnesses to fuel his fantasies and tales of horror.

Transformation and Shifting Identity -
In such a nightmare, what other evil or unforeseen event can happen? Answer: for Clark Ashton Smith, a character’s very identity can shift and change not only once but multiple times. “He seemed to live unnumbered lives, to die myriad deaths, forgetting each time the death and life that had gone before. He fought as a warrior in half-legendary battles; he was a child playing in the ruins of some olden city of Mhu Thulan; he was the king who had reigned when the city was in its prime, the prophet who had foretold its building and its doom. He became a barbarian of some troglodytic tribe, fleeing from the slow, turreted ice of a former glacial age into lands illumed by the ruddy flare of perpetual volcanoes. Then, after incomputable years, he was no longer man, but a man-like beast, roving in forests of giant fern and calamite, or building an uncouth nest in the boughs of mighty cycads." And not only can a man or woman, plant or beast change. The entire nature of the universe can compress itself into a grey, formless mass of slime with the name Ubbo-Sathla. Ah, Clark Ashton Smith, such an imagination, such an ability to communicate your psychedelic, phantasmagorical visions.

This tale begins with Pierre, young apprentice of the village apothecary, making one of his journeys to the secluded hut of Mère Antoinette, a big ugly witch, for the purpose of returning with a mysterious brew for his master’s secret concoction. After giving Pierre what he came for, the witch beckons the lad to stay. We read his response: “Pierre tossed his head with the disdain of a young Adonis. The witch was more than twice his age, and her charms were too uncouth and unsavory to tempt him for an instant. She was repellently fat and lumpish, and her skin possessed an unwholesome pallor.”

Let’s pause here and ask why do witches appear in so many Western fairy-tales? Robert Bly speaks of the tyranny of patriarchal monotheistic culture, where what is good and pure and divine is male and what comes from nature is negative, chaotic and destructive. And since women are so closely aligned with nature and fertility, their female nature is denied a place in the spiritual realm or godhead, however their energy and power does not go away; rather, it goes underground and later emerges as the witch.

Since village rumors abound regarding the witch’s wickedness and her many toad-servants doing her evil bidding, we can also ask why the master sends young Pierre alone and unprotected to the witch’s hut in the first place. We read: “The old apothecary, whose humor was rough and ribald, had sometimes rallied Pierre concerning Mère Antoinette's preference for him. Remembering certain admonitory gibes, more witty than decent, the boy flushed angrily as he turned to go.” Does the older man have the best interests of the young man at heart? Robert Bly alludes to how the older generation of men in being too naïve themselves have betrayed younger men, causing those younger men to be, in turn, too naïve and gullible.

So, after Pierre refuses her offer to stay, the witch proposes he drink a cup of her fine red wine. Pierre smells the odors of hot, delicious spices and tells the witch he will drink if the wine contains none of her concoctions. Of course, the witch assures him its sound, good wine that will warm his stomach. Did I mentioned naïve and gullible? Pierre drinks the wine. Big mistake. All of Pierre’s sense are radically transformed and distorted – the big, fat witch starts looking pretty good, after all. Do I hear echoes of how drinking can alter and dull our perceptions? Anyway, the deed is done – the witch gets to have a handsome, young lover for the night.

Pierre wakes up sober, sees what has happened and runs away. But the evil witch possesses strange powers. Thousands of her toad-servants block his path and force him to return to the hut. The witch again proposes Pierre stay with her and drink of the wine. At this point, here is the exchange:
"I will not drink your wine," he said firmly. "You are a foul witch, and I loathe you. Let me go."
"Why do you loathe me?" croaked Mère Antoinette. "I can give you all that other women give ... and more."
"You are not a woman," said Pierre. "You are a big toad. I saw you in your true shape this morning. I'd rather drown in the marsh-waters than stay with you again."

Sorry, Pierre, it doesn’t sound like you are using your wits – when confronting powerful evil, you don’t win any points by being honest. Even as children Hansel and Gretel knew what is needed in dealing with a wicked witch is not honesty but cleverness. How does this tale end? You will have to pick up this outstanding collection and read for yourself. ( )
  GlennRussell | May 12, 2017 |
The Singing Of Black Stars

Where to begin? Well, since this is intended as introductory volume of Clark Ashton Smith's literary work, perhaps a few brief remarks about Smith himself are in order.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a poet, short story writer, sculptor, and painter. He is primarily remembered today as a friend and colleague of H.P. Lovecraft (of Cthulhu Mythos fame) and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan), but, although his writing resembles that of both men, he was most assuredly his own man, both as a writer and an individual. Primarily a poet, Smith took to writing fiction, in part to earn income to support his ailing parents. Writing mostly in a genre that would now probably be described as dark fantasy fiction, his work was perhaps more aptly referred to by the great speculative fiction writer Fritz Leiber as simply sui generis.

On to the book itself. This volume is divided into five sections: a mid-length (15-20 page) introduction by editor S.T. Joshi, a lengthy section (about 250 pages, comprising the majority of the book) of short stories, a brief section (about 20 pages) of prose poetry, a longer section (about 60 pages) of non-prose poetry, and about 30 pages of explanatory notes. The short story selection is excellent, and probably does as good of a job is as possible in a relatively constrained space to demonstrate to the Smith neophyte the range of the author's fiction. The prose poetry is, for lack of a better word, delightful; Joshi has referred to Smith as the finest prose poet in the English language, and, after reading the selections included here, I think the reader will find it very hard to argue the point. I found the non-prose poems to be slightly more problematic, as Smith's (in)famous fondness for recondite words is more readily on display here than elsewhere; nevertheless, there is much to admire here, and a work like his long poem "The Hashish-Eater" probably surpasses anything I have ever read in terms of sheer phantasmagoric imagination. Finally, the footnotes, as they always are in Joshi-edited works, are excellent.

Should you purchase this? If you are a fan of writers like Dunsany, Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien, the answer is a resounding "yes". Smith is most certainly not to all tastes, but if you enjoy his work, you will almost certainly be an admirer of his for life. ( )
10 vote artturnerjr | May 27, 2014 |
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I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I no longer have any other, the tale of everything that befell Tirouv Ompallios and myself in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua, which lies neglected by the worship of man in the jungle-taken suburbs of Commoriom, that long-deserted capital of the Hyperborean rulers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143107380, Paperback)

A much-awaited collection of prose and poetry from one of the great cosmic masters of the supernatural

Not just any fantasy, horror, and science fiction author could impress H. P. Lovecraft into calling him “unexcelled by any other writer, dead or living” or compel Fritz Lieber to employ the worthy term sui generis. Clark Ashton Smith—autodidact, prolific poet, amateur philosopher, bizarre sculptor, and unmatched storyteller—simply wrote like no one else, before or since. This new collection of his very best tales and poems is selected and introduced by supernatural literature scholar S. T. Joshi and allows readers to encounter Smith’s visionary brand of fantastical, phantasmagorical worlds, each one filled with invention, terror, and a superlative sense of metaphysical wonder.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:46 -0400)

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