by Ben Cooper
Clark Ashton Smith. Robert Weinberg (foreword by Gene Wolfe) (2009) The Return of The Sorcerer. Prime Books. 400 pp. US $14.95. ISBN: 978-1-60701-209-2
A collection of already-published material is always a difficult one to sell; the editor really has to find some way to sell it over and above the content, as it will all have been available before in some way or another. With an author like Clark Ashton Smith, this is doubly true as his work is freely available on-line, most notably at fan site The Eldritch Dark (www.eldritchdark.com). One of the best options is to have a foreword or introductory essay by a notable author in the relevant field. Weinberg delivers a good one from no less than Gene Wolfe. Wolfe’s introduction gives a short, biographical sketch of one of Lovecraft’s most favoured inner circle and points out that, although Lovecraft had, and continues to have, many imitators, no one has tried imitating Smith’s singular vision and style. To get some idea of what Lovecraft though of Smith’s talent, good old HP compared Smith to no less an artists than William Blake. The comparison was made largely on the basis of Smith’s skills as a poet. He, like Blake, was also an artist.
However, except for Wolfe’s short introduction, the rest of the volume is simply a collection of Smith’s best short stories, some of which are long enough to venture into novella territory. Reviewing these stories feels slightly redundant, due to the fact that they have seen print many times and are so easily accessible through the internet, so a brief look at what’s included will have to wait a minute while I grumble about something.
The barebones presentation left something of a bitter taste in my mouth. In this day and age, when so much out-of-copyright material is available on-line, a new anthology of old material really has to offer some “value for money” to warrant purchase, and, for me at least, a short introduction by any author doesn’t cut it. There is no kind of biographical essay or real attempt to ground Smith’s work in the wider field of weird fiction, except for the small references by Wolfe; no publishing history (except for a short first print index at the end); or a list of Smith’s other work. There is no commentary on any of the texts and this feels like a missed opportunity. All this might sound churlish – after all no-one wants to read a 40 page story on-line – but if people are to be expected to part with hard-earned cash, then they might look for a bit more than just the stories.
So, what has Weinberg actually selected for your reading pleasure? Well, he’s actually done a spot-on job. Smith tended to write his stories in cycles, each one sharing a common setting and with myths and characters woven in and out of them. Weinberg has represented all the main cycles in this.
The Zothique cycle was the largest of Smith’s fictional worlds and is set in a distant future. Themes of madness and insanity tend to be explored as the inhabitants of Zothique find madness a sacred thing. A classic Zothique cycle comes in the shape of “The Dark Eidolon”. Dripping with Smith’s lyrical prose, it is a particularly gruesome story about the sorcerer Namirrha, who seeks revenge against Prince Zotulla, who nearly tramples him to death as a young boy. Smith’s stories exude atmosphere; without wishing to sound blasphemous, given the publication this review is in, he is a much-better writer than Lovecraft, able to evoke a real sense of place and environment in his writing. His ability as a poet is ever-present in the fluid and image-heavy nature of his prose and “The Dark Eidolon” is no exception with a real sense of decadence and decay permeating the story.
The Hyperborean cycle is one that will be best known to fans of Lovecraft, as it is here that Smith made his biggest contribution to the “Cthulhu Mythos”, as Smith used many facets of Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft, of course, made reference to Smith’s Tsathoggua. It sits in direct opposition to the Zothique stories in that it is set in the distant past, and Smith located it as roughly equivalent to Greenland (geographically-speaking). Surprisingly, this cycle is only represented by one story: “The Seven Geases”. A geas is a supernatural or spiritual compulsion or quest, usually cast by a sorcerer or witch, and the story follows the trials of Ralibar Vooz, who is sent on a series of these geasan. Although the story lacks any kind of real plot, Smith uses it to show a carnival of his otherworldly gods and demons to great, and at times humorous, effect. In fact the style of the Hyperborean stories in general always has a knowing wink on the edges, letting the reader know that Smith is having as much fun as the reader.
The Averoigne cycle, set in an imagined region of medieval France, is well-represented by “The Beast of Averoigne”, “The Disinterment of Venus” and the “Enchantress of Sylaire”. The setting is not fantastical, but Smith uses it to explore fantastical themes. “The Beast of Averoigne” is a medieval science-fiction story which uses the alien invasion trope. It follows the story of Luc le Chaudronnier, who is known as a sorcerer but is really a proto-scientist, and his quest to destroy the story’s titular beast, which turns out to be an alien. The story is first-person and rattles along at a good pace, and there are hints of Lovecraftian themes of invaders at the edge of our world, and a universe that is cold and indifferent to an insignificant humanity.
One thing that anyone new to Smith’s work needs to be aware of, and will quickly come to realise, is that his stories, although containing wonderful imagery and atmosphere, tend to feel more like explorations of his imagined places as opposed to complete stories with developed characters and plots. In this regard, if you’re a fan of Lovecraft, his work could be right for you as Smith’s writing is less stilted than HP’s, but on the flip side, his work can feel nebulous at times. But stories such as “Beyond The Singing Flame” and “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” really do bring Smith’s ability to transport the reader to an alien world to the fore.
In terms of the selected stories, this is a very good book and offers a fine selection of Smith’s best work, and Wolfe’s introduction (though short) is entertaining, but it just isn’t enough. Budget anthologies of stories that just present the text are nothing new, and there’s nothing wrong with them; I have several. However, this obviously isn’t intended to be one, as Barnes and Noble’s website gives it a list price of USD $14.95 (£8.99 here in England). With an author like Smith, who isn’t that well-known, I can’t help but feel a massive opportunity has been missed to provide an anthology that offers more. If you see it going cheap, then pick it up to get a good feel for Smith’s best fiction. Otherwise, think carefully before parting with your cash.
You can purchase The Return of the Sorcerer through Amazon.com.