"Madness...of a most uncommon and picturesque variety."
Clark Ashton Smith (1893 –1961) was a poet, sculptor, painter and author, writing an impressive array of fantasy, horror and science fiction short stories across about a ten year period. Along with his friend H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Smith was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales, and between the three of them, they spawned the “golden age” of horror and science fiction writing that came to define the genre.
Smith seems to have fallen a little farther out of favor than Lovecraft and Howard, and I’m not sure why — he was clearly plugged into some “dark vibration,” bathed in “the radiation of a black sun,” and powered by cosmic currents of horror and dread.
The Dark Eidolon is a compendium of his short stories and fantasy poems, and the fiction, especially, is tremendous, and a little unsettling. The stories, trailblazing in their day and still powerful, feature insane wizards in purpureal robes casting fiery spells of eldritch enchantment on clueless interlopers, and ancient, vengeful gods — nacarat eyes blazing — hurtling across the stygian depths of space and time to consume continents, and the ghosts of ancient civilizations crawling up out of the depths of swampy hells to snatch luckless blunderers, and Martian brain-eating parasites that turn teeth and bones mossy and hungry shadows that slowly stalk victims until they are consumed by a faceless madness, and of course, toad-faced barbarian demons hopping through rivers of blood.
He is a consummate world builder, with carefully constructed gods and books and rituals and structures:
“Wall on beetling wall, and spire on giant spire, it soared to confront the heavens, maintaining everywhere the severe and solemn lines of a wholly rectilinear architecture ... As I viewed this city, I forgot my initial sense of bewildering loss and alienage, in an awe with which something of actual terror was mingled; and, at the same time, I felt an obscure but profound allurement, the cryptic emanation of some enslaving spell.”
His writing style and word choices are effortlessly archaic, making them also timeless, lulling readers to stumble along with his characters toward some gathering doom:
“I too felt, as before, the captious thralldom and bewitchment, the insidious, gradual perversion of thought and instinct, as if the music were working in my brain like a subtle alkaloid.”
And, “The palace was full of unknown perfumes, languorous and somnolent: a subtle reek as of censers in hidden alcoves of love.”
I especially enjoyed the western flair in some of the stories. Apparently, Smith lived in a rural part of California and managed to dredge horrors from a landscape I’m familiar with — creating a haunted and willow-choked slew hungry for souls, basically a marshy vampire, and locating a trans-dimensional portal (actually a siren call for some sort of self-immolating intergalactic funeral pyre) on a desolate hillside not far from Donner’s Pass.
Here are a few more of many memorable lines:
“Not without revulsion did I drink wine that was poured by cadavers, and eat bread that was purveyed by phantoms.”
“His lips were like a pale red seal on a shut parchment of doom.”
As I sleepily read the stories late into the night across several weeks, I tried to puzzle out why I — and so many other readers — enjoy and respond so strongly to stories of terror and dissolution and doom. I decided that, at least for me, fear may be the shortest road to enlightenment. Confronting dread on a cosmic scale is a painless reminder that life, even though it can seem mundane, is desperately worth fighting for, especially when phantasms are trying to rend flesh from bone. And, almost as important, the stories remind us that there are currents of dark mystery and uncertainty lurking just below the surface of our apathetic world.
And in that cold and endless void of terror, “…another king, more or less, is small matter...”