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Clark Ashton Smith - The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

Smith painted that

Rating: A Length: 370 pages, standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

Making my way through the pulp authors of yore, the next one on my list was Clark Ashton Smith (how surprising, I know). I'd heard that his contemporaries (like H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber) often had high praise for his works, so I went into this partial collection of his short stories and poems with high expectations.

They were exceeded.

Great authors are masters of the written word by definition, and Smith ranks among the best that I've had the pleasure of reading. His voice strikes a nice balance between the vibrant energy of R.E. Howard and the archaic otherness of H.P. Lovecraft, similar in a manner to E.A. Poe and yet wholly different in texture. This particular collection happens to have a degree of explanatory annotations by S.T. Joshi, who I'm admittedly unfamiliar with, and while he seems to have a rather low bar of expectations for the reader in general (e.g. giving a short mythological background of Ahriman in "The Devotee of Evil", explaining the various alchemical items called out in "The Dark Eidolon", or annotated the same references multiple times across different stories), I won't deny that there were a handful of times when I appreciated the aid.

Of course, that's not really the meat of this book. Smith's stories fill that plate, and I was amazed at the variety that he possessed. Like Lovecraft, the majority of his works were a form of speculative then-modern fantasy blended with weird horror. Stories like "Genius Loci", "Ubbo-Sathla", or "The Face by the River" were solid, and they weren't quite so tinted by outdated prejudices as Lovecraft's were (there was some, yes, but it felt mostly in line with the standards of those times, whereas Lovecraft was clearly racist even among his contemporaries). He had other fantasies that were set in either a fantastical past (the Averoigne stories, like "Mother of Toads") or a fantastical future (the Zothique stories, like "Xeethra"), reminiscent of yet distinct from Lovecraft's dream worlds. He also had stories of outright science fantasy, like "Phoenix" or "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis", which I wasn't expecting at all but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless.

When I reviewed one of my Lovecraft collections, I spent some time talking about what I liked about Lovecraft's writing as a whole, about how he was able to get readers to buy into his protagonists (aside from the idiot in "The Whisperer in Darkness") and settings despite the reader knowing that they're going into a horror story and thus being incentivized to avoid making bonds. Lovecraft's stories were mostly event-based plots, which afforded him the advantage of being able to dally more with characters and settings because he didn't need the protagonists to get on with doing things in order for the plots to progress.

Smith's horror follows a different tact by being largely character-driven. He shows you the mad scientist, the overzealous sorcerer, or the naive everyman, and then he takes you along a journey with this person as they delve into horrific situations, often of their own doing rather than the cosmic horror standard of events outside of their control. He's less upfront about what you're about to read than Lovecraft was, but he makes up for it with a remarkable ability to humanize his protagonists. Sure, in "The Dark Eidolon", Namirrha is an utter madman who ignored a warning from his dark patron to stop his quest of vengeance, and Zotulla is a hedonistic jerk who deserved to get his face rubbed in the dirt, but both of them still carried a sense of verisimilitude, if not relatability, that draws the reader into a story which would've been a farcical joke in the hands of a less talented author. Yes, in "Phoenix", Hilar's demise comes through no clear fault of his own, but the ironic tragedy of it still fills the reader with a wish to see a future incarnation of the event in which the crisis is averted (helped along by the passing mention of eonic deja vu, no doubt). Lovecraft's horror is horrible because the people in his stories are helpless to do anything about it. Smith's horror is horrible because the people in his stories were all too real to discount their experiences, even though the reader is objectively aware of the fact that they're reading a fictional story.

I'm not sure if there's a genre term for that sort of fantastical yet relatable horror (calling it horror fantasy makes it sound like Rule 34 of Freddy Kruger), but I'd say Smith is the master of it, so far as I'm aware.

This collection also had a number of prose and verse poems. I'm not a huge fan of poetry on the whole, so I skimmed through them rather than giving them a thorough reading. I liked what I saw, but I'll have to go back at them another time. No offense intended to Smith; it took me a few tries to build up to reading Poe's poetry, too, and despite enjoying it, I don't go back for more aside from a select few.

Getting back to Smith, though, this collection sold me on wanting to see more of his works. He belongs on my list of old masters with a doubt. Highly recommended to any fans of fantasy, horror, and a touch of weird science.

Rating: A Length: 370 pages, standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

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