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The Double Shadow
Clark Ashton Smith
Wildside Press, 106 pages

The Double Shadow
Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley, California. At 17, he was selling stories to The Black Cat, The Overland Monthly, and other magazines. Apart from his prose and poetry, he was also a painter and sculptor. He worked as a journalist, a fruit picker and packer, a wood chopper, a typist, a cement-mixer, a gardener and a hard-rock miner. Clark Ashton Smith died in California in August, 1961, at the age of 68.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Emperor of Dreams
Clark Ashton Smith Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

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In that now distant time before Tolkien and his acolytes and imitators (the good, the bad and the truly unfortunate), burgeoned like great canopied oaks above the ancient grove that is fantasy to overshadow the myriad other blossoms sprung from its rich, dark soil, there grew some strange, ripe blooms. One of the strangest and ripest was a poet named Clark Ashton Smith.

A touch tubercular, beloved by Hugo Gernsback and H.P. Lovecraft, though oft looked at askance by his neighbours in the farming community of Auburn, California -- he was adept at seducing their wives -- Smith etched a brief line of fire across the pre-World War I literary firmament as a young Keats or Shelley. In the 20s, he turned to writing prose.

And what prose it was: heavy and decadent, full of doom and creeping shadows, with world weary sorcerers conjuring their own undoings and heroes struggling in vain against inexorable fate. His vocabulary reached into the most arcane tributaries of English's Latin and Greek sources to bring forth words like eldritch and catafalque and flagitious. His palaces were places of arrased walls, their chambers "full of unknown perfumes, languorous and somnolent." His characters did not leap, rather they performed saltations and volitations.

Those who find the words odd as they are encountered on the page are advised to read them aloud -- as Smith always did when working his drafts -- to hear the cadences and sonorous rhythms woven through the phrases of a passage such as this:

"With no other light than that of the four diminutive moons of Xiccarph, each in a different phase but all decrescent, Tiglari had crossed the bottomless swamp of Soorm, wherein no reptile dwelt and no dragon descended -- but where the pitch black ooze was alive with continual heavings and writhings. He had carefully avoided the high causey of white corundum that spanned the fen, and had threaded his way with infinite peril from isle to sedgy isle that shuddered gelatinously beneath him."
His plotting was often thin, his character arcs mere sketches. No stalwart stable boys rose through adversity to claim throne and princess, no plucky paladins overcame dark lords to set the world once more to rights. Those were not the effects Smith sought. His fantasies were evocations of singular moods, carrying the reader off on a sojourn in an exhausted Earth at the remotest end of time, or offering glimpses of a new hatched world, barbaric and primal.

Smith was a mainstay of Weird Tales, in the early 30s, appearing in most issues, and contributed to a number of Gernsback's magazines. His output ranged from stories that could have held their own in The Arabian Nights, to melancholy science fantasies that influenced Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, to horror tales that ring with the voice of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Smith greatly admired.

He is reported to have considered the six tales in The Double Shadow his best work, and they may well be. They certainly represent a good sampling of his oeuvre. "The Voyage of King Euvoran," in which an arrogant sea king leads his full panoply of naval might on a wild goose chase across uncharted seas, might have been recounted by Scheherazade. "The Double Shadow," in which a sorcerer calls up an insidious evil from before human memory, is deeply Lovecraftian. "The Willow Landscape" is a small treasure of wistful longing and, rare for Smith, virtue rewarded.

The narrator of "The Devotee of Evil" could have been Poe himself, recording with a careful eye the unhappy fate of a man drawn to discover what makes the darkness dark. "A Night in Malnéant" drips with thanatos, the Victorian fascination with death, and perhaps calls up some of what Smith must have felt when his idol and the mentor of his youth, the poet George Sterling, committed suicide. My own favourite of the six is "The Maze of the Enchanter," from which the above opening passage is excerpted; the hunter Tiglari braves the dread labyrinth of the "half-demoniac sorcerer and scientist" Maal Dweb in a quest to rescue his beloved Athlé. It is quintessential Smith.

Smith self-published The Double Shadow in 1933 in conjunction with the local newspaper on which he sometimes worked as night editor. The original oversized edition of 1,000 copies was heavily contaminated by typographical errors, which Smith painstakingly corrected himself in pencil. A few of the slips seem to have survived Wildside Press's copy editor, but somehow those small slips made me feel closer to the author.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His novels are Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, and Majestrum. The first chapter of his new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn (Night Shade Books, September 2007), is on his web page is at http://www.archonate.com/spiral-labyrinth.


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