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The Emperor of Dreams
Clark Ashton Smith
Orion/Gollancz, 580 pages

The Emperor of Dreams
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
Clark Ashton Smith Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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Shifting sands and forgotten ruins. Oriental towers and odalisques. Medieval castles and haunted woods. These are but some of the fictional realms of Clark Ashton Smith, worlds of dark wonder and necromancy; familiar paths that imperceptibly veer into other realities where horror and often death await.

Clark Ashton Smith was but one of the big three most often associated with the heyday of the seminal pulp publication, Weird Tales, for which Smith contributed just over sixty short stories at a penny a word. Along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, both of whom Smith corresponded with as well as mutually influenced, these three authors helped to define and establish during the second quarter of the twentieth century, both for good and ill, many of the tropes and conventions that have been passed down in commercial fantasy and are still in evidence today. However, while Howard and Lovecraft's legacy has become secure, by comparison Smith's contributions have suffered from forgetfulness and neglect.

Self-educated -- receiving only five years of formal education -- by the time he was seventeen in 1910, Smith had already sold four short romances to various magazines. However, it was as a poet, influenced by the 19th century French Decadence movement and the later California Romantics, that he was to gain his first, if regional, attention, his early verse, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912) drawing comparison with Byron and Christina Rosetti, as well as the notice of Welsh fantasist Arthur Machen and eventually fledgling author H.P. Lovecraft, who introduced Smith to others of his circle who were to play roles later in Smith's career, such as August Derleth, Donald Wandrei and Frank Belknap Long. Despite some critical acclaim for his early poetry, however, Smith was disappointed by the paltry sums he was able to earn from his verse, and at the urging of Lovecraft and others, turned his skills to writing short stories by 1928. During the next decade, he was to produce over one hundred short stories and prose poems which he saw published during his lifetime, though after Lovecraft's death in 1937, Smith's interest in writing fiction almost entirely waned.

In this brief, frenzied span of ten short years Smith wrote the majority of the stories for which he is known, borrowing as well as contributing to Lovecraft's evolving Cthulhu Mythos. However, it should not be inferred by this that Smith's writing was merely a Lovecraftian clone. He created far more than he appropriated, and most of his work takes place within fantastic realms that he created: prehistoric Hyperboria, Atlantean Poseidonis, or the science fictional worlds of Mars and Xiccarph. Other tales wander the woodlands of medieval Averoigne, or the more contemporary streets of San Francisco and London, as well as the Sierra foothills from which, in a small cabin outside of Auburn, the author produced the bulk of his work. But perhaps the realm most commonly associated with the Smith is the slowly expiring continent of Zothique, predating and probably influencing Vance's later Tales of a Dying Earth.

This collection of forty-three stories, an essay, poem and prose poem, represents a characteristic and essential sampling of Smith's narratives, including such notable tales as "The Last Incantation," "Genius Loci," "Xeethra," "The Dark Eidolon," and "Necromancy in Naat." Opening appropriately with the poetry of "Song of the Necromancer," a recurrent theme throughout this collection (one can only wish the entire verse of "The Hashish-Eater" had been included as well), these stories quickly plunge the reader into the extravagant and often dream-like phantasmagoric realms of the author's unfettered imagination. Written in an intentionally ornate style that will likely prove unpalatable to some tastes, and for the most part free of metaphor and symbolism, these stories are nonetheless appealing for their immediacy and directness, uncluttered by abstraction, and simply enjoyable for their sheer, unapologetic and decadent pleasures. At times defined by a tone of ennui and landscapes of desuetude, melancholy is balanced by an exuberance in the exotic and the author's obvious relish of the bizarre and nightmarish encounters of his characters, as well as often peppered with satiric wit. And while typified by elements of escapism, the repeated allure of power and other-worldly splendors leads almost inevitably to death and destruction, eliminating any consolatory or unexamined retreat into pure fantasy. Horror is a recurrent element, as is the eventual penalty for obsession and temptation towards power.

While immensely entertaining, I would suggest to readers of The Emperor of Dreams that they explore its contents in a manner similar had they actually been following the author's narratives in the pages of the pulps: read a story or two, then let a week or so pass before picking it back up. Otherwise, I would venture, most will find themselves quickly satiated by Smith's distinctive and at times lurid prose, diminishing the pleasure available if read individually. Cumulatively, the author's compositional formulas start to show themselves: the repeated preamble set up; motifs that recur over and again. Smith's poetic prose style and embellished use of language also become tiring to the aesthetic palate after continuous servings, similar to a surfeit of rich, heavily sauced or seasoned dishes brought out at a banquet. Far better to indulge in these savory and imaginatively piquant morsels in singular portions, as hors d'oeuvres rather than a feast, lest you find yourself bloated by overeating.

Only a few selections in this collection seem questionable, inclusions that by comparison are weak: "The Seven Geases" with its wandering, rather aimless plotline, or the often mentioned yet relatively cursory and unclimatic "Mother of Toads." Unfortunately, some of the weaker tales are garnered for the end -- "Symposium of the Gorgon," the early and abbreviated "Prince Alcouz and the Magician," "A Good Embalmer," and the prose poem "The Mortuary" -- and one wonders at the absence of the satiric "The Monster of the Prophecy." Still, in a representative and ample collection such as this, there are bound to be stories whose relative merits float in the balance, and the scales are tipped far more in the collection's favor than else-wise. Also, some of the work that I have deprecated has found approval in different quarters, so, as is often the case with such accumulated collections, appreciation is probably a matter of personal taste.

This collection is followed by an informative if uncritical bibliographical biography by Stephen Jones, a practice one might wish were followed in other of Orion's Fantasy Masterworks series. While the publisher is to be applauded for this series of reissues, as well as the companion Science Fiction Masterworks, the quality of binding for the trade paperback editions of the former leaves much to be desired, with its application of hot-melt adhesive and use of what appears to be newsprint pages, an approach which, while common, offers little expectation for longevity, nor will hold up well for repeated readings. One can only hope that at some point Orion will accord the same respect to its Fantasy series and its readers as has been extended to the Science Fiction collection: the release of future reissues not only in trade, but a better bound and leaved hardbound edition.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.


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