The Pre-Tolkien Challenge — Clark Ashton Smith

The Barbarian Book Club has issued a challenge: find pre-Tolkien Fantasy stories and review them. If you think about it, it isn’t all that easy, especially when pre-Tolkien fantasy is rarely talked about.

Luckily, I didn’t have to do too much digging. Unlike many, I found fantasy through H.P. Lovecraft. After devouring Lovecraft, I began reading stories by his contemporaries: Clark Ashton Smith, Rob E. Howard, and others. They introduced me to, among others, Conan, which led me to fantasy.

In response to this challenge, Conan has already been mentioned, so I thought I’d discuss Clark Ashton Smith. First, CAS’s stories are dark and weird. I believe they perfectly embody the fusion of genres so prevalent in the pulps

The three stories I’ll mention are all set in CAS’s Zothique setting, a far-future earth where the present science, industry, and religion have all been forgotten. Instead, we have sorcery, dark gods and demon worship. Basically, this is early Dying Earth stuff. I’ll briefly mention all three stories before diving into their similarities.*

First, we have “Isle of the Torturers”. In this story we have a king, Fulbra, whose entire realm has succumbed to the Silver Death. As such the king sets sail for new lands and is eventually captured by fiends from the Isle of the Torturers.

Second, there’s “The Empire of the Necromancers”, in which two necromancers revive an entire empire in order to rule over it. However, the revived dead are less like zombies and more like actual not-dead people. These Necromancers indulge in certain appetites, but, needless to say, things don’t exactly end well for them.

Finally, we have “The Dark Eidolon”. Here, a worthless beggar named Narthos, leaves the city that so abused him to practice the dark arts. He becomes the mighty necromancer Namirrha and returns to the city he grew up in for some sweet revenge.

The first thing to note about these stories is that they are dark as hell, and not in a grimdark sense. Sure there is violence and implied sex, but that’s not where the darkness lies. We have a world that has embraced barbarism and all that means: Necromancy, devil worship, pacts with demons, and much more. Put all that together, and you have a very dark atmosphere without the usual resort to tons of bloody violence and deviant sex.

Additionally, CAS displays tremendous skill in creating entire worlds in just a few sentences. His “world building”, if you can call it that, is striking for its imagination. Just take a look at the second paragraph from “The Empire of the Necromancers”:

Mmatmuor and Sodosma wedre necromancers who came from the dark isle of Naat, to practice their baleful arts in Tinarath, beyond the shrunken seas. But they did not prosper in Tinarath: for death was deemed a holy thing by the people of that gray country; and the nothingness of the tomb was not lightly desecrated: and the raising up of the dead by necromancy was held in abomination.

Already, we have something interesting: a city that views death as holy and, therefore, holds necromancy in abomination. When necromancers show up, so does trouble. This is practically a throwaway paragraph in a story that doesn’t even focus on this event. And yet, there is enough here to create an entire novel with. You see this sort of thing time and time again in CAS’ stories.

To be honest, however, I don’t feel that CAS’ stories are on par with Howard’s or Lovecraft’s. CAS’s stories lack the energy of Howard’s and the outre quality of Lovecraft’s. That said, CAS had a wild imagination, and it bleeds through every single story.

If you ever find yourself fresh out of inspiration, check out Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, they’re just chock-full of interesting ideas from which you build an entire world from.

*All three of these stories and more can be found in this anthology; you can get it on Kindle for just $7.



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