The Song of the Necromancer: 'Loss' in Clark Ashton Smith's Fiction

Steve Behrends

The writings of Clark Ashton Smith display a continuity of idea and image that can only be described as remarkable. Fantastic settings and happenings from his early poems crop up twenty years later as the bases for short stories; prose-poems written in Smith's mid-twenties were fleshed into the elaborate fictions of his forties; he would write of Medusa in 1911, in his verse masterpiece "Medusa," and in 1957, four years before his death, in the ironic tale "The Symposium of the Gorgon". Evidence for the interconnectedness of Smith's literary output is discernible in nearly every poem and story. The endurance of his imaginative vision should give us all pause.

Equally impressive is the tenacity with which Smith clung to certain emotional themes throughout his work; and of these themes, he returned most frequently to "loss."

Perhaps a quarter of Smith's fantastic stories (twenty-five or thirty out of some 110) deal in a basic fashion with the subject of loss, and we shall concern ourselves with the most prominent of these; but nearly every Smith tale and many of his poems take some reference to loss, or use an image of loss metaphorically to set an emotional tone...

The structure of the essay has been inspired by "The Song of the Necromancer", a poem in Smith's jotting notebook, The Black Book, that seems to encapsulate nearly all the major aspects of his relationship to loss. The poem strikes me as a piece of some importance for an understanding of Smith's stories:

I would recall a forfeit woe,
A buried bliss; my heart is fain
Ever to seek and find again
The lips whereon my lips have lain
In rose-red twilights long ago.

Lost are the lands of my desire,
Long fled, the hours of my delight,
The darkling splendor, fallen might:
In aeons past, the bournless night
Was rolled upon my rubied pyre.

In far oblivion blows the desert
Which was the lovely world I knew.
Quenched are the suns of gold and blue
Into the nadir darkness thrust,
My world has gone as meteors go. . . .

Coming from a man whose tales abound with mages and wizards, and who had a poetic image of himself as a solitary sorcerer . . . , the poem's title is a very suggestive one. In fact, "The Song of the Necromancer" is Smith's own "song" . (The final version of the poem appeared in the February 1937 issue of. Weird Tales; Smith later included it in the "Incantations" section of his Selected Poems.)

Like any writer who ever had to scramble to provide motivation for some character, Smith used loss as a plot-element in several of his tales, including "The Ghoul", in which a man's despair over the death of his wife drives him to bargain with a demon; "The Flower-Women", wherein Maal Dweb's yearning for his action-filled youth leads him to challenge the denizens of an untamed world; and "Thirteen Phantasms", whose main character witnesses some bizarre hallucinations of his lost beloved. But for Smith there was an importance to loss that went far beyond plot: his real interest was not in what loss could make his characters do, but in how it could make them feel.

Smith created scores of situations in which individuals lose the things closest to their hearts, and live on only to regret their loss and to contrast their fallen state with the glory they once knew. He gave his characters the capacity to realize the extent of their loss, and to express the pain they felt; and he used their scrutiny their comparisons of "now" and "then", of "what once had been" and "what is no more" to spotlight the emotions he wished to convey to his readers.

These emotions, attendant to "falls from grace", were very special to Smith, and he worked all their shadings and manifestations into his literary output: regret, nostalgia, homesickness, alienation, grief, ennui, loss of innocence, age, death, decay. Certain verbs and adjectives literally ring in our ears after a session with his stories or poems, so often do we encounter them: "sunken", "faded", "fallen", "lost", "irretrievable" , "longing" , "yearning" , "seeking".

This intense fascination with loss has been misdiagnosed or oversimplified from time to time as a preoccupation with death . . . ; and while it may be true, as L. Sprague de Camp once said, that "no one since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse", it was not death that obsessed Clark Ashton Smith so much as yearning and loss. We should hear Smith's own voice in the words of his character John Milwarp from "The Chain of Aforgomon", who is presented, importantly, as a writer of imaginative Oriental fiction: "In the background of my mind there has lurked a sentiment of formless, melancholy desire, for some nameless beauty long perished out of time."

As a writer, the actual techniques Smith had for bringing loss into the lives of his characters were of only secondary importance: the emotions involved were of more interest to Smith than any mechanisms he had for generating them. His concern was not really with the object lost, whatever or whoever it was, but with the feelings associated with losing it, and living without it. (The Necromancer of "The Song of the Necromancer", for instance, laments the absence of his sweetheart, but he also craves the return of his splendrous and powerful past.)

For purposes of organization, though, one can sort Smith's stories according to the kind of loss suffered, and the following two sections discuss stories that feature the most readily discernible forms of loss: of love, and of the past. But this division will also make it possible to touch upon the different reasons that drove Clark Ashton Smith to portray these two kinds of loss in his fiction.

As might be expected of a poet, Smith was greatly attracted to the strength of the emotion of love, and the fervor with which we cling to it and to our lovers. (pp. 3-5)

The textbook example of such a "loss of love" story is "The Venus of Azombeii", The central character of this tale. Julius Marsden, has felt throughout his life "the ineffable nostalgia of the far-off and the unknown" . . . , which compels him to make a journey to dark and mysterious Africa. In a wilderness region he meets a beautiful black woman, Wanaos. whom he comes to love. Marsden experiences a time of wild happiness. . . .

As Smith would have it, though, their life together is soon shattered through the treachery of a rival suitor to Wanaos. Both lovers are poisoned with a slow-killing brew, by which, please note, Smith gives them plenty of time to realize the sadness of their fate and the fullness of their loss. "Dead was all our former joy and happiness Love, it was true, was still ours, but love that already seemed to have entered the hideous gloom and nothingness of the grave.

Identical in its emotions but with a slight twist to its development is the extended prose-poem "Told in the Desert". A young traveller loses his way while crossing a desert expanse. He eventually stumbles upon a cool and fertile oasis where dwells a beautiful girl, Neria. We are told that the young man's sojourn with Neria, like that of Marsden and Wanaos in "Azombeii", was "a life remote from all the fevers of the world; and pure from every soilure; it was infinitely sweet and secure."

Unlike Marsden in "Azombeii", however, the hero of "Desert" abandons his idyllic love-nest, his "irretrievable Aidann", instead of having it taken away from him. But Smith does not end the story there. The man comes to yearn for his "bygone year . . . of happiness"; and seeking in later years the splendor of the oasis, he is doomed to wander in vain, and all his days thereafter are filled with "only the fading visions of memory, the tortures and despairs and illusions of the quested miles, the waste whereon there falls no lightest shadow of any leaf, and the wells whose taste is fire and madness..."

The next two stories to be discussed, "The Chain of Aforgomon" and "The Last Incantation", have necromancers as their main characters rather than adventurous young men, and display some other common features to which we will return later.

In "Aforgomon" the sorcerer Calaspa invokes the powers of an evil god to win back a flown hour with his dead beloved, Belthoris. The past is temporarily regained through this necromancy, and in typical fashion Smith presents their resurrected love in the grandest of terms. "We dwelt alone in a universe of light, in a blossomed heaven. Exalted by love in the high harmony of those moments, we seemed to touch eternity." We are left to contrast this with Calaspa's mood after the hour has passed: "Sorrow and desolation choked my heart as ashes fill some urn consecrated to the dead; and all the hues and perfumes of the garden about me were redolent only of the bitterness of death."

"The Last Incantation" contains some of Smith's finest descriptions of the emotions of loss, and the story also serves as a bridge between the "loss of love" and "loss of the past" tales.

At the height of his powers as the mightiest sorcerer of Poseidonis, Malgyris the Mage sees only the empty, unchallenging years ahead of him, and the barren moments of the present, and takes but a cold and hollow joy from his exalted position. . . . Amid this desolation. Malgyris is sustained only by a gentle memory from his innocent youth which "like an alien star . . . still burned with unfailing luster the memory of the girl Nylissa whom he had loved in days ere the lust of unpermitted knowledge and necromantic dominion had ever entered his soul."

Like the male protagonists of the other stories discussed, Malgyris aches for his lost love. Unlike the others, however, his mind also dwells upon the passing of his former, untarnished self, the "fervent and guileless heart" of his youth, and the glorious, sun-filled days of his past. This sentiment leads us to a group of stories Featuring Smith's second method for bringing loss and regret into the lives of his characters. (pp. 6-7)

Smith set his most famous cycle of stories, the tales of Zothique, in a "fallen" world where the past infinitely outweighs the future. "On Zothique, the last continent, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as it. with a vapor of blood." There are constant reminders of age and decay, of a glory withered away by Time: vast deserts of tombs and buried cities, frequent references to the greater potency of the potions and spells of elder wizards, etc.

On the level of the individual, Smith dishes out the same bitter meal. His fiction is filled with characters haunted by memories of a more desirable past, and from whom Time has stolen something precious. Depending on the person in question again, Smith's focus is on loss itself, not the object lost they desire the power and glory they once knew, the simplicity and vigor of the years of youth, a lost innocence, some splendrous state of being, or the vanished beauty and grandeur of incomparable cultures and beloved worlds. (pp. 7-8)

As a simple example of. this yearning for the past, consider the following paragraph from "The Testament of Athammaus", a story which details the desertion of the Hyperborean capital Commoriom as seen through the eyes of the one-time public executioner.

Forgive an aged man if he seem to dwell, as is the habit of the old, among the youthful recollections that have gathered to themselves the kingly purple of removed horizons and the strange glory that illumes irretrievable things. Lo! I am made young again when I recall Commoriom, when in this grey city of the sunken years I behold in retrospect her walls that looked mountainously down upon the jungle . . .

Note that the years after Commoriom are "sunken", and its glory is "irretrievable". Also note that Athammaus is alone in his suffering: "And though others forget, or happy deem her no more than a vain and dubitable tale, I shall never cease to lament Commoriom." While others were healed, Smith chose to center his tale on a man whose feelings of regret have remained strong and vivid.

In "Xeethra", perhaps his most famous tale of Zothique, Smith presents multifold loss alongside monstrous irony. A young goatherd, Xeethra, eats an enchanted fruit and is henceforth tormented by the memories of a past life wherein he was Prince Amero, ruler of the fair kingdom of Calyz. The bewildered and newly awakened king is repelled by the rude and simple life of Xeethra; he longs for a dimly recalled life of opulence. He journeys in search of Calyz, but discovers that the land has become a parched desert. Xeethra/Amero is "whelmed by utter loss and despair" at the sight of his ruined and crumbled homeland.

At this point in the story an emissary from Thasaidon, the Satan of the future, appears and offers him a strange deal. At the price of his soul, the life Amero once knew will be returned to him but it will remain only so long as he wishes it to. Not really understanding this clause, the young man accepts the bond; and suddenly the past lives again for him, and he is the king of a bountiful land. But in time he succumbs to ennui, and finds himself wishing for the simple life of a goatherd. In an instant he is back once more in the leper-peopled desert of Calyz. "His heart was a black chill of desolation, and he seemed to himself as one who had known . . . the loss of high splendor; and who stood now amid the extremity of age and decay. . . . Anguish choked the heart of Xeethra as if with the ashes of burnt-out pyres and the shards of heaped ruin . . . In the end, there was only dust and dearth; and he, the doubly accursed, must remember and repent for evermore all that he had forfeited," both the powerful life of a monarch, and the carefree and uncluttered life of a shepherd. He can never return to either life.

An even grander scale of personal loss and suffering is displayed in the prose-poem "Sadastor". On a distant planet, "dim and grey beneath a waning sun . . . a token of doom to fairer and younger worlds", the demon Chamadis discovers the mermaid Lyspial wallowing in a small briny pool that had once been a far-flung ocean. She has witnessed the slow desiccation of the sea and the destruction of the glorious world of her past; she is tortured with the knowledge of her present state, and of all she has lost. (pp. 8-9)

A fallen world is presented in another prose-poem, "From the Crypts of Memory". The setting is a shadowy world orbiting a star whose course [was] decadent from the high, irremeable heavens of the past." The people of this world are unspeakably ancient and have fallen far from their golden past. Only in memories can they haltingly recapture "an epoch whose marvelous worlds have crumbled, and whose mighty suns are less than shadow." But such memories add to the burden of age and sorrow, and by contrast their lives are made to seem even more pale and ghostly: "Vaguely we lived, and loved as in dreams the dim and mystic dreams that hover upon the verge of fathomless sleep. We felt for our women . . . the same desire that the dead may feel."

it is worth mentioning that for Smith not even death is an end to yearning and despair. On the contrary, although "a living death" was used in "From the Crypts of Memory" as a metaphor for a great suffering, a literal - "life in death" is employed in "The Empire of the Necromancers" as a tool for generating feelings of loss. Here the loss suffered is the loss of life. Ultimate and striking contrasts are produced between the living past and the dead present. The race of people drawn forth from death, who serve as slaves to a pair of necromancers, find themselves living a sort of half-life. . . . We hear of their longings through the resurrected Prince of the people, who "knew that he had come back to a faded sun, to a hollow and spectral world. Like something lost and irretrievable, beyond prodigious gulfs, he recalled the pomp of his reign . . . and the golden pride and exultation that had been his in youth. . Darkly he began to grieve for his fallen state."

And on the other end of the scale, Smith wrote a handful of stories in which individuals lose not life, but a glory beyond life, some "unnatural" state or condition, like "the suns of gold and blue" of "The Song of the Necromancer". In every case the "unnatural state of being" is an ecstatic and desired one, and this follows directly from Smith's own interests. He wanted his characters to long for the splendor they had experienced, beside which everyday life is wan and inadequate. And given such "glorious" experiences, they would naturally make the contrasts and comparisons of "then" and "now" that Smith liked to use, and feel the kind of regret and empty despair that so fascinated him.

The visions that are presented to these hapless characters are often so completely strange and wondrous that they can only be seen or understood in part. They are too far beyond the mundane sphere of human experience, like the image of incarnate Beauty glimpsed in Smith's poem "A Dream of Beauty": "Her face the light of fallen planets wore, / But as I gazed, in doubt and monderment, / Mine eyes were dazzled, and I saw no more." This itself is a technique Smith used to intensify and magnify the effect of the passing of the "unnatural" state and the resumption of commonplace reality, as it points out how high the pinnacle of the past had been.

Stories of this type include "The City of the Singing Flame", "The End of the Story," "The Light from Beyond", and "The White Sybil". There is no need to describe the distinct wonders found in each of these tales. We need only note the similarity of their characters' attitudes as they "come off the high" of their unique experiences. For the heroes of these stories the past shall always be more resplendent and desirable than either the present or the future, a time always to be longed for. And for some it is a thing they must try to regain, whatever the cost. (pp. 9-11)

This article ends as "The Song of the Necromancer" begins. In a general sense, this poem has been our guidebook to Smith's relationship to loss, and we should note that it starts off with a declaration of intent: the unhappy sorcerer (we learn of his unhappiness in the subsequent stanzas) would seek to resummon his lost past, and to draw back his dead love from the tomb. The same is true of several of the characters we find in Smith's short stories.

Why Smith should have them strive to recapture what they've lost is obvious such striving serves to underscore their unhappiness, and the depths of their dissatisfaction.

That all these attempts either fail or end in self-destruction reflects Smith's generally pessimistic outlook. "You can never go home again," he says. Or if you do make it back, it is a very mixed blessing.

In a story like "Told in the Desert" what is sought after is literally unattainable, for though he may search the desert for the rest of his life, that young man will never again find the fertile oasis in which he lived so happily with Neria.

And what Malgyris seeks in "The Last Incantation" is just as unattainable, though more figuratively so. Believing that he would be content to have his lost Nylissa beside him again. he summons her spectre from the grave. Once she has materialized, however, he begins to find fault with her manner and appearance. Dissatisfied and unsettled. he dismisses the phantom, at which point his familiar explains the true nature of his yearning and its predestined failure: "No necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then."

This same lesson is learned in Smith's unfinished tale "Mnemoka". Space-Alley Jon, a drifter of the space-lanes, purchases an illicit Martian drug called "mnemoka" which brings back memories with all the strength of real experiences. Jon intends to relive his first sexual experience, back in his innocent adolescence. But after downing the drug, he is haunted instead by visions of a brutal murder he had recently committed. His life has become too soiled to allow retrieval of the moment he longed for. The boy who had lain with Sophia no longer existed.

Calaspa's quest in "The Chain of Aforgomon" is also unsatisfying, and is self-destructive as well. His conjured hour with Belthoris vanishes back into the past just as a temporary spat develops between the two lovers. Ending on such a sour note, he proclaims that "vain, like all other hours, was the resummoned hour; doubly irredeemable was my loss." And even more tragic is the price Calaspa must pay for casting the time- distorting spell. . . . The local priesthood torture and kill him, after laying their own spell upon him, that his soul should travel from body to body into the future, until in some other incarnation he shall die again for his crime.

Indeed, even when the acknowledged price is their own destruction, Smith's men go forward unhaltingly to retrieve what they have lost, so great is their despair. The narrator of "The City of the Singing Flame" ends the tale by saying that he will return to the City and immolate himself in the Flame, that he might merge with the unearthly beauty and music that he had sampled and lost; and the hero of "The End of the Story" makes the same resolution, to return to the couch of a deadly lamia, from which he had been taken by force, rather than live out his years without her. . . . (pp. 1, 1-12)

But whether they seek to regain their loss or choose to suffer through a life of torment and regret, the characters in the stories we've discussed are all made to feel "the loss of high splendor", to live through "sunken years", and to long for the return of "a buried bliss"; and as each is the puppet-creation of Clark Ashton Smith, their songs of woe should be seen as those of the Necromancer himself. (p. 12)

From: Studies in Weird Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Augest 1, 1986, pp. 3-12.

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