Secret Worlds Incredible: The Weird Fiction Of Clark Ashton Smith

Steve Mitchell

One of the greatest writers of fantasy and the macabre was the Californian, Clark Ashton Smith. His work has always been a big personal favorite of mine, so strange, so haunting and otherworldy. Anyone who likes horror and has not read Smith is missing some incredible writing and some horrific images that even H.P. Lovecraft was astounded by. 1993 is the centennial year of Smith's birth, so it is appropriate for us to take a look at this master of horror. I'm proud to present:

Secret Worlds Incredible: The Weird Fiction Of Clark Ashton Smith By Steve Mitchell

Clark Ashton Smith, author of some of this century's most remarkable weird fiction, was born and lived all of his life (1893-1961) in California, usually in circumstances of relative poverty. He began his writing career as a poet and produced several acclaimed books of poetry (THE STAR TREADER AND OTHER POEMS, 1912; ODES AND SONNETS, 1918; EBONY AND CRYSTAL, 1922; and SANDALWOOD, 1925) before he began to produce fantastic stories for the pulp magazines. Smith initially appeared in WEIRD TALES in the July/August 1923 issue with two poems, "The Red Moon" and "The Garden of Evil"; five more poems, as well as three translations from Baudelaire, followed, before his first story, "The Ninth Skeleton", appeared in the September 1928 issue.

Smith was to continue as a primary WEIRD TALES author for the next 11 years, producing some 55 pieces; after that, his story writing dropped off drastically, and only seven more stories by Smith appeared in the pages of "The Unique Magazine" before its first demise in 1954. During this same period, Smith's fiction was also appearing in the pages of other pulp magazines, including AMAZING DETECTIVE TALES, AMAZING STORIES, ASTOUNDING STORIES, STIRRING SCIENCE STORIES, STRANGE TALES, THRILLING WONDER STORIES, and WONDER STORIES. As a storywriter, Smith was at his most prolific in the years from 1932 through 1934, with nine tales per year appearing in WEIRD TALES alone.

(Smith also landed one story apiece in the short-lived companion magazines of WEIRD TALES--"The Justice of the Elephant" in the Autumn 1931 ORIENTAL STORIES, and "The Kiss of Zoraida" in the July 1933 MAGIC CARPET MAGAZINE.)

A substantial portion of Smith's fiction belongs to one of three cycles. His ten tales of Hyperborea involve fantasy adventures set in a prehistoric continent before its burial ages ago beneath the polar ice. Various elements developed in the Hyperborean stories (Tsathoggua, the cavern-world of N'Kai, THE BOOK OF EIBON) were incorporated by reference into H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Some of the better entries in this cycle include "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" (WEIRD TALES, November 193 1), "The Testament of Athammaus" (WEIRD TALES, October 1932), and "The Seven Geases" (WEIRD TALES, October 1934).

Smith's 11 tales of Averoigne are set against the backdrop of an imaginary province of medieval France, a land haunted by vampires, satyrs, witches, and sorcerers (the ancient Hyperborean BOOK OF EIBON, translated into medieval French, is a favorite grimoire of these last). "The End of the Story" (WEIRD TALES, May 1930), "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" (WIERD TALES, April/May 1931), and "The Disinterment of Venus" (WEIRD TALES, July 1934) are good representative pieces from this cycle.

Smith's most extensive cycle offers 16 dark fantasies from the far-future realm of Zothique. The Zothique cycle is generally considered Smith's master achievement in weird fiction, as "The Empire of the Necromancers" (WEIRD TALES, September 1932), "The Isle of Torturers" (WEIRD TALES, March 1933), and "The Dark Eidolon" (WEIRD TALES, January 1935) ably attest.

Smith wrote a handful of stories set in other connected backgrounds--four tales from ancient Atlantis, two stories of the extraterrestrial sorcerer Maal Dweb of Xiccarph, and three science fiction yarns set on the planet Aihai (Mars). However, he never developed these settings into cycles on the scale of those of Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique.

Smith also wrote a good many non-series tales of both horror and science fiction. His horror productions for WEIRD TALES include such titles as "Genius Loci" (June 1933), "The Seed from the Sepulcher" (October 1933), and "The Treader of the Dust" (August 1935). Smith also turned out a number of horror stories for the rivals of WEIRD TALES--for example, "The Return of the Sorcerer" in the September 1931 STRANGE TALES, "The Nameless Offspring" in the October/November 1931 STRANGE TALES, and "The Devotee of Evil" in the February 1941 STIRRING SCIENCE STORIES.

The science fiction work that Smith produced was usually published outside of WEIRD TALES. Typical examples include "Murder in the Fourth Dimension" in the October 1930 AMAZING DETECIVE TALES, "The Amazing Planet" in the Summer 1931 WONDER STORIES QUARTERLY, and "The Demon of the Flower" in the December 1933 ASTOUNDING STORIES.

In my opinion, Smith was at his best in his fantasy writings. His contemporary tales of horror often lack the conviction and power of Lovecraft's eldritch fictions (although Smith was quite effective at weaving elements of horror into his fantasies). Smith's science fiction pieces are, for the most part, formulaic and undistinguished ("The City of the Singing Flame" stands as an obvious exception to this judgement). As a science fiction writer, Smith was probably as capable as many of his contemporaries--for example, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Francus Flagg, Ed Earl Repp, Captain S.P. Meek, Harl Vincent, Donald Wandrei, and others--but science fiction was never his primary area of interest.


Over the years, Arkham House collected Smith's fiction into six omnibus volumes--OUT OF SPACE AND TIME (1942), LOST WORLDS (1944), GENIUS LOCI AND OTHER TALES (1948), and OTHER DIMENSIONS (1970). These titles are all long since out of print and command high prices on the collector's book market--for example, OTHER DIMENSIONS, the most recent of the Arkham House Smith titles, lists for $60-65, and the prices on the earlier volumes rise dramatically from there.

Arkham House also reissued three volumes of Smith's poetry--THE DARK CHATEAU in 1951, SPELLS AND PHILTRES in 1958, and SELECTED POEMS in 1971--as well as his POEMS IN PROSE in 1965. A later Arkham House volume was THE BLACK BOOK OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH, a transcription of Smith's notebooks, published in 1979.

The only Smith title still in print from Arkham House, and one well worth purchasing, is A RENDEZVOUS IN AVEROIGNE, a 1988 volume collecting the best of Smith's fantasies. This substantial book offers 472 pages and 30 tales, including four stories of Hyperborea, four stories of Averoigne, and no less than ten stories of Zothique. Other tales presented here include three of Smith's Atlantean stories and nine non-series fictions.

I'd quibble with the contents in a few places--for example, I'd gladly drop the longish "The Colossus of Ylourgne"to make room for several shorter pieces ("The Abominationsof Yondo, "The Disinterment of Venus", "A Night in Malneant", and "The Seed from the Sepulcher" all come immediately to mind). Still, if you have not encountered the dark, sardonic, and visionary fiction of Clark Ashton Smith before, this is the obvious place to start--a large and very handsome volume, enhanced by the artwork of Jeffrey K.Potter.

The British publisher Neville Spearman subsequently released hardbound reprints of four of the Arkham House Smith titles--OUT OF SPACE AND TIME in 1971, LOST WORLDS in 1971, GENIUS LOCI AND OTHER TALES in 1972, and THE ABOMINATIONS OF YONDO in 1972.

Miscellaneous Smith titles from various publishers include PLANETS AND DIMENSIONS, a collection of Smith's essays (The Mirage Press, 1973), and STRANGE SHADOWS, an extensive compilation of unpublished Smith stories, synopses, prose poems, and fragments (Greenwood Press, 1989). Smith's art was the subject of THE FANTASTIC ART OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH by Dennis Rikards (The Mirage Press, 1973); this volume offers black and white reproductions of many of Smith's fantastic paintings, drawings, and sculptures. A noteworthy associational volume is EMPEROR OF DREAMS, a Smith bio-bibliography compiled by Donald Sydney-Fryer (Donald M. Grant, Publisher, 1978).

Recently, Necronomicon Press has published a number of Smith titles, including THE HASHISH-EATER; OR THE APOCALYPSE OF EVIL, a famous long fantastic poem that originally appeared in EBONY AND CRYSTAL, illustrated by Robert H. Knox; and the six titles in the "Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith" series, featuring the restored texts of stories that had suffered changes or deletions at the hands of Smith's pulp magazine editors. Edited by Steve Behrends, and with suitably garish covers by Robert H. Knox, the series includes separate volumes for the stories "The Dweller in the Gulf" (from WONDER STORIES, March 1933, as "Dweller in Martian Depths"); "The Monster of the Prophecy" (from WEIRD TALES, January 1932); "Mother of Toads" (from WEIRD TALES, July 1938); "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" (from WEIRD TALES, May 1932); "The Witchcraft of Ulua" (from WEIRD TALES, February 1934); and "Xeethra" (from WEIRD TALES, December 1934). An expanded and corrected edition of POEMS IN PROSE was published by Necronomicon Press in 1988 under the title NOSTALGIA OF THE UNKNOWN. LETTERS TO H.P. LOVECRAFT, a group of more than 40 of Smith's letters to Lovecraft, appeared in 1987. Several of the Necronomicon Press Smith titles are still available from the publisher.

Necronomicon Press also publishes--on an irregular basis--THE DARK EIDOLON, a journal of Smith criticism similar to their LOVECRAFT STUDIES titles, with Steve Behrends as editor. This magazine was originally brought out by Cryptic Publications under the tide KLARKASH-TON before being transferred to the Necronomicon Press line. (I must add that a new issue is long overdue--Marc Michaud and company, please note.)

Another recent Smith publication is THE DEVILS NOTEBOOK (Starmont House, Inc., 1990), compiled by Donald Sydney-Fryer and edited by Don Herron. This slim volume collects a number of brief epigrams originally published, for the most part, in THE AUBURN JOURNAL (Auburn, California, was Smith's home town). The epigrams collected here are not fantastic in nature and tend toward the cynical. A typical example: "Superstition: the beliefs and dogmas of all other denominations except one's own."

Steve Behrends, mentioned above in connection with several of the Necronomicon Press titles, is the author of CLARK ASHTON SMITH, Starmont Reader's Guide 49 (Starmont House, Inc., 1990). This volume is the first full-length study devoted to Smith's life and work. Behrends begins with a chapter that summarizes Smith's biography and describes some of the major themes found in Smith's writings. The author then devotes a chapter apiece to Smith's story-cycles set in Zothique, Hyperborea, Averoigne, Atlantis, and Mars. Additional sections touch on Smith's horror fiction, science fantasies, prose poems, and verse.

Unfortunately, after a long chapter on the Zothique tales, the remaining sections are too brief to permit much analysis of the stories Behrends describes. This is not a fault of the author, but instead a regrettable built-in limitation of the Starmont Reader's Guide series. (At 112 pages, CLARK ASHTON SMITH is somewhat longer than the Starmont volume on H.P. Lovecraft--83 pages--but substantially shorter than the Starmont volume on Robert E. Howard--156 pages.) The section on Smith's poetry, for example, is only five pages in length. This is clearly insufficient--Smith was a talented poet, one of the last practitioners of the romantic/decadent tradition in poetry, and his verse certainly deserves more consideration than it is given here. Still, despite its limited size, CLARK ASHTON SMITH serves as a good introduction to its subject.


There have been three major paperback sets of Smith titles, and these should prove to be both more accessible and less expensive to the potential Smith collector than the out-of-print Arkham House books. Lin Carter, for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, brought out four volumes of Smith's fiction, each concentrating on one of his main story cycles. The first of the Ballantine Smith titles was ZOTHIQUE, published in 1970 with an evocative George Barr cover. The book opens with an introduction by Carter, providing a brief summary of Smith's life and an overview of the Zothique tales. The book also offers a map of the lands of Zothique drawn by Carter, based on an earlier sketch by L. Sprague de Camp, as corrected and approved by Smith himself.

ZOTHIQUE includes the poem "Zothique", reprinted from THE DARK CHATEAU, and 16 fantastic, horrific stories. Fifteen of these had originally appeared in WEIRD TALES, while "The Voyage of King Euvoran" first saw print in THE DOUBLE SHADOW AND OTHER FANTASIES, a small booklet of six tales privately published by Smith in 1933. (This story was subsequently published as "Quest of the Gazolba" in the September 1947 WEIRD TALES.)

ZOTHIQUE concludes with another essay by Carter, "The Sequence of the Zothique Tales", which attempts to establish the chronological order of the stories in the cycle. (Steve Behrends, in his book on Smith, suggests that Carter's chronology is largely arbitrary. Whether Smith intended a specific sequence for the stories or not, they can be read, and enjoyed, in any order.)

HYPERBOREA, featuring a Bill Martin cover illustrating "The Seven Geases", appeared in 1971. Carter's introduction, "Behind the North Wind", recounts the Greek legends of Hyperborea that served as the basis for this set of Smith stories. A concluding essay by Carter, "Notes on the Commoriam Myth-Cycle", explores the chronology and geography of the Hyperborean tales (once again, a map of the relevant locations is provided).

HYPERBOREA includes a Hyperborean prose poem by Smith and ten Hyperborean fictions. Six of these originally appeared in WEIRD TALES, while one story apiece appeared in STIRRING SCIENCE STORIES and STRANGE TALES. "The White Sybil" first saw print in 1934 as part of a two-story booklet (the other item was David H. Keller's "Men of Avalon"). The last story, "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles", was published in the March 1958 issue of SATURN SCIENCE FlCTION AND FANTASY (under the title "The Power of Hyperborea"). A set of four prose poems, gathered under the general title "The World's Rim", round out the volume.

1972's XICCARPH features what is, in my opinion, the best of the covers for the Ballantine Smith titles. Gervasio Gallardo's cover painting illustrates "The Flower Women" and fittingly captures the mood of "...gorgeous, luxuriant, and feverishly distorted visions of infinite spheres and multiple dimensions..." (Lovecraft, writing of Smith's fiction). Since Smith wrote only two stories involving the wizard Maal Dweb of Xiccarph--"The Maze of Maal Dweb" and "The Flower-Women"--Carter was compelled to flesh out this volume by including Smith's three tales of Aihai (Mars), as well as three non-series fantasies set on the worlds of Phandiom, Lophai, and Satabbor.

The final volume from Ballantine was POSEIDONIS (1973), collecting Smith's Atlantean tales. This volume features another cover by Gallardo, depicting the destruction of Atlantis. The "Poseidonis" section of the book includes four tales set in ancient Poseidonis (in occult lore, the name of "the last isle of foundering Atlantis"), two poems and a prose poem on Atlantean themes, and an oddball pirate yarn in which a group of buccaneers unearth a jar full of Atlantean wine.

A section entitled "Lemuria" contains Smith's only tale involving the legendary lost continent of the Pacific, along with a story of another mysterious Pacific island and two Lemurian poems. Six miscellaneous stories, two poems, and two prose poems round out the volume.

A fifth Ballantine Smith title, AVEROIGNE, was projected and expected for 1974. Alas, it never appeared. Since Smith wrote 11 tales in the Averoigne series, AVEROIGNE would have been a substantial volume, with less of the "padding" that had been required to fill out XICCARPH and POSEIDONIS. ("A Night in Malneant" might have been included as a related story as well). The Averoigne tales could have been fitted rather easily into chronological order, since Smith gives specific dates for many of the stories (the series opens in 1138 with "The Maker of Gargoyles" and concludes in 1789 with "The End of the Story").

In 1974, the British publisher Panther Books began reprinting all of the Arkham House collections of Smith's fiction in paperback. OUT OF SPACE AND TIME appeared in 1974 (in two volumes), LOST WORLDS appeared in 1974 (in two volumes), GENIUS LOCI AND OTHER TALES appeared in 1974, THE ABOMINATIONS OF YONDO appeared in 1974, TALES OF SCIENCE AND SORCERY appeared in 1976, and OTHER DIMENSIONS appeared in 1977 (in two volumes). The Panther reprints offer some very weird covers by various British fantasy artists, none of whom were credited. (William Thom, in correspondence to me, has identified Rodney Matthews as the cover artist for OTHER DIMENSIONS and Bruce Pennington as the cover artist for GENIUS LOCI AND OTHER TALES and THE ABOMINATIONS OF YONDO.)

The most recent set of Smith paperbacks was published by Pocket/Timescape Books. These volumes all feature introductions by Smith expert Donald Sydney-Fryer. THE CITY OF THE SINGING FLAME (1981) leads off with the title story, Smith's most famous science fiction effort; includes four tales of Hyperborea, three tales of Zothique, both of the Xiccarph stories, and two Averoigne pieces; and concludes with the horror story "The Hunters from Beyond".

THE LAST INCANTATION (1982) offers three Atlantean tales, two Hyperborean fictions, three stories of Averoigne, and one tale of Aihai. It also includes five miscellaneous efforts. THE MONSTER OF THE PROPHECY (1983) includes the title story, another tale of Aihai, four Zothique stories, three Hyperborean efforts, and five miscellaneous pieces.

The Ballantine and Panther collections will probably be harder to find and will probably cost more than the Pocket/Timescape collections; the latter should be relatively easy to find by touring a few used-book stores. I recommend starting with THE CITY OF THE SINGING FLAME.

In my opinion, it is far past time for some enterprising U.S. publisher to bring out the original Arkham House Smith collections in paperback. (For that matter, American paperback reprints of many other classic Arkham House titles are long overdue--Donald Wandrei's THE EYE AND THE FINGER and THE WEB OF EASTER ISLAND, Henry S. Whitehead's JUMBEE AND OTHER UNCANNY TALES and WEST INDIA LIGHTS, H. Russell Wakefield's STRAYERS FROM SHEOL, Carl Jacobi's PORTRAITS IN MOONLIGHT and DISCLOSURES IN SCARLET, Authur J. Burks's BLACK MEDICINE, etc.)


I'd like to take a look at three Smith stories, to give some feel for the fantastic fiction he wrote. The first, "The Maze of Maal Dweb", originally appeared in Smith's THE DOUBLE SHADOW AND OTHER FANTASIES (as "The Maze of the Enchanter") and was subsequently published in the October 1938 issue of WEIRD TALES, Smith's 52nd story for "The Unique Magazine".

The story begins as the hunter Tiglari crosses the dangerous swamp of Soorm to reach the house of Maal Dweb, supreme sorcerer and ruler of the planet Xiccarph. The hunter's goal: nothing less than tyrannicide, and the rescue of his lover Athle, a prisoner of Maal Dweb. "His hatred was that of a brave man and an outraged lover for the all-powerful, all-dreaded tyrant whom no man had ever seen, and from whose abode no woman came back; who spoke with an iron voice that was audible at will in the far cities of the outermost jungles; who punished the rebellious and the disobedient with a doom of falling fire that was swifter than thunderstone."

Passing through the evil, twisted gardens that surround the wizard's citadel, Tiglari at length enters the abode of Maal Dweb. Inside, he finds the sorcerer, apparently slumbering on a couch. Tiglari draws his knife and attempts to kill Maal Dweb:

"It was as if he had tried to pierce a wall of adamant. In mid-air, before and above the recumbent enchanter, the knife clashed on some impenetrable substance that Tiglari could not see; and the point broke off and tinkled on the floor at his feet. Uncomprehending, baffled, he peered at the being whom he had sought to stay. Maal Dweb had not stirred nor opened his eyes. There was neither frown nor smile on his features; but their look of enigmatic weariness was somehow touched with a faint and cruel amusement"

Maal Dweb taunts Tiglari for his temerity in entering the wizard's house unbidden. Tiglari demands to know where Athle is, and the sorcerer responds that she has gone into the garden-maze outside. Maal Dweb then instructs Tiglari to penetrate the maze and discover its secrets for himself.

Tiglari, despite his hunter's skill, is soon hopelessly lost in the wizard's maze. "The torturous maze became wilder and more anomalous. There were tiered growths, like obscene sculptures or architectural forms, that seemed to be of stone and metal. Others were like carnal nightmares of rooted flesh, that wallowed and fought and coupled in noisome ooze. Foul things with chancrous blossoms flaunted themselves on infernal obelisks. Living parasitic mosses of crimson crawled on vegetable monsters that swelled and bloated behind the columns of accursed pavillions."

Eventually Tiglari comes to an area of giant flowers. Tendrils from the flowers snare him, and a strange liquid pours from the flowers down upon him. Almost immediately, Tiglari begins to undergo a horrific metamorphosis--his body becomes bestial and ape-like. At the same time, Athle emerges from the maze; but before Tiglari can warn her, she stares into a magic mirror--and is transformed into a living statue.

Maal Dweb arrives and, with cynical charity, grants Tiglari his life--life as a creature with the body of an ape and the head of a man. Under the enchanter's spell, Tiglari wanders deeper into the maze, while Maal Dweb remains to contemplate the beauty of the petrified Athle.

Combining elements of the horror story, the heroic quest tale, and the science fiction yarn, and flavored with Smith's usual sardonic musings, "The Maze of Maal Dweb" is virutally unique in the annals of fantasty literature ---a remarkably imaginative and evocative exercise.

(In paperback, "The Maze of Maal Dweb" maybe found in Ballantine's 1972 collection XICCARPH, in Panther's 1974 reprint LOST WORLDS, and in Timescape's 1981 collection THE CITY OF THE SINGING FLAME.)

"The Seed from the Sepulcher", from the October 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES, was the 30th story published by the magazine. It is a bit atypical for Smith---a contemporary horror effort, not connected to the Cthulhu Mythos--a tale of straightforward physical horror, with none of the ambiguities found in many of Smith's other stories.

Falmer and Thone, two orchid hunters, are exploring the Venezuelan jungle along a tributary of the upper Orinoco River. Thone falls victim to a jungle fever and is left behind while Falmer goes to investigate rumors of a ruined city---"...a city that contained a burial pit in which vast treasures of gold, silver, and jewels had been interred together with the dead of some nameless people."

Falmer returns, claiming to have found the ruins--but no treasure. He, too, appears to be suffering from the effects of some tropical illness. Falmer and Thone, with their Indian guides, enter their boats and set out to return to the Orinoco. Eventually, as Falmer seems to worsen, Thone orders the party to shore again. He examines Falmer and discovers what appears to be a swelling lump or growth on the crown of Falmer's head.

Falmer begins to talk disjointedly about his visit to the ruined city. He describes finding the burial pit and descending into it, although he could find no treasure there. Climbing back out, he says, he discovered a weird plant growing out of a human skeleton. A pod from one of the branches broke open, and a cloud of pollen or powder from the pod engulfed Falmer's face. "'My head! My head!' he muttered. There must be something in my brain, something that grows and spreads; I tell you, I can feel it there."'

Falmer's condition worsens, and Thone watches in horror as a plant-bud begins to emerge from the growth on Falmer's head. Still ill from fever himself, Thone struggles, to get Falmer into the boat--the Indians have now deserted them--and sets out for the Orinoco, hoping to find aid for Falmer at one of the trading stations there.

The growth of the devil-plant continues, with "loathsome pale-green" stems emerging from Falmer's skull, eye sockets, and mouth. "They appeared to quiver with repulsive animations, nodding rhythmically in the warm, windless air..."

Thone, seemingly hyponotized by the baleful influence of the plant, lapses into torpor. The boat with the two doomed men--one of them already transformed into a hideous hybrid of human and plant--drifts unguided down the jungle river. Unable to resist, Thone watches as the moving, swaying, questing branches reach out for him--touch him--pierce his very flesh. "Deeper and deeper went the greedy roots, while new filaments grew out to enmesh him like a witch's net..." A grim, effective tale.

(In paperback, "The Seed from the Sepulcher" may be found in the 1974 Panther reprint of TALES OF SCIENCE AND SORCERY.)

"The End of the Story" was Smith's second story to appear in WEIRD TALES (May 1930) and the first in the Averoigne cycle. (It was voted the best story to appear in the issue.) The tale takes place in the year 1789, and begins as a young law student, Chirstophe Morand, is traveling from Tours to visit his father in Moulins in the province of Averoigne. Christophe becomes lost in the forest during a fierce storm at night and eventually takes refuge at the abbey of Perigon. There he meets Hilaire, the Abbot, who shares Christophe's scholarly inclinations.

Hilaire invites Christophc to examine the abbey's library, one "...stocked with rare tomes, with precious manuscripts, with the finest works of heathendom and Christendom..." One document in particular, a manuscript in old French, attracts Christophe's attention, but Hilaire forbids him to examine it. The abbot warns that "There is a curse on the pages that you hold in your hand: an evil spell, a malign power that is attached to them..."

Christophe, dissatisfied with this explanation, contrives to return alone to the library on the following day. He reads the proscribed text, learning that it concerns one Gerard, Comte de Venteillon, who once met a satyr in the forest of Averoigne. The Count intended to slay the pagan creature, but the satyr bargained for his life, offering to tell the Count a strange secret. The nature of the secret is not revealed, but we discover, with Christophe, how the Count subsequently went alone to the haunted ruins of the Chateau des Faussesflammes. He descended into a subterranean passage beneath the ruins and was never seen again.

Inevitably, Christophe is seized by a great desire to visit the Chateau des Faussesflammes himself. The ruins are located only a mile distant from the abbey. Christophe travels secretly to the old chateau and soon discovers the underground passage. It leads him through a series of rubble-strewn vaults, until at length he emerges into an otherworldly landscape. Christophe makes his way to a palace that stands in a nearby grove of trees.

Here he meets the lady Nycea: "She was not tall, but was formed with exquisite voluptuous purity of line and contour. Her eyes were a dark sapphire blue--The curve of her lips was enigmatic, a little mournful, and gravely tender as the lips of an antique Venus." Immediately entranced with Nycea, Christophe spends several hours in her company (the author discreetly spares us the intimate details, but a romantic liaison is distinctly implied).

Christophe is awakened from his slumber when Abbot Hilaire breaks in upon the two lovers. Condemning Nycea as a vampire and lamia, the Abbot douses the environs with holy water. Nycea vanishes, and Christophe loses consciousness When he, regains his senses, he finds himself lying in one of the underground vaults beneath the ruins of Faussesflammes.

According to Hilaire, Christophe hasbeen ensorcelled by the lamia Nycea, whose true form is that of '"...a foul and monstrous serpent. All those whom she loves and admits to her hospitality, she devours in the end, after she has drained them of life and vigor with the diabolic delight of her kisses." The otherworld she inhabits, claims Hilaire, is an illusion.

Christophe, secretly none too pleased at his "rescue", soon departs from Perigon and travels to his father's house near Moulins. Here he writes: "The memory of Nycea is magically clear, ineffably dear as if she were still beside me, and still I see the rich draperies of a midnight chamber illumined by lamps of curiously carved gold, and still I bear the words of her farewell: 'Have no fear. You shall find me again if you are brave and patient.'" The spell of the lamia--if such she be--is strong upon him, and he determines to return to the Chateau des Faussesflammes and embrace her once more...

"The End of the Story" contains some intriguing ambiguities. Is Nycea truly an evil lamia, luring men to their doom? We only have Hilaire's word for this, and nothing that actually occurs in the story substantiates the accusation. Can we trust a Christian monastic to be entirely objective in his judgement of a woman who openly espouses a pagan philosophy of pleasure? Has Christophe returned to Nycea to meet death--or delight? We do not know; the tale's title is a typical piece of Smithian irony, for we never do learn "the end of the story" of either Gerard or Christophe.

(In paperback, "The End of the Story" may be found in the 1974 Panther reprint OUT OF TIME AND SPACE and in Timescape's 1982 collection THE LAST INCANTATION.)


Smith has been criticized in some circles, for his linguistic usages. He customarily wrote in a rich, highly ornamented style foreign to readers accustomed to the prose style of his mainstream contemporaries--Hemingway, Dos Pasos, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, for example. Smith was aware of such criticism and penned the following response: "As to my own employment of an ornate style, using many words of classic origin and exotic color, I can only say that [it] is designed to produce effects of language and rhythm which could not possibly be achieved by a vocabulary restricted to what is known as 'basic English'".

He adds, "An atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism is more naturally evoked by a style with an admixture of Latinity, lending itself to more varied and sonorous rhythms, as well as to subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning ... I hope I have made it plain that my use of rare and exotic words has been solely in accord with a aesthetic theory, or, one might say, a technical theory." (From a letter to Samuel J. Sackett, July 11, 1950, published in KLARKASH-TON 1, Cryptic Publications, 1988.)

From: Paperback Parade #33, June 1993.

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