The Dark Eidolon

Dr Hermes

Having spent most of my life reading, I have a reasonably adequate vocabulary but a story by Clark Ashton Smith is a real test of how many obscure words you can recognize. "Eidolon" itself is right in the title, and the pages are crammed with speed bumps like odalisques, cachinnation, porphyry, nacarat, hautboys, saltant, aludels... *yike*. Ease up there, Clark. However, the meanings of most of these jokers can be guessed at from the context and are not essential to following the story. You can always look them up later and they may come in handy someday while doing a particularly uncooperative crossword puzzle.

And I don't think Smith was being pretentious or showing off merely for its own sake. A self-educated poet, this seems to have just been the way his mind worked. His use of language produces a dazzling effect as one bizarre image or figure of speech follows another. It's rather like watching a fireworks display with your pupils still dilated from a session at the ophthalmologist.

In fact, it is the densely detailed descriptions of the various ghoulish shenanigans which make this story memorable. The plot itself of "The Dark Eidolon" is not particularly complicated or inventive. A little beggar boy named Narthos is trampled beneath the hooves of the prince Zotulla's palfrey (see, I told you; a palfrey is a light saddle-horse). Barely surviving, bearing forever the mark of one hoofprint on his body, Narthos becomes an apprentice to a wizard out in the desert, mastering all kinds of sinister forbidden arts so that he may one day get his revenge on the arrogant prince.

Now known and dreaded as Namrriha, he erects overnight a huge palace next to Zotulla's. As the king frets and worries over what the infamous sorcerer intends, his nerves are shredded further by what happens each night. The sound of heavy hooves thundering through the streets with no horses visible to make them, and leaving deep hoofprints burned right into marble that get closer to Zotulla each time until finally they are driven right into the door of his bedchamber.

Then King Zotulla receives an invitation from Namirrha to attend a feast. The horrifying goings-on at this banquet are difficult to describe short of quoting huge chunks of the story. In fact, there are so many mummies and zombies and unholy hybrid creatures that it starts to become funny in a sick way. If the various monsters and casual cruelties are enough to make the reader uneasy, Zotulla is fairly close to cardiac arrest (he is attended by the rotting corpse of the father he himself murdered with an adder to get the throne) before Namirrh finally begins to explain just why he is doing all this. It's actually worse than you imagined at first, and things go terribly wrong even for Namirrha. The fatalistic ending is downbeat indeed.

"The Dark Eidolon" first appeared in the January 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES, part of Smith's "Zothique" cycle of stories. We are deep into the distant future, when "the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer." Zothique is the sole remaining continent; in its cities and villages, science has been forgotten and black magic reared up again with a vengeance. (By the way, Jack Vance's THE DYING EARTH is set on a similar premise, and is a real gem of interlocking short stories.)

The people of this era are all so decadent and jaded and over-sophisticated that they make our aristocratic European jetset look like giggling Campfire Girls. The ancient gods have returned, again demanding worship and human sacrifice in exchange for secrets of sorcery. (I particularly like the way the darkest and grimmest god is named Thasaidon; the obvious echoes of "Poseidon" hint that this is the same immortal spirit finally returned in a slightly different guise.) Thasaidon is represented by a statue of an armored warrior with a huge mace in one uplifted mitt; the gods speaks to Namirrha from this "dark eidolon" and frankly, things would have gone better for the crazed warlock if he had listened to Thasaidon's counsel."

As packed with gruesome details as this story is, one or two aspects stand out. Trampled as a child by a horse, Namirrha plots his vengeance with a horse theme. There are the unseen ghostly steeds which thunder back and forth all night to terrorize Zotulla and there are the very impressive "macrocosmic stallions of Thamogorgos" which overrun an entire city, crushing its towers beneath their hooves. These things are the scariest horses I've met in pulp fiction. "...Looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli."

What stuck in my mind most when first reading this story at an impressionable age is the moment when Namirrha finds himself in a body in which "the legs had turned suddenly to the hind legs of a black stallion, with hooves that glowed redly as if heated by infernal fires." Leaving smoking hoofprints on the marble floor, the monster strides over to a terrified girl and "raised one glowing hoof and set the hoof on her naked bosom..." as the helpless Zotulla watches. The scene has stuck in my mind all these years, and reading it now, it still gives me the willies. I don't think I can take too much Clark Ashton Smith at one time.

© (Nov 2, 2005) Dr Hermes Reviews

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