Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Zombies from the Old School - Clark Ashton Smith

This morning at the gym, while fighting a pitched battle against five consecutive days (and counting) of starch and gravy, I read "The Isle of the Torturers," by Auburn, California's favorite wizard of the weird, Clark Ashton Smith (first published in the March, 1933 edition of Weird Tales).

In the story, the young king of Yoros is one of the scant few survivors of an astral plague ("The Silver Death"), and in his attempt to flee to a secluded safe haven across the sea, ends up being washed ashore on the Isle of Uccastrog, better known amongst sailors and whispering wanderers as the Isle of the Torturers.

After watching five glorious weeks of the superb, refreshingly elegant "The Walking Dead," I've lately been in a zombie state of mind, and so was struck immediately by CAS's often use of zombies in his 1930's dark and fantastical fiction, particularly in his expansive collection of Zothique Tales, first conjured in 1932, which comprised of sixteen finished stories, a poem, and a one-act play, all taking place on the doomed continent of Zothique.

According to Black Gate Magazine:

In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Smith gave a tongue-in-cheek description of Zothique:
I have heard it hinted in certain archaic and obscure prophecies that the far future continent called Gnydron [Smith's abortive early name for the continent] by some and Zothique by others, which will arise millions of years hence… and will witness the intrusions of things from galaxies not yet visible…
Very cosmic horror.  Very Lovecraftian.  Very Clark Ashton Smith.

My morning discovery of "The Isle of the Torturers," and the appearance of bloated, flayed zombies in dire need of eyelids (no spoilers here, folks), reminded me of "Empire of the Necromancers," which was the very first CAS tale I'd ever read, and which immediately hooked me into Smith fandom forever with its combination of fantasy, sorcery, and brutal, charnel house horror (first published in the September, 1932 edition of Weird Tales).

After being immersed nearly exclusively in Lovecraft, discovering Clark Ashton Smith opened a whole new vista into the horrifying and bizarre, and bridged a needed gap between my youth spent in the thrall of fantasy adventure, and my adult sojourn down the darkest halls of cosmic horror and speculative fiction.

And - to stay on topic - "Empire of the Necromancers" has an entire KINGDOM of magically re-animated zombies (and mummies and skeletons), who aren't necessarily your garden variety, brain-dead shamblers.  Some of these staggering dead are long term thinkers, and possessed of a generational pride not often found in contemporary zombie fare.

Luckily, there's still so much yet to be read, and I'm very much looking forward to digging deeper into CAS's Zothique Tales, and in so doing, am sure to find more extraordinary stories of crypt-crawling ghouls, toadish monstrosities, extraterrestrial monsters, and even a bit of high fantasy.  And freakin' zombies.  That's the magic of this man, who hopefully will some day get his due, like his devoted brothers-in-arms - H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard - are just now beginning to receive.


  1. I couldn't have said it better myself!

  2. Nice, I dig CAS quite a bit too. I've got and read some of his tales via old paperbacks (which I love to collect) and through some anthology books, but I've recently made the commitment to, every month, order a CAS reprint that Night Shade Press is putting out. Every time i read one of his stories, I'm surprised at it's elegant style and depth of character and plot. A really fantastic writer with even more fantastic ideas and inventions.

  3. Danke, Shane. :)

    'the Hat: CAS is just a true artist and elegant wordsmith, housed in a gritty naturalist who eschewed plumbing. In short, he's a mensch of the highest order, and a true hero of American weird fiction. Kind of a perfect alchemical mixture of HPL and REH, as a man and a writer.

  4. The five volume set of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, from Nightshade Books are pricey; but there is no better set of Clark Ashton Smith available anywhere. If you can get them for your collection, you will never regret it!

  5. CthulhuWho1, that's a dream purchase right there, my friend. That, Joshi's "I Am Providence," "Black Wings," and a few other deluxe tomes.

    I'm hoping to trade words for books in 2011.

  6. The general progression is
    CAS - Jack Vance (Dying Earth) - Michael Shea (Nifft the Lean, In Yana)