Reviews

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931) and related work:

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

Two thieves enter the temple of Tsathoggua in the ruins of Commoriom and encounter its formless spawn.

The plot is forgettable, the picaresque cad aspect of it going nowhere, and the vocabulary matches neither that clichéd subject matter nor the character of the narrator, nor is it beautiful. For instance, when Smith writes that “it gave evidence of anthropophagic inclinations”, meaning it tried to eat us, he’s not making a joke about Zeiros’s own pompousness; two stories later in “The Testament of Athammaus” (1932), with a different narrator, Smith’s still using “anthropophagism” instead of the appropriate “cannibalism” or more plain language. It reads like a bad knockoff of Howard, though it was published before the Conan stories.

References here: Sovaren, “The Door to Saturn” (1932).

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“The Door to Saturn” (1932)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

Hunted for his heresies by the elk goddess’s inquisition, the wizard Eibon, introduced here, escapes from Hyperborea to Cykranosh (Saturn).

Though it was “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931) that impressed Lovecraft, this is more worthy of reading, partly because the writing as such is less pretentious and more creative, partly because it shows what Smith was going for when he invented Tsathoggua. This is primarily an absurd comic fantasy. In his 2007 overview of the Hyperborean cycle of stories, Ryan Harvey compares it to “Porky in Wackyland” (1938), a sadly relevant reference.

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“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” (1932)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

A Commoriom money-lender is cursed.

Very nearly a fairy tale, revolving around a simple moral.

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“The Testament of Athammaus” (1932)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

The fall of Commoriom to a criminal sentenced to death by its highest court.

A good concept, building a metaphor for the corruption of a proud Iron-Age city-state by its conceited justice system, mocked by Tsathoggua. The writing still isn’t very good though; the ending is anti-climactic and there is little sense of what is at stake.

References here: “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931).

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“The Ice Demon” (1933)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Looters in an almost fully frozen Hyperborea, at the end of the intradigetic chronology of the cycle.

The same sort of sociopathic rogues as in “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, but robbed of their jungle climate and their humour. This is straight-up sword-and-sorcery, written around the same time as “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (1953) with a similar plot and the advantage of less rape.

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“Ubbo-Sathla” (1933)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

A Londoner in 1932, aware of Hyperborean history, falls past it, back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Principally a mood piece, having little plot or characterization, but the writing is good for Smith and the little fragment of worldbuilding almost fits into HPL’s Mythos.

References here: Tcho-Tcho.

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“The Seven Geases” (1934)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

A hunter is compelled by a series of curses to encounter one set of supernatural beings after another.

Apparently intended as absurd comic fantasy, it introduces a number of gods that would live on in the extended Mythos of CoC games. It does so in close-up, with little sense or consequence, a bit like a children’s book by Lewis Carroll.

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“The White Sybil” (1934)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

A poet pursues a ghostly sybil who seems to deliver a cryptic prophecy about the doom of Hyperborea under the expanding glacier.

A spirit romance, for a change, like The Night Land (1912) in miniature.

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“The Coming of the White Worm” (1933/1941/1989)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

I read the version supposedly completed in 1933, as first published in 1989, not the simplified, previously canonical 1941 version published in the author’s lifetime.

In a chapter of the Book of Eibon, copied verbatim as this story, a divine tyrant recruits warlocks for his mobile iceberg.

Some of Smith’s best archaicized purple prose, which is not saying much. Though it lacks humour and was meant as a contribution to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, Smith’s conception of his gods is still much closer to ancient European pantheons, in this case the Norse, and the worldbuilding is inferior.

References here: Fire and Ice (1983).

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“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” (1958)

Clark Ashton Smith (writer).

Read in 2020.

A direct sequel to “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, with the same protagonist. It’s less zany, which is good, and Smith learned something about clear writing in the intervening 26 years, but it’s a lazily conceived and described heist, very much in the manner of a D&D night.

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