I think I've figured out my likes and dislikes for Clark Ashton Smith
stories by this point--if it's fantasy I'm much more likely to enjoy it than if it's science fiction. I realize that these stories were mostly written before there was actually a rigid dividing line between the genres--to the extent that there's such a line today outside of bookstores or publishing houses, anyway--but as a product of my time I can't help but internally subdivide the stories based on modern genre classifications. The Martian stories with the Aihais aren't bad, and I particularly liked The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis
even though I didn't spend the space talking about it in my last review, but take a random Smith story and I'll lay odds I'll like it a lot better if it's weird fantasy rather than weird science fiction.
One of the letters quoted in the notes in the back reveals that Smith was never as fond of his scientifical stories as he was of his other work, and maybe that's where my dislike takes root. I do think that a lot of the sci fi stories seem more...well, obviously written with an eye toward selling them rather than toward literary craft. Which sounds so condescending when I say it that way, I will admit, but a lot of my enjoyment of Smith's work is the language he uses and the descriptions he paints of the scenery and the actions taking place, and the sci fi stories seem to have more utilitarian language to me.
That's probably why my enjoyment has been going up as I've continued through the collections of his work. I admit that it's not based on any kind of statistical analysis of the contents of the stories I've read, but it seems like the ratio of sci fi to fantasy stories was relatively even early on and has been tilting more and more towards fantasy as I've moved chronologically through Smith's body of work. And The Maze of the Enchanter
is where the Zothique stories start coming in earnest after the excellent Empire of the Necromancers
showed up in A Vintage From Atlantis
, much to my delight.
There is a sci fi story in the book that I did like, though. A Star Change
is similar to "The Red World of Polaris" (if I'm remembering right) in the plot, which involves the main character being transported to another world and seeing its destruction by hideous monsters. "A Star Change" is about that, it's true, but the part I liked was the impressions of the protagonist of the story. When he travels to the other world, he finds the atmosphere, the sounds, even the very light to be confusing and intolerable to his senses, and until an operation is performed to acclimate him he is on the verge of going mad. However, after the planet's destruction and his return to the Earth, there is no one to perform a similar operation on him, and he dies in hospital after going mad.
I think I liked it so much because it reminded me of At the Mountains of Madness
, especially the "they were men!" line. Aliens might seem weird and horrific to us, but it's probably just because they evolved in a different environment and under different circumstances, and they very well might think we were just as weird and horrible. The ones in the story don't, but that's attributed to their superior evolution and not some kind of immutable property of the universe. I really like stories that realize cosmicism runs both ways and that it's not that humans are uniquely screwed.
Your evocative quote for this review comes from The Beast of Averoigne
Indeed, it were well that none should believe the story: for strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies; and the gulf is haunted by that which it were madness for man to know. Unnameable things have come to us in alien horror, and shall come again. And the evil of the stars is not as the evil of earth.
Along with The Disinterment of Venus
, "The Beast of Averoigne" is a good illustration of the principle that prayers are worthless and sorcery can only be fought with sorcery. The version included here isn't really a mystery in that it's quite obvious from the beginning who the bad guy is, but the excitement comes from figuring out how
the titular beast is stopped. Plus that great ending line. I mean, that alone justifies the story.The Charnel God
is a story I've heard about many times before, being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, but this is the first time I've ever read it. It does fit with the pattern of being mostly descriptive and then having a "shocking" twist at the end that resolves everything neatly, but the description of the city of Mordiggian and its secretive and possibly necrophagous priesthood, along with the inhabitants' blasé attitude toward the whole thing, really struck a chord with me. Probably because of all the goth music I listened to when I was younger.The titular story
was...okay. I don't have that much to say about it, though I did notice a kind of odd Victorian gendered morality in the way that Maal Dweb deals with the women that he takes as his concubines or the men who come to try to steal them back.
Okay, now let me get to why I didn't give The Maze of the Enchanter
five stars after all this praise. It comes down entirely to a single story: The Third Episode of Vathek
. It's apparently a continuation of a fragment by William Beckford
, author of the original Vathek
...but not having read Vathek
I was completely lost. It wasn't the longest story in the book, but it definitely took me the longest to get through, and I kept having my mind wander and having to force it back to the text. I mean, I read it, because I'm really stubborn about not giving up even when I know that my Goodreads list is hundreds of books long and there's too many stories I enjoy or would enjoy to read stories I don't enjoy that much, but I didn't get much out of it and could have skipped it. Without that story this would easily be five stars.
Hopefully the upward trend continues in the next book. I know that there are a lot more Zothique stories left in Smith’s ouevre, so expect that it will.
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