The Maze of the Enchanter

By Clark Ashton Smith

210 ratings - 4.39* vote

This series presents Clark Ashton Smith's fiction chronologically, based on composition rather than publication. Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger have compared original manuscripts, various typescripts, published editions, and Smith's notes and letters, in order to prepare a definitive set of texts. The Maze of the Enchanter includes, in chronological order, all of his This series presents Clark Ashton Smith's fiction chronologically, based on composition rather than

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Book details

Hardcover, 300 pages
April 1st 2009 by Night Shade Books

(first published April 1st 2008)

Original Title
The Maze of the Enchanter
ISBN
1597800317 (ISBN13: 9781597800310)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Ray

An uneven selection of short stories set in space, fantastic worlds or the occult. Written in the thirties and forties for sci-fi magazines several of the stories are dated. Aliens on Mars anyone? Worth a read for SAF fans like me.

Randolph

This fourth volume of Smith's Collected Stories is something of a mixed bag. Although some of his best and best known tales are here (Genius Loci, The Dark Eidolon) the strain of economic necessity shows through more than it did in volume 3. Smith was forced to crank out tales, too many and too fast, to take care of his ailing parents. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft, who resisted editorial meddling, Smith was all too willing to make editorial changes to his stories in order to make them more saleable. This is certainly forgivable but also lamentable since Smith is at times such a fine writer of the truly weird tale when he isn't meddled with. Too many of the stories here exhibit a sameness that dulls the better ones. Take it in small bites and it will taste better.

Brian

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.

Previous Review: A Vintage from Atlantis
Next Review: The Last Hieroglyph.

Chrysostomos Tsaprailis

The fourth volume is a bit more focused thematically, including 5 stories of the Zothique circle, 3 of the Averoigne one and two Hyperborean ones. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is any aspect of Clark Ashton’s writing that is not represented here. There are many good and great stories here, with quality peaks at the beginning and at the second half, and a stellar high at the Charnel God/Dark Eidolon combo.

Bad:
-The Dimension of Chance: In the far future of 1970s (the story was written in the ’30s) an American military plane ends up in a strange world after chasing a Japanese aircraft. There, random probability has a much more active role in shaping the world, resulting in creatures whose physiology is pluralistic to say the least.
Nice idea, whose materialization is, however, doomed from inception to be rather tiresome when injected into words. Of the weird science-fiction CAS genre, of which I am not a fan.

Mediocre:
-A Star-Change: Alien beings take the protagonist with them to their planet.
One of CAS’s exercises in descriptions of weird environments, imbued with the fatalistic conception of mankind’s limitations. Not much to keep.

-The White Sybil: In Hyperborea, a poet catches glimpses of the White Sibyl, a divine oracle, follows her up a mountain, sees another world, yet when he touches the woman the mirage is shattered.
This has a poem-like quality, lots of description, and not much in the way of plot or action. It is definitely beautiful but rather tiresome.

-The Isle of the Torturers: After his nation is wiped by pestilence, a king (who has immunity by wearing a magic ring) sails for a distant land. A storm throws his vessel on an island famed for its sadistic inhabitants.
Of the Zothique circle, yet not much in the way of plot. Obvious resemblance to the Masque of Red Death, (also, a very early manifestation of Melnibone?) quite predictable, it unfortunately doesn’t rise above mediocrity.

-The Dweller in the Gulf: A trio of Earth people descend into a huge Martian cave, where they encounter a strange race and the Dweller in the Gulf.
Though it could theoretically be slotted in the dungeon crawl genre, this is more descriptive and eloquent than needed. It has a nice escalation, but feels rather unpolished.

-The Secret of the Cairn: An artist discovers a strange stone in the forest, which he cannot approach – when he does, it seems that it keeps distancing itself, without changing position. Afterwards it is revealed as part of an elaborate alien ritual -the aliens take the protagonist for a short visit to their world.
This had potential to be great, sylvan cairn and all, but the alien edge along with the overwhelming weirdness of the alien world description weighs it down a lot.

Good:
-The Mandrakes: A sorcerer kills and buries his wife in the garden; in this spot start sprouting female-shaped mandrakes.
Part of the Averoigne cycle, a solid short story with grand overtones of rural witchcraft.

-The Beast of Averoigne: The appearance of a comet heralds the coming of a strange beast in the vicinity of a monastery, a terror that hunts in the night. The aid of a sorcerer is finally enlisted to thwart the devil.
Part of the Averoigne cycle, a grand narration from three different points of view/characters, with a brooding twist in the end. Excellent medieval horror.

-The Disinterment of Venus: An ancient Venus statue is unearthed in a monastery garden, inducing the monks to satyriasis.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. A nice, unusually sexually suggestive story which reeks of hidden monastic lust, an exultation of pagan carnality with a satisfying ending.

-The Maze of the Enchanter: A man trying to locate his abducted fiancé enters a wizard’s territory, ending up in the sorcerer’s notorious labyrinth.
Top-notch CAS dark fantasy. The descriptions are evocative and rich like elder vitae. Just a bit more of plot action would take it to the grand category.

-The third episode of Vathek: The completion of an unfinished Vathek appendice, in which twin brother and sister indulge in forbidden love and pacts with the Devil.
A majestic capture of Vathek’s atmosphere, this is overally excellent, though it could perhaps be edited to a lesser word count.

-Genius Loci: A painter seems to be maliciously affected by a locale with a pond and some gnarled trees. His friend, trying to save him, calls the artist’s girlfriend, who however proves incapable of overpowering the locale’s influence.
The spirit of the place as a vampiric entity: this is the core idea of this beautiful little story. Not much to dislike here, apart from the slightly slow pace.

-The Voyage of King Euvoran: The stuffed bird forming the crowning jewel of a king’s crown is revived by a necromancer and flies away. The King embarks on an expedition to retrieve it.
Part of the Zothique cycle, yet unusually humorous in tone, this has very memorable locales, an island ruled by birds, and a fitting fairy-tale-esque ending.

-Vulthoom: Some humans who have been stranded on Mars descend to the planet’s interior and are offered a mission by a god-like entity – a task that involves preparing Earth for colonization.
A nice case of CAS-ian sci-fi, that focuses on plot rather than heavy descriptions.

-The Flower-Women: The omnipotent wizard from the Maze of the Enchanter visits another planet out of boredom. There he meets plant sirens and reptilian sorcerers.
An almost light-hearted story that reveals an almost humane side of the stern enchanter. Very pleasurable.

Great:
-The Ice Demon: Three persons embark on a quest towards the oncoming glacier that heralds the coming Ice Age; they seek an ice chamber holding a frozen army, along with royal gemstones. The glacier seems to be imbued with malevolent consciousness and agency.
An ode to ice and cold. Set in the later days of Hyperborea, the story contains amazing descriptions of arctic vistas and ice-sculpted monuments. The demon itself and its signs of attack are a study in majestic subtlety. Strangely reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s The Sacrifice, as far as atmosphere goes.

-The Charnel God: A city dominated by the temple of a death god – all people who die in its walls end up in there. The protagonist must rescue his wife, who has the symptoms of death, but remains alive.
Part of the Zothique cycle, it showcases pulpy dark adventuring done right. Not of the sword & sorcery kind where heroes indulge in their skill, but of the one that reads like a good dark fairy-tale.

-The Dark Eidolon: A mighty wizard returns to the city of his birth to wreak revenge upon the prince that once scorned him. With him, he has the dark eidolon of a demon god.
Part of the Zothique cycle, and one of CAS’s most grandiose creations. Has there been a more majestic description of oncoming doom than the one of the beings coming upon the city? This is the stuff apocalypse is made of.

-The Weaver in the Vault: Three imperial guards go to a necropolis to fetch an ages-old mummy to their liege.
Part of the Zothique cycle. When CAS focuses on dungeon crawling he excels. With nice background hues of steppe-like camaraderie, and amazing, atmospheric descriptions of the charnel grounds.

Daniel

I nursed this over at least a year, and the collection proved to be an excellent source of adventure fiction whenever I needed something short or a break from other reads. Some of these stories really blew my mind and made me marvel at how much Ashton accomplishes in a span of ten pages. I cannot imagine having the option to pick up a magazine of short fiction that contains stories of this caliber and craftsmanship. Hopefully, these will stay in print in some way or another (for now, electronic editions abound, for what they're worth) so that others, too, can enjoy Ashton's work.

Some highlights from this collection:

The Isle of the Torturers--sheer genius in its dark content and wicked plot. I felt like I had digested an entire fantasy novel whole after finishing this short story.

The Dark Eidolon--Sometimes, I just crave a heavy dose of powerful sorceries unleashing their full intent upon the natural world; Ashton delivers just that in this great story.

The Voyage of King Eurovan--a sweeping comedy of hubris that is punctuated by some nasty episodes. One of the latter brought my attentions back to a lengthy passage in China Mieville's "Scar," making me wonder if Mieville had found any inspiration in this Ashton story.

The Flower-Women--Again, Ashton posits a ridiculously powerful necromancer and then lets him loose upon the story.

The Third Episode of "Vathek": The Story of the Princess Zulkais and the Prince Kalilah--what a treat, this: a 16,000-word short by William Beckford, left incomplete, now capped by 4,000 words of Ashton's prose as a closer. I love Beckford's "Vathek," and it was a joy to return to the man's lyrical prose and weird ideas. This tale is decadent and beautiful and a little disturbing (just as many parts of "Vathek" were). The transition from Beckford's prose to Ashton's is smooth, and while the culmination is muted in comparison to the text, the overall journey marvelous.

One more volume remains in this 5-volume set released by Night Shade (thankfully, before the publisher fell into troubled times), and I look forward to nursing its tales over the months to come.

Simcha York

The Maze of the Enchanter, the fourth book in the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series, covers a range of short stories written in 1932 and 1933, and continues the trend of improving on the previous volumes in the series.

This volume has a number of strong pieces to recommend it, including the moody "Genius Loci," the Orientalist "The Third Episode of Vathek," and perhaps one of CAS's strongest works to date, the weird and fascinating "The Voyage of King Euvoran."

Generally speaking, Smith's weaker pieces have been his forays into science fiction -- he always seems a bit less confident in his portrayals of future technology and scientific advances than in arcane magic and general unexplained weirdness. Fortunately, while this volume does contain a few sci-fi pieces, they tend more towards planetary romances and, as such, better take advantage of Smith's strengths for elucidating strange and alien worlds.

As with the previous volumes in this series, this volume is a must have for fans of Clark Ashton Smith or for anyone interested in old school weird tales.

Joseph F.

Apart from his ridiculous vocabulary, Smith is a joy to read. This is volume 4 of a 5 volume collection of all of his short stories. I’ve already read various short “best of”collections as downloads, but I picked this up at a bookstore because I wanted at least one physical copy of his works, and this was all they had.It was good enough for me. If you like your fiction with an eclectic mix of weird, horror and fantasy, you will like Smith’s inexhaustible imagination.

Jaro

4

J.W. Wright

The fourth volume of Clark Ashton Smith’s Collected Fantasies is, what I would have to call, the weakest volume I’ve read out of all four of them. Although it has a few very powerful tales within it. Hell, the famous tale of “The Dark Eidolon” is powerful and darksome enough to outshine with a black glory most of the other stories within this volume, and it and a few other stories are worth the somewhat disappointing slog through some of the lesser titles in this collection. The stories I enjoyed are as follows:

– “The Beast of Averoigne:” Another episode in the Averoigne cycle in which a darksome and mysterious entity wreaks terror and havok within the walls of a medieval monastery and within Averoigne itself.

– “A Star-Change:” When a camper in the rugged mountains encounters beings from another star system, and is taken to their world, a change is made to his physiology that turns into an encounter of unspeakable alien horror.

-“The Ice-Demon:” A heroic huntsman from Hyperborea encounters a blasphemous trans-arctic terror while searching for lost treasure.

-“The Isle of the Torturers:” Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Zothique, this tale follows the voyage of a king who runs afoul of an evil and sadistic people on a foreboding far island, and goes through unspeakable torments.

-“The Dimension of Chance:” In a future America, two fighter pilots engage in a dogfight with their Japanese enemies, and are taken through a warp to a dimension where chaos rules.

-“The Dweller in the Gulf:” When human adventurers seek shelter from a storm on the surface of Mars, they end up travelling deep underground, and unearth a secret they wished they hadn’t.

-“The Maze of the Enchanter:” The first in a series of tales set upon the alien planet of Xiccarph, this story tells of a jungle warrior who ventures forth to rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of a diabolical sorcerer.

-“The Third Episode of Vathek:” A story left incomplete from the gothic author William Beckford, and finished posthumously by Clark Ashton Smith that tells of a forbidden, incestuous relationship between royal siblings in Arabia, and their encounter with the powers of darkness.

-“The Charnel God:” When Phariom, an outlander from Xylac in the post-apocalyptic world of Zothique travels through the mysterious city of Zul-Bha-Sair, the woman he loves falls into a coma and is believed to be dead. According to the demonic, alien laws of the city, she is to be taken before the darksome Charnel God, Mordiggian in his funereal temple for a sacrifice by his evil priests. Phariom is determined not to let this happen and takes off after her captors.

-“The Dark Eidolon:” Perhaps the darkest episode of Zothique. An evil sorcerer allied with a demonic god swears vengeance on a mad, sadistic emperor that wronged him as a child. This story is both brutal and horrifying.

-“Vulthoom:” When a writer and an expelled starship pilot end up on Mars, they uncover a secret revolving around an ancient and menacing alien god.

– “The Flower Women:” The second episode in the Xiccarph sequence, featuring the sorcerer Maal Dwebb as the hero, or rather, anti-hero, who must rescue vampire-like sisters from evil reptilian necromancers.

All in all, not a terrible collection, but certainly weaker than the ones that came before it. I give “The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Vol. IV: The Maze of the Enchanter” a 3.5 out of 5.

Colin

Clark Ashton Smith was a true master of the genre of weird fiction, a genre that encompassed much of what we would now call science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. He is often considered a notable omission from the Appendix N compiled by Gary Gygax - his name probably belonged on the list, but was not included for some reason. This collection of short stories represents some of the best of Smith's weird fiction. Highly recommended.

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