The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

By Clark Ashton Smith

991 ratings - 4.2* vote

A much-awaited collection of prose and poetry from one of the great cosmic masters of the supernatural Not just any fantasy, horror, and science fiction author could impress H. P. Lovecraft into calling him "perhaps unexcelled by any other writer, dead or living” or compel Fritz Lieber to employ the worthy term sui generis. Clark Ashton Smith—autodidact, prolific poet, ama A much-awaited collection of prose and poetry from one of the great cosmic masters of the supernatural Not just

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Book details

Paperback, 370 pages
August 7th 2014 by Penguin Classics

(first published March 25th 2014)

0143107380 (ISBN13: 9780143107385)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Bill Kerwin

Confession: I once underestimated Clark Ashton Smith. I dismissed him as a second-rate poet, and a first-rate prose stylist who marred his work with an eccentric indulgence in obscure, latinate diction, even more bizarre than his friend Lovecraft's. I also find his fascination with evil—particularly in his poetry—rather second-rate too, redolent with faux nostalgia for the fin de siecle in decline.

The funny thing is, I still believe all this to be true, but, recently, reading this J.T. Joshi anthology, I find this is only a small part of the story. First of all, although most of the poetry is second rate, some of it isn't, particularly the blank verse dramatic monologues (“Nero,” “Satan Unrepentant,” “The Hashish Eater") which rely on close reasoning or gorgeous enumerations, and the occasional isolated mood piece (“Memnon at Midnight,” “The Old Water Wheel”) which does not allow its central idea to become buried in baroque detail and mellifluous phrases.

Second, the stories—at least the ones included here—all succeed as stories, and whatever they lose from Smith's showy, occasionally bizarre diction they regain by the sonority and measured movement of his prose. Like Algernon Blackwood, the objective of this prose is to hypnotize, creating the proper state of mind so that the disquieting visions may begin. Even the worst of his stories—which can seem like overly long mood pieces—create memorable sensations, and the best (“The Vaults of Yo-Vombis,” “The Dark Eidolon,” “The Weaver in the Vault, “Xeethra,” “The Mother of Toads”) are terrifying.

In addition, Joshi introduced me to an aspect of Smith of which I had not been aware: the prose poems. They are more disciplined and closely crafted than either the poems or the stories, and may well be Smith's best work.

I conclude with one of those prose poems, to give you a taste of the delights which await:


From the nethermost profound of slumber, from a gulf beyond the sun and stars that illume the Lethean shoals and the vague lands of somnolent visions, I floated on a black unrippling tide to the dark threshold of a dream. And in this dream I stood at the end of a long hall that was ceiled and floored and walled with black ebony, and was lit with a light that fell not from the sun or moon nor from any lamp. The hall was without doors or windows, and at the further extreme an oval mirror was framed in the wall. And standing there, I remembered nothing of all that had been; and the other dreams of sleep, and the dream of birth and of everything thereafter, were alike forgotten. And forgotten too was the name I had found among men, and the other names whereby the daughters of dream had known me; and memory was no older than my coming to that hall. But I wondered not, nor was I troubled thereby, and naught was strange to me: for the tide that had borne me to this threshold was the tide of Lethe.

Anon, though I knew not why, my feet were drawn adown the hall, and I approached the oval mirror. And in the mirror I beheld the haggard face that was mine, and the red mark on the cheek where one I loved had struck me in her anger, and the mark on the throat where her lips had kissed me in amorous devotion. And, seeing this, I remembered all that had been; and the other dreams of sleep, and the dream of birth and of everything thereafter, alike returned to me. And thus I recalled the name I had assumed beneath the terrene sun, and the names I had borne beneath the suns of sleep and of reverie. And I marvelled much, and was enormously troubled, and all things were most strange to me, and all things were as of yore.

Glenn Russell (away on vacation)

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is surely one of America’s most intriguing and unique authors, a poet and writer of tales of horror, fantasy and science fiction. Born in a small town in Northern California and living nearly all his life in the log cabin build by his parents, Smith didn’t attend school beyond the eighth grade due to psychological problems; rather, all of his learning occurred at home – he read voraciously and committed much to memory, including an encyclopedia and a dictionary cover to cover; he taught himself French and Spanish; he devoured book after book, such classics as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As an adult, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Smith was a prime contributor to the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales, and, like Lovecraft, whom he befriended and carried on a live-long correspondence, Smith used his own nightmares as raw material for his fiction.

This fine Penguin edition is a treasure, including many short stories, prose poems and poems along with an informative Introduction by literary scholar, S. T. Joshi. As a way of sharing a taste of what a reader will discover in these pages, I have focused on one short story from the collection, Ubbo-Sathla, noting a number of themes from the tale, themes that recur in much of the author’s work. Also included is my write-up (copied from one of my other reviews) on yet another tale from this Penguin collection: Mother of Toads.

“For Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the newmade Earth.”

So begins this beguiling tale of metaphysical investigation told in arcane language by Clark Ashton Smith, an author for whom fiction was as a way to explore the big philosophical questions: Where do we come from? What is the foundation of life? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Again, these questions are asked in the most inscrutable language, for as the author himself explains: "My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.”

Similar to young men entering antique shops filled with curios from around the globe (Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin and Théophile Gautier's The Mummy’s Foot come immediately to mind), the tale's protagonist, Paul Tregardis, enters an antique shop and his eye is drawn to something in particular: “the milky crystal in a litter of oddments from many lands and eras.”

And, oh, how that magically enchanted, arcane object quickly becomes the nucleus of occult unfoldings. "Tregardis thinks of his own explorations in hidden lore: he recalled The Book of Eibon, that strangest and rarest of occult forgotten volumes, which is said to have come down through a series of manifold translations from a prehistoric original written in the lost language of Hyperborea."

After leaving the shop, crystal in hand, little does Tregardis know he now holds an enchanted object that will bring the book of his very own memories to life.

As per vintage Clark Ashton Smith, that aforementioned remote, secret book, The Book of Eibon, was purported to have been the handiwork of a great wizard in touch with the heart of the heart of all power within the universe. "This wizard, who was mighty among sorcerers, had found a cloudy stone, orb-like and somewhat flattened at the ends, in which he could behold many visions of the terrene past, even to the Earth's beginning, when Ubbo-Sathla, the unbegotten source, lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime. . . But of that which he beheld, Zon Mezzamalech left little record; and people say that he vanished presently, in a way that is not known; and after him the cloudy crystal was lost."

With a wizard and sorcery added to the equation, our narrator is in for unexpected twists to his adventures.

The more our young narrator peers into his newly purchased crystal, the more all of the normal boundaries of time and space expand and take on strange forms. “As if he looked upon an actual world, cities, forests, mountains, seas and meadows flowed beneath him, lightening and darkening as with the passage of days and nights in some weirdly accelerated stream of time.”

Is he in twentieth century London or some other past and future time? Or, as unfathomable as it might seem, two or even all three together? It is hard for poor Paul Tregardis to tell. In this and in many other Clark Ashton Smith tales, it is left to us as readers to fathom our own conclusions, as nebulous as they might be.

Paul feels something very strange, as if he is under the influence of hashish. The walls begin to wobble as if they are made of smoke; all the men and women in the streets begin to appear as so many ghosts and shades; the whole scene takes on the cast of a vast phantasm.

Is Paul dreaming or hallucinating? Could be. But many the time in a Clark Ashton Smith tale, a dream or vision quickly slides into an unending nightmare. Recall the author mined his own nightmares during protracted illnesses to fuel his fantasies and tales of horror.

In such a nightmare, what other evil or unforeseen event can happen? Answer: for Clark Ashton Smith, a character’s very identity can shift and change not only once but multiple times. “He seemed to live unnumbered lives, to die myriad deaths, forgetting each time the death and life that had gone before. He fought as a warrior in half-legendary battles; he was a child playing in the ruins of some olden city of Mhu Thulan; he was the king who had reigned when the city was in its prime, the prophet who had foretold its building and its doom. He became a barbarian of some troglodytic tribe, fleeing from the slow, turreted ice of a former glacial age into lands illumed by the ruddy flare of perpetual volcanoes. Then, after incomputable years, he was no longer man, but a man-like beast, roving in forests of giant fern and calamite, or building an uncouth nest in the boughs of mighty cycads."

Clark Ashton Smith, such an imagination, such psychedelic, phantasmagorical visions - not only can a man or woman, plant or beast change, the entire universe can compress itself into a grey, formless mass of slime with the name Ubbo-Sathla.

This tale begins with Pierre, young apprentice of the village apothecary, making one of his journeys to the secluded hut of Mère Antoinette, a big ugly witch, for the purpose of returning with a mysterious brew for his master’s secret concoction. After giving Pierre what he came for, the witch beckons the lad to stay. We read his response: “Pierre tossed his head with the disdain of a young Adonis. The witch was more than twice his age, and her charms were too uncouth and unsavory to tempt him for an instant. She was repellently fat and lumpish, and her skin possessed an unwholesome pallor.”

Let’s pause here and ask why do witches appear in so many Western fairy-tales? Robert Bly speaks of the tyranny of patriarchal monotheistic culture, where what is good and pure and divine is male and what comes from nature is negative, chaotic and destructive. And since women are so closely aligned with nature and fertility, their female nature is denied a place in the spiritual realm or godhead, however their energy and power does not go away; rather, it goes underground and later emerges as the witch.

Since village rumors abound regarding the witch’s wickedness and her many toad-servants doing her evil bidding, we can also ask why the master sends young Pierre alone and unprotected to the witch’s hut in the first place. We read: “The old apothecary, whose humor was rough and ribald, had sometimes rallied Pierre concerning Mère Antoinette's preference for him. Remembering certain admonitory gibes, more witty than decent, the boy flushed angrily as he turned to go.” Does the older man have the best interests of the young man at heart? Robert Bly alludes to how the older generation of men in being too naïve themselves have betrayed younger men, causing those younger men to be, in turn, too naïve and gullible.

So, after Pierre refuses her offer to stay, the witch proposes he drink a cup of her fine red wine. Pierre smells the odors of hot, delicious spices and tells the witch he will drink if the wine contains none of her concoctions. Of course, the witch assures him its sound, good wine that will warm his stomach. Did I mentioned naïve and gullible? Pierre drinks the wine. Big mistake. All of Pierre’s sense are radically transformed and distorted – the big, fat witch starts looking pretty good, after all. Do I hear echoes of how drinking can alter and dull our perceptions? Anyway, the deed is done – the witch gets to have a handsome, young lover for the night.

Pierre wakes up sober, sees what has happened and runs away. But the evil witch possesses strange powers. Thousands of her toad-servants block his path and force him to return to the hut. The witch again proposes Pierre stay with her and drink of the wine. At this point, here is the exchange:
"I will not drink your wine," he said firmly. "You are a foul witch, and I loathe you. Let me go."
"Why do you loathe me?" croaked Mère Antoinette. "I can give you all that other women give ... and more."
"You are not a woman," said Pierre. "You are a big toad. I saw you in your true shape this morning. I'd rather drown in the marsh-waters than stay with you again."

Sorry, Pierre, it doesn’t sound like you are using your wits – when confronting powerful evil, you don’t win any points by being honest. Even as children Hansel and Gretel knew what is needed in dealing with a wicked witch is not honesty but cleverness. How does this tale end? You will have to pick up this outstanding collection and read for yourself.

Here are a number of cover illustrations of tales from this Clark Ashton Smith collection:

Wilum Pugmire

I'm reading it very slowly, and it is freaking FABULOUS. I love the Introduction, which is of great length because the Penguin editors felt that this would be a book that is the first-time experience with CAS for many readers. I love the Notes at the back of the book, with passages from letters by CAS and H. P. Lovecraft. I have been influenced as an author by this fiction, but I haven't really concentrated on it as I do with Lovecraft's excellent stories. I am doing very slow and careful readings with this book, reading some pages two or three times just to drink in the feel and flow of language. A common complaint about Clark Ashton Smith is his use of rare and difficult words, but so far I have encountered very few that are so incomprehensible that they stop my flow of reading and leave me baffled.

S. T. was over last night and we did a YouTube vlog about the book. It was incredible, because during the recording S. T. read aloud Smith's poem in memory of H. P. Lovecraft, and Joshi got so moved by the poem that he began to softly weep! I felt the tears brimming in my eyes as well. But then -- woe o woe -- just as we were finishing the video, we LOST OUR INTERNET CONNECTION! Bah!! I could not figure out how to retrieve what we had recorded and the video was utterly lost! Oy oy oy! I was so upset I slept badly, kept waking up and cursing fate. S. T. will be over again this week-end, Saturday or Sunday (March 29th or 30th), not certain which, and we will try again to record a promotional video for the book on YouTube. He will again read ye poem--and this time I shall be certain to wear my strongest waterproof mascara!


“I, throneless, hear the discords of the dark,
And roar of ruin uncreate…”

4.5 stars. This collection of short stories, prose poems, and poetry was hauntingly majestic. I thoroughly enjoyed Clark Ashton Smith’s writing style and his elegant use of language (though I must admit that at times it was a bit too flowery for me). Smith’s imagination was incredible, and the works included in this collection are generally dark, eerie, sinister, and very fucking weird. In short: they are great fun! Some of my favorites include: The Devotee of Evil, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, Ubbo-Sathla, The Double Shadow, and The Treader of the Dust.

I’d recommend that you read this exclusively at night, so as to obtain the proper atmosphere for these ghastly tales. Then you too might observe that “the walls quiver like a thin veil in the black breath of remote abysses.”

Oh, and I’d like to add that Smith also provides the best current theory as to how life began on our planet (just kidding…or am I?!?): “There, in the grey beginning of Earth, the formless mass that was Ubbo-Sathla reposed amid the slime and the vapors. Headless, without organs or members, it sloughed from its oozy sides, in a slow, ceaseless wave, the amoebic forms that were the archetypes of earthly life. Horrible it was, if there had been aught to apprehend the horror…” Sounds about right.


"Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

- Clark Ashton Smith, The Hashish Eater; or the Apocalypse of Evil


Far too long neglected among American writers of the weird, Clark Ashton Smith has finally been granted a compilation of his best work by Penguin. The result is nothing short of revelatory.

As can be deducted from my 'started' and 'finished' dates I took considerable time devouring this volume. This was intentional. Admittedly, Smith's prose style does tend to veer to the flowery side. It's rather dense in terms of the -sometimes obscure and archaic- vocabulary and references. He makes you work for it. In Smith's case however, I find it fits the subject matter perfectly well (Actually, for me it works better than Lovecraft's prose style, whose literary indulgences didn't always quite mesh with every tale of his). It lends to Smith's tales - a strange mix of old fantasy and cosmic horror- even more of an otherworldly, trance-inducing aspect. In short, reading it straight through can get mighty laborious, so I recommend tackling it at a measured pace.

Primary attention has been given to the short stories, and with good reason. The City of the Singing Flame, The Vaults of Yo-Vombis, Genius Loci, The Dark Eidolon, The Weaver in the Vault, Xeethra, and the darkly comedic The Mother of Toads are simply sublime, pairing pure fantasy with pure terror to great effect. They're like nothing else in the field.

Thankfully, Smith's prose poems and poetry are also given a generous treatment (although poetry doesn't sell, Penguin momentarily ignored financial considerations and allowed Joshi to include it). Personally, I prefer the former over the latter. Of all literary forms he practised, the prose poem might be the one he actually mastered. His talents are best represented there, I feel.

S.T. Joshi's elucidating notes at the end are just the icing on the cake, making this particular edition indispensable to the library of the weird fiction aficionado.

E. G.

Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Texts

Short Stories

--The Tale of Satampra Zeiros
--The Last Incantation
--The Devotee of Evil
--The Uncharted Isle
--The Face by the River
--The City of the Singing Flame
--The Holiness of Azédarac
--The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis
--The Double Shadow
--The Maze of the Enchanter
--Genius Loci
--The Dark Eidolon
--The Weaver in the Vault
--The Treader of the Dust
--Mother of Toads

Prose Poems

--The Image of Bronze and the Image of Iron
--The Memnons of the Night
--The Demon, the Angel, and Beauty
--The Corpse and the Skeleton
--A Dream of Lethe
--From the Crypts of Memory
--The Litany of the Seven Kisses
--In Cocaigne
--The Flower-Devil
--The Shadows
--The Passing of Aphrodite
--To the Daemon
--The Abomination of Desolation
--The Mirror in the Hall of Ebony
--The Touch-Stone
--The Muse of Hyperborea


--The Last Night
--Ode to the Abyss
--A Dream of Beauty
--The Star-Treader
--Retrospect and Forecast
--To the Daemon Sublimity
--Averted Malefice
--The Eldritch Dark
--Shadow of Nightmare
--Satan Unrepentant
--The Ghoul
--Desire of Vastness
--The Medusa of Despair
--The Refuge of Beauty
--The Harlot of the World
--Memnon at Midnight
--Love Malevolent
--The Crucifixion of Eros
--The Tears of Lilith
--Requiescat in Pace
--The Motes
--The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil
--A Psalm to the Best Beloved
--The Witch with Eyes of Amber
--We Shall Meet
--On Re-reading Baudelaire
--To George Sterling: A Valediction
--Anterior Life
--Hymn to Beauty
--The Remorse of the Dead
--Song of the Necromancer
--To Howard Phillips Lovecraft
--Madrigal of Memory
--The Old Water-Wheel
--The Hill of Dionysus
--If Winter Remain

Explanatory Notes

Stewart Tame

Some lovely classic horror and fantasy tales here. Smith was one of several contemporaries inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and made a number of lasting contributions to the Cthulhu mythos. This anthology features an assortment of his fiction, as well as poetry and prose poems.

There's a poetic cadence and positively monstrous vocabulary to Smith’s prose. Some of his verbiage even warranted footnotes. There's a section at the back of the book with detailed information on when each story was written and published, as well as definitions for some of Smith’s more obscure terms.

The endings of some of these stories are so obvious that only a protagonist could miss them. But, as with so much of Lovecraft’s fiction, it's not the destination but the scenery along the way that's the real draw. We know that the three warriors in “The Weaver In the Vault”, for instance, are almost certainly not coming back from their mission. But it's finding out exactly what happens to them, the exact description of the titular Vault and the Weaver therein, that keep us reading.

These are fine stories indeed, most of them well-suited for reading aloud by candlelight.

One of them, “Phoenix”, particularly fascinated me as an extremely early example of science fiction. Almost all of the science in it, we now know, is inaccurate. Yes, the sun does not actually have a solid surface, and sunlight is not the result of some kind of massive form of atomic-powered volcanic activity. But it gives us a glimpse of how SF “works”. Basically, humanity wants to use atomic warheads to relight the sun. Sure, we now know that there are all kinds of things wrong with that idea. And actually, at least some of it may have been a bit sketchy even in the early 50's when the story was written. But there's a certain grandeur to the idea that's just endearing. It seems like something E.E. “Doc” Smith would have come up with. Yes, you can see the ending coming from over eight light minutes away, but it's still a fun tale.

As for the prose poems and poetry, well, I enjoyed a number of the former, but very few of the latter. I tend to be an uncouth barbarian where poetry is concerned, so believe me, the problem is almost certainly on my end and not on Smith’s. Some of the offerings were surprisingly … erotic. “The Litany of the Seven Kisses” is not something one casually declaims to random passers by. Nor is “A Psalm to the Best Beloved.” Use with caution.

Despite my tin ear for poetry, there is a wealth of good material in this book. Highly recommended!

Mattia Ravasi

Video review:
Featured in my Top 20 Books I Read in 2017

A true master of horror, fantasy, science fiction - all the good things of life. ST Joshi does an excellent job with this edition, which includes the genesis story of each tale included, all good stuff if you are interested in tracing the Smith-Lovecraft bromance, which I totally am.


I like CAS a lot, but this is perhaps too much of a good thing. Certainly by the time I reached the prose poems I was ready for a new author. I suspect this book will be most effective when dipped in and out of rather than read all at once.


Clark Ashton Smith was one of the great triumvirate of Weird Tales, the other two being his friends H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

It seems that of the three, Clark Ashton Smith is the least well known. I'm been hoping for a Clark Ashton Smith revival, and this recently published book by Penguin might ignite it.

The Introduction of this book is by S.T. Joshi, who made the editorial decision on the stories, poems, and "prose-poems" to reprint.

The stories I've read before. The stories selected, it appears, is a sample of the different types of fiction that Clark Ashton Smith wrote--science fiction, adventure-fantasy, and supernatural horror. Most of the stories take place in the distant past, or even the far future, and take place in imaginary realms such as Hyperborea. This approach differed from that of his friend H.P. Lovecraft, and perhaps differs from most writers of the weird tale since.

One the one hand, I would have liked to see more stories included, but I can understand that the editor might have had space constraints.

What is new to me: the poetry, the "prose poems", and that Clark Ashton Smith painted. The cover of this book is one of Clark Ashton Smith's paintings. Joshi says that there was even an exhibit of Smith's paintings. I would have liked to see more of Smith's painting reproduced.

The 1-2 page "prose poems" are not plot driven stories, but more like vignettes, mood pieces, parables. These prose poems have striking imagery--I still can recall them days after I've read these prose poems.

A good amount of the poems are rhyming verse. Some poems are about an individual, such as his mentor, the poet George Sterling. Many poems have fantastical subject matter. The poem "The Hashish-Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil" begins:

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizon infinite.

I bow down before the emperor of dreams, Clark Ashton Smith.