Trekking through the entirety of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose writings has been a long and rewarding experience. The fifth and final part of the journey, The Last Hieroglyph, is mainly characterised by a good level of quality and a (not unrelated to the previous point) shortage of heavy sci-fi material. It also includes a number of stories written after CAS’s main period of activity (namely after the ’30s). These do stand out, in terms not of quality but of writing style: they are more modern (though still quite eloquent, especially vocabulary-wise) and taboo subjects as sex are not being self-censored as much as in his golden pulp era.
-The Dart of Rasasfa: A couple from Earth is stranded in a hostile planet and captured by serpent people who want to sacrifice them.
CAS’s last story is arguably a mess, almost a parody of his writing. Pulpy sci-fi in genre, the plot is weak, and the pacing pretty tiring. To his defense, this was written while weakened and ill.
-The Witchcraft of Ulua: A wizard apprentice visits the king’s court, where he is under constant siege by the princess (also a witch) who tries to seduce him. Due to an amulet given to him by the wizard, as well as his own merit, he is proven immune to the seduction. When he returns to the wizard, the old man performs a ritual that brings doom upon the palace.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Highly puritan in spirit and character, this is a classic example of how embedded the Christian/Neoplatonic fear and hatred of the flesh is, even in writers who would definitely not be characterized as religious. Other than that, the writing is a typical example of CAS’s mastery.
-The Chain of Aforgomon: A man is found dead. His journal reveals how he tapped memories of a vastly ancient previous incarnation of his, discovering a terrible hubris this incarnation had performed against the god of time.
This is a mediocre foray into the reincarnation theme, where previous life deeds haunt the «descendants.» Nice idea but not terribly great executed, just leaves a blunt aftertaste.
-Xeethra: A shepherd boy enters a cave, only to be possessed by the spirit of a long dead prince, whose consciousness quickly overwhelms that of his host. The deceased starts looking for his city of old.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This slides into the reincarnation-themed stories of CAS. Something of a fairy-tale, with the echo of ominous fae elves in the distance, a hue of melancholy and nostalgia, as well as the ever-present demonic pact. Solid, though not spectacular.
-The Death of Ilalotha: One of the queen’s consorts, enchanted in life and in death by the lady-in-waiting Ilalotha, visits her tomb in the deep of the night, and the jealous queen follows suit.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Many a time had the stories of CAS been rejected by magazines with the excuse that they are prose poems rather than proper stories, something almost never justified. In this particular case the story does resemble non-prose art transmuted into prose, though I would say it is sculpture, not poetry that provides the raw material. A sword & sorcery foray into Poe.
-The Great God Awto: A lecture from the far future of Earth, concerning the ancient Hamurriquanes people and their sacrificial religious frenzy.
This was unexpected. Akin to the Nacirema case of Horace Mitchell Miner, it is permeated with CAS’s mistrust of technology and modernity. A curio.
-Strange Shadows: A man starts seeing people casting strange shadows in lieu of their normal ones. Set in the contemporary era.
Another atypical specimen of a story, this one is quite sexually suggestive, and exudes a Twilight Zone vibe.
-The Enchantress of Sylaire: Having become a recluse due to unrequited love, the protagonist encounters an enchantress and follows her to her world. There he meets with her previous lover and is forced to choose between his former and new love.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. A play on the seduced-by-the-otherworldly theme, with a bit of lycanthropy thrown in. Reminiscent of Circe and fae abductions. The rather unexpected ending fails to elevate it beyond mediocrity.
-Double Cosmos: A disappeared chemist has left behind a manuscript in which he describes the perception-expanding experiments that revealed to him the existence of a parallel world, in which exist doubles of everything in our world, including him.
Interesting musings concerning cause and effect, as well as the interaction of instances of the same being. Solid.
–Nemesis of the Unfinished: A semi-autobiographical story in which the protagonist finds certain unfinished tales of his being completed while asleep, and watches as the piles of incomplete material keep expanding.
A rather predictable story of no large shock value or atmosphere, not very memorable.
-Morthylla: A brooding melancholic poet seeks out a lamia in the wilderness. He finds a woman that seems to fit his criteria.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Tragic poet and undead with a twist. The story simply doesn’t stand out, as its plot seems banal.
-Monsters in the Night: A werewolf lies in waiting for his next victim which turns out to be a bit more than he can stomach.
Very small story with a twist in the end, nothing spectacular or even memorable.
-Phoenix: In the far future humanity has sought refuge underground, after the sun has dimmed. Now, the protagonist embarks on a desperate space mission to re-ignite the sun via a number of atomic bombs.
An okay dramatic sci-fi story that seems to bit the (uncredited) inspiration for 2007 Sunshine film.
-Symposium of the Gorgon: A man finds himself in a feast hosted by the mythological Gorgon; her myth is swiftly reenacted and then the protagonist, after a brush with petrification, finds himself in a tropical island, where he is a novelty for the cannibal indigenous people.
A pocket of mythology in the contemporary world, sadly with almost no integration. The story feels like a dreamy Dunsanian excerpt, with a strong undercurrent of hatred of the modern world, but also many stereotypes. Could have been better.
-The Dark Age: After the collapse of contemporary civilisation, the vast majority of humanity has returned to an uncivilized life, with only a handful remaining as secretive keepers of now-lost knowledge. One of them abandons the citadel and joins the «wild» people, has a son and is lost. His son grows up and tries to avert an attack upon the citadel.
Though they idealized the noble savant, CAS, Howard and the others of the pulp age had an almost obsessive adherence to civilization, considering it as the last threshold against Chaos. Here, in the story’s last paragraph, is one of the rare moments that CAS stands back and wanders – totally worth it. Other than that the story is pretty well-executed in plot and pacing, though not stepping over the greatness threshold.
-The Tomb Spawn: A pair of jewelers stumble upon the desert ruins of a forgotten city and discover the grotesque tomb of a magician-king and his extraterrestrial servant.
Part of the of the Zothique circle. Of oriental hue, sort of dungeon crawl. Highly memorable grotesquery and tight-packed action. A solid piece of delving adventure writing.
-The Seven Geases: An arrogant military general is lost in the mountains, interrupting a wizard’s ritual. The sorcerer curses him with a geas that takes him in a tour of seven underground realms, each with a ruler more alien than the previous.
Part of the Hyperborean Cycle. This is an excellent basis for an underground RPG campaign setting, describing what could be a megadungeon with seven large sections. Tsathoggua, serpent people, and other beings pass from our sight as the detestable protagonist is forced to descend into the bowels of the earth. Richly decorated with a very sudden ending.
-The Primal City: The protagonists climb unexplored mountains in search for an ancient city. They discover the existence of tremendous nebulous guardians the hard way.
The idea of this short story is amazing, as is its execution. Giants guard an ancient city – menacing clouds that hunt all trespassers. It has something of the cosmic natural majesty of Algernon Blackwood, a truly breathtaking spectacle.
-Necromancy in Naat: A nomad prince goes half across the world searching for his abducted fiancé. He ends up in the island of Naat where necromancers rule. There he falls under their thrall and is intertwined in their byzantine schemes.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Pulp/folk-tale adventure with a strong emphasis on the wonders of necromancy. Reminiscent of the Isle of the Torturers from the previous volume. This is a good story with wonderful imagery. It falls short of Greatness due to its never going beyond the mundane – even with a host of magic, it all seems to human.
-The Treader of the Dust: A contemporary occultist returns home to find it unnaturally full of dust. His servant is missing and his latest grimoire has been disturbed.
Short horror piece with a brooding archaic atmosphere. Nothing spectacular but nice to roll upon. The ending with the star is a nice touch. Extra solid.
-Mother of Toads: An apothecary’s apprentice visits a witch to get some ingredients. This crone, the Mother of Toads, seduces him with an aphrodisiac potion. When he tries to escape, he finds that a legion of toads hamper his flight from the swamp.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. This unusually somatic and erotic tale (written initially for a different type of magazine than the pulp usual suspects) has a strong fairy-tale vibe with a carnal hue. Thus it resembles more than anything one of the imaginal forms of the pre-modern fairy-tale. Very vivid description of both swamp and amphibian element, a quick foray into mythic mires of witchcraft.
-The Garden of Adompha: A bored king and his wizard have a garden wherein they graft human body parts on plants. The king decides to use the wizard’s body so as to pump up the garden’s magic.
Part of the Zothique cycle. A very vivid foray into the blending of forms and beings, quite extreme for CAS yet utterly enjoyable.
-The Master of the Crabs: Following a treasure map wielded by an enemy, a wizard and his apprentice end up in an uninhabited island, amidst some very single-minded crabs.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This is also highly grotesque, painted with colorful, adventurous strokes, and expands the Zothique universe. Not stellar but formidable.
-The Theft of the 39 Girdles: Satampra Zeiros and Vixeela, his one true love, plan and execute a temple heist involving 39 holy girdles made of precious metals and gems. In order to succeed they enlist the help of an alchemist acquaintance.
Part of the Hyperborean cycle. This would be up there at the Great list, if not for the very anti-climatic and sudden ending which left me thinking that this was an unfinished work. The re-introduction of the legendary Satampra Zeiros, the planning and execution of the temple raid, the description of the alchemies the rogues use to obtain the treasure, all of that is sword & sorcery at its best, akin to Conan and Lankhmar. But the end feels like a letdown, a true shame.
-The Death of Malygris: A royal magician discovers that his arch-nemesis, the tyrant of the land, Malygris, may well be truly dead. Magicians start visiting Malygris’ abode in order to ascertain the truth of the claim.
Part of the Poseidonis cycle. Oh blessed serpents of the deep, slithering through veils of narcotic haze, among chryselephantine artifacts. This story is a painting come to life. Imagine the halls of Thulsa Doom from Conan, but sombre and with the occult element tuned up to eleven. Amazing imagery, amazing language, CAS at his best.
-The Last Hieroglyph: An astrologer discovers a hieroglyph in a zodiac map, which seems to approach him, night by night. When the hieroglyph appears before him, he embarks along with his two companions on a journey through mythic regions.
Part of the Zothique cycle. The core idea (a sign that is both signifier and signified, carrying in either of its aspects the full weight of the other) is weird enough to stand out on its own. The way CAS materializes it is beautiful.
-The Coming of the White Worm: Unnatural snow creeps in a village, leaving only a wizard alive; he finds himself upon the iceberg that was heralded by the frost. There he is forced, along with other magicians, to worship a Worm-like thing with tremendous power, watching helplessly the world falling under the banner of eternal cold.
Part of the Hyperborean cycle. The beginning of this story shines like a frozen star, as an enchanting sense of winterness is evoked. Literary cold-white descriptions. The quality remains excellent throughout and the description of the worm itself is brilliant.
-The Black Abbot of Puthuum: A couple of mercenaries, along with a eunuch and a girl end up in a strange monastery in the wilderness, whose 12 monks and abbot exude malice.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This is very good. A time-forgotten monastery full of unnatural monks and dark corridors is a great setting, and the sword-sorcery pulpness is tangible. What hits the nail of greatness, however, is the final scene, where the protagonists use the abbot’s black fingernails to draw lots.
-Schizoid Creator: A psychiatrist believes that God and Satan are the two faces of a schizophrenic being. Thus, he sets out to cure God’s schizophrenia, by electrocution.
Very nice idea, excellent execution, and an underlying sarcasm atypical of CAS.