The Last Hieroglyph

By Clark Ashton Smith

177 ratings - 4.33* vote

The Last Hieroglyph is the fifth of the five volume Collected Fantasies series. 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 Last Hieroglyph includes, in chronological order, all of Clark Ashton Smith's stories from "The Dar The Last Hieroglyph is the fifth of the five volume Collected Fantasies series. Editors Scott Connors and

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Book details

Hardcover, 300 pages
January 1st 2009 by Night Shade Books
Original Title
The Last Hieroglyph
ISBN
1597800325 (ISBN13: 9781597800327)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Randolph

This last volume in the Collected Fantasies loses a point for the weakness in Smith's later tales, especially those after the early 1930's. It is clear that Smith just didn't have the spark anymore once he was not financially bound to getting stories published. A strange situation, opposite probably to what most authors feel about themselves when they crave the budgetary freedom to be able to write what they want. A couple of the stories are embarrassingly bad.

Even the earlier sections of this volume are mostly stories Smith wrote from old ideas he had sketched out and the sameness of the stories stands out at times. Still there are plenty of good stories about Zothique, Hyperborea, and Averoigne here, enough to satisfy even the casual Smith fan.

Nightshade Books did a great job with these 5 volumes. The story notes are in depth and interesting and the bibliographies are great. Unlike earlier Nightshade collections (Jorkens, Hodgson, Wellman), they jacketed these and that is a real plus.

Joseph

The final volume (well, mostly) of Night Shade's five-volume collection of Clark Ashton Smith's short fiction, in order of composition.

There's some great stuff in this volume -- the last stories of Hyperborea, Zothique, Poseidonis and Averoigne, in Smith's usual darkly sardonic and lapidary prose. Having said which, because this is the final volume, you do see Smith's fiction career kind of winding down -- after the mid-30s he wrote very few stories, although one of them, "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles", ranks amongst his best, I'd say.

As with previous volumes, I'd read a fair amount of the stories before, but there was a good selection of stuff that was new to me; and as with previous volumes, my personal preference remains for the weird fantasy stuff (the aforemenentioned Hyperborea, Poseidonis and Zothique stories) over the more contemporary horror stories, or the occasional more science fictional piece; but I'm glad to have them all collected in one place, and restored, to the extent possible, to Smith's original conceptions as documented in the extensive notes.

Brian

Well, that was a disappointment.

I'm not really sure that I can point to any single thing that made me dislike most of the stories in The Last Hieroglyph so much, though admittedly that's at least partially because it's a book of short stories of inconsistent quality. I think the most consistent complaint I had was that it was boring. I don't have much to say about many of the stories because they barely stuck out in my mind. The notes I took while reading are about half as long as they are for any of the other four Clark Ashton Smith collection books that I read, and most of those words are just the titles of the stories with nothing after them because I didn't think of anything to say.

That's not to say that the entire collection is worth skipping. The Coming of the White Worm started out in the first paragraph with:
Frorely burning the sun above Mhu Thulan from a welkin clear and wannish as ice.
I had to keep reading after seeing language like that, and I wasn't disappointed. It's true that it sometimes seems like Smith was digging heavily into a thesaurus in order to find the most obscure words that he can, but I actually like that if it's done properly. I mean, I read the original The Night Land and enjoyed it, and Smith doesn't have a candle on Hodgson at his most obtuse.

The actual plot is the classic Smith story of encountering something unearthly and having to fight it, though it still stuck out in my mind because of its sheer oddness. I admit, when I thought of the prophesied doom of Hyperborea, I imagined more just the slow changing of the Earth's climate over the eons, and the slowly-crawling glaciers moving southward and covering Ulduzaroum, and Commorium, and Olathoë, and all the other cities and jungles of Hyperborea. But apparently I was wrong, and it was actually due to an ultra-dimensional worm alien and its iceberg ship that went around blasting everything with freeze rays. Surprise!

Hmm, that reminds me. I've complained before that some Smith stories seem like M. Night Shyamalan plot twists where you can literally hear the "Dum dum DUM!" in the background, but that doesn't happen quite so often here. There's a different problem where a lot of the stories either don't have much happening or that what happens in incredibly predictable, and in that case, the focus changes from the destination to the journey. If I already know how the plot is going to end, then I tend to look for other points of interest, like the language or the characters. Well, there's not much character development in any of these stories, and the language fell flat for me a lot of the time. Farnsworth Wright, the much-hated (at least by Smith and Lovecraft) editor of Weird Tales, wrote in several of the rejection notices that they were more like prose poems than stories, and I can kind of see his point.

There were two other stories I liked, though. Necromancy in Naat actually has a plot twist that caught me by surprise, and while the language of the story didn't stand out much to me, I liked the mood. It has the same kind of quiet melancholy that The Last Incantation did, and since "quietly melancholic" is one of the best descriptors of my personality, I took to this story like a moth to a flame. And Strange Shadows involves how terrible it would be if we could really see into the hearts of other people and how awful knowledge actually is, which, well, see above about quiet melancholy. I'm of the opinion that telepathy and real understand is probably the worst possible thing you could curse someone with, and while "Strange Shadows" isn't about telepathy, it hits on similar themes.

So, there you go. Skip this collection unless you're bound and determined to finish books you start or have a podcast covering Smith's works that you listen to and want to have read all the stories before you listen to their corresponding episodes.

Previous Review: The Maze of the Enchanter.

Simcha York

The final book of Night Shade Books' The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series presents 29 stories written by Smith between 1933 and his death in 1961. While there are the occasional desultory tales in this collection as in the previous books in this series, this is unquestionably the strongest volume of the series and shows CAS in his finest form.

Most of the works in this volume fall into the categories of weird or dark fantasy and horror, genres with which Smith was always more comfortable than science fiction. This volume is also notable for some fine works which display an unusual amount of overt humor, including the satirical "The Great God Awto" and the wryly sardonic "Schizoid Creator" and "Symposium of the Gorgon." It also includes the fascinating tale "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" in which CAS spins out a yarn reminiscent, but not derivative, of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales.

I would recommend fans of CAS to read every book in the Collected Fantasies series. However, The Last Hieroglyph is a good place to start for those checking CAS out for the first time as it displays a good range of his themes and style and includes a number of works in which he is working at his best.

Lorne

Top 10 Clark Ashton Smith short story titles (all time):The Coming of the White WormSymposium of the GorgonThe God of the AsteroidThe Isle of the TorturersNemesis of the UnfinishedThe Planet of the DeadSchizoid CreatorThe Seed from the SepulchreThe Supernumerary CorpseThe Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan

Chrysostomos Tsaprailis

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.

Bad:
-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.

Mediocre:
-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.

Good:
-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.

Great:
-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.

J.W. Wright

This is the last volume in the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, and I went into it expecting the stories to be more awesome and stronger than ever before, because I’ve seen such good reviews on this volume, but sadly this was not the case. Not to say that there aren’t some good tales in here, there are, but they are so overshadowed by what, in my honest opinion, are some rather silly and lackluster tales. I have to say that Smith’s famous story “The Seven Geases” is what saved this volume. It’s definitely the weakest one of the bunch. The stories I enjoyed are as follows:

-“The Dark Age:” A tale of post-apocalyptic Earth where mankind has descended into barbarism and the secrets of ancient and arcane sciences that existed before the final war is kept by mysterious elite guardians in their shadowy citadel. One young barbarian warrior descended from one of these Guardians plans to unravel the mysteries.

-“The Death of Malygris:” A Poseidonis tale in which a king and his shadowy order of sorcerers seeks to find out if the most nefarious necromancer of the antediluvian world, Malygris, is actually dead as rumors say he is. The truth may be too soul-blasting to handle.

-“The Tomb Spawn:” Another story set in the world of Zothique where two adventurous brothers search the wastelands for the ruined palace of a wicked king in order to find riches. What they find instead is unutterable horror haunting its ancient halls.

-“The Witchcraft of Ulua:” Another episode in the Zothique Cycle where the great nephew of a wise old mage journeys to a city of the foulest wickedness.

-“The Coming of the White Worm:” A tale in the Hyperborean Cycle where a warlock witnesses the coming of a darksome entity from the unimaginable cold gulfs that seethe between the worlds.

-“The Seven Geases:” Smith’s legendary dark tale set in the Hyperborean Cycle in which a legendary warrior must go on accursed quest and encounter darksome fiends and gods of the antediluvian netherworld.

-“The Chain of Aforgomon:” A poet delves too deeply into the lost epochs of his past lives, and learns a maddeningly unbearable secret.

-“The Primal City:” A lost, ancient city beckons to a group of adventurers, but are they prepared for what they will uncover?

-“Xeethra:” A humble shepherd boy living in the mountainous regions of the world of Zothique seeks adventure, but uncovers dark secrets that demand his very soul.

-“Necromancy in Naat:” The prince of a desert tribe in Zothique seeks reunion with a captured love of his, but learns the terrible truth when he happens upon the dread Isle of the Necromancers.

-“The Treader of the Dust:” There are some occult secrets in this world the uncovering of which lead only to decay and oblivion by primal entities who float in the sinister voids of darkness.

“-The Black Abbot of Puthuum:” Horror awaits in uncharted lands for two warriors protecting a eunuch and a royal maiden, for Zothique holds many dark secrets.

-“The Garden of Adompha:” Tyrants ruling in the far East of Zothique learn sooner or later that a harsh, brutal and macabre justice will inevitably descend upon them.

-“The Enchantress of Sylaire:” The last tale of Averoigne, where a heartbroken lad-turned-hermit is travels through an interdimensional portal to a world of lamias, vampires, and werewolves that is just as nefarious as Averoigne.

-“The Master of the Crabs:” A power-hungry wizard of Zothique seeks a map that leads to forbidden and darksome occult treasure, that lies in the hands of a wizard every bit as wicked and black-hearted as himself.

-“Schizoid Creator:” An eccentric scientist seeks to cure God’s “dark side.”

-“Monsters in the Night:” A werewolf living in the distant future happens upon a more ferocious monster than himself.

-“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles:” The last tale in the Hyperborean Cycle in which the legendary thief Satampra Zeiros returns to raid an opulent temple of its riches, with the help of an eccentric wizard and a female thief.

Not as satisfying an end to the tales of Clark Ashton Smith as I was expecting. I give “The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith a 3 out of 5.

Colin

The final volume of the collected fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith did not disappoint, with more of the amazing weird fiction from that master of the genre. Once again, worth noting that while CAS did not appear on the "Appendix N" list of Gary Gygax, he probably deserved to do so - his work clearly influential to early D&D and RPGs, and was a major inspiration for the "Castle Amber" module that kicked off the Known World (later "Mystara") setting for D&D. I listened to this on Audible audiobook, and it was great - recently acquired the complete series in paperback and looking forward to re-"reading" them all!

Jeremy

Any serious fan of weird fantasy and H. P. Lovecraft owes it to themselves to read the five-book Conners & Hilger collection of Clark Ashton Smith stories. But then, you probably already knew that. As for this volume, there are a few shining gems and most of the rest are at least enjoyable. This one fizzled out with the last few stories but was overall a good read.

I didn't read through any of the extensive notes and appendices so I can't comment on them but when I give this an inevitable second read in a few years I likely will.

Dave H

The final volume of the Clark Ashton Smith's weird stories is as one would expect the weakest.

This covers the final creative spark in the 1930s, the Averoigne stories are always enjoyable, sat alongside some slightly jarring, and supposedly humorous, tales like 'The Seven Geases'.

Pretty much everything post-war is near unreadable gibberish. Smith clearly had no further artistic or financial interest in the genre and it tells.

That does not take away from the fact there is plenty to enjoy here and in the other four excellent volumes.

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