I wrote in my review of The Door to Saturn
that my biggest problem with Smith
's stories was the endings, and that's still true after reading A Vintage from Atlantis
. In the appendices to the book, there's even a letter from Smith to August Derleth
that reads in part:
Funny--I seem to have more trouble with the endings of stories than anything else. God knows how many I have had to re-write.
Perhaps he should have spent more time rewriting them, though I'm getting ahead of myself. I did rate this four stars, after all, so it's not quite as terrible as me beginning with a complaint about it sounds.
Before I begin, one quirk I noticed in several of the stories that I didn't notice before is the repetition of the language that runs throughout many of the stories. I already commented on Smith's tendency to use Latinate words instead of Anglo-Saxon ones to add an antique air to his stories, but in this book there's a lot of the kind of poetic redoubling that's common in Biblical poetry--lines like "his mighty laughter, his stormy bellowing."
First off, the titular A Vintage from Atlantis
. I'm honestly not sure why this was given top billing like that, because I found it to be pretty pedestrian. Sure, the image of a bunch of wild and crazy pirates all staring morosely off into the distance and then marching into the sea is a good one, but there's no conflict and the horror of the protagonist didn't come through to me even though "a terror came on me" is written right into the story. It's another one of the "dum dum DUM!" stories that doesn't have much else to recommend it in my mind. There is some good imagery when the crew first drinks the wine, but that's about it.
On the other hand, the book also contains The Empire of the Necromancers
, which has a great title, is fantastically evocative, and is the first appearance of the Last Continent, Zothique
. I'll admit that not all that much really happens
in the story--the plot is basically "some necromancers show up, raise up a nation to serve them, and then get what's coming to them--but the language used is incredible:
Dead laborers made their palace-gardens to bloom with long-perished flowers; liches and skeletons toiled for them in the mines, or reared superb, fantastic towers to the dying sun. Chamberlains and princes of old time were their cupbearers, and stringed instruments were plucked for their delight by the slim hands of empresses with golden hair that had come forth untarnished from the night of the tomb. Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.
No wonder no one likes necromancers. Especially the corpses they've raised up from their slumber and compelled into unholy servitude, who then rebel against their sorcerous bondage with damnable consequences.The Eternal World
doesn't have the same kind of language as the previously mentioned stories, but I do give it props for featuring the danger of eldritch knowledge front and center. The main character is only an observer for most of the story, but he sees the actions of a small group in a single city end up dooming an entire planet to destruction. That idea--that existence is incredibly fragile, and could be snuffed out at any moment through the actions of people who barely know what they're doing--is both incredibly Lovecraftian and the life experience of basically anyone who was born during the Cold War, so it's perhaps no surprise that I like it so much. That mood was enough to make me like "The Eternal World" even though the protagonist spends the entire story doing nothing.
Next to "Empire of the Necromancers," The Maker of Gargoyles
is one of the strongest stories in the collection. It's got the evocative imagery that Smith brings at his best while also having a deeper theme that's more than just, "Here's this horrible thing that happened" or "look at all these weird places." At first, Reynard looks like your stereotypical Internet Nice Guy, who's super annoyed that hanging around the fringes of the social circle and staring creepily at the girl he's in lust with doesn't result in her declaring her undying love for him, but on the other hand there are some hints that he has other reasons to be so angry:
Whether rightly or unjustly, his very physiognomy had always marked him out for public disfavor: he was inordinately dark, with hair and beard of a preternatural bluish-black, and slanting, ill-matched eyes that gave him a sinister and cunning air.
So, the people of Vyones hated him for no reason because of how he looked, which is enough to make the gentlest soul angry. No wonder those gargoyles murder their way through the populace. Based on Reynard's actions at the end, he almost comes off as sympathetic, even though he seems like a repugnant troll earlier on. This one is a good savory addition to the sweetness of the stories based primarily on mood, though it also has mood in spades.
I could go on. I haven't even talked about The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis
or The Colossus of Ylourgne
, both of which are well worth reading, or the almost cute ending of The Holiness of Azédarac
, or the sublime creepiness of The Double Shadow
. Oh, and there are some other stories in here too, if you like that sort of thing.
I gave this one four stars, but it's more like 4.5. A Vintage from Atlantis
is definitely the best of Smith's story collections I've read so far, and the few stories that fell flat weren't enough to drag the book down overall. If you read one of these books, read this one.
And maybe for my next review I'll break out a thesaurus and stop writing "evocative" and "imagery" so much.
Previous Review: The Door to Saturn
Next Review: The Maze of the Enchanter