Zothique

By Clark Ashton Smith

881 ratings - 4.25* vote

Tales of Zothique is a collection of fantasy short stories by Clark Ashton Smith, and edited by Lin Carter. It was first published in paperback by Ballantine Books as the sixteenth volume of its celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in June 1970. It was the first themed collection of Smith's works assembled by Carter for the series. The stories were originally publish Tales of Zothique is a collection of fantasy short stories by Clark Ashton Smith, and edited by Lin Carter. It was

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Book details

Mass Market Paperback, 273 pages
June 1970 by Ballantine Books

(first published 1970)

ISBN
0345219384 (ISBN13: 9780345219381)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

J.G. Keely

I've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do this isn't to malign the East, or to produce propaganda--these are just the secondary results--indeed, it isn't really about the East at all, it's about the author and their own personal self-invention.

It is the dark and coursing undercurrent of European perversity, sensuality, and violence which inspires these writers. It is an obsession with transgression, with things that cannot be openly and plainly discussed. The technique here is to express and explore these forbidden topics, but then to blame them on the image of the East in order to create the necessary safe distance, providing the author a buffer, a layer of deniability.

There are whole structures in our language built to produce just this kind of distancing. We talk about 'French' kissing, or 'Greek' love--we named buggery for the Bulgars, and mutual female desire for the residents of Lesbos. Even as we discuss, request, and engage in these acts, we blame them on someone else. Even as we perform them, we typify them not as our own behaviors, but the behaviors of others.

It's not as if our desires to do these things are going to go away, so instead, we personify and externalize those desires. A man sees an attractive woman on the street, he desires her, and he thinks of her as the source of that desire--but while it might be true that she inspired the desire in him, it is still he who is desiring, the desire comes from within him. Her role is passive, because she can inspire such desire without even being aware of it.

And yet, there are men who will blame her for that desire, who will project their own desires onto her: 'she wants it, if she didn't, she wouldn't dress that way, it's flattering, girls like being appreciated'. It is just an attempt to justify this desire, to justify feeling it, or even acting on it.

The same pattern of justification is evident in colonialism: that the colonized power must want to be colonized, must need it. Again and again, the argument was made that they wanted to be ruled, that they couldn't make it on their own, that they were immature, brutal, uncivilized, and that to be ruled was a gift. Domination stems from a desire for power and control, for profit, to take advantage of others, everything else is merely excuses, projections onto the passive party to blame them for being acted upon.

As such, the notion of the East became a natural site for displaced desires. Pulp stories are sites of sex and violence, which has long been their bane, as it makes them a target for censorship and blame. As such, it makes sense that pulp authors would use projection and justifications of this kind to ‘take the heat off’, to present sex and violence with a naturally built in buffer, a socially accepted rationale: we’re presenting it not simply to revel in it, but to present cultural dynamics that we all know are true.

But this means that, beyond simply condemning such presentations of the East as racist and convenient, we can look at them as they actually are: messy representations of the Western id run rampant, presented under a thin veil of obfuscation. After the colonial adventure tales of Kipling and Haggard slipped out of popular venues and were related to study in classrooms, the vision of the 'Mystical East' on which they relied found a new home in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and there may be no more pure and evocative representation of it than here in Smith's Zothique.

The prose is precise, unusual, powerful--the voice of a poet. It is neither the plodding dulness of Lovecraft nor the sometimes grasping repetition of Howard. This is the true and unique world of Sword & Sorcery fantasy which some other authors labor to inhabit, rich and perverse and full of deathly passions. Lovecraft cannot match it, nor Burroughs, nor even Howard, its most notable practitioner. The lineage of influence stretching from Smith to later fantasists is obvious, for instance the sense of humor that pervades these tales, which Vance reproduced in a tone much more dry, and Leiber in one very much less.

Even they were not quite able to capture the pervasive world Smith presents. It may be painted in crude images of ebony-skinned, thick-lipped, obese enchanters, but if it’s crude, that’s only what it’s meant to be. A complex, nuanced view of the imagined East would deny its presentation as a photonegative of the West (or at least, of how the West likes to imagine itself). The oversexed, overly violent projection of the id can hardly be presented in subtle terms.

The fairy tale must be drawn in broad strokes, lacking the subtlety that allows for various interpretations. It denies the reader access to the inner workings of the piece, denies them the privilege of interpretation. Instead, it is done as propaganda, simplified enough that the sides are clear.

This is why the post-modern habit has been rewriting and reimagining these fairy tales, looking at them through the eyes of the ‘villain’, looking at the absurdity of the symbols on which the allegory relies, symbols which inevitably fly apart when analyzed closely. The story deconstructs the tale by going through all the same steps, but refusing to make the same assumptions.

As such, is it possible to recreate the invented East in a modern tale, or is that the equivalent of taking the allegory it represents for granted? Does injecting any kind of subtlety, realism, and other such space for interpretation make the wild, strange, exotic setting impossible? I'd be curious to see a skilled author try it.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, as evocative as his uncanny realm is, it tends to dwarf his characters, making it difficult to get into their heads, or to care much about them. This was one area where Howard outperformed him, producing figures of suitably 'gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth' to fit their grand stage--and Leiber took the same formula even further.

To some degree, this is a deliberate aspect of Smith's style: he is not interested in whether his characters thrive or survive, indeed their wry downfalls are often part of the charm. Yet, these are not quite the tonal explorations of Dunsany, where characters are entirely secondary to description, rhythm, and feel. We do spend time with Smith's characters, with their thoughts and feelings, their desires and motivations, and yet, for all this, they rarely manage to stand out.

And while this collection has some very strong stories, the presentation sometimes suffers. The final story has a strong premise, interesting themes, but Smith presents them simply, in straightforward narration, making it feel more like an outline or summary at times than a story. Though he has a strong poetic voice and interesting language, in comparison to an author like Dunsany, he lacks a light touch, the subtlety that weaves magic throughout. A story’s theme should become clear to us based on the events described, the characters, the details, the use of words--not just explained to us in so many words.

Though he is certainly a writer with flaws, the sheer idiom of his style draws us in: the strength of his voice, and the unusual, playful way that he treats his tales. In the few stories where either the characters manage to sparkle, or Smith simply allows them to subsist in the background as the true protagonist, his setting, takes its rightful place, this series contains some true gems, visions which have inspired not merely other authors, but the very innovators of fantasy, writers who have changed its course, and who have created unique worlds in their own right. Smith is a stylist and a grandfather to stylists, demonstrating that often times, the only way to write is to take things too far, to indulge, to get lost at play, to produce a repast so rich and overwhelming that we cannot savor it--but neither will we forget it.

Bryan Alexander

A collection of Smith's Zothique stories.

If you haven't read Clark Ashton Smith, very quickly: know that Smith was one of the great fantasists of the early 20th-century American pulp era, contemporary with his friends H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Like them Smith wrote weird tales, stories of mystery and horror, often in outlandish locales. Like Howard, some of his stories involve medieval-ish kings, swordsmen, magicians, etc. Like Lovecraft, Smith is fond of extreme vocabulary and arcane texts. Unlike them, Smith preferred a dark sense of humor, where stories end by harsh irony. Narratives end not with shrieking madness (HPL) nor heroic tragedy (Howard), but with twisted, mordant melancholy.

If you have read Smith, Zothique is a dying Earth world, of the sort subsequently developed by Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and the Nausicaa anime. It's late in our planet's history, and the world looks different: continents have reassembled into a new form of Gaia, magic sometimes works, and ruins are widespread.

Most of Zothique's stories involve exploration, voluntary or otherwise, which gives Smith the chance to show off his fabulous language and fertile imagination. Protagonists run into demons, cultists, necromancers, and tricksters. But plots don't drive these tales so much as the lush, fervid atmosphere.

On Zothique, the last continent on Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned to man: the gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes. And the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primordial sorceries.


Relish these stories, or dive through the lot and check the skies for a low, red sun.

Elena

It feels wrong that Clark Ashton Smith's works are included in the Cthulhu Mythos just because he was friends with H.P. Lovecraft and was also published in the Weird Tales magazine. As much as I love H.P.L.'s stories after reading 'Zothique' by C.A.Smith it's easy to see that their works have nothing in common (EDIT: ok, ok, they set a similar atmosphere)

But let's talk about the book itself, I simply loved it but since I'm in love with this kind of literature my opinion is probably not very partial. However, I can assure you in an objective way how simple and clearly it's written making it an easy read. In 'Zothique' we don't see any heroic kings, quite the opposite, every king in 'Zothique' is depraved and so are the nobles and dignataries. This adds a lot to the distopic setting that is the Last Continent but the darker side of 'Zothique' and its evident difference with the fantasy we are used to is the abundance of demons, necromancers, ghouls and other fiends that inhabit it; they are not just there to be the 'Enemy' or the Bad Guys, Zothique is their home and therefore, they are the important characters, the 'heroes' or the 'Good Guys' will usually be hopeless, I don't know if fantasy can get any darker than that. I always missed more involvement and individuality of the evil entities in any fantasy story, certainly 'Zothique' is refreshing in that sense. Another refreshing thing about Zothique is the setting; it should also be noted that it differs from the usual fantasy setting because it's not based in Medieval Europe but in Arabian and Indian cultures in the same time period, there are also hints about ancient Egypt. This also brings a small problem to some people: racism and misogyny. I'd say in C.A.Smith's defense that in the time and place where he grew up both women and people with other skin color were probably disregarded, even supposing this were true we should take into account the setting he was trying to create and the cultures he took inspiration from. We're talking about a depraved and evil world, of course there's going to be serious discrimination issues!


P.D.: take into account that I'm a woman and I could've feel offended but I haven't ;)

Alex

Such beautiful decadence. I've enjoyed a lot of Clark Ashton Smith, but this is the collection that has moved me to place him as the best of the Weird Tales Trinity (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith). I wonder if part of why he is the least appreciated of the three is fallout from things like the content censorship like the comics code in the 50's. There's a lot of squidgy bits and a not-infrequent reference to necrophilia.

Every word is carefully placed in these stories that rest between pulp horror and prose poetry. The moon, the shadows, and the colors all have their place in building the appropriate mood. I loved something in every story. I plan to revisit this collection several more times in order to unpack even more weirdness and dig into the themes more.

THE GARDEN OF ADOMPHA may very well be my favorite, with the wretched weirdness cranked all the way up.

THE CHARNEL GOD is the only story in this collection that seems to have good guys, with the proto-archetype of the beleaguered slasher-film nice couple to whom bad things happen. It's a pleasant surprise that the nice people survive, although not unchanged.

THE BLACK ABBOT OF PUTHUUM is a bit of a conundrum. It's almost as if he wanted to deliberately murk the water as to themes about rage and gender. I think it's a bit of a middle finger with the subtitle of "Analyze This!"

THE DEATH OF ILALOTHA has some of the most challenging bits about necrophilia in the collection, and I can only imagine how extra provocative this was in the 1930's.

THE VOYAGE OF KING EUVORAN is a delightful take on The Odyssey or Sinbad but with terrible people to whom terrible things happen.

THE LAST HIEROGLYPH leads me to believe this is a bit of poison pen against astrologers who wronged Smith or his family.

NECROMANCY IN NAAT is a surprisingly tender zombie love story.

Joseph

Zothique is probably my favorite of the settings Clark Ashton Smith used for his stories. The setting: The distant future; all of Earth's continents have merged together into a single supercontinent under an ember-like dying sun. The surviving human kingdoms are decadent and perverse; the deserts are dotted with genii- and lamiae-haunted ruins. Without Zothique, there would be no The Dying Earth and no The Shadow of the Torturer.

Smith's prose is, as always, elegant and bejeweled.

Favorite stories in this collection include "The Dark Eidolon" and "The Garden of Adompha".

Dan

I got almost halfway through this short story collection and decided I didn't want to continue. There's great atmosphere in most of these passages, definitely some fine writing. But there isn't much in the way of plots, characters, dialog, or conflict. I have the feeling I'm studying Old Testament biblical passages, the histories section, not reading stories, certainly not exciting ones. Reading the second half of the story collection will not provide any real benefit to me. I don't think the stories are going to get better. So I am terminating to devote my reading time elsewhere.

DC

This is the first book I've read that deals muchly with necromancy and dark fantasy. I can only say that I was quite hooked when I read the first story. A gloriously dark and entertainingly frightful read.

Fraser Sherman

Clark Ashton Smith was, in hindsight, one of the big names to come out of the 1930s Weird Tales (at the time neither he, Robert E. Howard or Lovecraft were as big as they've been since). These stories of the far future dying Earth where necromancers rule, everything is corrupt and decadent and dark magics intrude on human life are very stylish (Smith's prose is ornate and elegant) and rather on the dark side (a happy ending is where the villains die too). Well worth reading.

Ben

This is for you if you like 1930's era Weird Tales stories, like maybe you're reading Conan stories and thinking, "Needs more necromancy. A lot more." The vocabulary is impressive, but the plots are not complex and are unlikely to surprise you. Smith is famous for his imagination, though, and if you like an old fashioned dungeon crawl this will probably scratch that itch since this style of fiction was a big influence on the D&D designers.

Bill

Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith, is typically lumped in with the Cthulhu Mythos along with its author, largely because Smtih was a regular correspondent of Lovecraft's. However, Zothique bears more in common with the Arabian Nights than dank, damp Cthulhu.

From the Epilogue by Lin Carter we learn that Smith's Zothique cycle of stores, all published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales between 1932 and 1948, are set in Earth's distant future, where high technology is but a memory and magic has once again become a powerful force. Several of the stories were, IMHO, quite, good; most, however, lacked that certain spark that makes a story interested and engrossing. I wouldn't recommend this book to very many people, largely because I don't think it holds up as well as the stories from the Hyperboria collection. I enjoyed it as a trip through Smith's liberal use of the dictionary for arcane terminology. Smith apparently was largely self-educated beyond grammar school; mostly his further education seems to have consisted of reading every word in the Oxford Unabridged and the complete Britannica, not only once but several times.)

I'm a big fan of Smith's work in general, and have been searching for YEARS for a copy of Zothique, which a friend kindly loaned to me back in November.

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