skip to Main Content

Clark Ashton Smith’s Representation of Evil

Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) established his popularity among readers as a contributor to the pulp magazine Weird Tales from the late 1920s until the late 1930s, when he called to a halt, without an explanation, his story-writing phase.  Before that, he had made his name as a poet – one of the early Twentieth Century “California Symbolists,” whose exotic verses responded to the outré imagery cultivated by the founder of the Symbolist school, Charles Baudelaire.  A bit of historical-literary irony obtrudes.  Baudelaire himself took inspiration from an American writer, none other than Edgar Allan Poe, whose imagery and syntax the Parisian strove to reproduce in his impeccable French and whose stories he translated in order to correct the Gallic opinion that the USA was nothing but a utilitarian-industrial concern.  Dissidents from the Puritan dispensation called North America home, Baudelaire had noticed, and they worked to extend, not routine, but imagination.  Smith thus becomes an acolyte of Poe both primarily and secondarily, reproducing certain grotesque and mystical elements of the Baltimorean’s prose directly and as refracted through Baudelaire’s Joseph de Maistre-influenced poetic vision.  The sequences of Maistre and Poe to Baudelaire and of Poe and Baudelaire to Smith stand out as non-arbitrary in that the three Nineteenth Century writers developed a convergent anthropology that sees as strongly kindred the ancient cults of sacrifice and what calls itself progress.  Smith inherits the conviction of his writer-precursors that modernity constitutes a bloody, global crisis of humanity and that redemption from cultural degeneracy requires the individual to heed a moral code, strictly negative, rather minimal, and vouchsafed by a source that contemporaneity, in its arrogance, damns.  Smith, like Maistre, Poe, and Baudelaire, sees evil as real, as objective; he knows where it originates, and he uses his talents as poet and teller of tales to trace evil’s genealogy and its consequences.

Smith’s Own Illustration of “Dark Eidolon”

Smith’s abandonment of story writing and his sense of a defect in modernity together maintain a cryptic connection that admits itself to intuition even while it refuses to form itself into an explicit line of analysis or argument.  Writing (17 May 1937) to R. H. Barlow, Smith remarks his “lack of Arnoldian ‘sweetness and light,’” adding that, in regard to the state of things, “I have been pretty much at the boiling point lately” (Selected Letters – Arkham House).  Smith recounts to Barlow how “I believe the late R. E. Howard and I would have had a grand time together lambasting civilization” for the reason that “barbarism, barbaric art, barbaric peoples, appeal to me more and more.”  Smith “could never live in any modern city,” as he affirms, “and am more of an outsider than HPL” – the initials referring to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  He aims the barbs “Philistia” and “Boetia” [sic] at North America’s standing cultural character.  Smith, not incidentally, dwelt for most of his life in the small California town of Auburn, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  He had visited San Francisco and Los Angeles, but always went about ill-at-ease in a megalopolitan environment.  Writing (17 May 1937) to Donald Wandrei, Smith mentions that he recently shocked August Derleth by revealing a desire to leave California.  “No doubt,” he continues, “[Derleth] would have been even more shocked if I had told him my full intention – which is to leave the U.S.A. when my present responsibilities are over.”  (Smith was taking care of his aged father.)  Invoking Baudelaire, Smith declares that, “I don’t wish to be killed by the country that killed Poe, Lovecraft, and [the painter] A. P. Ryder.”  He would “rather perish at the hands of cannibals, or the fangs of cobras or wild dogs, than be done to death over a course of years by the Boeotians of this republic.”

In the letter to Barlow, Smith confesses himself “not deeply enamored of the Republican system.”  Politics under the Roosevelt regime having stretched its tentacles everywhere, Smith adds that, “I have no faith in any political or economic isms, schisms, and panaceas” because “the greed and power-lust of men will produce the same widespread injustice, the same evils and abuses… or will merely force them to take slightly different forms.”  In the same missive, Smith disavows Communism, at the time publicly boisterous.  In a sentence that echoes Maistre, undoubtedly through the medium of Baudelaire, Smith declares insightfully that, “The immediate result of revolutionary tactics will be to precipitate a dictatorship of the type now prevalent in Germany and Italy.”  He notes how even a radical like Emma Goldman has “soured on the idea [of a proletarian dictatorship] after a sojourn in Russia.”  Whereas, Smith writes, “I have no religious beliefs myself,” nevertheless, “I must confess to a profound distaste for the anti-religious bigotry that forms an avowed feature of the Soviet program.”  In another Maistrian remark, Smith avows himself “unsympathetic toward the revolutionary spirit, which is the natural reaction of youth when it awakens to the vision of social injustice”; he adds that, “in the political sphere, history has convinced me that revolutions are futile,” for “nothing is changed, except the codes and masters.”  None of this is to claim that Smith had read Maistre – only that he had inherited Maistrian attitudes from Baudelaire and parallel reactionary attitudes from Poe.  Smith describes himself, not only as an “outsider,” but also as a “rebel,” that is, one who rejects modern vulgarity and stupidity, not from a narrow partisan standpoint, but on the basis of an inherited tradition of honesty and decency.

The reader may take Smith at his word when he detaches himself from what he calls “religious beliefs.”  On the other hand, as the poems and stories make clear more dramatically than the letters, the Weird Tales contributor held to a grand eschatological view that he expressed in richly symbolic, mythopoeic language that throws into relief the deformities and perversions of the self-extolling program that began with the Enlightenment’s condemnation of all previous phases history, most especially what it named as the Middle Ages.  In this way, Smith’s story cycles might be placed beside the expository prose of René Guénon or Julius Evola, two European contemporaries of the Californian who looked on the technocratic century with profound disdain and traced its wickedness to a primal combination of resentment and conceit.  Smith grouped much of his narrative authorship in distinct mythic settings, located either in the distant past or in the remote future.  Smith’s “Zothique” cycle expresses his eschatological judgment on modernity better, perhaps, than any of his other story-cycles, those of Atlantis, Hyperborea, Lemuria or Mu, and Poseidonis, the last fragment of Atlantis.  Zothique is, as Smith writes in his letter (15 – 23 January 1931) to Lovecraft, a “far-future continent… which is to rise millions of years hence in what is now the South Atlantic.”  Zothique partakes in a kind of degenerate ultimacy; the cumulus of sinful trends will find no other locus in that final age whereon to take hold and will poison soil, water, and air, not to mention character.  Zothique will furnish the stage for a “hideously chaotic breaking-down of dimensional barriers,” as Smith writes to Lovecraft.

Smith’s Zothique Cycle — Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series Mid-1970s

The physics of Zothique signifies its metaphysical or cosmic-moral condition, which in turn reflects what Smith sees around him in the mid-Twentieth Century.  In his poem “Zothique” from 1950, Smith incantates how –

He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a latter coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine.

Smith’s Zothique cycle would eventually add up to sixty thousand words encompassing sixteen tales.  “The Dark Eidolon,” one of the more plotwise elaborate and stylistically extravagant items of the set, appeared in Weird Tales for January 1935 alongside stories by Seabury Quinn and Robert Bloch, among others.  The tale – one of rivalry, resentment, and obsession – develops with baroque complexity and imagistic prodigality.  Smith sketches the entwined biographies of two necromancer-despots, one a decadent hedonist and the other an obsessive fanatic, while adding to his mélange of magic, torture, and vengeance subtle details of theology that surprise the reader (or maybe not) in their working-out.  The rivals, stemming from an utterly decadent environment wherein everyone inclines to predatory selfishness, invoke by their deeds a moral causality that involves the whole range of deadly sins as traditionally defined.  In Zothique, however, among the licentious majority, that definition belongs not to the lore.  Zotulla, the son of Pithaim, reigns over the city of Ummaos and the empire of Xylac; Namirrha, formerly Narthos, hails from Ummaos but only latterly returns there from an extended self-exile in the desert region of Tasuun, where he has studied the mantic arts under the sorcerer Ouphaloc, a devotee of “the archfiend Thasaidon.”  The same Thasaidon will figure prominently in the dénouement of “The Dark Eidolon.”

Smith thickens the story’s setting with lapidary incidentals.  “On Zothique, the last continent of Earth,” he writes, “the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood.”  As “the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer… the older gods had returned to man, gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes.”  To make his meaning as explicit as possible, Smith adds how “the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primal sorceries.”  In this toxic ambience “Narthos, an orphan of questionable parentage… begged his daily bread in the streets and bazaars.”  Narthos conceives an intense “hatred” for the “cruel, opulent city” of his misfortunate birth.  His ire “grew in his heart” as though it were “a smothered flame that feeds in secret, bidding the time when it shall become a conflagration, consuming all things.”  Smith weaves this theme of escalation throughout his plot, articulating the principle that resentment tends to augment itself.  It also rejects palliation; it seizes on specific targets.  Zotulla comes into the picture as a princely boy “but little older” than Narthos himself, riding his “restive palfrey,” a sign of his social elevation.  Narthos implores Zotulla for alms – “but Zotulla, scorning his plea, rode arrogantly forward, spurring the palfrey,” so that “Narthos was ridden down and trampled under its hooves.”  One might concede, nevertheless, that begging can sometimes be aggressive rather than humble.  From this moment, Narthos dedicates his life to revenge, and organizes his entire energy to carry out his project.  Smith adds that, to do so, Narthos left Ummaos to travel “southward to Tasuun.”  This implies that Narthos might have turned his back on Ummaos at any time, but remained there, stuck in his humiliating routine, by moral inertia.

In an oasis of Tasuun, the wanderer falls in with Ouphaloc, who in Smith’s words, “seeing the great craft and evil in the starveling boy, gave succor to Narthos and sheltered him.”  The word evil affirms the earlier hatred and the related spleen and rancor.  Narthos, under Ouphaloc’s tuition, “became a master in devildom and drove his own bond with the archfiend Thasaidon.”  The incident with Zotulla colonizes the newly minted personality of Namirrha, as he now calls himself, totally, so that “year by year he spun over in his thoughts the black web of revenge.”  Zotulla, neither to praise or excuse him, knows nothing personally of Narthos-Namirrha.  The latter, however, knows nothing but Zotulla and must constantly recall that for Zotulla he, himself, is a nullity.  Zotulla, in Namirrha’s mind, possesses the ultimate in self-sufficient being; until Namirrha has exacted revenge, he will possess (an inadequate word) only the non-status that the equine trampling affirmed.  So driven is Namirrha, that he excels in thaumaturgical studies and acquires a fearsome reputation on the basis of his extortionate, magic-abetted forays.  Zotulla meanwhile has succeeded to the throne of Imperial Xylac.  Smith hints at regicide: “Pithaim… was slain by the sting of a small adder that had crept into his bed for warmth on an autumn night,” where the phrase “crept into” functions euphemistically.  That Zotulla and Namirrha mirror one another, that they are locked in a doubling rivalry unbeknownst to one but absolute for the other, Smith makes patent when he writes that, assuming the principality, Zotulla “ruled evilly.”  He also ruled lazily, with great indulgence of appetite.

Weird Tales for April 1938 — Margaret Brundage illustrates Smith’s Garden of Adompha

In “the month of the star Canicule,” Zotulla arranges a feast for his subjects, the “ardent wines” of which produce “a slumber no less profound than the Lethe of the tomb.”  During the city-wide stupor of the inebriated, Namirrha, using his powerful spells, re-establishes himself in Ummaos in an imposing palace opposite Zotulla’s, which appears during the night.  The figure of the double comes again to the fore.  And once more doubling signifies an obsessive rivalry, a mind-numbing fascination, murderous in its essence.  Smith writes that Namirrha’s palace “was builded of death-white marble [and] wrought with alternate zones of night-black onyx and porphyry hued as with dragon’s blood.”  Zotulla, from his balcony, labels the sight a “counter-view.”  Why this emphasis on doubles?  Smith has anticipated a much later anthropological insight concerning the Doppelgänger – that of René Girard, as articulated in the chapter “From Mimetic Desire to the Monstrous Double” in the book Violence and the Sacred (French original, 1972; English translation, 1977).  The discussion has already touched on desire.  Namirrha subjectively lacks being, attributing it entirely to Zotulla.  The wizard reifies being as though it were an object.  The rival having designated the object, the junior partner now desires it despite its ghostly and non-appropriable status.  Covetousness, the topic of the Tenth Thou Shalt Not, dwells at the root of evil as pictured by Smith in his continent of degenerate ultimacy, his Sodom and Gomorrah in revival.  Notice that Namirrha has made himself Zotulla’s neighbor.

Monstrosity, in both its outward grotesquery of forms and its inward kakomorphosis of character, plays an obvious role in Smith’s tale.  But what path leads from “Mimetic Desire” to “Monstrous Double”?  Mimetic rivalry never occurs in isolation.  It always belongs to the breakdown of cultural differences that make the community, but only ever temporarily, stable.  As the ensemble of Smith’s Zothique stories suggests, crisis constantly besets the cities of that land; magic, purely destructive, erupts everywhere; and sacrifice reigns as a universal practice, nourishing the demonic.  Now that Namirrha has forced Zotulla to acknowledge his presence, although he has not yet declared himself as Narthos, the real vengeance begins.  In the halls of Zotulla’s residence, outside the doors of his bed chamber, where he sleeps with his mistress, Obexah, the prince suddenly hears “a monstrous clangor of hooves that raced and catapulted in the palace porticoes and in the long balconies… echoing awfully in the vaulted stone.”  Where Zotulla trampled Narthos with a single palfrey, Namirrha has sent his supernatural equine herd to trample the royal fineries.  The pattern of escalation continues.  Subsequent nights witness an increase of the “tumultuous cavalcade.”  As Girard writes, “The double and the monster are one in the same being.”  It is the rivalry that escalates and becomes monstrous, enveloping the community in its all-too-imitable wrath.  Girard’s chapter uses Greek tragedy for its textual evidence, where chimeras and dragons appear in response to the contention of Oedipus and Creon, Pentheus and Dionysus, or Eteocles and Polynices.  “This transformation of the real into the unreal,” Girard explains, “is part of the process by which man conceals from himself the human origin of his own violence, by attributing it to a god.”  In “Eidolon,” “the priests of the gods… held that their various deities had dispatched the haunting, as a sign that more sacrifices were required in the temples.”

As Namirrha and Zotulla exchange roles of master and slave, “a thrallment of involitient horror” overtakes the latter.  When Namirrha commands that Zotulla visit him in the counter-palace and partake of a feast, Zotulla meekly agrees.  In planning the elaborate destruction of Zotulla, his court, and his empire, Namirrha has consulted “the dark eidolon” of Smith’s narrative, an oracular statue of Thasaidon that travels with the wizard everywhere.  Thasaidon becomes a character in the story through his advisements to Namirrha.  A demon-god who willingly empowers those who serve him, Thasaidon nevertheless knows limits beyond which neither he nor his servitors should go.  Thasaidon tells Namirrha that he owes a debt, in fact, to Zotulla: “If the hooves of Zotulla’s palfrey had not spurned you and trodden you under, your life had been otherwise, and the name and renown of Namirrha had still slept in oblivion as a dream undreamed.”  Indeed, as the demon adds, “both of us, it would seem, are indebted to Zotulla in all gratitude for the trampling that he gave you.”  Namirrha sneers, he boasts again of his intention.  “Do, then, as you will,” Thasaidon replies, as though invoking the Karmic Law, “but blame me not for the outcome.”  What follows is Smith’s tour de force of ghoulish horror, piling gory detail upon grisly detail.  The imagery of Namirrha’s boundless hatred becomes cosmic, or rather chaotic.  Order has lapsed into disorder as Namirrha’s lust realizes itself and Thasaidon’s prophecy unfolds.

Weird Tales for October 1938 – Margaret Brundage illustrates H. Kuttner’s Beyond the Phoenix

The final six paragraphs of “Eidolon” might constitute the densest Symbolist prose-poem ever written, whether in French or English, after Arthur Rimbaud.  At the paradoxical center of the swirling, vertiginous mass of similes, metaphors, metonymies, analogies, hyperboles, and florid dysphemisms, floats the image of Namirrha hacking with a blade at his own image in a mirror, thinking that he sees Zotulla, as burned into his brain by his long-fostered animosity.  “Insatiable as hell’s own flame,” Smith writes, “his old hatred rose within him.”  Thasaidon releases Zotulla and Obexah, albeit criminals both, but despite their crimes, from Namirrha’s relentless scourging and molestations.  These perversions aim at such a degree of extremity that Thasaidon declares “a mutual vengeance” with Zotulla against the perpetrator, on behalf of Obexah.  In a final image, the monstrous stallions unleashed by Namirrha’s forbidden runes, having lain waste all of Xylac, come coursing back to abolish Namirrha’s palace and he who raised it in Ummaos.  Evil strikes Smith the way it struck Milton, as being the impulse of decreation, that is, as a nihilism that springs from a libido dominandi so twisted that it would negate cosmic reality itself for the offense of having wounded its ego.  On finishing his saga, Smith wrote (24 December 1932) to August Derleth: “It’s a devil of a story… If the thing could ever be filmed – and no doubt it could with a lot of trick photography – it might be a winner for diabolic drama and splendid infernal spectacles.”

A pattern similar to the one in “Eidolon” plays out in another item of Smith’s Zothique cycle: “The Charnel God” (Weird Tales for March 1934).  Smith mentions the titular deity of “The Charnel God,” Mordiggian, in the opening paragraphs of “Eidolon.”  In the eponymous story, readers learn that certain priests worship Mordiggian, with the god enjoying a legal claim to all fresh corpses in Zul-Bha-Sair.  Rumor purports that these devotees feast on the bodies carried to their temple, sharing the flesh with the god.  Phariom and Elaith, a young couple, are traveling through the cities of Tasuun on their way to Ummaos.  A Poe-esque condition afflicts Elaith in which she periodically falls into a coma resembling death.  This phase befalls her one night in a hostel of Zul-Bha-Sair.  The innkeeper, assuming that Elaith has perished, informs the priests, who come to retrieve her body.  Phariom tries to prevent confiscation, but the priests overwhelm him.  Criminal sex-traffickers journeying in the same caravan as Phariom and Elaith have meanwhile plotted, knowing of Elaith’s propensity, to steal her from the temple and sell her to a brothel in Yoros.  Trespassing in the temple incurs a death-sentence.  The criminals trust their atheistic convictions and their expertise in burglary, however, and foresee only profit.  The miscreants of “The Charnel God” rank much lower in evil ambition than the protagonists of “Eidolon.”  They are nevertheless despicable people, animated by the same egomania as Namirrha or Zotulla.  Phariom also resolves to risk trespass in order to redeem Elaith.  Apprehending the sex-traffickers, the archpriest sends Elaith back to her groom.  Facing Phariom, he announces: “Go, for Mordiggian is a just god, who claims only the dead, and has no concern with the living.  And we, the priests of Mordiggian, deal in our own fashion with those who would violate his law by removing the dead from the temple.”

The priest’s words indicate that Mordiggian, despite the cannibalism that he licenses, knows limits.  Deity and cosmos maintain a relation – not only in myth – but in Smith’s imaginary universe, which myth thoroughly informs.  The cosmos has built-in limits.  A functioning society should enlaw itself on the model of the cosmos.  In a letter (11 July 1950) to Professor Samuel Sackett of the UCLA English faculty, who had taken an interest in his work, Smith defends his employment of a Latinate vocabulary, which he links to his aim of exploring “the possibilities of cosmic consciousness.”  He adduces his poem, “The Hashish Eater” (1920), as the epitome of this style; and he affirms that his authorship “draw[s] heavily on myth and fable for its imagery.”  Twenty years earlier, in a letter (24 October 1930) to Lovecraft, Smith remarks that in the modern world “there are not many people with a sense of cosmic strangeness and mystery.”  The reason?  “Popular education has effectively killed anything of the sort in the middle-classes.”  One could easily find similar statements in the work of explicitly thematic critics of modernity such as Guénon and Evola, who especially lamented the loss of initiation among moderns.  Smith’s work, along with that of Howard, C. L. Moore, and the other first-class Weird Tales contributors, is itself an initiatory curriculum.  Could Weird Tales have been the premiere philosophical journal of the mid-Twentieth Century Anglophone world, outpacing such academic periodicals as The Philosophical Review, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, and The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical Inquiry in its exploration of wisdom?

Smith would later have a direct experience of the cancerous nihilism that he represented in his fiction of the 1930s.  Smith married late in life – to Carol Jones Dorman, a divorcee, in 1954.  Dorman lived with her three children in a house near the shoreline on the Monterey Peninsula, to which Smith moved, leaving his Auburn “cabin,” as he called it, as a vacation-lodge for trips to the mountains.  In a letter (12 May 1956) to Derleth he reports “the bad news… that my… cabin has been so thoroughly vandalized that it will seem almost hopeless to put the place in order again for such brief occupancy as Carol and I can give it.”  The criminals heeded not the Tenth Commandment, for “one motive was plainly robbery.”  In detailing the crime, Smith reports how “the depredators took about everything useful – except books, which they merely strewed on the floor and, in some cases, shot holes in.”  They acted from another motive, however, as strong as the first.  Out of pure “malice,” as Smith puts it, the burglars “dumped a can of tar on my sitting-room-and-work-table.”  In a second letter (3 July 1956), Smith tells Derleth how “the vandalizing and theft went on after the local sheriff was apprised that the place had been broken into.”  The law incompetently sat on its butt.  My heart goes out to Smith, a man I never met but know well through his ornate, ritually-structured prose and his fantastic Symbolist verses.  I live in the hope that either Thasaidon or Mordiggian, or better yet both in concert, tracked down the desecrators of Smith’s temple and showed them justice.  It would be in keeping with the Karmic Law.

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

Back To Top