When the World Grows Old

Lin Carter

I pass... but in this lone and crumbling tower,
Builded against the burrowing seas of change,
My volumes and my philters shall abide...*

When we of the golden age of Weird Tales, we refer largely to the decade 1928-39, when this greatest American magazine of the bizarre and the fantastic reached peak it was never again able to attain, although the magazine lasted until the issue of September, 1954.

During that decade, the magazine was chiefly dominated by three writers of fantasy whose talents were immense and whose popularity and influence were to grow even more significant in afteryears. These three writers were, of course, ?.?. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert ?. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith (1893- 1961). Of these three gifted men (who were all good friends and correspondents although 1 do not believe they ever actually met), it is Clark Ashton Smith alone who has yet to achieve the wide recognition his artistry so rightly deserves.

It is to be hoped that this volume will help make his mordant and imaginative talents known the many thousands of fantasy enthusiasts who have not thus far discovered him.

Smith was born on January 13, 1893-three years after the death of William Morris and one year after the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien -in Long Valley, California. This was about six miles south of the village of Auburn, near which Smith lived for most of his sixty-eight years in ? small cabin in the woods, until his marriage in 1954 to Carol Jones Dorman, whereupon he and his wife moved to another California town, Pacific Grove.

Much like Lovecraft, Smith lived as ? recluse for the greater part of his life in ? sort of self-imposed exile from his century. In his early twenties he was very much ? part of the bohemian literary and artistic life in the San Francisco area, ? circle which had included such people as Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller. Smith gained entree to these circles as the protégé of the poet George Sterling, who may just possibly have introduced him to Bierce during the month or two that that bitter and disillusioned cynic spent in San Francisco before departing for his lonely and still unaccountable death in Mexico: Sterling knew Bierce well and Smith deeply admired this America master of the macabre, so it is quite possible that the two met.

Smith turned from poetry to the writing of short stories in about 1925. Farnsworth Wright, the brilliant editor of Weird Tales, rejected several of Smith's early stories, but finally accepted ? cycle of three prose poems, which appeared in the issue of August, 1928; to be followed in the very next issue, that of September, by his first original short story for Weird Tales, "The Ninth Skeleton." However, Smith did not settle down to work on the short story form with any great degree of industry until the beginning of the Depression. He began to hit his stride in about 1929; between then and August 1936, he produced more than one hundred short stories and novelettes. At that point, although still only in his early forties, he for some unknown reason virtually stopped writing. The remaining twenty-five years of his life - Smith died on August 14, 1961 - produced only ? negligible output. No one has yet come forward with ? convincing explanation of this curious and very unfortunate decline.

Smith was, to ? very large degree, ? self-educated man. Although he completed grammar school, he of his own choice decided against high school and college. He apparently preferred to conduct his own education and to have as little as possible to do with the Establishment (he once turned down flat the offer of ? Guggenheim fellowship). This experiment in self-education (it is rumored that it
consisted largely of reading every word in the Oxford Unabridged and the complete Britannica, not once but several times) seems to have been extraordinarily successful. For Smith not only mastered one of the most intricate and lapidary prose styles in American literature, but also taught himself French and Spanish well enough to translate Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Calcaño and de Herédia. His translations from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal are considered excellent.

Whatever the form of his self-education, Smith became ? painter, ? sculptor, ? poet and translator, besides the author of several volumes of short stories. Most of his fiction and verse has been published in book form by Arkham House, ? small publishing firm in Sauk City, Wisconsin, which, under the aegis of August Derleth, has devoted itself over the past thirty years to preserving the
work of most of the great Weird Tales writers within the dignity of hard covers.

The short stories of Clark Ashton Smith are very much his own, and nothing quite like them has been written in America, at least since ???. The real progenitors of his prose style are William Beckford's nightmarish and erotic
novel of the "Oriental Gothic," Vathek, and two novels by Gustave Flaubert: the luxurious Carthaginian romance, Salammbô, and the phantasmagoric extravaganza, Tentation de Saint Antoine. Smith's jeweled and darkly evocative prose is closer to the style of these three novels : than to that of Lovecraft or any of the more recent writers of the macabre. But the influences he most frequent admitted to were those of Robert W. Chambers, Ambrose
Bierce and Edgar Allan ???.

Smith's short fiction - he once attempted ? novel but abandoned it after about 10,000 words-falls into several groups. There are cycles of tales laid against mythic and imaginary backgrounds such as Hyperborea and Atlantis, cycles set in the imaginary medieval lands of Malneant  and Averoigne, and ? few stories laid on the planet Xiccarph. But in my own opinion, the most exotic of his tales take for their l???l? the Continent of Zothique (rhymes with "seek"): and thus this collection, the first ever made of all the Zothique stories, and the first volume of Clark Ashton Smith ever printed in paperback.

Smith's conception of Zothique is that of Earth's last continent in the very distant future when the sun has grown dim, the world has grown old, and the remorseless seas have overwhelmed all other Earth continents. The sciences have been forgotten through the long ages; the shadowy arts of sorcery and magic have been reborn. The result is ? dark world of older mystery, where luxurious and decadent kings and wandering heroes quest and adventure across dim landscapes, pitting their strength and wisdom against powerful wizards and alien gods, under ? dying sun.

The earliest written of these tales seems to have been "The Empire of the Necromancers"; it was certainly the first to be published, in Weird Tales in September, 1932.  ? second tale followed in 1933, and four more in 1934.   The last tale in the cycle appeared in Weird Tales in March, 1948.

Smith's concept of ? final continent where magic is reborn to rule man's sunset as it did his dawn has proved of considerable influence on the writers who came after him. Several have used much the same idea, among them. ?.?. Van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (1947); while Jack Vance used an identical theme for The Dying Earth (1950), and its sequel, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966). I also used the same idea in ? novel called The Giant of World's End (1969). ? recent memorial collection of articles and tributes dedicated to Smith's memory was compiled by Jack Chalker for his Anthem Press in ? limited edition of only 450 copies. Therein, such writers as Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Sprague de Camp gave voice to their enthusiasm for Smith and to his influence on their work.

"This present collection of all the Zothique stories will introduce you to one of the giants of modem fantasy, ? puzzling, brilliant and enigmatic man of many gifts.

Editorial Consultant The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series
Hollis, Long Island, New York.

* From ? fragment of an uncompleted poem, The  Sorcerer Departs, written by Clark Ashton Smith and published in The Acolyte, Spring, 1944.

From: Zothique (1970) Ballantine edition.

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