Not Dead Yet: Print Reviews

Michael A. Arnzen

Advanced review of THE LAST OBLIVION: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.

Many people reading this are probably familiar with the name Clark Ashton Smith. His wonderfully creepy story, "The Return of the Sorcerer" is a classic contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos that HP Lovecraft and his circle constructed in the pages of Weird Tales magazine. Yet Smith thought of himself as a poet and -- indeed -- he was a remarkably prolific and talented poet of the fantastic.

In October last year, Hippocampus Press released The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith. If you haven't read Smith's poetry, this is a great introductory book to own and study (and if you're studying up on Clark, I recommend visiting With a superb introduction by the eminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi and David Shultz, the book collects Smith's most important works from his fifty years of writing, ranging from 1912 to 1962. Smith was a brilliant imagineer, constructing fantastic worlds with the ominous voice of a dark Seer. It's the voice of Smith that makes his creations so damned believable...and scary. And that voice derives a lot of its power from formal structures of rhyme and meter -- lyrical forms that few poets today even dare tackle for risk of sounding corny or artificial. Clark's talent was his ability to tap into the power of such forms, lending their natural cadence a supernatural aura. While it's true that his writing could be called "purple" at times, the excess of his style reflects the "spontaneous overflow" of his wild imagination.

I'm usually impatient with long poetry cycles, but reading Smith is like taking a magic carpet ride through the skies of nightmare. Among my favorites is the opening poem -- "The Hashish eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil" -- which begins with a commanding voice that will carry the reader throughout the rest of the poem (and the book): "Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;/ I crown me with the million-colored sun/Of secret worlds incredible, and take/Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,/Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume/The spaceward- flown horizon infinite."

When you read "The Hashish Eater," you probably won't notice that he's writing strict iambic pentameter. You probably won't recognize that he's consciously working in the tradition of the romantic poets (particularly Coleridge and DeQuincey). Instead, you'll be swept out of this world altogether and delivered into the palpably strange space of an imaginary universe, where you can see "the blooms/Of bluish fungus, freaked with mercury/That bloat within the craters of the moon."

Yes: freaked with mercury!

Typical Smith -- a visionary, true -- but reading him makes you want to talk with his tongue. I found myself mumbling along as I read, needing to feel such phrases in my mouth. And that's just one exotic line in a poem that runs about 500 lines (14 pages of the 200 page book).

And there's so much more. Poems that explore the settings from his prose tales (like Zothique and Averoigne); elegies to Lovecraft and Omar Khayyam; must-read classics like "Ode to the Abyss" and "Lamia" and "Nero"; and the touching love poems and odes, like the "The Last Oblivion" itself. There's even previously unpublished works, drawings by Smith, and a (necessary) glossary of strange terms.

Fans of Lovecraft -- it's time to take it to the next level with Smith. Horror poets, bow down before this "emperor of dreams" and study at the feet of the master. Smith is a challenging read at times, but you'll find your very dreams "freaked" with Ashton's imagery. Pick up a copy for a mere $15 at:

From THE GORELETTER #1.8 (Mar 2003) by Michael A. Arnzen

BIO: Michael Arnzen is a past recipient of the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Critic's Guild Award. His latest book, FREAKCIDENTS (DarkVesper 2003), is a collection of sympathetic poetry about impossible mutants and carnival freaks. Other forthcoming titles include GORELETS: UNPLEASANT POETRY (Fairwood, 2003) and DYING (Tachyon, 2003). His book FLUID MOSAIC (Wildside, 2001) collects his best horror stories from the past decade. Arnzen holds a Ph.D. in English and currently teaches in the graduate program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University near Pittsburgh, PA.

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