The Emperor of Dreams by Clark Ashton Smith Review

Mark Greener

Despite being one of the great three Weird Tales writers, Clark Ashton Smith is less well known than either Robert E. Howard or Howard P. Lovecraft. All too often, critics dismiss Smith as a Lovecraft clone. However, as The Emperor of Dreams, part of the Fantasy Masterworks series, shows, Smith developed his own unique vision and style that makes him a master of dark fantasy in his own right, and worthy to stand beside Howard and Lovecraft.

The book encapsulates Smith's repertoire – his strengths as well as weaknesses. There are those tales – 'Ubbo-Sathla' or 'The Kiss of Zoraida', for instance - that don't, for me, develop any real tension and seem more than fillers than true short stories. Given that The Emperor of Dreams doesn't include some of the stronger tales that appeared in the Panther paperbacks that collected Smith's stories in the early '70s, this seems a bit of a waste.

Then there are Smith's more workman-like stories. I could imagine that several writers could have produced 'The Isle of the Torturers', 'Mother of Toads' or several other tales, albeit without Smith's somewhat baroque romantic style. Reprinting these is worthwhile – they're great entertainment. However, they don't capture Smith's genius.

Then there's the classic stories – such as 'The Gorgon' or 'The Nameless Offspring' – that evoke a true sense of horror that is almost unsurpassed in the genre. These show just how great a writer Smith could be and stand comparison with Le Fanu, M.R. James and Poe. These stories simply aren't as well known as they should be, but nevertheless, they are classics that will still be read by our grandkids.

Smith's prose shares some similarities to Lovecraft – the lack of dialogue and the somewhat anachronistic style, for instance. (Baudelaire was a major influence on Smith and the French Decadents cast a stylistic shadow over much of his work.) However, as numerous critics noted over the years, Smith is much easier to read, much more accessible than Lovecraft. Both 'The Gorgon' and 'The Nameless Offspring', for instance, are stylistically relatively straightforward horror stories that remind me more of the 'Novel of the White Powder', 'The Monkey's Paw' or 'Green Tea' than 'The Call of Cthulhu'.

Smith has a flare for language that befits the his lifelong vocation as a poet. So he deftly avoids the somewhat purple passages that litter both Howard's and Lovecraft's stories. The start of 'Abominations of Yondo', for example, is a marvellously evocative piece of writing. You can smell the air "heavy with stagnant odours of decay". You see the snakes that watch with "eyes of bright ochre". As the story develops, you feel the narrator's nerves "still taut from unmentionable tortures". You can just see how that almost naturalistic description would be coloured purple by Lovecraft.

There's also a more fundamental philosophical difference between Smith and Lovecraft. Smith is a much more optimistic, even when dealing with similar themes. (I'll be looking at these differences in a forthcoming essay for The Alien Online.) Both Smith and Lovecraft aim to explore what lies beneath the superficial surface of our lives. Lovecraft's characters who gaze into that abyss descend further into madness. Smith's emerge, if not unscathed, then at least alive and sane.

Smith also follows the Victorian trend of using "monsters" to underscore moral themes. (Another theme I'll consider in the essay.) 'The Kiss of Zoraida' offers a warning of adultery's dangers, for example. Lovecraft tends to be more morally ambiguous. All this means that, overall, Smith is a more comfortable read than Lovecraft. So, even if you hate Lovecraft don't be put off reading Smith.

As I mentioned above with all anthologies, you can question some of the inclusions and exclusions. For instance, Stephen Jones might have excluded 'The Plutonian Drug' because it's more SF than fantasy. But, for me at least, it's a better story than, for example, 'The Black Abbot of Puthuum' (which, to modern eyes, also smacks of being decidedly un-PC in places).

However, all anthologies are subjective and The Emperor of Dreams is a wonderful introduction to a neglected writer. And I can do little more than echo Jones's words in his excellent biographical sketch that I hope this new collection will help Smith to finally emerge from Lovecraft's shadow and takes his deserved place as one of the true masters of 20th century dark fantasy.

Publisher: Gollancz
Date: 2002
Price: £7.99
Format: Pb
ISBN: 057507373X

Copyright © 2002 Mark Greener
First published by: THE ALIEN ONLINE

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