The Last Enchanter: An Introduction to the book 'The Last Incantation'

Donald Sidney-Fryer

At the beginning of the Depression in 1929, the poet and visionary, Clark Ashton Smith, commenced writing fiction in some sizable quantity. During the years 1929-1938, he created over one hundred short stories, half of them belonging to various series located in his fabulous lost worlds of the Singing Flame, Hyperborea, Atlantis, Averoigne, Zothique, Xiccarph and the Orient. Many of his novelettes and short stories are virtually condensed novels; and his fiction overall grew, stylistically and imaginatively, out of his poems in verse, as well as his poems in prose, for the years 1911-1926.

When one considers that Smith characteristically wrote about five drafts of each story (and this is true for most of his fiction), and that he typically packed his tales with as much fantastic adventure and as much meaning as he could manage (while still keeping the requisite clarity and sense of balance which normally distinguishes decent prose), his more than one hundred examples in the short-story form represent much more hard labor than what the casual reader might surmise.

A word or two is in order here as to Ashton Smith's method in writing a story. First he would sketch the plot in longhand on some piece of notepaper, or in his notebook, or commonplace book, The Black Book, which he used circa 1929-1961. (Deciphered and transcribed by Rah Hoffman and Donald Sidney-Fryer, and edited and annotated by. the latter. The Black Book first appeared in published form by Arkham House, 1979.) He would then write the first draft, usually in longhand but occasionally directly on the typewriter. He would then rewrite the story some three or four times (this was his own estimate); this he usually did directly on the typewriter. Also, and just as important, he would subject each draft to considerable alteration and correction in longhand, taking the manuscript with him on a stroll and reading it aloud in some secluded spot on or near Boulder Ridge (also called Indian Ridge) not far from his cabin just outside Old Town, Auburn, California. Thus, this careful rewriting in a manner not dissimilar to that of Gustave Flaubert, or the Roman poet Virgil, for that matter, accounts (at least in part) for the extraordinarily polished style characteristic of Ashton Smith's finest prose fantasies.

There is one phase of this compositional process which deserves especial discussion here. Like any self-respecting veteran poet, Clark was long accustomed to the habit and necessity of reading his own poetry aloud and of literally testing its interior and exterior sonics. Particularly for a poet like Smith who created in an intensely bardic spirit of wonder, nobility, and awe, this testing of the poetry's music and magic, by declaiming it over and over again (whether aloud, or within "the inner ear" of the poet), formed, perhaps, the single most crucial part of the poetic process. So, too, the procedure of proving and testing his prose by reading it expressly aloud became equally important in the composition of his narratives. These tales clearly owe their success to the sonority of the style which Smith devised for them, a style where meaning and music go hand in hand, as in such other archetypal fantasy as "The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser. Rather like Malygris the magician in "The Last Incantation," Smith must have been one of the last major literary figures of his type who literally chanted ("chaunted" or "enchaunted") his-poetry and especially his prose in the manner that he did, reading it aloud to the birds, bees and blossoms within whatever woodland glade he found himself. Ashton Smith, in this distinctly literal sense, must have been "The Last Enchaunter."

In explanation of the deliberately self-aware and elaborate style typical of most of his fiction, as well as of his poems in prose. Smith once commented as follows, in his letter to S. J. Sackett dated July 11th, 1950:

As to my employment of an ornate style, using many words of classic origin and exotic color, I can only say that it is designed to produce effects of language and rhythm which could not possibly be achieved by a vocabulary restricted to what is known as "basic English." As [Lytton] Strachey points out [in his essay on Sir Thomas Browne], a style composed largely of words of Anglo-Saxon origin tends to a spondaic rhythm, "which by some mysterious law reproduces the atmosphere of ordinary life." [ In Strachey's essay, the original wording reads: "which seems to produce (by some mysterious rhythmic law) an atmosphere of ordinary life."] An atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticisms more naturally evoked by a style with an admixture of Latinity, lending itself to more varied and sonorous rhythms, as well as to subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning-—all of which, of course, are. wasted or worse than wasted on the average reader, even if presumably literate.

As to coinages, I have really made few such, apart from proper names of personages, cities, countries,.. deities, etc., in realms lying "east of the sun and west, of the moon." I have used a few words, names of fabulous monsters, etc., drawn from Herodotus, Mandeville and Flaubert which I have not been able to find in dictionaries or other works of reference. Some of these occur in "The Hashish-Eater," a much misunderstood poem, which was intended as a study in cosmic consciousness, drawing heavily on myth and fable for its imagery. It is my own theory that if the infinite worlds of the cosmos were opened to human vision, the visionary would be overwhelmed by horror in the end, like the hero of this poem. I hope I have made it plain that my use of rare and exotic words has been solely in accord with an esthetic theory, or, one might say, a technical theory.

Be that as it may, the average reader who is honestly prepared to meet Ashton Smith solidly on his own terrain should not, by any means, feel cheated. The eighteen stories in this collection will richly repay the reader's -careful attention. "The Last Enchaunter" comes by his music and magic quite honestly, that is, through his own .'hard work.

In "The East Incantation" and "The Death of Malygris" we have another rare example of a Smithian mini-series built around the same central character: in this case, Malygris, another of Ashton Smith's archimages, a figure at once omniscient and omnipotent in the manner of Maal Dweb.

One more story should be individually mentioned here. "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," one of the most purely horrific stories that Smith ever created, introduces the reader to another of the author's lost worlds: his own conception of the planet Mars. This horror-science-fiction thriller has its obvious parallels with such Lovecraftian masterpieces as "The Color Out of Space" and "The Shadow Out of Time," as well as with such a recent "Lovecraftian" film as Alien. In such stories mood and atmosphere are just as important as the plot, and characterization is succinct and secondary to the central artistic effect of the overall narrative. A tightly plotted and well-constructed suspense-thriller. Alien in particular seems very much like a Smithian or Lovecraftian story of cosmic horror and ever-mounting dread from the pulp magazines of the 1930's and 1940's, but with their narrative rhetoric brought up to date for the 1970's.

Here then are some further stories of Hyperborea, Atlantis, Averoigne, and other lost worlds as uniquely chronicled by one Clark Ashton Smith, "The Last Enchaunter."

Top of Page