Introduction to 'Tales of Zothique'

Will Murray

The following is the introduction to Tales of Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Will Murray and Steve Behrends, and published by Necronomicon Press. This piece is copyright 1995 by Necronomicon Press. This file may be freely distributed by electronic means, providing that all publication information and this copyright notice is left intact. Hard or paper copies of this file are restricted to one per user. Any questions should be directed to Necronomicon Press.

My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.

—Clark Ashton Smith, writing to H. P. Lovecraft

Clark Ashton Smith might be called the Forgotten Troubadour of Weird Tales. His name and works are frequently spoken of in the same awed breath as those of his contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but even in this latest age of fantasy, his work is only fitfully reprinted. No single dominant concept, whether it be a Cthulhu Mythos or a Conan the Barbarian, emerged from Smith's exotic imagination to sustain his reputation. Lovecraft dealt in prehuman entities, and Howard in mythic heroes. While Smith dabbled in both, they were not his chief thematic concern.

Instead Smith created exotic lands aplenty. Medieval Averoigne. Lost Poseidonis. Primal Hyperborea. Extraplanetary Xiccarph. And most famously, doomed Zothique.

The Zothique cycle, as CAS once styled it, comprises the largest body of unified Smith tales, as well as the realm he returned to most often through the many fitful phases of his fiction career.

As Smith himself described it in a letter to L. Sprague de Camp, dated November 3, 1953:

Zothique, vaguely suggested by Theosophic theories about past and future continents, is the last inhabited continent of earth. The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves. Zothique, as I conceive it, comprises Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, parts of northern and eastern Africa, and much of the Indonesian archipelago. A new Australia exists somewhere to the south. To the west, there are only a few known islands, such as Naat, in which the black cannibals survive. To the north, are immense unexplored deserts; to the east, an immense unvoyaged sea. The peoples are mainly of Aryan or Semitic descent; but there is a negro kingdom (Ilcar) in the north- west; and scattered blacks are found throughout the other countries, mainly in palace-harems. In the southern islands survive vestiges of Indonesian or Malayan races. The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcery and demonism prevail again as in ancient days. Oars and sails alone are used by mariners. There are no fire-arms—only the bows, arrows, swords, javelins, etc. of antiquity. The chief language spoken (of which I have provided examples in an unpublished drama) is based on Indo-European roots and is highly inflected, like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.

Although doomed lands were not new to Smith's oeuvre—his Poseidonis was conceived to be the surviving isle of drowned Atlantis—he seems to have taken his primary inspiration from imaginary conceptions described in H. P. Blavatsky's 1888 book, The Secret Doctrine. Zothique was no Theosophical paradise, as Smith later admitted to de Camp:

Zothique as I have conceived it belongs to the future rather than the past, and lies at the other end of the time-cycle from Hyperborea, Mu, etc. The peoples of Zothique, one might say, have rounded the circle and have returned to the conditions of what we of the present era might regard as antiquity. The idea of this last continent was suggested by the "occult" traditions regarding Pushkara, which will allegedly become the home of the 7th root race, the last race of mankind. However I doubt if the Theosophists would care for my conception, since the Zothiqueans as I have depicted them are a rather sinful and iniquitous lot, showing little sign of the spiritual evolution promised for humanity in its final cycles.

Smith apparently conceived his twilight continent of earth's dwindling days in February 1931, but gave it a decidedly different name. The prototypal Zothique germinated in the thin soil of a scant paragraph entitled "A Tale of Gnydron":

Gnydron, a continent of the far future, in the South Atlantic, which is more subject to incursions of "outsideness" than any former terrene realm; and more liable to the visitation of beings from galaxies not yet visible; also, to shifting admixtures and interchanges with other dimensions or planes of entity.

Smith had already created Averoigne, Poseidonis, and Hyperborea, and was looking past the pages of Weird Tales toward the day his work would appear in book form. Writing H. P. Lovecraft around this time, he expanded upon his initial concept and for the first time evoked the name Zothique—although he seemed to waver on the final selection:

It would be nice (if ever I get to the book-cover stage) to publish a separate volume of tales under some such title as The Book of Hyperborea. This primal continent seems to have been particularly subject to incursions of "outsideness"—more so, in fact, than any of the other continents and terrene realms that lie behind us in the time-stream. But I have heard it hinted in certain obscure and arcanic prophecies that the far-future continent called Gnydron by some and Zothique by others, which will rise millions of years hence in what is now the South Atlantic, will surpass even Hyperborea in . . . incursions of "outsideness" . . . and will witness the intrusion of Things from galaxies not yet visible; and worse than this, a hideously chaotic breaking-down of dimensional barriers which will leave parts of our world in other dimensions, and vice versa. When things get to that stage, there will be no telling where even the briefest journey or morning stroll might end. The conditions will shift, too; so there will be no possibility of charting them and thus knowing when or where one might step off into the unknown.

Smith would later tell de Camp that "the name Zothique was constructed on the analogy of antique and therefore rhymes with it." Indeed, on a list of place-names Smith compiled over time, the coinage first appears—about a dozen entries after he inscribed Gnydron—as Xothique. In an interplanetary story begun in April 1931, "Vizaphmal in Ophiuchus," Zothique is the name given to a planet in the constellation Ophiuchus. Fortunately, Smith never completed this effort, otherwise this present volume might now be entitled Tales of Gnydron.

At this point, Smith had little more than a place-name in mind. He would not write the introductory story in the cycle, "The Empire of the Necromancers," until January of the following year, basing it on two synopses, neither of which mentions Zothique or Gnydron.

This premiere story made its debut in Weird Tales for September, 1932, and it was at once evident that Smith had found a milieu utterly simpatico with his mordantly decadent prose style. Writing August Derleth on January 9, 1932, Smith observed of "The Empire of the Necromancers": "There is a queer mood in this little tale . . . it is much overgreened with what H. P. Lovecraft once referred to as the 'verdigris of decadence.'"

Unlike the Hyperborean tales, neither ironic humor nor droll distillations of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos entities trouble these yarns. True, the original concept of Zothique as a platform for extraterrestrial visitations never quite jelled. Instead, Smith focused on two themes that filled his own poetic soul—doom and loss, which had their greatest expression in such Zothiquean chronicles as the haunting "Xeethra" and "The Weaver in the Vault."

For some two years, ten tales of Zothique, each more bizarre than those that preceded, uncoiled from Smith's typewriter. Although he continued his Hyperborea and Averoigne cycles, Zothique took over the bulk of his fictional endeavors, much the way Conan the Barbarian obsessed Robert E. Howard, the tales tumbling forth without regard to sequence or chronology. So consumed was Smith by the far-future realm he had fashioned from equal parts poetry, morbid imagination, and a kind of sorrowful outrance nostalgia, that a story conceived for his Hyperborean cycle, "The Voyage of King Euvoran," became an account of Zothique in the telling. Leavened with the ironic humor of the Hyperborean cycle, it failed to please Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright and did not see print in the so-called Unique Magazine until 1947, and then only in drastically pruned form as "Quest of the Gazolba." Smith himself had published the unexpurgated version in his 1933 pamphlet, The Double Shadow.

Weird Tales readers from Lovecraft to the most anonymous fan were captivated by Smith's ongoing excursions into necromancy and necrophilia, sundering empires and dying dynasties, under a near-quenched scarlet sun. While many times Wright declined outright or sent back a story for revisions, the fussy editor eventually accepted nearly every Zothique installment sent him. Two, "The Tomb-Spawn" and "The Witchcraft of Ulua," were actually bounced by Wright as well as Street & Smith's Astounding before finding their rightful place in the Unique Magazine.

Clark Ashton Smith had found perhaps the perfect vehicle through which to express his multiform talents. The prose sang like black magic incantations. Fugitive lines of poetry sprinkled these bitter tales. When Wright finally accepted in October, 1933, "The Tomb-Spawn," he asked Smith himself to illustrate "The Weaver in the Vault." Ultimately, this and three other tales of Zothique were graced by the author's own ink drawings. All four are reproduced here.

Then abruptly, Smith concluded the cycle with the doomful "The Last Hieroglyph." Intended as the ultimate tale of Zothique, it was also destined to be Smith's final foray into fiction for some time and marked the end of his only period of continuous short story writing. Disenchantment with pulp editors, the demands of caring for his ill parents, and the siren call of the poetry's more precise muse had compelled Smith to draw shut the arabesqued curtain of his fiction career, at least temporarily.

Smith many times stated his goal of composing as many tales of Zothique as were needed to comprise a hardcover collection. "The Last Hieroglyph" fulfilled that quota, as well being thematically terminal. This intention was made clear in a May 21, 1934, comment to Robert H. Barlow in which Smith said, "It will form the concluding item of my Zothique series, if this series should ever appear in book form," and announced publicly in F. Lee Baldwin's column "Within the Circle" in The Fantasy Fan, July, 1934: "'The Last Hieroglyph' by Clark Ashton Smith, which is scheduled in WT is the last of a series of stories of the fabulous land of Zothique."

Whether or not Smith never again intended to pen more stories of Zothique remains an open question. No letter has been found wherein he explicitly vows that he has laid the series to rest. Yet the facts do tend to suggest Smith had in his mind put a period to the cycle—if not all fiction—with "The Last Hieroglyph."

If CAS had written only those ten tales, the Zothique cycle would have certainly entered into legend, but fortunately for his posterity, financial pressures forced a return to fiction.

It was a clear reflection of Smith's most overriding interest that the first story he attempted after his reconsidered hiatus was a return to Zothique called "Shapes of Adamant." Begun sometime before commencing his next completed Zothiquean story, "Necromancy in Naat," in February 1935, Smith's creative powers stalled after a handful of pages and it was never finished.

Nearly two years passed between Smith's writing "The Black Abbot of Puthuum"—the second complete Zothique story of this new phase—and "The Death of Ilalotha" in March of 1937. In July, still struggling with "Shapes of Adamant," Smith wrote "The Garden of Adompha." Published in the April 1938 Weird Tales, it was to be the last new Zothique story for almost exactly a decade.

Smith's reasons for again abandoning fiction are well documented. The deaths of H. P. Lovecraft and Smith's father in 1937 left him drained, and Smith wrote no fiction for nearly three years. In 1940-41, the muse of prose again beckoned him in that direction, but he produced no new Zothiquean tales. Although one, "The Feet of Sidaiva," was plotted, the story was never undertaken in earnest. Weird Tales had a new editor in Dorothy McIlwraith, and one not receptive to his poetic and highly-stylized prose.

Perhaps it was new interest created by his Arkham House hardcover collections, Out of Space and Time and Lost Worlds, in 1942 and 1944 that rekindled a long-dormant spark, but Smith returned once more to the lists. One of the first realms he revisited was Zothique. In 1943, he began tinkering with a shortened version of "The Voyage of King Euvoran," retitled "Quest of the Gazolba," not selling it until 1946. He also toyed with an abortive short novel, "The Scarlet Succubus," in 1945. Motivated by the allure of publication by Arkham House, Smith nevertheless let it languish unwritten.

Ultimately, Smith went on to produce but two new tales of Zothique, "The Master of the Crabs" and "Morthylla," a new fragment, "Mandor's Enemy," and what he called his "masterpiece," a play in blank verse entitled The Dead Will Cuckold You, the only Zothiquean chronicle never to appear in Weird Tales. (It was finally published after his death in the 1963 chapbook, In Memoriam: Clark Ashton Smith.)

Then, the guttering red sun of Earth's last continent at last expired.

Although the majority of these tales saw print in his various Arkham House collections during his lifetime, Smith, who died in 1961, never lived to see any of his various cycles preserved in hardcover as he had dreamed over three decades before.

It was Lin Carter who in 1970 at last compiled Zothique, the first of several historic Smith paperback collections, as part of Ballantine Books' Adult Fantasy series. A magnificent collection, it nevertheless was limited to complete stories and marred perhaps by a well-meaning attempt to arrange the cycle into some sort of internal ordering gleaned from doubtful textual evidence. In this, Carter ignored the introductory nature of "The Empire of the Necromancers" and overlooked the culminating resonance of "The Last Hieroglyph."

Smith himself wrote these tales as they sprang from his imagination. Indeed, capricious scheduling in Weird Tales meant the cycle was first presented in no meaningful order.

That CAS had a very clear vision for such a volume can be traced back to a letter to August Derleth dated August 29, 1933, written on the occasion of Farnsworth Wright's initial rejection of "The Witchcraft of Ulua."

I . . . will no doubt have to lay the story aside for inclusion in my volume, Tales of Zothique when, and if, I should procure a publisher for that opus. With the completion of two more tales, "Xeethra," and "The Madness of Chronomage," I will have a series totalling about 60,000 words, all dealing with the future continent of Zothique. These could be collected with a brief note as to supplemental geography and chronology. Printed on good paper and decently bound, I think that all of these tales would show up as fine literature, in no wise inferior to Dunsany and Cabell.

No preferred story sequence other than the doubtful Black Book log exists (see "Postscript") and as for geography, though Smith approved a map drawn by L. Sprague de Camp, he cautioned that "large sections would have to be labelled Terra Incognita."

For this Necronomicon Press collection, the editors have concluded that the only remotely valid chronology is the order in which the cycle was composed. Because the stories were written in three distinct phases- -with significant gaps between them—the cycle is divided into three books, each one collecting every story—whether complete or fragmentary-- so that devotees may experience the Zothique cycle as Smith guided it to fruition.

Additionally, we have gone back to Smith's original manuscripts in order to achieve the purest texts possible. Carter's Zothique mixed Weird Tales texts with whatever originals were available to him. While deviations between the Weird Tales first appearances and the Necronomicon texts are small, in the case of two stories revised by Smith to satisfy Weird Tales, "Xeethra" and "The Witchcraft of Ulua," there exist two drafts, the rejected and the compromise versions. Inasmuch as Smith made substantial improvements on the second drafts over and above the demanded changes, we have printed the restored versions as published in Necronomicon Press's Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith series edited by Steve Behrends. These versions are reconciliations of two drafts, neither of which can truthfully be called definitive.

Lost are the complete texts to "The Dark Eidolon," trimmed in length in order to achieve acceptance by Weird Tales, and "Necromancy in Naat," whose original ending Smith complained Wright forced him to "mutilate." Some variant scenes from other drafts are not appended so as not to break the spell of the stories. Additionally, Smith appears to have periodically revisited his manuscripts toward eventual book reprinting. These amendments have been respected.

While it is possible to date every story—Smith inscribed completion dates to nearly all finished manuscripts—there were a few difficulties regarding fragments, which will be covered in the Postscript. The only complete Zothiquean item for which no date is discoverable is the poem "Zothique." It was first published in the 1951 Arkham House collection The Dark Chateau. Inasmuch as Arkham House books were routinely three to five years in production, and several of the collection's poems first appeared in The Arkham Sampler as far back as Spring, 1948, its composition date is likely prior to 1948. In the absence of anything remotely like a firm date, the editors have elected to place it at the head of Book III.

The strict chronological arrangement created a dilemma regarding "The Last Hieroglyph." Smith himself excised a brief preface, "In the Book of Vergama" (as the penultimate draft was entitled), before its submission to Weird Tales. In the interest of completeness, it has been placed in its proper chronological order ahead of the story but not integral to it, making it problematic to move the story to the end of the collection, as per Smith's wish. For this and other reasons, the editors have elected to retain the order of composition without documentable deviation.

Readers wishing to honor Smith's expressed preference may skip over "The Last Hieroglyph," saving it for last. However, true to Smith's 1934 intention, it does close out Book I, the original story group.

Here at last is the ultimate and complete Tales of Zothique its author dreamed of over sixty years ago. We can only echo the sentiments of the late Lin Carter, who, upon bringing together for the first time all then-known stories of Zothique exactly 25 years ago, said this of the word-archimage H. P. Lovecraft dubbed the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash- Ton:

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

Thasaidon grant it come to pass.

Top of Page