Retro Book Review: Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith
Review by Comix
“This book has no comics in it!”
That is what I immediately said when I first picked up the works of Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith, but I swallowed my disgust at what proved to be one hell of a read. I was instantly assaulted with worlds and places beyond my mere mortal comprehension, an existence that is not an existence, a future that just might as well be the past. It is a dominion overrun by malevolent wizards, undead necromancers, and the most supple and weak-ankled women this side of Conan the Barbarian. Though I would usually leave the book reviews to our more well read and properly educated reviewers, I cannot help but spread the word of a land known only as Zothique.
Zothique is an umbrella title for a series of short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith, one of the Big Three of Weird Tales along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. The Zothique stories are all set in the future when all that is left is one major continent known as Zothique. The lands have become a hive for magic and malice, where a wrong turn down the wrong alley would have you walk right into a human sacrifice. Brutality and swords clash with the familiarity of old friends while lust and danger purr around every corner. But don’t think this work is purely fantasy. While Zothique just screams big arms and barely covered breasts, the stories delve very quickly in the realm of horror, creating a very unique experience. Demons and spirits intermingle with beings that might or might not be human to begin with, giving the reader a hell of a ride.
One of my favorite things about Zothique is the way Smith brings about his take on the fantasy/horror genre. It’s not the kind of writing that leans one way or the other, but it’s a very good combination of the both that can really only be described as genius. With Zothique, he starts off with a very fantasy-grounded story base. He’s got maps, countries, gods, magic, and bizarre creatures. He’s got everything figured out to the point where he could write a full on, ten book fantasy series and instead just goes, “fuck it! I’m doing horror!” and drops a bomb full of horror on the sucker! And he doesn’t just stay with standard horror, but goes into a weird/supernatural type horror that really plays off the world he created. We are treated to such delights like a wizard’s epically demonic revenge against a king, strange orbs of floating light that kill everything that touches it, and of course, the animated undead! With a world filled with black magic, how could it not be filled to the brim with walking corpses?
The man behind the words is as interesting as the stories he has written. Smith was a voracious reader as a child and like any blossoming writer of the grotesque and the bizarre, he had strange mental quirks as well. He was terrified of crowds which drove him to stay inside more than out, and had an almost photographic memory which really worked for his benefit when he read an entire dictionary and an encyclopedia set. Similar to Lovecraft, he was crazy sick all the time, and used the nightmares that plagued him during his fevers to fuel his writings. Though he eventually hooked up with Weird Tales and took over the genre with his unique take on horror and sci-fi, he was also known for creating an excessive amount of poetry and sculpture when the mood seemed right. It is interesting to note that Zothique was not the only land he invented to set his stories in. There were actually five in all: Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, and Zothique. Each had their own gods, cities, people, and landscapes and had full histories for him to play with.
The Zothique tales are a bit scattered to the winds, but a couple of ambitious companies have taken the time and money to gather up as many of the stories as they could find. One of the original collections, called simply Zothique, was released in 1970 by Ballantine Books and is still pretty wildly available, albeit only used. They also released collections centered around the other countries as well. Another more recent one is called Tales of Zothique by Necronomicon Press, which has a thorough collection of notes on the Zothique work and even includes little bits of unpublished or unfinished Zothique tales. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find some of his stuff digging around in a used book bin at a second hand bookstore, especially in some ratty paperback from the 70’s where he saw a huge revival in his work. If anything, you can always pick some old issues of Weird Tales, but that might be way more expensive than a book. No matter how you get to read the stories though, make sure you do. The tales of Zothique are unique as they are bizarre and deserve all the beastly, demonic love they can get.