"Subtle and manifold are the nets of the Demon, who followeth his chosen from birth to death and from death to death, throughout many lives."
Pulp history is fond of threes. The biggest pulps. The most important pulps. And, among the Unique Magazine known as Weird Tales, home to plenty a tale of the bizarre and unsettling, the best writers. And, for a magazine that featured Robert Bloch, Tennessee Williams, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Manly Wade Wellman, and Seabury Quinn, any writer who made the Big Three would prove to be a crown jewel, not just of Weird Tales, but of the weird and of fantasy as a whole.
Two are well known, with entire media empires mining out the legacies of Conan and Cthulhu to this day. But hidden behind the long shadows of R. E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft is the master wordsmith and prose poet Clark Ashton Smith. Throughout his career, Smith would try his had at poetry, sword and sorcery, science fiction, and the weird, but he is best known for his tales of Zothique, the final continent.
Once again in the pulps we find a neglected genre, that of a future Earth where technology and progress were mere fads, and a darker, visceral, almost barbaric way of life returns. A future that has more in common with the charnel pyramids of Tenochtitlan than the cathedrals of Notre Dame. But it is a genre of imaginative and poetic power, explored in depth by William Hope Hodgson, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and, currently, Schuyler Hernstrom and Fenton Wood.
Now, let’s gather around the campfire to hear the tale of Xeethra, a young goat herder in the far future land of Xothique.
“Long had the wasting summer pastured its suns, like fiery red stallions, on the dun hills that crouched before the Mykrasian Mountains in wild easternmost Cincor. The peak-fed torrents were become tenuous threads or far-sundered, fallen pools; the granite boulder were shaled by the heat; the bare earth was cracked and creviced; and the low, meager grasses were seared even to the roots.”
From the start, we are beyond purple prose and well into the ultraviolet. But this is pulp fiction, the great style maker of the 20th Century, and a far cry more erudite than today’s standard "Life, The Universe, & Everything” transparent prose. Rather than settle to the lowest common denominator, Smith dares the reader to keep up—the grandest tradition of pulp. And, read the previous excerpt aloud. For all of you who loved
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of.”
from the Conan movies, you’ll find much to chew on in Clark Ashton Smith’s works. (Oh, and Smith and R. E. Howard were in frequent correspondence.)
Smith earns the title of prose poet, and uses the erudite vocabulary to create an otherworldly effect to his future Earth stories, almost as if he was spinning a prose epic.
Once again, Clark Ashton Smith is best read aloud.
Back to Xeethra, who is entranced by the landscape surrounding his flock. Strange flowers and stranger scents compel him to explore a cavern. Enchanted by the oddities within, he eats a tauntingly beautiful red fruit held within this underground paradise. Soon, he perceives beings that remind him of servants of the underworld lord Thasaidon. He flees, and finds himself not as Xeethra, but as King Amero of Calyz awaiting his coronation in a land far away from Xeethra’s herd.
A flash of lightning returns Xeethra to his senses, and the young goatherd returns to his charges. But that sense of being Amero clings to the child, as does the appearance of madness. The next day, Amero/Xeethra leaves the herd and wanders across Xothique in search of Calyx.
Almost half a year later, Amero/Xeethra sees with his own eyes that he is king of a ghost town, and one laid desolate for centuries. There, he is met by a strange figure.
"I am the emissary of Thasaidon, who sends me in due course to all who have passed the nether portals and tasted the fruit of his garden. No man, having eaten the fruit, shall remain thereafter as he was before; but to some the fruit brings oblivion, and to others, memory. Know, then, that in another birth, ages agone, you were indeed the young King Amero. The memory, being strong upon you, has effaced the remembrance of your present life, and has driven you forth to seek your ancient kingdom."
And then, the emissary offers a devil’s deal. Xeethra turned Amero (or is it the other way around?) accepts, swearing fealty to Thasaidon.
To the Demon.
And then the veil drops from Amero’s eyes, and "the ruin…was no more than the dream of some mad prophet.” Paradise returns to Calyx, and Amero rules for decades until he begins to long for the days of Xeethra’s boyhood.
And then the Demon’s trap snaps…
Fairy tales are warnings, after all. Warnings of the weird told aloud over campfires and tables.
Smith repeatedly uses this setup in his fiction, of two interconnected lives desiring each other’s circumstances. In some, the grass is not greener, but a mirrored reflection of folks desiring what they are discontent with. Here, it is a warning tale, as Farnsworth Wright was wont to fill his Weird Tales with.
Desire, after all, leads to damnation. Human nature has change little. Especially in the necromantic future of Xothique, the last continent.
Readers looking for their own taste of Clark Ashton Smith’s works will find Xeethra and many other stories collected online for free at The Eldritch Dark: The Sanctum of Clark Ashton Smith.