by Clark Ashton Smith
“The skies are haunted by that which it were madness to know; and strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies.”
Spanning a period of hundreds of years, these stories predominantly take place in the fictional region of Averoigne, loosely based upon France’s real world Auvergne. Populated in part by mythic, demonic monsters, they deal with witchcraft, love and doom.
It’s a stretch calling this fantasy, as despite the lush setting and subject material most stories here have a lot in common with horror. But it’s also not the grimdark brand of fantasy we see a lot of today, which in its own way melds the two genres. Clark Aston Smith’s version is his own brand–a horrific, darkly enchanting fantasy with no grit, no fancy, and no way to put it down once you start.
“The terror that soon prevailed, beneath the widening scope of the Satanical incursions and depredations, was beyond all belief—a clotted, seething, devil-ridden gloom of superstitious obsession, not to be hinted in modern language.”
Favorites include “The Enchantress of Sylaire,” where love and the blindness of it are examined, “The Beast of Averoigne,” unfolding in three letters, where a monster is slaughtering people at night and the language use is just top-notch, and “The Disinterment of Venus,” where a bewitching, nude statue unearthed affects everyone who sees it. “A Rendezvous in Averoigne,” “The Mandrakes” and “The End of the Story” are also incredible tales. But in a bizarre, inexplicable way, not a single story in this collection rates below ‘excellent.’ Not one.
“We are now in a land lying outside of time and space as you have hitherto known them.”
This Centipede edition bears special mention, though you can find much of the written material elsewhere. This is a collection consisting of authoritative, definitive versions of the stories. The book uses a thick and creamy paper stock that lends itself to the copious illustrations, all of which are excellent. Even the black and white skull pics are arresting and disturbing, evoking the blackest of black magic. Though Centipede’s standard cloth is always excellent, the boards here are covered with a material that compares like an 800 thread count sheet to 300–just holding it is luxury. The book is also interspersed with Smith’s dark poetry and includes a poem H.P. Lovecraft wrote in honor of him as well as a couple of introductions and an afterward. While the extra material is extensive, it’s the 12 stories and their gorgeous presentations that make the collection a winner.
Most of these are spellbinding. After a couple of pages, despite the breadth of an unequaled vocabulary, reading becomes compulsive. Mentioned in the introduction, stories like these become a part of you, and if you can successfully visit the world a piece of you will always reside there. The Eagles have one of the best lines for this particular brand of sorcery: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.” You will be transfixed not from thrilling, edge of your seat anticipation but from conjured, ethereal, permanent bonds of mist and magic. Consider yourselves warned.
“Thin is the veil betwixt man and the godless deep.”