08 May 2010

Clark Ashton Smith Collection: Out of Space and Time

Out of Space and Time (1942)
By Clark Ashton Smith

Out of space and time . . . that’s how I felt when I tried to move in one day into a tiny apartment.

(Rim-shot.)

I always wanted to start a review of a Clark Ashton Smith book with a really bad joke. It just seemed the perfectly antithetical way of discussing the great prose poet of fantasy.

Ahem . . . so, Out of Space and Time is the first Arkham House collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s work, and the first time the general public had access to reprints of his fiction. Before Out of Time and Space, the only collections of Smith’s stories to appear were in tiny volumes he self-published, such as The Double Shadow and Other Phantasies. The 1942 publication of Out of Space and Time was therefore a monumental event in Smith’s history. He was still alive at the time (and still making occasional returns to fiction) and selected the stories for the volume himself.

Many Clark Ashton Smith collections have followed Out of Space and Time, but it’s pleasing to have this original back in print. The 2006 Bison edition is a facsimile of the last Arkham House printing in 1971 (which includes a few print errors), and also contains a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer, which is strangely negative about the author. Skip over it and go right to the August Derleth and Donald Wandrei original introduction, and then into the twenty works that follow. After that you can come back to the introduction and see if you agree with Vandermeer's opinions. I don’t.

Most of the stories in Out of Space and Time are excellent; Smith was a good judge of his own work, and at least ten of the stories contained within these covers I count among my personal favorites in the CAS canon. The arrangement of the contents also makes for a good introduction to readers making their first approach to the Mysteries of Klarkash-ton.

Many of these stories belong to Smith’s popular “cycles” set in continuing locations. I’ve written four essays regarding these, with detailed information on each of the stories. You can find the articles here: Averoigne, Hyperborea, Zothique, and Mars-Poseidonis-Xiccarph. I won’t spend much time on the stories from these cycles, and instead give more attention to the “non-cycle” works included.

Smith divided the contents of Out of Space and Time into four groups: “Out of Space and Time,” “Judgments and Dooms,” “Hyperborean Grotesques,” and “Interplanetaries.” The third group is the only one that showcases one of Smith’s story cycles. There are quite a few works of Zothique and two of Averoigne, but they are seeded through the first two sections. Perhaps the author felt that the Rabelasian humor of the Hyperborean stories merited having them separated from the other stories, although this doesn’t explain the inclusion of “Ubbo-Sathla,” a humorless Hyperborean tale, among “The Grotesques.”

The principle behind the six stories filed under the “Out of Space and Time” heading is travelers slipping from the mundane world into supernatural or cosmic realms. The first two stories occur in Averoigne, and thus bring the reader gently into tales of transition within a familiar medieval setting. This is wise, since thrusting a newcomer directly into the cosmic landscapes of “The City of the Singing Flame,” a lengthy story that spans dimensions and worlds few pulp authors would dare outside of E. E. Smith, would be unwise. “A Night in Malnéant” seems almost as if it could occur within Averoigne as well. The section closes with the Lemurian story “The Uncharted Isle,” which uses a sea voyage to bring a contemporary traveler to a mysterious island lost in time with the survivors of the sunken continent of Lemuria.

The section “Judgments and Dooms” focuses on punishment for transgressions or characters caught in traps of destiny. “The Second Interment” belongs to the latter group; it’s unusual for a Clark Ashton Smith story in that it contains no speculative fiction elements at all. The main character only hallucinates worlds of the weird as he spirals into a paranoia about getting buried alive. (A second time. Some people’s luck, really.) The story was originally published in Weird Tales’ brief competitor, Strange Tales from Clayton Magazines. Over all, this is the least interesting work in the collection, with no particularly memorable alteration on a standard theme other than the author's feverish style.

Strange Tales also featured another story from this section, “The Return of the Sorcerer.” This is a contemporary-set horror tale using some of H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, such as the dreaded Necronomicon making a rare appearance in its Arabic original. The story is one of the best in the standard horror vein for CAS, with a clever and gruesome concept about a dismembered corpse pulling itself back together, and a shocking denouement with horrific and unseen implications.

“The Chain of Aforgomon,” like “City of the Singing Flame” and “Ubbo-Sathla,” has a contemporary character send himself mentally to another time. But since “The Chain of Aforgomon” takes place under the “Judgments and Dooms” heading, the protagonist finds himself in the position of a man in the past who will suffer eternal torment from a god he has offended. This is one of Smith’s most popular and re-printed stories, but I’ve always felt it a bit facile and missing the impact of the other two stories I mentioned.

“The Double Shadow” belongs to the abbreviated cycle of stories Smith set in the last foundering piece of Atlantis, Posiedonis. He must have had great personal fondness for this story, since he made it the title of his first self-published collection.

There are three Zothique stories in this section, fitting for a continent ripe for tragedy: “The Last Hieroglyph,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and “The Death of Ilalotha.” These are all superlative pieces and among the finest in the volume, particularly “The Dark Eidolon,” one of Smith’s masterpieces of excess and dark fate. It may be my favorite work in the collection, although my list of favorite Clark Ashton Smith stories is as amorphous and variable as Ubbo-Sathla itself.

Speaking of which, the story “Ubbo-Sathla” in the next section, “Hyperborean Grotesques,” is a bit of anomaly. This section of three stories is the only one unified through a single location, the ancient sorcerous Greenland before the ice came, and the stories in this series tended toward mordant comedy. “The Testament of Athammaus” and “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” are both darkly funny, but “Ubbo-Sathla” is another one of Smith’s voyages into primordial memory. It’s a powerful piece for which I’ve always had a great liking, but it seems out of place as one of the comic “grotesques,” like the story of a headsman who just can't get an execution to go the way it should. (“The Testament of Athammaus.”)

The final section is “Interplanetaries,” which contains four stories that take place—as the name implies—on other planets, although they still have more of the “weird” than the “science” to them when it comes to fiction. “The Monster of the Prophecy” is one of the longest works in the volume, competing with “The City of the Singing Flame” for that honor. Like a number of other works in Out of Space and Time, the main character is a writer of the fantastic and a stand-in for Smith himself. The poet Alvor, struggling to find success with his verses in the twentieth century (Clark Ashton Smith speaking . . .), debates committing suicide—only to receive a sudden invitation to come to the planet Satabbor around the star Antares, where he is supposedly to fulfill a prophecy. The story goes a bit too long as it dips into describing a truly alien culture much different than the B.E.M.s of then-current magazine science fiction, but the finale is immensely moving in its expression of xenophiliac love and the bridging of cultures through the power of poetry. I believe in the statement that Smith makes at the end; I wish more people in our world did as well.

The second interplanetary, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” belongs to the brief Mars (or Aihai) cycle, and I’ve written extensively about it before. It’s one of the finest melding of Smith’s love for fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and would give the most serious competition in Out of Space and Time to “The Dark Eidolon” for my favorite story.

The last two pieces, “From the Crypts of Memory” and “The Shadows,” are both short-shorts, or “prose poems,” a genre that particularly suited Smith, but has never found much popularity. (“Flash fiction” is something else entirely.) “The Shadows” is a fine example of this art form, conveying dark melancholia and great swathes of history in a little under two pages. It makes a perfect punctuation mark to Out of Space and Time.