Monday, February 22, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Empire of the Necromancers

The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. Before the time of its telling, many epochs shall have passed away, and the seas shall have fallen in their beds, and new continents shall have come to birth. Perhaps, in that day, it will serve to beguile for a little the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.
So begins the inaugural story of Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique cycle, "The Empire of the Necromancers," which was first published in the September 1932 issue of Weird Tales. As its opening paragraph -- one of the most potent CAS ever wrote in my opinion -- makes clear, it's the story of two necromancers, driven from country to country for their practice of the dark arts, before they at last decide to set out for the defunct land of Cincor, now a corpse-filled desert whose inhabitants were slain some centuries past by a plague.
"It's a goodly land," said Mmatmuor, "and you and I will share it between us, and hold dominion over all its dead, and be crowned as emperors on the morrow in Yethlyreom."

"Aye," replied Sodosma, "for there is none living to dispute us here; and those that we have summoned from the tomb shall move and breathe only at our dictation, and may not rebel against us."
This being a Clark Ashton Smith story, things don't go quite as the two necromancers have planned, resulting in a tale that some have reasonably called Smith greatest prose work. I'm unwilling to make such a bold claim myself, but there's no question that "The Empire of the Necromancers" is one of Smith's best fantasies and certainly a good contender for the best story of the Zothique cycle.

It's one of my personal favorites too, serving as inspiration for a necromancer-ruled city-state in my own Dwimmermount campaign, where the risen dead, from the mightiest sorcerer to the lowliest street urchin, serve and protect it in one capacity or another. It's a gloomy and unpleasant place but nevertheless a bastion against Chaos, its unliving armies regularly doing battle against demons and their earthly thralls. Brother Candor, Dordagdonar, and the other Fortune's Fools have yet to venture there, but they know of its existence and may well do so one day. I rather look forward to that, since it'll give me an opportunity to inject a little more Smithian black humor into the game -- an opportunity I rarely pass up.

20 comments:

  1. Just read this the other day--it's wonderful. I especially like how CAS plays with the way in which the necromancers get what's coming to them. Hint: heroes are not involved.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You cannot go wrong with a good Clark Ashton Smith story. In a few pages he writes a story more powerful than some have done in a thousand, and this is one of those tales.

    ReplyDelete
  3. C.A.S. Was great. But I'd rather be a character in a Robert E. Howard story than in a C.A. Smith one.

    ReplyDelete
  4. One of the most amazing stories written by CAS.

    Incredibly beautiful prose work, incredibly gloomy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @By The Sword:
    Yes, it's interesting that some settings are more fun when visited by other writers. I always prefer REH's cosmic horror to that of Lovecraft, and back when I played CoC, it was generally with a Pulp/Noir feel.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's one of my favourites, too. I read it to my son a few months back, and he rated it "Best Clark Ashton Smith Story Ever".

    That and The Planet of the Dead remind me a bit of Poe, too.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This was the first CAS story I ever read and still one of my favorites along with "Black Abott.."

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think I might have to take out my tattered copy of Zothique & re-read it...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great recommendation. I nod my head when Poe is mentioned as an influence, but I hear Lord Dunsany more strongly in CAS's work, both in his themes and the prose style.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think this one's my favorite, it's the only one that's compelled me to create artwork based on it. He wrote so many great stories. Wish he had stayed with prose instead of veering into poetry.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Doug, yes, I agree that Dunsany is a stronger influence than Poe, on CAS in general, though I find that the stories in which he obsesses even more than usual on morbid themes seem very reminiscent of The Fall of the House of Usher.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Clark Ashton Smith started with poetry, moved to prose, and then ended with sculpture.

    ReplyDelete
  13. He actually returned primarily to poetry after his parents and close correspondences died writing only about 12 or so stories in the last 25 years of his life.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Has any of his stories been reprinted in a collection like Howards?

    ReplyDelete
  15. http://www.amazon.com/Story-Collected-Fantasies-Clark-Ashton/dp/1597800287/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266865371&sr=8-1

    A really nice ongoing collection.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks has him in Emperor Of Dreams. They also have REH (2 volumes) and the superb Leigh Brackett.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Even better: all of CAS's stories are online for free at The Eldritch Dark. I've been greedily glancing toward the Night Shade series, but it's definitely a major investment. The Fantasy Masterworks collection is the best and cheapest way to get an in-print sampler.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This is probably my favourite CAS tale, too. I blogged about it back on CAS' birthday. Great yarn.

    ReplyDelete
  19. If you've ever read Ursula LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,", you'll see in CAS an embodiment of her thesis that in fantasy literature, style matters. Smith can use archaic idioms without appearing arch or clumsy. It's curious that LeGuin didn't use CAS as an exemplar -- but she does mention Dunsany and (IIRC) Eddison as masters of evocative, exquisitely-phrased fantasy prose. Worth a read if you can find it.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This was one of my first CAS stories, and my favorite, though I do love most or all of his works. Even his poetry and ordinarily I'm not into that.


    I like also "The Island of the Torturers" and "The Charnel God".

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.