Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Beloved Nylissa

I've been reading a lot of Clark Ashton Smith lately. As I believe I mentioned in a previous post, he's my favorite of the three best known writers for Weird Tales back in its heyday. Smith's "prose poetry" is something I find remarkably evocative and, more to the point, affecting. It's actually quite rare that I find the written word emotionally moving, at least in the case of popular literature. Besides Smith, Tolkien is one of the few others who can manage it for me, but that's probably because the two of them, despite their vast differences in world view, both share a melancholy awareness of the ravages of time. It's this in particular that I find strikes a powerful chord with me, particularly of late.

Last night, I read "The Last Incantation," a short story that tells the tale of Malygris of Poseidonis, a necromancer of the last surviving colony of Atlantis. Filled with ennui, he recalls a beautiful girl of his youth, whom he loved and whom he now wishes to recall from the abode of the dead. He consults his familiar, a viper, to see if such a feat is within his powers and whether it be a wise thing to do. The viper tells him that it is of course within his power to recall Nylissa, the girl from his youth, back from the dead, but whether doing so be good or ill can only be decided by Malygris himself.

So, the necromancer calls back the girl's shade and cannot believe, upon seeing her, that she is the same girl he once loved, for she is nothing like what he believed she would be. Disappointed, he ceases his necromancy before restoring her to life and returns to the viper to bitterly complain. He asks:
"Why did you not warn me?"

"Would the warning have availed?" was the counter-question. "All knowledge was yours, Malygris, excepting this one thing; and in no other way could you have learned it."

"What thing?" queried the magician. "I have learned nothing except the vanity of wisdom, the impotence of magic, the nullity of love, and the delusiveness of memory ... Tell me, why could I not recall to life the same Nylissa whom I knew, or thought I knew?"

"It was indeed Nylissa whom you summoned and saw," replied the viper. "Your necromancy was potent up to this point: but no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then. This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn."


  1. That's one of my favorites of his. I won't belabor the obvious analogy, but here's another CAS quote that's maybe slightly more hopeful in the context of the present discussion, and also analogous to recent events and efforts:

    I pass . . . but in this lone and crumbling tower,
    Builded against the burrowing seas of chaos,
    My volumes and philtres shall abide:
    Poisons more dear than any mithridate,
    And spells far sweeter than the speech of love. . . .
    Half-shapen dooms shall slumber in my vaults
    And in my volumes cryptic runes that shall
    Outblast the pestilence, outgnaw the worm
    When loosed by alien wizards on strange years
    Under the blackened moon and paling sun.
    --The Sorcerer Departs

  2. That's a great passage too. Thanks for this.

  3. No problem. I share your appreciation of Smith, and though I'm not up on all of his poetry ("The Sorcerer Departs" appears at the beginning of the Arkham House collection of his tales) I always found this one particularly poignant and thought I'd share on the off chance you didn't know it. He seems to have had, at least the day he wrote it, an almost prescient sense of his own brilliance and future influence (on Bradbury and Vance, among others, and through them most decent modern SF authors). Assuming he was thinking of himself as the "Sorcerer", of course. Interesting juxtaposition with Lovecraft, who thought he was (and was, during his own lifetime) a complete flop, but who has subsequently come to rival Poe in the esteem of most genre literary critics.

    Just in case someone reading this doesn't know, almost all of CAS's fiction and poetry can be found online at There's also a fair amount of scholarly-type discussion of his work there, and even a few posters who knew him personally.

  4. Eldritch Dark is a great website. I used to hang out there a lot once upon a time. I even received permission from the Smith estate to produce a RPG based on his stories, but that project got hung up on the issue of copyrights and Arkham House's claims over Smith's writings. It's a pity.

    As an aside, Jack Vance claims never to have read CAS, which I find odd, since there's such a strong similarity between their works.

  5. As an aside, Jack Vance claims never to have read CAS, which I find odd, since there's such a strong similarity between their works.

    Hmmmm, interesting. I have the Jack Vance Treasury (Subterranean Press), in which Vance gives brief literary, autobiographical, and other miscellaneous comments after each story. In one of them (I don't recall which off-hand) he mentions that he had in fact read Smith, but more or less denigrates him as a hack and downplays CAS's influence on his own writings. I suppose it's possible that he read CAS after making the claim you mention, but my guess is that he was fibbing.

    Their styles and approach are just too darn similar to deny all influence, IMO. Maybe this is yet another case of an SF writer trying to appear more "literary" by disowning the genre's pulp ghetto roots. Vance never did quite get the mainstream attention he probably deserved. Contrariwise, Bradbury explicitly identifies CAS as his inspiration to begin writing, and he has certainly been accepted.

    Too bad about the CAS-based RPG, that would've been cool. Most of his stuff has got to be public domain by now, though. I hope you'll resume this project at some point.

  6. Re: Vance and CAS

    I may be misremembering, but I thought Vance claimed he'd never read Smith, which is odd, because Vance is probably the closest amongst modern fantasy/SF authors to Smith in both style and content. The Dying Earth series is very much like Zothique, right down to the language and dark humor.