Monday, July 4, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Last Hieroglyph

Published in the April 1935 issue of Weird Tales, "The Last Hieroglyph" was originally intended to "form the concluding item of [Clark Ashton Smith's] Zothique series," according to a letter he wrote to R.H. Barlow. As it turns out, Smith wrote several more stories set in the last continent of his far future Earth, but it's easy to see why he might well have imagined that this tale would be the last. It tells the story of Nushain, an astrologer who had set up shop in Ummaos, the capital city of Xylac, after magistrates of other realms "had banished him as a common charlatan; or elsewise, in due time, his consultants had discovered the error of his predictions and fallen away from him." Nushain is thus portrayed as a bad astrologer, so bad in fact that, when "he found himself ... at a loss regarding the significance of some heavenly conjunction or opposition after poring over his books," he looked to his canine companion, Ansarath, and drew "profound auguries from the variable motions of the dog's mangy tail or his actions in searching for fleas."

All of the foregoing is but a set-up for what follows, which, as a story, is quite lacking. It was for this reason that the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, rejected "The Last Hieroglyph" not once but twice before finally accepting it. In his second rejection letter, he explained that
Beautiful though many of its passages are, yet there is so little plot, and the motivation seems so inadequate, that I am afraid it would disappoint many of our readers who expect almost perfection itself from you.
Wright was a common target of Smith's ire (as he was of Lovecraft's) for being frustratingly critical of his work, but, in truth, Wright's criticisms were often fair ones, as I think they were in this case. That said, even with its weaknesses, "The Last Hieroglyph" is nevertheless an intriguing bit of fiction, since it advances a metaphysical theory of creation wherein all reality is but a reflection of the writing held within the book of the hidden god Vergama.
"In my book," said the cowled figure, "the characters of all things are written and preserved. All visible forms, in the beginning, were but symbols written by me; and at last they shall exist only as the writing of my book. For a season, they issue forth, taking to themselves that which is known as substance ..."
Reading this, it's not difficult to imagine that Smith saw himself as Vergama, for surely all the characters and worlds that he created have their origins in symbols written by him and exist only as the writing of his book. If so, it's a feeling that I suspect anyone who's ever created anything of lasting value understands well. It's this, I think, that makes "The Last Hieroglyph" such an interesting and memorable story, despite its technical deficiencies.


  1. I always catalogued that one under poety instead of fiction.

  2. I find the magazine cover interesting; television perceived as just the next step in radio's development. I wonder what they forecast as the next "next step?"

  3. This sounds a lot like Dunsany's _Time and the Gods_, in which everything is a dream in the mind of a god, and the universe is guaranteed to end when that god awakens.

  4. Here is a link to Dunsany's 1905 book, _Time and the Gods_.

    I don't know whether there is any provable literary connection between these two writers.