Monday, June 20, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Planet of the Dead

I've been in something of a Clark Ashton Smith mood lately, re-reading not only his more well-known tales, such as those of the Hyperborea or Zothique cycles, but some of his less celebrated ones. "The Planet of the Dead," first appearing in the March 1932 issue of Weird Tales, arguably falls into this latter category and it's not difficult to understand why. 

Much of Smith's fictional output is decidedly lacking when it comes to plot, especially when compared to his fellow pulp writers. He is much more focused on evoking feelings in his readers than on presenting a straightforward narrative. That's not to say he has no interest in action, but it often takes a backseat to mood. That's certainly the case in "The Planet of the Dead," whose story, while present, is much less important than the emotions Smith hoped to conjure with it.

To get a sense of what I mean, consider the opening of the story:

By profession, Francis Melchior was a dealer in antiques; by avocation he was an astronomer. Thus he contrived to placate, if not to satisfy, two needs of a somewhat complex and unusual temperament. Through his occupation, he gratified in a measure his craving for all things that have been steeped in the mortuary shadows of dead ages, in the dusky amber flames of long-sunken suns; all things that have about them the irresoluble mystery of departed time. And through his avocation, he found a ready path to exotic realms in further space, to the only spheres where his fancy could dwell in freedom and his dreams could know contentment. For Melchior was one of those who are born with an immedicable distaste for all that is present or near at hand; one of those who have drunk too lightly of oblivion and have not wholly forgotten the transcendent glories of other aeons, and the worlds from which they were exiled into human birth; so that their furtive, restless thoughts and dim, unquenchable longings return obscurely toward the vanishing shores of a lost heritage. The earth is too narrow for such, and the compass of mortal time is too brief; and paucity and barrenness are everywhere; and in all places their lot is a never-ending weariness.
A reader is either immediately entranced by prose of this sort or is put off by it; there's rarely a middle ground. I've sometimes described Smith's word as incantatory, though, in this case, I'd probably use the word hypnotic. The passage doesn't simply introduce us to the tale's protagonist, whose name recalls  (not coincidentally, I suspect) one of the Magi who followed a star to the birthplace of Christ, but also acclimates the reader to its tone – contemplative, melancholic, wistful. 

Melchior, we learn, has achieved some measure of success as a dealer in antiques, enough that he doesn't worry much about material needs. At the same time, "he had never cared to marry," "had made no intimate friends; and he lacked many of the interests which, in the eyes of the average person, are supposed to characterize a normal human being." I hesitate to suggest this sounds more than a little bit like Smith himself, but it does, doesn't it? 

In any event, Melchior devotes himself to studying 

one minute star in a wide-flung constellation south of the Milky Way. It was barely discernible to the naked eye; and even through his telescope, it gave an impression of cosmic solitude and remoteness such as he had never felt in any other orb. It allured him more than the moon-surrounded planets or the first-magnitude stars with their flaming spectra; and he returned to it again and again, forsaking for its lonely point of light the marvelous manifold rings of Saturn and the cloudy zone of Venus and the intricate coils of the nebula of Andromeda.

One evening, the star seems to look "a little larger and brighter than usual" and viewing it elicits an excitement within Melchior that makes him feel as if "he was peering downwards into a vast, vertiginous abyss." Before long, he loses consciousness and, when he awakes, he finds himself in another place, one at once alien and familiar. After a few moments of confusion, he realizes the truth. 

He [was] Antarion, a renowned poet of the land of Charmalos, in the elder world that was known to its living peoples by the name of Phandiom, had gone on a brief journey to a neighboring realm. In the course of this journey, a distressing dream had befallen him — the dream of a tedious. unprofitable life as one Francis Melchior, in a quite unpleasant and peculiar sort of planet, lying somewhere on the farther side of the universe. He was unable to recall exactly when and where he had been beset by this dream; and he had no idea how long it had lasted: but at any rate, he was glad to be rid of it, and glad that he was now approaching his native city of Saddoth, where dwelt in her and splendid palace of past aeons the beautiful Thameera. whom he loved. Now, once more, after the obscure clouding of that dream, his mind was full of the wisdom of and his heart was illumed by a thousand memories of Thameera; and was darkened at whiles by an old anxiety concerning her.

Not without reason had Melchior been fascinated by things antique and by things that are far away. For the world wherein he walked as Antarion was incomputably and the ages of its history were too many for remembrance: and the towering obelisks and piles along the paven road were the high tombs, the proud monuments of its immemorial dead, who had come to outnumber infinitely the living. In more than the pomp of earthly kings, the dead were housed in Phandiom; and their cities loomed insuperably vast, with never-ending streets and prodigious spires, above those lesser abodes wherein the living dwelt. And throughout Phandiom the bygone years were a tangible presence, an air that enveloped all; and the people were steeped in the crepuscular gloom of antiquity; and were wise with all manner of accumulated lore; and were subtle in the practise of strange refinements, of erudite perversities, of all that can shroud with artful opulence and grace and variety the bare uncouth cadaver of life, or hide from mortal vision the leering skull of death. And here, in Saddoth, beyond the domes and terraces and columns of the huge necropolis, a necromantic flower wherein forgotten lilies live again, there bloomed the superb and sorrowful loveliness of Thameera.

This is a common theme in Smith's work. Whether by means of sorcery, science, or the transmigration of souls, a man of our Earth realizes that he belongs elsewhere. Earth is, at best, a place of exile, if not torment, and he only truly comes into himself when somehow liberated from the dreary. humdrum existence of "everyday" life. There's a powerful, mournful longing in these tales, as the protagonist grapples with the fact that it is only by leaving behind all that he knows – or thought he knew – that he can ever experience the elation for which his soul was made. It's heady stuff, particularly for any reader who might himself have felt that he, too, did not fit in.

Smith might well be called a romantic. However, he was not a sentimentalist and so what happens to Melchior – which is to say, Antarion – now that he has returned "home" is not without its own share of sadness. That's what elevates "The Planet of the Dead" beyond mere wish fulfillment and makes a story that while far from Smith's best, is nevertheless well worth reading.


  1. 'Haunting' is the word that comes to mind when I think of this story. I first read it over 20 years ago, and it still lingers in my memory.

  2. Thanks for this review James. I'm firmly in the camp of people immediately entranced by Smith's prose, though I've read sadly little of his work. I just ordered volumes 1 and 5 of Collected Fantasies to remedy that.

  3. I must be in the "bored" camp. My mind drifted off before I finished the introductory paragraph. It was pretty funny snapping back to reality as I read your commentary about the two standard reactions to Smith's work right after he bored me to daydreaming.