Monday, June 13, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Return of the Sorcerer

When it comes to the work of Clark Ashton Smith, my own preferences tend toward his fantasy output, particularly those set in Averoigne, Hyperborea, and Zothique. However, nearly all of Smith's work is tinged with horror, which is why it should come as no surprise that produced numerous tales which is much more explicitly horrific in nature. 

One of his most well known (and anthologized) horror stories is "The Return of the Sorcerer," which first appeared in the September 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Horror. The tale is influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, with the blasphemous Necronomicon playing a central role in its narrative. Smith shared a typescript of the story with HPL in early 1931, who had kind things to say about it, though he did make several suggestions for heightening its tension. Smith embraced these suggestions with enthusiasm and the result is a creditable, occasionally frightful yarn in the best tradition of the pulps.

Told in the first person, "The Return of the Sorcerer" tells the tale of Ogden, a scholar who "had been out of work for several months" and whose "savings were perilously close to the vanishing point." I find it difficult, upon reading those lines, not to think of Smith himself, who often engaged in all manner of odd jobs, including manual labor, to make ends meet. Ogden has recently applied for the position of secretary to John Carnby, an aged scholar living "at the end of a hill-top avenue in the suburbs of Oakland." Ogden's application is successful, owing to his knowledge of Arabic, which Carnby explains is absolutely essential to his own researches.

Though overjoyed at finding gainful – and potentially intellectually stimulating – employment, Ogden is nevertheless put off by Carnby himself.

He had all the earmarks of the lonely scholar who has devoted patient years to some line of erudite research. He was thin and bent, with a massive forehead and a mane of grizzled hair; and the pallor of the library was on his hollow, clean-shaven cheeks. But coupled with this, there was a nerve-shattered air, a fearful shrinking that was more than the normal shyness of a recluse, and an unceasing apprehensiveness that betrayed itself in every glance of his dark-ringed, feverish eyes and every movement of his bony hands. In all likelihood his health had been seriously impaired by over-application; and I could not help but wonder at the nature of the studies that had made him a tremulous wreck But there was something about him — perhaps the width of his bowed shoulders and the bold aquilinity of his facial outlines — which gave the impression of great former strength and a vigor not yet wholly exhausted.

His voice was unexpectedly deep and sonorous.

Carnby asks Ogden to move in with him, which he does immediately, despite his reservations – well-founded, we soon learn – about his patron.

"I have made a life-study of demonism and sorcery," he declared. "It is a fascinating field, and one that is singularly neglected. I am now preparing a monograph, in which I am trying to correlate the magical practices and demon-worship of every known age and people. Your labors, at least for a while, will consist in typing and arranging the voluminous preliminary notes which I have made, and in helping me to track down other references and correspondences. Your knowledge of Arabic will be invaluable to me, for I am none too well-grounded in this language myself, and I am depending for certain essential data on a copy of the Necronomicon in the original Arabic text. I have reason to think that there are certain omissions and erroneous renderings in the Latin version of Olaus Wormius."

Ogden "had heard of this rare, well-nigh fabulous volume but had never seen it." He had also heard of its sinister reputation as a source of "the ultimate secrets of evil and forbidden knowledge." After dinner on the first night of his employment, Carnby shows his secretary the book in question.

It was enormously old, and was bound in ebony covers arabesqued with silver and set with darkly glowing garnets. When I opened the yellowing pages, I drew back with involuntary revulsion at the odor which arose from them — an odor that was more than suggestive of physical decay, as if the book had lain among corpses in some forgotten graveyard and had taken on the taint of dissolution.

Carnby is quite keen that Ogden should translate a section of the Arabic text that is absent in the later Latin translation. This Ogden does, his rough translation being the following:

 "It is verily known by few, but is nevertheless no attestable fact, that the will of a dead sorcerer hath power upon his own body and can raise it up from the tomb and perform therewith whatever action was unfulfilled in life. And such resurrections are invariably for the doing of malevolent deeds and for the detriment of other's. Most readily can the corpse be animated if all its members have remained intact; and yet there are cases in which the excelling will of the wizard hath reared up from death the sundered pieces of a body hewn in many fragments, and hath caused them to serve his end, either separately or in a temporary reunion. But in every instance, after the action hath been completed, the body lapseth into its former state."

Though Ogden deems the passage "errant gibberish," Carnby is pleased with his translation, even as he seems to become even more anxious than before. It's at this point that the reader is treated to the story's first serious intimations of horror:

I heard an indescribable slithering noise in the hall outside. But when I finished the paragraph and looked up at Carnby, I was more startled by the expression of stark, staring fear which his features had assumed — an expression as of one who is haunted by some hellish phantom. Somehow, I got the feeling that he was listening to that odd noise in the hallway rather than to my translation of Abdul Alhazred.

"The house is full of rats,' he explained, as he caught my inquiring glance. 'I have never been able to get rid of them, with all my efforts."

I spoil nothing by telling you there are no rats in Carnby's house.

"The Return of the Sorcerer," while not Smith's best work, is still an engagingly grisly tale of the dangers inherent in practicing the Black Arts. I can't quite good so far as to say the tale is fun, but there is something of a joyous ghoulishness in the building tension, as CAS provides more and more clues to the reader about just what is happening. It's the kind of story one might expect to have found in the pages of EC Comics a generation later. If that's the sort of thing you enjoy, you can't go wrong with "The Return of the Sorcerer."


  1. Th story was also adapted for the tv show THE NIGHT GALLERY, starring Vincent Price and Bill Bixby.

    1. You have anticipated a post I will be making later today!

  2. A bit of EC comics meets Weird Tales. Not really that great, but entertaining all the same.

  3. I would love to know whether Smith wrote this story before or after Howard wrote "The Right Hand of Doom." Howard almost certainly read Smith's story after publication; if he'd already written "The Right Hand of Doom," the similarities between the two might explain why Howard's was never published in his lifetime.