Saturday, June 21, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith's Dark Eidolon, a review

Review of

Smith, Clark Ashton, 2014, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, S. T. Joshi, ed., Penguin books, ISBN 978-0-14-310738-5, paperback, perfect bound, 370 pages.

I have a particular fondness for Smith. Who else can use words no one else knows, without awkwardness? Gene Wolfe comes to mind, but that's it. Most of Smith's stories are set in the far distant future, which seems a lot like the distant past in many ways, because the technology is much less sophisticated than our own. And magic works. This setting gives Smith tremendous scope.

Dark Eidolon begins with probably the best-known Smith story: "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros." This is a good story, and I did not mind reading it again, but it has been repeatedly reprinted. This book contains a mixture of very familiar and good stories and unfamiliar and forgettable stories. So I found nothing new and meaty in here. That's because I have read almost everything by Smith that has been collected or anthologized in the past 50 years. Now, Dark Eidolon is probably the only Smith collection in print right now. For anyone who has discovered Smith within the past 30 years, finding the other collections might be rather difficult. For anyone new to Smith and his fantastic stories of far-future adventure, dripping with magic and monsters, and assembled from the broadest word palette imaginable, you need this book. But if, like me, you are familiar with Smith's fiction, this book will not satisfy your desire for more. Dark Eidolon also includes quite a few poems, about 40 of them. The editor, in the introduction, reports that Smith had a very low opinion of his own poetry. The author might be wrong about his work, but in this case I don't think he was. I am not the most eager fan of fantasy poetry, but I have read some that really blew me away. I am afraid that Smith's poems don't do that.

From "The Last Night":

I watched, until the pale and flickering sun,
In agony and fierce despair, flamed high,
And shadow-slain, went out upon the gloom.
Then Night, that war of gulf-born Titans won,
Impended for a breath on wings of doom.
And through the air fell like a falling sky.

To quote Beyond the Fringe, it's not enough to keep the mind alive. So don't buy this book for the poetry unless your taste diverges quite sharply from mine. By contrast, the 35 short stories that comprise the main part of the book are easily worth the price of admission. If you thrill to tales of demons, magic-users, and warriors of all stripes, if John Carter got your heart pumping, read this book.

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