When you think “Weird Tales,” H.P. Lovecraft should spring immediately to mind. Even if you’re new to scifi/fantasy, or if you don’t read much horror, you’ve no doubt at least heard of the Master of Cosmic Horror and creator of Cthulhu.
If you’re not a fan of the genre, you probably didn’t know that Robert E. Howard, most famous for his Conan the Barbarian, was another major writer of Weird Tales. Indeed, the popular perception of Conan as a dumb, brawny fighter is an unjust one. Many of the Conan tales touch upon the weird and horrific, and contain the germ of what some would call science fiction. And Conan isn’t even the weirdest or arguably the greatest of Howard’s creations!
If you haven’t dug a little bit into the old, deep-magic of scifi/fantasy, you probably haven’t heard of Clark Ashton Smith. Last year, over at the Castalia House blog, I wrote a bit about Smith and his influence on SF/F grandmaster Jack Vance. In the first half of the 20th century, Smith, together with Howard and Lovecraft, formed what was known as the Big Three of Weird Tales.
Unfortunately, while the quality of his work is on par with Lovecraft and Howard, his name has largely fallen into obscurity among young, modern readers. I personally hadn’t even heard of him until about two years ago. It’s tragic, for the richness of his prose and imagination put many modern SF/F writers to shame.
I must admit that I’ve only explored a small portion of the great trove of his writings, but his Zothique Cycle in particular stirs something in me. The Zothique stories, which spawned their own subgenre, tell of the final days of a dying Earth, when gods and demons have returned to the world. Kings and sorcerers plot and battle, avenge themselves, make evil pacts, and die. It is a grim and terrible, but fantastic setting.
The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. Before the time of its telling, many epochs shall have passed away, and the seas shall have fallen in their beds, and new continents shall have come to birth. Perhaps, in that day, it will serve to beguile for a little the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.
– “The Empire of the Necromancers” (1932)
Smith also contributed largely to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, if you’re into that.
Noteworthy for the pedantic student of SF/F as a form, of its history, and of its roots and development, Smith also wrote a good deal of notes and essays.
It’s heartening to see that some older hands and also members of the “Pulp Revolution,” an online movement concerned in part with the rediscovery of old, lost, great scifi/fantasy works and writers, have devoted some attention to Smith in recent days.
If you’ve not been familiar with him and your interest is piqued, or if you’re on the lookout for some interesting, fresh scifi/fantasy (for old is new once again, my friends), I urge you to spend a little time with Smith’s stuff. Collections of his work are in print, but if you prefer to read online or just want to try his writing on for size, there’s plenty of stories to read here, at his fan site.