Clark Ashton Smith

Since I’ve been in my teens I’ve had an intermittent liking for the works of a group of friends who, once upon a time, published stories in a Depression-era pulp magazine called Weird Tales. I don’t believe they ever met each other, back when travel was harder and the economy was straitened, but the three writers corresponded and their writings became somewhat incestuous; they created a world of terror influenced by the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

These three writers were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft, a New England resident, is perhaps the best known these days, for his tales of ancient evil well-seasoned (or ill-seasoned) with racial paranoia. My favorite is Clark Ashton Smith. Smith had a way of using obsolete words to create scenes of mythic weirdness. Here’s an example, an over-the-top scene which still impresses me; it’s from a short story called “The Dark Eidolon”:

Then, into the hall, there filed an array of tall mummies, clad in royal cerements of purple and scarlet, and wearing gold crowns on their withered craniums. And after them, like servitors, came gigantic skeletons who wore loin-cloths of nacarat orange and about whose upper skulls, from brow to crown, live serpents of banded saffron and ebon had wrapped themselves for head-dresses. And the mummies bowed before Zotulla, saying with thin, sere voices:

“We, who were kings of the wide realm of Tasuun aforetime, have been sent as a guard of honor for the emperor Zotulla, to attend him as is befitting when he goes forth to the feast prepared by Namirrha.”

Then with dry clickings of their teeth, and whistlings as of air through screens of fretted ivory, the skeletons spoke:

“We, who were giant warriors of a race forgotten, have also been sent by Namirrha, so that the emperor’s household, following him to the feast, should be guarded from all peril and should fare forth in such pageantry as is meet and proper.”

Witnessing these prodigies, the wine-bearers and other attendants cowered about the imperial dais or hid behind the pillars, while Zotulla, with pupils swimming starkly in a bloodshot white, with face bloated and ghastly pale, sat frozen on his throne and could utter no word in reply to the ministers of Namirrha.

Then, coming forward, the mummies said in dusty accents: “All is made ready, and the feast awaits the arrival of Zotulla.” And the cerements of the mummies stirred and fell open at the bosom, and small rodent monsters, brown as bitumen, eyed as with accursed rubies, reared forth from the eaten hearts of the mummies like rats from their holes and chittered shrilly in human speech, repeating the words. The skeletons in turn took up the solemn sentence; and the black and saffron serpents hissed it from their skulls; and the words were repeated lastly in baleful rumblings by certain furry creatures of dubious form, hitherto unseen by Zotulla, who sat behind the ribs of the skeletons as if in cages of white wicker.

Several of Smith’s strange tales can be found here:

Short Stories By Clark Ashton Smith

Larry

An Encounter In The Wilderness

Around Bisbee, as in many other warm-climate towns and cities, odd people are often encountered, homeless and/or eccentric folks who appreciate the ability to live a rough life of sorts without having to worry about freezing to death.

A couple of weeks ago I was camped out up on Juniper Flats, a place I have grown to love. Not many people come up there, largely due to the steepness and roughness of the switch-backed road. The ridgetop is the domain of agaves, yuccas, pinon pines, lizards, and of course alligator junipers.

The vegetation is scanty, interrupted by expanses of pinkish granite. Water is in short supply, though I did experience a hailstorm followed by rain which filled cavities in the granite, forming ephemeral pools.

One morning I was standing near a steep drop-off, looking down at the traffic on Rt. 80 and at the town of Bisbee, improbably nestled in a canyon towards the south. The sky, as almost always in these dry months before the monsoon season, was deep blue and cloudless. The sun and the dry air had yet to become oppressive.

I heard something approaching through a cluster of pines and silk-tassel trees. A feral cow, or a javelina, perhaps?

A sun-browned man came out of the trees, his clothes just rags. His hair was long and tangled and he had a patchy beard.

As he approached I said, “Hello! What brings you up to the flats, and how’d you get here?”

A closer look revealed that the man was dark-complected, not just sunburned. He wore sandals fashioned from tire rubber.

“I could well ask you the same, my friend!”, he said. “I don’t see many people up here, one reason I like the place.”

“My name’s Larry; what’s yours?”

The man chuckled. “If I told you you would think I am crazy or deluded, but what the heck, what do I care what you think? I’m Jesus Christ, but you can call me JC, like the Junior Chamber of Commerce organizations found in most towns in this vast country. Hey, you were born a US citizen, I presume — why Junior? Are there Senior Chambers of Commerce as well?”

“As far as I can tell, the senior business-folks of a town don’t need to have a formal organization or name — they tend to be known as The Old Boy’s Network.”

I’ve met deluded people with Christ complexes before, and I’ve found it best to humor them. Generally it doesn’t pay to argue or try to reason with crazy people. But this man intrigued me. He did look Middle Eastern, and he seemed to be very comfortable in the desert.

I said, “So what brings you to these parts, JC? You seem to be a long way from home.”

“Truth to tell, I’ve about had it with Palestine and the Middle East in general. Too many people, not enough water, the corruption caused by the oil industry, and incessant strife. The last straw was a few weeks ago when an unmanned drone aircraft started following me around. I believe it was controlled by a military minion in Colorado Springs.”

“That’s probably true, unfortunately. So what did you do?”

“I hacked into its control system and caused it to crash into the Mount of Olives. I’ll bet that whoever was controlling the craft had bright spots dancing before his or her eyes!”

The man continued:

“I thought that the time was ripe for a change of scene. I stowed away on an oil tanker, with the help of some friendly crewmen, and ended up in New Orleans. Turning the contents of one of their water tanks into wine helped. I’ve long wanted to see your country, home to so many people who, it seems, worship me.”

“So what do you think about the religion you seem to have inspired?”

“Oh, don’t get me started! I get tortured to death on a wooden cross, and now people wear effigies of that cross around their necks! You must realize that the Christian bible was written by people I never knew, for the most part. Have you read the Book of Revelations? I did know John, but he was psychotic. I suspect the influence of certain psychotropic desert plants, to be frank. A sad case, indeed.”

“Have you encountered any interesting new foods here in the New World, JC?”

“Oh, yes! I’m quite fond of chile peppers, and the pods of the mesquite tree remind me so much of those of the carob in my native haunts. Showers of manna seem to be rare around here, but really they seem to have declined in the Old World of late.”

I was enjoying this odd conversation, but then a white SUV pulled into the clearing. It was a Border Patrol vehicle; they patrol the Flats about once a week. A Hispanic man in a uniform, armed with a pistol, got out and approached us. How ironic that Hispanics are often employed by the patrol to apprehend Mexicans who happen to have tried to enter this country during a terrorist scare period!

Sotto voce, I said to JC, “Act autistic! No personal affect, sit down and look away. I’ll handle this.”

The man said,”Hi, you two. I’d like to see some ID, please.”

I was a bit annoyed. “I’m an American citizen and I don’t need to show ID on American soil. Unless I’m driving or disturbing the peace, of course. My friend here is my cousin; he’s autistic, and he lives in a managed care facility in Sierra Vista. I brought him up here for an excursion into the outside world. He won’t talk, as he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t have any ID — I didn’t think it would be necessary.”

JC played the part well. He sat on a granite boulder looking away and seemed oblivious to the agent’s presence.

The Border Patrol agent looked confused.

“Autistic? I have a nephew who is that way. Oh, well, I guess I’ll leave you two and keep on looking for real illegals.”

The man drove away.

JC chuckled.

“Man, you handled that well! Autistic, eh? I’ll remember that, as I probably can use that ruse in the future.”

JC stood up, shook my hand, and wandered off into a canyon.

Larry