Monday, June 30, 2014

The Charnel God - Clark Ashton Smith

A while back John Hocking suggested that I read Clark Ashton Smith's story "The Charnel God", which originally appeared in the March 1934 issue of WEIRD TALES. Now I have, and I'm becoming more of a CAS fan after never reading much of his work until recently.

"The Charnel God" is one of Smith's Zothique stories, set on a far future, decadent Earth where magic has replaced science. The plot concerns a young couple unlucky enough to be stopping in a city where the local god demands that the bodies of anyone who dies there be placed in his temple so he can consume them. It seems that the wife has this unusual disease that causes her to fall into a death-like coma from time to time, and sure enough, a spell of it hits her while she and her husband are there. The doctor who is summoned pronounces her dead, over the husband's objections, and priests show up to cart the "body" over to the temple of Mordriggian to be consumed. The husband, the hero of the tale, is determined to break in and rescue her before she can be gobbled up.

But that's just the very beginning of the story, which gets much more complicated with a plot by a local sorcerer, reanimation spells, running around inside the temple, sinister priests who may or may not be human, and Mordriggian himself, the hungry and vengeful god whose decrees set everything in motion.

Smith spins this yarn in his typical lush prose full of vocabulary you'll have to look up (or go by context, which is what I tend to do). This isn't the sort of writing I normally like, being more a fan of the terse, hardboiled style, but damned if Smith doesn't make it work, and work beautifully. There's even some nice action and plenty of creepily vivid imagery. This one's been reprinted in a number of places and is worth seeking out. As for me, I plan to continue reading more of Smith's stories.


Anonymous said...

I figured you'd get a good kick out of this tale, James.
I always imagined Robert E. Howard paging through this issue of Weird Tales and reading The Charnel God with real pleasure.

And it turns out that he actually did. From his letters...

To Clark Ashton Smith, ca. March 1934: "...I was glad to see your illustration of your really magnificent "Charnel God." That story is really a tremendously powerful thing, sinister figures moving mysteriously against a black background of subtle horror. I don't know when I've read anything I admired more."

So in enjoying that story it appears that we are in pretty good company.


Walker Martin said...

The 16 or so stories in the Zothique cycle are really excellent and represent Smith at his very best. The horror, the disturbing images, the sorcery, the macabre atmosphere, all very well handled. I've read them all more than once, some several times over the years.

I see Howard mentions Smith's illustration. He did do a few illustrations for his own stories in WEIRD TALES and they are quite bizarre and unusual. I've always liked his drawings and sculptures.

James Reasoner said...

Good catch on the Howard letter, John.

Walker, I intend to read all the Zothique stories. I've really liked the two I've read so far.

Charles Gramlich said...

I came late to Smith too, after Howard and Lovecraft. I like his work, although it'll never quite rate as high as the other two to me.

James Reasoner said...

Based on an admittedly small sample, at this point I'd have to say I prefer Smith to Lovecraft. But I'd really like to read more by both of them.

Walker Martin said...

We have been discussing Clark Ashton Smith's fiction today, June 30, and by a happy coincidence, later in the day, I received in the mail an excellent one volume introduction to his work.

THE DARK EIDOLON AND OTHER FANTASIES has just been published as a Penguin Classic. It is a 370 page paperback containing some of Smith's best fiction and poetry. In addition there is a introduction by S.T. Joshi, suggestions for further reading, and 31 pages of explanatory notes. The cover is by Smith and the book can be obtained from at a discount.

I highly recommend this one volume collection.

Unknown said...

In the early 1970s, UK publisher Neville Spearman "introduced Clark Ashton Smith's genius to the British public" with beautifully reproduced hardcover editions of the US Arkham House collections of his stories. Unlike many other books in my collection, the high-quality paper and binding have stored well. I've just retrieved my copy of "Genius Loci and Other Tales" from the boxes in the basement. It's in pristine condition and I'm going to treat myself to re-reading "The Charnel God" in a real print-and-paper book that look as if it was bought yesterday. A rare pleasure!

Charles R. Rutledge said...

The Charnel God is one of my absolute favorite CAS stories. I'll also recommend The White Sybil and The Master of Crabs.

pfong said...

This is one of my favorite stories. I can see why Robert E Howard liked this story. The protagonist is a lot more active than in many of the other Zothique stories. He actively tries to save his fiancé.