Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Last Hieroglyph

Over the last four years, Nightshade Books has been publishing a five volume series collecting the Fantasy short stories of Clark Ashton Smith. The Last Hieroglyph, the fifth and final volume, arrived last week and I've been reading through it, allowing myself one story per night when possible, sometimes one every two nights. The fiction of Clark Ashton Smith should not be rushed through. The good stories, which far outweigh the bad or the mediocre, should be savored, read slowly and appreciated. Smith's best work is 'prose poetry' and a reader should take the time to enjoy the feast of words.
Not that CAS's stuff is by any stretch of the imagination slow, stuffy or outdated. Some of his horror stories still pack quite a jolt. The Death of Malygris, from the newest volume, features a particularly grisly fate for some sorcerers who really should have known better. The night phantoms visited on the hero of The Witchcraft of Ulua, a story with surprisingly erotic undertones, will visit you too late at night if you think on them too long. Smith creates images that linger in your mind long after the book has been replaced on the shelf.
There's a quality to Smith's work that is difficult to pin down. The sheer strangeness of his ideas is part of it. He seemed to excel at creating things that no one had thought of before. Lin Carter was fond of using the word lapidary when describing Smith's work, likening the composing of each story to the faceting of a jewel. That's a bit flowery for me, but I see what he meant. Smith obviously put a lot of work into his stories. The annotations in the back of each of these volumes bear this out. Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger have supplied exhaustive information and notes about each story. I enjoy reading this material almost as much as reading the stories and in fact, upon finishing each tale, I immediately turn to the back pages to read all the notes about it.
Also, the editors have gone through original typescripts, manuscripts, published editions and Smith's notes and letters to try to bring the readers the stories as Smith intended them. They've even included excised scenes and alternate endings and such when possible. You aren't going to find any more authentic Clark Ashton Smith work anywhere else. That's why I recommend these volumes to CAS fans who already have these stories in other forms.
Limited edition publishing being what it is, there was sometimes a long wait between volumes, with the span between volume three and volume four being long enough that I'd begun to worry a bit, but now all five volumes have been published. If you're interested, don't wait too long. I did notice that volume 1 is becoming collectible, with mint copies going for up to 150 bucks and used ones in the $65 to $100 range, but you could probably find one cheaper with some digging, and the other four volumes are still available for cover price or less at Amazon.


Alex said...

As a great fan of CAS, I'm a little bit vexed at the price of these Night Shade editions. It appears to be the only complete(?) collection on the market and certainly the only in hardcover, so I would very much like to own it, but find the standard cover price of £25 a volume (let alone inflated collector prices!) hard to stomach. Why are they charging so much, do you think/know? The covers on these are pretty awful too, by the looks of it, so I'm not sure the argument that you're paying for 'the whole package' really stands up here...

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Alex, I suspect that the cost involves several factors, the biggest probably being limited print runs. Nightshade isn't a huge publisher so it's not as if they're printing thousands and thousands of copies, but only what they think they can sell. Also the books are very high quality, nicer in terms of paper, binding, and so forth than what you get in the average mass market hardback. I'm okay with the covers myself, but that's a matter of individual preference of course.
Content wise, what the editors have done is change the stories back to being as close to Smith's original intentions as possible. If Farnsworth Wright made Smith take some stuff out for Weird Tales, these guys have put it back. I already own the majority of these stories in other books but these aren't exactly the same stories. I agree that the Nightshades are a little pricey, but it was worth the money to me to get the extra material and the 'directors cut' of the stories. Hope that helps.


Alex said...

Thanks Charles, that does clear things up a bit. Great blog, by the way. I've only just discovered it but I'll be coming back regularly. It's good to see a blogger paying such attention to the broader history of Sci Fi & Fantasy rather than just concentrating on new fiction.