The Atlantean High Priest Klarkash-ton

klarkash-ton cycle clark ashton smith.jpgThe Klarkash-Ton Cycle – Clark Ashton Smith
Chaosium – 2008

Collecting books of weird fiction can be a frustrating hobby. Many writers’ short story anthologies are out of print, expensive and yet available online for free. Other collections are haphazardly thrown together by careless publishers only looking to make some quick cash. There are decent collections out there; I’ve read Penguin’s editions of Lovecraft, Blackwood and Machen, but these are generally just primers that include the 10 most famous stories by the writer. There’s nothing wrong with these, but I always feel that they might be leaving out some true gems. In a perfect world, a publisher would put out complete or at least exhaustive, annotated, multi-volume collections of the writings of Lovecraft, Bierce, Machen, Blackwood, Chambers, Smith and all the other lads.

Now, there’s a publishing company called Chaosium that had an idea to do something along those lines. Their Machen collections were a decent effort, although the tales in each volume get progressively worse. Their Robert W. Chambers collection claims to complete, but it’s not really.  From what I have read of Chambers, this is probably a good thing, but the collection shouldn’t claim to be complete if it’s not. This collection also includes isolated chapters from The Tracer of Lost Persons because those chapters are a bit weird. I’m sorry; I know I just complained because this collection wasn’t entirely complete, but I find the inclusion of isolated weird chapters from a novel to be really annoying. Give me the whole thing, or give me nothing at all.

The only other Chaosium book I own is a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith. I picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore a few years ago. It was one of those ‘I’m the only customer in this shop, so I better buy something’ situations. It sat on my shelf for a good while, but last week, I picked it up off the shelf and dove in.

Let me tell you something; Clark Ashton Smith is deadly. I don’t really want to analyze these stories too deeply. I’ll just say that they are exactly the kind of thing that I want to read: evil wizards, cosmic insect gods, infernal texts of black magic including the fabled Necronomicon, bodily dismemberment with a surgical saw… Holy Fuck, this stuff is amazing.  I need more stories like this in my life. Delicious.

Now that I have gotten my feelings about the writing of Clark Ashton Smith out of the way, I want to address my feelings about this book. It was quite disappointing on two counts.

The typos.
How was this book was allowed go into print. It is full of typos. They’re frustrating typos too. Normally, a typo will consist of a misspelled word, e.g. ‘horesradish’ instead of ‘horseradish’. Big deal, we can all figure that kind of thing out. However, the typos in this book are all incorrect words, e.g. ‘ton’ instead of ‘top’. It’s as if the person who typed the text allowed Microsoft spell check to do their proofreading for them. This is actually far more disruptive to the stories than simple misspellings would be. There was one point in which a character ‘picks up his face’ that had me rather confused. After rereading the passage, I realised that he had actually been picking up his mace. There’s at least 2 or 3 of these mistakes in each story too. I’ve seen several other people complain about this issue online, and I have to say that it was very frustrating. There is zero doubt in my mind that this book was not proofread before being published, and I think that reflects very poorly on Chaosium.

The Story Selection
The stories in here are great. Please don’t think that I am saying otherwise. My problem is with the way that the editor has split Smith’s stories between this and at least two other volumes. This collection supposedly contains the Klarkash-Ton Cycle. Klarkash-Ton was the author’s pen-name when writing to his friend, H.P. Lovecraft, and these are the stories that are most akin to Lovecraft’s own tales. (Incidentally, Klarkash-Ton and Lhuv-Kerapht briefly appear together in the last book I reviewed, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Sex Magicians.) Chaosium also published the Tsathoggua Cycle and the Book of Eibon, both of which are mostly comprised of tales by Smith. We have then Chaosium’s distinction between Smith’s Lovecraftian tales, his tales about Eibon, and his tales about Tsathoggua. But Tsathoggua also appeared in Lovecraft’s work, rendering him somewhat Lovecraftian, and Eibon appears in several of the stories in the Klarkash-Ton Cycle. Why the fuck didn’t they just issue 3 ‘best of Clark Ashton Smith’ collections and skip the silly attempts to separate the stories into cycles. I wouldn’t even care if the three collections contained the exact same sets of stories, just don’t give me this ‘3 cycles’ bullshit. Robert M. Price, the editor, addresses this categorization in the introduction, but I wasn’t at all impressed.

One other thing to note about this book, and I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, is that the versions of some of the stories in here are based on original, unpublished drafts of those stories. Also, the final story in here, The Infernal Star, is incomplete – Smith never finished writing it. This book, if it were not so full of spelling mistakes, would probably be great if you were a Smith collector. It’d also be a pretty good starting point if you hadn’t read Smith before. However, even though I haven’t read it, I would suggest buying the Penguin collection if you’re in that position. I’m sure the stories will be great, and the editing has to be better than this muck.

Smith’s writing is good enough to allow me to see past Chaosium’s weird categorization of his stories into three separate cycles, but the absolutely pathetic standard of this book really makes me want to avoid giving that company any more of my money. Their books, although all print-on-demand jobs, aren’t cheap either. Penguin have a collection of Smith’s work, and I’m sure it’s of a far higher standard, but it’s also much smaller. Maybe I’ll buy that one and try to track down the missing stories online.

drake penguin vs chaosium