For the first time he recognized that the possession of an object was never as ecstatic as the seeking; the reality never as pleasurable as the dream.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 201
There is no pithy word for stories that are inspired by Clark Ashton Smith, that partake of his style and essence, are reminiscent of his darker moods and most erotic intimations. When someone writes a tale that draws inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft, or involves him in some form, we call it “Lovecraftian.” For the Bard of Auburn, we might say “Smithian,” but there are many Smiths. “Klarkash-Tonian” is a bit of a mouthful. Nothing seems to succinctly embrace the whole concept.
It is a rare story where we have need of such a word.
“Hode of the High Place” is not set explicitly in Smith’s Zothique, or any other fantasy world we know. In mood, in device, in tone, it could well be. It fits neatly among the other neo-Zothique tales of The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), one of the very few anthologies where authors are encouraged to play in Clark Ashton Smith’s imaginary worlds. Smith himself might well have smiled and recognized this story as a literary descendant, had he lived long enough to read it.
When considering those who follow Smith, there is a tendency toward pastiche, as in “The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” (2008) by Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe. Salmonson is wise enough to not try and mimic the same tendency for arcane vocabulary, but there are elements of Smith that readers will recognize in the tone, the omniscient third-person perspective which is almost voyeuristic in following the triumphs and tragedies of this story. Then there is the erotic element.
A gelatinous mass flowed over him, oblivious to his thrashing, smothering him as the water had smothered the flames. Then he felt something expected and pleasant: gentle, rhythmic constrictions around his genitals.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 197
One of the hallmarks of Smith’s fiction was a fascination with scenes of unnatural carnal pleasures, necrophilia (or perhaps more accurately, a love that extends beyond death), assignations with witches, lamia, and succubi, etc. It isn’t in every work, and it isn’t in any sense explicit by contemporary terms, even his play The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951) is concerned with character and relationships rather than actually describing the actions of genitalia. Some of Smith’s stories which could only be published in expurgated form during his lifetime, such as “Mother of Toads” (Weird Tales Jul 1938), are quaint in terms of actual sexual content, though still potent in terms of image, plot, and suggestion.
This reticence toward explicit sexual description in Smith’s fiction, and his frustration with the standards of his day that censored even that, can be easily understood. Clark Ashton Smith was writing weird fiction of which sex was a part, but not weird erotica or pornography with a weird setting. The point of Smith’s stories was not to sexually excite the reader, not in the way of Victorian erotica like The Way of a Man With A Maid. The erotic element was always intimately tied to the weirdness in some fashion, as with the work of Arthur Machen. Perhaps Smith might have been more explicit if editors and laws had allowed it, but there was no way it could have been published in the 1930s under existing censorship laws.
Contemporary writers don’t operate under the same restrictions. It is much more acceptable these days to be much more explicit about sexual relations. Salmonson could no doubt have gotten away with far more sexual content in this story; other tales are more explicit. Yet this is not a case where the point is to titillate the reader; it is a necessary plot point for the story. Ultimately, I would say that “Hode of the High Place” shows admirable restraint, getting just explicit enough to cross that conceptual line between “suitable for young adults” to “suitable for adult audiences,” but not becoming particularly lurid or distracting from the rest of the story…indeed, the brief sexual scenes are ultimately critical.
It was fashioned in the shape of a bone with a serpent wrapped around, the universal insignia used on jars of poison, pictured on no-trespassing signs to prove the warning adamant, and marked on maps to show where wayfarers had best not go.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 206
If “Hode of the High Place” is not set in Zothique itself, it still feels like it could be set beneath a dying sun on a dying world, one last tragedy being acted out with all of its follies and its terrible inevitability.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Hode of the High Place” was first published in Beyond Lands of Never (1984), the second volume of the fantasy Lands of Never (1983). It was republished in The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), and in her collection Dark Tales (2002).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).