The Last Hieroglyph (The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Vol. 5)
by Clark Ashton Smith
Edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
Cover Artist: Jason Van Hollander
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597800327
Date: September 2010 List Price $39.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Wikipedia Entry / Show Official Info /
Smith's stories are a quite particular pleasure. They tend to have little in the way of plot, and characters are not especially memorable or distinctive. However, plot and character are not the point in a Smith story. Instead, his stories work by evoking the most fantastic and lush imagery that I have ever seen in Fantasy literature. Each of his imaginary worlds, whether they are ones he returns to many times like the continent of Zothique, rife with sorcery and strange creatures, or one off worlds he only visits in a single story, every one of Smith's settings has an amazing sense of texture and depth. Smith manages to give the sense of history and complexity to each of the fantasy settings he considers.
Another of the signature pleasures of Smith's work is his mastery of language. Best sellers tend to strive for a transparency of prose, where the individual words and phrases tend to disappear and the reader is dragged forward by the urgency of the plot. Smith's prose style is exactly the opposite. The words and sentences stand out from the page, and slow the reader down in order to savor the poetry of language. Smith chooses his words as much for their flavor and texture as for their literal meaning, and this contributes to the heady atmosphere of his tales. His vocabulary is wide ranging, but the use of archaic or obscure words only serves to deepen the readers immersion in the fantasy worlds he creates.
Smith's style is not for everyone. Those who read mainly for plot or for memorable or sympathetic characters will not find much to their liking. However, anyone who loves language, or who finds themselves carried away by imagery and setting in fantasy fiction owes it to themselves to give Clark Ashton Smith a try. The Last Hieroglyph is a beautiful book, with copious notes that situate each story within Smith's own life and give the story of its publication. However, a new reader might do best to start with the fourth volume in the series, The Maze of the Enchanter rather than with this one. This is because the last quarter or so of the stories here start to show the strain Smith was under at the end of his life, trying to subsist on his meager magazine publication payments while supporting his ill parents. This results in some stories that don't live up to the high expectations set by Smith's earlier stories. That being said, this volume also contains some of my favorite Smith stories, and the entire five volume set is well worth collecting.