Friday, May 17, 2024

Clark Ashton Smith: "Murder in the Fourth Dimension," "An Adventure in Futurity" and "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"

In his 1980 story "All the Lies that Are My Life," Harlan Ellison laments that Clark Ashton Smith has been forgotten.  Well, maybe it looked like Smith would be forgotten when Ellison wrote that, but I feel like lots of people today are crazy about Smith; isfdb lists over twenty Smith collections published in the 21st century, including a collection by prestigious Penguin Books and collections in German, French, Hungarian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and if you type Smith's name into youtube you find many recordings of people reading Smith's work--Ellison himself is one of those performers.

(I can be hard on Ellison, but I greatly appreciate his championing of writers who go in and out of fashion but whom I think worth reading, like A. E. van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, and Smith.)

I am among those who like Smith, and I have devoted quite a volume of space on this blog to Smith stories, but there is still plenty of Smith material out there that I have yet to read.  Case in point: While recently reading stories from the February 1939 issue of Weird Tales, I realized I had never read "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," a 1931 story by Clark Ashton Smith.  So let's read that story, and two other works from California's master of the weird that have escaped my view heretofore, "Murder in the Fourth Dimension" and "An Adventure in Futurity."  We'll read them in chronological order.

"Murder in the Fourth Dimension" (1930)

"Murder in the Fourth Dimension" made its debut in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Detective Tales.  In England in 1941 it appeared in Tales of Wonder and Super Science, and since then has been reprinted in multiple languages in Smith collection, as well as in the anthology 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories.  I'm reading it in 2006's The End of the Story, the first of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith volumes edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.

I like stories in which a single character is embarked on the passionate pursuit of a singular goal, and I like unrequited love stories, and Smith here delivers a well-written tale that fits both categories.  Our text is a memoir left by a lawyer who secretly came to hate his best friend since childhood and one of his colleagues at the firm because this other dude married the woman he loved, and so went to extraordinary lengths to murder this old chum.  For ten years he worked alongside this man, visited his house and saw him with his bride, all the while, his heart "a cauldron of seething poisons," fantasizing about killing his oblivious rival with his bare hands, every day studying the art of murder and plotting a way to destroy him without getting caught!

This guy isn't just a legal eagle, isn't just a budding expert on assassination--he's also a science whiz!  He invents a device that can alter the frequency of the vibration of an item's molecules so that it can be sent to a parallel dimension, as well as a device to restore such an item's initial vibratory frequency so it can be brought back to our universe.  Our dude figures he can slay his enemy in another dimension and thus leave no evidence of his revenge for the cops to discover.

The first part of this attorney's plan works out well enough--he sends his pal to another dimension, follows him, and kills him.  But the device that is to return the murderer home somehow lacks the power to do so--it can return to our Earth small items, but not a man.  Maybe this is because the laws of physics and time seem to operate differently in this tiny desolate universe--the killer never grows tired or hungry, regardless of how much he exercises his muscles, and if he walks in a straight line he soon comes back to his friend's corpse.  The murderer faces a long life--perhaps an eternal one--in this almost empty universe, and no doubt will soon lose all grip on sanity.  Before he goes absolutely mad, he writes this memoir and transmits it back to our Earth.

Really quite good; Smith's style elevates the already compelling material, making each sentence fun to read.  I recommend "Murder in the Fourth Dimension" with enthusiasm. 

"An Adventure in Futurity" (1931)

"An Adventure in Futurity" debuted in Wonder Stories, another magazine edited by Gernsback, in an issue with Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved," which we read back in 2013.  2013?  This blog is getting old!

Our narrator is Pastor, a chemist living in New York City, with his own lab on Washington Square.  Color me envious!  He keeps running into a guy, Elkins, in the libraries and museums, a man whose ethnicity the narrator cannot divine, but whom he can tell from the shape of his hands and the features of his face that he must have highly developed senses and superior dexterity.  (Nowadays we are supposed to pretend we can't tell a woman from a man even when we can see a person's genitals, but in old fiction it is taken for granted that you can discern an individual's ethnicity, class, personality and intelligence just by looking at his face and body.)  Pastor and Elkins eventually become friends, and eventually Elkins admits the thing we readers have known from the start--Elkins is a time traveler from the future!   

Elkins is from approximately the year 15,000 AD, and came back to the 20th century to pursue rumors that 20th-century people could determine the sex of their children.  You see, after the civilization you  and I live in collapsed into a dark age, the world suffered a sex imbalance in which female babies far outnumbered male babies, leading to the hell on earth that is a matriarchal society.  Horrendous wars again caused a collapse of civilization, and the civilization that rose after had an imbalance in favor of male babies, which Elkins would like to fix, as it threatens the human race with extinction.  Having discovered that 20th-century people could not in fact control the sex of their offspring, Elkins is headed home, and he asks Pastor to come with him.     

Smith describes the time machine, which Elkins invented himself and operates on principles only he understands, and the trip to the future and all that.  Then we and Pastor get our first glimpses of the North America of 130 centuries in the future--and it ain't pretty!  The Earth economy relies heavily on slave labor imported from Venus, and the Venusian population of Earth now outnumbers the Terran population five to one!  The Venusians are savage and stupid cannibals, and the first thing Elkins and Pastor have to do upon arrival at Elkins' estate is help put down a slave rebellion.

Pastor masters the version of English in use in this future, and learns all about the vicious and fast-breeding Venusians, the sophisticated and intellectual drug addicts of Martian origin who form a sort of merchant and professional class on Earth, and the Terrans of Earth, most of whom own slave plantations and live lives of leisure, and many of whom are also addicted to Martian drugs.  It is suggested that this lifestyle has led Terrans to decadence, explicitly and through such clues as the fact that the Terrans of the future are short--Pastor towers over them--and what few women there are are not  pretty.

Soon after Pastor arrives, a new item is added to the list that already includes population diminution due to sex imbalance, slave rebellion and drug addiction--"The Black Rot!"  This is a micro-organism that has the ability to reduce stone and metal to dust and is laying low many buildings in the current version of New York.  Elkins and Pastor join the scientists assembled in New York to come up with a solution to the problem posed by the Black Rot, and it is Pastor's suggestion that produces a way to halt the plague.

Pastor then spends his time exploring the New York of 13,000 years in the future, where women are rare and romantic love is unknown.  Pastor stays out too late one night and is captured by Venusians who plan to cook him up and eat him!  Pastor is rescued just in time by a ray gun-wielding Elkins, who informs our narrator that a worldwide slave rebellion is underway, and that the Martians are acting as the brains of the Venusian revolution and supporting it by releasing various plagues on the Earth (the Black Rot was their doing.)  

The rebels soon take over Asia and Africa, then Europe falls, and North America isn't far behind.  The surviving humans board space ships and take off to find a new world, abandoning Earth to the Martians and the Venusians, and Pastor returns to the 20th century.  

I feel like this story is a warning to white Americans to limit their reliance on non-whites--you will become decadent and your servants will rise up against you--and to limit contact with foreigners--if you let them over here, they'll bring with them their drugs and their diseases, and then betray you--though Smith doesn't say any such thing explicitly.  The relationship of the Terrans and the Venusians of course resembles that of whites and blacks in the antebellum American South; I initially thought the role of the Martians on Earth was like that of Indians and Chinese in the British Empire, and then when the Martians are revealed to be the secret masters of the Venusians it reminded me of racist theories that Jews control blacks and use them as foot soldiers in their war on white gentiles.    

"An Adventure in Futurity" isn't great; once we get to the future, it feels long and slow and bloodless, like a history lesson--the personalities and motivations of the two main characters have no influence on the plot whatsoever.  The plot doesn't flow smoothly; the sex imbalance thing is what sets the plot rolling, but then it is essentially forgotten, with the race war issue totally taking over the plot once the main characters get to the 150th century or whenever it is.  The style is also pedestrian, at least after the characters' arrival in the future.  "An Adventure in Futurity" is a real contrast to "Murder in the Fourth Dimension," which is brisk and full of emotion, and full of poetic phrasing.  Maybe Smith was writing for his market here, producing what he thought Gernsback would buy.  We'll call "An Adventure in Futurity" acceptable.

"An Adventure in Futurity" has not been anthologized much, but you can find it in several Smith collections.

"The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" (1931)

This is a fun atmospheric horror story set in Smith's fantasy land of Hyperborea, the memoir of a man who has lived by his wits as a master thief, his life-long practice having been to regularly fortify his nerve and inspire his creativity by copious consumption of alcohol.  

Satampra Zeiros relates to us an expedition he and his bosom chum, Tirouv Ompallios, made to the abandoned city of Commoriom, a metropolis evacuated in response to a prophecy centuries ago, and now overtaken by jungle.  Smith does a good job conveying the light-hearted rapaciousness of the two thieves as they steal all they need from city and country folk alike on their journey to the lost city, and of describing the bizarre jungle and the creepy ruins of Commoriom.  The conventional wisdom is that in their haste to leave the cursed city, the affluent of Commoriom left much of their wealth behind and this trove of treasure has been unmolested for hundreds of years and is thus easy pickings for any enterprising thief bold enough to seize it.  Satampra Zeiros and Tirouv Ompallios, however, discover no evidence of such wealth.  Instead, in a temple to Tsathoggua, they arouse a huge blob monster capable of assuming a multitude of serpentine and squamous forms, a monster which plays a cat and mouse game with them before devouring Tirouv Ompallios and scarring Satampra Zeiros for life.  The chase is a good mix of humor and horror--Smith is a master at such concoctions, as we saw in his "Testament of  Athammaus," another tale of Commoriom, which we read in 2019.

Quite good, another enthusiastic thumbs up.  "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" was first printed in Weird Tales, and has reappeared in man American and European Smith collections as well as a few anthologies.  I read it in the aforementioned Connors and Hilger volume, The End of the Story, which provides interesting notes on the story's publication history as well as lengthy quotes illustrating the reaction to the tale of H. P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and an pseudonymous reader who seems to have fancied himself a comedian.  (Connors and Hilger did a great job with their Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series.)    


"Murder in the Fourth Dimension" and "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" justify the high opinion of Smith expressed by critics and rank and file fans of the weird, and while "An Adventure in Futurity" is perhaps pedestrian, it isn't exactly bad and its attitudes about sex and race provide food for thought for 21st-century readers.  An impressive trio of stories, and reason to look forward to further explorations of the body of work of Clark Ashton Smith.


  1. I'm with you on praising Harlan Ellison for promoting writers who had gone out of fashion like van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Sadly, Ellison seems to be going out of fashion, too.

    1. Ellison has many fanatical supporters; we'll see if their efforts keep him in the public eye.

      An issue for Ellison's legacy, perhaps, is whether his work is timeless or too rooted in his own lifetime. Ellison in his introductions and dedications often directly responds to current events, and his fiction sometimes dramatizes current social issues like street gangs or racism, and often includes lists of brand name consumer goods and name checks current celebrities; as these issues and specific individuals and products recede from view, maybe his fiction will cease to speak to people the way it spoke to readers when it was current. On the other hand, if his stories speak to timeless human experiences, like love and ambition and friendship and loneliness and fear of death, maybe they will endure.

  2. Ellison also championed Octavia Butler. As far as bleading you to authors who had fallen out of fashion I wish he hadn't led me to van Vogt. Read Slan. One of the worst books I have ever read . Right up there (or down there) with e. e. Smith. Clark Adhton Smith was from a literary viewpoint probably the best of the Weird Tales writers.

    1. I didn't like Slan when I read it years before I started this blog; it was my first van Vogt and it put me off van Vogt for a while. The Isher stories and the original Astounding versions of the stories that ended up in the fix-ups The War Against the Rull and Voyage of the Space Beagle are much better than Slan, or at least my initial impression of Slan.

      I agree that Smith is probably the best Weird Tales writer when it comes to the beauty of individual sentences, the construction of images, and the ability to induce emotion in the reader, in particular the ability to produce humor that is actually funny.

      Way back in 2014 I read Butler's "Crossover" and thought it a well written mainstream story, so I should probably read something else by her. I had a science fiction class at Rutgers and one of the assigned books was by Butler, but we never got to it--several of my professors at Rutgers constructed these huge syllabi and then ended up excising entire classes and topics because a class got cancelled for illness or weather or something; Butler and Orson Scott Card were among the casualties of my SF class, and Sir Walter Raleigh and the related topics were among the casualties of a class on Tudor England.