The Last Hieroglyph by Clark Ashton Smith
I've been wanting to read a little of Clark Ashton Smith's ever since I discovered Lovecraft and Howard. With the "The Last Hieroglyph," I finally have my chance.
To begin, Smith has a more polished writing style than either Lovecraft or Howard. If I had to pick a word to describe it, I think I would choose "smooth." He shares Lovecraft's love for "big words," but deploys them with greater subtly than his Poe-inspired colleague. This gives Smith's language a feel of authority and a sort of Dunsanian mesmerism that isn't present in Howard or in much of Lovecraft ("The Quest of Unknown Kadath" being a notable exception). This style works well with Smith's chosen subject matter: the mystic journey of an astrologer and his two followers.
"The Last Hieroglyph" tells the story of the itinerant astrologer Nushain and his two companions, a dog and a slave, who travel on a mystic quest to the home of the god Vergama. On this quest, they are guided by three mystic creatures, a mummy, a merman, and a salamander. Each messengers' coming is foretold by the sudden appearance of a new hieroglyph on Nushain's nativity chart. The chart is drawn up at the beginning of the story in response to a strange appearance of three new stars in Nushain's birth constellation. Following the mystic guides, Nushain and his followers pass through the realms of death, ocean, and fire to meet the great god Vergama in his throne room. Upon completing the quest, Nushain is told that Vergama is the ultimate god who creates all things out of his book and then recalls them again to resume their place upon the page when their time comes. Nushain tries to flee, but he and his companions are drawn back into the book and become mere hieroglyphs themselves.
Unlike Howard's story, there is a grim moral to "The Last Hieroglyph," and it seems to be that cosmic meaning is hidden from us and it is better for a man to not try and unravel it. This moral is given force by the Lovecraftian note of cosmic horror on which the story ends. The idea of human life being reducible to a cypher or a sign has all sorts of tantalizing postmodern suggestions but until I've read more of Smith's work and gotten a better feel for his mental world I'll refrain from hopping off down that rabbit trail.
The Sorcerer Pharesm by Jack Vance
This is the first story in the collection with more of a comic turn, though Dunsany has provided us with a bit of gallows humor. Vance's hero, the inept thief Cugel, is of that stripe of lovable jerks that so often appear in comedy films such as Seutalus in "A Funny Thing Happened to me on my Way to the Forum" or the protagonists of "The Producers." The pompous absurdity loquacity of much of the dialog further alerts us that we should not take anything in the tale seriously.
"The Sorcerer Pharesm" is an episode within the greater story of Cugel's quest to free himself of the tyrannous monitor Firx placed in him by the wizard Iucounu. In typical comic fashion, Cugel is thinking of abandoning the quest because he is hungry. Firx attempts to spur him on until Cugel informs him that he will starve himself to death unless he can get some real food and thus thwart Iucounu's mission. Firx, not being to bright, agrees and Cugel stops by a curious group of workman to beg for food. Seeing Cugel, the chief workman attempts to enlist him in the project which has been continuing for some three hundred years under the guidance of the wizard Pharesm. While Cugel is pondering whether such a move will bring him food and sex, the wizard appears and promptly rejects Cugel for the work. Disappointed, Cugel wanders off and finds a strange creature in the midst of the construction and eats it. Foolishly, he mentions this fact to the wizard on his way out sending the enchanter into a rage. Pharsem then informs Cugel that the creature he ate is nothing less than the TOTALITY, and that Pharesm has spent hundreds of years trying to catch it. As punishment for his crime, the wizard sends Cugel a million years back into the past to where the TOTALITY has fled in order to bring it back. Cugel, forced to make the journey discovers a strange land of orange people who worship a race of lying insects that kills them off. Cugel attempts to be a suave intercultural adventurer, but his sexual appetites cause him to run afoul of several local taboos and he is punished by being handed over to the winged insects who Cugel promptly thrashes. During the course of his thrashing, he discovers the TOTALITY, but the insects snatch it away from him in the midst of transporting back to the future. Upon his return, Pharesm makes one last attempt to recover TOTALITY before dismissing Cugel in severe frustration and returning to his manse.
Cugel's story is rather amusing, especially in its witty repartee. There's nothing at all serious to be gotten out of it aside from a few laughs, but that seems to be the point. The only criticism I can venture is that this episode seems too much like Cugel's original encounter with Iucounu giving the impression that Vance has run out of ideas and begun to repeat himself.
Next Up: King Yvorian's Wager by Darrell Sweitzer and Kings in Darkness by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn