(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The name Zothique probably is derived from Arthur Rimbaud’s Album dit “Zutique” (written c. 1872). “Zutique” derives, in its turn, from the French expletive zut!, which is approximately parallel to such English expressions as “to hell with you!” The Zothique stories certainly are hellish. They display, more clearly than any of his other works, Clark Ashton Smith’s debt to the French Decadent movement inspired by Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. They represent, in fact, one logical terminus of the quest defined by Baudelaire in the anguished prose-poem in which the poet’s soul—echoing Edgar Allan Poe—demands that it be taken “Anywhere out of the World” (1857).

Because Smith’s “Hyperborean grotesques” were set in the distant past, the viewpoint of stories set there had to accept that the dominion of Chaos ultimately would be displaced by Order. The world of “the last continent” of Zothique, on the other hand, has no future. Science and civilization are gone forever and utterly forgotten; everything that happens is a mere prelude to humankind’s final annihilation. Consequently, Zothique became the setting in which Smith gave fullest expression to his images of ultimate decadence.

A few of the Zothique stories do contain an element of irony, in much the same vein as Smith’s tales of Hyperborea, the most notable example being “The Voyage of King Euvoran.” The elegiac “Morthylla” plays...

(The entire section is 562 words.)