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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

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...

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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 host to a plaintive note of sentimentality, whereas “The Isle of Torturers” may be reckoned one of Smith’s exercises in literary pastiche by virtue of its echoes of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (1842) and the Comte de Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s “The Torture of Hope” (c. 1885). The majority of the Zothique stories, however, are unrestrained melodramas replete with exotic violence and cruelty, set in ornate surroundings reminiscent of the most extravagant paintings of the French Decadent artist Gustave Moreau.

The best tales of Zothique—which include “The Empire of the Necromancers,” “The Witchcraft of Ulua,” “The Dark Eidolon,” “Xeethra,” and “Necromancy in Naat”—possess an unparalleled dramatic surge that carries them to their devastating conclusions. They are frequently erotic, but their eroticism is usually perverse and rarely finds any fulfillment save for destruction. The sadistic and erotic elements in the stories were sufficient to warrant some censorship by their initial publishers. The full texts of “The Witchcraft of Ulua” and “Xeethra” are restored in the Necronomicon Press series of the unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith (six volumes, 1987-1988), but the original text of “Necromancy in Naat” was lost.

The quasi-pornographic features of the most extravagant stories represent a determined effort to confront and make manageable the most disturbing products of the imagination. In these stories, the most awful and terrifying creations of delirium and anxiety are submitted to the command of a rigorous literary imagination. In stories of this kind, the possibility of a happy ending is utterly out of the question; they ought not to be considered as tragedies, or even as horror stories, because no fate really can be considered tragic or horrific if it cannot possibly be avoided. It is in the images of suffering—of death-in-life or hell-in-life—contained in “Xeethra” and “Necromancy in Naat” that Smith reached the culmination of his trafficking with nightmares. There is nothing in the vast spectrum of fantasy fiction to match these tales in either their ambition or their execution.

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