Friday, February 11, 2022

The Dead will Cuckold You

Read "The Dead Will Cuckold You" at The Eldritch Dark:

This verse drama from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) might not normally be considered in a review of his poetry, but since editors S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz have included it in their edition of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith, I'll follow along and include it in this blog.

Although it was unpublished in his lifetime, "The Dead Will Cuckold You" is a key work in CAS' corpus, both because of its multi-act dramatic form (unique among his extant works) and because it provides a unique perspective on his fictional realm of Zothique.  

CAS wrote a number of stories set in that far-future continent, and a few of his poems reference it as well.  But "The Dead Will Cuckold You" takes the gloves off and introduces necrophilia, something that was probably too much even for the pulp markets that published CAS' short fiction.

Of course, there's quite a bit more to "The Dead Will Cuckold You" than the simple transgression referenced in the title.  It seems as though this unpublished work allowed CAS to fully flesh out the Zothique setting, where torture, murder, necromancy and much else are morbidly routine.  There's something decidedly modern in a plot that is animated by a homosexual necromancer (Natanasna) animating a corpse, and compelling it to pursue an amorous liaison with a king's attractive young wife (a tryst she is more than happy to participate in).  The malicious tyrant Smaragad cannot use his considerable power to prevent himself from being cuckolded.  Power to the people!

And because this work flowed from the pen of CAS, his language makes even a catalog of iniquities into something beautiful:

I mean but this, that you the king have filled
More tombs than I the outlawed necromancer
Have ever emptied, and detest not idly
The raising of dead men. Would you have me summon
For witness here against you the grey shade
Of Famostan your father, in his bath
Slain by the toothed envenomed fish from Taur
Brought privily and installed by you? Or rather
Would you behold your brother Aladad,
Whose huntsmen left him with a splintered spear
At your instruction, to confront the fen-cat
That he had merely pricked? Yet these would be
Only the heralds of that long dark file
Which you have hurried into death.

"The Dead Will Cuckold You" allows CAS to apply his literary skills to a form that he did not often work in, and to depict Zothique in all the extremities of its decadent glory.  But it is much more than a mere shocker.  As with the story "The Dark Eidolon" (also set in Zothique), this short play is a revenge tale, an upsetting of the established order driven by unbridled passion and the dark arts.  The themes at work in "The Dead Will Cuckold You" are found throughout CAS' body of work, but rarely in such a concentrated and uninhibited form.

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