Worming Through the Ruins of the Dying Earth

‘He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a later coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine.’

[I made the images used in this post in midjourney]

I have written before about my love for the horror, science fiction, and sword and sorcery genres. But my top fiction loyalty, which contains elements from all of the above, is a more niche subgenre of both pulp and literature known as the Dying Earth subgenre. 

The specific origins of this subgenre are debatable. End of humanity stories are as old as mythology itself. End of the universe stories also date back quite a bit. But stories specifically about the end of Earth (and/or the end of the Sun which presupposes the end of Earth) as an event of finality for the entire world but not the greater universe are a more recent fictional innovation. It is an apocalypse, yes, but one of a specific place. William Hope Hodgeson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land are probably the first instances of this that everyone can agree fits the model to a tee. Though I would say most of the imagery we have of these settings come from Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique setting and Jack Vance’s collected works in his Dying Earth setting, which is where the name originates.

What is this dying earth and why is it so evocative? It may be more of a mood than a specific definition.

Imagine you awake after some kind of artificially imposed slumber from deep within a sealed tomb. You were preserved while the solar system drank in the aeons. You now find yourself in a world that is far past its prime. A fading and bloated reddish sun lingers in the sky, flickering like a lamp that at any moment could go out. The horizons of Earth below it are strewn with crumbling ruins and titanic monuments from empires long forgotten which had yet to exist when you last were among the realm of the living. Perhaps vague continental outlines remain that have some degree of familiarity-if you are lucky. But for the most part old Earth is now even more ancient and its cultural trappings are now utterly alien to you.

As you walk through a landscape stalked by alien creatures-some partially recognizable as evolutionary or genetically modified descendants of familiar beasts- some not (perhaps imported from the stars in a now forgotten era of human off-world expansion or alien invasion?) you realize you are in a world where the fragments of future-pasts exist as highly advanced technology which has now degenerated into sorcery and alchemy. Perhaps a few well connected people remember them as sciences and keep this knowledge under lock and key, or perhaps no one does and they are now magic in everyone’s mind no matter how learned. You know only that the ghosts whose tombs you rob to survive on the road are of people who were millennia away from being born when you last walked this planet.

Should you survive in this lower-light world of perils where the stars can often been seen in the daylight and the temperatures are on average lower to what you remember, you may be so…lucky…to come across something more than a ramshackle farming village or merchant town but rather a whole city. The city, no doubt, will have seen better days in its past. Its crumbling monuments are now used as places for washer-maids to affix clotheslines. There is no dearth of unused space, however, so rather than teeming hordes one finds a place where even the poor can live in a kind of graveyard opulence. Here, where the security towards beasts is greater, the insecurity towards humanity increases. The stately and floral language that is the final overripe fruit of humanity often conceals duplicitous and nefarious intent. Should you successfully navigate this minefield of strange and often divergent social norms, you may just find yourself recognized as a fascinating relic from a golden era and elevated into the inner circle of some decadent aristocrat or scholar…or perhaps as the plaything and slave of a mad wizard-scientist. 

Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique was focused on a Gothic yet romantic conception of bloated exhaustion itself. The last continent on a far future Earth possessing an immense beauty that occasionally shines through its decadent terror. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, which I confess is my favorite of all fiction collections anywhere, takes this inspiration and really cranks up the comedic and pompous elements of it, with primary characters as bombastic and tragicomic as the faded temples and gods that served as set pieces in Smith’s works. Vance takes great pleasure in presenting a kind of Epicurean end times, where laconic detachment and petty foibles reign over humanity’s twilight epoch. Even the cannibalistic monsters engage in witty repartee with their intended victims. The sun could go out at any minute, why not engage more heavily in the arts, petty squabble, and gourmandism? Reflecting this dynamic perfectly, the Dying Earth tabletop roleplaying game has endless amounts of pettifoggery-based social skills which players can not only employ against NPCs but also each other. Where Smith saw the bloated corpse-worms crawling over a stiffening Earth, Vance saw the immense amusement of the corpse-worms dressed like they were going to the Venetian masquerade ball to play games of wit and compete over social status.

Currently, I am reading through Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for the third time. It is the most literary of the Dying Earth subgenre entries. The author’s intention was to create something that gains value the more it is re-read, and in this he succeeded admirably. Having far future technology described in the first person to you by someone who both thinks it is normal but is unaware of what it actually is is a fun puzzle to piece through as you read. When you realize that what sounds like a giant mediaeval castle (for it is used as such) is actually a long-parked spaceship whose utility is forgotten, or that archaic classically tinged terms for military units are in fact describing laser-gun armed cavalry mounted atop genetically modified monster-horses, it creates a fun dynamic between author and reader. The archaic nature of terminology from the South America-based protagonist stomping ground becomes even more interesting when you meet the Ascians, a North American people (who I would unseriously posit are descended from Zoomers despite the books publication in the early 80s) who can only speak in ultra-modernist political jargon-slogans. While Wolfe is always a pleasure to read and I recommend this work, I do have to add the caveat that I prefer Smith and Vance in this subgenre overall as the best part of the Dying Earth subgenre (to me) is the inevitability of the Sun/Earth extinction and the effects this knowledge has on the cultures subject to it. In Book of the New Sun (and also in Philip Jose Farmer’s Dark is the Sun) there is not just hope in revival, but real paths to take towards making it a reality. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but it is hardly peak Dying Earth. The emphasis, of course, is on the Dying

If you would like to get a strong dose of the overall atmosphere of this wonderful subgenre in under eight minutes, there is a stunning spoken version of a prose poem from Clark Ashton Smith himself that I believe does the job magnificently. Additionally, if you would like the overall Vancean attitude that I take from such heavy questions coupled with more AI generated art (albeit this time not my own) why not take in the generated visuals of a classic song?

And now we return to a variant of the original set.

A Selection of My Favorite Short Stories

Every year for awhile now a friend of mine sends me an image for my birthday which is usually Clark Ashton Smith themed. I figured one of these would go well here.

I feel like the short story gets too little attention. Proportionally speaking, I read them (and write them) much more than full length novels. In the future, perhaps, I will list some of my favorite novels. But make no mistake, this list is more important to my interests then that of the novels would be. The short story, much like the film (compared to , say, the currently in vogue television season) is a much more self contained creature whose focus tends towards a focused approach. That being said, I do tend to prefer longer rather than shorter short stories. The difference between a novella and a longer short story can be hard to pin down, but personally I would classify it as whether you could read something in 1-2 sittings on average. Therefore, for example, I will not be listing anything from my favorite author Jack Vance (who I have written about here before and will do so again), whose best books are mostly novellas requiring more than 2 sittings to complete. Though ‘Guyal of Sfere’ is his best short work, for what it is worth.

I will not be listing all of my favorite stories. Nor will I be ranking them in a specific order. I have also limited the list to only one story per author, lest a few people (and especially Clark Ashton Smith) dominate this list overmuch. What I like most in short stories is a strong evocative mood whose power is unique to a particular tale, and I will try to get one author per the type of story I most like. Obviously, this being me, this is heavily biased towards horror and sword and sorcery. If I feel so inclined, I may include a ‘runner up’ from the same author of another tale I almost made the entry. There are no (major) spoilers and descriptions are meant to say why the story is good rather than great detail about its contents.

I also will not be including stories that are not as good if read just on their own and thus require other stories for better context (sorry Lean Time in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber). To be on this list, the story must be fully contained and not need any context outside itself.

Dead Authors

Clark Ashton Smith–The Dark Eidolon:

No point beating around the bush here since his name has already been dropped twice. Also, even though I am not ranking these, there is still such a thing as first among equals.

The Dark Eidolon, which is in the public domain and you can listen to it here, is a masterpiece of dark fantasy and lush vivid imagery. Smith, who is already like if Dionysius wrote tales in a setting part Kentaro Miura and part Baudelaire, goes all out to make a story of supernatural revenge involving mass necromancy and stunning visuals which he himself said was ‘among his best’ and that would have looked great in the then young field of film. As such, I have always imagined it rendered in lush high contrast interwar black and white within my mind when I read it. Overall, it is a feast of mental imagery that calls to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in prose.

(Runner Up: The Double Shadow)

H. P. Lovecraft–The Shadow Over Innsmouth:

The one extremely famous author on this list, so the one I am inclined to say the least about. Let us just say, all of Lovecraft’s best writing and pathos come together in a now famous tale of alienation, fear of the other, and ultimately, fear and embrace of oneself. People say this tale of exploration of a dying seaside town and the human-fish people hybrids within is an ultimate example of Lovecraft’s (even then) quite legendary racism, but if so it also predicts his evolution in later life towards more nuanced perspectives when he realized he was just as monstrous as everyone else and his true hatred was for humanity in general.

(Runner Up: The Music of Erich Zann)

Robert E. Howard–Black Colossus:

Of course the big three from the original Weird Tales heyday of the 1930s are all here! My personal favorite Conan tale combines many different elements that make the character and his setting so iconic. Conan as an adventurer who becomes a leader, aspects of survival horror, and epic battles where swords and pikes clash on shields. While the first tale I read to really hook me into Howard was (Runner Up:) The Scarlet Citadel, and thus it retains a special place in my heart, Black Colossus remains the ultimate Conan story.

Alice Bradley “Raccoona” Sheldon–The Screwfly Solution:

It is very hard to pull off a horror story that reads like a thriller and retain both the atmosphere and the pacing of watching events unfold in real time. Watching human civilization crumble through mass femicide and placed firmly in the context of zoological experimentation has a cold detached logic of its own, which in this case is expertly paired with the very real personal loss and madness of the observing characters for an impressive roller coasting of building tension.

Karl Edward Wagner–Lynortis Reprise:

KEW is hugely underrated and might just be second only to Howard in the field of low fantasy. While I personally prefer Wagner’s full book length fantasy tales most of the time, the one of his short stories that really stands out to me is Lynortis Reprise. (Runner Up:) Where the Summer Ends covers him for horror and may be a technically better story, but Lynortis is just so damn unique. It uses the nature of Wagner’s recurring immortal protagonist to his best extent, having Kane return to the site of an awful siege he fought long ago to find old veterans there still living as the horror of the combat made them too broken to go anywhere else. These living ghosts serve as a foil for the lingering effects of war long after history moves on, and they revere the brutal and amoral Kane for his role in the battle that made their new cursed life.

Living Authors

John Langan–Mother of Stone:

An astonishingly executed second person story that begins as an academic investigation into the statue of a lost god that gradually evolves into one of the moodiest and actually fear inducing tales to ever exist. The less I say about it the better, but it and its (Runner Up:) ‘The Revel’ from the same collection was what got me back into writing horror after a few years in hiatus and experimenting with new ways of style to do so. The sheer ornate power of Langan’s prose is unmatched and this is is simply his best story.

Laird Barron–The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven:

Well, you know me from past posts. I love coyotes and I love Coyote (singular). Here we have what seems a simple set up of two women on the run from one of their abusive ex’s who end up in the woods. There’s a coyote pelt, some shape shifting, and the best single example of that earthy pagan TerrorWonder (perhaps the author would call this ‘Mysterium Tremendum?) that only Laird Barron does so perfectly. Its a simple and shorter story, but its execution is flawless.

T.E.D. Klein–Nadelman’s God:

If you are like me and of a weird-creative bent, you will love (or possibly hate) this story. What if one of those strange monstrous characters you periodically invent actually came to life, but outside of your control? Nonsense song lyrics used to make an angsty tune in one’s youth ends up becoming a summoning ritual for a mentally ill person who years later happens upon the author’s work. And the ritual succeeds. And garbage made animate to the instructions of forgotten about lyrics now seeks reunion with its erstwhile creator.

(Runner Up: Children of the Kingdom–its like if the movies C.H.U.D. and Summer of Sam were combined in prose and were not only good, but *extremely good*)

Richard Gavin–Mare’s Nest:

Gavin is an underappreciated gem who I suppose would be considered a horror author, but is really more like the dark reflection of pagan wonder on the surface of an algae-shrouded pond in the forest on an overcast day. His ability to be poignant and moving while inspiring wonder in nature and the uncanny is always apparent, but none more so than in his tale of tragedy and renewal for an artist couple.

Honorary Yet Redundant Mention: Thomas Ligotti–The Shadow, The Darkness:

I have written about Ligotti before, particularly about my heretical view that his best work is his novella. However, the one story that stands out among the shorts is the one whose themes are already explored in this prior post here.

There are many, many more short stories I love of course. And yes, many of them are not even in horror! But these were the stand outs to me in this first foray into examining them as a concept.