The Return of the Sorcerer

In which an unemployed translator of Arabic finally gets a job, unfortunately for him.

By Clark Ashton Smith

First published in 1931

Anthologized in The Return Of The Sorcerer: The Best Of Clark Ashton Smith

Let’s give Fritz Leiber the first word. He summed up Clark Ashton Smith in a manner so concise that Strunk and White would have applauded:

“Smith is the devoted chronicler of death, ever ready with his fabulous forms and colors and sounds to do the Grisly Lord gorgeous honor.”*

Absolutely right. Lots of people die in Smith’s fiction — in fact, almost everybody in his stories dies at the end.  They don’t go quietly and peacefully in their sleep at the age of 101, either. No, their brains are eaten by Martian parasites, or they’re devoured wholesale by aggressive mutant Venezuelan foliage.** Those are just two examples out of many; Smith’s literary career lasted forty years, and he dispatched many a character during that time.

Smith describes all of these outré deaths in a purple prose rich with outmoded adjectives.  The end result often reads like the treatment for a demented MGM musical, with dialog by John Webster and art direction by H. R. Giger. It can be effective in small doses, but it becomes tedious quickly (almost instantaneously, as far as I’m concerned).

Smith did his best work when he broke his own mold and wrote in a less-florid style.  One of those instances was “The Return of the Sorcerer,” which originally appeared in the September 1931 edition of the pulp magazine Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. The result is genuinely creepy, and all the more effective for being understated, at least until the last few pages.

Ogden, the main character, is a down-on-his luck translator of Arabic who’s found little need for his services in the Depression-era U.S. When the eccentric recluse John Carnby offers him a position translating an ancient text, Ogden jumps at the chance, even though it means moving into his new employer’s house and working late at night.  It’s after taking the job that Ogden learns the book he is to translate is none other than the Necronomicon, written by “the mad Arab,” Abdul Alhazred, sometime during the early 8th century A.D.

Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will naturally recognize this as the grimoire featured in a number of his major stories. The Necronomicon is an encyclopedia of all that’s evil, a book that gives practitioners of the black arts ultimate power, but at a terrible cost.

Of course, the Necronomicon is something that Lovecraft readily admitted to making up. That cumbersome fact hasn’t stopped some people from believing the book really exists, however. It also hasn’t prevented others from producing their own versions.  For example, I am happy to say that my alma mater, Penn State, owns a hoax edition of the Necronomicon. It’s apparently the Owlswick Press edition of 1973, and its located in the Rare Books room of Pattee Library. Fight on, State!

To return to “The Return of the Sorcerer,” Ogden’s new employer is especially fixated upon a passage about how, for a truly enterprising sorcerer, dismemberment is no barrier to resurrection. He also lives in fear of things that bump and scrape along the passages at night. Carnby claims that these are rats, which, as you know already, they aren’t. Trust me, in this situation, you would welcome rats.

From here, the story moves rapidly to a grisly, but not overly-graphic, conclusion. If you are easily disturbed by violence, well…this won’t bother you in the slightest. Compared to an average episode of The Walking Dead, “The Return of the Sorcerer” is extraordinarily tame.

There’s something almost genteel and 19th-century about “The Return of the Sorcerer.”  It reads like an American response to British-style supernatural fiction, and I know I’d be a bigger fan of Smith’s work had more of it been written in this style. Unfortunately, however, there was always some new surrealistic horror for him to describe, and so off he went.

One final note: “The Return of the Sorcerer” was adapted for television in 1972, as a episode of Rod Serling‘s Night Gallery. It starred Vincent Price as Carnby, and Bill Bixby as the translator, whose name was inexplicably changed to “Noel Evans.” The show took a number of other liberties with Smith’s story as well, but it was redeemed by a self-parodying late-’60s patina (e.g., a black mass is described as “far out”), cheesy production tricks (such as a hallway in Carnby’s house being full of fog) and Vincent Price, who’s always fun. The episode can be seen on Hulu.


*This quote is from the “Clark Ashton Smith” entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by Jack Sullivan. Published in 1986, it is excellent (with contributors ranging from Jacques Barzun to Ramsey Campbell), yet long out of print, sadly. If you ever have a chance to buy a copy, be sure to snap it up. Its ISBN-10 is 0-670-80902-0.

**That’s right — I said aggressive mutant Venezuelan foliage. See “The Seed from the Sepulcher,” from the October 1933 edition of Weird Tales, if you dare.