Exotic and unpronounceable place and character names mark The Dark Eidolon as a tale inspired by the early work of Lord Dunsany. Originally published in 1935, this is one of Clark Ashton Smith’s longer and more ambitious short stories. The Dark Eidolon is fascinating on many levels: it is linked to at least one other story of Smith’s (The Isle of the Torturers), cleverly transmutes Biblical themes into an alternate and evil universe, is vividly imaginative, and contains Smith’s trademark symmetry and circular plot structure.
Readers will want to have on hand their copy of Dictionary of Obscure and Archaic Words—not a real book, but much needed!—in order to decode such terminology as, well, Eidolon, not to mention odalisques, lemans, aludels, athaners, and cachinnations. There is a whole lot of cachinnating going on in The Dark Eidolon. However, the unusual vocabulary enhances the strangeness of Smith’s story and does not detract from the pleasure of reading it.
The Dark Eidolon is set in the far distant future, where humanity dwells on Zothique, the last continent, beneath an aging reddened sun. Society has regressed: there are enormous discrepancies of wealth, the various gods of paganism are in vogue, and the government is a cruel despotism. Everyone is evil and decadent. This decrepit world is reminiscent of that in Smith’s earlier story The Planet of the Dead (1932)—see also H.P. Lovecraft’s Antarian Adventures .
For those readers familiar with the books of the Old Testament, the society depicted here resembles the chaotic period in Judges before the arrival of the prophet Samuel, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It is a world in decline, filled with citizens who have incurred considerable wrath. Can it get any worse? Of course it can.
Narthos, a poor beggar boy, is cruelly trampled by the horse of prince Zotulla. He survives this ordeal, but is maimed and left with a lingering hatred of the royal household. He leaves the city for the desert, where he finds enlightenment and training as an apprentice to the wizard Ouphaloc. In another clever riff on religious tradition, Narthos—now the sorcerer Namirrha—does not return to society like a Saint Anthony, a “desert father”, filled with religious insight and compassion. Instead, he has a score to settle with his childhood tormenter, who is now the tyrannical King Zotulla. He has planned a series of increasingly grotesque torments for the monarch.
But there is a whole lot more to The Dark Eidolon than supernatural vengeance. A hellish society that is bound for hell is in need of either redemption, or at least, and more likely, destruction. Can justice be found in a society where all its members are evil to the core?
The most remarkable character in The Dark Eidolon is an entity called Thasaidon, “lord of Evil”, an avatar of Satan. It is ironically Thasaidon who cautions Namirrha against going too far with his plans. In the middle of the story, Thasaidon offers a rather undevilish sermon about justice, forgiveness, fate, (“…for the ways of destiny are strange, and the workings of its laws are sometimes hidden…”), and self-restraint. All for naught; in such a decadent society, people do not even listen to their demons, let alone their gods.
The hallucinogenic horrors in Namirrha’s dark castle are entertaining in themselves. They are great source material for numerous horror movie vignettes. The apocalyptic ending contains clear allusions to the New Testament book of Revelation, and is satisfying and unanticipated. The Dark Eidolon is recommended as an example of what a skilled author can do with themes of societal decay, vengeance and the nature of evil.