Clark Ashton Smith’s The Treader of the Dust, one of the last stories published in his lifetime, appeared in the August 1935 issue of Weird Tales. The author would go on to publish only a few more stories before shifting his attention away from fiction and poetry writing to sculpture and painting. His marvelously dark and distinctive work was created in a short span of about six years, after which his intensity as a writer dimmed like the dwindling red sun overhanging his imaginary continent of Zothique.
A few years before the publication of The Treader of the Dust, Smith had experienced considerable frustration with Hugo Gernsback, at that time the publisher of Wonder Stories, whom he later had to sue for nearly $1000 owed him. Following the initial success of his first “Captain Volmar” story, Marooned in Andromeda (1930), Gernsback complained that Smith’s second story in the proposed series, The Red World of Polaris (2003), was too slow, lacked a plot, and needed more action.
In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, dated January 29, 1932, H.P. Lovecraft commiserated with his colleague about the increasing demand for conflict, movement and faster paced story lines:
You certainly succeed in preserving the pictorial quality despite the omnipresent demand for “eckshun”, & are exceedingly fortunate in being able to bridge the gulf. Whether I could do the same is very doubtful…The most I can subjectively realise in the field of “eckshun” is the phenomenon of flight & pursuit—especially of the sort in which the quarry does not quite see or identify that which is pursuing. To have my “hero” turn on his intangible nemesis & stage a wholesale slaughter in the Robert E. Howard fashion would be beyond the powers of my imagination.
Smith grudgingly made some revisions in The Red World of Polaris to accommodate the magazine, but the story did not see publication in his lifetime. Smith’s foray into science fiction, at first filled with hope and excitement, was ultimately a disappointment. (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda and Tloong vs. Murm on the Red World.) According to S.T. Joshi, it was probably the passing of his mother—in the same year The Treader of the Dust was published—as well as the deaths of his father and his close colleague H.P. Lovecraft, both in 1937, that led to the rapid decline of Smith’s written output by the mid to late 1930s.
In this context, The Treader of the Dust is both eerie and sad, ably capturing the author’s state of mind at this point in his life. More a nightmarish prose poem than a story, it seems to personify—in the entity called Quachil Uttaus—the relentless and inescapable approach of aging, deterioration and death. John Sebastian, an occult scholar, has recently fled his home in order to “exorcise the dim, bodiless legion of his fears”. However, he manages to overcome his ambivalence and return to the house at dusk.
Drawn like a moth to a now guttering flame, Sebastian is alarmed by the excessive dust and decay that have afflicted his personal possessions, despite his absence of only a few days. His faithful servant is unaccountably missing. As his panic increases—and the sun literally sets—he tries to reassure himself with realistic explanations for the weird condition of his residence. His moth-like path takes him to his study, where his copy of the dreaded tome, The Testaments of Carnamagos lies open to a very problematic passage.
Set in contemporary setting, The Treader of the Dust is interesting because of its use of realistic detail to depict the approach of the otherworldly Quachil Uttaus, which may be a deity, an extraterrestrial, or even an avatar of good old death. Perhaps at this time Smith was moving away from his more familiar dark fantasy to develop a kind of psychological realism. A similar style can be seen in Smith’s Genius Loci (1933), and especially in The Face by the River, written in 1930 but published posthumously. (See also When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus and Don’t Take Me to the River) The theme of decadence, which runs throughout much of Smith’s work, seems especially condensed in this story from late in his career, and must have been acutely felt by the author himself.
We could ask this question about Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft: what if these three masters had survived the 1930s, both physically and artistically, had managed to make the transition to more realistic, more scientific, more lucrative fiction, found better editors and publications, (ones their work deserved), had gone on to Hollywood…