I've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do this isn't to malign the East, or to produce propaganda--these are just the secondary results--indeed, it isn't really about the East at all, it's about the author and their own personal self-invention.
It is the dark and coursing undercurrent of European perversity, sensuality, and violence which inspires these writers. It is an obsession with transgression, with things that cannot be openly and plainly discussed. The technique here is to express and explore these forbidden topics, but then to blame them on the image of the East in order to create the necessary safe distance, providing the author a buffer, a layer of deniability.
There are whole structures in our language built to produce just this kind of distancing. We talk about 'French' kissing, or 'Greek' love--we named buggery for the Bulgars, and mutual female desire for the residents of Lesbos. Even as we discuss, request, and engage in these acts, we blame them on someone else. Even as we perform them, we typify them not as our own behaviors, but the behaviors of others.
It's not as if our desires to do these things are going to go away, so instead, we personify and externalize those desires. A man sees an attractive woman on the street, he desires her, and he thinks of her as the source of that desire--but while it might be true that she inspired the desire in him, it is still he who is desiring, the desire comes from within him. Her role is passive, because she can inspire such desire without even being aware of it.
And yet, there are men who will blame her for that desire, who will project their own desires onto her: 'she wants it, if she didn't, she wouldn't dress that way, it's flattering, girls like being appreciated'. It is just an attempt to justify this desire, to justify feeling it, or even acting on it.
The same pattern of justification is evident in colonialism: that the colonized power must want to be colonized, must need it. Again and again, the argument was made that they wanted to be ruled, that they couldn't make it on their own, that they were immature, brutal, uncivilized, and that to be ruled was a gift. Domination stems from a desire for power and control, for profit, to take advantage of others, everything else is merely excuses, projections onto the passive party to blame them for being acted upon.
As such, the notion of the East became a natural site for displaced desires. Pulp stories are sites of sex and violence, which has long been their bane, as it makes them a target for censorship and blame. As such, it makes sense that pulp authors would use projection and justifications of this kind to ‘take the heat off’, to present sex and violence with a naturally built in buffer, a socially accepted rationale: we’re presenting it not simply to revel in it, but to present cultural dynamics that we all know are true.
But this means that, beyond simply condemning such presentations of the East as racist and convenient, we can look at them as they actually are: messy representations of the Western id run rampant, presented under a thin veil of obfuscation. After the colonial adventure tales of Kipling and Haggard slipped out of popular venues and were related to study in classrooms, the vision of the 'Mystical East' on which they relied found a new home in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and there may be no more pure and evocative representation of it than here in Smith's Zothique.
The prose is precise, unusual, powerful--the voice of a poet. It is neither the plodding dulness of Lovecraft nor the sometimes grasping repetition of Howard. This is the true and unique world of Sword & Sorcery fantasy which some other authors labor to inhabit, rich and perverse and full of deathly passions. Lovecraft cannot match it, nor Burroughs, nor even Howard, its most notable practitioner. The lineage of influence stretching from Smith to later fantasists is obvious, for instance the sense of humor that pervades these tales, which Vance reproduced in a tone much more dry, and Leiber in one very much less.
Even they were not quite able to capture the pervasive world Smith presents. It may be painted in crude images of ebony-skinned, thick-lipped, obese enchanters, but if it’s crude, that’s only what it’s meant to be. A complex, nuanced view of the imagined East would deny its presentation as a photonegative of the West (or at least, of how the West likes to imagine itself). The oversexed, overly violent projection of the id can hardly be presented in subtle terms.
The fairy tale must be drawn in broad strokes, lacking the subtlety that allows for various interpretations. It denies the reader access to the inner workings of the piece, denies them the privilege of interpretation. Instead, it is done as propaganda, simplified enough that the sides are clear.
This is why the post-modern habit has been rewriting and reimagining these fairy tales, looking at them through the eyes of the ‘villain’, looking at the absurdity of the symbols on which the allegory relies, symbols which inevitably fly apart when analyzed closely. The story deconstructs the tale by going through all the same steps, but refusing to make the same assumptions.
As such, is it possible to recreate the invented East in a modern tale, or is that the equivalent of taking the allegory it represents for granted? Does injecting any kind of subtlety, realism, and other such space for interpretation make the wild, strange, exotic setting impossible? I'd be curious to see a skilled author try it.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, as evocative as his uncanny realm is, it tends to dwarf his characters, making it difficult to get into their heads, or to care much about them. This was one area where Howard outperformed him, producing figures of suitably 'gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth' to fit their grand stage--and Leiber took the same formula even further.
To some degree, this is a deliberate aspect of Smith's style: he is not interested in whether his characters thrive or survive, indeed their wry downfalls are often part of the charm. Yet, these are not quite the tonal explorations of Dunsany, where characters are entirely secondary to description, rhythm, and feel. We do spend time with Smith's characters, with their thoughts and feelings, their desires and motivations, and yet, for all this, they rarely manage to stand out.
And while this collection has some very strong stories, the presentation sometimes suffers. The final story has a strong premise, interesting themes, but Smith presents them simply, in straightforward narration, making it feel more like an outline or summary at times than a story. Though he has a strong poetic voice and interesting language, in comparison to an author like Dunsany, he lacks a light touch, the subtlety that weaves magic throughout. A story’s theme should become clear to us based on the events described, the characters, the details, the use of words--not just explained to us in so many words.
Though he is certainly a writer with flaws, the sheer idiom of his style draws us in: the strength of his voice, and the unusual, playful way that he treats his tales. In the few stories where either the characters manage to sparkle, or Smith simply allows them to subsist in the background as the true protagonist, his setting, takes its rightful place, this series contains some true gems, visions which have inspired not merely other authors, but the very innovators of fantasy, writers who have changed its course, and who have created unique worlds in their own right. Smith is a stylist and a grandfather to stylists, demonstrating that often times, the only way to write is to take things too far, to indulge, to get lost at play, to produce a repast so rich and overwhelming that we cannot savor it--but neither will we forget it.