Clark Ashton Smith

Douglas Robillard

During The 1930's, Clark Ashton Smith was one of the most important writers of fantasy fiction appearing in the pulp magazines. With Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, he dominated the pages of Weird Tales; and a fair amount of his fiction was published in Wonder Stories and other science fiction magazines. The appeal of his work was its exotic otherworldliness. His selection of a title for his first Arkham House collection of tales, Out of Space and Time (1942), was a perceptive measure of his themes and settings; it was drawn from Poe's remarkable poem “Dream-land” (1844), which describes “a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,/Out of SPACE — out of TIME.” This extramundane region — in some unknown part of earth, in another dimension, another planet, or another time — is central to Smith's conception of fantasy, which seeks to disorient the readers' senses by removing familiar landmarks. Some of the best supernatural stories of other authors make their point by the frightful events that occur in familiar surroundings, but Smith usually plunges his readers outside their normal world and lets them flounder toward some uneasy familiarity with strange circumstances.

Smith was born in Long Valley, California, on 13 January 1893 and spent his life there, in quite restricted surroundings, without much travel. His schooling was minimal, and he was largely self-educated. Beginning early as a writer, he published stories in the Overland Monthly in 1910 and in the Black Cat in 1911 and 1912. But his main effort was given to poetry, and in 1912 he had published The Star-Treader and Other Poems, to favorable critical reception. For more than a decade, he seems to have restricted his writing to poetry, though recent research indicates that he may have written a short novel, As It Is Written, and submitted it to the magazine Thrill Book in 1919, where it was accepted but not published. He numbered other California writers among his acquaintances and was particularly friendly with George Sterling, who contributed brief introductions to two of his volumes of poetry. Upon Sterling's suicide in 1926, Smith memorialized him affectingly, in both poetry nd prose.

Around 1926, Smith resumed the writing of fantasy fiction, and for more than a decade he was a prolific author of short stories. In 1933, he undertook the publication of a pamphlet, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, containing six stories, and sold it by mail from his address in Auburn, California. The establishment of Arkham House and its publication of his fiction and poetry helped his reputation to grow. Smith died on 14 August 1961, but there were several posthumous Arkham House publications. In the 1970's, many of the stories and some of the poems were published in paperback, in a careful thematic ordering by Lin Carter, and thus were made available to a wider audience. Although these volumes are out of print, republication of the stories in the 1980's is once again offering them to a potentially large reading public.

The recognition of Smith has been nothing like the widespread recognition granted H. P. Lovecraft, with the publication of his letters, a biography, and critical and bibliographical studies. But Smith has had his devoted followers, who have produced an impressive body of material. Emperor of Dreams (1978) is an important bibliography with some reminiscences. A collection of letters would be welcome, and a well-researched biography would do much to place Smith properly among his contemporaries.

That place should include a fair estimate of Smith's poetry. Like a number of other excellent poets of his time, Smith was relatively unaffected by the revolution of modernism that took place around 1912. When poets like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams shifted the bases of poetry, their techniques left behind some of the practitioners of a more traditional brand of poetry. Unaffected by these changes, Smith and a number of other poets continued to write in the manner of their nineteenth-century literary ancestors. His work displays technical skills in blank and narrative verse, Alexandrines, odes, sonnets, and quatrains. His poetic diction often has an antique air, using such forms as “fain,” “knowest,” “foldeth,” and “thee” and “thou” in place of a more contemporary diction. There are poems descriptive of his fictional worlds, Averoigne and Zothique. One finds the influence of Edgar Allan Poe very strong in the poems, as in “Luna Aeternalis.” His prose poems show the powerful effect of the French romantic and symbolist poets, whose works he read and often translated. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the writings of many poets — perhaps most poets — will be neglected for the work of a few major talents in any century. With all its faults, Smith's poetry displays excellences of form and theme that continue to make it appealing.

One of Smith's most interesting posthumous publications is a notebook that he kept for many years, in which he wrote down “used and unused plotgerms, notes on occultism and magic, synopses of stories, fragments of verse, fantastic names for people and places” (The Black Book). In this regard, he greatly resembles Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose notebooks recorded many of the story ideas and themes used in his fantasy fiction. Smith's jottings offer useful clues to the workings of his mind. He makes lists of names and possible story titles, and recounts promising themes for unwritten stories. There are experimental lines of poetry, revisions of poems, and trial passages of prose tales.

The notebook displays Smith's attention to the problem of arranging his stories in orderly groups to indicate their themes and settings. He classifies the tales as belonging to “The Book of Hyperborea,” for example, or lists the “Tales of Zothique,” obviously considering their order for book publication. Smith's care in the ordering of his tales is also evident in the Arkham House editions of his first two story collections. In Out of Space and Time, the stories are grouped under such headings as “Judgments and Dooms,” “Hyperborean Grotesques,” “Interplanetaries,” and the volume's title. In Lost Worlds (1944) the grouping has been fine-tuned, with stories placed under headings consisting of Smith's fantastic locales: “Hyperborea,” “Atlantis,” “Averoigne,” “Zothique,” and “Xiccarph.” Entries in the notebook indicate that stories about each of these worlds were to be linked to form histories of his imaginary realm.

Donald Sidney-Fryer has offered a very useful description of the typical Smith story:

Many of the more characteristic tales are actually poems in prose in which Smith has united the singleness of purpose and mood of the modern short story (as first established by one of Smith's literary idols, Edgar Allan Poe) together with the flexibility of the conte or tale; an entire short story being unified and, in part, given its powerful centralization of effect, mood, atmosphere, etc., by a more or less related system or systems of poetic imagery.

(In Memoriam, page 11)

Sidney-Fryer's insistence on the poetic qualities of the stories is well taken. As a poet, Smith understood how he could hold a story together by a pattern of images; some of his best stories possess a chain of connected images. For example, The White Sybil (1935) depends on pervasive images of ice, coldness, and death; these are juxtaposed against the images of a shadowless, windless landscape full of blossoming flowers and trees in the paradisiacal world of the sybil.

Sidney-Fryer's association of Smith's fiction with Poe's is also much to the point. In a list of his favorite weird stories, Smith cited “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” His list included stories by Robert W. Chambers, M. P. Shiel, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and Lovecraft, all of whom can be said to have worked in the tradition of Poe, since they also used special diction to establish setting and mood. The criticism, sometimes made, that Smith unnecessarily burdened the diction of his stories with learned and obscure words has only enough truth in it to be misleading. While we can be brought up short by words like “terebinth,” “machicolated,” “malisons,” and “thallophytic,” among other curious forms, we soon learn that Smith uses the words with precision and that they add a dimension to the incantatory tone of his work that is obvious when it is read aloud. And, by way of balance, Smith can also affect another manner in his narration, one that is straightforward, plain, almost journalistic.

Many of the outstanding writers of fantasy made this genre only a part, often a small part, of their work in fiction. Unlike them, Smith published over a hundred stories, and all of them fall into the closely related categories of weird, horror, fantasy, supernatural, and science-fantasy stories. In the tales of Hyperborea he evokes a fantastic past for the earth, creating countries and cities of a geological period before the time of man. In “Ubbo Sathla” he writes that the land of Hyperborea flourished in the Miocene epoch, which is a world as far from reality as any off-world setting. As the name indicates, Hyperborea is located beyond the northern regions of the habitable world. Mhu Thulan, within its borders, can be associated with Lemuria and the Ultima Thule, perhaps Smith's version of Poe's “ultimate dim Thule.” Lin Carter's effective ordering of the tales in his edited volume Hyperborea (1971), his map, and his geography help to impose a pattern and a cohesiveness upon the group.

Several of the stories are predominantly ironic and even satiric in tone. In “The Seven Geases” (Weird Tales, October 1934) the hunter Ralibar Vooz disturbs a sorcerer in the midst of his incantations and is punished by having a terrible “geas,” or spell, placed upon him. He is sent on a subterranean odyssey as a gift to a a horrible monster, which rejects him and sends him on his way in the grip of an even more potent geas. After being rejected in turn by increasingly awful creatures, he is freed to make his way back to the dreadful limbo of the outer world, but, after escaping terrible fates, he perishes by accident. Similarly, the miser in “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” (Weird Tales, June 1932) is ungenerous to a prophesying beggar and is victimized as a result of his avarice.

A particularly noticeable characteristic of the Hyperborean tales is the multiplicity of monstrous creatures. Smith mentions, on one occasion, “the great sloths and vampire bats,” the “small but noxious dinosauria,” the subhuman Voormis, the batlike toadgod Tsathoggua, the spider-god Atlach-Nacha, and others. The narrator of “The Testament of Athammaus” (Weird Tales, October 1932) is an executioner who has the unsavory task of attempting to put to death an immortal semihuman figure who becomes more horrible and less human at every resurrection and finally causes the Hyperborean city of Commoriom to be deserted. The loathsome creature in “The Coming of the White Worm” (Stirring Science Stories, April 1941) bleeds from its wounds a black, foul liquid far in excess of what it could be expected to hold.

It is difficult for a fantasy writer who creates a succession of monsters to achieve a continuous suspension of disbelief, and sometimes the creatures slip from the horrible to the absurd. To Smith's credit, his descriptions are careful and realistic and hold the attention successfully; moreover, some of his monsters betray a sour, biting wit that has its own appeal.

Smith's Hyperborean tales are unlike the action-filled Hyborian stories of Robert E. Howard, and none of his characters is like Conan. A prose poem, “The Muse of Hyperborea” (Hyporborea), clearly defines Smith's vision: “And in some dawn of the desperate years, I shall go forth and follow where she calls, to seek the high and beatific doom of her snow-pale distances, to perish amid her indesecrate horizons.” It is a poetic vision of ancestral memory and lamentation.

In Atlantis, says Smith in “The Muse of Atlantis,” one of his prose peoms, “we will go down through streets of blue and yellow marble to the wharves of oricalch.” For the poet, Atlantis offers a vision of color and richness, and he sets a number of stories in Poseidonis, the last remaining island of that lost continent. Atlantis has been a land of dark knowledge, and the magician Malygris is Smith's prototypical character for these stories. One of the two tales devoted to him has a touching and affectionate tinge. In “The Last Incantation” (Weird Tales, June 1930) the aged sorcerer recalls from the dead a girl he had once loved; but, once she is back, he learns with disappointment how different from his memories of her she now seems. He is disillusioned to learn that what he cannot call back is his own youth with all its idealism. A very different sort of tale is “The Death of Malygris” (Weird Tales, April 1934), a more conventional horror story of a magician exercising his power after death against plundering enemies.

When Smith published a small collection of his tales in 1933, he gave it the title The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, signaling his favorable opinion of the title story. His confidence is well placed, for it is one of the most carefully wrought of his stories. Pharpetron, the narrator, tells of discovering, with his mentor, Avyctes, a strange, triangular metal tablet carved with ciphers in the language of a lost race of serpent-men more ancient than the inhabitants of Hyperborea. It is a difficult and tedious task to decipher the tablet, but Pharpetron and Avyctes eventually learn the substance, if not the import, of the spell it contains, which gives the formula to raise an extraordinary and unspecified entity but not the counterspell to exorcise it. Avyctes displays hubris by believing that he is powerful enough to control whatever being he can call up. The two men are disappointed when they carefully perform the incantation and nothing immediately appears, but they presently become aware that Avyctes is being haunted by a distorted shadow thrown from no visible source and that it is slowly closing with his own shadow. He is finally possessed by the demon he has raised, and Pharpetron is left to tell the story and meditate on his own approaching doom.

Smith sold the pamphlet by mail, advertising it as “a booklet containing a half-dozen imaginative and atmospheric tales — stories of exotic beauty, glamour, terror, strangeness, irony, and satire.” With the booklet in the “Science Fiction Series” (Stellar Publishing Company, 1932) that printed “Immortals of Mercury,” it probably represented all that he could hope for in the way of book publication for his stories, though his work was popular in the magazines and he was an executive director of the Science Fiction League.

One of Smith's strong themes is the horrible fate of “those who go too far,” but he also displays a talent for turning a potentially horrible story into an attractive and moving one. An unusual interplanetary journey is the subject of “A Voyage to Sfanomoë” (Weird Tales, August 1931). Two scientists of Atlantis, foreseeing the destruction of their foundering world, build a spaceship driven by “explosion of atoms in sealed cylinders.” The construction takes years, and the journey to Venus is long, so that when they arrive they are old men. They find their new home a torrid garden of Eden, where they are gently led to forget their past, painlessly die, and are metamorphosed into flowers. It is the mildness and pensiveness of the story that are most impressive. Death is usually the most shocking event in a horror story, but here it is a desirable and pleasing end or, perhaps, another beginning.

Among Smith's created lands, the most vivid is probably Zothique, “a latter coast/Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand/And dead gods drink the brine.” In these lines, from a poem entitled “Zothique” (The Dark Chateau), Smith celebrates an earth of the far distant future. The sun has become dim, whatever is left of the world is old and decadent, the world we live in is as ancient to that future as Hyperborea is to us. The concept has within it an almost hypnotic power, and it yields often to Smith's most incantatory style: “I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.” The strong sense of age and decay, of spaces, infinitude, and flatness, are the archetypal images of the sublime as Edmund Burke defined the term and as it makes its way into literature and the visual arts. These lines are from “The Empire of the Necromancers” (Weird Tales, September 1932), the most successful of the stories of Zothique.

The necromancers, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, have been driven into exile for their desecration of the respected dead. They make their way across the deserts to Cincor, where a plague in the distant past destroyed a flourishing kingdom; here they revive the corpses of men, women, and animals and set up to rule in the capital city of Yethlyreom. The situation is spectacularly fantastic in this kingdom of the living dead. The corpses move about mutely, caring for the castle grounds or working in the fields and mines, tending to the needs of the old necromancers; some of the women “whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch” are taken as lovers by the old men. It is affecting to read of the dead, roused from oblivion by magic, dim of memory and yearning vaguely for a new dissolution, but hardly able to resent, protest, or rebel. At last the youngest of the dead emperors, feeling a rage stronger than the others', is able to ally himself with the oldest of the necromancers to discover the secret that will release them all from their enchained life-in-death, destroy their dictators, and earn for them the return to rest. They carry out the prophecy of destruction and lead their subjects back to a death by fire in the vaults below the palace:

All that night, and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom . . . to wend downward by a thousand thousand steps to the verge of that gulf in which boiled the ebbing fires of earth. There, from the verge, they flung themselves to a second death and the clean annihilation of the bottomless flames.

Here Smith is able to take the language of the horror story and transform it into an instrument of compassion by turning his poor, ravaged, living corpses into believable and sympathetic characters.

But there is a sharply ironic side to his literary character, and it is shown to its best advantage in the fable of “Morthylla” (Weird Tales, May 1953). After publishing many stories during the 1930's, Smith had become much less prolific and during the 1940's and 1950's had only an occasional story in the magazines. But he had not lost his skills. “Morthylla” would have made a fine prose poem or narrative poem. Its themes are eternal return, weariness and disillusionment with the constant and appalling repetitions of earthly life, and the desire for death. Although these themes are often the tiredest conventions for symbolist and decadent poets, Smith seems to take them personally. They call up his deepest feelings and recur often in his poetry and fiction.

He makes the protagonist of the tale a poet, world-weary, infected with “a curiosity toward the unseen, a longing for things beyond the material world.” In a graveyard he meets a lamia and, for a time, is satisfied with life. But she turns out to be a sham, a mortal posing as a lamia, and, in his bitter disappointment, he commits suicide. His death is only another beginning: “After his death, he forgot that he had died; forgot the immediate past with all its happenings and circumstances.” He is ready to repeat, unknowingly, the events of his past life. The fable is a devastating one, ornate in its insistence on demonstrating mankind's useless longing for something beyond mortality; what is beyond mortality is more mortality. The technique of the story depends upon an economy of means: the scene of the meeting of man and lamia early in the story is repeated at the end, almost word for word.

Although Smith apparently thought well of his Averoigne stories, set in his version of medieval France, the few that he wrote seem somewhat more conventional than his other tales, possibly because a more or less historical setting imposed limitations that he did not have with his invented epochs and continents. Certainly the more spectacular stories that he composed for the science fiction magazines offered a greater range of strong images. Among these works, the one most consistently reprinted and cited for excellence is “The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories, January 1931), a tale of a gateway from this world to other dimensions. Traveling to another world, the narrator finds himself drawn to a sirenlike flame that is attracting life forms to what appears to be self-destruction. In “The Master of the Asteroid” (Wonder Stories, October 1932), the narrator is a man trapped in a wrecked spaceship and doomed to slow death. The strange life forms of the asteroid, insectile and short-lived, visit him and regard him as a divinity until he is overcome by a mysterious, superior, godly being. Here, as in some of the other stories that Smith published in the science fiction magazines, there is a strong tinge of the horror story; the writer emphasizes the strangeness of the interplanetary experience and presents otherworldly monsters rather like the ones he has developed for our planet. There were, in fact, protests that Smith's stories were not science fiction at all.

In “The Immortals of Mercury” (1932), the reader encounters an unending stream of off-world wonders: savage natives of the planet, “heat lizards” similar to crocodiles, and the ruling race, the wise, immortal, and murderously detached Oumnis. Most of the story is given over to the protagonist's attempted escape from the dangers around him; but Smith typically offers the ironic horror-story conclusion in which, having gotten past all dangers, the poor man mistakenly emerges to the surface of the planet on its dark side and freezes to death. Likewise, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales, May 1932), which might well have appeared in Wonder Stories, presents an evil and alien Mars whose chief denizen is a parasitic creature that controls its human victim while feeding on him. And “Dweller in the Martian Depths” (Wonder Stories, March 1933), which could as easily have been featured in Weird Tales, puts in the way of its human explorers a being that blinds and enslaves them.

In his interesting study of Smith, L. Sprague de Camp calls attention to his “elaborately euphuistic style,” neglecting to mention that in stories like “The Uncharted Isle” (Weird Tales, November 1930) Smith resorted to a plain narrative suitable for the sailor-narrator. De Camp also comments upon Smith's ironic sense of humor and his “uninhibited bent for the macabre.” With no little humor of his own, de Camp allows that “nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.” The fact is that with all his predilection for the macabre, Smith never seems to become morbid about it. There is an ironic, poetic vision always at play behind the looming horrors, somewhat detached, alert, and observant. A strong sense of beauty, even in strangeness, often gives the tales a fascination they might otherwise lack; and here the poetry that Smith composed for so many years adds an element of charm that is often lacking in the fantastic story.

Source: CLARK ASHTON SMITH, Douglas Robillard , Supernatural Fiction Writers Vol. 2, Pages 875=96881, Copyright 1985 , Charles Scribner's Sons, Source Database: The Scribner Writers Series

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