Clark Ashton Smith

Contemporary Authors Online

Clark Ashton Smith is recognized by many critics of fantasy and science fiction as one of the foremost authors in the genre known as "weird fiction." H. P. Lovecraft, an acclaimed horror writer himself, defined a "true weird tale" in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as "something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present." Locating his stories in such mythical lands as Zothique (a futuristic realm where magic has replaced science), Smith distinguished his prose from the formulaic pulp stories of the day by fashioning fantastic plots and bizarre imagery out of poetic, and sometimes archaic, language. Writing in a tradition which traces its roots back to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and other nineteenth-century writers of the macabre, Smith and fellow contributors Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard defined the "golden age" of the pulp magazine Weird Tales during the 1930s. Although the works of Lovecraft and Howard are still widely appreciated by readers of horror and fantasy literature--tales by both authors have been adapted into films--Smith's stories, despite their critical acclaim, are known only to a smaller and more specialized audience. "Of these three gifted men (who were all good friends and correspondents although I do not believe they ever actually met), it is Clark Ashton Smith alone who has yet to achieve the wide recognition his artistry so richly deserves," observed Lin Carter in his introduction to Smith's paperback anthology Zothique. In the introduction to Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch styled the author "an inhabitant of realms beyond the reaches of reality. His imaginative genius gives us glimpses of grotesquery and grandeur."

Although Smith is remembered for his "weird" stories, he perceived himself as primarily a poet. L. Sprague de Camp remarked in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers that Smith's poems, "once compared to those of [nineteenth-century English poets Lord] Byron, [John] Keats and [Algernon Charles] Swinburne, are known today to few outside of some science-fiction and fantasy fans. Few of those who nowadays make a stir in the poetic world have even heard of Clark Ashton Smith." Nonetheless, Smith's earliest poems, published in The Star-Treader and Other Poems, met with some critical success. In the introduction to Smith's Selected Poems, Benjamin DeCasseres praised the poem "The Hashish-Eater" as "a glut of beauty that leaves me breathless in one continuous reading." DeCasseres added: "You will find nothing of today or yesterday or tomorrow in . . . Ashton Smith's poetry. . . . Nothing but beauty, immortal, speechless beauty, and the record of the dust of worlds and the decomposed illusions of man."

Born in Long Valley, California, in 1893, Smith never ranged far from the place of his birth. Although his formal education ended at grammar school, he continued to read and write stories and poems with the intention of devoting his life to literature, specifically poetry. "While his withdrawal from the normal schoolboy milieu may or may not have made him a better poet, it also, probably, contributed to his later frustrating difficulties in making a living," de Camp pointed out in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. During his writing career, Smith was sometimes forced to cut wood and pick fruit to make ends meet. In a quote published in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, Smith described his struggle with poverty: "If I work for a living, I will have to give up my art. I've not the energy for both. And I hardly know what I could do--I'm `unskilled labor' at anything except drawing and poetry. . . . Nine hours of work on week days leaves me too tired for any mental effort." Smith also suffered from ill health during this period, but he would improve physically by the late 1920s, finding the energy from 1929 to 1936 to complete more than one hundred short stories.

Smith had his first short stories published in the general fiction magazine The Black Cat in 1910; they were, according to de Camp in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, "undistinguished tales of oriental adventure." By 1912, however, Smith's poetry met with some success, and he was encouraged to contact George Sterling, one of his favorite poets and the leader of an artists' colony in Carmel, California. Sterling, a protege of author and journalist Ambrose Bierce, wrote poems reminiscent of French "Decadent" literature, a pessimistic movement that acknowledged the inevitability of moral decline and exulted unrepentingly in it. According to Brian Stableford in The Second Dedalus Book of Decadence: The Black Feast, Sterling's verse (the poem "A Wine of Wizardry," for example) "placed morbid meditations on destiny within a peculiar cosmic perspective." A friendship developed between Smith and Sterling--with the older poet serving as a mentor--that continued until Sterling's suicide in 1926. After Sterling introduced Smith to the writings of prominent Decadent author Charles Baudelaire, the champion and translator of Poe into French during the mid-nineteenth century, Smith, in turn, learned French and translated Baudelaire's poems into English. Sterling also served as the subject for one of Smith's numerous essays, many of which dealt with authors Smith deemed influential.

During Smith's most fertile period of creativity, from about 1930 to 1936, he had switched over to writing fiction and was completing at least one story a month. De Camp suggests in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers that this burst of productivity is related to the fact that Smith (who was also looking after his aging parents) was making more money by writing--"even at the low rates and late payments of Weird Tales"--than through jobs requiring manual labor. "He regarded himself mainly as a poet who wrote prose only to pay his decrepid parent's bills," de Camp stated.

Smith's stories are clearly identifiable by his unique writing style; in the introduction to Zothique, Carter noted: "The short stories of Clark Ashton Smith are very much his own, and nothing quite like them has been written in America, at least since Poe." Various critics have observed the influence on Smith's fiction of Sterling, Bierce, and French author Gustave Flaubert (notably the novels Salammbo and Tentation de Saint Antoine). English author William Beckford's gothic novel Vathek as well as the fantasies of Irish writer Lord Dunsany and supernatural stories by Lovecraft have also been cited as important references in the formation of Smith's prose. Gahan Wilson commented in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that Smith's stories "were beautifully constructed, full of lovely images and absolutely sumptuous English." Smith's penchant for choosing obscure and archaic words, de Camp suggested in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, stemmed from the author's self-educational technique; he would "read an unabridged dictionary through, word for word, studying not only the definitions of the words but also their derivations from ancient languages. Having an extraordinary eidetic memory, he seems to have retained most or all of it."

The author's enchantment with language--as well as his instinct for horror--is apparent in "The Garden of Adompha," a tale of Zothique. As the story begins, Adompha (the decadent ruler of an island kingdom), has instructed the wizard Dwerulas to create a secret garden in which the king might "search for novel pleasures and violent or rare sensations." Smith's prose describes the garden in the following passage: "There were many . . . weird plants, diverse as the seven hells, and having no common characteristics other than the scions which Dwerulas has grafted upon them here and there through his unnatural and necromantic art. . . . These scions were the various parts and members of human beings. Consummately, and with never failing success, the magician had joined them to the half-vegetable, half-animate stocks, on which they lived and grew thereafter, drawing an ichor-like sap. . . . On palmy boles, beneath feathery-tufted foliage, the heads of eunuchs hung in bunches."

The settings of most of Smith's stories can be divided into several different worlds. In addition to the continent of Zothique, he created the locales of Hyperborea (an arctic land of ancient Earth), Poseidonis (Atlantis), Averoigne (medieval France), and Xiccarph (a region on the planet Mars). Many of Smith's fictional heroes find themselves transported into alternative realities via space travel, enchantment, or a portal to another dimension. In the story "City of the Singing Flame," the narrator discovers an invisible gateway in the rugged California countryside that leads to an alien realm. Joining other creatures of all description who are drawn to a strange monolithic city by a flame that radiates mesmerizing music, the narrator witnesses--several times--the voluntary sacrifice of certain pilgrims. "The narrator . . . ends the tale by saying that he will return to the City and immolate himself in the Flame, that he might merge with the unearthly beauty and music that he had sampled and lost," according to Steve Behrends in Studies in Weird Fiction. Two prominent, award-winning science fiction authors have both credited "City of the Singing Flame" as a major source of inspiration. In the introduction to Smith's A Rendezvous in Averoigne: Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury recalled that "City" and "Master of the Asteroid" were the two tales that "more than any others I can remember had everything to do with my decision, while in the seventh grade, to become a writer." And in a letter published in Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Harlan Ellison related that "City of the Singing Flame" specifically influenced his career when he discovered an anthology containing the story in his high school library. (Ellison was so impressed, he admitted in the letter that he stole the volume, writing, "I own it to this day.") Ellison further commented, "I owe the greatest of debts to Clark Ashton Smith, for he truly opened up the universe for me."

Gahan Wilson wrote that, upon their first publication, Smith's stories "stood out rather starkly" in the formulaic realm of pulp writing. Indeed, some of Smith's more violent and nihilistic tales were severely edited, with changes to the endings and reductions in the stylistic flourishes. Nevertheless, Wilson declared, the author's work reveals "sly and subtle jibes at mankind's aspirations, chilling little fables of a startling bleakness. [The stories] were beautifully constructed, full of lovely images and absolutely sumptuous English, but they were deadly. Reading them was a tiny bit like being skillfully murdered with a Cellini stiletto, or dining well at the Borgias."

The theme of loss has appeared frequently in Smith's fiction. Behrends explained: "Smith created scores of situations in which individuals lose the things closest to their hearts, and live on only to regret their loss and to contrast their fallen state with the glory they once knew. He gave his characters the capacity to realize the extent of their loss, and to express the pain they felt." The story "The Last Incantation," according to Behrends, "contains some of Smith's finest descriptions of the emotions of loss." The plot concerns the elderly wizard Malgyris who uses magic to bring a lover, long dead, back to life. "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," stated Douglas Robillard in Supernatural Fiction Writers.

Among Smith's Martian stories is "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," about an archaeological expedition that discovers an ancient tomb in the planet's unexplored wastelands. As the archaeologists venture into the ruins of Yoh-Vombis, unaccompanied by their reluctant Martian guides, they encounter a mummified being in an inner vault whose head is covered with a mysterious black cowl; the cowl, in fact, is a brain-feeding leech-like creature. By suddenly attaching itself to the head of an expedition member, the creature controls its host and frees others of its kind. Although the story is ostensibly science fiction, Carter, writing in the introduction to Smith's paperback anthology Xiccarph, perceives it as a superior hybrid of genres: "Read the tale and savor the prose style: this rich, bejeweled, exotic kind of writing is the sort we most often think of as being natural to the heroic fantasy tale of magic kingdoms and fabulous eras of the mysterious past. Finally, read the story straight through and notice the actual plot. As you will find, it is precisely the sort of thing we call weird or horror fiction." Donald Sidney-Fryer stated in the introduction to Smith's paperback anthology The Last Incantation that "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" is "one of the most purely horrific stories that Smith ever created" and has "obvious parallels with such Lovecraftian masterpieces as `The Color Out of Space' and `The Shadow Out of Time,' as well as with such a recent `Lovecraftian' film as Alien."

Smith abruptly ceased to write fiction after the deaths of his parents (his mother died in September of 1935, his father in December of 1937). Although he would write the occasional story, "the tales actually completed after 1937 could be counted on the fingers of two hands," de Camp remarked in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. Having also shown a flair for the visual arts throughout his life, Smith turned more to rendering his fantastic visions in paintings and sculptures. Eleanor Fait reported in a December, 1941, article in the Sacramento Union that Smith started sculpting out of native rock in 1935. "Visiting his uncle who owned a copper mine . . he picked up a piece of talc, took it home, and casually carved it into a figure one day. Pleased by the result, since then, he has done more than two hundred pieces."

Smith married Carolyn Jones Dorman in 1954 and was working as a gardener to help make ends meet when he suffered a stroke in 1961 and died several months later. His unique contributions to the field of imaginative fiction were summed up by H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote to Smith in 1923 (in a letter quoted in Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside), "No author but yourself seems to have glimpsed fully those tenebrous wastes, immeasurable gulfs, grey topless pinnacles, crumbling corpses of forgotten cities, slimy, stagnant, cypress-bordered rivers, and alien, indefinable, antiquity-ridden gardens of strange decay with which my own dreams have been crowded since earliest childhood." In the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, Stefan Dziemianowicz maintained that Smith's works "feature some of the most original and imaginative horrors in 20th-century weird fiction," and in the introduction to Strange Shadows, Robert Bloch praised Smith thus: "Let us rejoice in our legacy--the art and artistry, the prose and poetry of one whose imagination did indeed soar beyond space and time."

PERSONAL INFORMATION: Family: Born January 13, 1893, in Long Valley, CA; died August 14, 1961, in Pacific Grove, CA; son of Timeus (a hotel night clerk) and Mary Frances (Gaylord) Smith; married Carolyn Jones Dorman, 1954. Education: Self-educated.

CAREER: Writer of fiction and essays; poet; journalist; painter and sculptor; also performed odd jobs and manual labor. Exhibitions of his artwork held in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. Document Number: H1000092286 (c) 2005 by The Gale Group, Inc.

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