A letter comparing Clark Ashton Smith to Prince Siddharta

Fritz Leiber

Prince Siddharta was reared to young manhood without knowledge of the miseries of the world. Then one day he went from the palace into the city and saw an old man,a sick man, and a dead man. He became, in short, aware of death: the death of beauty, the death of health and joy, and the death of life. It was a profound shock to the young prince. He could never afterwards understand how people could be concerned with pleasure, family, business, warfare, or any other pursuits, when death faced them all.

I believe that, for whatever reasons of constitution or circumstance - hardly overprotection, one would think - Clark Ashton Smith at some time in his youth experienced the same shock with equal intensity and was deeply affected forever afterwards.

Prince Siddharta determined to conquer death and eventually became the Buddha.

More modestly, Smith devoted most of his life and creativity to making beautiful - often grotesquely and chryselephantinely beautiful - stories and poems and sculptures about the three sorts of death, in particular the third.

I can hardly think of a Smith story, the principal theme of which is not death. The very fine "The End of the Story" and a few other tales of Averoigne chiefly champion paganism. The even better "The City of the Singing Flame" shows a passionate concern for life battling doom which is absent from most of the tales, where Smith is simply the devoted chronocler of death, ever ready with his fabulous forms and colors and sounds to do the Grisly Lord gorgeous honor.

Other writers produce a single Vathek, Hassan, Death's Jest-Book, or other dance of death. Smith did little else, his love poetry being the sole sizable exception.

Only on rare occasions do Smith heroes win through, and even then, as in "The Colossus of Ylourgne" and "The Black Abbott of Puthuum", death is the central theme.

Smith is sui generis, one of the most uninfluenced and original writers I know of. A germ from Poe, a little fire from George Sterling, perhaps an acid drop from Bierce, the color and cruelty of Eastern legends - nothing else in literature contributed to him, except in the most general or minor fashion. The few tiny borrowings between him and Lovecraft were merely playful expressions of a literary friendship.

In June 1944 I visited Smith for one afternoon at his home. He seemed to me witty, artistic, cosmopolitan, and very much out of place in Auburn, though content there or at least resigned - the strange chance of a man of the world chained invisibly to an old-fashioned town in the old gold-fields of California. Despite his courtesy and humor, there was a sorrow about him and loneliness.

A few days ago I mentionned Smith to Harlan Ellison, a tough and metropolitan writer. He instantly said, "Did you know that 'The City of the Singing Flame' started me writing science fiction?" Perhaps the influence of Smith on other writers is deeper and more far-reaching than I have guessed. The more a writer stands alone - Melville, for example - the slower posterity is to put him at his rightful level.

By Fritz Leiber from: Emperor of Dreams: a Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Donald M. Grant, Publisher, West Kingdom, Rhode Island 1978. Compiled by Donald Sidney-Fryer & Divers Hands. It is on page 103.

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