Auburn writer gets hometown memorial

Gus Thomson

At face value, it's just a large basaltic boulder - a lichen-encrusted rock standing between a pair of oak trees in an Old Town Auburn park.

On Saturday, the boulder became an official touchstone into the influence a reclusive Auburn poet and science fiction writer continues to have on a literary community. It's an influence that reaches far beyond the borders of the rural Northern California city he lived, dreamed and wrote in for most of his life.

Forty-two years ago, Clark Ashton Smith's ashes were buried under the flat-faced boulder near the site of the primitive Skyridge-area cabin he had lived in from the early part of the 20th Century through the mid-1950s. With the property poised for subdivision development two years ago, the writer's devotees moved quickly to relocate the boulder and preserve an important piece of Smithonia.

The group found a site in Bicentennial Park and won enthusiastic approval from the Auburn City Council last year for a memorial. The rock became the focal point for one of the few tributes to the author in his own hometown.

On Saturday, a mix of Smith fans from outside Auburn and local residents with a wealth of memories gathered at the park to dedicate the rock and a commemorative plaque with words of praise and appreciation, a few choice quotes from the writer himself, and a toast.

Dispensing small cups of red wine produced by a local vintner, Boulder Relocation Committee member Ron Hilger noted that the vintage wasn't the Loomis burgundy that Smith preferred but was fitting because it was local.

Then he raised a glass to the "poignant romanticism and unjaded truth" of Smith's writings.

Dubbed 'the Keats of the Sierra' in his teen years for collections of poetry like "The Star-Treader and Other Poems" that were both Romantic and mystical, Smith would later achieve even greater fame for short stories originally published in the 1930s in pulp fiction magazines like Weird Tales and Wonders Stories. Translated into several languages and still in print, they are considered early fantasy classics. Smith has gained praise over the years from an eclectic list of writers that includes H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

Born Jan. 13, 1893, in Long Valley, near Auburn, Smith would live the last seven years of his life in Pacific Grove before dying of a stroke in 1961.

Hilger told the crowd that during Smith's lifetime, he remained unrecognized.

"Today, his legacy is more alive than ever before," he said, noting several new publications of his work over the last two years.

After the rock was moved from the Skyridge property, Hilger also scooped a shovelful of dirt from the cavity. He spread the dirt around the boulder during Saturday's ceremony.

The boulder and plaque will serve as a place for people to visit and find inspiration, Hilger said.

Donald Sidney-Fryer, a pioneer in modern Smith criticism who brought out the writer's first extensive poetry bibliography, attended Saturday's dedication and read a letter from Philippe Gindre, of France, who has been translating the writer's works for a growing Francophone audience. All his tales and short stories have now been translated and published in France. His writings have also been translated into German, Italian and Spanish.

Gindre wrote that Smith's work offers a "richness and diversity of expression" and that the Internet has allowed an international community of the author's followers to come together.

Oakland's Bill Kostura, who first broached the idea of the boulder monument after learning of the impending development of the Smith homestead, said that whether they're really there or resting only in the minds of people who visit, the stone represents spiritual qualities that can inhabit inanimate objects.

"It's nice to have a place to go to to connect with Clark Ashton Smith," he said.

Sidney-Fryer, who knew Smith, said the boulder was the writer's favorite place to sit and meditate. The plaque that rests in front of the rock should provide a starting signpost to guide interested passers-bye into Smith's world, Sidney-Fryer said.

"The wording of the plaque is of such a nature that people will see this and go to the library and look him up," he said. "What more can you ask?"

Reprinted with permission of the Auburn Journal
January 12, 2003

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