Clark Ashton Smith and The Bohemian Club

Derrick M. Hussey

"Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is best known today as a contributor of fantastic tales of horror to Weird Tales in the 1930s. In his teens, under the tutelage of the poet laureate of the west coast, George Sterling (1869-1926), Smith had found a large measure of success as a poet. His first book of poetry, THE STAR-TREADER AND OTHERS (1912) was hailed as the work of a prodigy. In 1913, Smith participated in a theatrical production at the midsummer retreat of the legendary Bohemian Club of San Francisco.

Smith received his introduction to the Bohemian Club through Sterling, a long-time member. In his last years Sterling lived at the Club full-time, and it was there that Sterling killed himself by poison before his fifty-seventh birthday. Started "for the promotion of good fellowship among journalists and the elevation of journalism to that place in the proper estimation to which it is entitled," the Bohemian Club ultimately extended membership to artists of all kinds, and purchased a plot of undeveloped land for recreational purposes.

"This area, the Grove, is a forested plot owned by the Club for over a century and located on the Russian River, sixty-five miles north of San Francisco. For three weekends every summer the club's members and their guests gather for the "Midsummer Jinks." Highlights of this conclave include a series of almost ritualistic activities, such as a bonfire called the Cremation of Care, as well as theatrical presentations. Simple skits are called Low Jinks, while the High Jinks center upon the Grove Plays, for which original plays and special music is written, and unique costumes and scenery designed, for a solitary presentation.

"The tradition of Grove Plays at the Midsummer Jinks began in 1902. Most of the plays over the next several years were based generally upon historical or mythological characters and texts. However, George Sterling and others shortly began to draft wholly imaginary, fantastic plays for the club. The Grove Play for 1913, "The Fall of Ug: A Masque of Fear," by Rufus Steele, falls resoundingly into the fantastic category. The souvenir program for this performance lists "C. A. Smith" as a Shepherd.

"The plot of "The Fall of Ug" goes somewhat as follows. A young prince and his hunting companions follow a stag through a forest on Mid-Summer Day. They pause before a colossal stone figure of Ug, the God of Fear, which has long blocked the white path leading Heavenward up the hill. The people, it develops, come here this very night for the annual human sacrifice to Ug, Husbandmen, Shepherds, Huntsmen, Warriors, King, High Priest, Prince, Jester, Scribe, Nobles, Lords - the entire world, in fact - arrive and in a mighty chorus voice their trembling tribute to the god. Smith's few scenes onstage took place early in the play, when the Shepherds arrived on the scene to praise Ug. While they enter, each carrying a live lamb (!) and bearing a crook, they are singing the Song of the Shepherds:

"Mid meadows sweet with Grasses,
Through sylvan shadows cool
The flock serenely passes
To rest beside the pool.
No lamb is left to wander
Upon the hillside steep;
The wolf is watching yonder,
The shepherd guards his sheep.

"After the song is sung, Smith and the other Shepherds dispose themselves upon the ground, presumably guarding their sheep. Later in the play, the High Priest commands the Shepherds to bow before Ug's form. No longer mindful of their charges, they fling down their lambs, which run bleating offstage! Making "the Sign of Ug," whatever that means, and showing grave agitation, the Shepherds kneel. The Jester, meanwhile, has climbed to an eminence from which he mocks the Shepherds with this couplet:

"Oh, See our frightened Shepherds bow and weep:
They are as bold as any newborn sheep!

"For most of the Shepherds, all that remained wass to sing the lengthy Song of Ug with the rest of the company. However, two men from each walk of life represented are later named as Ug's "Protectors." The two Shepherds named are Tord and Kim; unfortunately, the souvenir book does not specify the actors' names. Tord and Kim were significantly involved in several other scenes.

"At the end of the play, predictably, Ug is overthrown. Uttering a prayer saves the Prince, who was named as Ug's sacrifice. Then, "in the noise and mystery of a convulsion," Ug is dimly seen to shrivel and go down into utter nothingness. It remains a mystery how the destruction of Ug was effected onstage. A photograph of one scene of the play shows Ug to have been a towering beaked entity, probably tent-like and thus easily collapsible. The photograph also shows a group of people massed before Ug, and it is likely that Clark Ashton Smith is among them, although the photograph is too small to be certain.

"Smith never felt entirely comfortable with the San Francisco literati, being more apolitical than most. Smith's stepson, William Dorman, expressed amazement that Smith was ever at the Bohemian Grove. Still, for a time Smith evidently felt secure in the merits of his work and safe in the company of his friend and mentor. After releasing several more books of poetry, at the encouragement of H. P,. Lovecraft he began writing fiction for the pulp magazines of the era. Increasingly disgusted with commercial writing, however, Smith later focused again on poetry, but by the 1950s had virtually ceased writing altogether. In his later years he was known to some as an eccentric, living on the margins of society. Perhaps his early taste of fame, and the experience of fellowship with the elite, made his becoming a virtual pariah all the more bitterly felt. Certainly many of the characters in his mature tales are outsiders with a cynical view of society.

"Presently, Smith's work is enjoying a renaissance. Already, the twenty-first century has seen the release of no less than five books of his fiction, poetry and collected letters. A full-scale biography, long overdue, is nearing completion. Two separate historical markers have been erected in his native town of Auburn, California. Clark Ashton Smith's participation in the Grove Play for 1913 forms but a brief chapter in his long life. Nevertheless, it is a significant one. For a youth barely twenty, catapulted into the limelight with the recognition of poetry, mingling with the powerful and famous, and escorted by the most important poet in the California scene, it must have been a heady time indeed.

This essay (1080 words) is a condensed version of one which appeared in Esoteric Order of Dagon fanzine "Amethystine Hippocampus" some years ago. This shorter version was published in UNDERWORLDS #1.

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