Clark Ashton Smith - Ill-fated Master of Fantasy

Hal Rubin


On skies of tropic evening, broad and beryl-green,
Above a tranquil sea of molten malachite,
With flare of scarlet wings, in long and level flight,
The soundless, fleet flamingoes pass to isles unseen.

They pass and disappear, where darkening palms indent
The horizon, underneath some high and tawny star-
Lost in the sunset gulfs of glowing cinnabar,
Where sinks the painted moon, with prows of orpiment.
     --from Ebony and Crystal by Clark Ashton Smith

2A kinder fate would have shown dark Ashton Smith the light of day in medieval France instead of late 19th-century Auburn. He was born at the wrong time and place, and fate treated him unkindly until the very end. Although his poetry and fiction eventually attracted an international audience, he went largely unhonored in his own community.

Real men of his era sported Stetsons and prospered, peddling groceries, cars, and real estate. Smith loped around town in a French beret, a poverty-stricken scribbler of sensual poetry and weird fantasy tales. To Auburn he was an eccentric recluse, the town's oddball.

Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley just south of Auburn. His father, Timeus Smith, an English world traveler, somehow ended up in Northern California, an invalid. His French mother, Fannie, had been a Gaylord. Family ancestry could be traced back to colonial times and to the aristocracy of France and England.

In 1902 the Smiths bought a 40-acre plot on Stony Lonesome Ridge on the edge of Auburn, on a lava flow above the American River. Young Smith disliked his rural school and convinced his parents that grammar school was enough formal education. From high school age on he was self-educated. He devoured the Oxford Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and read his way through the stacks of the Auburn library. At age 13 he discovered Edgar Alien Poe and George Sterling, a prominent California poet.

Even before reaching his teens he had decided to become a writer; by age 11 he was writing stories with exotic backgrounds, some of which appeared later in The Overland Monthly, a west coast literary magazine. Other early short stories appeared in the Black Cat magazine.

Smith returned to poetry when he was 18 and sent some of his work to George Sterling. On the strength of the poems, the young man was invited to Carmel for a month. In the opening decades of this century, Sterling's bohemian circle included Jack London, Edwin Markham, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, Gertrude Atherton, and Bret Harte. Dazzled by these literary meteors, Smith titled his first published volume of poetry The Star Treader and Other Poems.

San Francisco literary critics called Smith "the Keats of the Pacific" and a "prodigy." Despite critical acclaim, he had to borrow money from Sterling to acquire a wardrobe suitable for a young prodigy. Smith never forgot having to turn down an invitation from Jack London to visit Sonoma because he lacked money for a railroad ticket. Poverty forced him to turn away from the exciting San Francisco literary scene and settle into life on Stony Lonesome Ridge.

At home a poet could support himself by picking fruit, cutting wood, or sniping gold. Smith did all three and committed himself to a hermit-like existence. The Bay Area experience had drained him psychologically, and he believed he had contracted tuberculosis, a fear that proved unfounded.

But there were other real problems. Since childhood Smith had been subject to nightmares; now he also became obsessed with death. The resulting macabre dreams inspired his later horror stories. About that period Smith said "... my health broke down, and for ten years my literary production was more or less limited and intermittent." He continued to correspond with George Sterling, but never again tried to crash the West Coast literary scene.

Shortly after World War I, Smith began corresponding with H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror fiction stories in Weird Tales magazine won him a special niche in American literature. Although they never met, their mutual interests in archeology, astrology, sorcery, demonology, and mythology kept them exchanging letters until Lovecraft's death.

In 1922 Smith paid the publisher of the weekly Auburn Journal to print 500 copies of a poetry collection, Ebony and Crystal. He autographed and numbered each copy, and with his usual generosity gave away more copies than he sold. The collection includes an impressive 576-line blank verse poem called "The Hashish Eater," which opens: "Bow down, I am the emperor of dreams/I crown me with the million colored sun."

In 1925, Smith hired The Journal to print 250 copies of Sandalwood, a volume that included his translations from the French of 19 poems by Baudelaire. Smith had taught himself French and Spanish so he could read Europe's great poets in the originals.

Smith's association with the Auburn Journal led to a poetry column in the paper, which ran from 1923 to 1926. Now and then he inserted epigrams and brief comments on the times. Bert Cassidy, The Journal's publisher then, must have taken some ribbing for running Smith's passionate sonnets. A Journal reader often encountered lines like, "Seal my lips on throat and bosom fair," on the same page as an ad for Cohen's July clearance of muslin undergarments.

Because his poetry brought little income, Smith returned to fiction. He sold a short story, "The Abominations of Yondo," to The Overland Monthly in 1926. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, rejected two of Smith's manuscripts and then, in 1928, printed "The Ninth Skeleton."

Unlike many pulp magazines, Weird Tales was concerned with literary quality. It lasted 21 years in a field with a high mortality rate. The great authors of the supernatural horror field in the 1930's and '40's were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Ray Bradbury and Tennessee Williams were among the young writers who began their careers in Weird Tales. In a memorial collection honoring Smith in 1963, Bradbury commented, "In the short story form, Clark Ashton Smith stood alone on my horizon." Lovecraft, the master, wrote, "In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, dark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer, dead or living."

Smith's stories appeared in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, Fantasy Fiction, and other pulps in the supernatural horror and science-fiction fields. Between 1929 and 1936 about 100 of his short stories and novelettes were in print. His work also appeared in the London Mercury, The Yale Review, Mencken's Smart Set, Asia, and Munsey's.

But his prolific output did not bring wealth. Standard payment in the pulps was one cent a word. Smith was lucky if a 5,000-word short story brought him $50. Few editors paid on acceptance, and not all of them came through with a check even after publication. Many fly-by-night magazines never got around to paying their writers at all. To Smith, a small check was like a bonanza. His mother, nicknamed Mrs. "Magazine" Smith by the community, tried to help by selling periodical subscriptions and copies of her son's poetry books. In summer she picked and sold wild blackberries to help keep the family solvent.

Isolated on Stony Lonesome Ridge, Smith drifted farther away from the hard reality of the Sierra foothills into vivid worlds of his own creation. He invented, mapped, and populated the medieval French lands of Maleant and Averoigne; the eerie, haunted planets of Ziccarph; the lost continent of Hyperborea; and Zothique, the last remaining continent on a dying earth that baked under a malignant red sun.

Smith's elaborate writing style was not an affectation. Because mood and atmosphere were essential ingredients, he flavored his stories with exotic and sonorous sounds. He loved words like fulvous, cerement, and nenuphar. He delighted in the invention of place names and story titles that would produce a shudder: "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," and "Necromancy in Naat." He coined place names like Prollantha, Loyla, Uori, and Zanzonga. There were also flashes of wry humor. "The Great God Awto," for instance, a tale in the form of a university lecture in the year 5998, is a satire on the American infatuation with the automobile. A professor of Hamurriquanean (American) archeology discusses the ancient cult of human sacrifices to the god Awto (Auto), and two early prophets of the cult, Anriford and Dhodz, who built the sacrificial vehicles.

A lifelong free thinker and free spirit, Smith recoiled from conventional religious thought. Having read extensively in Eastern mysticism, he leaned toward Zen Buddhism and, as a result, rejected most material values. His cabin lacked electricity and plumbing. A Coleman lantern provided light, and water came from a nearby spring. He cooked on a wood-burning stove. His simple lifestyle reflected not only his penury but also his unorthodox "religious" beliefs.

Although Smith was at heart a loner, he associated with a small circle of Auburn friends. When checks from the magazines were slow to arrive, Ethel Heiple, a neighbor, supplied him with groceries and Alma Yeager, another friend, also provided necessities. Genevieve Sully, to whom Smith dedicated Out of Space and Time in 1942, persuaded him to return to fiction writing during the depression. Mrs. Sully's daughters, Helen Trimble and Marian Schenck, became devoted supporters of Auburn's poet Laureate. Bob Elder, a reporter for the Auburn Journal and a published novelist himself, was one of the few Auburnites with whom Smith felt at ease. Smith was sure he was the model for the major character in Elder's novel, Whom the Gods Destroy.

Smith's creativity was not limited to writing. For relaxation he turned to drawing and carving. Using rocks from gold mine tailings and volcanic chunks from Stony Lonesome Ridge, he carved figures resembling gargoyles and primitives. Many are eerie forms taken from his fantasy stories. About the pieces, Smith said, "I find the making of these far easier and more pleasurable than writing." His miniatures have been displayed at the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento and Gump's in San Francisco.

In 1945 Smith sold his 40-acre homestead on Stony Lonesome Ridge to Greeley Herrington, an Auburn contractor-builder. The property later became the Skyridge development, and Herrington named one of the streets Poet Smith Drive.

"Before Herrington's recent death he recalled a bizarre incident in 1949 when he was using a portion of the land he bought from Smith for a private airstrip. One night a neighbor called Herrington to complain about strange activity on the airstrip. Herrington investigated and found a gaunt figure in a long white nightshirt moving through a ritualistic dance. At each point of the compass the rob-ed figure executed a deep bow. As he approached closer he identified the apparition as Smith, but decided not to interrupt what appeared to be a solemn ceremony. Besides, Smith had retained two acres and his cabin site, and was on his own land.

At age 61 Smith startled his friends by marrying Carolyn Dorman, the granddaughter of one of the prominent San Francisco Chickering clan of lawyer-politicians. The couple lived in Auburn for a time, then moved to Pacific Grove. Smith was compiling a collection of verse, The Hill of Dionysus, when he died there in 1961. His wife then set herself the task of ensuring Clark's rightful place in American literature. Arkham House, his old publisher, issued additional collections of his work. Mainly through her efforts, Bailantine books printed three of Smith's short story collections in the1970's.under the titles, Zothique, Xiccarph, and Hyperborea. Later, Rod Serling's Night Gallery television show adapted one of Smith's stories, with Vincent Price starring. The television rights for that single show brought Smith's estate more money than he had earned during his entire writing career.

Fate, unkind to Smith in life, had the last word even in death. He had asked to be cremated so his ashes could drift freely along Stony Lonesome Ridge, the moonscape of his recluse years. Bob Elder and Carol Smith honored that request. But a Mormon church and parking lot, built to the edge of his burned cabin, trapped his ashes under six inches of suburban asphalt3.

Sierra Heritage, July 1985

Editor's Foot Notes

  1. The entire tone of this article implies that Smith was a failure. While this may be true in a financial sense, in both a literary and a spiritual sense CAS was one of the richest, most successful men of the 20th century.
  2. The photograph used in the published article is the one titled "Clark Ashton Smith at 19".
  3. This is incorrect - there is a church at the end of Poet Smith drive, but the cabin site was located on the other side of the street, behind a row of houses.
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