An Appreciation of the Prose Works of Clark Ashton Smith

Richard Stockton

The prose of Clark Ashton Smith occupies a singular position in American literature: he represents the culmination, the final flowering, of the style called decadent, either in America or elsewhere. He is in a direct tradition that extends back to Poe, and we may well be proud of the fact that he is an American. His writings, though delicate, are by no means restrained, rather being luxuriant in the extreme; and though some may dislike the mould in which his stories are written, it is not for those to judge their value, for they will remain one of the achievements of our era, and there will be not a few who will wish to have been his contemporary.

His literary form has its antecedents in Oscar Wilde's Salome, in Baudelaire and the other French poets of the decadence, in Poe's esthetic theories, in Lord Dunsany's subtle colorings, and, in a measure, Walter Pater's carefully fashioned prose; but for anyone to infer that Smith imitates any of these styles would be a gross error; he is one of our most original authors. These brilliant writings, these jewelled works, are certainly some of the outre productions of this century; they are intense, highly concentrated; their words glitter like the scales of demoniac reptiles, lustrous, lacquered, metallic; their rich flow of verbiage strikes the brain and produces heavy, drugged visions, fantastic pageants of the senses all heightened and burning under the stimuli of his words. In his work. is found an overwhelming luxury-the atmospheres on his planets are voluptuous. warm. Languorously scented and moist; air wherein may flourish monstrous plant-animals, and those strange, almost androgynous creatures so similar to human beings; odors, overpowering perfumes, subtle, exquisitely heavy scents, perhaps drugged, opium- tainted;—one has the impression that drugs are- the cause of the supremely gorgeous phantasmagoria that pass before one's vision, bur rather it is the poisonous euphony of the liquid syllables that flow so smoothly and in such torrents through the enchanted ear into and. over one's stupefied brain; it is this that is the heady liquor that causes the intoxication; the drug- inspired visions of his work, the overwhelming, almost perverted, beauty seen everywhere. The inhabitants of his worlds, they that dwell in "jungles of poisonous and grotesque temples in Atlantis, Lemuria, and forgotten elder worlds and dark morasses of spotted death- fungi in spectral countries beyond earth's rim", in the "chaotic and incredible vistas of kaleldoscopic nightmare in the spaces between the stars", and in the "gorgeous, luxuriant, and feverishly distorted visions of infinite spheres and multiple dimensions" -(to quote- Lovecraft), remind one of Pater's statement: "a strange complex of. conditions where as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand. among people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulustic, frail, androgynous, the light almost shining through them."

He is not of his age; he dwells in his dreams, which are of marvellous textures and of wondrous designs; throughout the tapestries that are his dreams run threads of scarlet and purple, interwoven with these are threads of gold, and this splendid fabric is over- laid with grotesque silver symbols, ideograms of unknown meanings. All through is a strangeness, a feeling alien, a cultivation of exoticism for its own sake.

He loves so see the light of a dying sun shine on the agate and onyx towers of cities long deserted; the pallid luster of moonstone; the iridescent gleams of peacock- feathers; the baleful glare and shimmer of dark opals, with hearts smouldering fires of forgotten and dimming suns, reflecting rich sanguine and murex-tinted rays; and above all he loves "the ultimate refinement that is close to an autumnal decay", the decadence attainable only to those civilisations of such great age as to have their very beginnings lost even in the most remote antiquity. that of which Verlaine said: "I love this word decadence, all shimmering in purple and gold. It suggests the subtle thoughts of ultimate civilization, a high literary culture, a soul capable of intense pleasures. it throws off bursts of fire and the sparkle of precious stones. It is redolent of the rouge of courtesans, the games of the circus, the panting of the gladiator, the spring of wild beasts, the consuming in flames of races exhausted by their capacity for sensation, as the trump of an invading enemy sounds." He belongs to that school of writers who fashion their work as jewellers, lapidaries, fashion inlay-work with jewels, lacquers, and enamels set in precious metals, exquisitely carved; as Pater composed his cadenced sentences: with finely chiselled words and phrases written on lozenges of paper which were carefully arranged and rearranged until their places were found; he is one of chose to whom a word is like a rough gem, which he cuts and polishes, shaping it to its setting, the whole work being burnished until it gleams like intense, white-hot burning fire. In his work emotions are refined to burning jewels, reduced to their finest essence, quintessentialised; -and this is noticeable in all of his work-everything is vibrant, restless, and with the malignant glare of a serpent's eye.

It is not only the prose poem with which Smith has worked and which he has graced; he writes poetry; he is a sculptor of no little merit; his illustrational work is greatly prized; to him we may offer the homage that goes to all great artists, whether they work in minor fields or otherwise, for he is one of them.

From: Klarkash-Ton: The Journal of Smith Studies, #1, 1988, Cryptic Publications.

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