The Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith

Eldred Smith

[Alien Culture, April 1949, pp. 3-6]

I found a copy of this essay among Smith's papers at Brown University, which isn't listed in Emperor of Dreams. I haven't seen any references to it in CAS' correspondence, but since there is a note in his handwriting requesting its return, I presume that he found enough of merit in it to share it with various of his correspondents. Parts were burned in the fire that damaged Smith's cabin; those unreadable portions are indicated by ellipses within brackets. I also had to correct silently some of the grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors found in the original.

I can think of no satisfactory —or for that matter, even plausible reason for Clark Ashton Smith's literary obscurity. Certainly his work is of the first order, original in both story and presentation, and of a quality which makes its bid for fame far more than sheer originality. However, he chose fantasy rather than realism as the vehicle for his work, and in a world where realism rules supreme, this seems to be the gravest of all errors that an author can commit. His genius—everything about hos work that makes it great—is overlooked; and readers and reviewers alike seem to see only this one factor (I most certainly cannot say fault); and the golden words, the jeweled sentences, are brushed aside with something bordering on contempt.

Because he thought more of his art than monetary gain or notoriety, publication in the big, so-called "quality" magazines was denied to Smith, and his work found its market in the fantasy "pulps" which began to flourish about 1925 or 30. Weird Tales was the first publication to feature any of his prose—apart from a few pieces, published twenty years before, in the Black Cat and Overland Monthly magazines. But before many years had passed, Smith's stories were being featured in Astounding Stories, Wonder Stories, Strange Tales, and others of their genre which had suddenly become so popular. And as the genre prospered, so did Smith.

Within a few years, he had become—together with H. P. Lovecraft—one of the leading authors of the supernatural in America. Many other writers flourished about this time, writers with great followings, but it seems fairly safe to say that Smith and Lovecraft are the only two to bet on for future fame. Each was an artist—genuinely and sincerely; and the work of each shows this above all else.

The bulk of Clark Ashton Smith's prose seems to fall into three distinct classifications: modern horror, science-fiction, and "otherworldly" fantasy. In each of these categories, he managed to achieve a high degree of artistry—far higher than most of his contemporaries; while in at least two, we find several of his tales which are fit to be ranked with the finest that the genre has yet produced.

Smith's work in modern horror seems to contain the least satisfactory of his tales; yet. even here, he has produced several which are brilliant in both conception and execution. "The Return of the Sorceror," which tells of the revenge of a slain magician upon the rival who killed him is fraught with crawling horror which finds its origin in the Cthulhu Mythology of H. P. Lovecraft; while "The Seed from the Sepulcher" has its setting in the jung;es of South America, where a terrible plant roots itself in the bodies of two explorers, killing them by its intrusion. There are other tales, also; such as "The Gorgon", which tells of the survival of this awful deity in modern England, and "The Treader of the Dust", wherein an ancient and little-known god is called from out space's far, forgotten regions by a recluse, whom it kills in revenge. Yet fine though they may be, none of these modern fantasies is deserving of a place besides [...] later work [...] which distinguishes [...] efforts, or, on the other, the brilliant and polished artistry and genuine power of his finest other-worldly fantasies.

In his treatment of science-fiction, Smith is more reserved of style; he tends less toward the effect of phraseology and beauty of expression which is so evident in the other branches of his work, and more toward unity of effect, built up in a definite and reserved manner. His work is quieter, more subdued—and rightly so. For here, more than in any other of his work, Smith seems to desire credulity. And here he does more to achieve it.

Clark Ashton Smith has written a number of science-fiction short stories which are distinguished for their originality and effectiveness. Such tales as "The City of the Singing Flame", "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis", "The Master of the Asteroid", etc., are thoroughly brilliant achievements—hallmarks upon science-fiction's upward road. Yet it would seem that there is one story of even greater stature than these, a little noticed tale of man's inability to alter his future. Its title is "The Plutonian Drug".

Opening leisurely, with a discussion between a doctor Manners, and Rupert Balcoth, a sculptor, the tale quickly develops—without the slightest evidence of strain—toward its dramatic ending. Principally, it deals with a certain drug, by which its taster is able to read the next few hours of his immediate future. After some discussion, Balcoth takes a measure of this drug, but it does not have the forseen effect—it goes but a part of the desired distance. When Balcoth awakens and tells Manner this, the doctor seems worried. He warns the sculptor against returning to his house by the route of his vision, but Balcoth ignores this advice. And on his way home, he is killed, "sandbagged, very quietly and efficiently by a twenty-first century thug. The blow was fatal; and time, so far as Balcoth was concerned, had come to an end."

Smith has written other science-fiction stories, also. And pre-eminent among them is "The Letter from Mohaun-Los", an odyssey of time and space which takes its modern voyager from the planet Earth to far-off Mohoun-Los, where he dwells as a god among its machine-worshipping inhabitants. But "The Plutonian Drug" must surely stand as this author's masterpiece, and, more than any other story, it shall do more to secure his place upon the topmost run of this comparatively new literature.

But fine though his work in science-fiction may be, it is in his tales of other-worldly fantasy and horror that Smith truly comes into his own. Here, with a background of what H. P. Lovecraft has called "a universe of remote and paralyzing fright", he has created a group of short stories which must stand as classics of their type so long as this literature endures.

Many are the worlds of his creation; and their names alone must inspire wonder from even the dullest and most unimaginative amongst us. Hyperborea, Atlantis, Zothique, Lophai, that strange unnamed world which lies upon the borderland of our own in "The Light from Beyond", Phandiom, and countless others, each with their own strange and exotic features. One shall always remember the world of Lophai, where flowers rule under the direction of Voorqual, the flower god, and where the human inhabitants serve them. Nor would one forget the gazolba bird or the many adventures with the unknown that King Euvoran courted in his "The Voyage of King Euvoran"; or the planet Xiccarph, where Maal Dweb rules, omnipotent, in his impenetrable palace surrounded by "a bottomless swamp wherein no reptile dwelt and where no dragon descended; but where the pitch-black ooze was alive with incessant heavings."

Atlantis, a world of past ages, about which many authors—great and small—have written many [...] Clark [...]. Here, Malygris, the magician, is all-powerful. Here, in "The Last Incantation", one of Smith's finest short stories, he dreams of his youthful love; and here too he slays his greatest enemies, though he, himself, has lain dead for an entire year, untouched by the worm. And it is from here that the two scientists, Hotar and Evidon, make their voyage to the planet Saturn, only to die there. It is in Atlantis, also, that the most terrible demon from out of space's furthermost reaches, the Double Shadow, overtakes and slays Avyctes and his pupil in their wizard's tower.

There are other worlds also—many of them which have an earthly setting, such as the werewolf-ridden forest of Averoigne, in Medieval France, whee Azedarac have Brother Ambrose the draught that banished him, forever, from the world of man, and where Luc le Chaudronnier met and conquered the daemon-driven "Beast of Averoigne". But it is an even stranger world, a "misty mid-region" of the tortured mind that we find the most powerful of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories. The title of this tale is "A Night in Malnéant", and in it we find Smith's artistry raised to its highest level. Here a mood is set with the first paragraph, and slowly intensified, word by word, without a single faltering of sentence or phrase until the last. Beyond any doubt, this story is the greatest weird tale to be penned in America since the death of Edgar Allan Poe, and in many respects it surpasses even the best of this great artisan.

At the onset, we find a lost, grief stricken wanderer stumbling aimlessly along an unknown road that leads he knows not wheree. In a thick shroud of mist, he hears the deep, "mortuary tolling of many bells" and is lured to the "dim environs" of Malnéant. Entering the city, he begins to wander about within it, searching for "wine and other agents of oblivion", but instead he finds constant reminders of his suffering.

Imagine, if you will, a dim and grief stricken wanderer plodding aimlessly through a dark and silent city with the deep reverberations of funeral bells ringing in his ears, reminding him of the death of her he so loved. And all about him, the thick, swirling mist against the blackness of the night.

Then, he comes upon several of the city's inhabitants, and questions them regarding wine and a place to sleep; but they only answer, "We cannot tell you. We are shroud-weavers, and we have been busy making a shroud for the lady Marial." Such is the answer that he receives everywhere—only the occupations of those questioned causes a slight difference in the reply. And now the grief is upon him with ten-fold violence, for he realizes that the name of his mourned sweetheart is also Marial.

So, at last, the wanderer (whose name is never given) approaches the mausoleum wherein the body of the lady Marial lies in state; and, approaching the bier upon which she lies, he discovers that she is, indeed, the same Marial whom he loved.

"The tides of time", he writes, "were frozen in their flowing; and all that was or had been or could be, all of the world that existed aside from her, became as fading shadows; and even as once before (was that aeons or instants ago?) my soul was locked in a marble hell1 of its supreme grief and regret. I could not move, I could not cry out nor even weep, for my very tears were turned to ice."

And the wanderer flees the city, never to return, for fear that its people might be "still busied with their preparations for the obsequies of the lady Marial."

This, then, is the outline of "A Night in Malnéant"; but no synopsis can do this story justice. It must be read and re-read to be fully appreciated. It has been said that the mark of a truly great story is whether it can be read a score of time without losing its initial charm. If this is correct, then "A Night in Malnéant" is surely one of the greatest, for it only gains with each re-reading.

As I look over the majority of the anthologies in the genre, and listen to those discerning readers who look upon the supernatural as a distinct branch of literature, I hear their high praise for long-dead authors. And I agree with them. Fortunate indeed must be we consider those readers who lived in the same time as Edgar Allan Poe, and were able to greet the first appearance of each of his stories with their all-too-well deserved acclamation. Good fortune, also, smiled, upon those many readers who were able to greet the first appearance of each of his stories with their all-too-well deserved acclamation. Good fortune, also, smiled upon those many readers who were able to watch the rise of the other great masters of the fantastic. And yet were they any luckier than we? I think not. For while we look upon those lost, golden years with envy and regret that we were not there also, we seem to completely forget that we, too, are living in a golden age of fantastic fiction. Many are the brilliant men of letters, writing in this genre that we have had the pleasure of watching rise to their greatest glory; many, indeed, and a full half-dozen of them fitting to rank with the greatest of all time. Lovecraft, James, and Machen have left us, but we watched them in their prime—we were the first to recognize their now widely-appreciated genius. And with us yet are Blackwood and Dunsany,t he last two of the four British masters of the fantastic and the macabre which this century has produced. And with ys also is the truest of the lot, Clark Ashton Smith, whose genius shines like a beacon upon the darkening horizon of our literature—a giant of whose presence any century could well be proud. We have no cause for regret of past years; our only regret should be that we do not appreciate to the fullest those that are passing now, and show our appreciation by erecting, in fantastic literature's high vaulted hall of fame, a towering monument to the gigantic genius of Clark Ashton Smith, greatest of the great.

* * *

  1. The text was burned away beyond this point, so I am including the portion of Smith's story quoted here, taken from Out of Space and Time (1942; London: Neville Spearman, 1971), p. 49.

Introductory notes and the footnote by Scott Conners

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