Introduction: The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith

Graham Wilson

The fantastic sculptures, shards and drawings pictured in this book give generous proof that their creator, Clark Ashton Smith, was an eccentric and persistently independent man. They are very private visions, sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, and very often both at once. They are at the same time poetic and rude, and mingle savage barbarity with gentle insight. Idols and icons built by an artist mulling over civilizations which were never in the ancient past, and would never be in the remote future, they are earnest attempts to depict the entities who did not live in these non-existent civilizations, not to mention others which didn't nor won't dwell on planets other than ours, real or imagined.

Smith was a poet, first and foremost, and only after that was he a writer of short stories, and just where the material here fell with him is hard to say. Probably it wandered back and forth between. E. Hoffman Price, in an excellent memoir on Smith which serves as the introduction to the Arkham House collection Tales of Science and Sorcery, quotes Smith as saying: "Sometimes a story suggests the sculpture or drawing. Again, it's the other way about."

Smith's eccentric education, he was self-taught after putting up with five years of official grammar school, is more evident in these visual works than in his writings. They are, especially the drawings, quite clearly the work of a primitive. Those careful, leaf by leaf landscapes remind one of Rousseau, there is a lot of Giotto in The Sciapods, but then there is also a subtle and sophisticated, even a Redonesque-decadent, quality about such as Forbidden Barrier or Scene in Atlantis, which puts Smith in quite a different category than Grandma Moses.

The sculptures are, I must admit, my personal favorites. Though physically small, they often have a monumental feel and look as if they weighed tons instead of ounces. Some of them, such as Lava God, have the air of those weird, unexplained stone heads archaeologists come across in Central American jungles, and which require derricks and flat cars to transport them to museums.

Another aspect of these carvings is their really astonishing impression of ancientness. They look as if aeons have passed over them and hint at frightening histories. Smith enjoyed pretending that they actually were hoary relics and, in a fine piece on him by Emil Petaja in Image Ten, he's quoted as solemnly saying that such and such a work came from a lost Hyperborean tomb, and that another was a fragment of an altar-piece dedicated to the forbidden worship of the nethergod, Zhothaqquah. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, on receiving a statue from Smith, promptly christened (I'm not sure if that's the right word) it the Lord Tsathoggua, and wrote: "Most certainly, this palaeogean eidolon dates from a past anterior to the existence of any life-principle native to this earth or to our three known dimensions; & it carries in every line & angle the spirit and mysteries of its extra-cosmick artificer." High praise, indeed.

Smith carved his strange little fantasies from chunks of stone carefully culled from an abandoned copper mine owned by his uncle Ed Gaylord. The area where Smith spent most of his life, around Auburn, California, had been the scene of a frantic gold rush in the eighties and was pitted with numerous unguarded shafts. Uncle Ed presided over the Kilaga mineral spring, whose water he extolled and bottled and sold.

The stone from the mine was soft stuff, Price refers to it as "talc" but confesses he just uses the word to get across its workability, and could be carved with a jack-knife, which is what Smith did. When he'd finished the work he would bake it in his kitchen in his wood-burning stove, he did without gas or electricity, until it had hardened to his satisfaction. I sometimes wonder if he ever cooked, say, Azathoth and a pie at one and the same time.

As long as I'm on these homely details, I'll pass on another which I only recently learned and which I found charming. Seems that after some experimenting, and doubtless after several unfortunate incidents, he hit upon a method of getting his sculptures through the mail and simultaneously thwarting the postal authorities' attempts to mash or otherwise mar them. What he did first was to put the thing into one of his stockings (imagine the King of Zothique wrapped in argyle), then to put that into a tin can stuffed with shredded newspaper, then to put all that into a paper carton with even more wadding. I have seen it demonstrated, and it works, but apparently it put Smith to a great deal of bother locating cans that were just the right size for this or that particular werewolf or behemoth.

Needless to say I have my favorites among the works in this book, and I'm sure you have or will develop yours. I'd like to direct your attention to Swamp Feeder for a fine example of the way Smith could mix compassion and humor, and I think Tsathoggua is about as good a job as can be done of rendering something which could, and would, like to devour you with one gulp. Saw-Toothed bird has obviously been stolen from an ancient temple at ghastly risk to the thief, Harpy may be the most obviously terrifying item in the collection, the Lavallieres are nervously convincing, and The Satyr must surely be a survival from Averoigne and not a work by Smith at all.

This aspect, I think, the authenticity of these images, is what bothers the viewer so. There is a wonderfully spooky believability about them which makes one wonder if the generally accepted explanation of their origin is really true. Was it Smith who carved these things, or was it done by a variety of hands (and possibly claws and tentacles)? Did he create the Hashish Demon, or was that done

by some sinister mediaeval mason, possibly working from life? Is Mysteriarch really cut from soft stone carried from the Kilaga mine, or is it made of stranger stuff? And is it likely that the Four-Eyed Creature was conceived and executed by a human being?

After Lovecraft received his statue from Smith, he kept mentioning the thing in later letters. Seems he detected suggestions of subtle motion which appeared to be insidiously increasing. Then there was the business of having heard a peculiar voice just as he started out of an especially profound sleep, seems as how, more and more, the poor man was able to make out what was being said, "in those rumbling, chanting tones I hear-as I climb up out of the wells of night." He quoted, ". . . gha . . . g'wah . . ." as an example of the sort of thing he picked up.

I expect H. P. L. (or Ec'h-Pi-El, as he was wont to sign his letters to Smith, whom he usually addressed as Klarkash-Ton) would be the first to warn the reader that this book ought to be treated with some caution. We are lucky to have these strange creations, but I believe it would be injudicious to blunder through them in a casual and thoughtless way for here you have the results of some very serious dreaming; these are no light skimmings from the unconscious, but works brought up from the profound depths of a mind which was darkly unique. Smith was an original, and no one else quite like him ever passed this way. Here are some of his gifts.

Top of Page