Letter to Virgil Finlay

From Clark Ashton Smith

Auburn Calif.,
Sept 27th 937.

Dear Virgil:

I'd have written long before this except for an uncommonly strenuous program. During July and August my working day usually extended from 6 in the morning till 10 or later at night; and as a consequence I wrote few letters. Early in the current month I managed to come down with a grippy cold, which still leaves me feeling rather worn out and worthless.

Your drawing for The Death of Ilalotha was quite good, I thought, especially in the rendering of the lamia and her monstrous shadow. I liked also the one for Psychopompos in the same issue of W.T. The Shunned House illustration in current W.T. is superb. I hope Wright has sent you some more of my stuff to illustrate by this time. During August he accepted two stories, The Garden of Adompha and Mother of Toads; also, a full page poem, The Prophet Speaks. More recently he has taken a slightly abridged version of The Maze of the Enchanter (which you will have read in my pamphlet, The Double Shadow) under the title of The Maze of Maal Dweb. Mother of Toads is probably too short to "rate" an illustration; but the others are of suitable length. I am hoping that the poem will come into your hands for a border design, since Derleth me that such designs are to be used again in W.T. in connection with full, or nearly full, page verse. Yes, I knew that the W.T. rates for drawings are low. Wright paid me $7.00 apiece for some that I made in illustration of my own stories several years back.

I am glad that you liked the pamphlet so well. A Night in Malneant is one of my own favorites. For some reason, Wright thought this tale (as well as some of the others in the pamphlet) too plotless and poetic for the general run of W.T. readers. Possibly he is correct in this. I doubt if any of my work will ever have a wide public appeal, since the ideation and esthetics of my tales and poems are too remote from the psychology of the average reader. It is reassuring, however, that my work should appeal so strongly to a few.

I was greatly interested in what you said about the attitude and function of the illustrator in dealing with bizarre, exotic and fantastic literature. The points that you make are perfectly clear, and I agree wholeheartedly with them. It seems incontestable that the artist should try to catch and convey the precise atmospheric tone, and should strive for a realistic accuracy of setting. Also, you are right in thinking that atmosphere, rather than mere event, is the essence of the weird tale. You lay your finger on the common weakness of magazine fantasies, which fail to convince because of inadequate atmospheric development; in other words, there is little or nothing to prepare one for the incidents and climax. Such tales must be hard to illustrate, and I do not envy you your task in connection with some of the W.T. contributions. I think you define very well the main difference between my tales and those of Lovecraft. HPL, in his most characteristic stories, always built up an elaborate and minutely detailed groundwork of realism, no matter how fantastic the eventual departure. Though I have sometimes written tales with an actual setting, I am more at ease when I can weave the entire web on the loom of fantasy. It is probably idle to speculate as to whether one method is more creative than the other. No doubt my own preference is motivated by a certain amount of distaste for the local and the modern, and a sort of nostalgia for impossible and unattainable dreamlands. Yes, I agree with you that my tales - especially the Zothique stories - would call for an arabesque type of illustration, with much ornamental detail; while drawings for HPL's work should be more austere and bleak. Different types, page sizes, bindings, etc., could be utilized appropriately in publishing books by HPL and myself.

So far, I've had no luck in "hitting the sticks." But I intend to keep on trying. No word yet from the selection of poems that was to be submitted in Britain. I'm hoping, of course; but past experience has inured me to disappointment. Luckily, as I grow older, I seem to care less and less about "fame," "recognition," etc. Under present-day conditions of transit and communication, widespread fame would probably prove a godawful nuisance anyway. Sour grapes? Well, I am not conscious of feeling sour about it.

The isolation that I spoke of is perhaps more physical than spiritual. I live two miles from the village of Auburn, on a rather and volcanic hilltop. The highway, and the nearest neighbors, are a quarter of a mile distant. Oddly enough, there is less quiet than one would expect in such a situation; since airplanes pass at all hours, following the line of the nearby American River canyon; and the noise of auto and railroad traffic rises all too distinctly. The best feature is the wide and elevated view; since, on the west, we see a long stretch of the Sacramento Valley and the Coast Range mountains; and on the east the higher foothills topped by more than a hundred miles of snowy Sierran peaks... I have a few friends locally, but never seem to mind being alone. I did suffer from a sense of isolation, though, when I was younger, and am inclined to think that solitude is often hearder to bear in youth.

Your admiration for the Preraphaelites is certainly a sound one, and your work has an esthetic background and a fineness of technique not dissimilar to theirs. Truly, there is no sensible reason why art and literature should not be allied, as in the paintings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. I believe the modern prejudice against literary ideas in art springs from the fact that many modern artists are incapable of ideas of any kind. Incidentally, I think that the work of Gustave Moreau (mentioned by J.K. Huysmans in Against the Grain, together with Odilon Redon and other imaginative artists) would interest you. Moreau is little known, and is usually dismissed and damned as a "poet-painter," but, judging from the two or three black-and-white reproductions I have seen, he did some great things. By the way, if you have not yet procured anything of Beardley's, don't forget to remind me, and I will gladly forward my little volume of his drawings.

Your athletic record is truly an enviable one! You must have the lifting power of a Turkish porter! I fear that I could never have competed, since my own physique, though wiry, is very slight. I might, at one time, have made a good half or quarter mile runner with practise. My height is five feet eleven, and weight is never more than 140 lbs. I have, however, done a considerable amount of hard physical labor, such as woodcutting and fruit-picking.

Perhaps you are wise to refrain from exhibiting till you feel sure that you have reached your fullest development. Anyway, one must admire the attitude, when so many artists of powers vastly inferior to yours are rushing to show their work. I have an idea that your exhibition, when you hold it, will prove eminently successful.

I hope that Derleth will use your drawing of HPL as a frontispiece to one of the Lovecraft volumes. It is admirable, and I can't imagine anything that would be more representative or better calculated to catch the attention of prospective readers... I look forward to your W.T. cover, and trust that there will be many others. Brundage is a curio, and I can't help wondering how or whence she derives her weird ideas of anatomy. The W.T. public should be disabused of each pictorial misinformation!

I haven't done any more drawings or sculptures, but have sold several small carvings lately for the net sum of $7.50. The sale of a pseudo-science short to Thrilling Wonder Stories at $55.00 brings my September income to $62.50! If such sales continue, I shall become a bloated plutocrat! Anyway, I won't need to dig so often or so deeply in the old boneyard.

I believe that you should congratulate yourself on being, as you say, "out of tune with your generation." Undoubtedly a serious condition of unbalance is prevalent at the present time, as indicated by exclusive or excessive preoccupation with drink, amorous orgies, etc. This seems to be part of the intense materialism, "realism," or whatever you want to call it, of the age. Modern science, philosophy and invention are at least partly responsible. Some day there will be a return toward mysticism, a recovery of spiritual values. The question is, will it come before - or after Armageddon? I am not making any predictions; but the query is more than pertinent.

More power to your brush and drawing-pen!

With cordial best wishes,

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