Letter to Samel. J. Sackett

From Clark Ashton Smith

Auburn, Calif.,
June 30th, 1949.

Dear Mr. Sackett:
Thanks for your letter and the enclosed check. I was indeed glad to hear from you. I haven't any ash-trays at the moment but will cut you one as speedily as possible and send it on. As to biographical data for your sketch, I'm glad to give you what I can, which isn't really a tremendous lot. To begin with, I was born on Friday the 13th, Jan. l893 at a ranch-house belonging to my maternal grandfather, Hiram Gaylord, in Long Valley, Cal., only a few miles from my present dwelling- place. The Gaylords are an old New England family, descendants of Huguenot refugees who left Nomandy late in the 16th century and settled for a generation or two in Somerset and Devonshire; later (1630) emigrating to Massachusetts. The name was Anglicized from Gaillard. The family claims descent from an armigerous Norman house dating back to the Crusades, and has a published genealogy. My grand- mother was of Scotch-French Canadian extraction; my first name, Clark, being her family name. My father, Timeus Smith, was the son of a rich Lancashire iron-master who had married into the local gentry; and I get my second name, Ashton, from my paternal grandmother. My father did a lot of globetrotting (Brazil, Australia, etc.) before he finally settled in California.

My childhood was happy enough, apart from rather frequent illnesses which made my school attendance intermittent. All told, I doubt if I really spent more than four years at the old red school-house; but I did acquire an early taste for reading, and began to scribble fairy tales, modeled mainly on Andersen and the countess D'Aulnoy, at the age of eleven. A little later, I branched into long and involved narratives derived from the Arabian Nights, Beckford's Vaehek and the Indian tales of Kipling. Then I began to write verse, including, I remember, some lame imitations of the Rubaivat.Gradually I acquired a feeling for meter and rhythm; and at sixteen or seventeen was able to sell a few poems to magazines. At the same time several of my short stories (contes cruels with Oriental themes) were accepted by the Black Cat and the Overland Monthly. In spite of such encouragement, I abandoned fiction for a number of years and wrote only poetry, of which four volumes were in print by 1925. Then, incited by Lovecraft, with whom I was corresponding, I wrote my first weird story, "The. Abominations of Yondo", which appeared in the revived Overland and drew many howls of wrath and derision from- readers. But I did not really settle down to fiction-writing for another four years; when the partial failure of a small income made it necessary for me to earn some sort of living.

My experience of journalism, concerning which you inquire, was limited to the writing of a column for a local weekly paper, The Auburn Journal. In 1923 the Journal Press published my third volume of poems, Ebony and Crystal; and the column was written and continued more or less for several years, to discharge part of my indebtedness to the printer. it consisted of epigrams, translations from the French. and original poetry; sometimes containing a single short poem; and bore a variety of names, such as "Cocktails and Creme de Menthe", "The Devil's Note-Book", "Paradox and Persiflage", and "Points for the Pious". I fear that it was not universally popular with readers: some of my epigrams were considered a bit too pointed. I enclose a few clippings, which you are welcome to keep. Most of the stuff seems rather cynical and flippant; but I still like some of the more serious apothegms.

I have taken various workaday jobs, lasting from a few days to a few weeks or months; the longest being intervals of ranch-work during the first years of the 2nd World War, when such labor really counted as war-work. The hardest labor I have ever done was well-digging and cement-mixing by hand (the well was dug for the local nunnery) and the nastiest was the spraying of fruit-trees with such infernal chemicals as arsenic, bluestone and sulphur. And once, for a whole week, I typed bills in a water- company's office. But I fear that I have little taste for honest labor. No doubt I have missed some promising opportunities: the ragpicker at the local city dump once offered to take me on as assistant!

For a period of ten years (from 1918 to 1928) I made numerous paintings and drawings, ranging from the weird and grotesque to he decorative and semi-naturalistic. Some of these pictures were exhibited in various Cost cities. and in New York; a few were sold and many given away. Since that period I have done little pictorial work, apart from a few illustrations for my own stories that were used in Weird Tales. These were hardly representative of my best, since my real forte lies in color rather than in black and white line-work. Lately I have felt an urge to resume painting and have started by retouching some old pictures. Also, I have begun to experiment with the possibility of making pigments from local earths and minerals and have made various tints, mostly browns, yellows, reds, purples and greys, which can be used with a tempera medium such as white of egg. Blues and greens are harder to get; but certain copper minerals, such as azurite, bornite and malachite, should afford them.

Sculpture is the most recent of my several arts or endeavours—I began it almost by accident. In 1934 I enjoyed a visit from E. Hoffmann Price, who wished to secure some mineral specimens for a museum curator in the East. So Price and I paid a visit to an old copper mine of which my uncle was then part owner. We came back with an auto-load of various rocks, ores and minerals; and from among these I kept a few specimens for myself. After the stuff had been lying around the cabin for a year, it suddenly occurred to me that I might carve something from a lump of it; the result being the head of a hybrid grotesque something between a hyena and a horned toad. I don't know just how many carvings I have done since; but the total must be climbing toward the 2 hundred mark. I don't seem able to keep many for myself, since the pieces now sell about as fast as I can make them, or sometimes faster. Some have been shipped as far afield as Hawaii, England and South Africa.

My sculptures are nearly all cut from solid materials; though I have done some experimental casting (not too successful) in plaster and clay; and have recently modeled one piece, a fountain-figure of Dagon, from potter's clay. Some of my materials are in the nature of fossils, or technically to be classified as such: that is to say, they are part of a "cast" of mineral matters which still retains the form of an herbiferous dinosaur! The creature was buried in ancient days by volcanic mud. and was exposed by the excavation of a local railroad cut. Whatever bones there were have long since been removed. I suppose what is left could be classed as dinosaur steak. Anyway, it winds diagonally upward for l8 or 20 feet in the wall of the cut. Climbing for hunks of it is a rather tricky business. since most of the-- wall is rotten shale; but recently I secured a fresh supply with the help of some friends. Incidentally, the bowl and mouthpiece of your pipe were cut from these materials; and I shall make your ash-tray from a piece of the same.

As for authors who were formative influences, I think Poe should head rhe list. Baudelaire and George Sterling in regard to poetry, and Lovecraft and Dunsany in respect to prose, should be added; though I think some critics tend to exaggerate the Dunsany influence. A poetic influence that no one seems to have pointed out is that of Oscar Wilde's fantastic masterpiece, The Sphinx; but it seems evident in many of the poems of Ebony and Crystal. Lafcadio Hearn, Gautier and Flaubert (the latter at least in The Temptation of St. Anthony) have all helped to shape my prose style. I do not think that my paintings and carvings show any perceptible influences: what ever resemblance they have (if any) to other art is purely coincidental. One critic said that my carvings showed a study of pre-Columbian art—of which I have seen almost nothing! And having seen only two or three of Odilon Redon's paintings, I am still unable to decide whether there is any basis for comparing my pictures with his.

Do you need any bibliographical information for your article? If so, let me know. My poems and stories have gotten into many anthologies, some of which I have never seen and whose names I can't remember; and some have even been included in school-text books. If you get the Arkham House booklists, you will have seen the announcement of three future volumes, Selected Poems, The Abominations of Yondo, and Tales of Science and Sorcery, And I have a part-written book- length fantasy, The Infernal Star, which I hope to finish some day; also, numberless plots and synopses for short stories.

I have received some fine British write-ups recently, by Walter Gillings in The Fantasy Review. And the current Famous Fantastic Mysteries has me among its Masters of Fantasy with a nicely worded blurb and a villainous drawing.

Well, I hope this rambling and desultory discourse will be of some use to you.

Clark Ashton Smith

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

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