The Tale of Macrocosmic Horror

Clark Ashton Smith

I have read with much interest the fine letter from A. Lewis in the "Cauldron."

Mr. Lewis, in laying down rules for the development of the weird tale, has presented a viewpoint which will no doubt seem impregnable to the average intelligent person, in whom exclusively humanistic values of thought have been inculcated.

At the same time, however, I should like to indicate certain weaknesses and limitations which I see in this viewpoint, especially in regard to the tale of macrocosmic horror and fantasy. This type of story, because of its very character and purpose, should not, it seems to me, be bound strictly by "the practical requisites of literature in general." In a tale of the highest imaginative horror, the main object is the creation of a supernatural, extra-human atmosphere; the real actors are the terrible arcanic forces, the esoteric cosmic malignities; and the element of human character, if one is to achieve the highest, most objective artistry, is properly somewhat subordinated in a tale of ordinary and natural happenings. One is depicting things, powers and conditions that are beyond humanity; therefore, artistically speaking, the main accent is on these things, powers and conditions.

A sense of the superhuman is to be conveyed; therefore one does not want the human—at least, not to an extent that would impair and detract from the proper focus of interest. For this reason, I fear that the weird tale, if written mainly as psychological analysis, would tend to forfeit some of its highest and rarest values. Modern literature has become so thoroughly subjective, so introverted in its tendencies, so preoccupied with the anthropocentric, that it seems desirable for one genre, at least, to maintain what one might call a centrifugal impetus, to make "a gesture toward the infinite" rather than toward the human intestines

This is not saying that Weird Fiction would not gain by more verisimilitude in the presentation of its terrene actors. But their reactions can be indicated more succinctly, with more stress on events, outward forces and atmosphere, than in fiction dealing with the natural and the normal.

For instance, let us take some concrete examples from modern Weird Fiction. In authors such as Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare, it seems to me that the accent is primarily on human character. But in their work (at least, in any of it that I have read) one fails to find the highest imaginative horror, the overwhelming sweep of black, gulf-arisen wings, such as is conveyed in the best tales of Ambrose Bierce, Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, where human character is treated more briefly and subversively.

Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973.

In June, 1932, issue of Strange Tales, in a section entitled "The Cauldron," appeared a letter from A. Lewis under the title "Splendid Criticism." The main points of Mr. Lewis' letter centered on the weird tale, as opposed to the science fiction story. According to Lewis, the weird tale is a respectable genre of literature, but demands the same standards as general literature; the weird tale "must always bear in mind that it subserves the human who moves throughout it;" characterization is of primary importance to such a tale, and, although every artist must give his imagination freest rein, he fails anytime he fails to "carry his character." The weird tale sets out to portray great emotional crises, and is successful only when its characters are believable; the genre as a whole needs to emphasize more the psychology of characters. In conclusion, Lewis says of CAS's "The Return of the Sorcerer" (Strange Tales, Sept. 1931), it is the best story in the issue and "comes nearest to having the qualities most sure to awaken interest and suspense, realistic impossibility (the paradox is more apparent than real), judicious narration, and the sense of restraint in the midst of frensy that goes far to give the story a genuine ring." In the January, 1933, issue of Strange Tales, in "The Cauldron," and under the title "The Tale of Macroscopic Horror," CAS replied.

Bibliographic Citation

Top of Page