Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith 1912.jpgAs I mentioned recently, I've been listening to a book of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories as I paint at night. My knowledge of his stories comes chiefly from the Ballantine books (Poseidonis, Xiccarph, and Hyperborea; the fourth Ballantine volume, Zothique, is inexplicably hard to find and expensive, and I don't have a copy). Some take place in the prehistoric, Atlantean past; others in the Dying-Earth future; and still others on weird planets circling unknown suns. I've also read a number of stories at the excellent, excellent website, Eldritch Dark, which features the text of many of his stories as well as images of his drawings and sculptures, articles, bibliographies, and more.

Smith was born in California in 1893, and stayed close to home until his death in 1961. He is said to have had a fear of crowds, and never went to high school, completing his education at home instead. You can sense his self-educatedness in his writing, which exhibits an encyclopedic scope and (perhaps) shallowness, and a varied, idiosyncratic, precise use of words, ranging from a staid, journalistic prose to ironic detachment to heavy-laden verbal ornament. His wide reading and knowledge of history and mythology add a pleasant depth to his fiction. Many of his stories are really prose poems, and he achieved some fame as a poet before becoming known as a fiction writer.

He had his heyday in the period from 1929 to 1937, when he was one of the First Triumvirate of Weird Tales authors, together with the better-known H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With the death by cancer and suicide, respectively, of these two author-friends, as well as of his parents, whom he supported through his writing endeavors, he largely ceased to write. To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows why. He married late in life, and seems a person who was fairly content with loneliness. He was generally poor, and supported himself through hard manual labor at times.

I am a great admirer of his work. My favorites in this particular collection (The Door to Saturn, the second volume of the collection put out by Night Shade Books) include the title story (a Hyperborean tale taking place largely on the superbly imagined, inhospitable ringed planet), "The Gorgon" (a George MacDonald-esque horrific encounter with mythology in a London backstreet), "The Red World of Polaris" and "A Captivity in Serpens" (long science fiction stories featuring the circumnavigating Captain Volmar and the crew of his ether-ship), and "The City of the Singing Flame" and "The Hunters from Beyond" (weird tales set – partly! – in California, and narrated by bookish pulp fantasy author "Philip Hastane," who happens to be second cousin to a middling sculptor of the grotesque).

Smith's Vathek-esque oriental pieces and Averoigne stories are less appealing to me. The stories I like best are those that take place in bizarre, surreal landscapes brooded over by cruel adepts and high priests and nightmarish yet eminently practical primeval monster-gods. But there's also something about the sheer inventiveness of the pre-Golden Age science fiction you get from the thirties; the Volmar stories exemplify this.

I identify with Smith for many reasons, including my dislike of crowds and almost paralyzing fear of personal interaction, my isolation in an insular provincial town, my self-education (for, though I have a doctorate in mathematics, I am largely self-educated – such are the vagaries of modern schools!), and my struggles with material limitations. His most well-known literary model was Poe, whose complete works I carried around in my backpack when I was a boy, but he also apparently admired George MacDonald (e.g., Lilith) and (later) Tolkien. He pursued his own lodestar, now through poetry, now prose, now painting or sculpture, all of a grotesque turn, with little regard for worldly approbation. My short fiction approaches his style more than anything else, though I feel that my pieces are both more serious and less charming. Well, everyone is different, as my mother would say.

Smith never has been extremely well known. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps he is too poetic, too insubstantial to appeal to a popular taste for plot-driven narrative. But if you have any interest at all in the idiosyncratic speculative fiction of the Weird Tales era, you'll want to take a look at Eldritch Dark.


  1. I love the Zothique stories, but then I'm a fool for dying Earth scenarios. I love the anything goes nature of early sci-fi and fantasy.

    I haven't read some of the stories you've mentioned from Door Into Saturn. I'll have to pull it off the shelf.

    I've come across several very dismissive reviews of him over the years (Brian Aldiss' in Billion Year Spree immediately jumps to mind), condeming his prose as too lush and unreadable. I don't get it.

    1. I like the Zothique stories I've read quite a lot, though I haven't read all of them yet. I've been holding out for the Ballantine book. I can see people criticizing him for being insubstantial -- just fluff, more or less -- though I wouldn't agree. But, personally, I appreciate his way with words more than anything else. It's hard to find writing so rich anymore.