In March, Penguin Classics released a volume titled The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, a collection of fiction and poetry by the writer Clark Ashton Smith. This publication represents a milestone to Smith fans and scholars (like me), because it signifies a move toward greater acknowledgment of his role in shaping the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. As of now, relatively few people may know of Clark Ashton Smith, but he deserves wider recognition as a poetry and prose stylist whose works demonstrate the capacities of the human imagination.
There is an ethical sense underlying many of Smith’s works that would be much harder to locate in a writer like Lovecraft.Smith (1893-1961) was born in California, where he lived his entire life. Though he received little formal education, he was an avid reader who wrote prolifically even in his youth. (His only complete novel, The Black Diamonds, is an Orientalist fantasy written when he was just fourteen.) His first love was poetry, and in the 1910s and ’20s, he looked poised to make a name for himself as a poet. Around this time, Smith developed a friendship with George Sterling, himself a protégé of Ambrose Bierce and the best-known among a group of California poets attempting a revival of the themes, forms, and imagery of the Romantics.
But Smith’s fortunes changed thereafter. Bierce disappeared in 1914 and Sterling committed suicide in 1926. To help support his ailing parents, Smith turned to writing fiction, which he produced and sold at a breakneck pace to the many pulp magazine outlets that were so popular at the time, none more so than Weird Tales, which printed dozens of his stories. At this time, Smith also corresponded with fellow weird authors H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, in whom he found kindred spirits, though they never met (Smith seldom left California, Lovecraft preferred New England, and Howard was a born-and-bred Texan). What reputation Smith now retains rests primarily on the stories he wrote during this period, though he virtually ceased such writing by the late ’30s. His parents passed away in the mid-’30s, Howard committed suicide in 1936, and Lovecraft died in 1937. By the time 1940 rolled around, a middle-aged Smith found that many of his major influences — personal and artistic — were gone. He wrote more poetry during this time, and tried his hand at sculpture and painting. As the pulps fizzled out, some of his poetic and prose work was published in book form, particularly by Arkham House, founded by Lovecraft acolyte August Derleth. Smith at times had a reputation as a ladies’ man in his hometown but didn’t settle with any woman until marrying Carol Dorman in 1954. He died in his sleep in 1961, after having suffered a series of strokes earlier in the year.
Of the great Weird Tales triumvirate, Lovecraft and Howard fared better in immediate posterity than Smith. Beyond Lovecraft’s writing skill, he had several epistolary disciples who carried on his themes and his “mythos” after his death, while Howard had a signature character — Conan the Barbarian — who retained a hold on the popular imagination. But Smith was never without admirers; many science fiction writers appreciated his work and were influenced by it, including Jack Vance, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, and Ray Bradbury. He received some renewed attention through Lin Carter’s Ballantine editions of his stories in the ’70s, and now both his collected poetry and his collected fantasies are available in well–presented scholarly volumes. The new Penguin Classics publication may lead to even greater recognition of his worth as a writer.
What Smith’s devotees appreciate most about his writing is his rich command of lush, voluptuary language. He spared no expense in using every resource of his astonishing, heavily Latinate vocabulary in constructing worlds that were indulgent tapestries of words. In his fiction, this often takes the forms of story cycles set in mythical realms: the prehistoric civilization in Hyperborea; the final bastion of Atlantis, Poseidonis; the fictional medieval French province of Averoigne; or a dying Earth’s last continent, Zothique. These works frequently feature characters who are artist figures; just as often, though, he uses magicians as symbolic authorial presences. Such figures may be invested with near-divine creative power (e.g. Vergama in “The Last Hieroglyph” or Maal Dweb in “The Maze of the Enchanter” and “The Flower-Women”). But Smith places limits on their hubris; at times, his magicians go too far in exercising their powers (e.g. Mmatmuor and Sodosma in “The Empire of the Necromancers,” Namirrha in “The Dark Eidolon,” or the narrator of “The Hashish Eater”).
Indeed, there is an ethical sense underlying many of Smith’s works that would be much harder to locate in a writer like Lovecraft. One of his acquaintances, W. C. Farmer, has noted that Smith:
…had a very considerable respect for real evil; he acknowledged its existence as a palpable reality, and not just as a value judgment upon random events. He had read the writings of the Buddha, respected them as any contemplative mind would, yet agreed that the Western notion of vicarious sacrifice was more humane when practiced than simply feeling deep sympathy for life’s pathetic victims. It is reasonably clear in his earliest writings . . . that he had early on absorbed the Victorian era’s understanding of Christian morality, decency, and sanctity of one’s person. Yet the failure of most “Christians” to even begin to approach the standard they espoused turned him away from the dominant Protestantism of his environment. (The Sword of Zagan 179-80)
Smith’s distaste for Christian hypocrisy is most evident in his medieval Averoigne cycle, which includes some sympathetic (if weak) pious monks but also many corrupt church officials as well. Yet he could be attentive to corruption wherever he found it; crass materialism is more often the target of the Hyperborea cycle, as in “The Seven Geases” or “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan.”
None of this should be taken to indicate that Smith was a heavy-handed moralist. While some of his stories do demonstrate a general ethical impulse, his greatest interest was in painting imaginative landscapes and filling them with incident. That included populating them with exotic characters — while people were hardly his primary concern in fiction, Smith certainly excelled Lovecraft in developing textured characters (especially female characters). Describing his technique to Lovecraft, Smith once wrote:
My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation. (Selected Letters, 126)
Appropriate to the settings of his stories, Smith uses here the language of magicians and incantations. But in one sense, he is creating what J. R. R. Tolkien called in his work On Fairy-Stories a “secondary world,” an internally coherent world of the imagination. This process Tolkien referred to as “sub-creation,” because a secondary world is not created ex nihilo as our own primary world was; within a secondary world, what the author “relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world” (60). For Tolkien, human creativity of this kind is a function of our relationship to God: “[W]e make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker” (75). Dorothy L. Sayers echoes Tolkien’s thoughts in her analysis of the creative process. In The Mind of the Maker, she notes the many theories theologians have posited regarding what it means for humanity to be made in God’s image, then asks:
[H]ad the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (22)
Few genre writers of the twentieth century were so adept at “making things” out of words, constructing secondary worlds from pure language, as Clark Ashton Smith. His work is not for everyone: readers who adhere to the “less is more” philosophy of description will find Smith unpalatable to say the least. Harlan Ellison has called his style “[a] prose so purple it sloshes over into ultraviolet. A writing style that would make Hemingway break out in hives” (99). Many will run screaming from such ornate, verbose writing, but it was precisely this description by Ellison that first piqued my interest. If words were tools, Smith had a Home Depot’s worth, and he wasn’t afraid to use every one of them. Words can be used to harm or to heal, to destroy or to (sub-)create; there were few imaginations so fecund, so fertile, so creative as Clark Ashton Smith’s.