WHEN IT COMES to being underrated, Clark Ashton Smith has long been a quadruple-threat. For more than a century, Smith has been unfairly disregarded as a poet, a short story writer, a painter, and even a sculptor; had he perhaps enjoyed just a little professional good fortune during his lifetime, he might have gone on to spend his twilight years being unfairly disregarded in numerous additional endeavors: prose poetry, novel writing, drama, screenwriting, you name it. Instead, he spent those last decades as a gardener and handy-man, never achieving the recognition of his friends and fellow Weird Tales contributors, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Almost unforgivably, no proper biography has yet been published about Smith — only a scattering of bibliographies and essays from small (but resolute) specialty presses.
In many ways, this ponderous, multi-generational neglect of Smith isn’t hard to understand. Unlike Howard (the stylish creator of Conan and Solomon Kane), Smith never wrote filmable series characters that could be played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vin Diesel. In fact, his generally uncommercial stories concerned doomed intellectuals boiling alive in the soup of a meaningless, all-devouring universe ruled over by cruel, grotesque gods: not a great Hollywood “through line.” And by leading a more isolated life than the relatively garrulous Lovecraft, Smith never established a community of devotees to promote his work posthumously in small mimeographed fanzines, or in the boozy motel corridors of SF and horror conventions. Then there was the work itself: in every medium he mastered, Smith brought forth complex, bizarre, and hallucinogenic visions that always swam against the naturalistic currents popular in his time. In fact, Smith drove as far from realism as he could get, and his art never pretended to represent anything but itself — not consciousness, or character, or society, or “reality.” Like some exotically transplanted hothouse orchid of Anglo-French decadence espousing “l’art pour l’art” (imagine Beardsley, Baudelaire, or Huysmans in work shirts, dungarees, and a beret), Smith spent his life adrift among the green hills and blue oaks of the Auburn countryside. He didn’t want to explore the world he knew. He only wanted out of it.
An only child raised by elderly parents (both were more than 40 years old when he was born), Smith grew up isolated, financially insecure, and surrounded by books: The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, Beckford’s Vathek, and the nightmarish stories and fables composed by those authors who proved his most enduring influences: Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allan Poe. Smith quit school at a young age and set out to educate himself with complete editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary, reading through each volume several times until he was armed with one of the most formidable (and sometimes annoying) vocabularies in modern literature. While he lived his entire life on the edge of poverty, in a log cabin without electricity or running water, he always found room (and money) for more books: Lord Dunsany, Blake and Rossetti, Algernon Blackwood, pulp magazines, and Walter de la Mare. So far as the great heroes of modernism mattered, he preferred the decadent, violent, and sensuous Flaubert of Salammbô to the Flaubert of Madame Bovary’s bound-by-life realism (but then, to be fair, so did Flaubert).
As a young man, Smith was attracted by avuncular types: first, the Carmel-based bohemian poet George Sterling, a friend of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce who was rumored to carry a vial of poison around his neck for when the pointlessness of life grew too much to bear. In admiration of Sterling’s epic fantasy poem, A Wine of Wizardry, Smith wrote an epic fantasy poem of his own, The Hashish Eater, and went on to publish a well-received first book of poetry, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912). But when faced with literary success, this “boy poet of the Sierras” instinctively dashed off to explore deeper, less populated territories.
Without any formal training, Smith began to paint and draw his strange visions of sentient plants, grotesque creatures from other dimensions, and throbbing alien landscapes. Eventually commissioned to provide illustrations for Weird Tales, he became one of Lovecraft’s most voluminous correspondents (though never as voluminous as Lovecraft himself). Over the next 10 years, they filled one another’s mailboxes with effusive admiration for each other’s stories and poems. With Lovecraft’s adulatory wind at his back, Smith never strayed far from the Long Valley, and sat home to produce more than a hundred bizarre, linguistically challenging, often unforgettable stories and novelettes for the pulp magazines between 1925 and 1936. Unsurprisingly, Smith’s spurt of fictional creativity didn’t survive the death of Lovecraft in 1937, and while that rich burst of stories may not have earned Smith much money or fame, it caused an almost episteme-shifting earthquake in the brains of the young, aspiring writers lucky enough to read him.
Many of Smith’s most enthusiastic young readers went on to shape the genres of fantasy, horror, and SF as we know them today: Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and even George R. R. Martin (whose doomed, sadistic, multi-volume civilizations often seem like hyper-inflations of a “typical” Clark Ashton Smith novelette). After a series of escalating “rediscoveries” since his death in 1961, Smith’s reputation has grown among genre readers and writers, even though he has yet to enjoy the wider reputation he deserves as one of the great anti-modernist writers and poets of the ’20s and ’30s. While Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, H. D., and Stevens explored new ways to map human experience and interior-reflection, Smith abandoned any belief that human dreams, history, and character concealed any deep meaning at all. Instead he boldly marched off into his fantastic, improbable visions of a far-future earth populated by dueling necromancers, kings crowned with the feathers of exotic birds, islands of party-hearty torturers, invisible cities populated by invisible monsters, and remote civilizations crumbling into golden dust, presided over by immortal demons, monsters, and errant space-explorers. In fact, Smith’s imagination often journeyed so far beyond the acceptable boundaries of both realism and fantasy that only the most dedicated readers could pay it the attention it deserved.
Like all important writers, Smith teaches readers to read him on his own terms, and to the impatient reader (such as myself the first few times I tried him), a typical Smith story looks pretty awful. His prose is weirdly elaborate, filled with hyperbolic language, grotesque imagery, and ludicrous melodrama. Many of Smith’s doomed narrators are so relentless in describing the horrors they witness that it can be hard to take them seriously, as if some drunken Ancient Mariner has come barging into a dull office party with a Thesaurus under each arm. For example, in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (one of Smith’s most famous stories) the sole survivor of a lost expedition to an ancient Martian ruin recalls:
the singular and frightful happenings that terminated our researches […] But the telling will be toilsome and broken; and after I am done, the madness will recur, and several men will restrain me, lest I should leave the hospital and return across many desert leagues to those abominable vaults beneath the compulsion of the malignant and malevolent virus which is permeating my brain. Perhaps death will release me from that abhorrent control, which would urge me down to bottomless underworld warrens if terror for which the saner planets of the solar system can have no analogue. I say perhaps … for, remembering what I have seen, I am not sure that even death will end my bondage.
In this excessively Poe-inspired prose, everything is extreme: “malevolent,” “malignant,” “abominable,” and “abhorrent,” not to mention all that “bottomless” “madness” coming at you — and that’s just in the first page. Often these narrative histrionics conjure up memories of Vincent Price in old Technicolor Corman adaptations of Poe, where it’s hard to distinguish the ridiculous melodrama of, say, The Pit and the Pendulum, from the slapstick comedy of The Raven. Smith’s work is filled with comedy and melodrama simultaneously: on every page, he begs to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. He only wants to absorb and delight, and he will do it with every tool at his disposal.
Smith’s prose requires patience, care, and a good sense of humor. As you continue to read, the sound of his words and sentences grows persuasive and hypnotic, pulsing with strangeness. His stories refuse to operate as parables, or to present essential truths; they only want to make sense as stories to those readers brave and irresponsible enough to venture into them. Even the titles draw you into a world that is not your own but that proves disturbingly attractive, such as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan,” “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” “The Death of Malygris,” “Xeethra,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and my personal favorite, “The Abominations of Yondo.” Each story is surprising, absorbing, and perfectly constructed, like reports sent back from the end of time by the emissaries of collapsing kingdoms called Zothique, Hyperborea, Xiccarph, and Poseidonis, where immortal kings and sorcerers have grown bored by their riches, bacchanalias, and power. After telling just one more story, they are finally ready to die.
Smith’s work invokes a much more sensual universe than the humming, morose one of Lovecraft and, unlike in the stories of Howard, powerful swordsmen don’t wait in the wings to save the day. Instead, Smith’s antiheroes are usually book-loving wizards and tyrants seeking to preserve what little beauty still exists: they transform attractive women into flowers, cast spells to retrieve dead lovers from the past, and, when disrespected, invite their enemies to elaborate meals and entertainments in their seemingly infinite, Escher-like palaces, as “The Dark Eidolon” describes:
Anon there appeared the singers, who were she-ghouls with shaven bodies and hairy shanks, and long yellow tushes full of shredded carrion curving across their chaps from mouths that fawned hyena-wise on the company. Behind them entered the musicians, some of whom were male devils pacing erect on the hindquarters of sable stallions and plucking with the fingers of white apes at lyres of the bone and sinew of cannibals from Naat; and others were the pied satyrs puffing their goatish cheeks at hautboys made from the femurs of young witches, or bagpipes formed from the bosom-skin of negro queens and the horn of rhinoceri.
They bowed before Namirrha with grotesque ceremony. Then, without delay, the she-ghouls began a most dolorous and execrable howling, as of jackals that have sniffed their carrion; and the satyrs and devils played a lament that was like the moaning of desert-born winds through forsaken palace-harems.
In the best of these stories, the rhythmic beat of Smith’s language assembles impossible worlds from the moted air, just as the narrative confidence of each sentence carries readers into regions they wouldn’t choose for themselves. Each phrase delivers a slow moment of sensuous, expressive pleasure, especially when it is read out loud (as all good prose should be). In Smith’s universe, death, mayhem, and dissolution are everywhere. And that’s what makes it beautiful.
“When the novelty of modern discoveries, etc., has worn off,” Smith wrote Lovecraft in 1930, a few years into their prolific correspondence,
it seems to me that people must go back to a realization of the environing, undissipated mystery, which will make for a restoration of the imaginative. Science, philosophy, psychology, humanism, after all, are only candle-flares in the face of the eternal night with its infinite reserves of strangeness, terror, sublimity. And surely literature cannot always confine itself to the archives of the ant-hill and the annals of the hog-sty, as it seems to be doing at present.
Like many recent attempts at literary recovery, the new huge and lovingly assembled volume of Lovecraft/Smith correspondence from Hippocampus Press, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: the Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, doesn’t come from conventional academic publishing, which seems absorbed in recycling the same modernist laundry-lists from Woolf and Faulkner. Containing thoughtful notes and an introduction by two important Smithians — S. T. Joshi (who edited the excellent recent Penguin collections of Smith and Lovecraft, and wrote an exhaustive biography of Lovecraft), and David E. Schultz — Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill makes for a handsomely produced book. It boasts an exhaustive index and bibliography, and an appendix featuring significant material, including excerpts from Lovecraft and Smith on the attributes of “weird” and “supernatural” fiction, a lengthy debate from Fantasy Fan generated by Forrest J. Ackerman’s critique of a Smith story for lacking “one redeeming feature,” and even a series of exotic crossword puzzles composed by Smith. Where else will you find the pleasing intersection of words like “Baaltis” (1 Across: Prince of the east, in medieval demonology) with “Apis” (2. Down: Demon who tempted Buddha)? It is hard to imagine a university-published work of scholarship both this monumental and this fun (university presses: please note).
Undeniably, the Smith/Lovecraft friendship is worth preserving, since it unites two writers who shared so much in common. Both were descended from formerly illustrious families and ended up living their lives in decayed family homes on shrunken inheritances until they subsided into shabby gentility. Bereft of the high-born life, their correspondence established a mutual kingdom of words: they shared books and smudgy carbon-copies of their stories and poems, effused about the writers they admired (especially Lord Dunsany), condemned the ones they didn’t (especially Edmond Hamilton), bemoaned their terrible finances, and addressed each other with endless comic salutations in what sounds like an archaic, forgotten language phoned home from a distant Cthulhuian dimension:
From the dark
companion of Algol, at
the perihelion of inner-
most and uttermost
[c. early January 1931]
Salutations to a companion in misery! Measles and chicken-pox (I managed to have those at the proper age, along with scarlet fever) are surely an off-set to the whooping cough. The latter has been a tiresome business, though; and the cough still lingers, albeit far less frequent and severe than it was.
My greetings are genuflections to It for the New Year (Azathoth alone knows what year it is in the reckoning of the elder cycles) and may the fumes of appropriate sacrifice and the murmurs of prescribed prayer be still acceptable to the Dark One of the doubtful, unspoken name …
While eccentricity, spontaneity, and general lack of coordination characterized the fiction of both Lovecraft and Smith, their letters forged a playful aesthetic ruled over by the Elder Gods, and a shared disdain for common people. In fact, Lovecraft’s letters feature numerous unsettling references to the failures of the “Aryan” race, though as he grew older, and got out of the house more, he reformed his political views to the point where he even considered voting for Upton Sinclair. From the evidence assembled, Smith and Lovecraft kept one another alive on a mutually acceptable diet of words, which they clearly preferred to the American wasteland of “trolleys and cash-registers.”
Over the past half-century, the “small presses” have proven very good to Smith. From those early, limited editions of Smith’s stories and poems collected by the legendary Arkham House during Smith’s lifetime (such as the reputation-preserving Out of Space and Time in 1942), to the contemporary corpus-establishing multi-volume editions of Smith’s letters and poetry from Hippocampus, the importance of Clark Ashton Smith as an imaginative — and very Californian — writer and poet has been laid, brick by brick, almost under the nose of conventional scholarship. Of all the beautiful books produced in the cause of Smith, the most beautiful would have to be the just-published In the Realms of Mystery and Wonder: Collected Prose Poems and Artwork of Clark Ashton Smith from Centipede Press, which includes an important introduction from Smith scholar Scott Connors (one of the editors of the six-volume edition of Night Shade’s “Collected Fantasies”), as well as a collection of reminiscences by fans who visited Smith in the last decades of his life. Why can’t academic books be this attractive to hold, ease from their slip-case, and peruse? The format lays out photographs of sculptures against velvet-black backgrounds sharply, like images emerging from a pitch-dark basement, and the collection of full-color paintings escorts readers from the wind-swept Auburn hills to the bizarre, snake-and-spider-populated landscapes of Smith’s less identifiable spheres of nonreality. With Smith’s visual work presented in the context of his prose, he emerges as no less pleasurable than the artists who inspired him from distant European cities, such as Blake, Rossetti, Dante, Jonathan Swift, and William Morris.
Like everything he did, Smith produced these weird, haunting visions with no apparent purpose except to give himself pleasure. Without formal training or proper materials, he often produced his sculptures — primitive-looking, totem-like heads and faces of demons and demonic familiars — with nothing but a table knife, the kitchen stove, and whatever rocks and stones he carted home from the local quarry. In the same vein as his incomparable paintings, these roughly hewn alien creatures dug up from Smith’s imagination resemble artifacts that might have been collected by Thor Heyerdahl, had he traveled to the lost continent of Mu rather than to his relatively mundane Pacific Islands. This extraordinary book provides further testimony (if any is necessary) that the imaginations of great artists are never bound by the world that produced them. They don’t need money, or smart phones, or word processors, or adoring fans, or even sensible academic jobs and salaries in order to produce what they think, feel, and dream. They only need a table knife. A kitchen stove. And a rock (carefully selected) from the backyard.
Smith found the rocks and the paint and the words. Now everyone else just needs to find him.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).