Letter on Clark Ashton Smith

Harlan Ellison

It is seldom a writer is able to cast back through memory to locate the specific stories that influenced him in his work. Who can remember that this particular image was fostered by Conrad or that specific syntax was employed by Céline? But in one isolated instance of my own professional career, my impetus remains as bright and compelling as it was the day I removed it from a library shelf in a high school in Cleveland, Ohio and passed — incredibly! — out of that building through a portal to the City where the Singing Flame lived.

I had been writing, the way a teen-ager writes, for many years, but no genre had captured my imagination. I had read literally Annapurnas of comic books, suspense pulps and minor adventure classics of the Lorna Doone ilk, yet none of them seemed to fill me with the immensity of subject that my own wild ideas needed. In my youthful impatience, even the classics seemed stunted and too much filled with self-exploration. Few writers cared to soar outward, most sought to detail the configurations of their own nitty navels. I was hungry for something new and vital.

And I found it in an August Derleth anthology, The Other Side of the Moon. It was March of 1949, and the book had been in the library only a few days. I took it down because of the title. Yes, by God, what was on the other side. Not only of the Moon, but of time, of thought, of my own nature. The other side was a concept that drew me. As though everyone who had read the book before me had been mere tools in the act of breaking-the-spine of the volume, the book opened without hesitation as I set it down — literally fell open — to page 79. I began to read at once. An hour later I left the library. I had stolen the book. I own it to this day. It would have been impossible for me to leave behind the weird story of Giles Angarth and Ebbonly and the "City of the Singing Flame."

Almost immediately, I began writing fantasy and science fiction. Within a year or two I was deeply enmeshed in the writing in the field — no single example of which ever brought on the shock of stimulation caused by that first reading of Smith — and from that into fan activities, and from that into professional writing.

It is often impossible to say where a man's inspirations come from, but in the lineal descent of my own writings, I have no hesitation in saying had it not been for Clark Ashton Smith and the wonders he revealed to me, at that precise moment of my youth in which I was most malleable, most desperate for direction, I might well have gone in any one of the thousand other directions taken by my contemporaries, and wound up infinitely poorer in spirit, intellect, prestige and satisfaction than I am today. As I owe a great debt to science fiction as a whole, to fandom as a particular, and to the other writers who encouraged me in my work ... I owe the greatest of debts to Clark Ashton Smith, for he truly opened up the universe for me.

I hope in some small way this letter helps to repay the debt. And I thank you for the opportunity. Incidentally, the story is as fresh and exciting today, on 100th re-reading.


From: Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald M. Grant, 1978.

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