Letter on Clark Ashton Smith

Sam Moskowitz

The news that you are going to produce the definitive bibliography of Clark Ashton Smith, assembled by Donald Sidney-Fryer, prompts this letter. I can think of few authors and poets encompassed in the science fiction and fantasy field more deserving of special attention.

Whether Clark Ashton Smith will ever come to be regarded as a minor writer in the honor roll of American literature we cannot know, but that he made some very tangible contributions to fantasy fiction, particularly science fiction, we can be sure. His science fiction had the same objective as H. P. Lovecraft's; it was intended to evoke horror. In this objective he was completely successful, far more so than Lovecraft. "The Vaults of Yoh Vombis" and "Dweller in the Martian Depths" all but exceed the tolerance factor for physical horror of the average reader. As a parallel to horror it was required that he create a mood in his science fiction and this quality transcends all others in his best work: "Master of the Asteroid," where the trapped spaceman watches the fragile cycle of life on a tiny asteroid; "Visitors from Mlok," the consequences suffered by an earthman who has permitted his senses to be altered to conform with the requirements of an alien world; "City of the Singing Flame," of a siren force that drew diverse intelligences from many worlds and dimensions to probable extinction; "Flight Into Super-Time," which displays remarkable humor and satire as well as the incredible ability to maintain fever-pitch interest while writing in a style not too dissimilar to some of his prose poems.

Unlike H. P. Lovecraft's snobbery of the science fiction magazines as a media for the publication of his material, Clark Ashton Smith's link-up with Hugo Gernsback and the Wonder Stories group of magazines, with its lack of length restrictions, provided one of the most fruitful outlets of his career. Never again did he write so much, so well in so short a time.

Clark Ashton Smith understood the world around him, sex and life's rules far better than H. P. Lovecraft despite his even more intense hermit-like existence. A brief tale like "The Mother of Toads" is a masterpiece only because Smith's understanding of the world's workings gives it allegorical depth.

There is greatness in a few lines and certain passages in Smith's poetry, but he sacrificed his shining promise in verse on the altar of an unabridged dictionary.


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

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