Letter on Clark Ashton Smith

Rah Hoffman

Your announcement that the Smith bibliography will at last appear is welcome news indeed. I remember glancing at the manuscript a couple of years ago and have long anticipated the publication of this ambitious project. My interest in the writings of Clark Ashton Smith began in my high school days in the 1930's, and today, re-reading these same tales still evokes for me an exotic world of fantasy.

By 1941, my interest in CAS had intensified, and when a project began to be formed among some local admirers of Smith to visit him in his home, I was eager to go. The necessary arrangements had been made by letter, and four of us finally set out for Auburn, California. Paul Freehafer drove, and Henry Hasse and Emil Petaja completed the group. The weather was what ordinarily might be considered abominable, but for us the penetrating chill and the dark rainclouds hovering over the leafless orchards contributed a most appropriate air of mystery. At that time, the Lovecraft mystique had not yet become a cliché, and we were thoroughly under its spell, so much so, that we took delight in transforming our surroundings and happenings into allusions to Nameless Things. We arrived in old Auburn on December 27, 1941, and as soon as we saw the weathered frame buildings lining the narrow, crooked streets and the tortuous alleys turning into steep inclines, we agreed that we must be in Lovecraft's fabled Arkham.

Henry Kuttner, who had previously visited Smith, had thoughtfully given us detailed directions to Smith's cabin, but in our excitement we were unable to decipher any sense whatever out of them. Upon the advice of a druggist we found our way to a dairy farm outside the town, where we sought further instructions. Apparently the dairyman despaired of our ever finding Smith's cabin, for he escorted us there through the storm, driving across muddy paths and roads until he left us in a hilly field midst rotting stumps and ominous dark boulders. Smith's cabin was in sight, and before we reached it on foot, we saw a man wearing a dark coat and a beret. He was preparing to put up a small cardboard sign displaying an arrow and the name "Clark Ashton Smith."

And thus we first met. He presented a gaunt countenance, and I later found that he had just recovered from a serious illness, which accounted for his somewhat cadaverous appearance. He led us through an opening in the stone wall which surrounded his cabin on the north and the west. On the top of the wall rested long-bleached skulls of some strange animals. We entered his cabin and continued on to a dark room illumined only by the feeble light from the stormdarkened sky, the light coming from two small windows, one at each end of the long and narrow room. The meager heat from the wood-burning stove in the center of the room barely dispelled the dank and clammy chill. Rows of books lined the lower half of the walls, and all other wall space was covered by fantastic drawings and paintings. Beneath one window was an assortment of grotesque stone statuettes which our host had carved from native rocks. He lighted a candle, which he held high in a tallow-laden, heavy brass holder so that we could see the pictures in greater detail. Most of them had been created by Smith himself, and he took delight in demonstrating the types of vegetation on alien worlds and the odd forms of life in unnamed lands.
We indulged in conversation and wine, and with proverbial setting sun, we made our departure, not wishing to take advantage of our intrusion on the Master himself.

I rested content with the knowledge that I had at last met my idol and that I would probably never see him again. But wars can make for strange coincidences, and in 1943, when I found myself in the Army stationed reasonably near Auburn, I resumed my acquaintance with CAS. I had meanwhile talked R. H. "Bob" Barlow out of his copy of Smith's Ebony and Crystal and found myself by now even more thoroughly immersed in the Smithian lore. Barlow had made his only visit to Smith's cabin the day after our group had been there in 1941.

With the prodding of Francis T. Laney, who was publishing the excellent fan magazine The Acolyte, I bravely intruded on what I thought to be Smith's privacy but found that I was actually very welcome as a visitor, and I saw him several times in 1943. Smith had not replied to my written request that he receive me, so I planned to take him by surprise, on Sunday morning, June 27, 1943. As I approached his cabin I came upon him disposing of about two dozen empty wine bottles in the woods surrounding his land — the Forest of Averoigne, as I came to call it. This was not, he assured me, the residue of only a single night's partaking. We passed the afternoon with much relaxed conversation, and while going over his memorabilia, he came across a draft of one page of a letter he had written to Barlow years before. Barlow, he explained, had written asking for the family tree of Smith's gods, or "Old Ones," as Smith called them. So CAS had gone pseudo-seriously into it, sketching the tree, writing an extensive account of the genealogy of the line, and even inventing some imaginative names to fill in the gaps.

For my efforts, Laney felt he must include me as some sort of staff member of his Acolyte, and so he listed me as art director when I subsequently came forth with several Smith items, including the Family Tree of the Gods, a few heretofore-unpublished Prose Pastels, and even excerpts from Smith's Black Book.

During this visit in June, CAS mentioned that he had "a little black book" of plots and notes on stories, and he timidly ventured the thought that perhaps Laney might be interested in publishing parts of it. I was naturally quite horrified that he should refer to this literary gold mine as only "a little black book" — and thus it became The Black Book from that time on.

We walked into old Auburn for dinner, passing on the way the old house used by Smith in his tale, "The Devotee of Evil." However, I could scarcely see the dwelling, situated as it is on a high hill, with thick vegetation virtually blocking the view. After some beers and a Chinese dinner in old Auburn, we made our farewells but not before I had extracted a promise from him to let me visit again.

The "new" Prose Pastels, which were published in The Acolyte and subsequently in the Arkham House volume of Smith's Poems in Prose, were not easily secured. Smith seemed to feel that they were inferior to those previously published by Charles Hornig in his magazine The Fantasy Fan (and then recently reprinted in The Acolyte) and hesitated to let me have them for forwarding to Laney. As it was, he produced them one at a time, with a great demonstration of reluctance, though I later realized that this was part of his little game, that he had intended to let me have them all from the start. At this time I succeeded in securing three of the Prose Pastels. A fourth was handed to me for perusal, then peremptorily replaced in his files. I was of course to see this again at another time, and it also ultimately appeared in the pages of Laney's magazine. The Acolyte, incidentally, was the outstanding fan magazine of the period, dedicated by Laney on its masthead to the memory of the late H. P. Lovecraft. Unfortunately, Laney eventually became so saturated with the Lovecraft mystique that his bubble burst, and when he began to laugh instead of to revere, he discontinued the whole project. Until that occurred, however, he published many things by CAS which I had been instrumental in securing, including, besides the above-mentioned items, several poems.
There was also a strange collaboration of writers on an article published in those pages under my name. One of the writers was none other than Clark Ashton Smith himself, although he was not credited for his efforts. Laney had asked me for an article describing the 1941 and subsequent visits with Smith. I sent him off some notes and also a copy of a facetious letter I had written to Paul Freehafer upon my second encounter with the Master. I balked at putting such a thing together for publication, and so Laney edited the material and sent it to me for further changes, additions, or deletions. I patched things together as best I could and mentioned this article to CAS on my next visit on August 22, 1943.

During this visit he gave me the reworked Family Tree of the Gods. We looked through Smith's file of Lovecraft letters. I remember being surprised that although HPL wrote in a rather small hand and at great length (and therefore most likely with all possible haste), I found his calligraphy very easy to read.

Besides the Family Tree of the Gods (expanded from the Barlow draft), Smith also gave me a poem for publication in Laney's magazine and a portion of his Black Book entitled "The Philosophy of the Weird Tale," the wording of which he revised as he dictated it to me.

As we walked into town for dinner, CAS suggested to me that next time I visited him I should bring the manuscript Laney and I were working on, as he might have some suggestions. He was quite taken with the idea of an article about him which, as it was shaping up, portrayed him as a sort of ghoul. Laney and I had felt we should get his permission for such a characterization, but he took delight in helping to create his own myth. It was apparent that he already considered himself something of a "living fossil." The late H. P. Lovecraft and now the late H. S. Whitehead were being put into hard covers by Arkham House, Smith's selfsame publisher. Their writings out of the past were all being given the same sort of resurrection by the same publisher, only in his case while Smith was still alive.

We had a beer or two in town, and then headed for the Italian restaurant. Our dinner included soup, salad, an enormous amount of savory spaghetti, a giant fried steak, and even French fried potatoes — and was priced at seventy-five cents apiece. 1943 was indeed a long time ago! We parted at eight o'clock, Smith promising to forward the Family Tree, which I remembered had been left back at the cabin.

Laney proved most enthusiastic about the items I was forwarding him from CAS, and he urged me to finish up the article about the Master. And so, on September 26, I again visited Smith, arriving in the late morning with four roast beef sandwiches I had purchased in town at the Italian restaurant. Smith put together a tomato salad, which we proceeded to devour with the sandwiches without further delay, as well as the spiced green peppers which we found wrapped with them.

We went over the entire manuscript, word by word, which we entitled "The Arcana of Arkham-Auburn." The word "arcana" Smith himself proferred, as it suggested ancient mysteries. He appeared to be delighted with the article, and spiritedly began to make suggestions — a different choice of wording here, a better sentence construction there — all to the advantage of the myth we were creating. Soon he took the manuscript in hand and proceeded to write two or three lengthy insertions.

Something reminded me of a story of his I had read in Weird Tales, and I related to him that I had happened to read it while eating my lunch. The denouement of the tale consisted of the delightfully nauseating revelation that the apparent life in a corpse was merely the movement of worms gnawing from within. Smith was amused by my anecdote, but added a further one of his own. The story was called "The Epiphany of Death," and when Weird Tales magazine finally accepted it for publication, he was paid his fee. However, after some delay, when the story was eventually published under the editor's ridiculously uninspired title "Who Are the Living?" in the September 1942 issue, he was paid a second time. He felt that this was a good joke on the magazine and that the overpayment was not undeserved.

I saw CAS again on October 30, 1943, when I escorted Francis T. Laney to the cabin to meet Smith. We spent about four hours together, and let Laney have the fore. After all, this was his first (and only) visit with the Mage of Averoigne. And, as it happened, it was to be my last. Shortly thereafter I was to be transferred to Texas, where, in 1944, at Smith's suggestion, I met Lilith Lorraine, the Texas poetess and former science-fiction author, long an admirer of CAS who continually praised him in her publications.

Smith and I kept in touch, and I was formulating plans to visit him again in the Spring of 1962. However, another, more persistent visitor, one about whom CAS had written many times, came to call on him in August of 1961. A number of Smith's tales had dealt with death and the dead, and now Death came to deal with him.

I still return from time to time to my file of CAS letters. In one he would enclose a pencil sketch of a just completed sculpture, in another a new poem. Or in another he would simply thank me for a typewriter ribbon I had mailed him (almost in self defense: at times his typing would appear to be white on white). And I remember how he would pronounce "imagery" with the accent on the second syllable, not the first, giving the fullest possible meaning to the word. And how he gave a general rule for the pronunciation of the fantastic names and places he created — most of them accented on the penultimate syllable. Or how he was wont to refer to the Catholic Novitiate not far from his cabin as the Nunnery of Averoigne (whence strange laughter sometimes issued in the night), this with a sly glint of humor in his eye. Or how he would mention his having visited "a charming lamia" in San Francisco.

Though the cabin is no more and though Clark Ashton Smith died in a place removed far from his own land, yet the land and these memories of a unique personality remain.


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

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