Clark Ashton Smith

St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers

The stories that Clark Ashton Smith produced during his one brief phase of hectic productivity, which extended from 1929 to 1934, constitute one of the most remarkable oeuvres in imaginative literature. His highly ornamented prose was directed to the purpose of building phantasmagoric dreamworlds stranger than any that had ever been described before. It was not enough for his fantastic narratives to escape the mundane world; Smith wanted to outdo in imaginative reach all the established mythologies of past and present. This ambition is summarized and made explicit in the prose-poem "To the Daemon," and in a letter to Amazing Stories (October 1932) where Smith proposed that "one of [literature's] most glorious prerogatives is the exercise of imagination on things that lie beyond human experience . . into the awful, sublime and infinite cosmos outside the human aquarium . . [offering] a welcome and salutary release from the somewhat oppressive tyranny of the homocentric, and [helping] to correct the deeply introverted, ingrowing values that are fostered by present-day `humanism' and . . . unhealthy materialism." Despite its fervent escapist thrust, however, there is nothing comfortable or consolatory about Smith's fiction: his characters are almost invariably led by the irresistible allure of the exotic to disappointment, damnation and doom.

The most immediate influence on Smith's work was that of the California poet George Sterling, one of a group of West Coast "Bohemians" centred on Ambrose Bierce, but the real roots of his work are to be found in the French Decadent Movement which inspired the American Bohemians. Smith taught himself French so that he could read such work in the original, and produced many translations of work by Baudelaire and poets of a similar stripe. His early poetry shows these influences very clearly, especially the 29 poems in prose in Ebony and Crystal. Several of his later stories elaborate images from these prose-poems and it was here that he first cultivated the unique tone and worldview of his fiction. Although he shares with the French Decadents a desperate ennui and an intemperate spleen Smith's work differs from theirs by virtue of his adoption of a worldview similar to that of his friend H. P. Lovecraft, which drew extensively--if somewhat eccentrically--upon the imagery of science, involving both the awesomeness of the modern cosmic perspective and the detachment and clinicality of the scientific outlook.

Smith had some difficulty finding an appropriate milieu for his fiction. The imaginary French province of Averoigne allowed him scope for pastiches of French fantasy--"The End of the Story" (1930) echoes the theme of Thé ophile Gautier's "Clarimonde," while "The Disinterment of Venus" (1934) replays Prosper Merimée's "The Venus of Ille"--but not for the produce of his wilder imaginings. Atlantis, first featured in the extended prose-poem "The Last Incantation" (1930), was more promising, the exoticism of Atlantean sorcery being displayed to its fullest advantage in "The Double Shadow" (1933) and "The Death of Malygris" (1934), but also too narrow in scope.

Hyperborea, first used in "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" (1931), features in a number of tales which Smith called "Hyperborean Grotesques" because of their heavy irony. "The Door to Saturn" (1932) is one of the least violent and most sardonic of all Smith's stories, but "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan" (1932), follows a typical pattern of reckless greed leading to macabre extinction, as do "The Ice-Demon" (1933), "Ubbo-Sathla" (1933) and the magnificently bizarre "The Coming of the White Worm" (1941). The most savagely sarcastic of all the Hyperborean tales is "The Testament of Athammaus" (1932)--in which a hapless headsman is called upon to execute a demonic bandit but finds his victim miraculously capable of rising from the dead, becoming more loathsome every time--but the best is "The Seven Geases" (1934), in which a vainglorious magistrate goes hunting for extraordinary prey but falls prey himself to the wrath of a sorcerer and is condemned to descend through a series of Tartarean realms to "the ultimate source of all miscreation and abomination."

The most dramatically appropriate of all Smith's imaginary milieux was far-future Zothique, "the world's last continent." Because Hyperborea existed in Earth's past, the viewpoint of stories set there had to accept the implication that Order would ultimately oust Chaos, but in Zothique the implied future is empty; science and civilization are gone and utterly forgotten, and all that happens there is but a prelude to final annihilation. The first Zothique story was "The Empire of the Necromancers" (1932), a nightmarish extravaganza in which two magicians conjure themselves an empire out of the dust of the ages and the corpses of the ancient dead, but then reap a just reward after the rebellion of their subjects. Some stories set there--like "The Voyage of King Euvoran" (1933)--are as ironic as the Hyperborean grotesques, but the best of them are possessed of an unparalleled dramatic surge which carries them helter-skelter through a mass of bizarre detail to devastating conclusions. They frequently contain erotic elements, but the seductive sorceresses who feature in "The Witchcraft of Ulua" (1934) and "The Death of Ilalotha" (1937) are not treated with the same sentimental affection as the sorceresses and lamias of the tales of Averoigne. This somewhat necrophilic eroticism exists side-by-side with savage cruelty; torture is a commonplace in Zothique and sadism is the norm.

These quasi-pornographic features are not evidences of any depravity on the part of the author, but rather represent a determined effort to confront and make manageable the most nightmarish products of the imagination. The characters in the Zothique stories move in quasi-ritual step toward their predestined dooms, sometimes taking entire cities with them--as in "The Dark Eidolon" (1935), which features a literal feast of horrors. Such is the inversion of values permitted by the setting that it is the echoes of affection and success which resound in the tales which seem in the end to be the most awful things of all; this can be clearly seen in the horrible denouements of finest tales of Zothique, "Xeethra" (1934) and "Necromancy in Naat" (1936). Both these stories are among the numerous Smith tales known to have been censored; where the original texts could still be restored they were done so in the 1987-88 series of booklets published by the Necronomicon Press, but the true ending of "Necromancy in Naat" is unfortunately lost.

Fully to appreciate the work of Clark Ashton Smith requires more than a broad vocabulary and a sympathy for stylistic ornamentation; it requires the reader to identify with the curious world-view enshrined in that work: a determination to get as far away from mundanity as language and the imagination can take one, there to discover a universe utterly alien and inhumane and to find in that revelation a sense of propriety which outweighs in value any mere comfort or pleasure. This may make Smith a difficult writer to enjoy, but it should not detract at all from the great respect to which he is entitled.

PERSONAL INFORMATION: Nationality: American. Born: Long Valley, California, 13 January 1893. Education: Auburn, California; left school at 14 and largely self-educated. Family: Married Carolyn Jones Dorman in 1954. Career: Farmer and general labourer; poet, short-story writer (from 1910), artist and sculptor: regular contributor to Weird Tales in the early 1930s; ceased writing commercially in 1936. Died: 14 August 1961.

St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers. St. James Press, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. Document Number: K2408000336 (c) 2005 by The Gale Group, Inc.

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