Sierran Shaman

L. Sprague de Camp

Riding on Rosinante where the cars
With dismal unremitting clangors pass,
And people move like curbless energumens
Rowelled by fiends of fury back and forth,
Behold! Quixote comes, in battered mail,
Armgaunt, with eyes of some keen haggard hawk
Far from his eyrie. Gazing right and left,
Over his face a lightning of disdain
Flushes, and limns the hollowness of cheeks
Bronzed by the suns of battle; and his hand
Tightens beneath its gauntlet on the lance
As if some foe had challenged him, or sight
Of unredressed wrong provoked his ire.....1
     -Clark Ashton Smith

Can a poet find happiness in rural America? One poet tried but with only meager success. This was Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), in his day acclaimed as one of America's foremost living poets. Smith also created a sizeable body of heroic fantasy of highly distinctive quality; hence no account of the genre is complete without him.

Yet Smith's life, outwardly uneventful, was full of contradictions and ironies The most brilliant single member of the Lovecraft- Weird Tales circle of the 1930s, he suffered from poverty nearly all his life. This followed naturally from the type of work by which he supported himself; but he did not like it.

He said that he hated his home town but spent a virtual lifetime there. He deemed himself primarily a poet; yet he is mainly remembered for a body of weird short fantasies, most of them composed in one brief six-year period. His poems, once compared to those of Byron, Keats, and Swinburne, are known today to few outside of some science-fiction and fantasy fans. Few of those who nowadays make a stir in the poetic world have even heard of Clark Ashton Smith.

IN THE 1880s a footloose English bachelor, Timeus Smith wandered into north-central California, in the gold-mining country. Of respectable bourgeois family, he had spent his patrimony on travel but now settled down. In 1891, he married Mary Frances ("Fanny") Gaylord, the small, vivacious spinster daughter of a farm family of Long Valley, a few miles from Auburn. He was about 36; she, about four years older. Two years later their only child, Clark Ashton Smith, was born.

Timeus Smith was a lean man with a narrow, beak-nosed face and a small mustache. A quietly amiable but some- what impractical person, his accent and British reserve did not make him locally popular. He moved in with his in-laws and worked as night clerk in a hotel. In 1902, he bought, under a mortgage, a tract of 44.15 acres on Indian Ridge (also called "Boulder Ridge") about a mile from Auburn. Here he dug a well and built his own house — not the "log cabin" it is sometimes called but a modest, one-story, four-room, wooden frame house sheathed in boards and shingles, with a tar-paper roof and no electricity or running water.

The tract was unpromising for farming, at which Timeus Smith made desultory efforts. A grove of California blue oak abutted the site of the house. The rest of the tract was cluttered with boulders and overgrown with scrub, green and lush in spring, brown and lifeless in the fall after the rainless California summer. Clark Ashton Smith described the landscape in one of his tales:

The Ridge is a long and rambling moraine, heavily strewn in places with boulders, as its name implies, and with many outcroppings of black volcanic stone. Fruit-ranches cling to some of its slopes, but scarcely any of the top is under cultivation, and much of the soil, indeed, is too thin and stony to be arable. With its twisted pines, often as fantastic in form as the cypresses of the California coast, and its gnarled and stunted oaks, the landscape has a wild and quaint beauty, with more than a hint of the Japanesque in places.

. . . Between the emerald of the buckeyes, the gray-green of the pines, the golden and dark bluish greens of the oaks, I caught glimpses of the snow-white Sierras to the east, and the faint blue of the Coast Range to the west beyond the pale and lilac levels of the Sacramento Valley.2

Building the house took several years In 1907, about the time the Smiths moved into their new house, young Smith graduated from the Auburn grammar He passed the examinations for the high school but decided not to attend it. Already a voracious reader, he had been writing juvenile stories—mainly oriental romances—and poems. He had, he said, decided to be a poet, and he was sure that he could educate himself better than the Auburn high school could educate him.

In this opinion he may not have been entirely wrong. The law did not then compel him to continue his formal education, nor did his parents insist upon it. The decision, however, affected Smith's later life and not in favorable ways. While his withdrawal from the normal school-boy milieu may or may not have made him a better poet, it also, probably, contributed to his later frustrating difficulties in making a living.

Smith's method of self-education was to read an unabridged dictionary through, word for word, studying not only the definitions of the words but also their derivations from ancient languages. Having an extraordinary eidetic memory, he seems to have retained most or all of it. When he became a commercial writer, he constantly disconcerted his readers by dropping in rare words like "fulvous" "cerement," and "mignard." The poem quoted at the head of this article affords examples. No other writer, I am sure, ever called a man's head his "cephalic appendage." The other main course in Smith's self-education was to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica through at least twice

Smith passed several years of adolescence as a weedy, wiry youth, reading, writing, doing farm chores, and sometimes hiring out to other farmers. In 1909, Timeus Smith undertook chicken farming Clark Ashton Smith built the hen-house but found cleaning it his most obnoxious task. To eke out the family's minute income, Fanny Smith sold magazine subscriptions in Auburn.

THE YEARS 1910-12 brought Clark Ashton Smith a sudden spurt of premature fame and success. Hence he can be excused for thinking that his unconventional ideas for a poet's proper education had been right after all.

First, he sold several stories. These were undistinguished tales of oriental adventure but up to the professional standards of the popular fiction of the time. Two appeared in The Black Cat, published since 1895 in Boston by H. D. Umbstaetter. The Black Cat was not a magazine of science fiction or fantasy but of general popular short stories. It published tales by Ellis Parker Butler, Octavus Roy Cohen, Jack London, Rex Stout, and other successful entertainers of the time. Also published an occasional imaginative story of the kind later called science fiction or fantasy; for instance: London's "A thousand Deaths" (May, 1899; mad scientist on a South Sea island) or Don Mark Lemon's "The White Death" (July, 1902; gigantic hypnotic Mexican tarantula).

Smith's tales were not of this kind but were simple adventures. "The Mahout" appeared in the issue of August, 1911; "The Raja and the Tiger" in that of April, 1912. He sold two similar stories to The Overland Monthly, published in San Francisco.

Then, Smith's poetry began to be taken seriously. At thirteen, he had become an enthusiast for Poe's verse. At fifteen, he became likewise infatuated with that of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1892 and had become a protegé of Ambrose Bierce--"bitter Bierce," the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist, whose stories indude several examples of imaginativie fiction.

In 1913, Bierce went to Mexico to cover the civil war between Venustiano Carranza and a former bandit and cattle rustler who operated under the alias of Pancho Villa. Bierce attached himself to Villa but soon dropped out of sight forever. There are various tales of his end. One of the more plausible is that Bierce, with an exaggerated idea of his immunity as an American, walked in on Villa and denounced him to his face, calling him a mere brigand and saying that he was going over to Carranza. As Bierce left, Villa told his men: "Shoot him!" And they did.

Sterling had become the leader of the artistic colony at Carmel, on the California coast, and married Caroline Rand. A tall, handsome, athletic man, he was also an incorrigible bohemian, full of contradictions: charming and convivial often infinitely kind and generous, but mercurial and irresponsible. He was sensible in advising others but erratic and self-indulgent in his own affairs and, like many poets, a perpetual Don Juan.

Smith now began to publish his poems in local periodicals. He was also asked to read his poems to ladies' clubs. The ladies saw a thin, shy youth not yet 20, with a broad forehead and narrow chin, wearing a well-worn brown suit and mumbling poems of cosmic doom and degeneracy. What they could hear of Smith's verses horrified rather than edified them.

In 1911, Emily I. Hamilton, who taught English at the Auburn high school, persuaded Smith to write George Sterling to ask for criticism. Thus began a correspondence that lasted to Sterling's death.

As a letter writer, Smith was not nearly so prolific or so self-revealing as Lovecraft. Although numerous, his letters, compared to HPL's, seem rather short and dryly impersonal. With Sterling, however, Smith let down his hair. He often burst out with hatred of Auburn: "hell-hole," "sink hole of creation," "nothing but a cage, and with little gilding on the bars at that," "impested haunt if Philistines and rattlesnakes:' "To most of the people here. I'm only a crazy chump who imagines he can write poetry."

Sterling showed Smith's poems to Bierce, who waxed enthusiastic. But Smith never met Bierce and always regretted the missed opportunity.

In June, 1912, Smith went to Camel for a month's visit with Sterling. It was a memorable experience, to which Smith often later alluded to. But he found the pressure of many personalities, even in so relaxed an atmosphere as that of so- bohemian Carmel, more painful than pleasant. When Sterling invited him back next year, he declined, saying:

"Your saying that Carmel will be livelier this summer, is no inducement to me. You know I don't much care about meeting people."

During the visit, Sterling introduced Smith to a translation of the poems of Baudelaire. Charles Pierre Baudelaire had been the leader of the French "Decadent" school, writing about things that the taste of the time deemed "morbid" or "unwholesome." Baudelaire lived on a small trust fund, kept a colored mistress, fought a battle with the censors, translated Poe into French, drank heavily, ate opium, tried hashish but decided against it, and died from the effects of his excesses in 1867 at 46.

Smith had hardly returned home when a retired diplomat named Boutwell Dunlap whisked him off to San Francisco to introduce him to useful people and to earn brownie points by "discovering" Smith. The latter proved shyly inarticulate with Dunlap's business-class but opened up with the reporters. The papers duly hailed Smith as "the boy poet" and the "poetic genius" of "the lonely Sierras," the compeer of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Learning that Sterling was in San Francisco, Smith tried to get in touch with him. But Sterling, in the throes of one of his love affairs, sidestepped the contact. Instead, Dunlap presented Smith to the publisher A. M. Robinson, who had brought out a volume of Sterling's verse Smith submitted his crop of poems, and in November Robin son published them as The Star-Treader and Other Poems. The book got mixed reviews, some good and some abusing Smith for his "sinister" and "ghoulish" qualities.

IN 1912, Ambrose fierce wrote to a Western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him. The great professional cynic's prophecy was not put to the test, for the next year Smith's health broke down. For eight years he was intermittently reduced to semi-invalidism, although it is not known what ailed him. (Lovecraft had a similar breakdown at about the same time.)

Smith complained of nervous disorders depression, sore joints, digestive upsets and "malarial symptoms." -The local physician thought he had incipient tuberculosis. But this doubtful diagnosis was never confirmed, and Smith shoed no signs of tuberculosis in later life. He declined Sterling's offer to put him into a saitarium.

During this time, Smith continue correspondence with Sterling. While he had not liked San Francisco on his previous visit, finding the crowds oppressive, in 1915 he went thither as Sterling's guest to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He entered into correspondence with Lovecraft's lifelong friend Samuel Loveman. He composed many poems and did stints of farm labor.

Smith also learned what somebody should have told him sooner: that poetry is not commercial. In twentieth-century America, in general, one simply cannot make a living at it. Therefore one must have a trade or profession or business and compose one's verse on the side. The Star Treader had sold well over a thousand copies, which is good for a first volume of poems by an unknown. But Smith got only $50 in royalties from it, plus an occasional $5.00 from periodicals that published single poems.

Smith, however, had never been trained for anything but verse. In 1915, while he and his father were driving a shaft on the tract in a vain hope of striking gold, Smith wrote: "I may find myself confronted in the disagreeable necessity of earning a living. I'm really as illprepared for that as if I had been brought up in affluence. . .

I don't feel in the least like work. I seem unfit for anything but pleasure, and precious little of that has ever come my way."

He wrote to Sterling about his financial needs, suggesting a loan of $1,500 to $2,000 to put his father's chicken business on a sound footing. No loan was forthcoming, but in 1917 an anonymous lady admirer of Smith's verse arranged to pay him a small monthly stipend through Sterling. This continued for three and a half years. When it ended, Smith wrote resignedly: ". . . if I work for a living, I will have to give up my art. I've not the energy for both. And I hardly know what I could do—I'm 'unskilled labor' at anything except drawing and poetry... Nine hours of work on week days leaves me too tired for any mental effort."

The unskilled labor into which drifted consisted largely of woodcutting and fruit picking. He railed against Auburn: "If it weren't for my people, I'd hoof it out of this—!—!—! rotten country tomorrow. . ." Since his parents had been around forty when he was born, they were now in their late sixties, and he did not feel that he could walk out on them

Following a poetic tradition that was probably old in Homer's day, Smith entered upon a long series of love affairs with married women of Auburn. Rumours of his success in this department failed to enhance his popularity with there husbands. Although Smith shunned marriage, he was the one man of the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales—Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith—on whose normal male sexuality nobody has ever cast any doubt. In fact, he seems to have been unusually well endowed in this regard

He published two more volumes of verse: Odes and Sonnets(1918) and Ebony and Crystal (1922), with the usual meager returns. He received kudos from Californian literary societies. In 1920, he composed a celebrated long poem in blank verse, The Hashish Eater:

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite. . . .3

He assured Sterling: "Don't worry about my experimenting with hashish. Life is enough of a nightmare without drugs and I feel content to take the effects on hearsay."

AS SMITH'S HEALTH improved through the 1920s (his late twenties and early thirties), he added mining, fruit packing, well digging, typing, and journalism to his occupations. If none of these brought him affluence, at least he showed more gumption in getting jobs than Lovecraft ever did. He had no genteel inhibitions against turning his hand to rough outdoor work of any kind. He contributed a column to The Auburn Journal and sometimes worked as its night editor.

In 1922, he began correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated one of HPL's early stories in Home Brew. He studied French in order to translate Baudelaire and got a fair reading and writing knowledge of that tongue, in which he composed original poems. Lacking Franco phone contacts, he had no way of mastering the spoken form. He dabbled in drawing and painting and sold a few pictures for $5.00 or $10.00 each.

Then Smith lost his Guru, Sterling. Unable longer to brook his non-support and adulteries, Sterling's wife divorced him in 1915 and three years later killed herself. In 1926, Sterling was found dead of poison in the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. Although his death was commonly deemed suicide, attributed to failing powers and alcoholism, Smith doubted this, pointing to Sterling's lively plans for the future. He thought that Sterling had taken poison by error for a sleeping potion while confused by illness. There is no way to test this theory.

IN 1929, when the Great Depression began, Smith's parents grew feebler, Timeus Smith, 74, suffered from high blood pressure and a weak heart. Clark Ashton Smith was now 36. He stood 5 feet, 10 and a fraction inches tall and weighed around 140 pounds, with a large chest. Although he had filled out since youth, he was still lean, but powerfully muscled from hard physical labor. He wore his brown hair somewhat long and straggly and sported a wispy mustache. His weather-worn features were not unhandsome, although heavy-lidded eyes gave him a slightly Oriental look.

A fairly heavy pipe and cigarette smoker, he drank—sometimes heavly but then again restricting himself to a glass of wine—often home-made—a day. His general persona was politely reserved and rather taciturn, save when somebody got him to open up on one of his liteary or poetic enthusiasms. He took to wearing berets, at least one of them red. Now, the beret is an admirably practical head- gear, but the small-town America of that time viewed it much as it does the long hair of rebellious youth today.

Evidently, the casual labor on which Smith had relied would not suffice to keep his aged parents. Smith had long since decided that he did not wish to work regular hours, would not work in indoors, hated Auburn, and could not bear to live in a city. These self-imposed tabus left him few choices. He said: "My conception of pleasure is one that the modern world would doubtless think hopelessly bucolic, idyllic and antiquated, since there is nothing I like better than to wander in the vernal woods with a beloved mistress. . .4

Through the 1920s, Smith had been reading Lovecraft's stories. Smith had written practically no prose fiction except some little imaginative vignettes in florid language, called "prose poems." He had sold several poems and one old story, "The Ninth Skeleton," to Weird Tales.

In 1929, one of Smith's lady friends talked him into trying his hand at prose fiction again. She he wrote "The Last Incantation," which appeared in Weird Tales for June, 1930. It is a charming little fable, just over a thousand words long, in Smith's meticulously polished prose. The aged Atlantean wizard Malygris commands his familiar demon to fetch him Nylissa, the sweetheart he would have wedded in youth had she not died. The demon obeys. At first Malygris is in rapture. But then he observes that this Nylissa is not nearly so beautiful as he remembers her; in fact, she is just a very ordinary girl. Malygris dismisses the phantom and complains to the demon.

"It was indeed Nylissa whom you summoned and saw," replied the viper. "Your necromancy was potent up to this point; but no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fevent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then. This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn"5

Finding that he could make more money writing stories, even at the low rates and late payments of Weird Tales, than by picking plums and cherries and chopping firewood, Smith plunged whole-heartedly into his new career. During the next six years, he turned out stories at a rate of over one a month, despite the fact that he was a careful worker who revised and rewrote a lot. On smith's approximately 110 stories, a large majority were written during this period, although some of these were not published until the 1940s and 50s.

Over half of Smith's stories were published in Weird Tales. Others appeared in Amazing Detective Tales, AMAZING STORIES, Astounding Stories, Fantastic Universe, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, La Paree Stories, Magic Carpet, Oriental Stories, Philippine Magazine, Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy, Scientific Detective Monthly, Stirring Science Stories, Snappy Stories, Startling Stories, Strange Tales, Tales of Wonder, (Thrilling) Wonder Stories, and fan magazines. Many have been reprinted in anthologies and reprint magazines. Some, like "The Holiness of Azedarac," were based upon Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, to whose sinister library of pseudobiblia Smith added the baleful Book of Eibon.

Some stories written during this spurt were more or less conventional science fiction. Many were fantasies laid in the supposed lost continents of Hyperborea and Atlantis, in the imaginary medieval land of Malneant, and on the magic- haunted planet Xiccarph. Others were placed on the future continent Zothique (rhymes with "seek"). This will be the last large land mass to remain above the waters when the sun shall have dimmed science shall have been forgotten, and the ancient magics shall rise again, bringing back their sinister gods and demons in more frightful guise than ever.

The stories of Klarkash-Ton (as Lovecraft called him, meaning simply "Clark Ashton") are unlike those of anyone else. Readers either love them or hate them but are seldom indifferent. Smith wrote in an elaborately euphuistic style, bedizened with rare words (some of which Farnsworth Wright, editing Weird Tales, made him take out). He had a monstrously vivid imagination. Like Lovecraft, he drew upon the nightmares that had plagued him during youthful spells of sickness. He also had a keenly ironic sense of humor and an uninhibited bent for the macabre. Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.

Even one of his more conventions science-fiction stories, "The Dweller in the Gulf," is one of the most gruesome ever written. An expedition to Mars encounters a monster, which apparently subsists on interplanetary explorers' eyeballs, being equipped with special appenadages for extracting them.

Smith's published stories were all quite short. He planned or began several novels but never finished any, finding the greater lengths uncongenial. Lovecraft wrote:

Mr. Smith has for his background a universe of remote and paralysing fright—jungles of poisonous and iridescent blossoms on the moons of Saturn, evil and grotesque temples in Atlantis, Lemuria, and forgotten elder worlds, and dank morasses of spotted death-fungi beyond earth's rim. . . In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Mr. Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living. Who else has seen such gorgeoud, luxuriant, and feverishly distorted visions of infinite spheres and multiple dimensions and lived to tell the tale?6

Many of Smith's readers have seen what they thought was Lord Dunsany's influence in his stories. Smith himself said that, while he had read Dunsany, he thought that he had been much more influenced by Poe, Bierce, and the early stories of Robert W. Chambers.

Although Smith stayed in Auburn during these years, his stories brought him a new circle of admirers—the science-fiction fans, some of whom came to see him from time to time. They found a curious menage. Fanny Smith, now in her eighties and in failing heath, still ruled the family. When she sent Timeus to Auburn for supplies, she gave him a schedule, and woe betide him if he failed to adhere to the time table. Fanny had become obsessed with the idea that, unless watched, poor old Timeus would gallop off in lustful pursuit of Auburn's damsels.

Smith's friends included Benjamin De Casseres (rhymes with "mass array") and his wife. Decasseres had contributed to The Black Cat, become a popular poet in the 1920s, and published a book of poems called The Shadow Eater, with splendidly ghoulish black-and-white illustrations by Wallace Smith. I remember the lines:

The weird ululation of fiends
On the brackish waters of time. . .

I have no idea what that menas, but it still gives a frisson. These line also admirably sum up the spirit of Smith's prose and verse. De Casseres compared Smith's poetry to that of Poe, Baudelaire, Shelley, Rimbaud, Keats, and Blake Other knowledgeable critics were equally enthusiastic about Smith's verse.

In 1933, Smith began corresponding with Robert E. Howard, the Texan creator of Conan. Howard, too, wrote vigorous, colorful, imaginative verse, but on a much smaller scale than Smith, who composed over 700 poems. Nor did REH take his poetry so seriously as Smith took his. for three years, Smith, Howard and Lovecraft were the unquestioned leaders of the Weird Tales school of fiction an close corresponding friends, although they never met. The writer of oriental fantasies, Edgar Hoffmann Price, is the only man known to have met all three in the flesh.

In 1934, the older Smiths' growing debility caused Smith's fiction to taper off. He also began to experiment with sculpture. This consisted of creepy little figurines, carved in a soft stone such as talc with a pocket knife and hardened by baking. They resemble the little uglies that tourists buy in Mexico and Central America, which are mostly modern imitations of aboriginal idols. Some of Smith's statuettes look like miniatures of the Easter Island statues. He sold many such carvings for a few dollars each.

In September, 1935, Fanny Smith died. Smith spent the next two years nursing his father through his last illness. He continued his stone carving, began a few stories, and completed fewer. In December, 1937, Timeus died in his turn.

His parents' deaths practically ended Smith's fictional career. The last three years had left him exhausted from single-handedly nursing two old people and running the house and tract. In a letter to the fan Robert H. Barlow, Smith had written that he had "fully and absolutely made up tiny mind to quit the hell-bedunged and heaven-bespitted country when my present responsibilities are over." But when the time came, he did not.

Barlow was an assiduous correspondent of Lovecraft and other members of the HPL- WT circle. As a young man, he dabbled in various arts and sciences. When Lovecraft died in 1937, Barlow acted for a while as his literary executor, precipitating a quarrel among some members of the Circle.

Later, Barlow went to Mexico, where he became a distinguished archaeologist. Along with Wigberto Jimenez Moreno, he is credited with puffing the chronology of the pre-Columbian Valley of Mexico—that is, the dating of the Toltec and Aztec cultures—on a sound basis. In 1951, he killed himself over the threat of the exposure of his homosexuality.

In the 1930s, Barlow was in his Communist phase. He tried to convert Smith, who would have none of it: "No matter what system you have—capitalism, Fascism, Bolshevism—the greed and power-- lust of men will produce the same widespread injustice, the same evils and abuses . . . I would be strictly non-assimilable in any sort of co-operative society, and would speedily end up in a concentration camp."7 Smith condemned authoritarian governments of any sort, recognizing their utter intolerance of nonconformists like himself.

Smith even hoped to make a trip to New York, though he still had no wish to live in a city. After his father died, he did in fact travel a little but only to nearby places like Carmel. Having become set in his ways, he soon returned to Indian Ridge and his mildly reclusive life.

He wrote Derleth that he was "trying to settle down to literary production again," although he found the necessary concentration "abominably hard." But somehow he never did: He made many statuettes and composed more poems. He taught himself Spanish, as he had done with French. But stories he produced only at intervals of years: the tales actually completed after 1937 could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Weird Tales's simultaneous loss of its three outstanding writers—Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, two by death and one by virtual withdrawal from the field-probably initiated its long decline.

Smith had the satisfaction of seeing books of his stories published by Derleth's Arkham House. The first of theses, Out of Space and Time (1942) and Lost Worlds (1944) were each issued in a printing of 2,000 copies. They sold slowly, wen tout of print, and became collectors' costly rarities. Derleth published five more volumes of Smith's prose and two of his verse, and at his death in 1971 had a large volume of Smith's poems in press. Many of Smith's stories are being reprinted in paperback.

Smith's last decade saw extensive changes in his life. In 1954, he married Carolyn Jones Dorman, who had been married before and had three children. For several years, he alternated between the house on Indian Ridge and and his wife's house in Pacific Grove. He had sold most of Timeus Smith's tract. Then he quarrelled with a real-estate develolper who wished to buy the remaining lot and put pressure on Smith through legal and political connections to sell. In 1957, the old house burned—the Smiths said by arson; others, by accident. The Smiths sold the remaining lot and moved permanently to Pacific Grove.

To meet expenses, Smith (who now wore a small gray beard) did gardening, which he hated, for the other residents. In 1961 he suffered strokes, which greatly slowed him. A last attempt at a science- fiction story proved unpublishable, and in August of that year he quietly died in his sleep, aged 68.

THE DEVOTEE of heroic fantasy wonders: if Smith could write so many superlative stories of their kind from 1929 to 1935, why did he not resume his fiction, after his father's death, on his former scale? The answer seems to be that he regarded himself mainly as a poet who wrote prose only to pay his decrepid parents' bills.

This brings up another irony: Smith bitterly complained of being tied to hated Auburn. He implied that, but for having to care for two helpless old people, he would roam the wide world. In fact, if he had not so desperately needed money during his parents' decline, he might never have buckled down to fiction at all. So the very factor that so irked him also forced him into doing his beat-remembered work.

Years before, he had written Sterling that writing prose was "a hateful task, for a poet, and wouldn't be necessary in any true civilization," He much preferred poetry and, after his parents' deaths, rock carving. The deaths of Lovecraft and Howard may also have discouraged Smith from resuming his stories, since he no longer had their voluminous correspondence to spur him on.

Smith also suffered from his own artistic versatility. He worked in poetry, prose fiction, sculpture, and picturing. Any one of these is enough to absorb all a man's energy, and to master all four at once is a practical impossibility.

In pursuing the graphic and plastic arts without formal training, moreover, I think that Smith made a profound mistake. These arts are those wherein, as in boxing among sports, the gap yawns widest between the amateur and the professional and the self-taught man has little change. But, living where he did and avoiding cities, Smith had no opportunity for formal training.

He realized his lack but took a subbornly independent line: "Of course, I lack technical training, in the academic sense. But I don't care much more for the literalness of academic painting then I do for the geometrical abstractions of some of the modernists. . . As for getting instruction, I doubt if my ideals would be understood or sympathized with by the average teacher. I'll have to work it out in my own way."7 So his pictures remained at best talented primitives.

Lord Dunsany could likewise dabble in drawing and sculpture as well as prose and poetry. His weird drawings, in fact, are reminiscent of Smith's. But Dunsany had an inherited estate, which enabled him to do as he pleased. Smith did not.

FOR A LAST QUESTION: Whatever happened to Smith's poetry, so extravagantly praised when it appeared? One might think that it had all been buried with its author, as was said of the composer Anton Rubinstem's music.

There was nothing wrong with Smith's poetry, which is of high quality: vivid, stirring, evocative, colorful in a lush fin- de-siècle way, super-imaginative, and technically polished. But public taste is ever changing unpredictably; that is why there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as progress in the arts.

During the last half-century, American poetry, under the influence of Ezra Pound and others, has gone off in a direction quite different from the verse of Smith and Howard. Although Smith wrote some free verse, most of his poetry is in fixed forms, with rhyme and rhythm and predetermined numbers of feet per line. Nearly all contemporary American poetry is in free verse.

Now free verse, in the hands of a Whitman or an Emily Dickinson, can be very effective. But, however effective, it cannot be remembered anywhere nearly so easily as verse in fixed forms. In fact, the distinctive features of fixed-form verse-- rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, fixed numbers of syllables or feet, and the rest—were invented as mnemonic devices back in primitive, preliterate days to make it easier to pass on the tribal wisdom without losing pieces of it with each transmission. Therefore, while Americans of a century hence may well remember "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. . ."

or "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore. . .", all the vast masses of vers libre now being ground out will probably be forgotten by all save writers of Ph. D. theses.

Moreover, even if free verse can sometimes be effective, most of it is not. To me at least, it looks like turgid prose, full of strained figures of speech and obscure locutions and chopped into arbitrary short lines. The main advantage of this formless "verse" is that it is easy to do. It is lazy man's poetry. Anybody, even a child or a computer, can do it. This makes it popular, since in the present climate of super-egalitarianism it is often thought that if a task cannot be done by everyone, it ought not to be done at all. To do or admire something that requires outstanding talent, arduous effort, and austere self-discipline is elitism, and that is a wicked thing.

Some leading poets, however, tell me that a reaction, with a return to fixed forms, is likely soon. Then Smith's verse may come into its own.

IN VIEWING Smith's life, it is hard not to become a little impatient with the inept, unrealistic way this brilliant, erudite, decent, hypersensitive, imaginative, creative, and romantic-minded man conducted his worldly affairs. It would have been one thing if he had serenely accepted an impoverished existence on the outskirts of Auburn. But he did not; he hated Auburn and complained of his lot. At the same time, he did little to change that lot. In fact, his attitudes—his phobias against formal education, indoor work, and city life—combined with his parent's long debility to condemn him to Indian Ridge willy nilly.

But then, one ought not to expect a gifted poet to be also a model of shrewdness, prudence, practicality, efficiency, foresight, and commercial acumen. If all


  1. Clark Ashton Smith: Don Quixote on Market Street, in Weird Tales for March, 1953, copyright 1953 by Weird Tales; C.A.S.: The Dark Chateau (Arkham House, 1951), p. 25.
  2. C.A.S.: "The Ninth Skeleton," in Weird Tales for Sep. 1928, copyright 1928 by Popular Fiction Publishing Co,; C.A.S.:Genus Loci (Arkham 1948), pp. 26f.
  3. Lin Carter(ed.): New Worlds for Old (Ballantine, 1971), p. 279.
  4. Letter to Samuel Loveman, 14 Apr. 1929.
  5. Weird Tales for June, 1930 copyright 1930 by Popular Fiction Co.; CA.S.: Lost Worlds (Arkham House, 1944), p. 90.
  6. H. P. Lovecraft: "Supernatural Horror in Literature," in The Outsider and Others (Arkham House, 1939), p. 538.
  7. Letter to R. H. Barlow, 16 May, 1936; in the Lovecraft Collection at Brown University.
  8. Letter to G. Sterling, 28 Sep 1926, in the Sterling Collection at the New York Public Library.

From: Fantisic, Oct 1972

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