Master CAS: Clark Ashton Smith Remembered

Larry Fischer

Dr W.C. Farmer was Smith's last great friend. In this interview conducted by email he discusses Smith's work and recalls the talks they had about literature and life.

L F: There are millions of books in the world but only twenty-four hours in the day. Why should someone read Clark Ashton Smith?

Dr F: While there are many books there are few that readers return to again and again. For myself, I re-read Tolkien and Lewis and George MacDonald, T.E. Lawrence, and all of Kazantzakis, Spencer, Milton, Shakespeare — and Smith. Where wisdom and beauty, charm and wit are found, and where I, as I grow in age and experience, also change, certain writers call one back again and again and something new is discovered, and we also find that the well as we originally drank from it, has not become muddied — that is, our first love, in its innocence, is still rewarded. How many adventure stories or films we thrilled to as children, as adults now seem trite and campy and even badly written. Yet a few authors commend themselves to re-reading — long before I discovered the ongoing throng of fans of CAS, I felt called back from time to time to re-read his tales and his poetry — some remains unforgettable. Why read Ashton? He will haunt your reveries forever — and reward your re-visiting every time.

L F: Could you trace his modern and ancient influences?

Dr F: I'm not sure what you mean by ancient, but his obvious familiarity with the great myths cannot be overlooked — Clark loved the great writers named above, and the lush romantics of late 18th and 19th century had influenced his childhood acquisition of his letters as they had all children at the turn of century — Tennyson, Longfellow et al. Poe was certainly his introduction to the genre of fear, but as surely George MacDonald (and for the same reasons found in Lewis' introduction to the new reprints) had opened the door to fantasy for him — particularly — Lilith. The philosophical writings of Robert Graves (The White Goddess) were important readings for him later in life. Of course he was enthusiastic for [the Californian poet George] Sterling as a youngster, but I don't recall extended interest in his work when I knew him — he remained an early mentor.

Clark had a photographic memory and almost total recall — for someone whose reading had been as extensive as his, nailing down "influences" is a daunting task indeed. His subject matter was much influenced by the modernization and mechanization of the world which spelled the death of the world he knew and loved: The inescapable low rumble of traffic, the everlasting lights that grew from the town, erasing the sky he had known — these are the things that erupted in his writings from time to time. There is far more of the background of knightly adventure in Clark's tales than many realize, and a high code of chivalry in his love poems — filtered through his lens of course, but there floating in the background like the mirage of a desert paradise — alas, lost.

L F: By "ancient" I was too vague: I meant both truly ancient writers like Ovid and Virgil, and much more recent ones like Lyly and Sir Thomas Browne. Did CAS talk to you about the latter, in particular, as influences?

Dr F: I am myself a classicist, and Clark knew them in translation quite well — I sang for him once a little ditty from Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore which contains the line "...from Ovid and Horace, to Swinburne and Morris, they all of them take a back place" — and Clark nearly fell from his chair choking with laughter. We did not discuss Browne. Ovid? Of course. Vergil? Only that his name is the foundation of Irish Fergus (as in Ferguson). We wandered all over the literary map — the fact that an author knows many writers and may tweak one or spin off an obscure reference does not mean it is an "influence" — he is merely picking from the pile common to all literate persons — influence (German Einfluss — an "in-flowing") is quite another matter, and I am convinced that Clark is, in the last analysis, sui generis.

L F: CAS wrote in several genres and styles. Which do you think was his best?

Dr F: For me, the love poetry is his most accessible and moving. Among the tales, his satire "Monster of the Prophecy" and tales like "Xeethra", "Genius Loci", "Double Shadow" rank very high for me — although I would be hard-pressed to find any style I didn't like. But again, even as he thought of himself first as a poet, so do I — who pens lines like "...where time shall have none other pendulum than the remembered pulsings of thy heart" has for me a place among the stars forever.

L F: What genres and stories was CAS most proud of himself and find most important?

Dr F: The poem I mentioned before — "Not Altogether Sleep" — "The Dark Eidolon", and many others, his translations of Baudelaire, the prose-poem format, were dear to him indeed. "The Double Shadow", "Genius Loci", "Xeethra", "Mother of Toads", "The Black Abbott of Puthuum", "The Weird of Avoozl Wuthoqquan", were especial favorites among his tales; his satire on modern poetry — "redolent as a room where a cat had been shut in by mistake..." — "Schizoid Creator", and the little tale on futuristic traffic jams ["The Great God Awto"] were small efforts that still evoked a wry chuckle when mentioned — as I said in [the memoir in The Sword of] Zagan he delighted in satire, and derided sarcasm. The closest to his heart as a man were those love poems that were born of some youthful or adult "romp in the hay". Perhaps that is why Dylan Thomas' "Lament" spoke so eloquently to him that he would have me recite it sometimes more than once a day to revel in its intensely sexual rhythms and tragic progress to the end — he himself, was certainly proud that he had not made it to the last verse of that poem, and indeed vowed not to. Carol would have seen to that.

L F: We're often guilty of what might be called chronocentrism when we look back and ask that artists conform to modern rules or concern themselves with what concerns us. How you do think CAS would have reacted to our modern obsessions with race and sex and our Sisyphean striving for equality between different groups?

Dr F: Clark had earlier had a bit of Victorian anti-Semitism in him, but that was long gone by the time I knew him personally — experience had taught him that venality was not the private province of Judaism. He had none of the common prejudices that I was aware of, save bad writing, sloppy thinking, and dogmatism to the point of blindness. Modern attempts to judicially and linguistically create a world where the "lion and the lamb" will lie down together I am sure he would have found as absurd as I do — the "earnestness" of the humanist, who in fact has no philosophical basis whatever for moral outrage, would have provided even yet an inflated balloon for his sharp pen.

L F: Which books published since CAS's death do you wish you could have shared with him?

Dr F: Oddly enough, probably the Harry Potter series — Clark would have loved the subtle fun poked at the English public schools — and the manner in which real evil is contrasted as something far more sinister than the trivial media representations, and posturings of Satanists. The best translations of Kazantzakis were not available and he would have loved those works — particularly I think, his Odyssey, A Modern Sequel. [T.E. Lawrence's] Seven Pillars of Wisdom was not available to the general public when he was young, and I don't think he ever got to it again, and by the time I had read this great work, Clark was gone. I would like to have re-visited Tolkien's stuff with Clark after I had a master's seminar with Dr. Tolkien in '63. I think, too, that some of Don Fryer's work inspired by Clark would be good to have gone over with Clark — he would have appreciated Don more, and would have had more opportunity to get to know him as I did. I think he might have enjoyed seeing [Ray Bradbury's] Martian Chronicles on film — the advent of the video could have been interesting to share with Clark. Most "sci-fi/fantasy" or "sword & sorcery" has not captured my interest or attention — to have been worth discussing with Clark, there must be more than just story — there must be some deeper current that stirs beneath the surface, subtly gripping the reader and leaving him uncertain as to what just happened to him at the end of the book — "best look again..."

L F: How much Tolkien and C.S. Lewis did CAS read, and what did he make of what he read?

Dr F: He read all of it he could get his hands on — The Allegory of Love would have frustrated him because he had little Greek, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon and the book is not foot-noted.

Tolkien's creation of an entire history, obviously biblically parallel, with its own several languages and grammar he admired immensely. In discussing it briefly at odd interludes, he always came back to the basic remembrance: "Sauron is only a servant". He always felt real evil was something Tolkien understood as something infinitely more profound and dangerous than trivial little dilettantes like [Anton] LaVey [of the Church of Satan] and his ilk could imagine — he would be amused by the common theme in many books and films where some very bad person desires great power and calls up an ancient horror he thinks he can control, only to be utterly consumed by it when he at last succeeds.

L F: Did CAS ever show any interest in Jung and his theories?

Dr F: He was aware of Jung — I don't believe Phenomenology of Mind had yet been translated, or that he had read it. He thought psychiatry and its successors (psychology, psychotherapy, et al) were a monumental fraud (their own national convention's figures support such a contention — Manufacturing Victims by Dr. Tana Dineen — we never discussed any of these matters beyond treating them with the derision they richly deserve. He saw all of these attempts to know the human psyche and therefore "cure" it of its "abnormalities" (of which in common opinion at the time, he himself possessed an abundance) as an assault on creativity and genius. I think he was rather accurate, as the schools increasingly are attempting to produce "vanilla" students.

L F: Why do you think CAS is the neglected member of Weird Tales' Three Musketeers? Lovecraft has grown ever more famous since his death and Robert E. Howard is firmly established through Conan, but CAS remains obscure even to many fantasy and science-fiction fans.

Dr F: For one his vocabulary makes him less accessible — Howard's attempts at an antique form (Know then, that once in ancient times...) is largely imitations of King James' biblical lingo, common to every kid raised in Sunday School in the US — it achieves an arcane effect only using pronouns and archaic sentence structure. Clark achieved his effects with actual nouns and adjectives. Howard borrowed Conan's world (and his name) wholesale from Celtic mythology, little known seventy years ago; Clark created his worlds from scratch. Even his fictional France is not that of Roland and Charlemagne.

A similar case may be made for Mary Webb's Precious Bane — a book so superb in its craftsmanship that over the years those who love it have only reluctantly told others about it, and encouraged reading; a book so extraordinary that you want to be sure the person you lend it to, will not defile it, but actually likely love it also — we do not, in other words, "cast our pearls before swine." So it is with Clark — can you imagine a semester class of generic college students in a course on Smith! No — it should not be.

After a class in Hemingway, for example, and the professor is in the local watering hole with his favorite students, he might consider leading carefully chosen students into that inner sanctum — Clark is not for the masses, but for the elect — who, indeed, among his fans did not find themselves "led" to him — perhaps from Lovecraft or Howard or some other path — but once finding this treasure, how many still prefer those others? Few I think. Indeed, what reward is there in converting some pedantic little English major? Let Muggles be Muggles — the wizards will find CAS.

L F: George Orwell said that we often recall our dead friends or relatives in a characteristic pose or activity. If you agree, how do you see CAS?

Dr F: Sitting across from me in a wooden chair, a common tumbler of wine and water in his right hand balancing on his right knee crossed over the left leg, his left hand holding his cigarette-holder, leaning forward in the process of a great laugh, his entire being involved in the joy of the moment. Or secondly, and by contrast, the cigarette-holder in the right hand, seated outside, legs crossed, but leaned into an intense conversation. Only for a few photos does he stand erect and pose — in real life, he was always "leisurely electric".

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