Wizard with Words

Simon Whitechapel

I've been lucky with Clark Ashton Smith, I think. That's because I think the first book I ever bought by him was the Panther paperback Genius Loci. The luck was that I bought it when I was in my teens. If I'd done so today, I think I'd have given up after a couple of stories, and if I'd done that I'd have missed becoming properly acquainted with a writer who, in his genre, is probably the best there's ever been.

That's because Genius Loci is more than half full of stories that aren't in Clark Ashton Smith's genre. Smith's science fiction, almost always, and his horror, very often, are weak, uninspired, and boring. I'm unable to re-read some nowadays, and I don't think I was particularly impressed even as a teenager. But I worked my way through the opening two-thirds of Genius Loci, and came to stories that impressed me at the time and still do. Clark Ashton Smith's fantasy stories are extremely good; not only that, he manages to write extremely good fantasy stories in several quite distinct styles. And there's the problem. Why is Smith so good in one genre and so, well, bloody awful in two others? That's a problem that interests me both as Clark Ashton Smith fan and as a writer myself, and I hope it interests you too, because that's the problem I want to look at in this article.

* * *

If someone asked you to come up with a single term that sums up Clark Ashton Smith as a writer, I suppose you might come up with something like "vocabulary". Anyone who can read a Clark Ashton Smith story without reaching for the dictionary at least half-a-dozen times is either extremely well-read in a lot of recondite corners of literature or has read the story a few times before. Or prefers to go with the flow and let the meaning look after itself. If it's the last, then that reader isn't getting the most out of Smith, because watching the way he deploys the illimitable resources of his lexicon is, for me, one of the most enjoyable things about his work. When he uses an unusual word, it's always because it's the right word for the occasion, never simply for the sake of it. At least, never in his fantasy stories:

Sabmon the anchorite was famed no less for his piety than for his prophetic wisdom and knowledge of the dark art of sorcery. He had dwelt alone for two generations in a curious house on the rim of the northern desert of Tasuun: a house whose floor and walls were built from the large bones of dromedaries, and whose roof was a wattling composed of the smaller bones of wild dogs and men and hyenas. These ossuary relics, chosen for their whiteness and symmetry, were bound securely together with well-tanned thongs, and were joined and fitted with marvellous closeness, leaving no space for blown sand to penetrate. This house was the pride of Sabmon, who swept it daily with a besom of mummy's hair, till it shone immaculate as polished ivory both within and without. ("The Witchcraft of Ulua")

A lot of interesting things are going on in this paragraph besides the use of three unusual words — anchorite, ossuary, besom — but Smith's ability to use them in an unforced and apposite way is an important part of what makes him a very good fantasy writer. Choosing words well is difficult, and the more out-of-the-ordinary the word, the more difficult it is.

Sometimes this is much more like a truism than a truth — when you step outside your mother tongue, for example. In other languages, most words are out-of-the-ordinary from us English-speakers' point of view. Then again, in a sense there is no such thing as a single language, particularly in the case of a linguistic magpie like English. The English lexicon is an overlapping series of smaller lexicons: the Anglo-Saxon, the Anglo-French, the Anglo-Classical, and so on. Most of us pick our words inside small and well-defined boundaries, and when we step over them and come back with blooms from more exotic regions, few of us can do so with the success of a Clark Ashton Smith. You cannot translate word for word from English into another language and expect meaning to survive, and you cannot substitute an English word from one part of the lexicon for a word in another and expect subtleties of meaning to survive. Or to appear there if that is what you want them to do.

A good example of what I mean by this is what might be called the "thesaurus syndrome". Thesauruses are extremely useful tools for a writer, but they are also dangerous ones if they're not used properly. What they should be used for is to help a writer use the word that's right for the occasion; what they're often used for is to help a writer not to use a word that he thinks is too boring or commonplace or unexotic. Their use for the latter is when there's the greatest risk of something going badly wrong, as in, for example, Descanting the Insalubrious, which is the title of the third album produced by the death-metal band Carcass.

It's easy to reconstruct what went wrong here. The band wanted to produce an oxymoron like Symphonies of Sickness, the title of their second album, and simply weren't well-educated or well-read enough to do it. "Descant", admittedly, is a good start, because it's a verb (and noun) associated with the sweet, ethereal singing of church choirs and classical music. "Insalubrious" is meant to supply the second half of the oxymoron with a meaning of "unhealthy" or "disease-carrying", and to be an even stronger semantic contrast because it comes from the same Anglo-Classical lexicon as "descant". If you look at a thesaurus (as I imagine the band did), you might imagine that it will be perfect for the role:

Insalubrious, insanitary, unhealthy, unwholesome, morbific, mephitic, septic, pestilent, pestiferous, pestilential, virulent, poisonous, toxic.

The problem is that the word "insalubrious" in modern English is generally used in a weak sense of things like buildings or weather, and is also often jocular and mock-pendantic. It doesn't carry the power needed to make a good oxymoron in this context, and its use is a perfect example of the thesaurus syndrome.[1]

To run foul of the syndrome, however, you've no need to actually pick up a thesaurus and turn pages, because we all carry a thesaurus around with us in our heads that is just as liable to be misused, and for the same reasons. Sometimes the mistakes are worse: use of a real thesaurus tends to produce stylistic mistakes, but not semantic ones. In other words, the tone or connotation is often wrong, but the meaning is generally more or less right. Use of a mental thesaurus can also wreck meaning: the doublets "flout/ flaunted", "fortunate/ fortuitous", "barbarous/ barbaric" are common examples of words with very different meanings that are often used as though they are simply stylistic variations of each other.

And how does all this apply to Clark Ashton Smith? Well, it applies to him because I hope it has demonstrated how difficult and complex the choice and arrangement of words can be, particularly in a literary context. If so, then I further hope that an examination of Smith's fantasy stories will lead you to agree that he was a master of this aspect of literary technique.

* * *

Very conveniently for the classifier of his fantasy work, Clark Ashton Smith himself, or his editors at least, have explicitly divided it into six separate categories: tales of Averoigne, Xiccarph, Zothique, Hyperborea, Atlantis, and what might be called general or miscellaneous fantasy tales. The divisions reflect differences not only in setting, geography, and chronology, but also in literary style, as I will try to demonstrate in a more detailed examination of each division:


Smith seems to have written seven stories about a medieval French province he called Averoigne. In a strict sense they are not "fantasy" stories because they are have a real, or nearly real, historical setting, but I have chosen to include them with the fantasy stories on the ground (amongst others) that they are not contemporary and so involve a projection away from the present both of the writer's literary style and of the reader's imagination: this is what will be important in a consideration of the difference in quality between Smith's uncontemporary fantasy and his contemporary science fiction and horror.

The projection on Smith's part involves the restrained use of an appropriately medieval vocabulary and of a certain complexity of syntax that will not be found in all fantasy stories from the other divisions:

As all men know, the advent of the Beast was coeval with the coming of that red comet which rose behind the Dragon in the early summer of 1369. Like Satan's rutilant hair, trailing on the wind of Gehenna as he hastens worldward, the comet streamed nightly above Averoigne, bringing the fear of bale and pestilence in its train. And soon the rumor of a strange evil, a foulness unheard of in any legend, passed amongst the people.("The Beast of Averoigne")

The Averoigne stories differ from the others in their setting, both physically and culturally. A story of Averoigne is characteristically set amidst deep, ancient forest or amongst the crumbling ruins of an ancient building amidst deep, ancient forest; even in stories set away from such places, their presence remains potential or actual and they are the source of the one half of cultural difference between the Averoigne stories and Smith's other fantasy. This difference is based on the fact that Averoigne is intended to be read as a fictional part of real history, which enables Smith to refer to real religions: in this case, to Christianity and paganism and to the conflict between them. In Averoigne, Christianity is the religion of town and city and paganism (in a possibly deliberate reference to its etymological roots in the Latin paganus or "rural") the religion of the forest and countryside. Christianity is also wholly ineffectual and, in its interpretation of pagan manifestations as devilish and abhorrent, wholly mistaken. Smith has a great deal of fun at its expense, contrasting its repressive and tyrannical attitudes to pleasure, beauty, and sex with those of its far more powerful and far wiser predecessor. In his other fantasy work, which is not set in recognizable history, these anti-Christian and anti-clerical sentiments can only be given indirect expression (as in, for example, the Hyperborea story "The Door to Saturn", discussed below).

(The Averoigne stories are: Genius Loci: The Disinterment of Venus; The Collossus of Ylourgne; The Satyr. Lost Worlds Vol. I: The Holiness of Azédarac; The Beast of Averoigne. Out of Space and Time Vol. I: The End of the Story; A Rendezvous in Averoigne; The Abominations of Yondo: The Enchantress of Sylaire)


As with Averoigne, Smith establishes the flavor of his Zothique stories by setting them in only a few places, which might be characterized as desert, palace, and necropolis. The themes of the Zothique stories are those of decadence and its habitual concomitant — an ennui-provoked indulgence in sexual and sybaritic excess that is fin-de-siècle in a more than usually powerful sense, for Zothique is the "last continent of earth" on which "the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as with a shadow of blood".[2]

And just as the earth on which the stories are set is dying, so the stories themselves are full of death and disease, often combined unsettlingly with sex in a way that gives several of them a sly necrophilous subtext. Only it is not always so very "sub":

Again, surely, he had dreamt or been mistaken. But even as the doubt grew, it seemed that the bosom of Ilalotha stirred in faint respiration, and he heard an almost inaudible but thrilling whisper: 'Come to me at midnight. I will wait for thee...in the tomb.' (The Death of Ilalotha)

The Zothique stories are always perverse and unsettling in this or similar ways, but they are also the most beautiful and affecting of Smith's fantasy stories, and the ones in which he strives most fully and consciously for poetic effect. Here too, however, he often draws on the themes of death and disease already mentioned:

Anon a moon rose red as with sanies-mingled blood ("Necromancy in Naat") ... And over all, like a pale-monstrous poppy, the moon distilled her death-white slumber ("The Death of Ilalotha") ... Now it seemed that the tongue of Zotulla froze in his mouth, as a mandrake freezes in the rime-bound soil of winter ("The Dark Eidolon")

The style of the stories too has a poetic simplicity to it: they have a generally sparse vocabulary against which occasional lexical exotica glitter even more brightly and make abundant use of simple conjunctions like "and" and "but" in a way reminiscent of the King James Bible:

Forgetting the presence of the dark chanters, he sprang forward to clasp his beloved, crying out her name in an agony of rapture. But she answered him not, and responded to his embrace only with a faint trembling. And Yadar, sorely perplexed and dismayed, was aware of the deathly coldness that crept into his fingers and smote through his very raiment into his flesh. Mortally pale and languid were the lips that he kissed, and it seemed that no breath emerged between them, nor was there any rising and falling of the wan bosom against his. ("Necromancy in Naat")

Verbs like "seem" and "appear" and phrases like "as though" and "as if" are also common in the stories, investing them with a sense of shadow and darkness appropriate to a dying world overseen by a guttering sun, and suggesting a drugged misperception in the stories' characters that is either literal or occasioned by magic or over-indulgence in drugs or wine. Finally, there are the proper nouns. The names of those who might be called, with some equivocation, the heroes and heroines of the stories are decadent but beautiful, suggesting the worn-down shells of older, richer, and stolider tongues. They are generally based on simple consonant-vowel syllables, often contain the liquids "l" and "r", the glide "y"', and the lisping fricative "th" (as in "thin"), and never use the letters "K" and "k", or "x" with its "ks" value ("X" is used only at the beginning of names, where it is most naturally pronounced as "z"): Tinarath, Yoros, Dalili, Xeethra, Yadar, Altath, Manthar, Ilalotha, Xylac, Thulos, Zyra are typical examples.

On the other hand, the names of those who might be called without equivocation the villains of the stories usually take a different form. The syllables are more complex and less mellifluous, and the names are less pleasing to the eye and on the tongue. Mmatmuor (sic) and Sodosma, the evil magicians of "The Empire of the Necromancers", are good examples of this class of name; others are Vacharn, Vokal, Estit, Ildrac, Uccastrog (the Isle of Torturers), Namirrha, and Sarcand.

(The Zothique stories are: Genius Loci: The Charnel God; The Black Abbott of Puthuum; The Weaver in the Vault. Lost Worlds Vol. I: The Empire of the Necromancers; The Isle of the Torturers; Necromancy in Naat; Xeethra. Out of Space & Time Vol. I: The Dark Eidolon. Out of Space & Time Vol. II: The Last Hieroglyph; The Death of Ilalotha. The Abominations of Yondo: The Witchcraft of Ulua; The Voyage of King Euvoran; The Master of the Crabs)


Again, the stories under this heading have characteristic settings, which are those of ice and jungle: thesis and antithesis that achieve a satisfactory synthesis when one remembers that Smith's Hyperborea is set in the very distant past at the beginning of an ice age. The earth is far younger and its races far more vigorous, and there are many others of them besides those of men: in the Zothique cycle there are human beings and the spirits they occasionally summon and send against each other, but monsters and demi-gods are rare; in the Hyperborea cycle, unhuman creatures and their malice are far more important and far commoner. One story already mentioned, "The Door to Saturn", is in fact set on an entire other planet of unhuman creatures to which the the story's hero, the "infamous heretic, Eibon", escapes from the inquisitorial bigotry of Morghi, high-priest of the elk-goddess Yhoundeh. Apart from its other-worldly, neither glacial nor tropical setting, the story is characteristic of the Hyperborea stories almost to the point of parody. First of all, its tone is jocund and playful, even facetious, and its style con volved and polysyllabic:

He turned to see what manner of creature had cast the shadow. This being, he perceived, was not easy to classify, with its ludicrously short legs, its exceedingly elongated arms, and its round, sleepy-looking head that was pendulous from a spherical body, as if it were turning a somnabulistic somersault. But after he had studied it a while and noted its furriness and somnolent expression, he began to see a vague though inverted likeness to the god Zhothaqquah.

Secondly, names like Zhothaqquah are common in Hyperborean nomenclature, and although they verge on parody in "The Door to Saturn" — which includes a race of Cythereans called the Bhlemphroims who have a cannibalistic queen-mother called the Djhenquomh — they are in general one of the important ways this cycle is distinguished from that of Zothique. As already mentioned, the names used in the Zothique cycle are suggestive of decadence and of the enervated phonology of an ancient, dying language; those used in the Hyperborean are barbarically rich to the point of uncouthness:

I am Athammaus, the chief headsman of Uzuldroam, who held formerly the same office in Commoriom. My father, Manghai Thal, was headsman before me ... And because of my never-faltering arm, my infallible eye, and the clean blow which there was never any necessity to repeat, I was much honored by King Loquamethros and by the populace of Commoriom. ... I remember well, on account of their unique atrocity, the earliest rumors that came to me in my active life regarding the outlaw Knygathin Zhaum. ("The Testament of Athammaus")

More restrained in its nomenclature, this story, which concerns the unsuccessful attempts to execute a recidivist and only partly human outlaw, also forms a bridge between the absurd inventiveness of Hyperborea stories like "The Door to Saturn" and "The Seven Geases" and more somberly powerful ones like "The Coming of the White Worm" and "The Ice-Demon". If some of the Zothique stories are about lives worn out with boredom and excess that surrender almost with eagerness to death in the form of dust and decay, some of the Hyperborea stories — the serious ones — are about lives in full ripeness that are overwhelmed unwillingly by death in the form of ice and cold:

Morning found him beside a little stream, stark-frozen, and lying on his face in a circle of poppies that had been blackened as if by the footprint of some demon of frost. A nearby stream, formed by the leisurely rill, was covered in thin ice; and on the ice, like gouts of frozen blood, there lay the scattered rubies of Haalor. In its own time, the great glacier, moving slowly and irresistibly southward, would reclaim them. ("The Ice-Demon")

Both types of story, in their different ways, are about the ineluctability of individual doom, a favorite theme of Smith's, and both must be read if the range of Smith's greatness as a fantasy writer is to be properly appreciated.

(Lost Worlds Vol. II: The Tale of Satampra Zeiros; The Door to Saturn; The Seven Geases; The Coming of the White Worm. Out of Space & Time Vol. II: The Testament of Athammaus; The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan; Ubbo-Sathla. The Abominations of Yondo: The White Sybil; The Ice-Demon)


The tales of Atlantis could be seen as a middle ground between those of Zothique and Hyperborea, having something of the funereal seriousness of the former without their poetic simplicity and beauty, and something of the sesquipedalian orotundity of the latter without their facetiousness. Perhaps this is because Atlantis shares with Hyberborea, on the one hand, a prehistoric mise en scène, and with Zothique, on the other, the imminence of an inevitable and entire dissolution. The main characters in the stories are almost exclusively arch-wizards or proto-scientists or, as in "The Double Shadow", men who seem to combine the two occupations. In all four of the stories the theme is again that of the ineluctibility of doom, and in the first, in particular, of the two that concern the magician Malygris, "The Last Incantation" and "The Death of Malygris", the way Smith conveys this theme in style and vocabulary achieves a perfection that might make this single story worthy of preserving his memory if none other could survive. The eye glides through it like a hand over a sculpture of ice, and the difficulty of choosing an illustrative passage from it is not of where to start but of when to stop:

The fumes of the censer, blue and white and violet, arose in thick clouds and rapidly filled the room with ever-writhing interchanging columns, among which the sunlight disappeared and was succeeded by a wan unearthly glow, pale as the light of moons that ascend from Lethe. With preternatural slowness, with unhuman solemnity, the voice of the necromancer went on in a priest-like chant till the scroll was ended and the last echoes died out in hollow sepulchral vibrations.

(Lost Worlds Vol. II: The Last Incantation; A Voyage to Sfanomoë; The Death of Malygris. Out of Space & Time Vol. I: The Double Shadow)


There are only two stories of Xiccarph in the nearly complete Panther collection I own, which is perhaps evidence that even Smith's inventiveness had its limits. Like those of Zothique, the stories are about boredom and sensual repletion, and do more than hint at perversity and sex; like those of Zothique, Hyperborea, and Atlantis, they are about the ineluctibility of doom; and like those of Atlantis, the protagonist is half-wizard, half-scientist:

"Athlé," said Maal Dweb, "I suffer from the dreadful curse of omnipotence. In all Xiccarph, and in the five outer planets of the triple suns, there is no one, there is nothing, to dispute my dominion. Therefore my ennui has become intolerable." The girlish eyes of Athl, regarded the enchanter with a gaze of undying astonishment, which, however, was not due to his strange avowal. She was the last of the fifty-one women that Maal-Dweb had turned into statues to preserve their frail, corruptible beauty from the worm-like gnawing of time. ("The Flower-Women")

But the half that is scientist means that the stories, rather like "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" in the Atlantis cycle, are not pure fantasy but contain elements of science fiction. This means that, while Smith has made them distinct from his other fantasy stories, they are not, for me, quite as satisfying as they might be; the reasons for this will be examined later when Smith's pure science fiction is discussed.

(The Xiccarph stories are: Lost Worlds Vol. II: The Maze of Maal Dweb; The Flower-Women)

General & Miscellaneous Fantasy Stories

This group, although smaller than the entire Zothique cycle, actually contains two distinct types of story. There are stories set entirely in a fantasy universe: "The Garden of Adompha", "The Demon of the Flower", and "A Night In Malnéant"; and stories in which a modern man enters a fantasy universe from this one: "The Uncharted Isle", "The Chain of Aforgomon", and "The Planet of the Dead". The latter type of story serves as a good introduction to Smith's horror and science fiction, for by definition it includes examples of his writing about contemporary people and settings: each story has to introduce its modern character and his life before the character enters the fantasy universe. It is the introduction in each case that is weak, although in at least one story, "The Planet of the Dead", that fact actually heightens the effect of the story: the weakness of the introduction offers a great contrast to the strength of Smith's fantasy writing:

Melchior's passion for antiquities and his devotion to the stars both dated from his childhood days. Now, in his thirty-first year, with increasing leisure and prosperity, he had turned an upper balcony of his suburban hill-top house into an amateur observatory. ... He possessed little talent and less inclination for those recondite mathematical calculations which form so large a part of orthodox astronomy; but he had an intuitional grasp of the heavenly immensitudes, a mystic sensitivity toward all that is far off in space. ...

Beneath the black midnight that hung above them like an imminence of colossal, unmoving wings, the streets of Saddoth were aflare with a million lights of yellow and cinnabar and cobalt and purple. Along the vast avenues, the gorge-deep alleys, and in and out of the stupendous olden palaces, temples and mansions, there poured the antic revelry, the tumultuous merriment of a night-long masquerade. Everyone was abroad, from Haspa the king and his sleek, sybaritic courtiers, to the lowliest mendicants and pariahs; and a rout of extravagant, unheard of costumes, a melange of costumes more various than those of an opium dream, seethed and eddied everywhere.

A similarly ornate style is being used in both parts of the story, but it is succeeding only in the second part. The reasons are obvious: polysyllables and lapidiary syntax are a distraction in descriptions of a day-dreaming amateur astronomer in 1930's America because our imaginations have to work only a little harder to carry us there across time and space than those of Smith's original readers in Weird Tales. Everyday English is perfectly adequate for description of the former because it is an everyday situation in an English-speaking country. Precisely the opposite is true of descriptions of the doomed planet Phandiom many light years away in a "wide-flung constellation south of the Milky Way". Something out-of-the-ordinary is expected; this is precisely what Smith supplies in his prose; and this is precisely why the second part of the story works so well.

(Smith's general and miscellaneous fantasy stories are: Genius Loci: The Garden of Adompha. Lost Worlds Vol. II: The Demon of the Flower; The Planet of the Dead. Out of Space & Time Vol. I: A Night in Malnéant; The Uncharted Isle; The Chain of Aforgomon)

* * *

Clark Ashton Smith is very good at fantasy and bad, sometimes very bad, at horror and science fiction. This is not because he makes grammatical mistakes or writes weak plots, but because he tries to write in the same way in the second set of stories as he does in the first. The problem is that the same kind of writing is not appropriate for both. Fantasy stories are about other worlds and other times, and the language the writer uses for them should accompany his imagination away from the here and now. Contemporary horror stories are, by definition, set here and now, and anything in the language that distracts from this fact also distracts from the intrusion of the supernatural or grotesque into the here and now that makes them horror stories. Science fiction is set in a world that is a development of the here and now, and although the language used for it may change to reflect this, it shouldn't change in the way that the language used for fantasy does. The language Smith uses in his science fiction often does change like that, unfortunately. A good example of this can be found in his Martian story "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis":

I think we all received the same impression as we stood staring in silence while the pale, sanies-like sunset fell on the dark and megalithic ruins.

I've already quoted the word "sanies" once, in a simile from the Zothique story "Necromancy in Naat": "Anon a moon rose red as with sanies-mingled blood". It's one of Smith's "Where's my dictionary?" words, and if the dictionary you go to is the Oxford English, this is the definition you'll find:

sanies. A thin fetid pus mixed with serum or blood, secreted by a wound or ulcer.

You'll also learn it comes from Latin. In other words, it's an obscure Anglo-Classical word with an unpleasant but precise meaning that is perfect for a story set in the fantasy universe of Zothique because it carries the mind in the right direction: away from the present into a violent and unhealthy past in which Latin was more widely known and used. It is not at all appropriate, on the other hand, for a story set in the near future on another planet.

This might seem paradoxical because the Zothique stories, although set on earth, are also set in the future — in the very far future. Paradox is avoided, however, because Zothique is a fantasy, not a science fiction, universe: the level of technology is low and there is abundant use of magic. Whatever its setting in time, Zothique corresponds to the Middle Ages far more than it does to our present or near-future, and that is why the use of words redolent of the Middle Ages is perfectly appropriate in stories about it; this is quite apart from the conventions of style in fantasy writing that have appeared in its evolution and borrowing from Gothic and medieval and classical literature.

A related argument applies to the general weakness of Smith's horror stories. Their style too is polysyllabic and convolved, and their style too serves as a distraction and, often, an irritant as you read them. Sometimes it's undoubtedly meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, and sometimes it succeeds as such; in almost every case, however, the horror is ineffective and there is no other strong emotion of any kind. Smith's best fantasy often achieves genuine pathos; his horror and science fiction, sometimes by design, more often by inadvertence, usually achieve only bathos:

The legend of which I speak was familiar to me from childhood, as a theme of family whispers and head shakings, for Sir John Tremoth had been a schoolmate of my father. But I had never met Sir John, had never visited Tremoth Hall, till the time of those happenings which formed the final tragedy. My father had taken me from England to Canada when I was a small infant; he had prospered in Manitoba as an apiarist; and after his death the bee ranch had kept me too busy for years to execute a long-cherished dream of visiting my natal land and exploring its rural by-ways. ("The Nameless Offspring")

What can be achieved with the horror story when its prose forms an unobtrusive background against which subtleties of plot, characterization, and supernatural intrusion can stand out clearly is shown by the work of M.R. James:

His eye fell on the mausoleum.

"Ah," he said, "Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you."

"Like many solitary men," he writes, "I have a habit of talking to myself; and, unlike some of the Latin and Greek particles, I do not expect an answer. Certainly, and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither voice nor any that regarded; only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled me. Count Magnus, I think, sleeps sound enough." ("Count Magnus")

But, naturally enough from the year he was born (1898) and the year they were published (1931), Smith only encountered James' short stories when he was in his thirties,[3] well after he had already modelled his horror style on that of Poe and Lovecraft (both of whom were rather more successful in horror than he was).

The models Smith chose for his fantasy writing seem, on the other hand, to be an important part of why he was so good at fantasy. The ability to use words effectively and naturally can't be acquired from a dictionary or thesaurus: like a knowledge of wild animals, it has to be acquired by studying their behavior and development in a natural setting. In other words, you have to read a lot of the right books, and this is exactly what Smith seems to have done. His pastiches of Beckford and Maundeville, "The Third Episode of Vathek" and "A Tale of Sir John Maundeville", are extremely good — in the first instance, at least (I have never read the original on which he based the second pastiche), possibly better than the original:

The old man, seeing me so headstrong in my passion, and so well resolved to brave all remorse, became convinced that I was a fit object for his nefarious purposes, for, as my readers will undoubtedly have already understood, he was a servant of the monarch who reigns in this place of torment. ("The Third Episode of Vathek")

At sight of this region, his heart misgave him sorely, and he misliked it even more than the twisted faces of the rocks and riven forms of the pinnacles. For here the bones of men, of horses and camels, had marked the way with their pitiable whiteness; and the topmost branches of long dead trees were like supplicative arms from the sand that had sifted upon the older gardens. ("A Tale of Sir John Maundeville" - I have now read the original, and Smith's pastiche is better.)

I would predict, then, that Smith read widely in this kind of Gothic and medieval literature, observing the exotic and archaic words he would use in his fantasy stories in their natural settings; I can prove that, in a philological sense, he had made a careful study of their behavior and development:

Re the phrase volumes and books in "The Double Shadow". This was a deliberate Latinism, since I used volumes in a very special sense of rolls or scrolls.[4]

This sensitivity to and concern for such subtleties of meaning and context, also expressed in his careful revision and re-writing of his stories

"I simply can't write other than in a painstaking manner, with extra drafts and voluminous revisions and verbal polishing"[5]

are undoubtedly another large part of why Smith's fantasy is so good, and, because they are less appropriate, and even unnecessary, in younger and more immediate genres like science fiction and horror, they are also a large part of why Smith's fantasy and horror are not so good. Smith's inability, or unwillingness, to recognise this fact can be explained by his personality and beliefs, as well as simply by his need to find a market for his work:

Maybe I haven't enough love for, or interest in, real places to invest them with the atmosphere that I achieve in something purely imaginary. I hope the [Hugo] Gernsback [editor of Wonder Stories] gang will make it worthwhile for me to do the [Volmar] series — even though I would rather drop the stale paraphenalia of ether-ships, gas-masks etc. ...

As for the problem of phantasy, my own standpoint is that there is absolutely no justification for literature unless it serves to release the imagination from the bounds of everyday life. I have undergone a complete revulsion against the purely realistic school, including the French, and can no longer stomach even Anatole France.

Well, I must put a scientific — or at least a pseudo-scientific — curb on my fancy if I am to sell anything.[6]

It seems, therefore, that Smith wasn't very interested in horror and science fiction and although he often used the same themes there as in his fantasy, this lack of interest is often all-too-evident in the quality and power of his writing. His inability to find a suitable style for horror and science fiction can also be explained by what might be called his snobbery or elitism:

Yes, indeed, one could write numerous reams on the subject of style. The style — or lack of it — required by nearly all magazine editors, [sic] would require a separate treatise. The idea seems to be that everything should be phrased in a manner that will obviate mental effort on the part of the lowest grade moron. I was told the other day that my "Door to Saturn" could only be read with a dictionary.[7]

But if it is so labelled, it is also easy to understand and excuse. "Apart from five years in the grammar grades",[8] Smith was self-educated, and he seems never to have acquired the self-confidence or the literary maturity to forget this fact: he had something to prove about his intellectual credentials and tried to prove it in everything he wrote. In his fantasy work, this worked in his favor; in his horror and science fiction, it worked against him. A comparison with the work of M.R. James is again instructive. James, who had been a very successful classical scholar at Eton and Cambridge, was perhaps the very opposite of a self-educated man. He had nothing to prove when he came to write stories that were anyway merely a hobby, despite the fame they brought him. Even the fact that a story like "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" begins with a solid paragraph of self-composed ecclesiastical Latin has nothing to do with intellectual showing-off and inferiority complexes. The stories were a hobby and James naturally enough amused himself with things that interested him, of which ecclesiastical Latin (which would have been childishly easy to most of his readers) was one.

For someone like Smith, self-educated in an intellectually diffident place and time like California in the 1920s and '30s, matters were quite different. In one way, of course, it is a very great pity that he never overcame whatever combination of psychological and literary handicaps it was that prevented him matching the quality of his fantasy work in his horror and science fiction; in another, it is something of a relief. Whatever irrational sense of inferiority Smith may have possessed himself is surely more than matched by that of later writers contemplating his fantasy work, although in this case it would be perfectly rational. To be extremely good — perhaps the best there has ever been — at several distinct styles of fantasy is surely enough for one writer. Then again, many readers will have noticed that I have not even begun to consider his poetry, either pure or in prose...


  1. This kind of mistake is common in an increasingly cliched and unimaginative genre. Clandestine, the title of an album by the band Entombed, is another example. It was probably meant to mean something like "hidden and darkly secret", but suggests John le Carr, more than anything else.
  2. "The Dark Eidolon".
  3. See his comments on James in a letter of "c. 15-23 Februrary, 1931" included in Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987.
  4. Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, pg. 36, "c. early April 1932". The reference is to this line a little over half-way through "The Double Shadow":
    And all that day, everywhere that we went, at the table served by specters, or in the mummy-warded room of volumes and books, the thing pursued Avyctes, clinging to him even as leprosy to the leper.
    In Latin, a volumen was something rolled up (volvere, "to roll, twist around"), and hence meant a scroll.
  5. ibid., pg. 35, "c. mid-March 1932".
  6. ibid., "9 January 1930"; "c. mid-September 1930"; "c. early October 1930"; "c. early January 1931".
  7. ibid., "c. mid-December 1930".
  8. Biographical introduction to volumes one and two of the Panther edition of "Out of Space & Time".

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