The Reader Speaks: Reaction to Clark Ashton Smith in the Pulps

T. G. Cockcroft

Not every reader of Wonder Stories, it seems, was impressed by C. A. Smith's contributions. This paragraph is found in a letter, bearing the names of C. Ferry and B. Rogers, of Frankford, Michigan, published in the December 1933 issue:

Please, dear editor, will you kindly enlighten our abysmal ignorance, as to the brand of dope Clark Ashton Smith uses? The Eternal World" is certainly an excellent revelation of a hashish guzzler's mental processes--of all the imbecilic drivel!!! His manipulation of superfluous verbiage, while qualifying him perfectly for a position as secretary of an insane asylum, certainly has no place in a magazine of scientific fiction. Understand, we're not crabbing about the use of apt or colourful expressions when they serve to strengthen and clarify description--it's those wise birds who think they can string a lot of weird, onomatopoetic adjectives and hackneyed phrases together, and dish out the resultant drool as pure science, that get us.

They weren't to be troubled by further tales by Smith until the April 1938 issue; and by then, of course, the magazine was no longer published and edited by Hugo Gernsback. The reasons for smith ceasing to appear as a fiction-writer in Wonder have been given elsewhere. However, in the April 1934 issue the formation was announced of the Science Fiction League; in the following issue, May, a list was given of the Executive Directors, and in this list of names is that of Clark Ashton Smith. (The others are Forrest J. Ackerman, Eando Binder, Jack Darrow, Edmond Hamilton, David H. Keller, M. D., P. Schuyler Miller, and R. F. Starzl.) The list remained the same until and including the last Gernsback issue, April 1936. The list published in the August 1936 issue, the first from the new publisher, retains the first four names, but the others are gone, displaced by Arthur J. Burks, Ray Cummings and Ralph Milne Farley--there being now only seven directors. (Reasons not known to the present writer!)

In some 1934 issues Smith used the Science Fiction Swap Column to advertise, at 25c per copy, his booklet of tales, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies; and in at least two 1935 issues he offered Ebony and Crystal as well, mendaciously describing it as "a book of 114 prose-poems" (the majority of the poems in this volume, of course, are verse; but it was truly a bargain at $1.00 postpaid). Charles Hornig was the managing editor of Wonder Stories; his amateur journal The Fantasy Fan had been supported by Smith with contributions of fiction; Hornig may have had something to do with Smith's appointment as a League director, and he may have been able to reduce the price to Smith for those advertisements in the Swap Column.

In January 1935 the League presented the first Science Fiction Test. Later in the year some of the brief essays that were evoked by some of the questions were published; in the June issue we find this:

Part Six, Section One ("My Favorite Science Fiction Author") by G. L. Bedford, Jr.:
"My favorite science fiction author is without a doubt Clark Ashton Smith. Although of late he has been writing weird stories and the fact that he has written more weird stories than he has science- fiction does not deter me from saying that he is one of the best science-fiction authors alive today. He told me that he liked to write weird stories better, so you can see that if he ever devoted his entire energy to the writing of science-fiction stories he would be far ahead of the so-called leaders of science-fiction today. Clark Ashton Smith has a wonderful vocabulary and knows how to use it. It is always worth the price of the magazine to read one of his rich, fascinating stories."

Supposedly Smith read this, and was pleased by it.

In the January 1935 issue a reader asked, in a letter published in The Reader Speaks*, "would you please list ten or so of the best stories ... you have ever published as 1 would like to purchase them." Managing editor Hornig gave a list of "ten of the most popular stories we have printed, according to the opinions of our readers"--by which he doubtless meant the opinions of those readers who'd bothered to supply them. Smith's "The City of Singing Flame* is seventh on this list (its sequel is not mentioned); the others are

1. "The Human Termites" by David H. Keller
2. "The City of the Living Dead" by Manning and Pratt
3. "The Exile of the Skies" by Richard Vaughan
4. "The Brood of Helios" by John Berlin
5. "The Time Stream" by John Taine
6. "The Hidden World" by Edmond Hamilton
8. "Exiles of the Moon" by Zagat and Schachner
9. "Into Plutonian Depths" by Stanton A. Coblentz
10."Utopia Island" by Otfrid von Hanstein

Not an inspiring list today! A modern reader perhaps could get some enjoyment from nos 2 and 8; but only Smith's story seems to have many admirers still. Why "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum isn't in this list is a mystery--Hornig has been quoted as saying that this was quite the most popular story ever published in the Gernsback Wonder. Perhaps it had appeared too recently.

Farnsworth Wright starts off the Eyrie in Weird Tales for July 1930 with these words:

The May issue of Weird Tales has found unusual favor with you, the readers. The story that you liked best, as shown by your votes, was "The End of the Story", by Clark Ashton Smith.

This story is mentioned in three of the letters published in that issue. Mrs. M. Kliman, of Detroit, says that "The End of the Story' is easily the best tale in the May number--a splendidly written and interest-holding story."

"I think your magazine one of the few outposts of the human imagination still left in the age of stale realism," writes Benjamin De Casseres, of New York City. "I enjoyed particularly in the May issue The End of the Story', by Clark Ashton Smith, which is not only a philosophic thriller but possesses real literary quality, which is not lost (on the contrary) on readers, such as you have, of imaginative tales."1

"I want to thank you," writes Carl Wilhelmson, of Phoenix, Arizona, "for the enjoyment I had in reading that superior and fascinating tale, The End of the Story', by Clark Ashton Smith, in your May issue; and to express my admiration for your taste, since from a prolonged perusal of American magazines I am under the impression that in the publications pretending to culture and sophistication one would look in vain for the writings of anyone of the caliber of Mr. Smith--a true poet."

The following are the first three paragraphs of "The Eyrie" in the September 1930 issue (by now The Last Incantation* and "Sadastor" had appeared, in the June and July issues respectively):

The stories of Clark Ashton Smith have aroused tremendous enthusiasm in our readers. Mr. Smith, whose poetry has been one of the brightest features of Weird Tales,2 is now hailed by many as a new find in the fiction world because of the high literary quality and compelling fantasy of his short tales in this magazine.3

V. P. Miner, of Sacramento, California, writes to the "Eyrie": "Just a note of appreciation, nothing more; a man and his work-no matter how great his tasks-must occasionally be compelled to pause now and then and listen for echoes. Lately I have come upon a story now and then by Clark Ashton Smith. I believe you have recognized an artist and put him to work. His stories have care; there are beauty and art in every line. His imagination is distinct; the mystery of his background is amazing. And within it all there exists a philosophy. I believe you have reached out among the thousands of present-day writers and placed your hands on a real 'find'. I desire to express the kind sentiments of this household for the rich hours of entertainment that the stories in Weird Tales have given us."

A letter from Frank L. Pollock, of Shedden, Ontario, says: "In looking over a copy of your magazine I came upon quite an extraordinary story called 'The Last Incantation', by Clark Ashton Smith. I have reread it several times, and can not refrain from writing you to remark upon its very unusual literary quality. It has, in fact, the very quality of Poe at his best-with perhaps a touch of Lord Dunsany."4

And in the October issue, we find the following:

Mrs. William Haas, of Alexandria, Indiana, writes: "I have just read in your June issue a story by Clark Ashton Smith. The man's imagination and technique are worthy of the highest commendation and I shall look forward to more stories by this remarkable writer. He has a different tone, a different style, and a different story."

Alice I'Anson writes from Mexico City: "I have been reading with considerable interest the last batch of letters in your July Weird Tales. Let me add to the other enconiums my own praise for Clark Ashton Smith's tale, The End of the Story.' My favorite reading of the weird type is that dealing with haunted castles, mediaeval ruins, and such-like things, with a thread of poetic fantasy running through them."

And in the January 1931 issue, there's a letter from the lady to whom Smith would dedicate his collection of tales, Out of Space and Time, ten years later:

"I would like to express my admiration for The Uncharted Isle' in the November issue," writes Genevieve K. Sully, of Auburn, California. "Clark Ashton Smith's work always has literary distinction, and when that quality is coupled with superb weird imagination, one finds a story well worth reading. May I express a belated word of praise for Frank Belknap Long's story in the September number, The Man from Egypt'? [The title is really "A Visitor from Egypt".] Mr. Long's writing denotes an acquaintance with the finer things, and I for one should be glad to read more from one with his scholarly attitude of mind. Both of these writers whom I have mentioned have nothing of the commomplace about their work, and you are to be congratulated upon your good taste in including their stories in your magazine."5

In the June-July 1931 issue, Alice I'Anson makes her second and last appearance in "The Eyrie" with this brief note:

As was to be expected, my favorite story in the April-May issue is "A Rendezvous in Averoigne". It is a gem of fantasy, beautifully worded, dreamily weird, soul-thrilling and satisfying. I hope there are many others to follow like this and "The End of the Story".

Miss I'Anson, a promising young poet, was to see few of them. She died in 1932. Five of her poems appeared in Weird Tales.

Also in that issue, Mrs. Grace Penfield writes, from Toppenish, Washington:

One story in your April-May issue has brought me the urge to write to you. It is "A Rendezvous in Averoigne", by Clark Ashton Smith. To me the perfect weird tale must ring true, and must be weird to the nth degree. This story fills both bills. The writer tells a tale in such a manner that you feel it all the way through, and, having some of the good old Irish, banshee-believing blood in my veins, truth to tell he had me almost believing it. Even though he relates the end of the Sieur du Malinbois and his chatelaine, sure an' you'll never catch me in the wood of Averoigne, at all, at all. I am looking forward to more by this author.

In the August 1931 issue, A. V. Pershing of Kenova, West Virginia, says, inter alia:

In addition I wish to say that I thoroughly appreciate all of Clark Ashton Smith's artistic word- pictures. His stories seem to be getting better and better and are surely a treat to those who like fine literature. There is one recent story by Mr. Smith that I will remember a long time to come, I am sure: namely the marvelous "The Uncharted Isle".

In the November issue Jack Darrow of Chicago (whom we've met as a director, three years later, of the Science Fiction League) says, commenting on the September issue, that

... for weirdness, "The Immeasurable Horror", by Clark Ashton Smith, takes the cake. It certainly is bizarre and unusual.

In the December 1 931 issue, Duke Williamson of Springfield, Massachusetts, says of the September issue that

The most unusual tale is probably Smith's "Voyage to Sfanomoe". The story is exquisitely worded, written in a classic style of which the author is a master. In my opinion, it is fully competent to stand with his "The End of the Story", "Sadastor", and "The Last Incantation".

In the January 1932 issue there is what editor Wright calls "An interesting letter from a reader who signs himself 'Nimble Fingers'":

I have enjoyed your magazine immensely. Your stories are entirely different. There is one story in particular that I liked. Perhaps it appealed to me because I am also of that company of "good thieves and adventurers, in all such enterprises which require deft fingers and a habit of mind both agile and adroit." Perhaps you will think I am boasting, but I am not, as it doesn't pay to boast in this profession. By this time, no doubt, you will be wondering what story I am referring to: it is "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros". I have never read a story more entertaining and amusing than this one. What an adventure!

That story was, of course, in the November 1931 issue--and Wright did not need to be told its name, as he would recognise it instantly from the quoted words.

Also in the January 1932 issue, Donald Wandrei appears with the first of only two letters he ever had in "The Eyrie", saying:

Permit me to congratulate you on the recent Clark Ashton Smith stories, which are always poetic.

He goes on to praise "The Whisperer in Darkness" and Keller's "The Seeds of Death".

By the end of 1939, Smith had contributed fifty-five tales to Weird Tales, but only six of them--"The End of the Story", "A Rendezvous in Averoigne", "The Empire of the Necromancers", "The Colossus of Ylourgne", "The Death of llalotha", and "The Garden of Adompha"--were the absolute favourites of the writing-in readers. Five others--"The Monster of the Prophecy", "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis", "The Dark Eidolon", "Vulthoom", and "Necromancy in Naat"--were first, "Vulthoom" sharing the honour with two other tales, and The Dark Eidolon" with three.

"The Testament of Athammaus" (October 1932), "The Chain of Aforgomon" (December 1935), and "The Double Shadow" (February 1939) each gained second place, being defeated by, respectively, stories by Williamson, Howard, and Quinn.

Farnsworth Wright left Weird Tales early in 1940, and the results of the readers' voting were no longer given, so we don't know how the remaining seven tales published in the magazine fared in this respect.

The writer Robert Bloch, as I recall, stated many years ago that in the 'thirties the admirers of Lovecraft, as represented in "The Eyrie", and elsewhere, were notable more for their intensity than their numbers; and this seems to be true of the admirers of Smith also. He was probably a little saddened that stories into which he had put so much work failed to evoke the response that he felt they deserved. The occasional word of praise from a reader, and the few first-placings in the voting, would give him some crumbs of comfort--but we don't need to be too sorry for him, for he was fortunate in having any market for his stories: who would have wanted to buy them if there hadn't been a Weird Tales?

There does seem to have been the occasional protest from a reader about there not being more appreciation of Smith's work; in the July 1932 issue we find the following:

"Not having written you for several years," writes Mrs. G. W. Fisher, of Vineland, New Jersey, "I must voice my indignation, as after reading the May Eyrie, I find not one word of praise for the best story in the May [misprint for March] issue, Clark Ashton Smith's The Planet of the Dead'. Don't your readers appreciate him? Although his The Gorgon' in the April issue was fine and his 'Vaults of Yoh- Vombis' in the current issue even better, being a real blood-chiller and actually (is this treason?) surpassing Lovecraft in horror, The Planet of the Dead' seems to me to be one of his very best because of its remarkable vocabulary and beautifully colorful descriptions . . ."

Also in this issue, after giving Hugh B. Cave's "The Brotherhood of Blood" his vote for first place in the May issue, Harold Dunbar, of Chatham, Massachusetts, says:

"Second place goes to The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis' by Clark Ashton Smith, which, though criminally padded with amateurish introspection and handicapped by a severe case of adjectivitis, was truly horrible, cruel, shuddery, original...."

The same reader says in a letter published in the August issue:

"The final paragraph of Clark Ashton Smith's little story, The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan' [in the June issue], should be classed among the few great climaxes of all time."

And in the January 1933 issue there's a brief letter from Jack Williamson, writing from his home in New Mexico. After praising a cover painting by the artist St. John, and asking for reprints from early issues, he concludes by saying:

"Let me also express my enjoyment of the peculiar fantastic humor in such of Clark Ashton Smith's stories as The Testament of Athammaus' [published in the October 1932 issue]."


1. Benjamin De Casseres was born twenty years earlier than Smith, and died in 1945. The Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature describes him as "newspaperman, drama critic, poet, biographer" and says that his style "tended ... toward the hifalutin...." He was a friend of H. L. Mencken.

2. There may have been something of a "flurry" among I' readers at the end of 1927, when Smith's poem "The Saturnlenne" appeared in the December issue; this is what we are told about it in the February 1928 issue:

Clark Ashton Smith's unusual poem, "The Saturnienne", has made a real hit with you, the readers, judging by the enthusiastic comment it has evoked.

"'The Saturnienne' is a masterpiece of its kind," writes Charles M. Walker, of Federalsburg, Maryland. "This poem is grotesque and unique, to say the least, and I would like to read more of this man's work."

"I read Clark Ashton Smith's bit of verse with delight," writes August W. Derleth, of Madison, Wisconsin. "I hope you run more of his poetry."

3. Smith's first ten stories in the magazine Weird Tales:

The Ninth SkeletonSeptember 1928
The End of the StoryMay 1930
The Last IncantationJune 1930
SadastorJuly 1930
The Phantoms of the FireSeptember 1930
The Uncharted IsleNovember 1930
The Necromantic TaleJanuary 1931
A Rendezvous in AveroigneApril-May 1931
The Venus of AzombeiiJune-July 1931
A Voyage to SfanomoeAugust 1931

4. Frank Lillie Pollock seems to be remembered today only for being the author of a short story called "Finis", first published in the June 1906 issue of The Argosy, and reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, May-June 1940 and Fantastic Novels, July 1948; in Magazine of Horror, August 1963 as "The Last Dawn"; and in Moskowitz's anthology Science Fiction by Gaslight, 1968.

5. Mrs. Sully had one other letter in "The Eyrie", this one in the January 1930 issue; not surprisingly, it also praises Smith. Here, we find her address given as Berkeley, California: "Several months ago I was much impressed with the story, The Ninth Skeleton', by Clark Ashton Smith, which appeared in your magazine. Your last issue prints a poem by the same author, 'Nyctalops', which is certainly one of the most original and haunting things I have read for a long time. A magazine which prints such high-class writing is deserving of praise, for most of the magazine poetry today is pretty poor stuff."

The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies #2

Top of Page