O Amor Atque Realitas! : Clark Ashton Smith's First Adult Fiction

Donald Sidney-Fryer

When Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of Clark Ashton Smith, as compiled and edited by Steve Behrends (together with two associate editors), was published by Greenwood Press in April of 1989, the volume brought to the attention of Smith cognoscenti for the first time that appears to be almost all of his first adult fiction, the major part of it from the first half of the 1920s, among other hitherto ungathered materials. However, in the book itself there is only one reference to this fiction, but not (we hasten to add) in the terms that we have just set forth immediately above. This one reference occurs in the first paragraph on page xxi of A Note on the Contents is, as follows: "The reader will also find Smith's ironic fiction, composed for the most part before the 1930's,..." Possibly the term "ironic-romantic fiction" is more inclusive, and so this is the one that we shall use by preference throughout the present article, in addition to that of "his first adult fiction." Thus, while the fact that this ironic-romantic fiction is also his first adult fiction is not exactly obscured, neither is it exactly highlighted. It should also be pointed out that apart from this one editorial reference on the part of Steve Behrends, there is no other information on these stories in the book, whether preceding them in the section Non-Fantastic Fiction in which they are included, or in the excellent and extensive section Notes to the Text immediately following the main (i.e., Smithian) text.

The present article seeks to add to whatever other little information that we possess on these stories. The quotations that we proffer in the course of this article are taken exclusively from Smith's letters to George Sterling for the first half of the 1920s. The principal compiler and editor of Strange Shadows has thoughtfully included, wherever known, the extant dates of composition, or (rather) of completion of composition, for at least a few of the pieces, which with one exception(as noted below) also stem exclusively from the first half of the 1920s. The stories and their dates, as presently known, are as follows, arranged more or less chronologically:

"The Flirt" (December 22, 1921.)*
"The Perfect Woman" (February 28, 1923.)*
"Gossip" (possibly Winter-Spring, 1923.)
"A Platonic Entanglement" (ditto.)
"Something New" (probably Spring, 1924.)
"The Expert Lover" (possibly Winter, 1924-1925.)
"Checkmate" (November 7, 1930.)*
*Dates furnished by Steve Behrends

Certain additional observations should be made at once. Although not included in Strange Shadows, but previously collected into Other Dimensions (published by Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin, in April of 1970),"Something New" belongs to the above group of stories.1 "The Perfect Woman", as extant, is much more of a plot-sketch than it is a finished short story. "Gossip" is but a fragment, and "A Platonic Entanglement" may possibly be just the beginning of a longer story, and hence, as extant, also a fragment. "The Flirt" and "Something New" are perfect examples of a "short short" story, and only "The Perfect Lover" and "Checkmate", as extant, are typical short stories of the usual length.

As far as our present information allows us to state, only two of these tales were apparently published in magazines during Smith's lifetime, again exclusively during the first half of the 1920's, as follows:

"The Flirt",in Snappy Stories, sometime probably either late 1922 or early 1923.
"Something New," in In 10 Story Book, August1924.

It is doubtful that Smith would have mentioned these stories or prose-sketches of an ironic-romantic nature to most of his correspondents, who were never numerous even in the best of circumstances. It is possible that he might have mentioned them to fellow poet Samuel Loveman, in addition to his great friend and mentor George Sterling. During the period for 1911/1912 through 1925/1926 Smith's chief correspondents were Sterling, Loveman and (from 1922 onward) H.P. Lovecraft. While admittedly no great masterpieces - they are frankly experimental - these tales are much more than "trite tearjerkers" as one reviewer of Strange Shadows has characterized them. In fact, the term a complete misnomer. Love, death, loss, and irony are among the principal themes or elements in Smith's oeuvre, whether in verse or in prose. What gives his ironic-romantic fiction its characteristic and amusing tone, distinguishing it from his other and later fiction (written for the most part during the 1930s), is the complete absence of depth. Smith wrote these stories quite frankly in the hope that he might sell them to such characteristic magazines of the early 1920s as Snappy Stories, 10 Story Book, and other periodicals of a similar nature, and that he might thus add to his perennially meagre income. He intended them apparently as no more than deftt and lightweight stories, to beguile an idle moment or two. Moreover, it becomes obvious to anyone reading Smith's letters to Sterling just for the period 1918 to 1926 that he wrote them drawing directly upon much of his own life's experiences for the same period. Next to the epigrams, apothegems, and pensees that he contributed to The Auburn Journal for 1923-1926 (and in addition to his private letters, of course), his ironic- romantic stories are almost unique in his oeuvre for the fact that they do something that his verse and prose almost never do-these tales deliberately reflect or cultivate something of the spirit of the times, the Jazz Age and the period of Prohibition that went into effect in the U.S.A. after the Great War (i.e.,World War I), with their then chic, clever, and up-to-date qualities characteristic of the then modernism and avant-gardism.

We herewith present the relevant passages from Smith's letters to Sterling. The reader should be cautioned that, in considering his own work, Ashton Smith typically often complained of its deficiencies and inadequacies to himself and to his correspondents. If the description "trite tearjerkers" might seem a complete misnomer, then it might strike us as equally anomalous that both Sterling and Smith should hone considered stitch relatively innocent fiction to It: so much "literary whore-mongering." Such magazines as 10 Story Book, Snappy Stories, and others of a similar class were in fact the "girlie" publications of the time, but in content and by nature they were never directly erotic. They featured a typical mixture of light and lighthearted fiction combined with rather charming but certainly not directly sexually provocative photographs of attractive young women usually in a state of semidress. These periodicals were as far removed from Playboy magazine as they were from frankly pornographic stories and pictures. Any eroticism that such periodicals possessed was always implicit and never explicit.

November 23rd, 1922:
"Snappy Stories" has accepted a little prose-sketch of mine, entitled "The Flirt." They pay 2 cents a word for prose. Maybe I'll do some more whore-mongering, at that price.

March 7th, 1923:
As for me, I'm trying to write verse and prose-fillers, in the hope that some of them, at least, will sell. I'm doing it absolutely without inspiration, with lacerated nerves and a sodden brain.

July 21st, 1924:
Hope you received the Ten Story Book containing storiette of mine. I received $6.00 for iron publication! But the story was rotten, anyhow-except for the spanking-which was what I ought to have administered, some time back, to a certain badly spoiled female person.

August 25th, 1924:
I'll tackle some more fiction when the wet weather comes. Literary whore-mongering is distasteful to me; but I don't want to break my back,. if I can help it-or tie myself down to a {regular} job, either. I'd rather starve than be a wage-slave for anyone in Auburn.

Collating the data in these excerpts from Smith's letters with the list of extant ironic-romantic stories, we are able to reach a number of conclusions and to make a number of statements about their composition. According to the first excerpt, "The Flirt" was published about a year or so after its composition, according to the second excerpt, "The feet Woman" was one of the prose fillers that Smith was trying to write during the winter of 1922; 1923; and "Gossip" and "A Platonic Entanglement" could also very well be the others. According to the third excerpt, 10 Story Book like other periodicals both before and since was antedated; thus the issue for August 1924, which carried "Something New", was probably produced and printed in June so as to appear on the stands in July. Even though "Checkmate" bears the date of composition, or of completion of composition, as November 7, 1930, both "The Expert Lover" and "Checkmate" could then quite likely stem from the winter of 1924-1925, according to one possible interpretation of the fourth and last excerpt presented just above.

In assessing and interpreting properly the auto-biographical quotient in the make-up of these ironic-romantic stories, however, we still need to consider (at least) not only two further excerpts from Smith s letters to Sterling for the early 1920s but also certain general conditions of Smith's life during the period from 1911/1912 through 1925/1926, especially between 1918 and 1926. We should recall that, after the publication of his first volume The Star-Treader late 1912, and lasting into the latter part of the 1910s, Ashton Smith suffered from generally poor health, and was consequently unable to do much mundane work in order to earn some necessary funds. Therefore his great and good friend George Sterling did all he could, either by taking from his oath small store of money, or by soliciting a wide range of wealthy people in Northern California, to supplement the collective income of the Smith family.

By virtue of his unique position as the unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco and hence, by extension, of the entire West Coast as constituted at that time, Sterling had access to many persons of genuine wealth, whether as friends or as acquaintances, and he did manage to convince less than a handful of millionaires or persons close to being millionaires, who could thus well afford it, to send the young Smith a monthly or quarterly stipend, and over a period of at least a few years. Since the Smith family's needs were comparatively simple and few, the total money thus donated sufficed to take care of them. Most of these stipends would last until the latter 1910s when some of them ceased, and when circumstances thus forced Smith to return to mundane labour at least on a part-time basis. Consequently, the early to middle 1920s witnessed not only the publication of Ebony Crystal in late 1922 and of Sandalwood in late 1925, but also the performance by Ashton Smith of such likely work as he could obtain. However, it was almost never regular jobs of a permanent nature but almost always either odd jobs or regular jobs of limited duration. Temperamentally the latter type of mundane labour suited Ashton Smith much better because he could then continue with his own creative work during those times when he was not earning money by working for other people.

Between 1918 and 1926, Ashton Smith not only underwent a variety of physical maladies and mishaps, but also, when he was well, he performed a variety of odd jobs for some dozen or more local people principally located in and around Auburn and Long Valley. Some of this work in particular consisted in fact of quite hard labour of a physically demanding type. Recovering from "incipient tuberculosis" and a "nervous breakdown" (Smith's own terms) that he suffered c. 1918, this hard physical labor, which included woodcutting, at which he became quite expert, appears to have helped the convalescent to become physiologically stronger and psychologically more self-reliant in a variety of ways.

The two further excerpts from Smith's letters to Sterling from the early 1920s which we still need to consider are unusually revealing, not only for the light that they throw on his ironic-romantic fiction but just as much for what they tell us of his life for that period, as well as before and after. In his letter of December 27th, 1920, Ashton Smith had mentioned that he might visit George Sterling in San Francisco with the clear implication that this would be soon. However, writing again on January 31st,1921, he has now decided, after all, not to visit his friend and mentor at the latter's place in the celebrated "Monkey" or Montgomery Stock situated in the downtown area of the City. (The reference below to Bologna is to the Cafe Bologna in San Francisco, a well-known haunt of creative people and their friends.) Smith continues:

I doubt if I'll visit San Francisco, I don't feel that I can afford the trip; anyway, there wouldn't be much pleasure in it for me. I've sworn off prohibition-booze, and have no time to bother with semi-virgins of the Bologna variety. Anyway, I never make love to girls. Only married women need apply.

Later that same year Smith expatiates a little on this rule of behaviour. From the context of this letter and others, as well as from the known circumstances of his life, especially during the overall period from 1910 until 1930, this rule appears to be one which he reached after careful deliberation, and to which he more or less adhered until his last decade. When he did finally marry, it would to be a woman more or less his own age, and pass the capacity to conceive and bear any further children. The next letter in which he mentions the topic again is dated September 5th,1921:

Marriage is an error I was never tepted to commit: I have not been in love with an unmarried woman since I was fifteen!

The reader should keep in mind that Ashton Smith had been fifteen during 1909. It is probably safe to say that, if his very first complete sexual experience with a human female did not occur precisely when he vas fifteen, then it must have happened sometime between his eleventh and fifteenth years. The advantages of such a stance - i.e., making love only to married women - for a man of limited income are perfectly obvious. At best it represents a sensible and responsible compromise between his own erotic drive and the human world outside his own person. It must be recalled and emphasised that the modes of controlling human conception, even early in the first half of the twentieth century, were still relatively limited and crude, apart from actual sterilisation. However, apart from the threat of conception and unwanted children, the principal problem teas to avoid arousing the suspicions not only, and primarily, of the husband involved but also, and in its tray just as importantly, of such of the local citizenry as were given to gossiping.

We must not forget that Ashton Smith was living if not right inside, then certainly not far from, a small town already celebrated for its gossip mongers when Ambrose Bierce was residing there, off and on, during the l880s,just before Smith would be born in January of 1893. In such circumstances as these, a discreet young man would not go out of his way to advertise his amorous and sexual preferences and proclivities-even when they were of the accepted heterosexual variety-if he could help it! Such a stance or attitude on the part of Ashton Smith does not by any means indicate that the noncorporeal aspects of love did not have considerable importance for him. Rather, he had clearly chosen a method whereby he could enjoy those aspects of a mature loving relationship which possessed the greatest value for him, and also whereby he could minimise, biologically and socially, those potentially negative possibilities of such a regular relationship with a women.

For anyone who can read between the lines of Smith's letters to Sterling for the first half of the 1920s-and who can correlate his behaviour vis-à-vis his women friend with the amorous duplicity or two-timing on the one hand, as well as with the discreet cuckoldry on the other, such as he describes in his ironic-romantic fiction - it is quite obvious that Smith was directly writing out of his own life, or was directly and strictly extrapolating therefrom, when he was writing these particular stories. In other words, these richly ironical tales can make perfectly decent claims on our attention as examples of oldest but genuine realism. It is therefore appropriately ironical that, when they were finally published as a group, they should have been greeted as, inter alias "trite tearjerkers." Making love to married women continued to claim Smith's creative attention to some degree even after he had turned his principal energies to writing prose fantasies sometime between the middle and latter 1920s. Why otherwise would he have composed, or completed, such a tale as "Checkmate" in late 1930 when such a type of comparatively realistic fiction had become much less salable for him than they type of prose fantasies that he was creating for and selling to Weird Tales, and by then utah un- doubted popular and artistic success? While it is extremely dubious that he would have gone on to become a major realist of any type-if we may judge at least by such marginal prose-yet Smith's ironic-romantic fiction will probably remain as a fascinating and not unfruitful by road that marketing circumstances alone caused him to pursue no further than he did

* * *

For permission to quote excerpts from the letters of Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, cordial acknowledgement is hereby made to the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection / The New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox and tilden Foundations. The New York Public Library is the physical proprietor and custodian of the Sterling-Smith correspondence, together with related MSS. and art-work. For further permission to quote these same excerpts, grateful acknowledgement is likewise made to "CASiana Literary Enterprises", representing the literary Estate of Clark Ashton Smith.


  1. Additional non-fantastic fiction includes "The Parrot" (1930) and "A Copy of Burns" (1930), both collected in Strange Shadows Both are "ironic" rather than'ironic-romantic' -Ed.

From: The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies #3, 1993, Necronomicon Press.

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