Poet of the Singing Flame: An Introduction to the book 'The City of the Singing Flame'

Donald Sidney-Fryer

Upon the death of his poetic mentor George Sterling in November of 1926 (as well as his great and good friend for sixteen years), Clark Ashton Smith deepened his friendship with Genevieve K. Sully of his own native Auburn, California. They had first met in autumn, 1919, but it was principally the gap left by Sterling's death that impelled dark to know her better as a worthy friend and a rare kindred spirit. Sterling's death not only closed a major period in California's literary and artistic history- that older Bohemia centered in San Francisco and later, thanks to Sterling, in Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsula—it virtually marked the end of Smith's own first phase of poetic productivity, that for the years 1911- 1926. Born on January 13th, 1893, he had begun to write both prose and verse early in his teens; and he wrote his first mature poetry at the age of eighteen. Three major collections of poetry — The Star-Treader in 1912, Ebony and Crystal in 1922, and Sandal-wood in 1925 — had won him on one hand the admiration of critics, fellow poets, and patrons of the arts) that is, in the West of the United. States; but had garnered him on the other hand/only a minimal income at best, in addition to a meager reputation with the critics of the East Coast establishment who knew Smith, if they knew him at all, only as an imitator rather than the innovator that he truly was in the Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling tradition of pure poetry. His personal life and his literary career had both reached an impasse but through his friendship with Genevieve he was to find a way out of this dead end into fruitfulmew -directions.

In July of 1927, while on a camping trip with her and some other friends in the Sierras, dark visited for the ' first time the Donner-Pass-and-Summit area, as well as Crater Ridge nearby. Crater Ridge (now known officially by a different name) is a fascinating and beautiful ambiance with several unusual geological features (as duly observed by him later in his fiction), and it comes as no great surprise to learn that dark, while on his first visit onto the Ridge, had a profound imaginative experience. From this experience, during late 1930 and early 1931, would evolve two of his greatest science-fantasies. The City of the Singing Flame and Beyond the Singing Flame later combined and gathered by the author under the title of the first story for the first hardcover collection of his fantasies Out of Space and Time (Arkham House, 1942).

As recorded years later (in 1967) by Genevieve: "One hot summer—that of 1927—when we were all wilted and tired of the heat, we invited dark to go with us on a camping trip to the mountains in the Donner- Peak-Summit region.

"After a few days of short walks, we proposed a longer walk—to Crater Ridge—where we had gone many times in the past, but now we were going with a companion who came under a spell of strange thought, transforming the scene into a foreboding and grotesque landscape, which dark later used in his now-famous story. The City of the Singing Flame, dark wandered about among the boulders, studying the rocks and general terrain. We could all see that he was deeply affected by the place.

"Later in the afternoon while dark was still feeling a strange influence, after we had sat down to look at the views which combine to make this place especially beautiful, I suddenly suggested that he use his powers of writing for fiction, which would be more remunerative than poetry. His financial situation at that time was critical, and some practical advice seemed in order. This prodding led to dark's writing of weird fiction and, thus, the walk to Crater Ridge started the flow of work which has made dark the well-known writer that he is." [Letter-memoir, p. 190, Emperor of Dreams, A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, compiled by D. Sidney-Fryer, published by Donald M. Grant, West Kingston, Rhode Island, 1978]

(Later, in August of 1937, to be precise, Ashton Smith plotted a sequel to Beyond the Singing Flame under the title The Rebirth of the Flame; but he evidently never finished it since no manuscript or typescript of it was found among the stories left unpublished at the time of his death on August 14th, 1961.)

Although his poet-friend Eric Barker acknowledged that Smith was "a poet of genius," he tempered this recognition by writing further: "albeit one out of touch with his times." According to Eric: "In his personal life as well as in his writings he was as far removed from con- temporary life as a poet could possibly be." The same friend summed up Smith's historical role as a poet in this way: "His unique and particular genius was to play upon the old harps more musically than almost any poet since Frangois Villon, a poet whom he resembled in some respects." [Memoir, Clark Ashton Smith — In Memory of a Great Friendship, pp. 29-31, Emperor of Dreams, etc.]

Despite this poet-friend's opinion, it can be cogently argued that Ashton Smith and his lyric predecessor George Sterling—with their pioneering developments in poetry (and prose) of "cosmic-astronomic-mindedness," and with their near-constant emphasis on the environing wonder and mystery of the cosmos—were infinitely more in touch with their times and their world, in a profound and universal way, than many other contemporary writers whose work and perspective remain rigidly, and unimaginatively, anthropocentric. When we look back from the early 1980s out over the immense and multifaceted panorama of literature in the earlier twentieth century, we see how many scriveners—once considered vital, important and very much "with it"—who seem today at once empty, irrelevant and singularly dated. Sterling and Smith's intense pre-occupation with the cosmic-astronomic once inspired poet-critic Witter Bynner to dub them the Star-Dust Twins. While we can chuckle at the wit behind this nick- name, it should not deter us from noting how curiously prophetic their pre-occupation has proven to be of humanity's increasing fascination with—as well as intrepid exploration into the cosmos at large in our current Age' of Space.

The multiple suns and skies, the dimensions within dimensions, the revelations behind revelations in The City of the Singing Flame typify particularly well Ash- ton Smith's own especial class of cosmic-astronomic-mindedness. Also, as pointed out by Fritz Leiber, the story showcases an uncommon concern on Smith's part for life-battling doom, a concern absent from most of his other fiction. Archetypally, in cosmic fable after cosmic fable, Ashton Smith's main leitmotif is one of alienation, death and exotic metamorphosis. His viewpoint is that of the cosmic outsider, the grisly specter at the feast, the grim and sardonic Master of Ceremonies who has arranged for our amusement some elegantly lethal diversions. Nonetheless, the other keynotes in the Smithian leitmotif remain those of beauty and adventure and irony—and, yes, love.

Unlike his friend H. P. Lovecraft, much of whose fiction skillfully weaves an elaborate and self-sustaining tapestry of myth, Smith postulates no overall Cthulhu Mythos, or Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth. His gods and goddesses are there for possibly related but still different causes. Unlike another of his correspondent-friends, Robert E. Howard, who typically and cannily created whole series of stories around certain central characters (one of the principal. reasons for his particular popularity), Ashton Smith only rarely has a series of connected tales built around a central character or characters. A double example is collected in this book. The Tale of Satampra Zeiros and The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles feature that beguiling rogue and master-thief Satampra Zeiros. The other mini-series spotlights the omniscient and omnipotent enchanter Maal Dweb in The Maze of Maal Dweb and The Flower- Women. Here, as well, are some other fabulous narratives of Smith's own lost worlds, Hyperborea, Averoigne and Zothique, with hints of that Orient which exists now only in The Arabian Nights, William Beckford's History of the Caliph Vathek, and similar literary milieus.

Here then, in these thirteen stories, is something of the metaphysical range and imaginative spectrum of one dark Ashton Smith, poet, visionary and cosmic master artist.

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