Letter to H. P. Lovecraft

From Clark Ashton Smith

[15] [c. 24 October 1930]

In the world Sarkolosh.
At the dawn of the red
sun and the setting of
the green.

Dear E'ch-Pi-El:

I, too, surmised that the simulachre might well prove to be an ultramundane and pre-human representation of Tsathoggua, but hardly dared to venture my surmise without the surety of corroboration from more learned pontiffs, and hierophants and hierarchists of superior and paramount adeptness. I await with shuddering avidity the result of the dread divinations and ouspices at which you hint. The suggestion of any simulachral relationship or connection with Azathoth (even of the remotest vestigial sort) is simply overpowering in its terror; for is not Azathoth the animating Daemon of that all-encompassing Space which Einstein in his latest theory, and a certain unknown poet in a long-forgotten "Ode to the Abyss", [1] have represented as devouring the material universe?

Your last letter contains far more substance than most magazine articles, and brings up a world of ideas on which I will touch presently. But first of all let me thank you for the re-loan of "The Hound", and your more than gracious offer to loan me your books. I will accept the latter, on condition that you will consider my own library at your service; though I doubt if I have much that would be new or of interest to you. The bulk of it is English poetry, and romantic or realistic fiction. Apart from Poe, Bierce, and some of Lafcadio Hearn's collections of strange folklore, it is really lacking in the weird. [. . .]

[. . .]

As I told you in my last, I think your new tale is among your best. It is a capital example of the theory you advance regarding the composition of weird stories — a theory which is undoubtedly the soundest one possible. My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation. You attain a black magic, perhaps unconsciously, in your pursuit of corroborative detail and verisimilitude. But I fear that I don't always attain verisimilitude in my pursuit of magic! However, I sometimes suspect that the wholly unconscious elements in writing (or other art) are by far the most important. Poe tried to rationalize his processes of composition and explained everything . . . except his own incommunicable secret.

[. . .] You are right about the Latins — they have no imagination except of the most earth-bound type. Baudelaire's abysses are those of the soul or the nerves, and his horrors are drawn from the subterranes of human consciousness, are never from the outer gulfs.

[. . .]

I didn't mean to dogmatize when I spoke of my reaction toward realism. My attitude at bottom is precisely the same as yours: I admit the objective claims of such art — in fact, of all good and sincere art; and will even admit that my distaste for the literature of quotidian detail is doubtless [the result of] a sort of personal disenchantment with the social world. I am partially, at least, almost in the psychological condition of your own Randolph Carter. With me, though, there is no conscious desire to go back in time -- only a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra-terrestrial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings and stories.

I don't think I have had anything quite like the pseudo-mnemonic flashes you describe. What I have had sometimes is the nocturnal dream-experience of stepping into some totally alien state of entity, with its own memories, hopes, desires, its own past and future -- none of which I can ever remember for very long on awakening. This experience has suggested such tales as "The Planet of the Dead", "The Necromantic Tale", and "An Offering to the Moon". I think I have spoken of the place-images which often rise before me without apparent relevance, and persist in attaching themselves to some train of emotion or even abstract thought. These, doubtless, are akin to the images of which you speak, though they are always clearly realistic.

Certainly, there are not many people with a sense of the cosmic strangeness and mystery. Popular education has effectively killed anything of the sort in the middle-classes; and the only people who retain it are the ignorant, or those who have the spark strongly enough to survive the snuffing-out influence of relative knowledge: so, as you say, the field narrows down to the plebs and the spiritual patricians. I have been interested to find that my own tales are read eagerly by local people with no pretensions to literary taste or culture; and the one person of the opposite sort (a woman) who appreciates them, is of an ultra-aristocratic type.

[. . .] Just now I am lagging over a scientific horror, "Like Mohammed's Tomb". The chief merit is that the scientist uses his contraption to commit a highly novel and unique suicide, and also to remove a budding fellow-inventor from the sphere of mundane effort. [2]

By the way, your "Whisperer" suggested an idea which you might develope to more advantage than I could. Why not write a tale about some extraplanetary being who has undergone (either at the hands of his own kind, or of some human plastic surgeon) a facial transformation which enables him to pass as a human. His body, of course, would be "teratologically fabulous" beneath his clothing; and there would be all sorts of disquieting suggestions about his personality. I think you could work this up to perfection if the idea appeals to you. [3]

I have also conceived what I think is a whale of an idea, as illustrating the conditional nature of our perception of reality. A human is transported to some foreign world, where he suffers incredible and utterly unimaginable torture from the nature of the sensory impressions he receives, which are worse than delirium or drug-nightmares! Perceiving his condition, the people of this world subject him to some mysterious process which changes all his nerve and sense-reactions, so that existence becomes at least tolerable for him through a sort of adaptation. He, however, does not realize how completely his sense apparatus has been transformed. He grows homesick for the earth, which he still remembers as he had known it, and makes a secret use of one of the cosmic projectors employed by his hosts in interstellar travel, to effect his return. But, with his new sense-reactions the earth is no less strange and intolerable. [4] [. . .] The tale is so damnably possible when you think of what a little fever, or a dose of hashish, can do to one's sensory apparatus. But it will be hard to write — and harder still to sell, since it will be analytic and descriptive rather than actional: which brings me to the reflection that one reason there are so few good weird stories is the damned editorial requirement for action, which makes it very difficult to build up any solid or convincing background, or to treat the incidents themselves with the necessary fullness of detail. I did what I thought was a fair job of that with "The Red World" — and received the disgusting criticism which I mentioned in my last letter.

[. . .]

Here is a tale, "The Face by the River", which I wrote in a single day. There's not much of the cosmic in it; but it might interest you as an attempt at psychological realism. [5]

Yrs.,
Klarkash-Ton

Footnotes

  1. Smith composed "Ode to the Abyss" (The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), Selected Poems (1971)) in May 1911.
  2. Like "The Red World of Polaris", this completed weird tale is now lost.
  3. It would seem that Lovecraft seriously considered this idea of Smith's, for he included it as an entry in his commonplace book: "Inhabitant of another world — face masked perhaps with human skin or surgically altered to human shape, but body alien beneath robes. Having reached earth, tries to mix with mankind. Hideous revelation. [Suggested by CAS]" (entry 181). David E. Schultz suggests that this entry influenced "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" (1932-33) and "The Shadow out of Time" (1934-35). The phrase "teratologically fabulous" was used by Lovecraft in "The Dunwich Horror" to describe Wilbur Whateley's true appearance.
  4. On the margin of this letter Lovecraft wrote "Have him find what he thinks to be an utterly strange and hideous planet -- recognising it as the earth except for vague, disquieting suggestions of familiarity — only at the last". See Selected Letter 439 and "CAS & Divers Hands". Smith developed this idea into "A Star-Change" (Genius Loci (1948)).
  5. A typescript of "The Face by the River" formed part of the Smith Papers in the early 1960s, but its current whereabouts are unknown. Some recent information regarding this story has come to light, which indicates that the tale involved a murderer who sees in a pool of water a reflection of the face of his victim, and in seeking it drowns himself.

From: Clark Ashton Smith: LETTERS TO H. P. LOVECRAFT, edited by and footnotes by Steve Behrends (July 1987) Necronomicon Press.

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Printed on: November 21, 2017