Clark Ashton Smith was born on January 13, 1893 in Long Valley, California -- six miles south of Auburn in the heart of the Gold Country. Clark's father, Timeus Smith, was born in England and traveled the world a bit before coming to the region; Clark's mother, Mary Frances ("Fanny") Gaylord, was born in the Midwest and moved with her family to a farm in Long Valley. For some fifteen years after their marriage in 1891, Timeus and Fanny lived on the Gaylord farm.
An only child, Clark was seriously stricken with scarlet fever at the age of four, after which his vitality was impaired for years. Timeus worked as a night clerk at Auburn's Hotel Truckee and by 1902 had saved enough to purchase a 44-acre parcel of woodland atop Boulder Ridge (also called Indian Ridge and Stony Lonesome Ridge). There on the lava flow above the American River, he dug a well and built a modest four-room house -- with at least some help from young Clark. This took some four or five years and the family of three finally moved in around 1907.
|Clark Ashton Smith:
The Sorcerer of Auburn
Clark Ashton Smith began writing fiction at age eleven, with what he described as "fairy tales" and "long adventure novels" in the manner of The Arabian Nights. Other early influences that have been cited include Thomas Lovell Beddoes' Death's Jest Book, William Beckford's Gothic romance The History of the Caliph Vathek (which Smith read in 1908 and whose syntax and colorful prose will be readily recognized by Smith aficionados) -- and, of course, Poe, whose poems Smith discovered at age thirteen. One novel, The Black Diamonds, written when Smith was fourteen, has survived along with a small collection of stories that have now been published (The Sword of Zagan and Other Writings).
But Smith's fantasy stories would have to wait several years to develop; for at thirteen he began to write poetry, and poetry would soon become the first focus of his attention and lead to his first recognition. At fourteen or fifteen, Smith discovered George Sterling, whose fantastic poems in The Testimony of the Suns (1903) and A Wine of Wizardry (1908) introduced what has been called a "cosmic-astronomic" perspective into California Romantic poetry.
Smith's formal education was limited to a few years at the district school and several at Auburn's grammar school, which he did not finish. He applied early to Placer Union High School and was accepted, but then changed his mind. Instead, with his parent's approval, Smith chose to educate himself -- by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, not once but at least twice through. He also read the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary (some say it was Webster's) word by word, concentrating on etymology. Later, again self-taught, he would acquire a reading and writing knowledge of French and Spanish; he was also a self-taught artist who worked in several media.
Smith's first publication came in 1910, at the age of seventeen, when the Overland Monthly published two of his stories. (In previous years this publication -- founded in San Francisco in 1868 by the "Golden Gate Trinity" of Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte and Charles W. Stoddard -- debuted the work of Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, among other aspiring California writers.) These were adventure tales or contes cruel set in the Orient, influenced by Rudyard Kipling; two similar stories appeared in the short story magazine The Black Cat in 1911 and 1912.
During the period 1911 to 1926, however, Smith focused on poetry. A few poems were published in local periodicals, including the Auburn Journal, resulting in invitations to read at ladies' poetry clubs. Emily J. Hamilton, an English teacher at Placer Union High School, knew that Smith idolized George Sterling and suggested that he send Sterling a few of his poems. Hamilton had known Sterling when he lived in Piedmont (between Oakland and Berkeley) and wrote a letter of introduction. By this time, January 1911, Sterling was a well-established literary figure in a circle that included such luminaries as Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Edwin Markham, Jack London and Gertrude Atherton. Sterling was struck by the maturity of Smith's work -- what he called "performance" -- and said it showed "true genius" to have been written by one so young (he had just turned eighteen). He suggested some changes, recommended "daily reading of Browning and the Old Testament to counteract the 'overmuch honeycomb' that is the young poet's first portion," and asked for copies he could keep. By April, Sterling took the liberty of quoting Smith's sonnet "Last Night" in an interview with San Francisco's Town-Talk. He also showed Smith's poem "Ode to the Abyss" to his own mentor, Bierce, who termed it "admirable" with "many striking passages" and "a large theme treated with dignity and power." Sterling hoped to introduce Smith to Bierce in person, but the meeting never took place (Bierce pulled his famous "disappearing act" in late 1913).
Sterling did invite the young Smith for a month-long visit his bungalow in Carmel-by-the-Sea, south of Monterey. Owing to insufficient means, Smith was not able to accept the established poet's repeated invitations until late June of 1912, when Sterling surmised the reason and sent him $10 for the train trip from Auburn to Monterey. A photograph from this year shows a handsome but very tense Smith wearing a dapper suit in the company of Sterling, John Hilliard, Redfern Mason and others, enjoying wine "alfresco" in Carmel. In another portrait from this period, Smith is again seen wearing the suit -- purchased for the poor young poet by Sterling.
The retired diplomat Boutwell Dunlap found out about Smith and, wanting to lay claim to his "discovery," brought Smith to San Francisco, where he was interviewed by the press. Thanks to Sterling, some lines of Smith's poem "Nero" had been cited in the papers and were being compared to William Cullen Bryant's celebrated poem "Thanatopsis." Now, front-page stories hailed Smith as "the Boy Genius of the Sierras" and "the Keats of the Pacific Coast." Dunlap also introduced Smith to Sterling's publisher, A. M. Robertson, who expressed interest in publishing a collection of his poems. Sterling advised Smith on the poems and their selection and helped correct the galley proofs. In November 1912, Smith's first book, The Star-Treader and Other Poems, appeared in San Francisco under the imprint of Philopolis Press; the epigram consisted of lines by Sterling.
In a minor version of the debacle that followed the publication of Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry," Smith's first book met with both excessive praise and deprecation. Some compared him to Shelly and Keats; others called him "sinister," even "ghoulish." Bierce wrote, "I am sorry to see him thrown to the lions of reaction," and with Sterling he rallied to Smith's defense. With all the free publicity, over a thousand copies of Star-Treader sold, but Smith only got about $50 in royalties.
In fact, Smith did prove too fragile for such sudden fame and did not breathe easily in the rarefied atmosphere of the Bohemian Club or the parlors of San Francisco's literati. When Jack London invited him to visit Beauty Ranch near Glen Ellen, Smith declined, claiming (quite credibly) that he lacked the railway fare; but it could just as well have been due to timidity. He also declined Sterling's invitation for a return visit to Carmel in 1913. According to Smith's friend Hal Rubin, "The bay area experience had drained him psychologically"; moreover, "he feared he had contracted tuberculosis" in the cool coastal fog of Carmel. Apparently, Smith's illness was more than hypochondria, for tuberculosis would plague him for years to come. Other evidence of malady during this period included sore joints, digestive troubles and symptoms suggestive of malaria. However, psychological factors were clearly involved, including depression and nervous disorders. Sterling offered to place Smith in a sanitarium, but he refused. "Since childhood he had been subject to nightmares," wrote Rubin; "now he became obsessed with death."
A few poems were published in the mainstream Current Literature and Current Opinion in 1912-13. In midsummer of 1914, Smith participated in the chorus of the play Nec-Natama [Comradeship] by J. Wilson Shiels at one of the Bohemian Club's "high jinx" on the Russian River north of San Francisco. But Smith was "so emptied of creative energy" (according to Rubin) that it took him six years to write the fifteen poems in Odes and Sonnets (1918), published by the prestigious Book Club of California with an introduction by Sterling.
Nevertheless, Markham (author of the celebrated poem "The Man with the Hoe") wrote to Smith that he saw "glints of true genius" in the small book. Markham later went so far as to call Smith "the greatest American poet." In his introduction, Sterling wrote that "Clark Ashton Smith is undoubtedly our finest living poet... in the great tradition of Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley, and yet to our everlasting shame, he is entirely neglected and almost completely unknown." Sterling also wrote, "Compared to Smith, Chatterton was a babbling babe."
The Smith family was always poor. When Smith was able to work, he did chores around the farm and worked for other farmers, picking and packing such fruit as cherries and plums, cutting wood, mixing cement, well-digging, mucking and windlassing. The hard work actually improved his health, along with his physique. Fanny helped support the family by picking and selling wild blackberries in the summer, and by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door in Auburn -- for which she became known locally as "Magazine Smith." Timeus farmed his land with minimal success and, with his brother-in-law, mined vainly for gold. (Sterling saw a shaft under construction during a visit in 1914 and was inspired to write a short story about mining.) At some point, five acres of Smith property were sold for needed funds. Smith even turned to Sterling for a loan to help Timeus's chicken business. Sterling could not help personally, but he found at least four anonymous admirers of Smith's poetry who agreed to send monthly or quarterly stipends, which continued from the middle- to late-1910s.
Despite the effusive praise that followed Odes and Sonnets, Smith chose to self-publish his next two volumes, Ebony and Crystal (1922) and Sandlewood (1925). Printed at the offices of the Auburn Journal, they were full of typographic errors that Smith painstakingly corrected by pencil in each copy. Distribution was another problem and Smith ended up giving away more copies than he sold. Five hundred signed and numbered copies of the first volume were printed, but only 250 of the second. Ebony and Crystal, for which George Sterling again wrote an introduction, consisted of 29 prose poems and 85 poems, including Smith's most celebrated poem, "The Hashish-Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil," written in 1920. H. P. Lovecraft praised the latter poem as "the greatest imaginative orgy in English literature" after receiving a gratis copy from Smith early in 1923.
From 1923 to 1926, Smith contributed a column to the Auburn Journal that consisted largely of his short poems and epigrams. The best of the poetry appeared in Sandlewood in 1925. He also served from time to time as night editor for the Journal, partly to pay off the printing costs of his books.
Around this time, a combination of factors spurred Smith to return to fantasy prose as a mode of expression -- and a means of income. In the early 1920s, Smith had tried his hand at romance fiction (also termed "sophisticated irony" or "ironic-romantic" fiction), writing pieces with such titles as "The Expert Lover" and "The Flirt." A half-dozen of these negligible pieces were written from 1921-25 (for some reason, always during Winter or Spring), and three more in 1930. Two such pieces were sold and published (in Snappy Stories and 10 Story Book); fortunately for his future fans, Smith opted for the fantastic as his field of choice!
Smith's first weird story, "The Abominations of Yondo," dates to 1925 and was published in the Overland Monthly in April 1926. Lovecraft, one of Smith's primary correspondents after 1922 and a major influence on his writing, is often credited for suggesting that Smith write fiction to submit to the new pulp magazine Weird Tales. Smith sent them three prose poems, which were published in August 1926, and a short story ("The Ninth Skeleton") published that September. Genevieve Sully, a friend of Smith in Auburn, is also credited with recommending (in 1927) fiction as more economically viable than poetry (resulting in the story "The Last Incantation," finished September 23, 1929).
Another factor should also be considered, since it must have had a profound effect on Smith's life and may have strengthened his resolve to turn his focus from poetry to short fiction. In mid-November, 1926 Smith's mentor and idol George Sterling committed suicide. Interestingly, Smith always expressed doubt whether Sterling took his life on purpose, citing Sterling's eagerness to soon meet his correspondent H. L. Mencken, the literary lion from Baltimore. In Smith's theory, Sterling was befuddled and instead of a sleeping aid took a vial of poison that he was known to have carried for years. Smith wrote of his "great bereavement" in a tribute to Sterling that appeared in the Overland Monthly in March, 1927. Despite Smith's private theory on Sterling's death, the article ends with a kind of apologia for suicide and cites Bierce on the subject.
A final factor -- implicit all along -- was economic: Smith had to earn a living somehow but despised working for others. The general economy was in decline and the stock market collapse of late October 1929 must have instilled in Smith an urgency to produce; in a creative flurry in December of that year he produced twelve distinct works, mainly prose poems.
The years 1929 to 1937 were Smith's most productive period for fiction; he wrote around 100 stories and novellas, averaging over one a month. Weird Tales became a steady market and published over half of these: between 1930 and 1934, his stories appeared in most issues, establishing him alongside Lovecraft and another correspondent, Conan creator Robert E. Howard, as a legendary triumvirate. He was also a primary contributor to Hugo Gernsback's family of magazines, Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, etc., with 16 stories during 1930-33. In 1933, Smith self-published a pamphlet of six stories entitled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (again with typos corrected in pencil!) and for three years advertised it in the pages of Wonder Stories and others (along with unsold copies of Ebony and Crystal). When Gernsback formed the Science Fiction League in 1934, Smith was named one of the Executive Directors and remained so for several years.
The 1930s also brought a string of tragedies. One correspondent, the poet Vachel Lindsay, died in 1931. Smith's parents were increasingly ill, forcing a break in his fiction writing in 1933. Fanny died in September of 1935. Fellow fantasist Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936 (following the death of his mother). And H. P. Lovecraft, Smith's premier correspondent and perhaps his single greatest inspiration in fiction, died in March of 1937. Late that same year, Timeus also died.
Following his father's death, Smith was despondent and did not write fiction for almost three years. In fact, in the 25 years that remained of his life (1937-1961), he wrote only a dozen or so tales -- a marked contrast to his earlier productivity.
But Smith did not remain idle during the last third of his life. Once again, he turned his attention to poetry -- and to a third love, art. Smith's painting and drawing has been described as "naive" owing to the fact that he was entirely self-taught. He began painting in watercolor in 1916. By 1920, Smith considered himself "skilled" in drawing. His media included crayon, ink, watercolor and poster paint. The subjects included single figures abstracted from any background (usually characters from his stories or entities in the Lovecraft mythos); complete illustrations of imaginative scenes; and alien landscapes featuring otherworldly architecture and vegetation. Because of the garish use of color, the paintings have been compared to those of the French symbolist Odilon Redon. In 1935, Smith began creating sculptures "by accident" -- while visiting his uncle's copper mine, he picked up a piece of talc and realized it was soft enough to carve with a pocketknife. Smith experimented with other unusual materials including soapstone, serpentine, sandstone, lava and porphyry. Some, after being carved, were baked in a woodstove to be hardened. The small, fist-sized figurines, statuettes and heads have been compared to pre-Columbian art and the famous heads at Easter Island; other figures were based on classical mythology and, again, the Lovecraft mythos. August Derleth was one of several collectors. Smith also carved pipes, vases, candlesticks and other "non-grotesque" objects.
Smith's published artwork included an illustration for a Lovecraft story in the amateur publication Home Brew and four drawings for Smith's own stories in Weird Tales. In 1944, his sculpture appeared on the cover of his collection Lost Worlds and in Lovecraft's Marginalia. Smith's paintings, drawings and stone sculptures were exhibited in Auburn, San Francisco (Gumps), Sacramento (Crocker Gallery), Pacific Grove (near Monterey), Los Angeles and New York (Salon des Independents). In May 1956, at an exhibit of paintings and sculptures at the Cherry Foundation in Monterey, Smith gave a rare reading of his poetry.
Smith sold many of his paintings, drawings and sculptures for a few dollars each. Albert Bender, the wealthy patron of the arts in San Francisco who had helped Sterling, bought a number of paintings. Many others were simply given away and mailed to correspondents -- including Lovecraft, who was strongly influenced by the sculptures in particular. In 1973, Dennis Rickard published a collection of Smith's art entitled The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith.
While Smith may have virtually stopped writing fiction, his work continued to be published and to attract attention. Stories from Smith's backlog continued to appear in Weird Tales and other magazines. Beginning in 1942, Smith saw his work published once again in hardcover. Arkham House -- the small publishing firm formed in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to preserve the works of H. P. Lovecraft -- issued Out of Space and Time in 1942, the first of seven volumes of Smith's stories. The title echoed both Poe and Lovecraft, and the book was dedicated to Genevieve Sully, the friend who had encouraged Smith's return to fiction in 1929. Five other collections were issued by Arkham during Smith's lifetime: the fictions Lost Worlds (1944), Genius Loci and Other Tales (1948) and The Abominations of Yondo (1960); and two collections of verse: The Dark Chateau (1951) and Spells and Philtres (1958).
In physical appearance, Smith was described as being tall (5'6" or 5'7"), slender, with brown or grey hair, a mustache (and, in later years, a goatee) and a large head, and usually wearing a suit jacket and a red or black beret. The latter must have seemed eccentric to the rural Auburnites, who nevertheless seemed friendly, despite Smith's habit of philandering with married women. As for other personal habits, Smith smoked a lot of tobacco (cigarettes or pipes) and drank moderately to heavily (mainly wine, often home-made). Despite the title of his most famous poem ("The Hashish-Eater"), he is not known to have experimented with psychotropic drugs until much later in life.
As for the romantic life of this "Last of the Great Romantics," Smith is said to have had many mistresses, including many married women between the years 1909 and at least 1930. It is also said that there was a special relationship that lasted many years but ended badly in the early 1950s. Smith did not marry until the age of 61, when on November 14, 1954 he married Carolyn Emily Jones Dorman in Monterey; thereafter, he moved to her house in Pacific Grove.
By this time, Smith had sold all but a few acres of the family property. An Auburn land developer wanted to buy the remainder and pressured Smith in various ways to sell, but he refused. In late 1955, while Smith was in Pacific Grove, the cabin was looted and vandalized, his parents' urns upset and their ashes scattered. Smith was devastated and began moving more of his belongings to a safer place. In 1957, the cabin was burned by arson, partially burning some manuscripts, typescripts and other papers and destroying others -- possibly including the only copies of unpublished work. After the fire, Smith gave in and sold the remaining land.
After his marriage, Smith wrote little. He did some work as a professional gardener for other residents of Pacific Grove. A friend from Auburn, journalist and science fiction author Robert Elder, recorded Smith reading a "random" selection of poems (chosen by Elder) around 1958. While the "Elder Tapes" have been released by Necronomicon Press, other recordings -- probably of a better selection of poems -- remain in private hands.
During the 1950s, Smith's health began to decline. Even in the late 1940s, he had serious eye trouble. In 1953 he suffered a heart attack. In 1961 he suffered a number of strokes, which slowed his speech. Clark Ashton Smith died in his sleep on August 14, 1961. His widow, Carol, took his ashes to Auburn and buried them beside a boulder, beneath the blue oaks that stood to the west of the site of the family cabin. Many years later, the street that ran nearest the cabin was named Poet Smith Drive; another street nearby was named Smith Court.
There are other signs that Smith was not completely forgotten in his hometown. A plaque honoring Smith was installed at the Auburn Placer County Library in 1985. To mark the centenary of Smith's birth, Auburn's City Council voted to name January 10-16, 1993 Clark Ashton Smith Week and. In April of that year, the Clark Ashton Smith Centennial Conference was held, joining local friends of Smith with authors inspired by his work. A decade later, on January 11, 2003, again through the efforts of regional Smith devotees, a commemorative plaque was placed in Bicentennial Park in Auburn along with soil from the boulder at the site of his home; again the occasion was marked by a conference of Smith acolytes, who shared stories of the impact of Smith on their lives and work and read from the writings of the Sorcerer of Auburn.
* * *
The best of Smith's fiction is a special blend of fantasy and science fiction perhaps best labeled "science fantasy." As many as two thirds of his stories are set in the remote past or the distant future, in such imaginary lands as Poseidonis, "the last island of sunken Atlantis," and Atlantis itself; Hyperborea, located in Miocene Greenland, with its Commoriom Myth Cycle; the mediaeval European dominions of Averoigne and Malnéant; the distant planet Xiccarph; and perhaps best of all, Zothique, "the last continent [of earth] under a dying sun," where sorcery and necromancy are rediscovered and science forgotten.
In style, Smith's fantasies are woven with a superbly rich language that has been described as "lapidary" and "euphuistic." It is crafted with the ear of the poet and studded with exotic words culled from his unabridged dictionary -- such as susurrous, empusae, athcinors and catafalque, which show his preference for Latin-based words above Anglo-Saxon ones. In contrast, much of Smith's interplanetary science fiction is rather flat and clinical, lacking the poetic polish of the fantasies, and was perhaps so crafted to appeal to the growing pulp sci-fi readership.
Whether the setting is celestial, terrestrial or fantastic, there is an all-pervading tone of tragedy and irony, even satire. A common theme is loss: the "cosmic" outlook tends to emphasize Doom and Oblivion and derides both human ignorance and hubris. Still, there is a redeeming sense of beauty and wonder amidst the cosmic vastness.
Smith's method of writing was often to complete four or five drafts of each story. He often worked outside, on a table under the trees near his cabin, or elsewhere on the property, carrying the typescripts to read aloud and revise, then retype until they were as well-polished as his verse. Fortunately for scholars, Smith kept a log between 9/25/29 and 1947 listing 112 short stories; unfortunately, the list, while chronological, is undated. His Black Book covers the period from 1929 to 1961, but consists of unnumbered loose-leaf pages; it lists several hundred titles just for the period 1929-1930, mostly unused.
Apart from historical and classical sources, at least two of these fabled lands (Zothique and Hyperborea) derive in part from H. P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine. In his Hyperboreal tales, Smith consciously created a parallel and extension of Lovecraft's so-called Cthulhu Mythos, including the toad-like deity Tsathoggua. Influences which Smith himself admitted included Poe, Bierce (from whom he derived his sardonic humor) and Robert W. Chambers. He listed Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Masque of the Red Death" among his favorite stories. Also evident is the influence of Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, William Beckford, Arthur Machen (for his "pure horror" stories), and, of course, Smith's pen pal Lovecraft. Similarly, his poetry shows the influence of Poe, Bierce and Baudelaire, along with Sterling, Swinburne, the Romantics and the Symbolists. His prose poems, considered by some to be his finest work, show the influence of Baudelaire, the Symbolists and Huysmans.
Aside from his fantastic fiction and verse, Smith wrote over thirty literary essays, some in the form of letters to editors, including appraisals of Poe, Bierce, Hodgson, M. R. James, Lovecraft and others, and expositions on his own aesthetic (especially, his rejection of realism). Most of these were published in various amateur and professional periodicals; they were gathered by Smith scholars Donald Sidney-Fryer and Charles K. Wolfe and published as Planets and Dimensions with notes by Wolfe in 1979.
Smith taught himself enough French and Spanish to write a few poems in those languages, and also published his translations of French poets Baudelaire, Verlaine, José-Maria de Herédia, Christophe des Laurières, and of the Spaniards José Calcaño and Clérigo Herrero.
Science fiction and fantasy writers who have sung the praises of Clark Ashton Smith include: H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Harlan Ellison, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. In fact, both Bradbury and Ellison cited Smith's "The City of the Singing Flame" as their primary impetus in becoming writers; Bradbury's own distinctively poetic prose style should not be ignored. Smith's influence on Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and Robert Silverberg has also been noted. Science fiction historians John Chute and Peter Nicholls reported the "loosening effect" of Smith's style on the science fiction of his time and note his contribution to "sense of wonder" in the genre. Fantasy connoisseur Lin Carter ranked Smith "not far behind Eddison and Dunsany" as one of "the greatest fantasy geniuses of all literature." (Carter edited the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which included four titles by Smith, and completed several Smith fragments.)
Dissenters have included Everett Bleiler, who was "puzzled" by what he considered Lovecraft's over-assessment of Smith. Smith has been faulted for his lack of character development, weakness of plot and dialog, and general lack of development over his career as a writer of fiction. Of course, Smith's great strengths were his ability to evoke exotic atmospheres and his powerful imagination -- what Lovecraft termed his "sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception" -- at the expense of plot and character; and the fact that characters most often fall prey to spells, monsters or other embodiments of Doom is an expression of Smith's rather Biercean cynicism. One might also say in his defense, that Smith's original approach -- combining poetry and prose styles, and crossing the lines between horror, science fiction and fantasy genres -- requires extraordinary criteria for evaluation.
As a poet, Smith is grouped with the West Coast Romantics (alongside Bierce, Sterling, Joaquin Miller, Nora May French, and others) and is remembered as The Last of the Great Romantics. Sidney-Fryer emphasizes the "cosmic-astronomic-mindedness" that Smith shared with Sterling. In this connection, critic Witter Bynner dubbed Sterling and Smith "the Star-Dust Twins." Smith's work is also classified as "pure poetry" for his attitude of art-for-art's-sake, rejecting the demands of realism and social responsibility, and retaining an archaic prosody despite contemporary trends toward free verse. The poet Benjamin De Casseres ranked him with the Romantics, Poe, Baudelaire and Rimbaud; many similarly favorable comparisons have been made, some already noted above. Some critics, notably S. T. Joshi and Bleiler, have bestowed great praise on Smith's poetry while taking exception to Lovecraft's high appraisal of his fiction.
In terms of self-assessment, Smith made various pronouncements on what he considered his best work. These included the six stories in Double Shadow (i.e., "The Voyage of King Euvoran," "The Maze of the Enchanter, " "The Double Shadow," "A Night in Malnéant," "The Devotee of Evil" and "The Willow Landscape") and the individual stories "The Eternal World" and "The City of the Singing Flame." He named "The Uncharted Isle" as the best "or at least favorite" of his "straight science fiction" stories. Toward the end of his life, Smith considered his "masterpiece" to be the blank verse play, "The Dead Will Cuckold You" (1951, 1956) set in Zothique, one of his last completed works. Of his Zothique story cycle taken as a whole, Smith said it was "in no wise inferior to Dunsany and Cabell." Regarding his poetry -- which he took the most seriously of all his creative work -- Smith felt (writing in 1936) that he had produced his best work in the years 1913-23.
The last volume issued during Smith's lifetime appropriately bore the title of his first weird tale: The Abominations of Yondo (Arkham, 1960). Four posthumous prose collections were issued by Arkham: Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964); Poems in Prose (1964) with illustrations by Arkham's favorite artist, Frank Utpatel; Other Dimensions (1970); and a volume of selected stories, A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1988, 2003). Smith's Selected Poems appeared in 1971 and his Black Book of story titles, ideas and plots was published in 1979.
While Arkham's eleven volumes of poetry and prose contain nearly all of Smith's finished work, they are all out of print with the exception of Rendezvous. A number of paperbacks were issued in the early 1970s by Ballantine and Panther, and in the early 1980s by Pocket/Timescape; these are also out of print. Necronomicon Press issued new editions of the Zothique and Hyperborea stories in 1995-6, with texts corrected and restored to their original condition to undo the editing and expurgation imposed by Smith's pulp editors. Other publishers of secondary sources, Smith's essays and miscellany have included Mirage Press, Starmont Press (now Borgo Press), and Greenwood Press.
More recently, two volumes of juvenilia and one of his Captain Volmar sci-fi tales have been published (The Black Diamonds and The Sword Of Zagan And Other Writings from Hippocampus Press; and The Red World of Polaris from Night Shade Books). More significant is the appearance of The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by S. T. Joshi and David Schultz (New York: Hippocampus Press, September 2002), which brings a solid portion of Smith's verse back into print. The long-awaited Selected Letters has just been released from Arkham House (November, 2003).
Through the years, a number of devotees have persevered in their efforts to bring Smith before a wider audience, and for their efforts they deserve special recognition. These include: August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Lin Carter, Kirby McCauley, Harry Morris, Marc Michaud, Rah Hofmann, George Haas, Steve Behrends, Scott Connors, Dennis Rickard, Don Herron and Ron Hilger. Thanks to their labors and a small cult of readers, the creations of the Emperor of Dreams have not passed into the Oblivion of which he sang. Caught in his spell, a select few bare witness to the truth of his incantation:
I pass . . . but in this lone and crumbling tower,
Builded against the burrowing seas of chaos,
My volumes and my philters shalt abide:
Poisons more dear than any mithridate,
And spells far sweeter than the speech of love . . .
-- Clark Ashton Smith, "The Sorcerer Departs" (fragment, c. 1944)
Carter, Lin. "When the World Grows Old." Introduction to Clark Ashton Smith, Zothique. Ed. Lin Carter. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.
Chute, John and Nicholls, Peter. "Smith, Clark Ashton". In John Chute and Peter Nicholls, eds., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 1120-1.
De Camp, L. Sprague. "Sierran Shaman: Clark Ashton Smith." In Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1976, pp. 195-214.
Derleth, August and Donald Wandrei. "Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Fantasy." Foreword to Clark Ashton Smith, Out of Space and Time. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1941.
Elder, Robert. [Audio Preface.] Clark Ashton Smith, Live from Auburn: The Elder Tapes. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1995.
Fait, Eleanor. "Auburn Artist-Poet Utilizes Native Rock in Sculptures." Sacramento Union, 21 December 1941. Reprinted in The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies, Number Two (July, 1989).
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence and Nancy J. Peters. Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from its Beginnings to the Present Day. San Francisco: City Lights Books and Harper & Row Publishers, 1980, p. 116.
Herron, Don. "Smith, Clark Ashton." Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Ed. Jack Sullivan. New York: Viking, 1986, pp. 392-4. And personal communication.
Lovecraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications, 1973. Introduction by E. F. Bleiler. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Ed. S. T. Joshi. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2000.
Murray, Will. Introduction. Clark Ashton Smith, The Book of Hyperborea. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996.
Murray, Will. Introduction. Clark Ashton Smith, Tales of Zothique. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1995.
Price, E. Hoffmann. "Clark Ashton Smith Natal Horoscope." In CAS-Nyctalops [Nyctalops #7: A Special Clark Ashton Smith Memorial Issue.] Albuquerque: Silver Scarab Press, 1972, pp. 28-30.
---. "Clark Ashton Smith: A Memoir." Introduction, Clark Ashton Smith, Tales of Science and Sorcery. London: Panther Books, 1976.
Roubillard, Doug. "Clark Ashton Smith." Supernatural Fiction Writers. Ed. E. F. Bleiler, pp. 875-881.
Rubin, Hal. "Auburn's 'Hermit Poet' -- Young Readers Discover Old Horror Tales." The Sacramento Bee, Sunday, August 31, 1975, pp. E1-2.
Sidney-Fryer, Donald. "The Last Enchaunter." Introduction to Clark Ashton Smith, The Last Incantation. Ed. Donald Sidney-Fryer. New York: Pocket/Timescape, 1982. And personal communication.
---. "O Amor Atque Realitas! Clark Ashton Smith's First Adult Fiction." The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies. No. 3 (Winter 1993). West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1993, pp. 22-25.
---. "Poet of the Singing Flame." Introduction to Clark Ashton Smith, The City of the Singing Flame. Ed. Donald Sidney-Fryer. New York: Pocket/Timescape, 1981.
Smith, Clark Ashton. "An Autobiography of Clark Ashton Smith," "George Sterling: An Appreciation," "George Sterling: Poet and Friend," et al. In Planets and Dimensions: Collected Essays of Clark Ashton Smith. Ed. Charles K. Wolfe. Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1973.
Smith, Clark Ashton and George Sterling. Correspondence, 1911-1926. (Unpublished; courtesy S. T. Joshi and David Schultz.)
Sterling, George and Ambrose Bierce. Correspondence, 1897-1912. (Unpublished; courtesy S. T. Joshi and David Schultz.)
[Unsigned.] "Boy is Poetic Genius; Lonely Sierras Inspire Muse." The San Francisco Call. 112, No. 63 (August 2, 1912): 1-2.
The author wishes to thank Don Herron, Ron Hilger and Donald Sidney-Fryer for corrections, comments and encouragement.
First posted: July 27, 1996
Last updated: October 22, 2004
Selected Authors of Supernatural Horror