Image: Bruce Pennington
None strikes the note of cosmic horror as well as Clark Ashton Smith. In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer.
Clark Ashton Smith (January 13, 1893 – August 14, 1961) was a self-educated American poet, sculptor, painter and author of fantasy, horror and science fiction short stories. He achieved early local recognition, largely through the enthusiasm of George Sterling, for traditional verse in the vein of Swinburne. As a poet, Smith is grouped with the West Coast Romantics alongside Joaquin Miller, Sterling, Nora May French, and remembered as “The Last of the Great Romantics” and “The Bard of Auburn”.
While Smith was always an artist who worked in several very different media, it is possible to identify three distinct periods in which one form of art had precedence over the others.
Poetry: until 1925
Weird fiction: 1926–1935
Visual art: 1935–1961
Smith came into contact with literary figures who would later form part of H.P. Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents; Smith knew them far earlier than Lovecraft. These figures include poet Samuel Loveman and bookman George Kirk. It was Smith who in fact later introduced Donald Wandrei to Lovecraft. For this reason, it has been suggested that Lovecraft might as well be referred to as a member of a “Smith” circle as Smith was a member of a Lovecraft one.
In 1920 Smith composed a celebrated long poem in blank verse, The Hashish Eater, or The Apocalypse of Evil which was published in Ebony and Crystal (1922). This was followed by a fan letter from H. P. Lovecraft, which was the beginning of 15 years of friendship and correspondence. With studied playfulness, Smith and Lovecraft borrowed each other’s coinages of place names and the names of strange gods for their stories, though so different is Smith’s treatment of the Lovecraft theme that it has been dubbed the “Clark Ashton Smythos.“
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.
The settings of Smith’s stories are varied. The four most common settings are Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne, and Zothique.
For five years he had driven the great vessel further and further away from the earth and the solar system, which had long ago dwindled into points of telescopic light — for five years he had hurled it onward at more than the speed of cosmic rays, through the shoreless, bottomless night, among the shifting stars and nebulae.
And in Volmar himself there was a spirit of mad adventure, a desire to tread where no man had been before; the cold flame of an imperial lust for unexplored immensitude.
The first paragraph of the short story The Abominations of Yondo:
The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.
The prose poem The Black Lake:
In a land where weirdness and mystery had strongly leagued themselves with eternal desolation, the lake was out-poured at an undiscoverable date of elder aeons, to fill some fathomless gulf far down amid the shadows of snowless, volcanic mountains. No eye, not even the sun’s, when he stared vertically upon it for a few hours at midday, seemed able to divine its depths of sullen blackness and unrippled silence. It was for this reason that I found a so singular pleasure in frequently contemplating the strange lake. Sitting for I knew not how long on its bleak basaltic shores, where grew but a few fleshly red orchids, bent above the waters like open and thirsty mouths, I would peer with countless fantastic conjectures and shadowy imaginings, into the alluring mystery of its unknown and inexplorable gulf.
It was at an hour of morning before the sun had surmounted the rough and broken rim of the summits, when I first came, and clomb down through the shadows which filled like some subtler fluid the volcanic basin. Seen at the bottom of the stirless tincture of air and twilight, the lake seemed as dregs of darkness.
Peering for the first time, after the deep and difficult descent, into the so dull and leaden waters, I was at length aware of certain small and scattered gleams of silver, apparently far beneath the surface. And fancying them the metal in some mysterious ledge, or the glints of long-sunken treasure. I bent closer in my eagerness, and finally perceived that what I saw was but the reflection of the stars, which, tho the day was full upon the mountains and the lands without, were yet visible in the depth and darkness of that enshadowed place.
The poem The Cloud-Islands:
What islands marvellous are these,
That gem the sunset’s tides of light-—
Opals aglow in saffron seas?
How beautiful they lie, and bright,
Like some new-found Hesperides!
What varied, changing magic hues
Tint gorgeously each shore and hill!
What blazing, vivid golds and blues
Their seaward winding valleys fill!
What amethysts their peaks suffuse!
Close held by curving arms of land
That out within the ocean reach,
I mark a faery city stand,
Set high upon a sloping beach
That burns with fire of shimmering sand.
Of sunset-light is formed each wall;
Each dome a rainbow-bubble seems;
And every spire that towers tall
A ray of golden moonlight gleams;
Of opal-flame is every hall.
Alas! how quickly dims their glow!
What veils their dreamy splendours mar!
Like broken dreams the islands go,
As down from strands of cloud and star,
The sinking tides of daylight flow.
Moonlight on Boulder Ridge
Lovecraft’s first letter to CAS
August 12, 1922
My dear Mr. Smith:—
I trust you will pardon the liberty taken by an absolute stranger in writing you, for I cannot refrain from expressing the appreciation aroused in me by your drawings & poetry,
Yr most obedient Servt.
A later letter to CAS from Lovecraft
10 Barnes St.
Feby. 2, 1930
Dear C A S:—
Oh—here are my Yuggothian Fungi, to be returned at leisure. Nothing notable about them—but they at least embody certain moods & images. Some of the themes are really more adapted to fiction—so that l shall probably make stories of them whenever I get that constantly-deferred creative opportunity I am always waiting for. You will see something of my scenic or landscape-architectural tendency in these verses—especially suggestions of unplaceable or half-forgotten scenes. These vague, elusive pseudo-memories have haunted me ever since I was an infant, & are quite a typical ingredient of my psychology & aesthetic attitude ………….
Yrs in Tsathoggua’s name,
Tomeron the Decayed
A later letter to Lovecraft from CAS
 [c. early October 1930]
Temple of Rhalu, the moon
goddess, at the hour of
the blood-sacrifice, in
the last cycle of Mu.
I hope you have received ere this the nameless, pre-human statuette of a divinity who must have come down from ulterior stars and planets with Cthulhu and Tsathoggua. Perhaps You can give it a name; and I will be glad of any information which you can afford me, regarding its origin and attributes, all of which are undoubtedly dark and awful, not to say sinister.
As for the problem of phantasy, my own standpoint is that there is absolutely no justification for literature unless it serves to release the imagination from the bounds of every-day life. I have undergone a complete revulsion against the purely realistic school, including the French, and can no longer stomach even Anatole France. God knows what I can find to read, after I have exhausted the last of your reloaned mss.! [. . .]
The future of phantasy is certainly a most problematic one. You analyze very clearly the reasons backing the present attitude; and I suppose you are right about the purifying process. [. . .] When the novelty of modern discoveries, etc., has worn off, it seems to me that people must go back to a realization of the environing, undissipated mystery, which will make for a restoration of the imaginative. Science, philosophy, psychology, humanism, after all, are only candle-flares in the face of the eternal night with its infinite reserves of strangeness, terror, sublimity. And surely literature cannot always confine itself to the archives of the anthill and the annals of the hog-sty, as it seems to be doing at present.
As ever, yr. friend,