- Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith
Smith in 1912
Born 13 January 1893
Long Valley, California, U.S.
Died 14 August 1961(aged 68)
Pacific Grove, California, U.S.
Occupation short story writer, poet Nationality American Genres horror, fantasy, sci-fi
Clark Ashton Smith (13 January 1893 – 14 August 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 Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Sterling, Nora May French, and others) and remembered as 'The Last of the Great Romantics' and 'The Bard of Auburn'. As a member of the Lovecraft circle, (Smith's literary friendship with H. P. Lovecraft lasted from 1922 until Lovecraft's death in 1937), Smith remains second only to Lovecraft in general esteem and importance amongst contributors to the pulp magazine Weird Tales, where some readers objected to his morbidness and violation of pulp traditions. (It has been said of him that "Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.") His work is marked chiefly by an extraordinarily wide and ornate vocabulary, a cosmic perspective and a vein of sardonic and sometimes ribald humor.
Early life and education
Smith was born January 13, 1893 in Long Valley, California, of English and Yankee parentage. He spent most of his life in the small town of Auburn, California, living in a small cabin built by his parents, Fanny and Timeus Smith. His formal education was limited: he suffered from psychological disorders including a fear of crowds, and although admitted to high school after attending eight years of grammar school (Long Valley School, whence dates the earliest known photo of him), he never went to high school. His parents decided it was better for him to be educated at home.
However, he was an insatiable reader, and continued to teach himself after he left school. His education began with the reading of Robinson Crusoe (unabridged), Gulliver's Travels, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Madame d'Aulnoy, the Arabian Nights and (at the age of 13) the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. He read an unabridged dictionary (the 13th edition of Webster’s) through, word for word, studying not only the definitions of the words but also their derivations from ancient languages. Having an extraordinary eidetic memory, he seems to have retained most or all of it.
The other main course in Smith's self-education was to read the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica through at least twice. Smith later taught himself French and Spanish in order to translate verse out of those languages. Smith professed to hate the provinciality of the small town of Auburn but rarely left it until he married late in life.
Early stories and poetry
His first literary efforts, at the age of 11, took the form of fairy tales and imitations of the Arabian Nights. Later, he wrote long adventure novels dealing with Oriental life. By 14 he had already written a short adventure novel called The Black Diamonds which was lost for years until published in 2002. Another juvenile novel was written in his teenaged years—The Sword of Zagan (unpublished until 2004). Like The Black Diamonds, it uses a medieval, Arabian Nights–like setting, and the Arabian Nights, like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, are known to have strongly influenced Smith's early writing, as did William Beckford's Vathek.
At age 17, he sold several tales to The Black Cat, a magazine which specialized in unusual tales. He also published some tales in The Overland Monthly in this brief foray into fiction which preceded his poetic career.
However, it was primarily poetry that motivated the young Smith and he confined his efforts for poetry for more than a decade. In his later youth, Smith made the acquaintance of the San Francisco poet George Sterling through a member of the local Auburn Monday Night Club, where he read several of his poems with considerable success. On a month-long visit to Sterling in Carmel, California, Smith was introduced by Sterling to the poetry of Baudelaire.
He became Sterling's protégé and Sterling helped him to publish his first volume of poems, The Star-Treader and Other Poems, at the age of 19. Smith received international acclaim for the collection The Star-Treader was received very favorably by American critics, one of whom named Smith "the Keats of the Pacific." Smith briefly moved among the circle that included Ambrose Bierce and Jack London but his early fame soon faded away.
Health breakdown period
A little later, Smith's health broke down and for eight years his literary production was intermittent, though he produced his best poetry during this period. A small volume, Odes and Sonnets, was brought out in 1918. 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 as 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'.
In 1925 Smith published Sandalwood. He wrote little fiction in this period with the exception of some imaginative vignettes or prose poems. Smith was poor for most of his life and often did hard manual jobs such as such as fruitpicking and woodcutting in order to support himself and his parents. He was an able cook and made many kinds of wine. He also did well digging, typing and journalism, as well as contributing a column to The Auburn Journal and sometimes worked as its night editor.
One of Smith's artistic patrons was businessman Albert N. Bender.
Prolific fiction-writing period
At the beginning of the Depression in 1929, with his aged parents' health weakening, Smith resumed fiction-writing and turned out more than a hundred short stories, nearly all of which can be classed as weird horror or science fiction. Like Lovecraft, he drew upon the nightmares that had plagued him during youthful spells of sickness.
He published at his own expense a volume containing six of his best stories, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, in an edition of 1000 copies printed by the Auburn Journal. The theme of much of his work is egotism and its supernatural punishment; his weird fiction is generally macabre in subject matter, gloatingly preoccupied with images of death, decay and abnormality.
Most of Smith's weird fiction falls into four series set variously in Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique. Hyperborea, which is a lost continent of the Miocene period, and Poseidonis, which is a remnant of Atlantis, are much the same, with a magical culture characterized by bizarreness, cruelty, death and postmortem horrors. Averoigne is Smith's version of pre-modern France, comparable to James Branch Cabell's Poictesme. Zothique exists millions of years in the future. It is "the last continent of earth, when the sun is dim and tarnished." These tales have been compared to the Dying Earth sequence of Jack Vance.
In 1933 Smith began corresponding with Robert E. Howard, the Texan creator of Conan the Barbarian. From 1933-1937, Smith, Howard and Lovecraft were the leaders of the Weird Tales school of fiction, and corresponded frequently although they never met. The writer of oriental fantasies, E. Hoffman Price, is the only man known to have met all three in the flesh.
Mid-late career: return to poetry and sculpture
In Sept 1937, Smith's mother Fanny died. Smith spent the next two months nursing his father through his last illness. Timeus died in December 1937. Aged 44, Smith now virtually ceased writing fiction. He had been severely affected by several tragedies occurring in a short period of time: Robert E. Howard's death by suicide (1936), Lovecraft's death from cancer (1937) and the deaths of his parents, which left him exhausted. As a result, he withdrew from the scene, marking the end of Weird Tales' Golden Age. He began sculpting and resumed the writing of poetry. However, Smith was visited by many writers at his cabin, including Fritz Leiber, Rah Hoffman, Francis T. Laney and others.
In 1942, three years after August Derleth founded Arkham House for the purpose of preserving the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Derleth published the first of several major collections of Smith's fiction, Out of Space and Time (1942). This was followed by Lost Worlds (1944). The books sold slowly, went out of print and became costly rarities. Derleth published five more volumes of Smith's prose and two of his verse, and at his death in 1971 had a large volume of Smith's poems in press.
Later life, marriage and death
In 1953 Smith suffered a coronary attack. Aged 61, he married Carol(yn) Jones Dorman on 10 November 1954. Dorman had much experience in Hollywood and radio public relations. After honeymooning at the Smith cabin, they moved to Pacific Grove, California, where he set up a household with their children. (Carol had been married before and had three children). For several years he alternated between the house on Indian Ridge and his wife's house in Pacific Grove. Having sold most of his father's tract, in 1957 the old house burned - the Smiths believed by arson, others said by accident.
Smith now reluctantly did gardening for other residents at Pacific Grove, and grew a goatee. He spent much time shopping and walking near the seafront but despite Derleth's badgering, resisted the writing of more fiction. In 1961 he suffered strokes. In August 1961 he quietly died in his sleep, aged 68. After Smith's death Carol remarried (becoming Carolyn Wakefield) and subsequently died of cancer.
The poet's ashes were buried beside, or beneath, a boulder to the immediate west of where his childhood home (destroyed by fire in 1957) stood; some were also scattered in a stand of blue oaks near the boulder. There was no marker. However in more recent times a plaque to his memory has been erected at the Auburn, California Placer County Library.
Smith's literary estate is represented by his stepson, Prof William Dorman, director of CASiana Literary Enterprises. Arkham House owns the copyright in many Smith stories, though some are now in the public domain.
For 'posthumous collaborations' of Smith (stories completed by Lin Carter), see the entry on Lin Carter.
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
Smith published most of his volumes of poetry in this period, including the aforementioned The Star-Treader and Other Poems, as well as Odes and Sonnets (1918), Ebony and Crystal (1922) and Sandalwood (1925). His long poem The Hashish-Eater; Or, the Apocalypse of Evil was written in 1920.
Weird Fiction: 1926–1935
Smith wrote most of his weird fiction and Cthulhu Mythos stories, partially inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. Creatures of his invention include Aforgomon, Rlim-Shaikorth, Mordiggian, Tsathoggua, the wizard Eibon, and various others. In an homage to his friend, Lovecraft referred in some of his stories to a great dark wizard, "Klarkash-Ton."
Smith's weird stories form several cycles, called after the lands in which they are set: Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, Zothique. To some extent Smith was influenced in his vision of such lost worlds by the teachings of Theosophy and the writings of Helena Blavatsky. Stories set in Zothique belong to the Dying Earth subgenre. Amongst Smith's science fiction tales are stories set on Mars and the invented planet of Xiccarph.
Clark Ashton Smith was the third member of the great triumvirate of Weird Tales, with Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
Many of Smith's stories were published in six hardcover volumes by August Derleth under his Arkham House imprint. For a full bibliography to 1978, see Sidney-Fryer, Emperor of Dreams (cited below). S.T. Joshi is working with other scholars to produce an updated bibliography of Smith's work.
A selection of Smith's best-known tales includes:
- "The Last Incantation" — Weird Tales, June 1930 LW2
- "A Voyage to Sfanomoe" — Weird Tales, August 1931 LW2
- "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" — Weird Tales November 1931 LW2
- "The Door to Saturn" — Strange Tales, January 1932 LW2
- "The Planet of the Dead" — Weird Tales, March 1932 LW2
- "The Gorgon" — Weird Tales, April 1932 LW2
- "The Letter from Mohaun Los" (under the title of "Flight into Super-Time") — Wonder Stories, August 1932 LW1
- "The Empire of the Necromancers" — Weird Tales, September 1932 LW1
- "The Hunters from Beyond" — Strange Tales, October 1932 LW1
- "The Isle of the Torturers" — Weird Tales, March 1933 LW1
- "The Light from Beyond" — Wonder Stories, April 1933 LW1
- "The Beast of Averoigne" — Weird Tales, May 1933 LW1
- "The Holiness of Azedarac" — Weird Tales, November 1933 LW1
- "The Demon of the Flower" — Astounding Stories, December 1933 LW2
- "The Death of Malygris" — Weird Tales, April 1934 LW2
- "The Plutonium Drug" — Amazing Stories, September 1934 LW2
- "The Seven Geases" — Weird Tales, October 1934 LW2
- "Xeethra" — Weird Tales, December 1934 LW1
- "The Flower-Women" — Weird Tales, May 1935 LW2
- "The Treader of the Dust" — Weird Tales, August 1935 LW1
- "Necromancy in Naat" — Weird Tales, July 1936 LW1
- "The Maze of Maal Dweb" — Weird Tales, October 1938 LW2
- "The Coming of the White Worm" — Stirring Science Stories, April 1941 LW2
Sculpture and Art 1935–1961
By this time his interest in writing fiction began to lessen and he turned to creating sculptures from soft rock such as soapstone. Many examples are reproduced in Dennis Rickard's The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith (Baltimore, MD: The Mirage Press, 1973). Smith also made hundreds of fantastic paintings and drawings.
- The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 5-volume work
- Tales of India and Irony (collection of non fantasy/science fiction/horror tales, available only to subscribers of above collection)
- Red World of Polaris (complete tales of Captain Volmar)
- The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith
- The Black Diamonds
- The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith
- The Sword of Zagan and Other Writings
- The Shadow of the Unattained: Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith
- The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith
- Out of Space and Time (out of print)
- Lost Worlds (o.o.p.)
- Genius Loci and Other Tales (o.o.p.)
- The Dark Chateau (o.o.p.)
- Spells and Philtres (o.o.p.)
- The Abominations of Yondo (o.o.p.)
- Tales of Science and Sorcery (o.o.p.)
- Poems in Prose (o.o.p.)
- Other Dimensions (o.o.p.)
- Selected Poems (o.o.p.)
- The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith (o.o.p.)
- A Rendezvous in Averoigne
- Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
- Averoigne (reportedly compiled by series editor Lin Carter, but never released)
- The Emperor of Dreams (not part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series)
- The Double Shadow
- The Maker of Gargoyles and Other Stories
- The White Sybil and Other Stories
Spearman (reprinted from Arkham House)
Panther (reprinted from Arkham House)
- Lost Worlds (published in 2 volumes, o.o.p.)
- Genius Loci (o.o.p.)
- The Abominations of Yondo (o.o.p.)
- Other Dimensions (published in 2 volumes, o.o.p.)
- Out of Space and Time (published in 2 volumes, o.o.p.)
- Tales of Science and Sorcery (o.o.p.)
- The City of the Singing Flame 1981 ISBN 0-671-83415-0 (o.o.p.)
- The Last Incantation 1982 ISBN 0-671-83543-2 (o.o.p.)
- The Monster of the Prophecy 1983 ISBN 0-671-83544-0 (o.o.p.)
HIH Art Studios
- Shadows Seen and Unseen: Poetry from the Shadows 2007
- de Camp, L. Sprague (1976). "Sierran Shaman: Clark Ashton Smith". Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-076-9.
- Herron, Don. "Collecting Clark Ashton Smith". Firsts (October 2000).
- Joshi, S. T. (2008). “Clark Ashton Smith: Beauty Is for the Few,” chapter 2 in Emperors of Dreams: Some Notes on Weird Poetry. Sydney: P’rea Press. ISBN 978-0-9804625-3-1 (pbk) and ISBN 978-0-9804625-4-8 (hbk).
- Murray, Will. "The Clark Ashton Smythos" in Price, Robert M. (ed). The Horror of it All: Encrusted gems from the Crypt of Cthulhu. Mercer Island WA: Starmont House, 1990. ISBN 1-55742-122-6.
- Behrends, Steve. Clark Ashton Smith. Starmont Reader's Guide 49. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1990.
- Cockcroft, Thomas G.L. "The Tales of Clark Ashton Smith: A Bibliography. Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Cockcroft, Nov 1961 (500 copies).
- Connors, Scott. The Freedom of Fantastic Things: Selected Criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. NY: Hippocampus Press, 2006.
- Haefele, John D. "Far from Time: Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and Arkham House." Weird Fiction Review No 1 (Fall 2010), 154-189.
- Hilger, Ronald. One Hundred Years of Klarkash-Ton. Averon Press, 1996.
- Klarkash-Ton: The Journal of Smith Studies No 1, Cryptic Publications. Edited by Steve Behrends. This journal was continued under a new title but with the numbering continued from No 1, thus the first issue of The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies, (Necronomicon Press) is numbered "2". There were only 3 issues in total.
- Lost Worlds: The Journal of Clark Ashton Smith Studies, Seele Brennt Publications. Edited by Smith's biographer Scott Connors and Ronald S. Hilger. (Five numbers were issued, beginning in 2003).
- Morris, Harry O. (ed). Nyctalops magazine. Special Clark Ashton Smith issue, 96 pp. (1973)
- Schultz, David E. and Scott Connors (ed). Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 2003.
- Schultz, David E and S.T. Joshi. The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith. NY: Hippocampus Press, 2005.
- Sidney-Fryer, Donald. Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography. West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant Publishers, 1978.
- Sidney-Fryer, Donald. The Last of the Great Romantic Poets. Albuqueque NM: Silver Scarab Press, 1973.
- Sidney-Fryer, Donald. Clark Ashton Smith: The Sorcerer Departs. West Hills, CA: Tsathoggua Press, Jan 1997. Dole: Silver Key Press, 2007.
- Smith, Clark Ashton. Planets and Dimensions: Collected Essays. Edited by Charles K. Wolfe. Baltimore MD: Mirage Press, 1973.
- The Eldritch Dark — This website contains almost all of Clark Ashton Smith's written work, as well as a comprehensive selection of his art, biographies, a bibliography, a discussion board, readings, fiction tributes and more.
- Works by Clark Ashton Smith on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- Clark Ashton Smith at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Clark Ashton Smith: Poems — A collection of Clark Ashton Smith's early poetry.
- LibraryThing author profile
- StarShipSofa audio podcast on life and works of Clark Ashton Smith
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