The Emperor of Dreams: The Literary Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith

Smith in 1912

Tell me many tales, O benign maleficent dæmon…. Tell me tales of inconceivable fear and unimaginable love….

~ “To the Dæmon” Clark Ashton Smith, December 16, 1929


Clark Ashton Smith was considered one of the big three of Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, and was a member of the Lovecraft Circle. An American poet, sculptor, painter, and intermittent author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction short stories, Clark Ashton Smith, took the fevered dreams of his childhood and laid them bare in his short stories and poetry. He chose his own path from a young age and left school early because it could not teach him what he needed to learn. It would just have been a distraction, which, although a romanticized way of looking at it, is probably not the whole truth. Smith’s health issues played a big part in his decisions.

As a child, Smith suffered from a series of psychological disorders, including intense agoraphobia. This anxiety disorder may or may not have been an inciting factor that drove his reading habits, but his extraordinary eidetic memory certainly contributed greatly to his insatiable reading lust. Smith could retain and instantly recall most of what he had read, which helped build his massive vocabulary. He read the entire unabridged 13th edition of Webster’s Dictionary word for word, studying not only the definitions of all the words but also their origins. 

And you can see it clearly in stories like The Demon of the Flower. The setting is a planet called Lophai and tells the story of a king trying to save his betrothed from being sacrificed to a plant demon. Smith uses his enormous vocabulary effortlessly, almost proudly here. You get a richly told tale constructed with beautiful language against an alien setting and an atmosphere of foreboding.

Smith’s educational journey consisted of carefully selected literature, which included Robinson CrusoeGulliver’s Travels, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the works of Madame d’Aulnoy, Arabian Nights, and the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Both Arabian Nights and Poe’s work influenced Smith’s writing and is evident in tales such as The Ghost of Mohammed Din and The Nameless Offspring.

Smith’s memory allowed him to retain significant volumes of information gathered from his reading adventures, which includes several dictionaries and the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Webster’s Dictionary in their entirety. When you read Smith’s stories, you’ll find opulent tales told with flowery but precise language. There is no doubt that Smith was a master of the English language. 

He also had the ability to write in various styles using language appropriate for the story setting. In The Nameless Offspring, for instance, you get a gothic tale using Lovecraft’s Mythos and possibly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Smith uses language effortlessly to convey an atmosphere heavy with dread.

He wrote his first stories at age 11. They were fairy tales and imitations of Arabian Nights. Adventure novels followed with oriental life as theme. At age 14, Smith had completed an adventure novel called The Black Diamonds, which, interestingly enough, was lost for many years before being published for the first time in 2002. Another novel he wrote as a teenager was The Sword of Zagan, published for the first time in 2004. Both books had similar settings to Arabian Nights. The Brothers Grimm and William Beckford’s Vathek also inspired Smith. Vathek is a Gothic novel, first published in English from French in 1786, and chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek, who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, instead of attaining these powers, Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the fallen angel Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly and speechlessly.

By the time Smith had turned 17, he had sold a few stories, followed by a collection of poems at 19. He seemed to prefer poetry over prose and only ever received professional accolades for his poetry. He self-published an anthology, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, containing six of his best stories through the Auburn Journal, printing an initial run of 1000 copies. The stories like most of his prose deal with egotism and the supernatural consequences thereof. Smith’s weird tales focus on the macabre, featuring imagery of death, decay, and abnormality.

Smith and Lovecraft became friends in 1922 when Lovecraft sent him a fan letter after reading Ebony and Crystal published that same year. This was the catalyst for a fifteen-year friendship. They exchanged letters regularly and discovered a shared passion in archeology, astronomy, astrology, languages ancient and modern including the systematic invention of personal and place names for fictional purposes, demonology, sorcery, and mythology, folklore, and more. Unsurprisingly then that in 1929, Smith began writing weird fiction and horror, later also venturing into fantasy and science fiction. As with Lovecraft and Howard, Smith’s first stories also appeared in Weird Tales. His tales would appear also in Strange TalesAstounding StoriesStirring Science Stories, and Wonder Stories

The 30s were rough years for Smith. His mother died in 1935. Howard died in 1936, Lovecraft in 1937, and then late in 1937, Smith’s father. Their deaths impacted him deeply, and his writing stopped. These tragic events marked the end of Weird Tales’ Golden Age. Although a few stories came in later years as well as more poetry, Smith shifted his focus to sculpture for much of the rest of his life until his death in 1961.

Between 1929 and 1934, Smith turned in over a hundred short stories of weird horror and science fiction. As mentioned, like Lovecraft, Smith’s nightmares served as fuel for his writing. His fevered nightmares provided plenty of mining for stories. 

Author Brian Stableford wrote that the stories Smith produced during his most prolific window “constitute one of the most remarkable oeuvres in imaginative literature.” And yet, he was by no means a prolific writer. He produced 140 stories, 40 poems in prose, and about 1000 original poems in verse over his lifetime. 

His contemporaries adored him. Lovecraft famously wrote: “In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled.” Ray Bradbury said that Smith “filled my mind with incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures.” 

The poet, Donald Sidney-Fryer, has offered an accurate description of the typical Smith story:

Many of the more characteristic tales are actually poems in prose in which Smith has united the singleness of purpose and mood of the modern short story (as first established by one of Smith’s literary idols, Edgar Allan Poe) together with the flexibility of the conte or tale; an entire short story being unified and, in part, given its powerful centralization of effect, mood, atmosphere, etc., by a more or less related system or systems of poetic imagery.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of his morbidness and believed him to violate pulp traditions. Some authors even went so far as to say that “nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.” I’m hard-pressed to find a negative here, considering Smith’s uniqueness and creativity.

Smith’s brand of weirdness was uniquely his own. Although he also wrote Space Opera and Horror, he blended genres to fit the weird obsessions in his mind. The result is a rich tapestry of alien and exotic landscapes mixed with the macabre and the supernatural that inspired many authors during Smith’s life and well after his passing.

You can divide Smith’s stories into several cycles, named after story settings: Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, Xiccarph, and Zothique. Zothique stories, for example, belong to the Dying Earth subgenre, which influenced Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. In the Book of Hyperborea, Smith ventured into Lovecraft’s Mythos but did it so uniquely that he, in effect, made it his own and put his personal stamp on it. Ryan Harvey wrote in his “The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith” on Black Gate:

Hyperborea has gained stature among Smith’s works, and the stories frequently appear in anthologies. The continued popularity of the Hyperborea stories comes from two factors: their links to H. P. Lovecraft’s famous “Mythos,” and their doses of grotesque, ironic humor. 

Clark Ashton Smith’s expeditions into the Mythos were not pastiches like those of August Derleth or the young Ramsey Campbell. His take on the Mythos is so uniquely his, that a few have jokingly called it the ‘Clark Ashton Smythos.’”

Smith, in return, has said the following of his own writing:

My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, using 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.

Sadly recognition and appreciation have come posthumously. In more recent history, a resurgence of sorts resulted in previously unpublished work getting printed and old, out-of-print stories falling back into print. On social media and in literary pulp circles, his name is still spoken with respect and awe, and his works praised. I have only read a few of his stories. Apart from The Nameless Offspring and The Demon of the Flower, I have read A Prophesy of Monsters, which gives a twist on werewolf hunting. The Powder of Hyperborea felt like a sword & sorcery, in atmosphere at least, and, of course, The Animated Sword read like a classic Arabian Nights tale.

Solitary by nature, Smith lived in isolation in Auburn, California. Some would say that his chosen lifestyle included intellectual isolation, but I don’t see it this way. Smith was an active letter writer and exchanged correspondence with Howard and Lovecraft and other writers. After their deaths and those of his parents, Smith withdrew from the public eye, mentally exhausted. He began sculpting and resumed writing poetry. However, he was still visited by many writers at his cabin, including Fritz Leiber, E. Hoffmann Price, Francis T. Laney, and others.

It is said that Smith primarily considered himself a poet, as poetry has always been the go-to outlet for him in times of duress. There is no mistake that he was a gifted poet, and his prose could best be considered expatiated poetry where plot and characters serve the setting. The effect is a created world rich with lore and ambiance that sometimes contain elements of magic realism mixed with supernatural dread. 

In 1961 he suffered a series of strokes and in August 1961 he quietly died in his sleep, aged 68. Donald Sidney-Fryer, in his 1963 biographico-critical essay of Smith wrote:

Thus, death finally came to him who had been, in part, one of death’s most lyrical celebrators. …no Saturday Review or Atlantic Monthly devoted an entire memorial issue to him and his works; and while Smith was alive, no New Yorker had ever allowed him into the charmed and perilous circle of its’ profiles.’ Neither the science-fiction nor fantasy magazines even mentioned Smith’s death. He died as he had lived, as an outsider for the most part.

Sources

  1. 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.
  2. Bibliography — Works of Clark Ashton Smith
  3. Fandom — Clark Ashton Smith
  4. Black Gate — The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith
  5. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/smith_clark_ashton

4 thoughts on “The Emperor of Dreams: The Literary Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith

  1. “However, he was still visited by many writers at his cabin, including Fritz Leiber, Rah Hoffman, Francis T. Laney, and others.”

    I believe that you mean to reference the writer E. Hoffman Price, known to his friends as Ed.

    August Derleth included some excellent memoir pieces by Price in collections of R.E. Howard and Smith published by Arkham House

    Liked by 1 person

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