[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the January 27, 2005, issue of Hellnotes. Editor’s Note: This is Ron’s 50th column on Old Masters of Horror. If you have any appreciation for the roots of the genre, you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed each and every one of his columns. We just wanted to thank Ron publicly for his wonderful contributions to Hellnotes and the genre. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed them as much as we have.]
Clark Ashton Smith was a noted writer of weird fiction and one of a triumvirate who dominated the magazine Weird Tales in the 1930s (the other two were H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price). Though he is best known for his short stories, he considered himself a poet first and foremost.
Smith was born on Friday the 13th in January 1893, in Long Valley, California, near Auburn, the only child of an English father and American mother. He spent most of his life in the family cabin in Auburn and did not travel much. His formal education lasted only five years, but his self-education was extensive. Among other endeavors, he read Encyclopedia Britannica twice through; read an unabridged dictionary from cover to cover; taught himself Spanish and French, well enough to write poetry in those languages; and also studied drawing, painting, and sculpture.
Smith started writing fiction around age 11 and poetry at 13. He wrote his first novel, The Black Diamonds, when he was 14; at 90,000 words, it was the longest work of fiction he ever wrote. He started publishing at age 17 when he sold two stories to The Overland Monthly magazine. When his first poetry was published two years later, it was hailed as “true genius” by the well-respected poet George Sterling. From 1911 to 1926, Smith focused on poetry. His first book, The Star-Treader and Other Poems, was published in 1912. This was followed by three more volumes of verse: Odes and Sonnets (1918), Ebony and Crystal (1922), and Sandlewood (1925). Ebony contained his most famous poem, “The Hashish-Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil.”
His early literary work did not provide much of an income, and Smith remained poor most of his life, often doing manual work to obtain an income. A side benefit of this was the improvement of his frail health by all that physical labor.
In 1925, perhaps to finally try to make a living with his pen and to support his parents, Smith started writing weird stories. His first, “The Abominations of Yondo,” was published in the Overland Monthly in April 1926. At Lovecraft’s urging, Smith started submitting stories to the new pulp magazine Weird Tales, with his first appearance being “The Ninth Skeleton” in the September 1928 issue. From 1929 to 1937, Smith produced about a hundred stories and novellas, half of which were published in Weird Tales, and between 1930 and 1934, a story of his appeared in almost every issue. He also published 16 stories in Hugo Gernsback’s magazines Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, and others.
Smith and Lovecraft corresponded extensively beginning in 1922 and continuing until Lovecraft’s death, but they never met. They sent each other drafts of their work for comment and criticism, and they wrote stories using each other’s worlds, such as Smith’s Cthulhu Mythos tales. One of Lovecraft’s last written works was a poem, “To Clark Ashton Smith, Esq., upon His Fantastic Tales, Verses, Pictures, and Sculptures.”
Smith’s horror fiction was set in fantastic realms: Atlantis and one of its islands, Poseidonis; Hyperborea, which was influenced by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos; the medieval, vampire-ridden Averoigne; Zothique, a land in the far future; Xiccarph, a distant planet; and Mars in the future. He used a poetic style for his prose, with rich language, unusual words (gleaned from his unabridged dictionary), and exotic names. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft wrote, “Mr. Smith has for his background a universe of remote and paralysing fright–jungles of poisonous and iridescent blossoms on the moons of Saturn, evil and grotesque temples in Atlantis, Lemuria, and forgotten elder worlds, and dank morasses of spotted death-fungi in spectral countries beyond earth’s rim.”
In 1933, Smith took a break from fiction when his parents became ill. Over the next few years, several people important to Smith died, including his parents, Robert E. Howard, and Lovecraft. After these losses, Smith wrote only about a dozen stories; however, his backlog continued to be published in Weird Tales and other magazines. Arkham House collected his work in 11 hardcover volumes, beginning with Out of Space and Time in 1942.
Smith did not remain idle during the latter part of his life. He returned to writing poetry, and he took up drawing, painting, and sculpture. His art was primitive and usually featured characters from his stories and the Lovecraft mythos, and alien landscapes. He did not earn much from his art, either giving it away or selling it for a few dollars. There were several exhibitions of his pieces, and a collection was published in The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith (1973).
Despite being a philanderer and having many mistresses, Smith remained a bachelor until he was 61. On November 14, 1954, he married Carolyn Emily Jones Dorman in Monterey, California, and they lived in her house in Pacific Grove. He wrote little after he married, instead working as a professional gardener.
During the 1950s, his health began to decline, and he suffered a heart attack in 1953. After a series of strokes, he died in his sleep on August 14, 1961. His ashes were buried in Auburn, near the site of the family cabin. His hometown honored him by naming two streets after him, placing plaques, and holding conferences.
The only Arkham House book of Smith’s still in print is a reprint edition of A Rendezvous in Averoigne; also available is Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Wildside Press has three titles in print, and Hippocampus Press offers several books, including The Black Diamonds and a volume of correspondence. Night Shade Books has The Red World of Polaris and The Collected Fantasies in five volumes. “The Hashish-Eater” (and the tales and poems of many other old masters) can be read here: Horror Masters. For a look at some of Smith’s art, go to: Post Modern.