Horror Fiends: Clark Ashton Smith

Originally published in Shadows of Centralis Monthly Magazine: Issue #11 (February 2023).

Later coming to be referred to as part of Weird Tales’ ‘illustrious triumvirate’, with his name placed alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith was a prolific writer of poetry and weird fiction. Switching creative direction, in later life Smith then dedicated his efforts to visual arts, immersing himself in the mediums of painting, drawing and sculpture.

Son of parents Timeus and Fanny Smith, Clark Ashton Smith was born in Placer County, California on January 13, 1893, and grew up in the small area of Auburn, California. Following an initial standard path of schooling, partly due to his struggles with agoraphobia, Smith was home educated. An insatiable consumer of books, with his preferred writers including the likes of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Hans Christian Andersen, Madame d’Aulnoy, and Edgar Allan Poe, Smith was also keenly interested in the etymology of words. Inherently studious, gifted with a superb memory, Smith was an enthusiast of foreign languages; teaching himself both French and Spanish.

Inspired by the fantastical tales of the Arabian Nights, coupled with his interest in the Orient, by the time he was in his mid-teens, Smith had penned a number of adventure stories. While his works piqued the interest of publications such as The Black Cat and Overland Monthly, Smith was also a prolific writer of poetry. His poetic pieces gained the attention of George Sterling, a prominent writer, poet, and playwright who championed Smith, and introduced him to the works of Baudelaire. Aged nineteen, with the support George Sterling, Smith’s first book of poems, The Star-Treader and other Poems, was published. A few years later, in 1918, another of Smith’s book of poems, Odes and Sonnets, was published.

Later reprinted in various publications, Clark Ashton Smith’s The City of the Singing Flame was first published in the July 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. Taking partial inspiration from his visits to Crater Ridge, a location close to Donner Pass, California, and near to the Nevada border, Smith tells the story of a mysterious inter-dimensional door way, and an esoteric flame which beckons creatures to their deaths.

Written in 1920, Smith’s The Hashish Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil was first published in Smith’s anthology of poems Ebony and Crystal, published in 1922. One of the consequences of this publication was the friendship Smith forged with H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of whom was greatly impressed by Smith’s works. The two remained friends until Lovecraft’s premature death in 1937. Holding a mutual appreciation for each other’s works and worlds, Smith and Lovecraft sometimes loaned from each other, and Smith is widely considered a contributor to the Cthulhu Mythos.

A few years later, with the financial support of some of his literary friends, in 1925, another book of Smith’s poetry, Sandalwood, was published. As prolific a poet and writer Smith was, though, his creative ventures often left him in financial straits. In addition to his literary efforts, as he looked to support both himself and his aging parents, Smith worked in a range of manual jobs, including digging, fruit picking, and woodcutting.

With a combination of creative zeal and financial necessity, over the first half of the 1930’s, Smith penned more than one hundred short stories. The general nature of these works blended aspects of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Published by the Auburn Journal in 1933, one thousand copies of The Shadow and Other Fantasies, a volume of six of Smith’s stories, was released.

Upon H.P. Lovecraft’s discovery of Clark Ashton Smith and his work in the early-1920’s, the two writers quickly became close friends and shared extensive communications by letter until the former’s premature death in 1937. In these letters, the fellow writers expressed their thoughts and views on each other’s work, as well as on the wider literary scene.
Reflecting in a letter to Smith on his The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, a story written in 1929, later published in Weird Tales (November 1931), H.P. Lovecraft commented, “I must not delay in expressing my well-nigh delirious delight at The Tale of Satampra Zeiros’… what an atmosphere! You have achieved in its fullest glamour the exact Dunsanian touch which I find almost impossible to duplicate…”
Forming part of his Hyperborean ‘cycle’, in The tale of Satampra Zeiros, Smith introduces the esoteric creature Tsathoggua; this supernatural entity entered into the Cthulhu Mythos as H.P. Lovecraft featured the being in his story The Whisperer in Darkness (written in 1930, first published in Weird Tales, August 1931).

‘Strange Tales’, October 1932. Published by Clayton Publications.
‘Weird Tales’, April 1938. Cover artwork by Virgil Finlay.
‘Avon Fantasy Reader’, No. 9, 1949.

With regards to his many of his short stories and poems, Smith created and/ or made use of several different fantastical/ geographical settings, including Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, and Zothique; creating several ‘cycles’.

Averoigne: Blending historical and geographical aspects of medieval France with fantastical creations and visions of his own imagination, with the Averoigne setting Smith explored the worlds of magic and the supernatural. Characters created by Smith include the wizard Gaspard du Nord of Vyones, the impious saint, the Bishop of Nimes, and the witch Mère Antoinette, amongst others.

Hyperborea: Within his created, prehistoric, fantasy setting of Hyperborea, Smith invented a world of humans, semi-humans, and a plethora of gods. Forming part of his Hyperborean cycle, Smith’s supernatural creation Tsathoggua (first introduced in Smith’s The Tale of Satampra Zeiros) became part of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Mars: Like much of Smith’s works, short stories which make up the writer’s Mars cycle first appeared in publications such as Weird Tales, and includes tales such as To The Daemon: An Invocation, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, and Sadastor.

Poseidonis: Atlantis-inspired, perhaps taking the lead from Algernon Blackwood, who namechecks the mysterious realm in his short story Sand, Smith offers a selection of tales centred around Poseidonis.

Zothique: Comprising Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, aspects of Africa, and Indonesia, Zothique is Smith’s vision of the last inhabited continent on earth, while the remaining lands of the planet have sunken and/ or resurfaced.

The mid to late-1930’s was a time of much tragedy for Smith; both of his parents died, as did his friends H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom took him own life. Deeply distressed, Smith withdrew significantly from the literary scene. Focussing his time on creating pieces of art, as well as poetry, ahead of stories, Smith looked to take a different creative direction. Via Arkham House, a publishing firm initially established to produce copies of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, Smith saw the publication of a number of his books.

Suffering with ill-health, a coronary attack lay Smith low in 1953. Smith continued, though, in his creative endeavours, and also married his fiancé Carolyn Jones Dorman in 1954. Establishing a settled family life with his wife and her existing children, Smith continued to concentrate his efforts on his artwork, as well as enjoying local walks. With his ailing health plaguing him, following a number of strokes, Smith died on August 14, 1961, he was sixty-eight years old.

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