Clark Ashton Smith was one of those authors it took me a long time to warm to.
I’d certainly heard of him in the late 1970s when I read Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and its section on the “Three Musketeers” of Weird Tales: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.
My first encounter with Smith was “The Return of the Sorcerer” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1, and I wasn’t impressed.
However, at Arcana 34 in 2004, I heard Tim Powers talk about Smith and his admiration for him. (The title of Powers’ Romantic poets and vampires novel, The Stress of Her Regard, is from a Smith poem.) The dealer’s room had a copy of The Last Oblivion: The Best Fantastic Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith. After reading it, I was hooked on Smith, and, eventually, you’ll get some retro reviews of the Night Shade Books reprints of all of Smith’s fiction.
Before that came along, though, Smith was hard to find and you had to shell out money for expensive collector hardbacks like this.
A retro review from February 4, 2006 …
Smith is an author I recently discovered, so I make no claims to being an expert on the different editions of his work. This is only the second collection of his I’ve read. The first was A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, and I would recommend that as introduction rather than this volume. It has a sampling of Smith’s many series, his fantasy and his science fiction, and much stronger examples of the feverish, poetic prose which made him a special fantasy writer. The stories in this collection are not as memorable. Smith reconciled himself to hackwork on occasion in order to support himself and his aged parents. And part of that was science fiction, a genre he had no special knowledge of before writing it. Smith wasn’t particularly interested in science and no lover of technology since he thought the world over mechanized. For Smith, the point of fiction was to create an alien world, so he had little patience for the expository passages of pulp science fiction or depicting individual characters. He regarded a truly alien world as one inherently inimical to the mental health of a human. His strongest science fiction is often of the horrific sort.
His trilogy of stories set on a common Mars, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis“, “The Dweller in the Gulf” (in a restored text noticeably different than earlier published versions), and “Vulthoom” all have lingering alien horrors lurking underneath the cities of the more modern Martians. The human explorers who encounter them all have their bodies or integrity maimed to one degree to another. The first two are particularly effective horror stories.
“The Monster of the Prophecy” features the old standby of a human caught up in alien intrigues. But, after being used as a pawn in a palace coup offworld and forced in to exile, the poet hero (Smith was an accomplished poet) finds the contentment and respect denied him on Earth — even if he is exiled in an alien body. “The Letter from Mohaun Los” has Smith again in satirical mode. Here the target is the technophilia of the science fiction published by Hugo Gernsback as well as the modern age’s meddling and obsessive legalities. “The Plutonian Drug” is, as you would expect, a drug trip story. Here the drug enables visions five hours in the past and future simultaneously. “The Immortals of Mercury” is another tale of underground alien superscience horror.
Smith called “The Eternal World” the hardest story of his to write. Here the attraction isn’t so much the human time traveler’s journey to a dimension with no time as the poetic language of apocalypse at the end. Of all the stories in the book, “The Demon of the Flower“, a re-working of the prose poem “The Flower-Devil“, is the closest to the fantasies which Smith’s reputation primarily rests. Its prose is lush, its world decadent, its flora sinister, and its heroics futile. “A Star-Change” is a working out of Smith’s contention that journeying to an alien world would work profound and unwelcome changes on a human’s mind. “The Secret of the Cairn” has deliberate evocations of the Garden of Evil story, and is another Smith story of an artist finding no succor or inspiration in encountering the bizarre and alien.
Most of these stories are from 1932-1935. The one exception is 1954’s “Phoenix“. As the editors note, its science was dated even when it was published, and its ending is predictable. But it offers the joys of poet Smith in top form from the opening image of a black sun occulting the stars of Earth’s sky to its ending of doomed love. Only Smith could wring poetry out of a list of elements as a dying mankind, imprisoned under the surface of a frigid Earth, attempts to jumpstart the dead sun with ancient nukes.
Fans of Smith will very much appreciate the long and informative introduction by editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. They talk about each story’s genesis and the reaction Smith’s work got when first published. Many future science fiction luminaries were inspired by it. Others hated what they saw as irrational and pretentious.
Smith was a special author and worth reading though his best qualities are not often on display here.