“Outside the Human Aquarium”

I’ll be doing a post on each essay in Outside the Human Aquarium since readers seem to like that format.

Review: “Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton Smith“, Brian Stableford, 1987, 1995.

This essay is the reason I bought this collection. 

I found Stableford appreciative and insightful on Smith. Stableford points out that Smith had no interest in the “human condition”.  Like the other two of Weird Tales‘s “Three Musketeers”, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard, he is not appreciated by some readers.

Stableford argues that each of the three are sometimes cited as having weaknesses which are really the result of peculiar idiosyncrasies. 

Lovecraft’s allegedly stilted prose is the result, to Stableford, of “anxious consciousness”, Howard’s reputed hackneyed blood-and-thunder is hard-bitten romanticism, and Smith’s exotic vocabulary and elaborate descriptions are an attempt to escape the restrictions and boredom of the world with, to use Arthur Rimbaud’s phrase, the “alchemy of words”.

Smith was influenced by the French Decadents who were, in turn, inspired partly by Edgar Allan Poe and the Jansenist thought of France, the belief that God had created the world and then abandoned it, that nowhere in the bleak universe is any real comfort to be had. This influence of the Decadents shows up in the drug element in many of Smith’s stories and also the Oriental elements – especially in his earliest stories. 

There is no real comfort to be had in Smith’s stories, just a temporary respite from ennui.  As Stableford notes, Smith’s stories are never tragedies. Tragedy can be avoided, and the fate of Smith’s protagonist never can.  ‘

He also sees an element of the fatal lure of the exotic beyond the mundane – most epitomized in “The City of the Singing Flame”. 

I think Stableford is very insightful in noting the psychological escape (as well as money) that the stories of Smith’s most productive period – the autumn of 1929 to the spring of 1934 – provided him. It was a time of great stress for Smith. He was poor and tending to two aged parents in the isolation of a primitive cabin (no running water, no electricity) in Auburn, California. 

Yet, that period saw his best work. After Smith’s parents died, his production dropped off markedly in quality and quantity. 

Stableford also notes that the de-mystification usually required by science fiction was at odds with Smith’s intended alchemy which is why his sf is not as good as his fantasies. A good example of this is the sequel to “The City of the Singing Flame”, “Beyond the Singing Flame”.   

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