Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was one of the three great contributors to the magazine Weird Tales (along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan) -- and some would argue that he was the best of them all. Certainly, the evidence of two new paperback reissues, a collection of substantial critical essays, the first volume of a scholarly edition of his collected fantasies, a recent volume of letters, and much else hint at the ongoing literary vitality of this fascinating and controversial writer.

Let's begin with some testimonials. "In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception," wrote Lovecraft, "Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living." America's two senior grandmasters of fantasy and science fiction, Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury, clearly modeled their own early "poetic" styles after his. According to Bradbury, Smith "filled my mind with incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures on those worlds and in those cities." And he did this largely through his gorgeous style and the courtly pacing of his sentences. "Take one step across the threshold of his stories," declares Bradbury, "and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture -- into language."

Smith's ornate diction and syntax have often been likened to prose poetry, or even to incantation. Not surprisingly, some readers can't bear his "grand manner" and simply resent, in Smith's words, "all that savors of loftiness, exaltation, nobility, sublimity, and aristocracy." Yet, as he explained in a letter, he merely employs the full resources of the language "to achieve precision, variety and richness. The words are never plugged in for their own sake, but simply because they expressed a fine shade of meaning or gave the tone-color that I wanted." You can hear Smith's distinctive "painted speech" in the opening sentences of his very first fantasy story, "The Abominations of Yondo" (1926):

"The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a gulf no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the grey dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orb-like mountains which rise from its pitted and wrinkled plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the watchful gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished, and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells."

In Smith's best stories, this elaborate style reinforces his sublime, death-obsessed nightmares. For example, his masterpiece, "The Dark Eidolon," requires a language full of majesty just to match a sorcerer's grisly, operatic vengeance on the king who wronged him. It begins this way:

"On Zothique, the last continent of earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned. . . . Many were the necromancers and magicians of Zothique, and the infamy and marvel of their doings were legended everywhere in the latter days. But among them all there was none greater than Namirrha."

After reading sentences like these you know you're embarking on a real Story by a real Storyteller, one working in the tradition of the Old Testament, the fairy tale and the Arabian Nights. This is vision, opium-dream, imagination. In his more ordinary interplanetary adventures, such as "Marooned in Andromeda," Smith can relate a series of alien encounters with clipped, reportorial efficiency -- and thus betray his lack of engagement with the material. Better are his sardonic tales touched with sly humor, like "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" -- about a professional thief in the courtly rogue mold of Lord Dunsany's Nuth and Jack Vance's Cugel -- which opens "I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I have no longer any other." Similarly, in "The Seven Geases" -- a geas is a curse -- one degenerate tribe of humanoids is neatly characterized by "the uses to which their captives were put before death and after it."

Smith's finest work is suffused with imagery of death, alienation and, above all, loss (as Steve Behrends points out in one of the insightful essays in The Freedom of Fantastic Things). Smith's protagonists seldom come to happy ends. In the Poe-esque "A Night in Malneant," a lonely wanderer enters an almost deserted city and finds that he can never escape the memory of his dead beloved. In "Xeethra" -- a sorrowful Borgesian parable about the inexorableness of destiny -- a young goatherd comes to believe himself to be a great prince. In the heartbreaking "Morthylla," a sexually jaded poet learns that no mere woman can match the love of a lamia.

In his letters, Smith writes with a surprisingly businesslike plainness, except when he mocks his own arch style, usually in letters to Lovecraft, with solemn headers like "From the audience-room of the throned worm, in the nighted Kingdom of Antchar, on the road that is no longer used by living men between Abchaz and Georgia." Most of the exchanges between "Klarkash-ton" and "Ech-Pi-El" are about the tribulations of the writing trade. Weird Tales and Amazing Stories were constantly asking Smith to rein in the gorgeous descriptions and deliver more action. Needing the money to support his elderly parents, he would oblige, though always intending to restore his compromised texts (which is the justification for the splendid Night Shade Press edition of his collected fantasies, along with its editors' valuable notes on each story).

After his parents died in the 1930s, Smith gradually abandoned fiction and returned to his first love, poetry. As Fred Chappell says in an essay from The Freedom of Fantastic Things, Smith was a very good poet, whether in the apocalyptic phantasmagoria of "The Hashish-Eater" ("Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams") or the many shorter, fin-de-siecle meditations on love and ennui with titles like "The Tears of Lilith," "Bacchante," "Ode to the Abyss" and "Selenique." At times Smith beautifully reproduces the mellifluousness of Paul Verlaine, as in this stanza from "Nyctalops":

We have seen the satyrs

Their ancient loves renew


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