It seems to be a time of wrapping up reading projects. With this, I’ve read – if not reviewed – all of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction except for his juvenile novel The Black Diamonds.
Review: The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2011.
Obviously, with a title like that, you’re not going to get a lot of top of the line Clark Ashton Smith fiction here. For that, you need to get Night Shade Books’ five volume set of his stories. (I’ve reviewed volumes 1, 2, 4, and 5.) But, if you’re a Smith completist or even just a fan like me, you will want this book. Not only does it have reprints of rare Smith items, but it also prints, for the first time, several of his works.
Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger’s able “Foreword” has several surprises. It seems “The Abominations of Yondo” in 1925 was not Smith’s first published fiction or even his first fantastic fiction. It also gives a reason why Smith stopped submitting stories to Weird Tales magazine. It changed ownership in 1938, and, in an interview, the new owner, William J. Delaney, said he didn’t want “nasty” stories that left a “sickish feeling in the reader”, and no more stories where characters spent a lot of time talking in “French, German, Latin, etc”. Now, he may have been thinking of Smith for the “nasty” stories (the interviewer thinks Delaney was thinking of Smith’s “The Coming of the White Worm”), but I’m pretty sure it was Smith he was thinking of in the third banned category: “stories wherein the reader must constantly consult an unabridged dictionary”.
It seems that Smith eventually entered into a partnership with E. Hoffman Price. Smith would provide one of his unpublished manuscripts, and Price would modify it, and they would split the sales proceeds with Price taking two-thirds.
Donald Sidney-Fryer is the closest thing we have to a literary biographer of Smith as well as compiling bibliographies on Smith. He actually met Smith in 1958 and remained Smith’s friend until his death in 1961. His “Introduction: The Sorcerer Departs” was written in 1963 since Sidney-Fryer was worried Smith would be forgotten. This is the third reprinting of it since then.
He discusses Smith’s great debt to Baudelaire and how many of his stories can be seen as prose-poems like some of Bauelaire’s work and, indeed, “The Masque of the Red Death” from Smith’s other idol, Edgar Allan Poe. He maintains Smith’s translations into English of Baudelaire are the best (at least as of 1963) ever done. The technique and themes Smith developed in his poems also led into his stories. Sidney-Fryer sees Smith’s great themes as death, mortality, and love. He particularly compares Smith’s style to Sir Thomas Brown’s in its mix of Anglo-Saxon words with “Graceo-Latinate polysyllables”. Another theme, in line with Baudelaire, is the idea that temporal and necromantic power cannot cure the great bane of the Decadent Baudelaire: ennui.
“The Animated Sword” was Smith’s first story, written when he was 12 or 13. It’s very good for one so young, and I could easily see it as a story in a pulp magainze of the time though it has never been published before. The tale itself is about a demon-possessed sword. The prose is a bit wordy and drawn out, but Smith is writing in the style of an Oriental adventure which this is.
Like “The Animated Sword”, “The Red Turban” is another story set in India. It is actually a straightforward mystery story concerning the theft of a sapphire. It’s also previously unpublished, and Connors and Hilger note that Smith’s juvenalia was more concerned with plot than his mature work which concentrated on mood and atmosphere. It’s actually not that compelling of a story even though the detective figure regards his solution as the “masterpiece” of his career.
“Prince Alcouz and the Magician” was not published in Smith’s lifetime. It’s only two pages long and about how the Prince, whom his father fears will make a horrible Sultan due to his vices, consults a fortune teller with fatal consequences.
“The Malay Krise” was the first story Smith had published and appeared in 1910 only a month after the first publication of one of his poems. It’s short, barely three pages, though still long on plot, and the tale of Sujah Ali, the younger son of a Sultan who knew he would not inherit the throne. So he becomes a very successful pirate. But his operation is suppressed, and he flees to a secret hiding place which is betrayed by his wife, jealous at his infatuation with a beautiful young girl.
“The Ghost of Mohammed Din”, also published in 1910, was Smith’s first supernatural story and about a haunted house and the bet a man takes that he can stay there an entire night
“The Mahout”, published in 1911, is a tale of vengeance which has a bit of Poe’s “The Casque of Amontillado” in it because a man figures out how to punish an enemy with impunity though Smith provides a lot more motive and background to that central idea than Poe did in his story
“The Rajah and the Tiger”, which saw print in 1912, concerns a British colonial official and his dealings with a troublesome Rajah.
There was then a long break in Smith’s fiction writing. Starting in 1921, Smith produced some fiction very unlike his later work, often tales of ironic romance. In an appendix to the volume, Sidney-Fryer’s “O Amor Atque Realistas!: Clark Ashton Smith’s First Adult Fiction” presents some interesting background to these tales with material drawn from correspondence between Smith and his mentor, the poet George Sterling. First these stories were an attempt by Smith to bring in some money since, after World War One, the patronage that Sterling had arranged for him from wealthy Californians, had dried up and required him to go back to manual labor. (Smith seems to have liked full-time, temporary jobs for employment.) Second, Smith might have lost his virginity at age 15 and seems to have had a strict policy of only having sexual relationships with married women. Third, these stories are something rare in Smith’s work: realistic depictions of an actual historic time and place: the 1920s in Auburn, California.
Published in 1924, “Something New”, like many of Smith’s stories from this period, is a rueful and wry tale where women don’t come off that well. Here a man, a poet no less, tries making out with a woman. She’s had lots of boyfriends, and the usual remarks and tokens of affection do nothing for her, not even poetry. She echoes a famous comment by Baudilaire, “Anything, anything, providing it is new”. He thinks it’s too bad he doesn’t have his whip with him, “a little rough stuff can’t make matters any worse”, but he actually says it’s too bad no one ever gave her a spanking. And he does spank her. And she does like it. And she asks for it again.
“The Flirt” has a man meeting a beautiful woman on the beach. Perhaps as only a poetically minded young man could do, he compares her to something out of the Golden Age. The woman responds that she remembers the man from such a time when she was “not a queen or a goddess”. They embrace. Returning to the beach the next day, the man overhears her repeating the same lines to another man.
And what might Smith have had in mind with the title “The Perfect Woman”? An “idealist” looks for the perfect woman. He’s made love to “actresses, ingénues, milkmaids, nurses, nuns, typists, trollops, and married women”. After hurling a sponge cake at a woman during a party, he’s hauled off to a home for the “Mentally Exalted” where it is undetermined whether his “insanity came from disappointment, excess, prohibition, booze, or a Streptococcic infection”. On his way to the asylum, he sees a “rubber doll in a shop window” and asks to buy it, and he lives happily ever after with it.
“A Platonic Engagement” was never published in Smith’s lifetime, and he may have intended on expanding it at one time. It’s a romantic story and a realistic observation on how romance can slowly bloom. It’s also a tale concerning small town gossip. Anita, separated from her husband who won’t give her a divorce, develops feelings for one George, and friendship develops into something else.
“The Expert Lover” is another tale on the mercurial, fickle, overly sentimental and romantic delusions of women. Dora Cahill has a reliable, faithful – but, to her mind, boring – boyfriend in Tom. But then the handsome (and improbably named as if to emphasize the romance of chivalry) Lancelot Colin sweeps her off her feet with romantic cliches and improbable bits of poetry. Soon, Dora has abandoned Tom. But, of course, the inevitable happens.
There’s no romance in “The Parrot”. It’s a somewhat humorous tale of a man who murders a pawnbroker and is frustrated by his parrot who keeps distracting him.
That’s Burns as in Bobby Burns in “A Copy of Burns”, an ironic (if predictable) tale involving two transplanted Scotsmen, Andrew McGregor and his nephew John Malcolm. McGregor is very fond of the poetry of Robert Burns, and Malcolm isn’t. Just before he dies, McGregor calls his nephew in and gives him a collection of Burns and tells him to read it very carefully. More of his uncle’s obsession, he thinks. He’s disappointed when his uncle’s land isn’t willed to him. Indeed, no will is found.
Is “Checkmate”, a tale explicitly about adultery, mere imagination or Smith’s documented experience? Ethel is having an affair with “lounge lizard” Leonard. Unfortunately, her husband Jim has discovered Leonard’s love letters to her and warns her to behave while he leaves town on a business trip and insinuates strongly that he knows all about the affair. (Ethel doesn’t like Jim, but she likes his money.) But Ethel turns the tables on Jim.
After his juvenile novel The Black Diamonds, Smith never published a novel, but he came close with “The Infernal Star”. Connors and Hilger note this seems to be a story where, similar to what H. P. Lovecraft did with his Cthulhu Mythos tale “The Whisperer in the Darkness”, Smith intended to combine the elements of his various series — Hyperborea, Averoigne, Poseidonis, and Zothique — as well as mixing in elements of Lovecraft’s and Ambrose Bierce’s work. Unfortunately, it grew and became, even in this truncated form, one of the longest things Smith wrote. Realizing that he was, essentially, writing a short novel and knowing that Farnsworth Wright had many serials already in his inventory at Weird Tales, Smith’s usual place to sell stories, Smith stopped work on the story. That’s a shame because it is a gripping story of a man walking naked about Chicago early one morning and how he ended up that way after an accidental delivery of an occult tome instead of the rare edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility he ordered.
And then we get to those covert quasi-Smith publications from the pages of Spicy Mystery Stories. Henry Kuttner described the magazine’s formula as “sex, sadism, and destruction of valuable property”. I don’t know what Smith and Price made on the sale of “Dawn of Discord compared to what Weird Tales would have paid for it, but I can tell you that a reader interested in all that sex, sadism, and property destruction would have to pay a quarter an issue compared to 15 cents for Weird Tales.
The story kind of skimps on the property destruction bit, but there’s plenty of sex and sadism. The plot, a ludricuous skeleton of one, has John King inventing a time machine as World War Two is going on in Europe. His ambitious – and vague – plan is to prevent mankind from going bad. He’s going to go back 30,000 years and make sure humanity stays on the pacificst path. But then he encounters the scantily clad Ania, her slave master Jurth who is riling everybody up into extreme aggression via some machine, and Jurth’s beautiful queen who tries to seduce the secret of the time travel out of King. Whippings and a catfight ensues. But, hey, at least King learns how to talk to girls.
The Kuttner formula is more strictly enforced with “House of the Monoceros”. The narrator is hired by an aristocrat to investigate reports of a monster around the ancestral home he’s just taken possession of. On his way there, through his binoculars, he spots a naked babe behind bars in the upper story. Arriving, the beautiful secretary comes on to him. Besides the monsters, there are a lot of men disappearing in the area. This one makes, on its own terms, somewhat more sense than “Dawn of Discord”.
“The Dead Will Cuckold You” was a pleasant surprise, a poetic drama from Smith told in six scenes and set in Zothique. It’s a little risque for Smith in that it blatantly mentions homosexuality with the “catamite” Kalguth, assistant to Natanasna, a sorcerer. The plot involves King Smaragad who perhaps correctly suspects his Queen Somelis is sleeping with the wandering poet Galeor. He poisons Galeor. Then he threatens Natansna, but his magic makes Natansna impervious to Smaragad’s threats. However, the king then threatens Natansna’s lover, Kalguth. In revenge, Natansna reanimates Galeor. The title is truth in advertising.
We also get the original, shorter version of Smith’s longest poem, “The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil”.
That’s a lot of information.
Do you find it increases your enjoyment of a story, or author, to find out more about them?
Occasionally, it adds to my enjoyment of their work. Mostly it just satisfies my curiosity. And there are several writers I have no desire to read a biography of even if one is available.
The flip side is not true. Reading about the life of a crazy outsider artist does not make me see their work as any more enjoyable or insightful just because of their unusual life.
I’ve always considered Clark Ashton Smith a vastly underrated writer. I read those Night Shade volumes when they were published and that only solidified my opinion of Clark Ashton Smith’s work. Although H. P. Lovecraft’s audience seems to grow each year, Clark Ashton Smith inches closer to obscurity.
I agree. He was fiction writer and poet. I have Hippocampus Press’ three volume set of his poetry and translations.
I think you’re right about his reputation. If he isn’t going into obscurity, he doesn’t seem to be getting any more popular despite his connection with Lovecraft. There are a few Smith tribute volumes out there, and I’ve read none.
I believe Brian Stableford has said Clark Ashton Smith is one of his favorite authors.