Literature of the outré and the fantastic reached a milestone this March with the publication by Penguin Classics of The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, an annotated selection of stories, prose poems and verse by Clark Ashton Smith, edited by S. T. Joshi. One of its most important precursors was Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, a book of signal importance to the study of Smith’s work, which contains some of the most trenchant remarks about the importance of language in fantastic literature this side of Ursula K. Le Guin's “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. This review was written in 2003 for All Hallows: The Journal of The Ghost Story Society.
SELECTED LETTERS OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH
edited by Scott Connors and David E. Schultz
Arkham House, 2003; xxvii + 417 pages; Hardcover; ISBN 0-87054-182-X
In spite of detractors who claim his work is too richly ornamented and his plots either excessively elaborate or little more than trellises upon which to festoon his verbal bouquets, American poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) has never been without his champions. Against shifts in literary fashion and continuing hostility from a significant segment of American readers and critics against any trace of sophistication in its art and entertainment, Smith’s adherents have continued to publish and promote greater understanding of his work: from the attention paid his early poetry by such literary luminaries as George Sterling, H. L. Mencken, and Ambrose Bierce in the early decades of the 20th century; through his reception by the readership of the science fiction and horror pulps during the 1930s; the slow, steady accumulation of his work in hardcover volumes by Arkham House since the 1940s; the widespread exposure given to Smith’s story cycles and poems set in worlds widely separated from our own in terms of time, space, and dimension by Lin Carter and Betty Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series during the 1970s; and the painstaking work of such genre scholars as Donald Sidney-Fryer, Steve Behrends, Scott Connors, Ron Hilger, David E. Schultz, S. T. Joshi, and others in establishing the inception, creation, and market-driven adaptation of Smith’s work; the world has been granted a clearer and fuller appreciation of Smith’s aesthetic and the scope of his accomplishment. The Smith Renaissance of the past two decades has seen collections of his short stories published by a number of presses specializing in horror and fantasy, as well as the UK publisher Gollancz and the University of Nebraska Press; a five-volume series from Night Shade Books devoted to the complete fiction based on texts carefully edited from all known sources (several of which have only recently come to light); a volume of critical essays devoted to Smith published by Hippocampus Press (The Freedom of Fantastic Things); the emergence of a new journal devoted to Smith studies (Lost Worlds); a selection of the best fantastic poetry and the first complete edition of Smith’s verse, both from Hippocampus Press; the announcement of a full-length biography from the indefatigable Scott Connors; one volume collecting the correspondence between Smith and George Sterling (The Shadow of the Unattained) as well as another planned to collect the correspondence between Smith and H. P. Lovecraft; and the present volume—one of the cornerstones upon which all future Smith studies will be based.
This first comprehensive collection of Smith’s correspondence casts light on all aspects of Smith’s life and artistic endeavors, revealing an extremely inquisitive, independent autodidact capable of articulating his creative intentions with enviable grace and clarity. Smith’s limitations as a draughtsman may compromise many of his drawings and paintings, but the man who wrote these letters knows exactly what he wishes to convey when he takes up his pen, and is fully aware of the verbal and rhetorical tools he must use to accomplish these ends.
‘My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.’ Letter 109, to H. P. Lovecraft (c. 24 October 1930).
‘The problem of “style” in writing is certainly fascinating and profound. I find it highly important, when I begin a tale, to establish at once what might be called the appropriate “tone.” If this is clearly determined at the start I seldom have much difficulty in maintaining it; but if it isn’t, there is likely to be trouble. Obviously, the style of “Mohammed’s Tomb” wouldn’t do for “The Ghoul”; and one of my chief preoccupations in writing this last story was to exclude images, ideas and locutions which I would have used freely in a modern story.’ Letter to 112, to H. P. Lovecraft (16 November 1930).
From an early point in his career, Smith was also conscious of the wide gulf separating his artistic vision from that embraced by the majority of his contemporaries, reflecting upon it with bitter humor, while resisting the lure of outright misanthropy:
‘I’ve no quarrel with the slogan of “art for life’s sake,” but I think the current definition or delimitation of what constitutes life is worse than ridiculous. Anything that the human imagination can conceive of becomes thereby a part of life, and poetry such as mine, properly considered, is not an “escape,” but an extension. I have the courage to think that I am rendering as much “service” by it (damn the piss-pot word!) as I would by psycho-analyzing the male and female adolescents or senescents of a city slum in the kind of verse that slops all over the page and makes you feel as if somebody had puked on you. [. . .]’ Letter 86, to George Sterling (27 October 1926)
‘One could attack the current literary humanism, with its scorn of all that has no direct anthropological bearing, as a phase of the general gross materialism of the times. If imaginative poetry is childish and puerile, then Shakespeare was a babbling babe in his last days, when he wrote that delightful fantasy, The Tempest. And all the other great Romantic masters, Keats, Poe, Baudelaire, Shelley, Coleridge, etc., are mentally inferior to every young squirt, or old one, who has read Whitman and Freud, and renounced the poetic chimeras in favour of that supreme superstition, Reality.’
‘Ben [De Casseres] says somewhere that poets pay their debts in stars and are paid, in wormwood. But I’ll pay some of mine in nitric acid.’ Letter 87, to George Sterling (4 November 1926).
‘Misanthropy is the inevitable end, if you have both sense and sensibility. But it’s a waste of spiritual energy: people aren’t worth despising. They seem to exist for the same reason that Coventry Patmore said the Cosmos existed: “To make dirt cheap.” ’ Letter 79, to Donald A. Wandrei (24 July 1926).
Smith’s was a lonely and often desperate existence, tending to elderly parents on their homestead in California, his grand visions shared with a few close friends in the vicinity, a few kindred souls among his correspondents, and a small but loyal readership among lovers of poetry and fantastic fiction. At the encouragement of friends, he began writing short stories for the pulp magazines, instilling them with the same strange, multihued fire that had characterized his verse, but as his parents became increasingly frail, these fiction sales became ever more crucial, and with this necessity came the need for grudging compromise, a bane that continues to plague the collector of Smith’s fiction to this day, and a steady source of frustration for a man who crafted his tales as meticulously as he did his verse:
‘I would have told [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth] Wright to go chase himself in regard to “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” if I didn’t have the support of my parents, and debts to pay off.’ Letter 130, to H. P. Lovecraft (c. early November 1931).
‘ “Necromancy in Naat” seems the best of my more recently published weirds; though Wright forced me to mutilate the ending.**********’ Letter 209, to August Derleth (13 April 1937).
In a letter dated 27 January 1930 Smith reassured Lovecraft (and himself) that the ‘full text’ could always ‘be restored’ whenever his tales were ‘brought out in book-form’, a project he was not fully capable of accomplishing due to poor eyesight and the scattering of his manuscripts by the time his short story collections first started to appear from Arkham House, though Smith did manage to produce one slim volume of preferred texts at his own expense in 1933, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies. Often Smith edited his own stories following their initial or subsequent editorial rejection, paring away descriptive passages, downplaying eroticism, simplifying vocabulary, and generally making them more generically appealing, while attempting to retain as much of the original’s unique flavor as possible. In other instances, notably the disastrous publication of ‘The Eidolon of the Blind’ as ‘Dweller in Martian Depths’ in the March 1933 issue of Wonder Stories, with the addition of a new character and a happy ending by the editorial staff, magazines made their own substantial changes to Smith’s work without his consent. This constant editorial interference, lengthy delays and legal disputes over monies owed him for work already published, the unfortunate tendency of such valuable correspondents as Sterling and Lovecraft to abandon him through death, and the saddening release of the burden imposed upon him by his ailing parents led to a marked reduction of Smith’s fictional output, a resumption of his verse on a smaller, often more intimate scale, and the discovery of a hitherto unknown talent for carving outré shapes from local stone.
Smith’s subsequent life, his loves, the languages he taught himself to aid his appreciation for French and Spanish verse, his love for the geography of the region in which he lived, the steady appreciation he received from the discerning few, and the wider recognition he began to receive as the first quakes in the fantasy boom started to register are all chronicled here as well. Connors and Schultz have done a splendid job of gathering these letters, adding succinct glosses to the text where needed, providing photographs of Smith and his colleagues to highlight the text at different junctures in the man’s life, and setting all this in context with a brief bio-critical introduction. This is an essential book for anyone interested in the work of Clark Ashton Smith or the aesthetics of fantasy.