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CLARK ASHTON SMITH
I have fallen under the spell of Clark Ashton Smith and entered his labyrinth of short stories. It started out as a simple task of selecting a pre-sorted bundle from his leavings of over 100 tales, most of them written in a creative spurt between 1929 and 1933. I picked his first collection published by Arkham House in 1942 called Out of Space and Time. I surmised that with the publisher's reputation for discernment in this field, I could assign a "best of" title and move on.
I was wrong.
But first of all, some backgrounding. Smith wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s, primarily Weird Tales. The idiosyncrasies of that market influenced CAS's choices of theme and presentation, as did his personal need for monetary gain. This explains some of his verbose, embellished style—some have called it "bedizened lapidary" and "piquant" (Lin Carter in introductions to Poseidonis, Ballantine, SBN 345-03353-1-125, c.1973, p.5 and Xiccarph, Ballantine, SBN 345-02501-6-125, c.1972, p.3)—but, more importantly, Smith considered himself a poet and applied his prose language accordingly. Since he received no formal education after the fifth grade, some psychobabblers have typically speculated that overcompensation and insecurity obsessed him into a very erudite, exotic and obscure style. It can admittedly be a burden to a Literature a la Hemingway readership, but once dedicated to the texture, rhythm, and feel of Smith's imaginings, the unique rewards circumvent any extra, mental grind.
Most of his stories have been placed into particular cycles distinguished by shared locations and sometimes the same characters. He was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, especially with HPL, enjoyed a life-long correspondence starting in the 1920s. As a result, they shared story ideas, philosophies, and certain cycles, mainly the Cthulhu Mythos. Although Smith is to fantasy literature as H.P. Lovecraft is to horror, he was in some ways a greater creative mind and more influential to modern writers and readers of this genre.
That said, however, I do find a lot of CAS unreadable in the context of the 21 st century. Vast amounts of his stories are dated, derivative, and boring. He wrote in all three of the phantasmagorical genres: horror, science fiction, and fantasy. I find the first two pale reflections of the third. For example, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis is set on Mars—science fiction without the pesky details like spacesuits—yet it is a horror story that could have easily taken place on Earth. The success of CAS's fantasy tales lies in his creation of atmosphere, mood, landscape, and setting. It is the incredibly rich and descriptive embellishments used to magically transport the imagination to unique worlds and situations otherwise inconceivable and rarely visited, if at all, by other authors working in the English language.
Before delving into his prose—I'm purposefully staying clear of his poetry and leaving it to more qualified criticism—I'll be following the path of other scholastic hounds and publishers by fragmenting Smith's collection into his various cycles. There is no particular arrangement to the cycles, but I suggest you read them in the order presented, as that is the way I experienced them and may add a wee bit more cohesion to CAS's unwieldy and astonishing magnum opus.
And, maybe I can finally come up with that "best of" list I've been wandering the maze in search of.