Over at Two-Gun Raconteur, Brian Leno reminds us that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Clark Ashton Smith, and he has a brief but informative interview with Donald Sidney-Fryer. Meanwhile, on the REHupa email list, Dennis McHaney has been giving us some grief about how moribund our blog has been lately, so let’s at least take a few moments to honor CAS, one of the “Three Musketeers” of Weird Tales, a friend and correspondent of REH.
Smith’s poetry had been appearing in magazines since 1910, but it’s likely that Howard’s first exposure to his work would have been in Weird Tales, which published the first of his poems in 1923. Not long after beginning his correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, Howard said that Frank Belknap Long and Smith were “writers and poets whose work I very much admire, having carefully preserved all of their poems…that have appeared in Weird Tales since I first made my acquaintance with the magazine.”
Smith did not begin writing fiction until about 1928, but he wrote prolifically between 1930 and 1935, before tapering off. His work is the most stylistically lush of the “Three Musketeers,” certainly, richly imaginative and sporting such a bejeweled vocabulary that it’s best to keep an unabridged dictionary handy. (Don’t let the vocab thing keep you from trying him though — really, it’s dazzling but relatively painless.)
Howard and Smith began corresponding in 1933 — why they did not do so earlier is one of the many unexplained mysteries of Howard’s life. As far as I know, Smith’s letters to Howard did not survive — possibly they were destroyed in the same trash fire that consumed the letters from Lovecraft to REH. (Dr. Howard was cleaning house in preparation for selling it and moving to Ranger. Many loose papers were gathered up, by either Dr. Howard or someone helping him, and burned, presumably including many of the letters from REH’s correspondents. The letters from Lovecraft survived only in transcriptions, some truncated, made by Arkham House before this incident.) We can be glad that at least some of Howard’s letters to Smith were preserved, though, because they reveal more of his “mystical” side than he could reveal in his more voluminous correspondence with Lovecraft. HPL was a thorough-going materialist and rationalist, and pooh-poohed any ventures by REH into the realm of the uncanny or seemingly supernatural. Smith, though, apparently welcomed such speculations, as can be inferred from this 1934 remark by Howard:
“I read with very great interest your comments on the forces that play upon the earth. It may well be that human life is affected vastly more than we guess by electrons or emanations from the outside. After all, we know so little about the universe, even the wisest of us. I’ve often wondered if, in the legends and myths of the ancients that have come down to us through the ages, there does not exist a foundation of truth, twisted and distorted beyond recognition.”
In an earlier letter is one of my favorite of Howard’s “mystical” remarks, again sparked by something Smith had said:
“I agree with you that little is actually known about the sources of human motivation. I’ve wondered if, in a thousand years or [so], people wouldn’t regard present day psychologists as we regard the alchemists of the middle ages; some phases of their work, anyway. It certainly does seem that certain individuals occasionally get in contact with forces outside themselves; something like cogwheels grinding away in their spirits, that suddenly, perhaps only momentarily, slip into the notches of gigantic, unseen cogwheels of cosmic scope. Maybe that’s what is meant by getting ‘in tune with the infinite.’ Sometimes it seems to me that the interlocking of unseen cogwheels lifts a man on to heights he would never have attained by his own efforts. This would explain the fact that a mediocre man sometimes attains great success and fame; explain also the unexpected and unexplainable catastrophes that often startle mankind in the fall of a great one. Say some cosmic law causes these cogwheels (I can think of no better name for it) to work together for a space, the wheels within perfectly matching the wheels without. Some man happens to [be] placed in a position where he is lifted by the turning of the wheels. Apparently by his own efforts, but really blindly, he mounts to dizzy heights; he is acclaimed and praised, dazzled by his own glory. Then the same cosmic law that locked the wheels, unlocks them, leaving him in the gap. Dazed, stunned and helpless he comes down crashing in the ruins of his glory, and neither he nor anyone else ever understands why this man who seemed so invincible the day before, seemed so unable ultimately to avert the final disaster. This is mere supposition, of course, and not even any attempt to put forward a theory. But I have seen, and have read of, so many mediocre men in high positions, and wondered how they ever got there; and there are so many cases where men who had reputations for greatness finally made the most stupid blunders, and acted in a manner so inconsistent with their former actions well, it just set me meditating.”
And of course, it is to Howard’s letters to Smith that we are indebted for insights into the creation of the Conan series, such as:
“While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present or even the future work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen or rather, off my typewriter almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storywriting. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man hiniself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.”
To celebrate Smith, why not hop over to The Eldritch Dark and read one of his stories. Maybe “The Return of the Sorcerer,” since it was apparently one that made a real impact on Howard. He said in a letter to Lovecraft, “That he is capable of writing straight horror-stuff is evident by such tales as ‘The Return of the Sorcerer’ in Strange Tales, which was, as I wrote the editor, one of the most intolerably hideous stories I ever read – in other words, a sheer masterpiece.” And then later he wrote to Smith himself, “I envy you your knack of making the fantastic seem real. I particularly remember your remarkable ‘Return of the Sorcerer’ in Strange Tales. That was no story for one with weak nerves. The horror you evoked was almost unbearable. I have read and written weird stuff for more years than I like to remember, and it takes a regular literary earthquake to touch my callous soul. But it is the honest truth that my hair stood up when I read that story. Poe never wrote anything that congealed my blood like that did. I wrote the editor to that effect.”
[A little warning to those who, like me, have trouble turning off their internal copy-editor when reading: the stories posted at The Eldritch Dark could stand a good going-over by a proofreader. Most of them are not (in my experience) so bad as to put me off reading the stories, but really, some Smith fans could do a real service by cleaning up those texts.]
There are far too many Smith stories for me to go about recommending them here: check out the Bookshelf entry on Smith to find more REH comments. The Smith story that gave me the worst case of the creeps was “Mother of Toads” — not for the weak of constitution. While you’re over there, don’t fail to check out his poetry, either.
Like REH, Clark Ashton Smith was truly one for the ages!