The Emperor of Dreams (2008)

Here’s one of three pieces I wrote about my favourite Weird Fiction writers – HP Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson and Clark Ashton Smith. This one, on Smith, appeared in Death Ray 12 (the first one, we did two by mistake). I love his work, although I did get an early version of Champion of Mars rejected most horribly by a publisher for aping his purply style – it’s really easy for me to get influenced by writers I’m reading! Three fantasy short stories I wrote were also inspired by his work and Fritz Leiber’s work (Smith sat somewhere between Lovecraft and Leiber on the weirdness scale), and were thankfully better received. These are “Weapon of War”, “The Folly of Emir Benbenbazir”, and “Man of Stone”. Whaddya know? You can buy these on the Angry Robot website for your e-readers…

There was another, lesser known author who appeared alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in the pages of Weird Tales. Guy Haley makes a case for the literary genius of Clark Ashton Smith.

Mention the name of HP Lovecraft, and people with more than a passing interest in SF literature will know who you are talking about. Same with Robert E Howard.  In the minds of genre initiates, these alumni of early 20th century magazine Weird Tales have a statue in the intangible SF hall of fame. Both contributed enormously to the genres of SF, horror and fantasy. Both had tragically short lives.

But there was a third writer, a writer whose work also formed a mainstay of Weird Tale’s content, he was also a member of Lovecraft’s famed circle of correspondents. A writer that surpassed the other two in his ability to weave a captivating and atmospheric tale, he is far less well-known. His name was Clark Ashton Smith, a self-taught polymath who mastered Spanish and French in his spare time so he could translate his favourite poems. Lauded in his youth as the next great poet, Smith nevertheless led a poor, unlucky life, spending most of it in a small cabin built by his father, in the woods near to the Californian town of Auburn. He outlived his good friend Lovecraft by 24 years, yet he never received full recognition for his work during his lifetime. After he died in 1961, there was a growth of interest in his work, but this came about primarily because of his connection with the Cthulhu mythos, and as time passed, he has been drowned out again by Lovecraft’s reputation.

Clark, to my mind, was a superior writer to either Lovecraft or Howard. He was a talented artist and sculptor as well as an author, though poetry, a form of writing he returned to time and again through his life, was his favourite mode of expression. He had a rich vocabulary from boyhood, when he learnt all the words in an unabridged dictionary, and their derivations. His poetic sensibilities allowed him to employ the most unlikely words in quite beautiful ways, and though some Smith stories are light on story, all are immensely atmospheric. There is something entrancing about his work, it is full and luxurious, redolent of the Romantic and Decadent poets whose traditions his own poetry followed. Smith sometimes classified his short stories as prose poetry, and they certainly share something of the rhythm and meticulous attention to linguistic detail this form of poetry exhibits.

Clark was unsuccessful financially with his writing, it did little more than bring in extra cash for him, and he was forced to spend his adult life earning a wage in a number of manual jobs. He himself, in his essay ‘On Fantasy’, bemoans the predominance of rationalism on the intellectual scene of the early 20th century, (making many points about the disdain the establishment had for fantasy, ironically, that are now made about science fiction). It was this deep attraction for the fantastical that doomed him to what Ray Bradbury called ‘a lonely fame’. All his stories and poems were concerned with the unreal, with the fetid jungles of dying worlds, with forgotten gods lurking in gem-strewn tombs. There is a marked influence of Orientalism on his work, but he wrought this into something new, a world of pre-human temples whose air is heavy with lotus smoke, and these in turn had a big influence on other early Sword and Sorcery writers; Fritz Leiber especially.

His association with the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ was the result of his friendship with Lovecraft. The writers used elements of each other’s work, making references here and there to each other’s deities, cities and epochs. But this was a form of playful, literary banter. Lovecraft’s open discourse about the nature of his and his correspondents’ literary creations, and his creation of Old One style appellations for them (Smith was ‘Klarkash-Ton’), show this. His letters are the long-range barchat of the creative, a joke among friends, basically, not a concerted attempt to build a coherent world.  August Derleth’ s decision to solidify this loosely shared mythos into a semi-coherent universe did a disservice to Lovecraft, as discussed in an earlier Deep Thought. It also belittled Smith’s work, making him, in the minds of those who know Lovecraft, subsidiary to the Cthulhu creator. Though Derleth did as much to preserve Smith’s legacy as he did Lovecraft’s, he forever entangled the two, and further categorisation of the mythos  by later writers has done much to further dilute the power of both

There is far more to Smith than his invention of Tsathogua the toad god, or his occasional mention of one of Lovecraft’s nasties. His memorable settings – Hyperborea, a prehistoric land now covered in ice, the Medieval fantasies of Averoigne, the dying continent of far-future Zothique, even the modern world, are full of spectacle and *humour*, especially, that has little to do with the ‘Mythos’. It’s indicative of his character that he himself did not object to this identification. ‘I believe I added to it as much as I borrowed’, said Smith himself.

For some, Smith’s tales can prove to be an acquired taste. Many of them end horrifically for their protagonists, some do not have what you might call an ending at all, others may prove too purple and fulsome in their literary adornment. But if you have not tried any Smith, I suggest you do, for those of you who can attune yourself with his words will find a rich and complex set of worlds, as finely crafted as the jewels of the ancient days about which he so longingly writes. He was called “The Emperor of Dreams” by his friend Donald Wandrei, after a line from Smith’s poem ‘The Hashish Eater’. It is a title that fits well.


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