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The Siren's Call: Clark Ashton Smith's ancient worlds

A reissue of Clark Ashton Smith's weird stories show H.P. Lovecraft's influence -- but also Smith's originality.

November 29, 2009|By Nick Owchar

The writers forming the backbone of the pulp horror magazine Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s haven't received nearly the mainstream scholarly attention as that of other famous literary groups -- the Bloomsburies, the Algonquin Roundtablers, the New England transcendentalists, the modernists (Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis & Co.) . . . you get the idea.

Sure, there have been overtures in that direction: There's a new pricey volume from Centipede Press not to mention the many books by S.T. Joshi, who's crusaded to keep their names from fading. Still the reader looks in vain for books in print that take a comprehensive look at the members of the weird circle, not just its magister ludi H.P. Lovecraft. (Hey, anyone at the Cimmerian or elsewhere is welcome to point out titles overlooked here.)

It's no surprise that Lovecraft dominates, but this often makes the rest of the circle look like mere acolytes. It doesn't help that many of them also contributed to HPL's Cthulhu mythos -- this, too, suggests that the best they could do was develop somebody else's cosmic vision.

There are exceptions, of course. As sure as the sun rises over Hyperborea, Robert E. Howard built a reputation all his own in multiple fictional veins (fyi: Ballantine will release in February his series, "El Borak and Other Desert Adventures"). The same is true of Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Donald Wandrei and so many others. (Many of these, btw, are included in a new Library of America collection that fellow columnist Ed Park explores this week at Astral Weeks.)

And then there's Clark Ashton Smith.

Smith is an overlooked master of a wholly original vein of horror and hallucinatory science fiction; in the stories of "The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith" (Prime: 348 pp., $14.95 paper), Smith shows that he is anything but a Lovecraft imitator.

"[H]e was one of the three musketeers of 'Weird Tales,' " Gene Wolfe writes in an introduction, placing Smith in the company of Lovecraft and Howard. "Although Lovecraft has had many imitators (he is in fact quite easy to imitate) and Howard more than a few, no one imitates Smith. There could be only one writer of Clark Ashton Smith Stories."

Born in 1893, Smith wasn't only a story writer: He was a poet, painter and sculptor as well. He was an autodidact, teaching himself languages, literature, philosophy. Some biographies say he had no other choice -- that mental issues ended his school career. Smith settled in a cabin not far from Auburn, northeast of San Francisco, and there he wrote most of the stories that appeared in Weird Tales and elsewhere. Around 1935, however, he stopped writing fiction. He turned wholly to sculpture and painting. The next 26 years, until his death in 1961, were without another story.

At first glance in "The Return of the Sorcerer," that doesn't seem like a big loss to literature. Despite Wolfe's declaration -- "there could be only one writer of Clark Ashton Smith stories" -- the guy reads like a Lovecraft clone. Printed in order of appearance, the collection opens with the title story, a macabre account of how a magician, severed into pieces by his brother, returns to life -- piece by piece -- to exact his revenge. Allusions to Lovecraft curl up from the page like incense fumes -- references abound to Lovecraft's mad author Abdul Alhazred and his dangerous, terrifying grimoire, the fabled "Necronomicon."

And the story that follows, "The City of Singing Flame," seems a pale tribute to Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu." Strange music lures all living creatures -- not just humans, but beings from multiple dimensions -- to a cosmic city where they hurl themselves into a deadly, brilliant fire. The story takes the shape of the diary of a science fiction writer, Giles Angarth, who stumbles upon a portal that sends him to a world full of entrancing music:

"I had not gone much further when I realized the peculiar mental and emotional spell which sound was beginning to exert upon me. There was a siren-like allurement which drew me on, forgetful of the strangeness and potential perils of my situation; and I felt a slow, drug-like intoxication of brain and senses. In some insidious manner, I know not how nor why, the music conveyed the ideas of vast but attainable space and altitude, of superhuman freedom and exultation; and it seemed to promise all the impossible splendors of which my imagination has vaguely dreamt." (38)

Love that bit about the siren's call.

Though it is impossible to resist the music, Angarth somehow does. The diary ends on a desperate note: He resisted, but only temporarily. Angarth is certainly doomed, but in a subsequent story, Smith returns to this setting and gives us something less expected. We learn that the leap into the flame doesn't bring death: It sends one on a journey that is multidimensional, bewildering, hallucinatory -- a mix of a bad acid trip, Carl Sagan's "Contact" and the visions of Meister Eckhart.

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