The story anticipates modern science -- the flame portal functions like some kind of wormhole -- and it also gives that first sign of Smith's own unique ideas apart from anything he borrowed from Lovecraft. Other stories, like "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," are throwbacks to scientific ideas of long ago: to outdated theories of the solar system that led H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to their beautiful, faulty visions of Mars, the Moon and the center of the Earth. When explorers in "Yoh-Vombis" wish to find out what happened to the Yorhis, an ancient Martian race that has long been extinct, they travel through a Martian landscape like any of Earth's deserts. Down in immense subterranean vaults, they find hundreds upon thousands of urns containing the race's remains but it's all a mystery -- until a black, leech-like creature drops from the shadows onto the head of a poor, hapless explorer named Octave:
"Cleaving closely as a tightened cloth, the thing enfolded Octave's hair and brow and eyes, and he shrieked wildly, with incoherent pleas for help. . . . I stabbed with the four-inch blade at the black, turgescent mass that enveloped his whole upper head and hung down upon his eyes."
Smith's monsters are tactile, concrete and -- in this story's case -- squishy. There's a sensory appeal here that probably owes to his being a sculptor and painter.
Smith's prose is strewn with all sorts of archaic phrasing -- "pale as a corposant," hair is "rutilant," "their chines laid open and the white marrow gone" -- that, even when he writes about an imagined French medieval countryside and monastery in Averoigne, never slows the pace of his stories. Critics of HPL often complain that his narratives are slowed -- bogged down -- by his rhetoric, something that never seems to happen to Smith.
Why did he stop writing so suddenly around 1935? Howard died in 1936; Lovecraft in 1937. From Smith's letters, it's clear that Howard's death hurt him; and the effect of Lovecraft's on him was even more pronounced. "I cannot adjust myself to it," he told August Derleth in a despairing letter. Their correspondence brims with affection and kindness, mutual support and encouragement. Though all three seemed outwardly solitary, they sought kindred sensibilities in each other. Formality quickly went by the wayside in the letters, and there's a gentle teasing quality to them. Smith was renamed "KlarkashTon" by Lovecraft, while Smith, in turn, affectionately addressed him as "E'ch Pi El."
The fact that Smith stopped writing around the time of his fellow musketeers' deaths is deeply moving. In the years that followed, Wolfe says Smith hid many of his sculptures around his property. Perhaps he felt leaving behind buried treasure, not his writing, was the best way to create a sense of awe and wonder in the people who might find them -- much like what happens to the monks in "The Disinterment of Venus" who dig up a pagan statue in the monastery's vegetable garden.
By the end of "The Return of the Sorcerer," you realize that Smith offers lessons to every fiction writer. One always hears how creative writing programs churn out careful, observant but tepid debut novelists. Smith is reckless and messy; his prose is more purple than pulp-yellow at times, but the stories more than compensate with intriguing, unexpected narrative turns. His day in the cosmic sun feels long overdue, and with Prime's reissue -- a good complement to Bison Book's 2006 edition (with an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer) -- you hope that his work will soon see it.
FOR THE RECORD: Deuce Richardson at The Cimmerian has posted a great response to help straighten out the facts about CAS' life -- and he also points out what resources are available to any new followers of Smith (including yours truly). Check it out.
Owchar is deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears at www.latimes.com/books.