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Penguins on Parade: Clark Ashton Smith!

By (March 8, 2014) No Comment


Some Penguin Classics will feel like a very long time coming, especially to their fervent adherents. When it comes to the work of pioneering 20th century fantasist Clark Ashton Smith, surely one of those fervent adherents is S. T. Joshi, the editor behind the Penguin Classics editions of H. P. Lovecraft, who in the early years of the 20th century joined a small but intense chorus of admirers who considered the shy, retiring Smith to be a literary genius. This new Penguin Classic volume, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited and exhaustively annotated by Joshi, brings together an excellent collection of Smith’s fantasy stories, prose poems, and poetry and, under the revered Penguin banner, readers are invited to re-examine all this work, most of which Smith produced in industrious bursts in order to stave off bill collectors.

penguin clark ashton smith coverSmith was born in California in 1893 and grew up in the Sierra foothills in a book-friendly household but, due to recurring health problems, only sporadically formally educated. He read voraciously, including the fiction and verse of Edgar Allen Poe, the Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and, more tellingly, the fantasy verse of San Francisco poet George Sterling, whose 1907 poem “A Wine of Wizardry” helped to set the vocabulary for an entire genre. Smith himself expressed his own art first in long works of verse, but the care he undertook of his aging parents imposed financial obligations that couldn’t be met by publishing slender volumes of poetry.

He turned to prose, and to the booming pulp marketplace fed by publications like Farnsworth Wright’s Weird Tales and Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories, submitting story after story in pursuit of the paltry sums they might bring in (when his editors paid him on time, that is). “The sad fact,” Joshi writes in his generous Introduction, “is that his two ailing parents required more and more care on Smith’s part, and he was compelled to generate – and, more significantly, sell – fiction at a brisk pace in order to support his family.”

Regardless of his poetic disposition, Clark Ashton Smith, when faced with his filial duty, buckled down to earn money in the only reliable way he knew. And although the often brutal and sometimes sweeping edits he got back from the hard-headed men running the pulps outraged his friends, Smith accepted those edits like a lamb, placating editors by making the changes they demanded and placating his friends and supporters by assuring them that he’d restore his stories to their original forms someday down the road, when he collected them all into books (and it’s interesting to notice even from the brief quotations Joshi gives of Smith’s letters, it’s clear that he often found himself agreeing with the directives of his editors).

Smith lived until 1961 – long enough, in other words, to have enjoyed a much greater extent of personal and financial freedom than he did during the pulp era – and yet he virtually never actually got around to authorizing those definitive unexpurgated versions of his work. So Joshi’s labors sifting through caches of Clark Ashton Smith papers in such places as the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkley and Brown University’s John Hay Library are all the more to be commended, and his comprehensive sympathies for his author make his prose on Smith’s world and work all the more enjoyable:

Smith’s cultivation of a prose and poetic idiom of richness, depths, and luxuriance – reminiscent of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, Lafadio Hearn, Lord Dunsany, and others – was avowed and deliberate, as he wrote to Lovecraft: “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, and in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” Such a style may not have been in favor in the heyday of Hemingway, but a more expansive understanding of the effectiveness of prose for the purposes for which it is designed may help us to appreciate Smith’s idiom as an essential element in the exotic fantasy he was seeking to create. His devotion to “lands forgotten and unfound” was unremitting, and out of his unbridled imagination he created realms of beauty and terror that have permanently enriched the literature of fantasy.

It’s even forgivable when Joshi’s enthusiasm carries him away – as in that excerpt, where not only is there not a peep of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s name among Smith’s possible influences but also we get that bit about “unbridled imagination” when Joshi’s own Introductory essay makes it clear that Smith during the period of these stories had plenty of bridles on his imagination. And the bridled bits might end up being the best we’ll ever get; in the priceless annotations Joshi appends to each story, he often reports the depressing fact that the only manuscripts we still have for many of these stories are the doctored, heavily customized versions finalized for Weird Tales and the like. Most of what we find in The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies are the compromises Clark Ashton Smith made with lesser visionaries who had fiction budgets.

Which makes it all the more remarkable how great so many of them are. Joshi hasn’t just been an indefatigable editor here; he’s also been an extremely sensitive one. He’s picked Smith’s best work here in the three styles represented, including prose poems like “The Flower-Devil” and “From the Crypts of Memory,” short stories like “The Holiness of Azedarac,” “Mother of Toads,” and “The Maze of the Enchanter,” and over three dozen poems. It’s as generous and discerning an assemblage of Smith’s lucy reading clark ashton smithwork as any single volume has yet offered; readers who are unfamiliar with Clark’s work will be, as it were, enchanted.

Certainly many of the short stories display Clark’s conscious efforts to mimic the voice of his era’s commercial wonder-fiction, from Lord Dunsany to Jack London – and, as in the case of the great 1931 story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (about a doomed expedition on Mars), where narrator Rodney Severn forlornly tells his story:

I shall contrive to tell the story; since there is no one else to do it. But the telling will be toilsome and broken; and after I am done, the madness will recur, and several men will restrain me, lest I should leave the hospital and return across many desert leagues to those abominable vaults beneath the compulsion of the malignant and malevolent virus which is permeating my brain.

Almost every one of these stories brims with professional skill, and it’s tremendously enheartening how many of them still retain the ability to captivate. All praise is due to S. T. Joshi for crafting this volume, and praise to the editors at Penguin for adding Clark Ashton Smith to the Classics line. Science fiction and fantasy readers who’ve encountered Smith’s stories in various anthologies over the last few decades might be especially pleased at the inclusion here of so much of Smith’s poetry, which has been harder to find – and which is, some of it, as evocative as fantasy-verse gets, as in “The Star-Treader”:


Where colored suns of systems triplicate

Bestow on planets weird, ineffable,

Green light that orbs them like an outer sea,

And large auroral noons that alternate

With skies like sunset held without ablate,

Life’s touch renewed incomprehensibly

The strains of mirth and grief’s harmonious spell.

Dead passions like to stars relit

Shone in the gloom of ways forgot;

Where crownless gods in darkness sit

The day was full on altars hot.