Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Unnumbered Reviews #3: Clark Ashton Smith

The Big Three fantasists in the 1930s were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Smith was probably the best wordsmith of the three, but he wasn't driven the way Lovecraft and Howard were.

His stories (overall rating of ** for story and ****- for style on an uncalibrated four-point scale) are the hardest of the three to characterize. The settings had a lot in common with Howard's (he was placing stories in Hyperborea before Howard was placing stories in the Hyborean Age), but his characters were a lot less heroic -- often being the sorts of wizards, thieves, and despots that Conan would have for lunch. The creatures his characters tended to encounter had a lot in common with Lovecraft's, but Smith was far less interested in milking a story for its horror. Where Lovecraft's characters would gaze into cosmic madness and shudder, Smith's would prosaically get eaten.

But every bite would be a pleasure to read. Clark Ashton Smith was a poet, and it showed in the care with which he constructed his prose, as well. The language was carefully chosen for its sound, its cadence, and the images it was meant to convey. (I imagine this was a disadvantage in a market that was paying about a penny a word.)

Most of Smith's work has been collected by Arkham House, but I know his writing primarily through the more economical medium of the Ballantine paperback reprints of the early seventies. "Xiccarph" is a collection of fantasies set on other worlds. "Hyperborea" collects the stories set in Hyperborea -- a land of wizards and demons that flourished untold millenia ago, before being overrun by glaciers. "Zothique" collects the stories set in Zothique -- the world's last dying continent in an unimaginably distant future, once more a land of wizards and demons.

(The 1981 Pocket/Timescape collection "The City of Singing Flame", has nine stories in common with those collections, and four more from other settings. A cover blurb promised further reprint volumes to come, but I don't remember seeing any.)

In one sense, the setting is unimportant. Any single story from one setting could be fitted almost seamlessly into one of his other settings. Within a given cycle, though, the stories carry enough cross-reference to build a picture of the milieu and its history. A major city in one story might be mentioned in another as being long abandoned to the sand or the ice. An ancient tome in one story might be attributed to a wizard from an earlier one.

Smith wrote over a hundred short stories in a few years, mostly in the early thirties. Then he quit, producing little fiction in the last quarter century of his life. (Lin Carter, who edited the Ballantine anthologies seemed to find this puzzling. I'm personally inclined to the simplest explanations: He started writing the stories because even at a penny a word that many stories translates into a few thousand dollars. And he quit because that's a pathetic remuneration. If you didn't make volume your main consideration, you couldn't make a living at it. If you weren't driven to write fantasy, you stopped trying. (Lovecraft and Howard, with whom he corresponded, both died at about this time, which may have also lessened his motivation.))

It's the use of language that stands out, not the stories, which are otherwise not very good. The fantasy isn't very fantastic, the horror isn't very horrific, the heroes aren't very heroic, bad things happen to people we don't particularly care about anyway. (The Zothique stories are weakest in this respect, featuring a faceless procession of necromancers who keep finding ugly ways for themselves or those around them to die.) But the writing makes the stories a pleasure to read.

Will the stories appeal to you? It's hard to say. I've been comparing Smith to Howard and Lovecraft, but his style probably has more affinities to that of Edgar Allen Poe. Which still means that readers who don't like short stories and readers who don't like non-modern fantasy probably won't care for Smith's writing. In general, if you like the *style* of early fantasists such as Dunsany and the early Lovecraft, you'll probably enjoy Smith's work. (If you haven't read Dunsany or Lovecraft, try them first.) And if you're interested in fantasy as a genre, Smith's stories are importantas inspirations for many later writers. Collections of Smith's stories aren't hard to find used (though I don't know whether any are in print), and any one picked at random will probably give you a fair impression of his writing.

Because it's the writing that matters, rather than the specific stories, it hasn't seemed very profitable to discuss individual stories. The one I probably liked the best was one of the Hyperborean stories -- "The Seven Geases" -- a tongue-in-cheek tale of horror: A noble angers a wizard, who punishes him by sending him off to a nether god -- who appreciates the thought but has no use for him, and sends him off to a netherer god --- who appreciates the thought...

The term Carter keeps using to describe the writing of Clark Ashton Smithis 'lapidary'. I wouldn't characterize Smith's prose as lapidary in the common sense of a lapidary style, but in the sense that he seems to pick his words the way a jeweller might pick and set precious stones, the description seems appropriate.

And one by one we died, and were lost in the dust of accumulated time. We knew the years as a passing of shadows, and death itself as the yielding of twilight unto night.
-- from "From the Crypts of Memory", which is technically a 'prose poem', rather than a story.

disclaimer for the Unnumbered Reviews

%A Smith, Clark Ashton
%T Zothique
%T Hyperborea
%T Xiccarph
%I Ballantine
%D 1970, 1971, 1972, respectively
%O These three anthologies collectively reprint about a third of Smith's
%O stories, and are relatively easy to find. There are other collections,
%O including a fairly comprehensive one from Arkham House.

Dani Zweig