Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was one of the legendary triumvirate of writers to have their stories published in the seminal Weird Tales magazine. The other two were H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
He was born in California on 13th January, 1893, and was an only son. Following a severe childhood illness which disrupted his formal schooling, Smith proceeded to educate himself. Smith started to write prose poetry at an early age and was influenced particularly by the works of George Sterling.
Smith achieved instant acclaim with his poetry - he was even hailed as the 'Keats of the Pacific Coast'. However much he was appreciated, Smith was able to make only modest amounts of money on his poetic publications. The American Depression and the decline in the market for poetry meant that Smith had to do all sorts of other jobs to subsidise himself.
With his back to the wall, and urged on by friends like Lovecraft, Smith began writing short stories for Weird Tales magazine. Between 1928 and 1937, Smith churned out over a hundred short stories. His tales are highly imaginative and set in fictitious worlds, whether in medieval Averoigne or on the plains of Hyperborea. His stories are peopled with gods, demons, necromancers and dynasties of forgotten kings. His rich decadent style, lavished with archaic words, and his colourful visions, were applauded by his contemporaries. Robert E. Howard wrote
I envy him the knack of making the fantastic seem real. All his work is characterized by smooth beauty of narration and a sense of remote antiquity: poetic prose in the finest sense.
1936 and 1937 saw the deaths of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft respectively. Smith was particularly saddened by the death of Lovecraft, his friend and correspondant. Just as Lovecraft had influenced Smith's writings, Smith had also contributed greatly to Lovecraft's work, in particular the Chthulhu Mythos.
Between 1935 and 1937, Smith also lost both his parents. He was now finding it very hard to earn a living publishing short stories. Not surprisingly, Smith became addicted to alcohol in the late 1930s. His interest in weird fiction declined, but he still kept writing poetry and making strange sculptures. These sculptures have been compared to pre-Columbian art.
In 1954 Smith married the journalist Carolyn Jones Dorman. He seemed to have been sparked off again, and produced more short stories. The Abominations of Yondo was the last book to be published in his lifetime in 1960. Smith died on 14th August, 1961, after having suffered from multiple minor strokes.
He is still remembered as one of the savants in the writing of weird fiction, and stands along other giants in this field like Lovecraft. As author Ray Bradbury put it
Take one step across the threshold of his stories and you plunge into colour, sound, taste, smell and texture: into language.
It is a pity that his works are not well-known, but if you are looking for fantastic tales, then look no further. Recently a collection of his works has been published by Fantasy Masterworks, entitled The Emperor of Dreams.
Extract from the Abominations of Yondo
The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a gulf no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orb-like mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished, and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells...