Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a self educated poet, sculptor, painter and writer who spent almost the entirety of his life living in a small cabin in Auburn, California. While supporting himself by picking fruit and cutting wood, Smith taught himself French and Spanish, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his knowledge of a world he seldom traveled in.
It’s hard finding Smiths writing in most bookstores, but the website The Eldritch Dark has done a wonderful job of presenting his creative output. I have long admired Smith’s works and contribution to uncanny literature, and would not have known anything about him if it wasn’t for this delightful find.
Of course, not everyone would agree with me. Smith was in conscious opposition to the realist litterature of his day, and often expressed frustration when critics would chastize his work for not being another reproduction of Hemingway. His fantastical worlds, their ambivalent moralities and cosmic scope, his enjoyment of concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, the evil or indifference of higher intellects and the ultimate finitude of human activity won him few friends in the polite society of letters in 20th century American literature.
But that does not seem to be what he was really after anyway.
My own story, The Gray Men of the Desert of Dust, was originally written as an homage to the first work by Smith that I ever read. The Abominations of Yondo, while not Smith’s finest work, captured my imagination with its arcane use of language and atmospheric qualities. Indeed, readers looking for character-driven plots may be disappointed by his style. His protagonists tend to be archetypal, and his female characters too often find themselves in the old duality of the maiden or the witch. Yet I prefer to treat each work as an exquisite painting, and am little troubled by this.
For new readers I would certainly recommend The City of the Singing Flame, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Disinterment of Venus, The Chain of Aforgomon and The Ghoul to get a feel for what Smith was all about.