Clark Ashton Smith influenced me, but I don’t write like him!

As I write, it’s the birthday of Clark Ashton Smith (January 13, 1893 – August 14, 1961), a horror and fantasy writer who might best be described as “almost famous.” He’s most often remembered as a member of the triumvirate that dominated the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s, but he doesn’t have quite the dedicated following of Robert E. Howard (best known for Conan the Barbarian) or H. P. Lovecraft (the Cthulhu Mythos).

A writer, his books . . . but Smith was a painter, too.

A writer, his books . . . but Smith was a painter, too.

Like many readers, I encountered Smith’s writings through his association with H. P. Lovecraft. And Lovecraft I picked up from the 1970 movie version of The Dunwich Horror. Say what you want about that film, the opening animated credits are creepy. So I got around to reading Lovecraft in college, and that led me to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer.” Only . . . wait, I knew this story. I’d seen it adapted to TV on the old horror anthology Night Gallery, hosted by Rod Serling (trying to repeat his success with The Twilight Zone). The episode stars Vincent Price, who looks like he’s having a great time, a very spacey Patricia Sterling, and, as the normal person, Bill Bixby (who is probably a very distant cousin). The episode is done up gorgeously, and if it’s a bit campy, this is one time camp works. You can watch it for yourself here.

A few years later, Pocket Books put out three volumes of Smith’s short stories, which gave me a broad sampling of his writing. My opinion of Smith’s stories changed radically while reading those volumes. Of the three Weird Tales writers, Smith was by far the master of the largest vocabulary, the most colorful description, the lyrical turn of phrase. While he had the customary amount of gore, there was a curiously antiseptic quality to it: it was less described than suggested, quite different from the bloodbaths one finds in horror literature today. In fact, it’s hard to segregate Smith’s stories into exclusive categories of horror and fantasy. His horror was fantastic, as in “The Return of the Sorcerer,” and his fantasies, however pretty, often concealed a horror, as in “The Enchantress of Sylaire.”

One of the reasons why fantasy and horror were so closely intertwined in Smith’s stories is that he was a master of irony. It’s a rare Smith protagonist who got exactly what he or she wanted. Either there was a price to be paid, or the goal turned out to be something quite different from what was imagined. Malygris tried to recapture his youth in “The Last Enchantment,” with poignant results. The wizard Eibon, armed with a magical word, escaped to another world in “The Doorway to Saturn,” only to find out that everything he knew was wrong. Life went spectacularly wrong, to the amusement of the reader but not the protagonist, in “The Seven Geases.”

Many of Smith’s stories were tied to an elaborate mythology that overlapped the writings of Lovecraft and Howard (whom he knew by correspondence). But I happen to like his Averoigne stories the best, the ones that were based in a fantastical version of medieval France. I suspect that my rogue scientific magician from the year 2000 (from a story I have only alluded to on this blog) owes some of her morally ambiguous character to the sorcerer Gaspard du Nord, featured in “The Colossus of Ylourgne.”

It’s rare that a horror story actually spooks me. But Clark Ashton Smith did it, with “Genius Loci.” Unlike many of Smith’s fantasies, the horror in this one was open and obvious . . . and therefore somehow more enticing and marvelous. I’d like to write a story like that one. I’ve never come close.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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7 Responses to Clark Ashton Smith influenced me, but I don’t write like him!

  1. Judy says:

    Just wondered if you have ever read either ‘Billion Year Spree the true history of science fiction’ or the later ‘Trillion Year Spree’ by Brian Aldiss? I enjoyed Aldiss as a writer and perhaps even more with this work. My particular fondness is for the chapter about Mary Shelley. While he seemed quite taken as a young man with Clark Ashton Smith’s “City of Singing Flame,” he seemed to think Smith ‘unreadable’ and that he was a ‘more pretentious writer whose stories are stuffed with hard words and titles.’ But, its of course not fair to take things out of their greater context. Aldiss is opinionated and very thorough. I find writing of that earlier period much heavier than is customary today certainly. But, I personally revel in the heavy darkness! Just curious!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I have not read that book by Aldiss. I take it you are recommending it? (It would be worth my trouble to sort out the history of SF/F in my head.)

      Smith, like Lovecraft and Poe, tended to be very heavy with adjectives. The story goes that he had an eidetic memory and had read a dictionary! I suppose that’s one reason I like the Averoigne stories — anchoring his writing in an near-normal environment allowed Smith to be descriptive without trying to force one’s emotions.

      And, to bring over a point I forgot to mention from your comment on the Arisia post, I was amused that your sister writes paranormal romances, because it was a friend telling me about running into shelves marked “Teen Paranormal Romances” at Barnes & Noble that caused me to write a story that has its roots in that genre, but ends up somewhere very, very different.

  2. Judy says:

    Yes, I do recommend the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction histories..now Trillion Year Spree was an update in 1986 of the 1973 Billion Year Spree. ‘Trillion..’ is said to be more than an update as every chapter was virtually rewritten and it is twice the length. While I bought a copy I have not read to see differences or the added timeline. I just love the thoroughness, the discussion and the transitions from Shelley, through Poe and Wells..out of the Gothic and just its wonderful, crazy evolution. I like one of the quotes before the Intro. It is from the final paragraph of She by Rider Haggard. “Often I sit alone at night, staring with the eyes of my mind into the darkness of unborn time, and wondering in what shape and form the great drama will be finally developed, and where the scene of its next act will be held.” That’s Sci Fi….all goosebumps and everything!!

    Well the teen paranormals must be because of the raging success of the Twilight series. My sister’s first books have a strong root in Egyptian myth as that is her fascination but hers are not YA. Thank goodness for that since I got to save up and go with her on her “reward” trip to Egypt a few years ago after she completed her first draft!! I fell totally in love with Egypt.

    Do get one of the Aldiss books as I think you will appreciate the work….very good. And he even discusses Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of my all time favs growing up.

  3. Judy says:

    Sorry in advance for the indulgence. Here’s my Egypt Gallery for the feel of it: http://www.janthinaimages.com/Landscapes/Eternal-Egypt/2525171_Pc39Ts#!i=136314812&k=trgBztL

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Oh, I’m underexposed to Egypt; for years my reference was a National Geographic map from the 1960s. So I did go over and look through your gallery, from beginning to end. The monuments are always striking (at least with a good photographer 🙂 ), but I have to admit I spent some time looking at the photos showing how the fertile land of the Nile abuts the desert.
      And I wandered about your site, and your sister’s site, too, this afternoon, to see how what you’ve described in the above post all tied together.
      Seeing how horror and Egypt come together, have you and your sister read Stoker’s “The Jewel of the Seven Stars,” or ever saw the admittedly hokey “The Cat Creature” on TV in 1973?

  4. Judy says:

    No to both! If I saw Cat Creature its not in my database any more. And many moons since reading Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ However, I did go and look at the book description for “The Jewel of the Seven Stars’ and it sounds like I should have read it already. Amazon has a book with two endings apparently as Stoker was heavily critized for the gruesome ending in the 1903 publication of the book and further publications had an happer ending or they would not have been republished. So now I am curious!!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I had forgot the two endings; I’ve read only the original until just now, when I took a quick look at the revised one. “Seven Stars” isn’t quite up to the level of “Dracula,” but it’s considerably better than the later “The Lair of the White Worm.” All three follow a similar formula: historically based horror makes its way into the present.

      I have to wonder if the book is the reason the occult bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. is named “The Seven Stars.”

      Although “Seven Stars” been made into a movie three times, I don’t think I’ve seen any of them.

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