I liked your story in the current Weird Tales very much indeed; it had that smooth beauty of narration and sense of remote antiquity that characterizes all your work; poetic prose in the finest sense. And the illustration was splendid. I hope Wright will let you do a lot of illustrating for Weird Tales, for other stories as well as your own. I’ll certainly be glad to see your Zothique series collected in book form.
— REH to Clark Ashton Smith, circa January 1934
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The 1930s “big three” of the Weird Tales authors’ line-up are well known. Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft wrote lengthy and opinionated letters to each other for years. Each obviously admired the other’s writing talent and genuine artistry.
Both, however, admired Clark Ashton Smith’s work just as much, although they never met. As Howard was a Texan through and through, and Lovecraft identified strongly with his beloved New England, Smith’s milieu was California. He was born there, in Long Valley, with the kind of ancestry most fantasy writers can only dream of having. He descended from Norman-French counts and barons, and one of his forebears was beheaded for his part in the Gunpowder plot.
Born early in 1893, Smith was thus thirteen years older than REH. He grew up in the small town of Auburn, seat of Placer County, a scene of rich gold strikes in the days of the rushes. Violet Nelson Heyer, a friend of the Smith family, described his father Timeus as “dark and reticent” and his mother Fanny as “a happy, light-hearted soul … of beautiful spirit and intense dedication to her family.” Timeus had travelled the world as a young man, but then settled in Auburn and remained there. Fanny was descended from French Huguenots, the Gaillards, who came to the New World in the 1630s. By her generation the name had been Anglicized to Gaylord.
Smith never attended high school or college. He began his education, in his own words, at “the little red schoolhouse of the precinct.” His final five years of grammar school were at Long Valley, and after that he educated himself, partly by reading Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary from first page to last – and, it seems, retaining nearly all of it, including the most exotic words, in his astonishing memory. He also read Encyclopedia Britannica (the legendary 11th edition) completely through at least twice, and among the fiction he read and loved early were Robinson Crusoe, Vathek, The Arabian Nights, and Gulliver’s Travels. At thirteen he discovered the work of Edgar Allen Poe, prose and poetry, and fell in love with Poe’s darkling genius. It was said of Smith’s writing later that “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.”
In 1911, aged eighteen, Smith wrote to the poet George Sterling, a leading light of the California literary and artistic community. Sterling invited Smith to Carmel, an invitation he was not able to accept until mid-1912, when he spent a month in a circle that included Jack London and Ambrose Bierce. (Though he never did meet Bierce.) Sterling introduced Smith to the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, and on publishing his first book of poetry, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), Smith was hailed by critics as a prodigy, even described as “the Keats of the Pacific” and “boy genius of the Sierras” in front page stories. Company like that, and a reception like that, must have been intoxicating to a man who had yet to reach twenty.
Smith, then shy and awkward, backed away from that early fame. Along with being lionized, he had received some condemnation and abuse from the conventional, who described his work as “ghoulish.” He suffered from depression, and seems to have contracted tuberculosis, though exactly when is uncertain. Or he may merely have feared that he had it.
He produced little poetry over the next few years. Odes and Sonnets, which saw publication in 1918, contained only fifteen poems, but the Book Club of California printed it and George Sterling wrote an introduction in which he proclaimed fiercely, “ … to our everlasting shame, he is entirely neglected and almost completely unknown.”
Ebony and Crystal appeared in 1922, and Sandalwood in 1925. It contained Smith’s best-known work of poetry, “The Hashish-Eater” which H.P. Lovecraft thought splendid, calling it “the greatest imaginative orgy in English literature.” Robert E. Howard was also greatly impressed by Smith’s work. In July of 1933 he wrote Smith a letter which began:
I can hardly find words to express the pleasure, I might even say ecstasy with which I have read, and reread your magnificent “Ebony and Crystal.” Every line in it is a gem. I could dip into the pages and pick at random, anywhere in the book, images of clarity and depth unsurpassed. I haven’t the words to express what I feel, my vocabulary being disgustingly small. But so many of your images stir feeling of such unusual depth and intensity, and bring back half-forgotten instincts and emotions with such crystal clearness.
Among the phrases which struck him with particular force was the line, “The pines are ebony.” Howard had always been aware of the intense darkness of the piney woods region, a grimly oppressive ambience which he used in his southern regional horror stories, notably “Pigeons From Hell.” He was certainly being too modest when he described his vocabulary as “disgustingly small,” but then, compared with Smith’s, everybody’s is.
The fantastic fiction for which Smith is now best remembered (though like REH, this blogger is an avid fan of his poetry) was chiefly written in the dozen years between 1925 and 1937. His parents were always poor, and like many a writer, Smith had lived by a variety of odd jobs, such as fruit picking, wood cutting, and digging. He hated working for other people, but the hard labor he did appears to have been healthy for him. His physical condition improved. His parents were ailing, and the stock market crashed massively in 1929. His need to make a living and support his father and mother evidently spurred him to produce a considerable output of the fiction that suited him best – the weird and fantastic kind. Many of his stories are masterpieces of macabre and ironic horror set against fabulously inventive backgrounds.
His first published weird story was “The Abominations of Yondo.” The narrator has been driven into a ghastly wasteland by “the cruel and cynical inquisitors of Ong.” Smith would feature corrupt, cruel, false or merely ineffectual and pompous authorities of orthodox religion in numerous stories after that. Morghi in “The Door to Saturn” was one, the hypocritical temple priests in “The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles” another group. (Their temple “virgins” were actually harlots, like the titular “Virgins” who wait upon the Prophet Incarnate in Heinlein’s “If This Goes On –”).
With regard to that sort of theme, it can be remarked that while Smith’s stories were every bit as macabre and horrifying as Lovecraft’s, his protagonists often have a strong interest in the opposite sex which Lovecraft’s lacked – sometimes completely normal, sometimes perverse and outrageous, even by current standards. The sorcerers Mmatmuor and Sodosma in “The Empire of the Necromancers” raise royal corpses in a devastated palace to serve them; including empresses “they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.” In Tasuun, noble funerals are celebrated with orgies around the bier that Tiberius would have raised his eyebrows to behold, and Averoigne is haunted by succubi “whose kisses are a diabolic delight that consumes the flesh of men with the fierceness of hell-fire.”
More attractively, in “The Holiness of Azedarac,” a young medieval monk named Ambrose is hurled seven hundred years into the past (his past, that is) by a sorcerer’s potion, and meets a comely enchantress who finds him attractive. “Still smiling, she fixed her amber eyes upon him, with a languid flame in their depths — a flame that seemed to brighten as the dusk grew stronger.” Lucky Ambrose. When he expresses awkward doubts about the propriety of the situation, and mentions his archbishop, she reminds him that it will be six hundred and fifty years before the archbishop is even born, and when Ambrose returns to his own day, anything that has happened between them will have happened seven hundred years ago, “which should be long enough to procure the remission of any sin, no matter how often repeated.” Ambrose, not surprisingly, yields to this “irrefutable and feminine reasoning.”
Despite his name, you won’t find that sort of writing in H.P. Lovecraft.
It was through Howard’s large and legendary correspondence with Lovecraft that he came to write a number of letters to Smith – who had the good taste to admire Howard’s writing, an attitude that was mutual. They corresponded for only three years, from 1933 to the time of Howard’s death. In a letter of October 1933, REH thanked Smith for “the kind things you said about my recent yarns” and a “magnificent drawing” of a reptile being in which, Howard said, “the suggestion of inhuman evil is caught so admirably … I find myself handling it gingerly, half expecting it to come to life.” In the same letter he informed Smith that Farnsworth Wright had three Conan stories which were yet to be published, “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” “Rogues in the House,” and “Queen of the Black Coast.” Smith, a superb poet of the macabre and horrific himself, had expressed admiration for Howard’s “Song of a Mad Minstrel,” and Howard thought Smith’s “The Hashish Eater, or, The Apocalypse of Evil” magnificent. “I will not seek to express my appreciation of ‘The Hashish Eater’,” he wrote. “I lack the words. I have read it many times already; I hope to read it many more …”
One of Howard’s letters to Smith (December 14th, 1933) contains the famous and often quoted passage about his creation of Conan the Cimmerian.
I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen or rather, off my typewriter almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.
One character – or being – that Smith created for his “Hyperborean” cycle of stories, was borrowed and modified by Lovecraft, then incorporated into his “Cthulhu Mythos.” But as Deuce Richardson has pointed out in a detailed analysis, it was REH who really took the concept of this being and ran with it like a quarterback going for a touchdown. This was the toadlike horror Tsathoggua.
In Smith’s stories, like “The Seven Geases,” “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” “The Testament of Athammaus” and “The Door to Saturn,” Tsathoggua was somewhat comic and grotesque. In “The Seven Geases” the savage sorcerer Ezdagor says, “You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad which he has eternally.” Later in the same story the main character encounters “the formless bulking of a couchant mass” which “put forth with infinite slothfulness a huge and toad-shaped head.” Master thief Satampra Zeiros, in the story that carries his name, invades a deserted temple of Tsathoggua. It contains an image of the god which depicts him (it?) as squat and pot-bellied, with the head of a monstrous toad but a body which suggests a combination of bat and sloth, coated in short fur. The tip of a queer tongue protrudes from Tsathoggua’s fat mouth. Satampra Zeiros concludes, “In truth he was not a comely or personable sort of god.”
Lovecraft made use of Tsathoggua, though in his hands the being became far more exclusively toadlike and the aspects of bat and sloth were discarded. REH did likewise, and his Tsathoggua – along with the god’s spawn – are characterized by cruelty, an evident urge to procreate with just about anything that moves, and a good deal more energetic activity than the Old One Smith created. Now Deuce Richardson has written with more detail and perception in this area than anybody else I know, and I’m citing his scholarship here. Tsathoggua and/or his offspring appear in a number of Conan stories, like “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “Beyond the Black River” “The Scarlet Citadel” and “A Witch Shall Be Born.” In Smith’s “Testament of Athammaus,” the outlaw Knygathin Zhaum is specifically said to be related to Tsathoggua on his mother’s side – only partly human – and his head and body can unite again after decapitation. The wizard Tsotha-lanti in Howard’s “Scarlet Citadel” has that same ability. The relationship between the names Tsotha and Tsathoggua is not one that has to be labored too hard. Then there is the Pictish wizard Zogar Sag in “Beyond the Black River.” Like Tsotha-lanti, he has non-human paternity, and his name only needs to be pronounced with a bit of a lisp – “Tsogar Thag” – for its derivation to become evident. A demon which attacks Conan late in the yarn announces before striking that it is Zogar Sag’s half-brother, out of a fire demon from a far realm. (Yes, they both claim to be children of an ancient deity named Jhebbal Sag, but as Deuce has ably demonstrated, “Jhebbal Sag” is the Pictish name for the Old One Tsathoggua.) REH’s version of Tsathoggua will couple with anything that moves, indeed, and leaves his wicked offspring hither and yon.
REH hugely admired Smith’s ability to write tales of sheerest horror. And we all know from stories like “The Thing on the Roof” and “The Black Stone” that he was no slouch in that area himself. One of his favorite tales of Smith’s was “The Return of the Sorcerer.” In his letter of October 1933 he wrote:
I envy you your knack of making the fantastic seem real.” (It’s Robert E. Howard saying this, do not forget!) “I particularly remember your remarkable ‘Return of the Sorcerer’ in Strange Tales. That was no story for one with weak nerves. The horror you evoked was almost unbearable. I have read and written weird stuff for more years than I like to remember, and it takes a regular literary earthquake to touch my callous soul. But it is the honest truth that my hair stood up when I read that story. Poe never wrote anything that congealed my blood like that did. I wrote the editor to that effect.
I agree about “The Return of the Sorcerer.” It’s a favorite horror tale of mine also. Incidentally, in that yarn John Carnby has in his possession a “Necronomicon” in the original Arabic, when (as REH made clear in “The Thing on the Roof”) even the Greek translation was almost impossible to find by the twentieth century. Carnby and his brother must indeed have been potent sorcerers to have obtained an Arabic copy.
REH was fully justified in his admiration for Smith’s work. But he underrated himself sorely when he wrote that he was gratified by Smith’s interest in “my junk.” Time has proved that Howard did not write “junk.” In fact he’s more widely known that Clark Ashton Smith today, a cult figure with his work reprinted again and again, taken seriously, turned into movies, the subject of wide scholarship, websites (like this one) and numerous articles. All deservedly — and Smith’s work, at least, is online at The Eldritch Dark website.