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Smith, Clark Ashton

Entry updated 25 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1893-1961) US sculptor and author, of primary interest for his tales of Science Fantasy and horror (see Horror in SF); the rich style (sometimes idiomatic, sometimes "jewelled" in the early Lord Dunsany manner) and baroque invention of this work did much to transform the interplanetary romance of the early years of the century into the full-fledged Post-World War Two Planetary Romance which authors like Leigh Brackett were also shaping into a malleable device. Smith was more specifically instrumental in the creation of the Far Future in general as an sf habitation, as a venue useful for depicting more than the inevitable crisis of Evolution and the End of the World; his highly influential Dying Earth tales, set in various fantasticated venues (sometimes other planets, sometimes perhaps not), were capitalized upon by Jack Vance and others. But none of this work comfortably fits within any normal parameter; in their savvy eccentricity, Smith's romances are a very early example of Equipoise, a term usually used to describe work whose grappling with story forms involves the transfiguration of early modes. Smith – much to the delight of readers who rediscover him – jumps the gun.

In any case, treating these venues as inherently unproblematical series markers, Lin Carter reassembled many of Smith's Planetary Romances in four volumes contributed to his Ballantine Adult Fantasy sequence [not listed as a series in Checklist], each volume focusing on a single location: Zothique (coll of linked stories 1970; exp vt Tales of Zothique 1995); Hyperborea (coll of linked stories 1971), Xiccarph (coll of stories, some linked, 1972) and Poseidonis (coll of linked stories 1973); these four volumes brought Smith to an audience broader than he had previously enjoyed. That Smith himself may have had a more complicated sense of his work seems evident from his first collection, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (coll 1932 chap [large pages; reprints of the coll are over 100 pages long]), where at least three tales from various venues are presented together, without comment. The Arkham House collections of his work from the 1940s on (see below) were similarly eclectic, though biased towards a presentation of Smith as belonging to the H P Lovecraft orbit.

By 1910 Smith had finished what seems to have been his only novel, The Black Diamonds (written circa 1907; 2002), and sold stories to The Black Cat and The Overland Monthly; but he concentrated mainly on poetry for some years, publishing some sf-tinged but fustian-choked poems in his first book, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (coll 1912). His poetry, which offered no narrative constraints to channel Sehnsucht, was never very successful; it has been assembled as Complete Poetry and Translations [for titles see Checklist]. Although he published some Science Fantasy before 1930, almost all his work of note within the genre, beginning with "The Last Incantation" (June 1930 Weird Tales), was written by about 1936, when he virtually stopped creative work; almost all his later publications, and certainly the posthumous release of unknown work, come from this period. It is clear that Smith's work was both enabled and constrained (see his poetry for contrast) by the fact that almost his only outlet during these years was the Pulp magazines – most frequently Weird Tales, occasionally Wonder Stories – whose editors may have found him difficult to come to terms with. It should be noted that his first book, The Immortals of Mercury (1932 chap) for Hugo Gernsback's Science Fiction Series sequence, and The Double Shadow (see above), contained only previously unpublished stories, almost certainly work refused by the magazine editors of the time.

The Immortals of Mercury is a conspicuously uneasy Space Opera. It initially seems to be an attempt to write sf without the ornate accoutrements he usually deployed: an explorer on Mercury is kidnapped by savage natives, saved by seemingly advanced Immortals who live Underground, but finds that his protoplasm is necessary to keep them alive, and he escapes. At this point, instead of following his protagonist's climb back upwards to his ship in normal sf fashion, Smith depicts his panicked course deeper and deeper into the horrors beneath Mercury, eating helpless Monsters to stay alive as he goes, emerging finally, dehumanized and frozen, on the night side of the planet, where he freezes to death. One of the few stories that seem comfortable with the demands of Genre SF was The City of the Singing Flame (July 1931 Wonder Stories; 2011 chap), notable for the power of the Sense of Wonder it evoked; some of the tales assembled in Red World of Polaris: The Adventures of Captain Volmar (coll of linked stories 2003), written but not all published in the early 1930s, convey something similar. As It Is Written (1982) as by Smith was in fact written by De Lysle Ferrée Cass [and is not listed in the Checklist below]; the unsigned manuscript, discovered in the files of The Thrill Book, was a Lost Race tale in a style similar to Smith's.

As already noted, Smith's work has appeared variously, according to various criteria of selection and emphasis. The collections from Arkham House, though they epigonize him, do comprise the first attempt to make available the full range of his work, over 100 tales in all, in five volumes: Out of Space and Time (coll 1942), Lost Worlds (coll 1944), The Abominations of Yondo (coll 1960) Tales of Science and Sorcery (coll 1964) and Other Dimensions (coll 1970). The last two collections contain most of his sf. More recently, the Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith sequence, beginning with The Dweller in the Gulf (cut March 1933 Wonder Stories as "Dweller in Martian Depths"; 1987 chap), provided a selection of restored texts; but it is only with the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith sequence, beginning with The End of the Story (coll 2006) and including sf as well as fantasy, that a full chronological presentation of his work has been available [for further titles in both sequences see Checklist].

Smith was not much interested in science, nor in expressing the forward thrusting of conventional sf, though his failure to advocate the future is more in accord with the temper of 1930s sf than is sometimes thought; but still it is inadvisable to think of him as an sf author by instinct. He is perhaps better thought of in terms of his only peers from the 1930s, Robert E Howard and his friend H P Lovecraft. Though lacking the narrative drive of the first, and the abandoned metaphysical pathos of the second, he was a finer and more civilized writer than either of them. [JC/PN]

see also: Asteroids; Atlantis; Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award; Mars; Parallel Worlds; Small Presses and Limited Editions; Sun; Sword and Sorcery; Transportation; Venus.

Clark Ashton Smith

born Long Valley, California: 13 January 1893

died Pacific Grove, California: 14 August 1961

works (selected)


Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith

  • The Dweller in the Gulf (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1987) [story: chap: early version first appeared March 1933 Wonder Stories as "Dweller in Martian Depths": Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]
  • Mother of Toads (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1987) [story: chap: early version first appeared July 1938 Weird Tales: Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]
  • The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1988) [story: chap: early version first appeared May 1932 Weird Tales: Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]
  • The Monster of the Prophecy (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1988) [story: chap: early version first appeared January 1932 Weird Tales: Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]
  • Xeethra (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1988) [story: chap: early version first appeared December 1934 Weird Tales: pb/]
  • The Witchcraft of Ulua (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1988) [story: chap: early version first appeared February 1934 Weird Tales: Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]
  • The Hashish-Eater; Or, the Apocalypse of Evil (West Warwick, Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1989) [poem: chap: previously unpublished: Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith: pb/Robert H Knox]

Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith

Complete Poetry and Translations

individual titles

  • The Black Diamonds (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2002) [written circa 1907: introduction by S T Joshi: illus/pb/Jason C Eckhardt]

collections and stories

poetry (highly selected)


about the author

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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