What I’m Reading: Clark Ashton Smith – The Return of the Sorcerer

Like C.L. Moore, whose Jirel of Jory stories I read recently, Clark Ashton Smith was a pulp author writing during roughly the first half of the twentieth century; in fact, he was, besides Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, one of the mainstays of Weird Tales. He is markedly lesser known and (supposedly) read than the others today, but not necessarily a worse writer for that; in many aspects I would even consider him the most interesting of the three.

For one thing, he is the most varied in both subject matter and style – while Lovecraft is something of a one-trick pony, and Howard’s stories, while thematically more diverse, are all written in a very similar tone, this Best Of collection presents us with stories that range from elegic prose poems to gruesome horror fiction, from satirical allegories to whimsical fantasy stories, and while Smith’s unique style is present in all of those, they are also markedly different from each other.

As an aside, this collection, like the one by C.L. Moore before, gave me occasion to marvel at how much the concept of pulp seems to have changed over the last century – today, ‘pulp’ tends to evoke (at least it does for me) fast, sleazy action; and while there might be some degree of sleaziness in Moore and Smith it’s rather subdued (although I seem to remember reqading somewhere that Smith’s stories were toned down for publication in Weird Tales and were much more overly sexual in their unedited versions), their stories are anything but fast-moving, they’re mostly very slow, detailed and colourful descriptions of fantastic landscapes, the kind one would imagine a modern-day reader to get bored with before the end of the first serpentine-syntaxed period of purple prose winds to its end. There are only a few stories of pure description in this collection though, and I thought those were rather the weakest ones in the lot – Moore’s descriptions were for a great part carried by sheer passion, both of her writing and her heroine, and with Smith favouring a detached narrative point of view, his long descriptive passages tend to come across as static and somewhat lifeless.

Another major difference is that in Smith’s work, at least in so far as it is represented in this collection, the racism that is a problem in Howard’s and a major stumbling block in Lovecraft’s oeuvre seems to be refreshingly absent – no subhuman blacks or devious Asians populate these stories,. And finally, Smith actually has a sense of humour, something that Howard and Lovecraft are very much lacking in. And not just in the explicitely humorous stories, either: Apparently, Smith saw himself mainy as a poet, and wrote for Weird Tales and other pulp magazines only in order to make some money. The earlier stories in this collection, those written at around 1931-32 are still mostly serious affairs, and clearly influenced by French decadent and symbolist poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Mallarmé; but starting in 1933, Smiths seems to have moved away from his mostly static prose poems towards more dynamic, narrative structures, while at the same time never quite making his peace with the form. As a result, there is a different kind of detachment creeping into the later stories – not the impassibilité of the symbolist poet who stand aloof from the mundane world, but rather the wry amusement of a narrator who can’t quite believe that he is doing something as silly as, you know, telling a story, of all things.

That latter trait is something he shares with one of my favourite SFF authors, namely Jack Vance, and as Smith also has a distinct penchant for thinking up weird names and does appear to be the inventor of the “Dying Earth” sub-genre, I feel inclined to disagree with Gene Wolfe in his foreword to this collection, when he insists on Smith’s uniqueness – while he certainly was not as influential as Howard or Lovecraft, I for one am seeing a strong influence (conscious or not) on Vance’s work.

In lesser hands, this constant distancing of the stories from themselves might have seriously undercut the tone of the stories, but Clark Ashton Smith it serves to heighten the sense of the weird and bizarre, and together with his sometimes outlandish vocabulary (I was glad I read this book on the Kindle and was hence able to look the words easily – except that even the integrated dictionary did not know all of them) bestow on them a kind of out-of-this-world quality, turns them into something akin to the hashish-induced visions Smith so often evokes, something almost hallucinatory and always just eluding the reader’s grasp.

This post is part of Lurv A La Mode‘s Year of the Fantasy Classic Challenge.

2 comments

  1. While I agree that Smith is criminally under-represented in comparison to Howard and Lovecraft, describing Howard as lacking in humour is pretty baffling considering comedy stories make up a third of his entire output: he wrote more stories about Sailor Steve Costigan alone than Conan. I’d also say that he does display a fair amount of variation, though not to the extent of Smith.

    But the important thing is Smith is awesome and more people need to read his stuff. Your mention of pulp being considered synonymous with “fast, sleazy action” belies the truth about pulp magazines: the only defensible quantification of “pulp fiction,” in my opinion, is strictly in reference to the fact it was printed on pulp paper.

  2. My bad about Howard, then, as I have to admit I have never even heard of Sailor Steve Costigan before. While I’m reasonably familiar not just with his Conan but also his still reasonably popular other stuff (Soloman Kane, Krull, Brank Mak Morn etc.) this is quite obviously a part of his oeuvre that had me escaped so far. I’ll see whether I’ll be able to remedy that.

    And well, while your definition of “pulp” might be correct in a strictly etymological sense, the accepted use of the term has quite definitely drawn a parellel from the quality of the paper with the stories printed on it – I do not think there is any doubt that “pulp fiction” is synonymous with “cheap entertainment”, what I found interesting is how what counts as cheap entertainment has changed in the last one hundred years. Or two hundred, for that matter, if you consider that Charles Dickens used to fall under that category. Or three hundred, as in the eighteenth centure all novels were considered cheap (and morally quite dangerous) entertainment…

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