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All right, now that we’ve firmly established that I can’t watch scary movies to save my life, there are lots and LOTS of good horror books for children, and that Lovecraftian elements abound even when we’re least expecting them…I feel as though I should return to the main theme of this blog, to wit: y’know, H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction.

I dedicated a week or more of this blog to slogging through August Derleth (STILL have not finished The Cthulhu Mythos, damn it all…seriously, the water/air/fire elementals are like nails on a chalkboard to me), but I’ve only mentioned Clark Ashton Smith in passing.  Which is completely unjust, because I LOVE his stories.  Love them to pieces.

I didn’t know very much about Smith at all, beyond the fact that he was good friends with Lovecraft.  Beyond their friendship, I knew that the “E” in T.E.D. Klein (who wrote “Black Man with a Horn”, one of my favorite Lovecraftian works of all time) stood for “Eibon”, the name of one of Smith’s evil wizards.  Anyone who Klein respects that much was surely worth a look from me, so I got a collection of his works.

As I have said before, I’m faaaaairly certain that horror writers of the 1930s were the isolated, anti-social neckbeards of their time, and letter-writing was their 4chan.  Or something like it.  I’ve written plenty about H.P. Lovecraft’s sad life, but it seems like Smith might have been even worse off.  He spent his entirely life in almost complete isolation (although, to his credit, he did get married at age 61, and remained married until his death seven years later).  He got no education after grammar school, and learned to write by studying the dictionary.

The book I got contains poems, “prose poetry”, and short stories.  Apparently, Smith considered himself a poet primarily, and wrote stories for the pulps just to make ends meet.  But I think his short stories are the best of the bunch (although this probably speaks a lot more to my un-literary nature than to the quality of his poems).


Most of the stories that I read were shamelessly fantastic in nature: endless lists of strange debauched princes and their concubines, gardens of evil wizards filled to the brim with venomous flowers and cunning traps, necromancers by the boatload, sorcerers and sorceresses, and ancient temples laden with squatting, malign idols.  But the worlds he describes are tremendously compelling, and they’re tinged with the same sense of unease that permeates Lovecraftian work.

According to his website (worth checking out–I definitely plan to read through this in the future), two of his most famous works are “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and “The City of the Singing Flame”.  The former is a science fiction story, a tale of the exploration of an abandoned city of Mars.  Their Martian guides are curiously reluctant to explore it, but offer no explanation.  (I feel that the “native guides refusing to enter the abandoned city/temple/cave/area” trope is the “girl has sex on prom night” of 1930’s-40’s horror fiction.)  And then…well, it pretty much ends as you’d expect with that beginning, and even though I saw the ending coming, it did definitely creep me out, which is a pretty significant feat anymore.


“The City of the Singing Flame” is the story of two American artists who discover a portal in the desert to another world, which is the site of a temple which is the site of a strange alien pilgrimage.   It’s interesting, but didn’t strike me quite as profoundly.  Probably my favorite of his exploration stories is the tale of a sailor who gets stranded on a strange island.  The island isn’t deserted–it’s full of people, but no one interacts with him.  He quickly realizes that they’re all preoccupied with something.  Everyone, even the women and children, are anxiously scanning the sky and studying astrological charts.  Day in, day out, they never do anything else.  It’s a profoundly lonely and disquieting tale–being lost and helpless in the middle of a crowd.


  Unlike Lovecraft, Smith’s stories tend to be more emotional.  The first of his works that I read was the story of a powerful necromancer whose demonic familiar hints that there might be a limit to his power.  Ignoring his familiar’s warnings, he calls up the image of his lost paramour–a girl he fell completely and utterly in love with as a youth.  His spell is perfect, she stands before him–but something is very wrong.  She’s not what he remembered, she’s less bewitching, less enticing.  He dismisses her shade in a huff, and asks his familiar if he went awry.  The familiar explains that his spell was perfect, but his memory was far better than the reality.  By summoning the reality, he’s forever tainted his memory, and now he has no choice but to live without the pleasure of that remembered love.


I’ve definitely enjoyed all of Smith’s works that I’ve read so far, and I’m looking forward to reading new ones.  If you’re in the market for the dreamlike mood of Lovecraft’s fantastical stories–Randolph Carter, the Gates of the Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Cats of Ulthar–Clark Ashton Smith is an excellent addition to your library.

The Cultist

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