Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Clark Ashton Smith

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).

CASalien013

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.

CASsouthseaidol012

“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.

cone-shaped

  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.

antehuman_groteque

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

First and foremost, a shameless plug for a talk I’m giving September 30th.  It should be crazy good fun…I promise lots of pictures and humorous anecdotes.  Also, I don’t actually drink, and I’m given free alcohol coupons by way of reimbursement…so I might just be able to spot you a beer if you show up!

Anyway.  I’ve been thinking a lot about evil in Lovecraftian horror stories because I’ve started reading Clark Ashton Smith.  (No, I haven’t yet finished The Cthulhu Mythos, yes, it was getting too painful, yes, I will finish it at some point…I swear.)  Smith writes a lot about evil–evil sorcerers, corruption in the church, necromancy, the worship of demons.  And yet I haven’t encountered anyone complaining about his incorporation of evil into the mythos the way that EVERYONE seems to hate on Derleth (myself included).

I almost double-majored in Contemporary Literature, but one introductory class made me floor it out of there.  (As it turns out, I am much better at enjoying books than I am at reading enough into the subtext to generate papers on the topic.)  I seldom regret this decision, but I can’t help but think that if I had stuck with my original plan, I’d be much more adept at explaining why the evil of Smith is so much more effective in the Lovecraftian cannon than the evil of Derleth.  But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

First of all, I categorically reject the notion that incorporating themes of evil into the Lovecraft cannon goes against Lovecraft’s original intentions.  My guess, however, would be that evil was a fundamentally human invention: there may be savage cults and witches and warlocks and those with intent to do harm or seek vengeance, but the cosmic entities they worship and struggle (in a usually futile attempt) to control exist outside our knowledge to the point where assigning them values of “good” or “evil” is almost humorous.  They are a means to an evil, human end.  I feel that this theme is very well represented in Lovecraft’s stories, and Clark Ashton Smith makes great use of it.

Second, and perhaps more divisively, I tend to believe that it’s not necessarily a grave violation for Lovecraftian characters (and, by extension, Lovecraftian readers) to interpret cosmic horrific entities as evil.  We’re as limited as the characters in the sense that our ability to interpret the universe is bound up in the same heuristics we use to make sense of everyday life.  And, in the context of Lovecraftian horror, those heuristics are absurdly limited.  This is why we react to Lovecraftian character’s abrupt descent into insanity with bemusement rather than horror.  For instance, how are we meant to interpret the end of At the Mountains of Madness*?

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about “The black pit,” “the carven rim,” “the protoShoggoths,” “the windowless solids with five dimensions,” “the nameless cylinder,” “the elder Pharos,” “Yog-Sothoth,” “the primal white jelly,” “the color out of space,” “the wings,” “the eyes in darkness,” “the moon-ladder,” “the original, the eternal, the undying,” and other bizarre conceptions…

I’m not sure we’re meant to read this and be overcome with horror.  I think we’re supposed to read this and think, “…?”  My guess is that the disjointed phrases are supposed to emphasize how little we know and create a sense of general unease rather than abject terror.  Who knows.  Regardless, I think it’s an acceptable tendency for protagonists to assume that the monstrous, faceless entities that cause destruction and insanity wherever they shamble must be evil; it’s much easier to accept that such cosmic entities are deliberately malicious rather than completely indifferent.

So–wherein lies the difference between the evil of Smith and the evil of Derleth?

http://www.eldritchdark.com/galleries/by-cas/

For starters, the evil beings of Smith look creepy as shit.

Derleth’s evil cosmic entities have a tremendously human backstory.  The Great Old Ones are constantly entwined and embattled with each other: Tsathoggua hates Nyarlathotep, who happens to be Cthulhu’s half-brother.  They all got thrown out of paradise one day by the benevolent Elder Gods, and now they’re scattered across the universe in various cosmic prisons, each of them struggling to regain ascendance.

Struggling, I think, is the key word in that paragraph.  Derleth’s evil is not omnipotent.  It’s weak, it’s sneaking and striving for a chance to get a foothold.  To be fair, evil sneaking in the back door is very much an accepted, valid horror trope (see The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby).  But this rings extraordinarily false in the context of Lovecraft’s work: Great Cthulhu waits dead and dreaming, not gritting his teeth and wringing his tentacles and plotting revenge.  Cthulhu is worshiped, but one doesn’t get the sense that he’s infinitely grateful to his cultists for helping ease him back into power.  One gets the sense that he is hungry.

Compare that to Smith’s incarnations of evil.  In one of his short stories, Smith hypothesizes that there’s an element of pure evil in the universe–we as humans can only see it filtered through humanity, in petty instances of crime, hatefulness, and murder.  A devotee of evil–a traditional Lovecraftian cultist–decides to create a device in order to experience pure cosmic evil, and it goes about as well for him as it would for any cultist.  The sense of evil here is creepy (as is the devotion of someone who’s dedicated their life to worshiping evil), but I don’t think it’s the source of the horror.  The horror comes from the invocation of cosmic forces, which we are powerless to control.  Evil, in this case, didn’t come knocking on the back door looking for an entry: it was deliberately sought out, and the consequences of this incautious act were inevitable.

There’s a fantastic element to Smith that I quite enjoy–you don’t see it as much in modern mythos fiction.  There are evil emperors and sorcerers in control of fantastic, malign gardens and hideous labyrinths, all described in loving detail.   But beneath the poisonous flowers and contorted statures and acid baths, there’s the same sense of powerlessness: people try to fight the evil, to be sure, but evil always wins.  It’s not even really in question, despite the best and most sincere efforts of humanity.  Not a single one of the evil entities ever seem threatened by the angry do-gooders who confront them.

Evil can (and often does) fit seamlessly into Lovecraftian fiction, as long as it can co-exist with a sense of indifference and the ultimate powerlessness of humanity.  On Friday, I’ll talk about a handful of my favorite mythos stories that unabashedly incorporate themes of good versus evil.

The Cultist

*Beating a dead horse, I know.  I swear there’s a purpose to this, though!