Forbidden Tomes: CLARK ASHTON SMITH

As this is the first post of its kind, I’ll give a little introduction – in addition to the “Films That Haunt Me” section, I will be writing articles called “Forbidden Tomes,” discussing horror fiction that sometimes goes under the radar. For our first foray into the dark world of words, I’ll talk a bit about Lovecraft’s great contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith. 

The Penguin edition of Smith's best stories.

The Penguin edition of Smith’s best stories.

The name H.P. Lovecraft is synonymous with weird fiction, stories of uncanny and otherworldly horrors. I only recently began exploring his contemporaries and discovered the wealth of bizarre stories that lurk beyond Lovecraft – particularly the stories and poetry of Clark Ashton Smith.

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I entered into Smith’s world with only a vague notion of his style and the knowledge that he and Lovecraft were friends. There is no way to prepare for the entrance into his allegorical and surreal creations. From ruined temples to forgotten gods that are still hungry to vengeful necromancers destroying their rivals’ countries, Smith weaves a variety of disturbing fables with exquisite and Baroque language. Once I got used to his style I was fully entranced.

These alien worlds full of sorcerers, labyrinths, catacombs, and horrific spirits are wholly original and powerful. Smith is credited with the invention of several creatures in the Cthulhu mythos, most recognizably the toad-god Tsathoggua. As a major fan of everything Gothic and monstrous, his populations of ghouls and mummies and blood-thirsty vault-creatures are an absolute dream. The walking corpses and evil wizards particularly touched on childhood fantasies that I hadn’t acknowledged in years.

Smith's sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

Smith’s sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

What gives Smith’s fantastical tales their power are not only their imagination, but their focus on deeply human themes. Stories like “The Dark Eidolon” and “The Maze of the Enchanter” explore the consequences of people’s jealousy when granted the ability to act on their greed; while “The City of Singing Flame” and “The Weaver in the Vault” display the psychological wonder of unknown, uncanny encounters.

By grounding his writing in these recognizable emotions, Smith transcends mere entertainment, and his stories make a strong impact because of it. One in particular haunts me the most – “Xeethra,” a parable about a peasant boy who is allowed to live as a king so long as he never shirks his privileged position due to the pressure; the ending is, you can imagine, poignant and tragic. I did not expect to experience such a variety of emotions, going beyond simple fear. That is the power of Smith’s mind and fiction, and why it endures so strongly today.

Smith's own artwork - titled 'Racornee.'

Smith’s own artwork – titled ‘Racornee.’

My copy is the Penguin edition, called The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited by wonderful weird fiction scholar S.T. Joshi. While far from complete, it represents his work well, and includes a lot of his poetry, too – also beautiful. There is a spectrum of horror, fantasy and science fiction here that will please fans of any genre.

Clark Ashton Smith is a voice from another time, echoing Lovecraft but even transcending him with his fable-like themes that resonate deep. Light a candle and enter his world on a dark summer night while the dreamy wind blows outside. It is guaranteed to transport you.

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