Clark Ashton Smith (January 13, 1893 – August 14, 1961) was an American author of horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction. He rose to prominence during the golden age of the pulp era, and was part of the famous Weird Tales triumvirate along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. He was widely published not only in Weird Tales but literary journals and other pulps as well, including Wonder Stories, Astounding, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Stirring Science Stories, The Magic Carpet, The Black Cat, and others. Smith was author of approximately 250 short stories and over 900 poems. He wrote only one full length novel, The Black Diamonds, which owes a lot to his fondness for the Arabian Nights. The novel was 90,000 words, written at the age of 14.
Those who’ve read Smith’s work but who know little about the man himself might be surprised to learn he never attended high school. Possibly due to “psychological disorders including a fear of crowds” (Wikipedia), Smith’s education was finished at home, where he read voraciously and studied a variety of subjects. Smith’s vocabulary is wide in scope and gave his fiction a singularly otherworldly feel that, in my opinion, wove a spell around the reader unlike any other prose written by the peers of his time. His dark fantasy and horror was dark indeed. Sorcerers of the black arts from Smith’s stories are deeply disturbed individuals with gruesome keepsakes and a clear penchant for diabolic evil.
Smith’s prose certainly isn’t for everyone. I have had discussions with pulp fans who either love or strongly dislike his work. Some find him unnecessarily verbose. Those like myself, who enjoy his work, find his vast vocabulary and amazing use of language the clear differentiation between his and other writers’ dark fiction. Among his admirers are Ray Bradbury, who cited Smith’s story “The City of the Singing Flame” as a standout favorite.
Smith’s careful employment of uncommon language and cadence in his prose is due in part to his history as an artist; Smith spent ten years as a poet before he attempted to sell any fiction. One of his earliest publication credits was a booklet called The Star-Treader and Other Poems in 1912. He began publishing short stories in the mid-1920s. He increased his fiction output as The Great Depression settled over America. He wrote the bulk of his fiction between 1929 and 1935. Throughout the mid to late-1930s, a series of tragedies left him deeply affected to the point that he stopped writing fiction completely. His mother died in 1935, Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936, and H.P. Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937, which was the same year that Smith’s father died. The deaths of his contemporaries, with whom he had forged meaningful relationships through letters over the years, coupled with the deaths of his parents, “left him exhausted.” Ultimately, Smith turned to sculpting, art, and resumed writing poetry.
In the early 1940s, August Derleth started Arkham House and published many of the first collected works of Smith’s fiction. Despite Derleth’s encouragement, Smith never took up writing fiction again. He left behind a relatively large number of unpublished pieces of fiction, many if not all of which were published posthumously.
Smith lived the majority of his life in Auburn, California. He passed away at the age of 61 in Pacific Grove, California. His remains were cremated and his ashes were buried near the site of his boyhood home in Auburn, which was destroyed by fire in 1957. The burial site had no marker until recent years, when the site was commemorated by a plaque in what is now a small park near the Placer County Law Library. For those interested in learning more about Clark Ashton Smith, I recommend a comprehensive website called The Eldritch Dark. Smith has received his rightful share of scholarly attention, as the site clearly shows. He also achieved literary canonization in a Penguin Classics collection of his work in 2014.
Clark Ashton Smith’s work has been published in many collectible editions over the years. My personal collection includes an Arkham House hardcover, A Rendezvous in Averoigne, with cover art by Jeffrey K. Potter, which is one of only a handful of things that I still own from my teenage years and holds a great deal of sentimental value for me. I do have one of the Neville Spearman hardcover editions of Lost Words, but other than that, the rest of my CAS collection in is paperback — some seriously beautiful paperbacks with amazing wraparound art. Ballantine’s adult fantasy series features art by George Barr, Gervasio Gallardo, and Bill Martin. Panther Books in the UK released paperback editions of Neville Spearman’s Arkham House reprints with more amazing cover art. Some of the art was done by B. Pennington, but the other artwork, including that on the Out of Space and Time volumes which I have featured here, is uncredited.
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These cover scans are from the library of author Christopher Fulbright.