Clark Ashton Smith: Visionary of the Dark Fantastic

To throw light upon the mysterious essence of the writer who has been overpowered by his daemon, to elucidate the true nature of the daemonic, I have inconspicuously delineated the dark inheritance of his escapades into the unknown.  The writer who soars upon the pinions of an uncontrolled daemonism is not one who is himself undaemonic, there is no art worthy of the name without daemonism, no great art that does not voice the music of the infernal spheres.

-Stefan Zweig,  The Struggle with the Daemon

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-coloured sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

-Clark Ashton Smith, The Hashish-Eater 

It’s hard to imagine just how prolific Clark Ashton Smith was in the various areas of art, poetry, and prose within which he established himself as an exemplar of the dark fantastic. In poetry alone his work is without doubt the last of the last great Symbolist from an era that stretched from Baudelaire to W.B. Yeats, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Austin Osman Spare. I see that S.T. Joshi and other editors have brought out a three volume edition of his poetry and translations (before his mentor George Sterling died he’d already become well known for his translations of Baudelaire), along with five volumes of his collected weird tales and one of his miscellaneous writings in other genres and sub-genres. But it is his five volumes recently published of his fantastic tales, his essays, letters, etc. of which I’ve been interested in of late. Many in his own time failed to understand him or his work properly, but much did. Many of the avant garde regarded his work, and especially The Hashish Eater, as being a mere extension of Sterling’s; Witter Bynner’s half-joking references to “the Star Dust Twins” are typical. This did not prevent the publication of Smith’s work in venues such as the Yale Review, Poetry, Smart Set, and Laughing Horse, and it was no stranger to popular anthologies and even school and college textbooks.1

Le Sprague de Camp considered him one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Weird Tale, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Yet, unlike the other two he never seemed to register on the psyche of readers. Some say it’s because he never created a mythos like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Howard’s Conan series, and yet he was by many aficionado’s (me included) the better stylist and prose writer, as well as more imaginative in displaying a command of world building and sheer control over the details of his explorations into the noumenal or unknown. For him the fantastic was not escapism – not in the sense of the Inklings or their sub-worlds; no, his was an exploration by indirect means of that vast invisible area we would term the speculative regions of the cosmos around us. Because of a false view of reality that after Kant reduced the cosmos and environment to the phenomenal and visible its taken a couple hundred years to come to the end of that circle of symbolic closure. Now in our time we’ve once again opened the doors to the unknown and impossible realms that our brains usually filter out because of our disposition toward hunger and reproduction. Yet, do to this caveat that our brains filter out most of the signals that surround us we are essentially blind to all but a small fragment of the Real. It’s in the work of this that those voyagers of the fantastic excelled; rather than in escape from reality, they chose to open up the aspects of reality that our cultural dominators chose to close off as taboo.

Some like Fred Chappell in his essay Communicable Mysteries: The Last True Symbolist will tell us that part of the issue is Smith’s ‘continuous exoticism’:

The acme and avatar of such excess is, of course, The Hashish-Eater with its sennet-and-tucket opening (“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams”), its kaleidoscopic barrage of garish images (“The sacred flower with lips of purple flesh”; “deserts filled with everwandering flames”; “wreaths of torpid vipers”), its mythological and faery names (Sabaoth, cockatrice, Enceladus, hippogriff), its resounding Miltonics (“demon tears incessant”) and sudden shifts of perspective, place, and vantage—well, all those devices that make it what it is: a showcase of most of the poet’s strengths and weaknesses, a curio shop window crowded with valuables and dross alike. (Connors, 91)

Even Smith himself would complain about those that misunderstood his intent saying that the visions described and suggested in the lines of his poetry (The Hashish-Eater) were not designed to add up to a colorfully jolly experience. “It is my own theory that if the infinite worlds of the cosmos were opened to human vision, the visionary would be overwhelmed by horror in the end, like the hero of this poem” (SL 366). So in this sense Smith follows all those from Baudelaire to Lovecraft who see in this missing aspect of our cosmic awareness not some sublime and beautiful realm of peace and joy, some transcendent paradise; but, rather they envision an infernal paradise of monstrous excess, a realm of energy and corruption beyond toll.  It’s this excess into which Smith along with all those before him would try to discover a way through the traps of language to lure the darkness if not into the light, then into the metamorphic boundary zones where the gray toned worlds of shadow cast their spectral glimmer. As Lovecraft once said: “The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.”2

It’s this sense that these seekers, these visionaries, these purveyors of the fantastic and unknown, the impossible knew from the begging that what they sought to convey could not be described in the symbolic codes of our everyday prose with its adhesion to sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. That our outward experience was muddled and confused, bound to the brain’s own ancient heuristic devices of survival and reproductive encodings which precluded all other aspects of the environment to the detriment of our conscious mind. It’s not that the brain does not know of this other more expansive territory, but that it blocks it out; filters it from view, hides it from our conscious mind except as part of the shadowy hinterworlds of inner experience which is the realm that those apophatic explorers of absence and darkness: the mystic, dreamers, poets, and shamans – and, I might add, those authors of the dark fantastic have always founds ways through derangement of the senses to enter and know not with a scientific knowledge, but rather with that oldest of affective reactions known to man: cosmic fear and terror.

This sense of a need to escape not reality, but the Symbolic Order or Cave of Reality (as I like to call it) of our narrowed range of the Real is at the heart of the fantastic. As Smith would say in his story To The Daemon, which is a fitting name for one’s double, one’s dark and unknown – even, unconscious other deep within:

Tell me many tales, O benign maleficent daemon, but tell me none that I have ever heard or have even dreamt of otherwise than obscurely or infrequently. Nay, tell me not of anything that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space: for I am a little weary of all recorded years and charted lands; and the isles that are westward of Cathay, and the sunset realms of Ind, are not remote enough to be made the abiding-place of my conceptions; and Atlantis is over-new for my thoughts to sojourn there, and Mu itself has gazed upon the sun in aeons that are too recent.3

In other words let’s not continue to go over the same old territory of the known and circumscribed knowledge base of our Cultural Inheritance, that well-trod global database of discourse that has been plundered for so long that we’ve all grown decadent with too much of its influence, its repetitions, its eye bound frames of thought and mind. Let us instead have access to the unknown, the impossible, the realms surrounding us that our brain has cut us off from for far too long. Let us discover techniques to open up these infernal landscapes that have up to now only been glimpsed in the fragmentary visions of poets, painters, shaman, and madmen. Let us circumvent the brain’s own mechanisms that have locked us blindly within a circle of the known, made us far too comfortable with our staid realities of culture and civilization; allowed us to fall into complacency, ennui, and decadent accumulation of too much trivial pursuit games of distraction and nonsense. Let us once again know and be known by the Great Outside of Being that has been closed off from us because of our fears and depredations of its extreme horrors. We live in as Nick Land tells us a Human Security System, a codified zone of constructed safety and symbolic order where reality is a place we can safely manage and known, use (utilitarian) and control under our will (voluntarism). Yet, there are those among us who we deem the necessary few; the shamans and sorcerers of the unknown who escape the defense systems that keep others protected and enslaved by the command and control systems of the Iron Prison of Culture.

It’s to this that Smith sings of in his call to the Daemon to open the veil of darkness to the infernal delights of this hellish paradise surrounding us:

Tell me many tales, but let them be of things that are past the lore of legend and of which there are no myths in our world or any world adjoining. Tell me, if you will, of the years when the moon was young, with siren-rippled seas and mountains that were zoned with flowers from base to summit; tell me of the planets grey with eld, of the worlds whereon no mortal astronomer has ever looked, and whose mystic heavens and horizons have given pause to visionaries. Tell me of the vaster blossoms within whose cradling chalices a woman could sleep; of the seas of fire that beat on strands of ever-during ice; of perfumes that can give eternal slumber in a breath; of eyeless titans that dwell in Uranus, and beings that wander in the green light of the twin suns of azure and orange. Tell me tales of inconceivable fear and unimaginable love, in orbs whereto our sun is a nameless star, or unto which its rays have never reached. (ibid., 2)

In his essay Atmosphere in Weird Fiction Smith would describe his dark aesthetic, telling us that the term atmosphere, in application to fiction, is often used in a somewhat vague or restricted sense. I believe that it can be most profitably defined as the collective impression created by the entire mass of descriptive, directly evocative details in any given story (what is sometimes known as “local color”) together with all that is adumbrated, suggested or connoted through or behind these details. It can be divided roughly into two elements: the kinetic and the potential; the former comprising all the effects of overt surface imagery, and the latter all the implications, hints, undertones, shadows, nuances, and the verbal associations, and various effects of rhythm, onomatopoeia and phonetic pattern which form a more consistent and essential feature of good prose-writing than is commonly realized. Many people would apply the word atmosphere only to the elements defined here-above as potential; but I prefer the broader definition; since, after all, the most intangible atmospheric effects depend more or less upon the kinetic ones and are often difficult to dissociate wholly from them through analysis. An attempt to achieve purely potential writing might result, I suspect, in something not altogether dissimilar to the effusions of Gertrude Stein! Or, at least, it would lead to an obscurity such as was practiced by the French Symbolist poet, Mallarme, who is said to have revised his poems with an eye to the elimination of kinetic statement whenever – possible. 

In Georges Bataille’s book Inner Experience one gains a glimpse of this interplay of the kinetic and potential in his call to the unknown:

I read in Denys l’Aréopagite: “Those who by an inward cessation of all intellectual functioning enter into an intimate union with ineffable light… only speak of God by negation”… So is it from the moment that it is experience and not presupposition which reveals (to such an extent that, in the eyes of the latter, light is “a ray of darkness”; he would go so far as to say, in the tradition of Eckhart: “God is Nothingness”). But positive theology – founded on the revelation of the scriptures – is not in accord with this negative experience… In the same way, I hold the apprehension of God… to be an obstacle in the movement which carries us to the more obscure apprehension of unknowing (l’inconnu): of a presence which is no longer in any way distinct from an absence.4

As Eugene Thacker will argue Bataille’s mystical writings are not simply a ventriloquizing of earlier mystical authors, and neither are they about the existentialist crisis of the modern subject; for Bataille this type of darkness runs the gamut from the most basic forms of “base materialism” and inorganic matter, to the planetary and even cosmic cycles of production, accumulation, and expenditure. That is, this darkness-mysticism has to be placed in the context of Bataille’s own version of political economy, a non-human, “general economy” based on excess and expenditure. In the same way that divine darkness is in excess of the individuated human being, so is there a divine darkness that is in excess of the world – at least the world that we as human beings construct for ourselves and fashion in our image. Divine darkness is precisely this negative movement that cuts across self and world, the human and the non-human – not by virtue of a bountiful, vitalistic life-force, but by way of an emptying and a darkening. In an almost Lovecraftian vein, Bataille notes that, “beyond our immediate ends, humanity’s activity in fact pursues the useless and infinite fulfillment of the universe.” (Thacker, 35-36)

It’s within this divine darkness, this infernal region of immanence wherein the energetic forces of the universe play out their hidden dramas of unbidden horror that those of the dark or visionary fantastic seek both entry and poetic conveyance. Even as Bataille parts ways with the other mystical thinkers, he’ll follow in Nietzsche’s footsteps proclamating the death of God, and yet he will discover a dark mysticism without God, or a mysticism that negates God – but also a mysticism without the human. Bataille’s mysticism is no revived humanism – far from it. What remains in Bataille’s darkness-mysticism is neither human nor divine, but simply darkness itself. The shift from the earlier mystics to Bataille is akin to the shift from the horror of something in the dark, to the horror of darkness itself. As Bataille notes, in one of his last works: “What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.” (Thacker, 37-38)

It’s this explosive dark mysticism of ecstatic horrorism – the cosmic horror of Lovecraftian infernal sublime that enfolds Smith as well; and, yet, he is even darker in his scholarship having entered into accord with Baudelaire and the whole of the decadent, symbolist, and visionary underbelly of the dark fantastic. He’s is a work yet to be rediscovered by those who know in our time. As Thacker says of Bataille, one might say of Smith:

[his] texts opt to darken the human, to un- do the human by paradoxically revealing the shadows and nothingness at its core, to move not towards a renewed knowledge of the human, but towards something we can only call an unknowing of the human, or really, the unhuman. [his] mysticism, then, is a mysticism of the limits of the human, and this divine darkness would be something like a mysticism of the unhuman. (Thacker, 38)

As Brian Stapleford would say there is almost nothing in Smith’s work of what is usually called “human interest.” Those of his characters who live in the mundane world think of it as a drab and desolate place whose tedium is barely tolerable, and they are usually eager to take the opportunities which Smith’s imagination offers them: to cross thresholds into worlds where the bizarre and the inexplicable are commonplace. Many of these fantasy-worlds are dangerous in the extreme, but the fascination which they exert on his protagonists is irresistible. (Connors, 150) And, yet, I disagree with Stapleford who would compare Smith’s aesthetic to the Tokienesque Inklings tell us that in “the jargon popularized by J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith’s stories are mostly set in Secondary Worlds which have their own “inner consistency of reality,” but the most ambitious of them have do not seem to have the customary relationship with the Primary World that most imaginary worlds in fantasy fiction have.” (Connors, 151) To me Smith is just the opposite of this dualistic two-world view onto the dark fantastic. I’ll have none of it. No. Smith was an explorer of the larger view of our one world reality that has been caged off as repeated earlier into a fragmented and constructed Human Security Zone of utilitarian and voluntaristic enslavement to tame the human animal under regimes of elite governance and dominion.

To me it is not so much that Tolkien’s notion of sub-creation is wrong (which it is!), but that he gets the wrong way round. It’s us who are locked off in a sub-creational world of false realities, cultural and symbolic prisons built out of a narrow view of the larger and broader truth surrounding us. Culture and Civilization at built to shut down the Real, to patrol its borders and limit our mind’s reach, our ability to know anything different from the normalized and normative “give and take” of reasons that binds us all into a sociocultural world of work and economic slavery. So that the point of the dark fantastic is to explode the borders, break us out of the caged realities of the elite guardians of the world who bind us through religion, philosophy, politics, and social conditioning. In fact in describing his poem ‘The Hashish-Eaters’ he would speak of it this way:

By some exaltation and expansion of cosmic consciousness, rather than a mere drug, used here as a symbol, the dreamer is carried to a height from which he beholds the strange and multiform scenes of existence in alien worlds; he maintains control of his visions, evokes and dismisses them at will. Then, in a state similar to the Buddhic plane, he is able to mingle with them and identify himself with their actors and objects. Still later, there is a transition in which the visions, and the monstrous and demonic forces he has evoked, begin to overpower him, to hurry him on helplessly, under circumstances of fright and panic. Armies of fiends and monsters, many drawn from the worlds of myth and fable, muster against him, pursue him through a terrible cosmos, and he is driven at last to the verge of a gulf into which falls in cataracts the ruin and rubble of the universe; a gulf from which the face of infinity itself, in all its awful blankness, beyond stars and worlds, beyond created things, even fiends and monsters, rises up to confront him.

In fact in a letter to Amazing Stories published in the issue for October 1932 he proposed that:

Literature can be, and does, many things; and one of its most glorious prerogatives is the exercise of imagination on things that lie beyond human experience—the adventuring of fantasy into the awful, sublime and infinite cosmos outside the human aquarium. . . . For many people . . . imaginative stories offer a welcome and salutary release from the somewhat oppressive tyranny of the homocentric, and help to correct the deeply introverted, ingrowing values that are fostered by present-day “humanism” and realistic literature with its unhealthy materialism and earth-bound trend. Science fiction, at its best, is akin to sublime and exalted poetry, in its evocation of tremendous, non-anthropomorphic imageries. (Connors, 151)

So already we see a total and diametric vision of art, literature, vision, etc. from the Tolkienesque Inkling tribe of sub-creation which is after all bound to nostalgic and humanist vision of controlled and normative fantasy rather than a distinctive and visionary exploration of our own actual cosmos seen through new and more awakened eyes. Long before all these current non-human turn philosophies and come-lately theories of the Anthropocene and arguments against anthropocentricism’s and humanism there were a tribe of dark fantasists who were exploring this inhuman territory.

I’ll agree with Stapleford’s assessment that Smith shares an intimate relation with the French traditions in decadent and symbolist modes, and that it is his notion of the goad which drives the imagination to construct rhapsodies in prose, one of whose facets is ennui, another spleen. One may borrow (taking it, admittedly, out of context) Rimbaud’s reference to the “alchemy of the word” to describe Smith’s method, because he was a great exponent of the alchemy of words. He used his vocabulary to transform descriptions into incantations directly evoking a sense of the strange, a distortion of attitude and feeling. Smith’s prose is geared to apply to the reader an experiential wrench or jolt, to permit the relief of “seeing” worlds of the imagination—which might otherwise have gone stale along with the hopeless world of mundanity—through a new linguistic lens. This is what his best prose fiction intends to accomplish. (Connors, 157)

Yet, it’s Stapleford creeping two-world dualism that I cast doubt on above where he uses imagination/mundanity in the way he does; rather, Smith is not caught in the trap of some representative model of Idealism, but is rather seeking a more base materialist approach by way of inner experience in the immanent unfolding and revelation of the darkness by way of those derangements of the senses and safeguards that lock us into such binary views of the world. To read and appreciate the work of Clark Ashton Smith requires more than a broad vocabulary and a sympathy for stylistic ornamentation. It requires the possibility of identifying with the curious world-view enshrined in that work: with a determination to get as far away from mundanity as language and the imagination can take one, and yet be content to discover there a universe utterly alien and inhumane, and to find in that revelation a sense of the excess and transgressive power of the Outside in all its infernal glory.

Exuberance is beauty.” – William Blake

In story after story Smith reminds us that we ourselves had lost our way within a lower sub-creation of the cosmos and that we need but a little nudge, a de-programming session in the dark fantastic to obliterate the barriers of hunger and sex, survival and reproduction that have enforced the algorithmic encodings of our Darwinian brains into an Iron Prison of the Symbolic Order of culture and civilization. To break free of this is to follow all those ancient de-programmers of the psyche such as the Gnostics – who one might add, were not seeking to free us of the literal evil of the world, but rather to free us of the symbolic cages of our own self-imposed and fabricated systems of natural Darwinian existence as organic creatures tied to sex and death. For if the truth be told this cosmos is hell, an infernal paradise from which there is no exit, only the eternal return of that energetic multiplicity that is the sole heir of this dark fantastic realm.

What Smith said in eulogy of H.P. Lovecraft could and should be said of him: “His death will be a personal bereavement to all lovers of fine imaginative writing as well as to the friends who were privileged to know and esteem and love him. Among these friends must be counted many who never met him face to face, but who found in him the princeliest of all correspondents: a mind of unequalled brilliance and erudition, fired with manifold enthusiasms, given to the “noble pleasure” of praising where praise was in any wise due; a source of never- failing inspiration, illumination, generosity, helpfulness, enheartenment to others. The loss is profound and irreparable for us who remain behind: for it is safe to say that his peer will not be found again.”


Something I’ve not touched on in this essay is Smith’s art and sculptures which have up to recently been difficult to find and view. With the coming publication of The Eldritch Dark: Collected Prose Poems and Artwork of Clark Ashton Smith that should change things. As he said in his slight autobiography:

Apart from writing, I have made hundreds of fantastic paintings and drawings; also, more than a hundred small sculptures and carvings of imaginative type. I find the making of these far easier and more pleasurable than writing.

Bio

The Eldritch Dark: The Sanctum of Clark Ashton Smith is a great place to begin your voyage of discovery for all aspects of his life, work, and thought.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), perhaps best known today for his association with H.P Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, is in his own right a unique master of fantasy, horror and science-fiction. Highly imaginative, his genre-spanning visions of worlds beyond, combined with his profound understanding of the English language, have inspired an ever -increasing legion of fans and admirers.

For most of his life, he lived in physical and intellectual isolation in Auburn, California (USA). Predominantly self-educated with no formal education after grammar school, Smith wore out his local library and delved so deeply into the dictionary that his richly embellished, yet precise, prose leaves one with the sense that they are in the company of a true master of language.

Though Smith primarily considered himself a poet, having turned to prose for the meager financial sum it rewarded, his prose might best be appreciated as a “fleshed” out poetry. In this light, plot and characters are subservient to the milieu of work: a setting of cold quiet reality, which, mixed with the erotic and the exotic, places his work within its own unique, phantasmagoric genre. While he also experimented in painting, sculpture, and translation, it is in his written work that his legacy persists.

During his lifetime, Smith’s work appeared commonly in the pulps alongside other masters such H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, and E. Hoffmann Price and like many great artists, recognition and appreciation have come posthumously. In recent decades though, a resurgence of interest in his works has lead to numerous reprinting’s as well as scholarly critiques.


  1. Connors, Scott. The Freedom of Fantastic Things. (Hippocampus, 2006)
  2. H. P. Lovecraft. The Call of Cthulhu (Kindle Locations 490-491). FML Books. Kindle Edition.
  3. Smith, Clark Ashton. The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith: The End Of The Story (p. 2). Night Shade Books. Kindle Edition.
  4. Thacker, Eugene. Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy: Vol 2 (p. 35). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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