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.

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