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Most dark fantasy or dark science fiction nerds are familiar with H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. However, not many are aware of a man by the name of Clark Ashton Smith who made great contributions to the mythos and the world of science fiction as a whole. Clark Ashton Smith’s inspirational guidance paved the foundation of the Cthulhu mythos we know and love today with pieces such as “The Muse of Atlantis” and “The Uncharted Isle.” What truly sets him apart, however, is his impeccable talent of describing otherworldly phenomena. The man had an imagination that rivaled Salvador Dalí and deserves proper recognition. Despite his efforts, he penned many novels and short stories that slipped below the radar of the general public for many years.
Clark Ashton Smith was born on January 13th, 1893 in Auburn, California. Smith was a poet in the days of his youth and it wasn’t until much later that the general public saw his dark science fiction worlds come to life in various publications such as Weird Tales magazine. In between poetry and science fiction, he often wrote a lot of adventure stories that bore a vague resemblance to The Arabian Knights and other classic adventure novels.
His early education challenged the standards of his day and of today since he primarily schooled himself. Clark taught himself Spanish and French but he also read through both the Encyclopedia Britannica and Oxford English Dictionary. He used the latter to study etymology, an erudite’s choice that paved the foundations of his literary prowess for years to come.
Smith’s education shows in his work, particularly in relation to his ability to describe cosmic phenomena and otherworldly creatures. In his more imaginative pieces, such as “The City of the Singing Flame,” Smith takes the audience on an extraterrestrial odyssey onto an alien planet of amber skies and violet grass. It’s in his description of Crater Ridge, an Earth location at the beginning of the story, that he really flaunts his talent.
Geologists deny it a volcanic origin; yet its outcroppings of rough, nodular stone and enormous rubble-heaps have all the air of scoriac remains—at least, to my non-scientific eye. They look like the slag and refuse of Cyclopean furnaces, poured out in pre-human years, to cool and harden into shapes of limitless grotesquerie.
This elegant depiction of an ordinary locale teases at his talent. If the alien worlds he takes us to aren’t interesting enough, the creatures from those worlds are equally unique. In another short story titled “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” he describes a creature that the two main heroes stumble upon.
Then the whole mass of the dark fluid began to rise, and far more quickly than the suvana-juice runs from my pen, it poured over the rim of the basin like a torrent of black quicksilver, taking as it reached the floor an undulant ophidian form which immediately developed more than a dozen short legs.
Despite his silver tongue, the text is understandable to the average reader based on both context and the familiarity of his expressions. The specifics of his descriptions add to their artistic flare but not at the cost of losing overall meaning and tone.
Back in the day, and by that I mean during the early 1930s, Smith contributed much of his work to the magazine Weird Tales and associated with what was then known as the “Lovecraft Circle.” The three most notable members of this circle were the now renowned H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. While Clark was a hit with this particular magazine that published the fantasy and science fiction subgenre known as weird fiction, his popularity burned out around 1935. Lovecraft and Howard went on to champion the weird fiction subgenre, growing a cult following in the 1980s and 1990s from Howard’s film adaptation of Conan the Barbarian and Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulhu mythos.
Clark Ashton Smith’s crown jewel is the Zothique stories he wrote, which are basically a series of short stories set in the eponymously named Zothique world, a world of his own invention. From 1930 to 1937—the highlight of his career writing for the Weird Tales magazine—Smith wrote a series of short stories set in this eerie realm. Tolkien had Middle Earth, Pratchett had Discworld and Smith had Zothique. This place is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, an alternative version of Earth featuring death and decay as the basis of all things’ existence. Zothique crawls with barbaric tribes. Most of Earth as we know it has sunken below the surface of the ocean and what remains above sea level is a barren wasteland.
Perhaps the greatest description of this world is a death scape of “coal-red sun oblique“, dead gods, and gardens of rotting fruit. The poem “Zothique” written by Smith himself is a mere taste of the ghastly world he created. Like many authors, Smith’s fictional universe bore his trademark, stylized diction and the celestial vernacular found in his other works. Unlike many science fiction and fantasy authors, Clark’s worlds incorporated colorful landscapes that deviated from the ordinary cut-paste worlds of his time and even in the modern-day.
Smith’s writing style takes the reader on an eerie pilgrimage through vast dreamscapes and alien worlds. While many Lovecraft fans playfully complain about Lovecraft’s inability to describe the cosmic horror the narrator experiences, Smith often describes the fascinating world in enough detail to give the reader a significant impression without inundating them with mundanity or vague distractions. Unfortunately, Clark’s later years were fraught with heartbreak: a string of deaths comprising of his loved ones from 1931 to 1937. Clark was understandably distraught and for the last third of his life, he paid less and less attention to fiction writing and instead focused on painting and sculpting. Perhaps this was what lead to his fictional demise and drew him into literary obscurity. Regardless, he was a commendable wordsmith deserving of the same adoration as his two counterparts in the “Lovecraft Circle.”