Jackson Kuhl and “The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith”

The 117th anniversary of Clark Ashton Smith’s birth last week was marked by The Cimmerian (here, here, and here), Grognardia, Black Gate, and others with accolades and remembrances. As well it should. Smith, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, formed the weird fiction triptych of the 1920s and ’30s — and in my opinion, he was the most talented member of a talented group. Yet a recurring question in many of these memorials is why Smith remains uncelebrated in comparison to his partners. This is especially vexing when you consider he outlived the other two by almost a quarter-century.

Blogger Jackson Kuhl (a personage not unknown to long-time TC readers) wrote the above in an entry he posted on Robert E. Howard’s birthday, ironically enough. Kuhl’s article, entitled “The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith,” answers the “vexing question” of CAS’ lack of literary prominence by pointing the finger directly at those who control Smith’s estate. Kuhl relates his (ultimately futile) struggles to publish an omnibus gathering together all of the Averoigne stories (a collection yours truly has been waiting for these past two decades). It is a disheartening tale, but one that should be read by every fan of the Bard of Auburn.

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Klarkash-Ton and Castle Amber

The Cimmerian was not the only venue celebrating the nativity of  Clark Ashton Smith this thirteenth of January just past. Cool websites such as Grognardia and Cinerati marked the occasion as well. Their tributes differed somewhat from those proffered here in that they noted the influence of Clark Ashton Smith upon the history of fantasy role-playing games. Specifically, they both cited Tom Moldvay’s Castle Amber gaming module as being what led them to Klarkash-Ton.

What is particularly striking about both tributes is that Castle Amber remains the one, single, solitary example of an RPG product that either blogger concerned (or myself) knows about which was largely based upon the works of CAS. Yet, that module appears to have exerted an outsized influence over the years.

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Saluting the Sorcerer

EDITOR’S NOTE: First published in 1963, “The Sorcerer Departs” was Donald Sidney-Fryer’s magisterial bio-critical essay on the work of poet and fictioneer Clark Ashton Smith. Almost a half-century on, it remains the best. The full 17,000-word version, accompanied by new editorial matter, is currently available in a handsome booklet from Silver Key Press.

On the occasion of the Bard of Auburn’s 117th birthday, and with the permission of Sidney-Fryer himself, The Cimmerian hereby presents a vastly truncated version of that essay to its readers, which we have titled “Saluting the Sorcerer.” It is our hope that the piece stimulates you to seek out Smith’s work — most of which is widely available in various in-print and out-of-print editions — as well as begin to delve into the prodigious poetry and critical writings of Donald Sidney-Fryer.


By Donald Sidney-Fryer

I pass. . . but in this lone and crumbling tower,
Builded against the burrowing seas of chaos,
My volumes and my philtres shall abide:
Poisons more dear than any mithridate,
And spells far sweeter than the speech of love….
Half-shapen dooms shall slumber in my vaults
And in my volume cryptic runes that shall
Outblast the pestilence, outgnaw the worm
When loosed by alien wizards in strange years
Under the blackened moon and paling sun.

In an age dominated by those whom George Sterling once derided as “the brave hunters of fly-specks on Art’s cathedral windows,” the poet Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961) is sui generis. His Art embodies the thesis put forth by Arthur Machen in his study Hieroglyphics (1902) that “great writing is the result of an ecstatic experience akin to divine revelation.” The first major poet in English to be influenced by Poe, Smith certainly does not belong to any Weird Tales “school” — nor yet does he belong to any Gothic or neo-Gothic tradition except that of his own synthesis and creation. In the words of his own epigram: “The true poet is not created by an epoch; he creates his own epoch.”

Smith was born of Yankee and English parentage on January 13th, 1893, in Long Valley, California, about six miles south of Auburn. In 1902 his parents, Fanny and Timeus Smith, moved to Boulder Ridge, where father and nine-year-old son built a cabin and dug a well. Here Smith lived almost continuously until 1954, and one can easily imagine the effect that the surrounding countryside had on the sensitive and imaginative boy. It was a veritable gar­den of fruit trees, evergreens and park-like areas located on the rolling foot­hills of the Sierras, while arching overhead the nocturnal immensitudes of the heavens were rendered remarkably clear in the clean, smog-free country air.

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The Sword-and-Sorcery Legacy of Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith gets credit for a lot of things, at least by those who are aware of his work. He was arguably the first poet to versify from a truly cosmic viewpoint when he wrote his legendary “The Hashish-Eater.” His poetry and prose, as well as his inimitable drawings, paintings and sculptures, captured the attention and respect of H.P. Lovecraft, who name-checked CAS in his own tales more than any writer, even Dunsany. Smith was a highly valued correspondent of Robert E. Howard. Clark Ashton Smith was admired by (and sometimes mentored) younger authors such as Bradbury, C.L. Moore and Leiber. His tales of Zothique were patent inspirations for later works by Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe.

One thing that Clark Ashton Smith decidedly does not receive much credit for is being one of the founding fathers of the heroic fantasy genre. On this, his one hundred and seventeenth birthday, I’d like to give him his due.

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Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar From Planet Stories (Paizo)

ishtar-paizo-finalI enjoyed the rare and original fantasy of [The Ship of Ishtar], and have kept it longer than I should otherwise, for the sake of re-reading certain passages that were highly poetic and imaginative. Merritt has an authentic magic, as well as an inexhaustible imagination.

Clark Ashton Smith

Klarkash-Ton, as usual, was right on the money. As one who recognized a kindred genius and spirit in Robert E. Howard long before the majority of his peers, CAS knew magic, poetry and imagination when he beheld it.

My copy of the Paizo edition of The Ship of Ishtar came in the other day. Despite the fact that I own three other imprints of this fantasy classic, I’d been anticipating the delivery of this edition for months. Erik Mona and his crack team of pulp-hounds at Planet Stories have outdone themselves on this project. Going back to the 1949 Borden “Memorial Edition,” they have issued the most complete text in sixty years, included all of the classic Virgil Finlay illustrations from two different editions (something never done before) and allowed Merritt (and CAS and REH and HPL) fan, Tim Powers, to write the introduction.

Powers, a noted author in his own right, was an inspired choice. The man gets Merritt. His introduction, entitled, “On These Strange Seas In This Strange World,” is one of the best analyses and tributes devoted to The Ship of Ishtar that I have read. Here’s one passage:

This novel, like the Ship of Ishtar itself, is timeless — the opposite of timely — and in fact it may not be possible to write a book like this in these present times. Somehow, in the early 1920s, Merritt managed to write a genuinely pagan book, one that simply didn’t deal with, but assumed, the pre-Christian fatalist dualism, with its particular loyalties and indifferent cruelties. A modern writer would not let Kenton deal with slaves and conquered crews the way he does, and would be constantly aware of Freud and political correctness. A modern writer, that is to say, would not be able to unselfconsciously let his story play out naturally, with no placatory gestures toward modern sensibilities.

Exactly. When The Ship of Ishtar hit the stands in 1924 between the covers of Argosy All-Story magazine, nothing like it had ever seen print in American popular culture. Despite being drenched in blood, sex and the supernatural, the American public took to the novel like Islam to the desert. Merrit’s ground-breaking work would eventually go through twenty-plus printings and sell millions before the end of the twentieth century. It would seem almost certain that Robert E. Howard, a long-time and faithful reader of Argosy, was one of those millions of readers.

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Owchar Reviews The Return of the Sorcerer

cas-rots-nocopyLast weekend, Nick Owchar reviewed The Return of the Sorcerer for The LA Times. The book itself is a new “best of” collection featuring the tales of Clark Ashton Smith and is published by Prime Books.

Owchar starts out well enough, noting that the “Weird Tales Circle” does not get near the attention it should from mainstream literary critics. I agree. Umpteen tomes have been published going on about the “Bloomsbury Group,” whilst the inferno of synergistic creativity that blazed around the core members of the “Weird Tales Circle” goes largely unexamined. As Leo Grin stated four years ago, “someday a book combining the lives of all three Weird Tales geniuses — Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith — will have to be written.”

Mr. Owchar proceeds to quote a bit from what sounds like a solid introduction by CAS (and REH and HPL) fan, Gene Wolfe. Owchar calls Smith “an overlooked master of a wholly original vein of horror and hallucinatory science fiction,” while also noting CAS’s endeavors in the fields of poetry as well as the graphic and sculptural arts. Towards the end of his review, he expresses a deep admiration for Smith’s work and a hope that Klarkash-Ton’s oeuvre will soon achieve the recognition it so richly deserves.

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Original Clark Ashton Smith Art on Ebay



Original Clark Ashton Smith Color Primitive Art Framed

Image area approx 8.75″ x 11″ double matted and framed under glass to approx 14″ x 16.5″ Medium appears to be pencil, crayon & watercolor. While not as rare as Smith’s carvings his color originals, especially larger examples as this one are infrequently offered. Provenance: collection of Lin Carter, obtained from his widow ca. 1992.

That’s what “pulpster,” the purveyor of the painting above, has to say.  The asking  price is $2,800, with both “Buy It Now” and “Make Offer” options available.

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Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle Coming Our Way


Just posted on Bill Thom’s Coming Attractions

Centipede Press: Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle
Now available to order with the majority being released in late November
and early December.

Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle is a massive, oversized celebration of the lives of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, Seabury Quinn, E. Hoffmann Price, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Lee Brown Coye, Hannes Bok, August Derleth, Edmond Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, and many others. Each writer has their own section in the book, complete with a custom drawing of the author by noted artist Alex McVey.

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Clark Ashton Smith’s The Maze of the Enchanter from Night Shade Books

I recently received my copy of The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger and published by Night Shade Books, this is a sumptuous volume. Filled with sardonic, mystic and grotesque delights, The Maze of the Enchanter is a feast even for the well-read CAS aficionado. Held within its finely-bound pages are tales restored (wherever possible) to the form in which Smith envisioned them before he was prevailed upon to make emendations due to editorial fiat.

Night Shade’s “Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith” series is ambitious, seeking to put every completed tale penned by CAS between quality covers, with the ordering dictated by date of composition. Volume Four encompasses the period from May of 1932 through March of 1933. There are many, including myself, who see this period as one of Clark Ashton Smith at his height, when his imagination, enthusiasm and word-craft were at full strength.


The jacket art for The Maze of the Enchanter, as with all others in the series, has been rendered by Jason Van Hollander. Once again, Van Hollander utilized photo reference to work in examples of of Smith’s own primitive and surrealistic art, as well as a likeness of the Enchanter of Auburn himself (in this case, standing in for Maal Dweb). I’d like to think that Klarkash-Ton would be pleased.

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Rage of the Behemoth: A Review


The new sword-and-sorcery anthology from Rogue Blades Entertainment, Rage of the Behemoth, has hit the streets (and my mailbox). In this newest offering from RBE, editor Jason M. Waltz has upped the ante. Overall, this collection of S&S tales exceeds its worthy predecessor in both quality and consistency. Waltz’s theme for this book is that each protagonist must face a “behemoth”; in other words, a “large monster” of some sort. Despite my initial scepticism, the idea works well.

Right off the bat, Rage of the Behemoth just looks better than its older sibling. Johnney Perkins turned in an eye-catching painting for the cover of The Return of the Sword. His work on the multiple covers for Rage of the Behemoth is another big step forward for him. Waltz has also enlisted the talents of the Frenchman, Didier Normand, for the multiple covers featured in this edition. Normand’s art is obviously influenced by Frank Frazetta (which Normand admits). However, Normand not only captures, to an extent, the look of the Michelangelo of Brooklyn, he also does a good job of capturing the feel and energy of Frazetta (in my humble opinion). At his best, Normand reminds me of the late-’70s Ken Kelly. I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy. Interior artist, John Whitman, turns in some solid line-work for the book, but I found myself wishing that the inking was a bit better.

Cimmerian alumnus, [redacted], provides the introduction for this volume. His lead-off sentence, a true keeper, is, “Mock Sword and Sorcery at your own peril.” The rest of the intro maintains that standard and tone. John O’Neill, publisher and editor of Black Gate magazine, turns in a good foreword.

Just to get it out of the way: the first two stories in this book are not really worth reading, in my opinion. The good news is that all the rest, to one extent or another, most definitely are. Let’s get to ’em… (Continue reading this post)