Friday, November 7, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft on Clark Ashton Smith

In his essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature,  H. P. Lovecraft offers the following gloss on Clark Ashton Smith:
Of younger Americans, none strikes the note of cosmic horror so well as the Californian poet, artist and fictionist Clark Ashton Smith, whose bizarre writings, drawings, paintings and stories are the delight of a sensitive few. Mr. Smith has for his background a universe of remote and  paralyzing fright—jungles of poisonous and iridescent blossoms on the moons of Saturn, evil and grotesque temples in Atlantis, Lemuria, and forgotten elder worlds, and dank morasses of spotted death-fungi in spectral countries beyond earth’s rim. His longest and most ambitious poem, The Hashish-Eater, is in pentameter blank verse; and opens up chaotic and incredible vistas of kaleidoscopic nightmare in the spaces between the stars. In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Mr. Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living. Who else has seen such gorgeous, luxuriant, and feverishly distorted visions of infinite spheres and multiple dimensions and lived to tell the tale? His short stories deal powerfully with other galaxies, worlds, and dimensions, as well as with strange regions and aeons on the earth. He tells of primal Hyperborea and its black amorphous god Tsathoggua; of the lost continent Zothique, and of the fabulous, vampire-curst land of Averoigne in mediaeval France. Some of Mr. Smith’s best work can be found in the brochure entitled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (1933).
In his Introduction to the Dover edition of Lovecraft's essay, E. F. Bleiler expresses his disagreement:
In terms of critical position, Lovecraft, I believe, overrated both Lord Dunsany and C. A. Smith. The case of Smith, the only contemporary American author whom Lovecraft regarded with awe, is puzzling.
In answer to Bleiler, and setting aside Dunsany for the nonce (we will consider him in some future Highbrow installment), I should not consider it impossible to assume that Lovecraft's praise is an expression of admiration for a friend. Indeed, however, the nature of this friendship is literary. Considering the "vibrating" enthusiasm of his praise--the curious pharmacological language underscoring toxicants, paralysis, and the "spaces between the stars"--I can only conclude that Lovecraft is not simply considering the material of Smith's work, but is moreover praising Smith as a person who has thoroughly and genuinely fallen under his (Smith's) own spell. That is, the criterion that so impresses Lovecraft is the legitimacy of Smith as a flesh and blood exponent of the self-same mystique Smith is aspiring to achieve through his work. Smith's independence and reclusive nature are well known. Indeed--and I think this is Lovecraft's detail--Smith is not only the poet of those spaces between the stars, he himself is the embodiment of those grand dimensions. Considering the nature of their--Lovecraft and Smith's--craft, could there be a higher departure point for praise?

Clark Ashton Smith in 1912


Antony Trepniak said...

Lovecraft's praise for Clark Ashton Smith was well-warranted. The order of his words is interesting:"poet, artist and fictionist". Smith considered himself to be primarily a poet and penned his weird tales for commercial purposes (to help support his elderly parents, I believe.) His decadent poetry, although not without value, was left high and dry by literary modernism. He is certainly worthy of note as an 'outsider artist' but the fiction is his main legacy.

As a prose stylist Smith exceeds Lovecraft and he made an important contribution to what has become known as the 'Cthulhu mythos' (which in reality was more of a literary parlour game between HPL and his epistolary friends than an attempt to create the systematised mock-pantheon that August Derleth synthesized from their works).

Many of his stories exude an air of over-ripe loucheness with hints of necrophilia and other unspeakable perversions that refer back to the Old World traditions of de Sade and Baudelaire. He is more of an 'adult' writer than Lovecraft or Howard (despite being three years younger than HPL), although not without a certain literary gaucheness stemming from his status as an autodidact.

Now published as a 'Penguin Classic', Smith is at last starting to receive the recognition he deserves (although the cachet of this once-respected imprint has been eroded to the extent that its list now contains a celebrity autobiography).

Lord Dunsany - as you say - is worthy of another post. He was pretty much the inventor of modern fantasy through 'The Sword of Welleran' and an interesting link to the 'Celtic Twilight' and even the so-called 'theatre of the absurd' through some of his work at the Abbey Theatre. Perhaps Bleiler's views were a little blinkered?

w. h. pugmire, esq. said...

CAS does not, in any way, "exceed" Lovecraft as a prose stylist. Lovecraft was an excellent writer in complete control of his many styles, and the poetry in his prose has no rival.

Anonymous said...

"the poetry in his prose has no rival"
I like Lovecraft, but this is just ridiculous. Both Dunsany and Smith are much better writers, the best Smith prose can be compared to Poe's and Thomas Browne's, not only Lovecraft's adjectives can be a disaster, but look at his imitations of Dunsany : this is just inferior and bad. But then the man has never been a poet. Should learn to read, Mr Bleiler & co.