Clark Ashton Smith – The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (Review)


Clark Ashton Smith was once one of the Big Three authors of fantasy and horror fiction at the Weird Tales magazine, alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. And while Lovecraft and Howard and their works are still remembered today – are part of popular consciousness – Clark Ashton Smith is all but forgotten. H.P Lovecraft has become the Cosmic Horror Guy and Robert E. Howard the Sword and Sorcery Guy. (I feel that a fourth writer should be added to this because of his influence on the others, Lord Dunsany, the Whimsical Fantasy Guy, but he lived overseas in Britain.) Who was Smith? He straddled these avenues of the fantastic, but leaned more towards the cosmic horror that would be a huge influence on Lovecraft. Smith was perhaps the best writer of the three, and deserves to be remembered.

The stories in this collection range from all over Smith’s career, from his early days as a poet in the 1910s and ‘20s to his longer fantasy stories from the 1930s. It offers a cross-section of stories that are set in the few recurring fantasy locations that Smith liked to pin down for some continuity of place: Hyperborea, Zothique and Averoigne. It’s not so all-encompassing as the Fantasy Masterworks edition, but that one is out of print. And if you would wish to explore one of Smith’s settings better, the Zothique collection from 1970 has all the Zothique stories, which are not all here. The collection ends with a selection of prose poems and actual poems.

Smith’s writing is still loved by many, in part because of his prose style. He started out as a poet and transplanted that poetic talent to his prose. He has a huge vocabulary, which makes him sound erudite and allows him to pinpoint very precise meanings. He writes in long, complex sentences, which swell, rise and fall like waves, but he is not at all difficult to read. Even though he uses fancy words like sibilant and pecuniary and sanguinary, there is a clear-headedness to the structure of his writing and a flowing rhythm to his sentences, which make it easy to follow his meaning. I thought his writing was very pleasant to read and would lend itself well for reading out loud by some David Attenborough character with a taste for the dramatic. 

The stories are all short and simple, and all follow a similar format. A man (always a man) starts out from relative every-day normality and ends up seeing or experiencing or traveling to something grotesque and fantastic and alien. And either ends up dead or mentally scarred for the rest of his days. The stories are for example about robbers who enter a temple to a strange god in overgrown ruins of a forgotten city. Or a novelist entering another dimension with bewitching music which keeps drawing him back. Or a scientist capturing the evil rays of a black star and turning mad. These short stories are so short that they barely count as short stories; they are like snapshots of singular encounters with the weird and the unearthly. More often than not, Smith preferred to write even shorter prose poems or actual poems about the fantastic, and writing it all out into stories was pulling away from his preferred medium.

I found Smith a very effective storyteller, both in the realm of horror and of fantasy. Some of his fantasy-horror stories were truly a fantastic mix of imaginative, deep-time wonder and creeping, unavoidable conclusions. His best stories are about sorcerers. He gives them lush mansions and morose dispositions, and things usually end badly for them.

Let’s talk influences. Smith’s first love was poetry and in that form he started writing his fantasies. He was inspired by the early work of Lord Dunsany, such as his little book The Gods of Pegana (1905). Smith couldn’t make any money from this, however, and he wrote at a time when critics began to fall in love with Modernist realists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and poems about faraway suns and forgotten gods weren’t accepted. Around this time, H.P. Lovecraft started sending Smith fan letters, and Smith asked Lovecraft in return to send him some drafts, to show him examples of how to write prose stories. What happened next is that Smith began to populate his stories with alien gods. A frog god named Tsathoggua and a necronomicon-book named the Book of Eidon, and look at titles like The Abomination of Yondo, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis and Ubbo-Sathla. Lovecraft took this and ran with it. Smith saw the influence he had on Lovecraft and other writers and remarked: “It would seem that I am starting a mythology.” Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos seems a direct outgrowth of this. 

It’s fair to say though that there was a lot of cross-fertilisation between the two authors. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, for example, was inspired by Lovecraft’s draft for At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of Antarctica, Smith set his story on Mars. Ubbo-Sathla strengthens the connection with Lovecraft’s mythos even more. The story begins with the following lines: “…for Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the new-made Earth.” So if you like Lovecraft, you’ll recognise some names, and I would say give Smith a chance, because he has much better prose.

The best way to read these stories, for me, is not to force myself through them all in one go, but read a few between other books. These stories are dense. Most are not even 20 pages but hardly ever could I read a story in a single sitting. So, read a few stories about wizards using an incantation from the ante-human race of serpent people to conjure an ancient horror, or about explorers in an ancient forgotten ruin in a dreamland or on Mars, and then read a modern book again. 

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10 Responses to Clark Ashton Smith – The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (Review)

  1. savageddt says:

    Smith might not be as well known, but I fin it hard not to read Lovecraft and have his name in the back of my mind. Still never read any of his work, but will get to it at some point. Thank you for sharing this review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Cool, never heard of the man. Will investigate, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    Sounds intriguing! Never heard of him before 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul Connelly says:

    The stories I’ve read by him had some strong resemblances to Dunsany in the prose style, the understated irony, and the way protagonists often came to a bad end. I wonder to what extent Smith was an influence on Jack Vance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. STRANGE inc. says:

    I have read lots of Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, but had never heard of this author. Thank you for bringing him to my attention! Will definitely have a read!

    Liked by 1 person

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