Essay by Ted Gioia

If you are seeking a self-made West Coast Renaissance man from the early 20th
century, you could hardly pick a better candidate than Clark Ashton Smith. But
don't look for a full-scale biography of this fascinating figure—none has been
published.  No statues or monuments commemorate his legacy, except for
a small grave marker placed many years after his death next to the boulder in tiny
Auburn, California were his ashes were scattered. When one of his original
watercolors was put up for bid recently on eBay, it sold for one hundred dollars—
and there was just one bid!

Smith deserves better. In his early days, his poetry
gained him the nickname of "the Keats of the Pacific
Coast." He was also a sculptor, painter and prolific
author of prose fiction—with the exception of
and Lovecraft, no one did more than Clark Ashton
Smith to define the modern horror story.  Yet his
many out-of-print books are now rare collectors'
items, and for the saddest reason of all: because
very few copies were printed when they were first
issued.  When Arkham house published a volume
of Smith’s Selected Poems a decade after his death,
the print run was limited to 2,000 copies—and those
sold slowly.

Frankly, I’m puzzled by this conspiracy of neglect.
Smith may have been the most erudite genre fiction writer of his generation—
you won’t find another pulp writer with a larger vocabulary or more esoteric
knowledge. In fact, if you asked me to pick the modern authors with the most
expansive taste in words, I put him on the short list alongside
Vladimir Nabokov
and John Banville. And his myth-infused tales anticipate so much that is current
in contemporary storytelling, and not just in narrative fiction. I could easily
imagine Smith stories such as "The Maze of the Enchanter" or "The Weaver in the
Vault" serving as the basis for megahit video games. And fantasy film
screenwriters could learn a few tricks from Smith’s canny thieves Satampra and
Tirouv, whose adventures propel "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros."

But Smith would attract our attention if only for his compelling life story, which
deserves to be told in a full-scale bio. Born in the midst of California’s gold country
long after the prospectors had moved on, Clark Ashton Smith had virtually no role
models for the intellectual life he proposed for himself. To compensate for his lack
of formal education—he never completed grammar school—Smith read the entire
Encyclopedia Britannica. And when he finished it, he read it a second time. To
improve his knowledge of words, he did the same with Webster’s unabridged
dictionary. When he felt he had learned all the nuance of English, he taught
himself Spanish and French, and eventually translated poetry from those

Smith was already writing stories at age eleven, and poetry at age thirteen.  He first
saw his work in print at age 17, when The Overland Monthly accepted two of his
stories. This was no small feat—Overland, launched by Bret Harte, had also helped
launch the careers of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, and stood out as the most
prestigious American literary periodical west of the Rockies.  Still a teenager,
Smith could now boast that his writing appeared in the same magazine that had
published Mark Twain and Willa Cather. He soon became a  protégé of influential
San Francisco litterateur George Sterling, who championed Smith’s poetry and
helped the young author establish a reputation as one of the leading young writers
on the West Coast.  

But Smith was much more than an ivory
tower aesthete. Over the years, he also
worked as a miner, fruit-picker, lumberjack,
cement-mixer, gardener, and in other blue
collar capacities. When Smith fills his tales
with mythic landscapes, richly described
with elaborate botanical and meteorological
details, he is not simply showing off his book
learning, but drawing on his first-hand expertise
in the great outdoors. These experiences would
make for a riveting biography, as would Smith's busy love life—he didn’t marry until
age 61, but  his affairs, some with the wives of his neighbors, were the
scandal of his community.  Strolling through the tiny town of Auburn with his
goatee and beret, he must have seemed a strange sight, a Parisian flaneur
magically transported to the wild west.  

Smith mixed with the leading California writers of his day, but the most influential
relationship came via mail with
H.P. Lovecraft, the master of the pulp fiction
horror tale. Over a period of fifteen years, from 1922 until Lovecraft's death in
1937, the two corresponded regularly, and the influence of the older writer could
soon be detected in Smith’s work. If Smith had first promised to gain renown as
the "Keats of the Pacific Coast" he would eventually gain his greatest fame as the
"Lovecraft of the Far West." By the late twenties, Smith was focusing on horror,
fantasy and science fiction, and entering into the most productive period of his
career. Between 1929 and 1937, he published more than fifty stories in
, and also was a frequent contributor to other pulp magazines.

Yet editors often complained about his dense
writing and choice of arcane words. The modern
day reader who turns to Smith’s fantasy fiction
will understand these concerns. No genre writer
in the present day could get away with such
demanding writing, and it is testimony to the
literacy of the American general readers of the
1930s that Smith could operate at all in the world
of mass market commercial fiction. Let me take
one example: Smith’s story "The Uncharted Isle,"
a ten-page story that appeared in
Weird Tales in
November 1930. Here readers encounter words
such as
eroclitic, armillary, pell, wried, irremeable,
parapegm. Many were no doubt confused, but
Smith probably didn't mind—after all, he later
explained that this story was an "allegory of human
disorientation." You couldn’t get away with using
those words in a highbrow periodical nowadays, let
alone a mass market magazine. But such was Smith's
modus operandi, and he maintained it even as he had
to ramp up his rate of acceptances in order to survive
the economic decline of the Great Depression and pay
the medical bills of his ailing parents.  

These stories stand out even more for their eerie ambience than for their
demonstrations of verbal virtuosity. Reading his finest stories, such as "The
Double Shadow" or "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," you will feel an encroaching
claustrophobia and an unsettling despair that, in later years, might be labeled
existential angst. No, Smith never enjoyed the adulation from French readers that
Poe, Lovecraft and other American horror writers received—although he
translated works from French, and was a Francophile himself—yet I could easily
imagine his stories fitting into fashionable Parisian modern and postmodern

I suspect that this pervasive psychological malaise has limited Smith’s ability to
reach a crossover audience in the years following his death, in the way that Poe
and Lovecraft somehow managed. The typical Smith hero dies at the end of the
story, and often because of a deliberate choice to embrace the horrifying
unknown. In "The City of the Singing Flame" this acceptance of self-destruction
involves leaping into a beguiling musical pyre in an alternative universe temple. In
"Genius Loci," the narrator is captivated by a malevolent meadow that has already
killed several others, and announces in the closing paragraph his decision to
journey there to meet his own demise. In "The Face by the River," a murderer
returns to the scene of the crime to succumb to a death similar to the one inflicted
on his victim. In “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,”
the sole survivor of a horrific expedition can’t
resist the temptation to go back to the place of
his companions’ violent destruction, and join
them in death. No one apparently told Smith that
readers, even of horror stories, prefer a happy ending.
You get few of those in his stories, although examples
of Freud’s thanatos (the so-called ‘death instinct’)
show up every few pages. Are you surprised, then,
that film directors haven’t snatched up the movie
rights to Smith’s stories?

But the very reasons why Hollywood stays away from
Clark Ashton Smith are the ones that should draw serious
readers to this pioneer of genre fiction. He may have
the darkest worldview of any of the pioneers of the horror idiom, and grasped
with more intensity than his peers the particular essence of twentieth century
scaremongering. Even more than Poe or Lovecraft, Smith anticipated a deadly age
in which the greatest destruction came not via ghosts or goblins but from deep
inside the human soul.

That’s a horror that doesn’t go away, even in the light of day and the greater light
of lucid, rational thinking. For that reason, Smith’s stories may well be filled with
all the mythic creatures and supernatural trappings you find in other horror
writers, but he rarely assigns them the blame for the calamities that ensue upon
their arrival. His darkest landscapes are hardly the richly-described misty
meadows and fog-drenched labyrinths where his stories transpire, but rather the
psychic ones inside his protagonist’s heads. That’s a horror that can’t be defeated
with a magical sword or whispered incantation, and still resonates in an age that
no longer fears ghosts and ghouls.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to
Listen to Jazz
from Basic Books.

Publication Date: May 16, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Making a Case for Clark Ashton Smith

In his day, he was the 'Keats of the Pacific Coast' and the
'Lovecraft of the Far West'. Yet Clark Ashton Smith is
omitted from most discussions of major Western authors.
Is it time for a revival of his work?
When one of his original
watercolors was put up
for bid recently on eBay,
it sold for one hundred
dollars—and there was
just one bid!
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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Smith read the
. And when
he finished it, he read it
a second time...He did
the same with Webster's
unabridged dictionary.