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Fantasy Books, Fantastic

Published February 1971

I met Clark Ashton Smith, the distinguished Californian writer of somber and grotesque fantasies with magnificent and beautiful backgrounds, one time only - the long afternoon of D-Day in World War II. Not on some French beach, however, but in the old town of Auburn, relic of the gold mining days, resting in the foothills of Donner Pass a space east of Sacramento on the road to Reno. I was taking a brief vacation in San Francisco from my footling inspection job at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica and devoting one day to meeting the semi-reclusive poet, fantasy writer, translator of poetry from the French (Baudelaire foremost ) and Spainish, sculptor, occasional fruit picker and local journalist, renoun at least to the readers of the magazine “Weird Tales” and the books of Arkham House, then newly birthed but still surviving today when almost all its imitators and competitors have failed.

Smith met my bus. He was a man slight in build, but not in coolth and impressiveness. Garbed in white suit, Panama hat and quietly colourful batik shirt, he struck me as a cosmopolitan, bohemian artist of the early century, very much out of place in his rural setting. Soon reaching wooded ground, we tramped out of Auburn, meeting only a dashing car containing four nuns, which tickled Smith's sense of humour. After about a mile we reached a roadside clearing and in it his medium small house of unpainted wood. Before it stood twenty feet of a wall which was being slowly built by Smith out of local stones, the material for his fantastic figures and demon heads, carved by jack-knife. We had a lot of urbane, artistic conversation and a bottle of wine. I also bought from him two of his relatively tiny rock sculptures and two of his drawings at a shamefully low price. After nightfall he walked me back to Auburn, treated me to a simple Chinese meal, and saw me onto my late bus.

Later I learned that one and perhaps crucial reason such a civilised man was anchored in Auburn was that he had devoted more than a few years to caring (to the end) for his ailing parents. Not that he didn't ever up-anchor. After his parents' deaths he made quite a few long visits to San Francisco and its environs.

But it was during this most difficult, “nursing” period - the late Twenties and early Thirties - that he wrote almost all of his fiction, practically all of his finest short stories, selling them chiefly to the pulp “Weird Tales”; tales concerned largely with death and a little with love, opulently decorated narratives generally set in decadent courts in far-off times and places with deranged monarchies, malignant sorcerers, and usually doomed heroes and eerie heroines, fictions deriving a very little (and that perhaps) from Beckford, the unexpurgated Arabian Nights (Smith was anything but an anchorite, an ascetic), Poe, Bierce, and Dunsany, yet particularly Smith's very own. Perhaps “sardonic” is the most important adjective. Attempts have been made to show an influence of Lovecraft on Smith. He was indeed a member of the “Lovecraft Circle”, but the two writers always corresponded as equals; in fact, Smith was the more finished artist, though I imagine they stimulated one another considerably.

Before and after his one big bash at fantasy fiction, Smith wrote poetry - with somewhat more emphasis on love then on death - and an occasional story.