Bruce Pennington art

Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Gothic, Pulp and SF classics

Golden Age writer of over 100 stories Clark Ashton Smith enjoyed a reputation for fast-paced, evocative narratives in the thrilling forms of the golden age genre fiction: horror, science fiction, heroic fantasy and the macabre. He was a successor to H.P. Lovecraft, a fellow of Robert E. Howard and his relatively long life allows us a view of his place on the development of modern genre fiction, and his link between H.G Wells‘ early pioneering sf, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to it’s harrowing conclusion in Stephen King and Clive Barker at the end.

Early Life and influences

Wonder Stories 1931 - Clark Ashton SmithAshton Smith was born in January, 1893, in Long Valley, California. He was delivered into a tight family unit and barely left it. Home schooled from an early age he read all the time, and clearly possessed a love of language that served him well throughout his life. As he emerged into adulthood he was influenced by two strong literary forces.

George Sterling, a Californian poet of the generation before Ashton Smith, was mentored by gothic colossus Ambrose Bierce, and was a bohemian experimentalist in the style of the Romantic poets, Coleridge in particular whose florid style of poetry explored dreamscapes and other worlds. Similarly inclined Ashton Smith fell under Sterling’s spell, as the older man encouraged his fellow Californian: the rich dense language of the younger man’s poetry bears the indelible mark of Sterling, and although it was critically well received in his lifetime, it remains largely neglected by the reading public.

Black Jug and Skull 1946 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973The other early influence was Baudelaire. Although a great thinker and poet he was brought to the attention Ashton Smith’s generation because  of his bold translations of the hugely popular Edgar Allan Poe, the hero of dark horror. But it was Baudelaire who created the earliest roots of modernism that would rise up and storm the 20th century. He sought to capture the ephemeral urban existence of industrial Europe and America, broke free of the status quo and unleashed a wave of critical thinking that would stir all forms of culture, from music (Debussy, Satie) and the painted arts (Kandinky, Picasso), to T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and other titans of the written word, creating a landscape into which was fed a gigantic wave of imaginative fiction. In America the price of wood pulp reduced so much that very cheap magazines could be produced and soon were devoured in their millions by a readership that looked for excitement and escapism of far flung landscapes.  Ashton Smith read, translated and absorbed Baudelaire, revelling in the journey that would bring him  to friendship with H. P. Lovecraft and the opportunities of the Golden Age of Pulp.

Weird and Wonder Tales

Weird Tales 1938 Adompha - Clark Ashton SmithHis first short stories were sold, at the young age of seventeen, to The Black Cat and Overland Monthly, and his poetry was published in anthologies, and journals such as The Yale Review, Wings and many more. But it was the opening of Weird Tales in the early 1920s, that introduced him to the weird and fantastic worlds of 20th century mass market literature.

Still living at home, and isolated from smart society Ashton Smith found kindred spirits in Lovecraft and Howard both of whom weaved stories of savage lands and dark terrors from their own remote locations. Mainly by correspondence he was also introduced to others of this circle, August Derleth and E. Hoffman Price, Robert Bloch and together they created stories that interwove, sought meaning in a godless society, and focused on a form of sensuous masculinity that would become the sword and sorcery strand of fantasy writing.

Weird Tales 1947 Quest of Gazolba - Clark Ashton SmithFor Ashton Smith though he also experimented heavily with far future narratives, in a concentration of short stories in Weird Tales (starting with The Last Incantation in June 1930 edition) and Wonder, from the early to mid 1930s. He continued still to live in the rural idyll with his parents and created sculptures as well as fiction and poetry. These 3D forms, and paintings offer glimpses of a unique vision, without quite delivering the quality of a Giacometti or a Picasso. He led an enviable life of utter immersion, working long days in his studio creating macabre objects (such as mini statues of the elder gods Cthulhu, Yuggoth and Hastur) that populated the world of his writing.


Many of Ashton Smith’s themes reflect his association with the Lovecraft circle (within which he created the Land of Averoigne, the Book of Eibon and Tsathoggua), and he was a key figure at the nexus of horror, sword and sorcery and science fiction, creating Hyperborean fantasy that was taken up by Lin Carter and L. Sprague le Camp. But his highly imaginative writing also took him from ancient civilizations and rastionalistic gods, to explorations of deep space, and the effects of the unknown on humanity, teasing at the greed and avarice, feasting on a body that also nourished Ray Bradbury’s own burgeoning sf.

Clark Ashton Smith lost Worlds 1 Bruce PenningtonUnlike Howard and Lovecraft who both died in 1936 and 1937 respectively Ashton Smith was able to move from the Golden Age of Pulp to the new Golden Age of Science Fiction and enjoyed publication by friends and colleagues such as Lin Carter and August Derleth in the 1940s and 50s.

Key stories include The City of the Singing Flame (July 1931 Wonder Stories), The End of the Story, A Night in MalnéantThe Double Shadow, The Return of the Sorcerer, and The Dark Eidolon, with major works collected as Out of Space and Time (1942), Lost Worlds (1944), The Abominations of Yondo (1960) Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964). Much of his writing has been anthologized over the years, in many different forms,  but a particularly good sequence, The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith in five volumes was published by Night Shade Books from The End of the Story (Volume 1, 2006), to The Last Hieroglyph in 2010.


 Clark Ashton Smith lost Worlds 2 Bruce PenningtonAfter his parents died, Ashton Smith married, in 1954, just eight short years before his own death in California in 1961. For most of his life he had lived in the bosom of his family and the countryside, with its incubations that fed his fertile imagination. His work affected contemporaries such as Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury,  and his influence can be felt in Ramsey Campbell, Kurt VonnegutStephen King and Clive Barker. He lived a remarkable life, writing when he wanted to, but also taking odd jobs crafting and cutting and grinding. He was an intensely practical man who combined his understanding of the physical world around him with a fierce imagination, and worked hard to create a huge canon of fiction that remains enjoyable and thrilling today.

Articles coming soon include Virgil Finlay, Robert E. Howard, M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury.


Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:

Clark Ashton Smith has inspired fierce loyalty amongst his fans. Eldritch Dark is a terrific website with art, poetry, analysis and writing, and a gallery of his cultures and paintings.