Dec 4, 2016

Clark Ashton Smith: another master of Cosmic Horror from Lovecraft’s circle

by Walter Phippeny

Everybody loves Lovecraft. In fact, that would make a great sitcom idea! The wacky antics of a misanthropic Lovecraft as he tries to make it as a pulpfiction writer in New York. I’d watch it.
Actually, everybody doesn’t love Lovecraft; as we enter an age of increased tolerance, Lovecraft’s long diatribes about racial purity and how these ideas find their way into his fiction – Shadow over Innsmouth, or The Horror at Redhook – have polarized the community. But lots of people still read Lovecraft and his creations continue to worm into pulp culture. But Lovecraft didn’t write alone; despite being a very strange human being, Lovecraft was very social and gathered a wide circle of writers around him: Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, et al. Lovecraft encouraged his friends to reuse ideas from his works, and they all worked together to create the Cthulhu Mythos, developing a kind of shared universe for their creations. I’d like to introduce you to one of the overlooked members of the Cthulhu Mythos Circle: Clark Ashton Smith.

First, let’s define some terms. What is Cosmic Horror? Well, as Douglas Adams put it: “Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.” This is the central tenet of Cosmic Horror: space is big, and humans are really, really, small. In traditional horror narratives, you have a bady – like a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghost – who is superhuman, but still defeatable. You can run a stake through a vampire’s heart, or shoot a werewolf in the face with a silver bullet, and the problem is solved. You can’t shoot Cthulhu in the face; just reading a book about him, “The Necronomicon”, could destroy your mind. Where the classical monsters are focused on humanity – the Devil wants your soul, the vampire wants your blood, and the werewolf wants your flesh – Cthulhu doesn’t think about you at all. He is as concerned about humanity as you are about that colony of ants in the sidewalk in front of your house. This was a major change in the horror genre and it talks directly to the uncertainty and anxiety that is engendered by learning just how small we are in the universe. I’ve always thought that this Dickens’ quote from Great Expectations sums it up pretty well:

“I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.”

I heard about Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) a long time ago while reading about Lovecraft, but never got a chance to check out any of his stuff. When I found a copy of The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies in Otherland, I immediately bought it. CAS, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact. He didn’t have access to the library of Lovecraft’s grandfather, but he was still a voracious reader. Both men had a deep fondness for horror and fantasy, but that’s about where the similarities end. CAS, unlike Lovecraft, was much more interested in human themes, like sex and love. Sex appears very rarely in Lovecraft’s stories and off camera; in fact, sex is often deeply woven around the horror themes because of the racial purity stuff: the Deep Ones breeding with humans, or the summoned creature impregnating old man Whateley’s daughter. I’ve always found it funny how sexed up Lovecraft has become over time; take the film “Dagon” which did the story of Shadow over Innsmouth. They had to jam sex in there to make their film more marketable. Lovecraft would not have been amused. Women rarely appear and are never protagonists. Lovecraft writes about young men who are often academic or artistic and how they stumble upon things they never imagined...which then slowly drive them to madness.

The main characters of CAS, in contrast, are often men of action like The Weaver in the Vault or The Maze of the Enchanter, or they’re total rapscallions as in The Tale of Satampra Zeiros. You do get more scholarly types like in The City of the Singing Flame or Phoenix, but you find more variety. Women appear more often and they aren’t always villains; we see love and sex in the context of something good. This is not to say we don’t see the inverse too; I’m thinking immediately of Mother of Toads which is a foray into what I can only describe as “ribald horror”. But, it’s more of a mix. CAS is definitely influenced by the sexist attitudes of his time – women are damsels that need saving, or worried lovers getting hysterical – but he is more in tune with, and interested by, how men and women interact with each other than cold Lovecraft.

I should also mention the prose itself. Lovecraft is known for his purple prose, and CAS is operating on the same level. It’s often overwrought and intricate like a baroque arabesque, but that also makes it delightful. Where someone like Jack Vance uses a similar style for a precious prose effect, to get laughs, CAS wants to lace his horror with poetry. It doesn’t always work. This is where you can see the autodidact shining through; his tastes are affected by the books he could get his hands on. For Poe’s time, no one would look twice, but for readers in the early 20th century, it feels very dated; and, in the 21st century, you need to be familiar with 19th century English to appreciate what CAS is doing at all.

If you like Cosmic Horror and Lovecraft, I recommend giving CAS a try. The edition I bought had a great introduction and annotation by S. T. Joshi: the foremost Lovecraft scholar writing today. It would also make a good gift for a Lovecraft fan who hasn’t branched out yet.

“The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies”, Clark Ashton Smith from Penguin Classics (370 p.) ISBN 9780143107385 / 0143107380


  1. Footnote on Lovecraft:
    I'm not quite sure that I would agree that Lovecraft's racism polarizes the community. It seems to be a rare case of not only most Lovecraft fans admitting and criticizing the inherent racism of lots of his fiction, but also finding ways to make Lovecraft highly productive for a critique of racism. In an essay in German, I argued that Lovecraft is in a way so honest about his racist fears of miscegenation that a story like "The Shadow over Innsmouth" very nearly reads like an unintentional self-critique. These days, you'll find dozens of authors who are deeply involved with Lovecraft's concept of cosmic horror and are certainly fans, but who treat him to an anti-racist deconstruction at the same time. I'll list a few examples tomorrow, too late at night right now ...

  2. Okay, continuing that, Victor LaValle seems to be a good example of a Lovecraft fan noticing the inherent racism of Lovecraft's fiction and engaging with it in interesting ways (interview here: Among other things, he mentions Lovecraft's obvious "fear of everything"; that might be key to why Lovecraft's racism might be terribly off-putting, but at the same time feels like an invitation to use the tools of Cosmic Horror itself to deconstruct it. Lovecraft basically casts himself not in the role of the superior, but of the - in a cosmic sense - inferior white male, a creature that, due to its adherence to the norms of civilization, actually has least part in the terrible cosmic truths. Also, Cosmic Horror provides a kind of negative universalism (the cosmos is equally indifferent to all of us ...).
    Also interesting in this context: Ezra Claverie (
    Harlem Unbound
    and (another RPG)

    What I'm getting at is that I don't perceive much of a split between Lovecraft fans who either deny HPL's racism or (even worse) embrace it on the one hand and those who condemn him for his racism on the other; but instead mostly a lot of anti-racist Lovecraft fans who engage with HPL in a subversive way.