(Note – this was the first ebook I ever read and a useful guinea pig in testing the Kobo app on a range of devices plus their own Aura H20 ereader)
Clark Ashton Smith was a multi-faceted artist though likely best known to a modern audience as the least enduringly popular of the Weird Tales ‘Big 3’. And while he may lack an iconic touchstone of popular culture such as Cthulhu or Conan to his credit, his corpus is meritorious in its own way.
Plainly the scholarly exertions to assemble this six-volume series of ‘The Collected Fantasies’ and ‘The Miscellaneous Writings’ were not insubstantial. The notes are extensive and numerous sources were consulted to piece these tales together and resolve conflicting versions into the best educated guess at Smith’s artistic intention.
Hence in volume one we have the earliest works, displaying it may be said more of promise than fulfilment. The tales run the gamut of speculative fiction, pushing the boundaries of imagination to the furthest reaches available to a 1920s poet. There’s some traditional horror here and some lyrical fantasy, but the heaviest focus is decidedly on science fiction.
Many now-common concepts are explored, with interstellar travel, alien worlds and their alien inhabitants, alternate dimensions, transference of consciousness, lost civilisations and a full-scale alien invasion of earth rather more ambitious in scope than War of the Worlds.
Smith succeeds best at setting and atmosphere, painting lush and otherworldly stages on which to set the plays. Sadly, at least at this early time, the performance doesn’t maximise that potential. Characterisation is scant at best, even allowing for brevity of form. That need not be fatal as the same may be said of HPL, but his strength and pacing of narrative usually won out.
Smith by comparison is not strong on narrative. Sometimes there’s very little at all and the works approximate prose poetry, as Farnsworth Wright noted in rejecting (at separate times) ‘The Abominations of Yondo’, ‘A Night in Malnéant’ and ‘The Epiphany of Death’ from publication in Weird Tales.
Such narrative as is extant is uncomplicated and yet still feels rushed or forced in places. A fine example is ‘Marooned in Andromeda’, which reads more like a slideshow of alien creatures and locations than a story, topped off with one of the most amateurishly convenient endings I’ve ever read.
That said, for the collection as a whole I’m left with the impression of a great mind ‘warming up’ for better things to come and I hope to be proven right in the succeeding volumes. This clearly wasn’t ‘The End of the Story’ for Clark Ashton Smith. Groan.
p.s. As an aside, I couldn’t help but be struck by stylistic comparisons between Smith and Brian Catling, whose ‘The Vorrh’ I read recently. I suspect that artists who work in multiple forms such as sculpture and painting are cognitively wired to approach writing differently, especially where imagery and form are concerned.