P = Phil, R = Ruth, T = Tim.
R: I have called up in all my years of horror / P: inch by inch, with baleful terror / R: no god nor devil / T: the red moon, ominous and gibbeous / R: no demon nor lich nor shadow / T: had declined above the terraces / P: of the wormy corpses that he dug with his hands from unconsecrated graves / R: and the thing was a streaming ooze of charnal pollution / R: dreaming of conquests / T: It is verily known by few / R: and of vaster necromancies / P: there were people — mostly priests and women, it is told — whom he picked up as they fled / T: It is verily known by few, but is nevertheless an attestable fact / P: and pulled limb from limb as a child might quarter an insect / T, P, R: The Double Shadow — A Clark Ashton Smith Podcast.
T: Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of “The Double Shadow” a podcast that will explore the life and works of 20th century Weird author Clark Ashton Smith. I’m Tim Mucci and I’m joined here with…
P: Uh, I’m Phil Gellat…
R: And I’m Ruth…let’s say “Ashton Smith,” I’ll come up with something else next week. [ed. note, during the beginning of the podcast, we used last names and Ruth, wishing to remain partly anonymous, varied hers from week to week. We soon shifted to just first names.]
T: How would we know Ruth “Ashton Smith”?
R: You would probably know me as “Cthulhu Chick” online where I’ve done some things with H.P. Lovecraft’s works, putting together an ebook and a few other things.
T: So, Clark Ashton Smith, we’re doing a podcast about him. Why?
T: Phil, why?
P: I was going to say, you guys spoke at exactly the same time. I guess it’s on me to answer that question.
P: Well, I know I wanted to do it because I think that he’s a fascinating and, not necessarily forgotten figure, but I think that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard get a lot of the respect and have a lot of the cultural currency behind them and Clark Ashton Smith doesn’t. And I think that he’s a pretty fantastic writer, so, I dunno, I thought it would be fun to sort of go through his works and discuss them and find out what merit there is in them. I dunno, that’s why for me. What about for you guys?
R: Well, I came to Clark Ashton Smith through H.P. Lovecraft, like a lot of people do. I came to H.P. Lovecraft through Neil Gaiman, actually. “Study in Emerald” and “Old Shoggoth’s Peculiar.” And I said to myself, “Self, I need to know who this Cthulhu is and who this Lovecraft is because I’ve heard about them so much” and I started reading it just before the HP Podcraft started and I think that’s why I ended up sticking with it. Because their stuff, going through it, giving background, that helped me stick with it and become more interested and more engaged and then I ended up reading other people’s writings, his contemporaries and stuff, and I ended up reading some Smith, and I liked it.
T: And we should give a huge shout-out to Chaf Fifer and Chris Lackey [R: Yes!] over at the…
R: H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast
P: You guys are totally in synch right now and I am totally the odd man out. Tim, you should tell us why, for you, but I have a really really, my introduction to Lovecraft is a really embarrassing story, so I’ll talk about that after Tim goes.
T: So I guess I should talk about my intro to Lovecraft, just like you guys. My intro to Clark Ashton Smith was through Mr. Lovecraft, but my first exposure to Lovecraft was through the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, the Saturday morning cartoon, an episode called “The Collect Call of Cthulhu.” And I thought it was all made up. And they mentioned Clark Ashton Smith and they…
P: Wait a minute, hold on hold on hold on…
P: Nevermind go ahead. I just wanted to pause there.
T: What I mean is, I thought they made up the name Lovecraft. I was a kid. I thought “What a stupid name! I hate love!” and then I found out through the RPG that he was a real guy who was a real writer and then I just devoured all of his stuff. Clark Ashton Smith came much more recently, actually, through you Phil. I’d heard about it, but I’d never sat down and read anything…that I remember. And then you and I were talking about it and then I bought one of the Night Shade Press books, the first one, volume one. And he’s…he’s something.
P: Yeah, I mean yeah I don’t remember the exact moment that I became aware of Clark Ashton Smith. I know I became aware of H.P. Lovecraft because when I was a freshman in high school, I was really into the idea of Vampire: the Masquerade [R: That’s ok!]. In the inspirational works section, in the appendix, H.P. Lovecraft is mentioned. So I was like “I’m going to read all these vampire-ish books.” So I remember going to Barnes & Noble and getting a collection of his works. And on the back of it, they mentioned the Necronomicon. And, coincidentally, I was a big Evil Dead 2 fan at the time. And I was like “Wait a minute, this guy inspired Vampire the Masquerade and Evil Dead 2? What is this and how can I know more?” So that’s how that happened. I don’t know…I don’t remember…but many many years later in colelge I wrote a paper on Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry. It was like on Lovecraft’s poetry and on Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry and on Robert E. Howard’s poetry. But I hadn’t read any of his stories at that point but I just know that I thought at that point that I thought his poetry was much better than Lovecraft’s poetry. And Robert E. Howard’s poetry is just hilarious because it’s just what you’d expect it to be, all about swords and bare-chested men and the blood of your ancestors and murdering savages and such.
R: We won’t be doing the poetry on the show, will we?
P: No. Unfortunately. Well. Maybe fortunately.
T: Well yeah, maybe. I wouldn’t entirely discount it. We can go…well, we’ll talk about what our aims are, what our goals are with the show and between settings, we could do it as a kind of apertif…
P: A hashish-eater apertif?
T: Exactly! Now, who was Clark Ashton Smith? At this point, we know he was somehow tied into H.P. Lovecraft, he was born in 1893…
R: on Friday the 13th, actually! As was I!
T: Oh really, I didn’t know
R: Fun day to be born.
T: Right. And, unlike Lovecraft, he lived a fairly long life. He lived until 1961. And what other biographical information do you guys know?
R: Well, he was born to parents who were quite a bit older than he was. His father was actually a British aristocrat or someone who’d had some money and spent most of it and retired to live quietly in California, and became somewhat ill later in his life, apparently. He became more of a burden on his mother and on…Clark. He was an only child. He lived with his parents until they died and that was when he did most of his writing. They died around the same time as Lovecraft and Howard. After that, he didn’t have to support them. That’s one of the weird things about him—he did poetry, he did art, and he did fiction, but he doesn’t seem to have thought that the fiction had as much merit as the poetry and the art. So he was prolific, he wrote I believe 51 things that were published between ’31 and ’35.
T: Uh huh.
R: And then just basically nothing afterward. He’d been writing the fiction beforehand but not publishing.
T: I kind of took it that the fiction was his way of paying the bills. Because he wasn’t like Lovecraft, and there’s going to be a lot of referencing back to Lovecraft in here because he’s kind of the cornerstone of the Weird fictionists right now. Like Lovecraft wouldn’t revise, he wouldn’t rewrite, but Clark Ashton Smith, you ask him to rewrite and he’ll rewrite. It seems he cared much more about his poetry than his weird fiction.
R: He’s also seen as part of the “Lovecraft circle,” although he introduced Lovecraft to some of the people in it. So, again, Lovecraft, better-known, more cachet, but it was Smith who was corresponding with some of these people like Donald Wandrei, I believe. I just got a book of the selected letters of Clark Ashton Smith, which is awesome and indexed, so as we go through the episodes, I can—it had a nice long biographical sketch at the beginning, on top of all the other things I’ve read—but it also has references to all of his stories so I can go through it and see what he had to say about this story or that story in his letters [P: That’s awesome.] in the letters that we have anyway. To various people in the circle.”
P: You can probably cut this out, but I’m curious if in the letters, at all, my question boils down to “was Clark Ashton Smith also a raging racist or not?” I have no way of knowing either way. I’m wondering if the letters will illuminate that.
R: I will let you know. From the fiction I’d say less than Lovecraft, some…
P: Yeah, I would say that too…
R: He seemed more like a product of his time, than like Lovecraft, we say he was a product of his time but he was pretty intense about it.
T & P: *agreement*
R: Whereas Smith was vaguely racist.
T: Smith was also living a life, y’know, when he was in his big poetry phase, he was a famous poet when he was a poet. He ran in the same circles, not with, but in the same circles as Ambrose Bierce and Jack London. He was friends with the people who were friends with these people. So he was out there experiencing life.
R: Although he apparently never left California, which I thought was interesting.
R: Because Lovecraft actually did travel, like down to Florida and to a few other places. But there was a lot going on in California.
P: Yeah. One of the things I find most fascinating about him is this moment where his parents die and Robert E. Howard dies and Lovecraft dies [T: Right.] And he’s basically like “screw it.” And then he never, I mean he wrote some short stories after that, but nothing compared to what he had been doing [T: No.]. And I don’t know, the bottom line of a lot of the stuff that I read suggests that it was because the financial burden of his ailing parents was gone, but, I dunno, I also like to ascribe it to the fact that his buddies were dead too [T: Yeah.] but who knows.
T: It seems like a lot of the weird fiction that he was writing was kind of in response or kind of in friendly competition with Lovecraft. They’d just bounce ideas off each other. I’ve been looking through some of the Lovecraft selected letters…
R: I’ve been reading some of them as well.
T: And they were just nutty together! They were like two little Weird schoolboys. I mean, I only have it from Lovecraft’s point-of-view [R: No no, I’ve been reading some of Smith’s…] and he was just, and was he just as weird? Was he writing weird addresses and stuff?
R: Yeah yeah, and he called him “Eich-Pe-El” but he spelled it funny, just like “Klar-Kash-Ton.”
P: So I have here, it’s in the, the Conversations with Weird Tales Circle book that Centipede Press put out…
R: Oh yes.
P: And it’s an account of visiting Clark Ashton Smith in 1953 and it’s written by a man named George F. Hass, who’s kind of interesting but outside the purview of this podcast so I won’t talk about who he was, but this is a description by Hass of visiting Smith’s cabin.
“His cabin sat in the open, under the hot sun, a little way out from the edge of the grove. Beyond lay space and open fields with only a barb-wire fence in the distance to suggest any neighbors. The cabin itself was old and small, with a lean-to at the back and a broad sleeping porch extendingg the full length of the front. The wide boards and wood shingles on the sides were silvered and gray. On the roof were dark tar-paper shingles.
“We passed through an opening in a low stone wall, reminiscent of those in New England which extended which extended across the front of the cabin on the left side. He had built this wall himself long years ago, using the lava and granite boulders with which the cabin site is strewn. Here in this simple cabin, Clark Ashton had lived since earliest childhood. He was born in Long Valley miles away. Here he had lived with his mother and father until their deaths, first his mother in 1935, then his father in 1937.
“Rooted to the land, the homestead comprised 40 acres. On the death of his father, he’d sold all but 2 acres immediately surrounding the cabin in order to pay funeral and other expenses. His father’s death grieved him deeply and it was to loose himself in the forgetfulness of heavy labor that he set about doubling the wall of stones. Clark Ashton greatly revered both his mother and father. At the time I visited him there, their ashes reposed on a shelf at the rear end of the cabin.
“Clark Ashton of necessity lived simply and frugally, since his income from the sale of his writings was never very large. Weird Tales, which published the bulk of his stories, never paid over a cent a word. To supplement his meager wages, he worked at other tasks, such as picking fruit or pruning trees in the orchards in his area. In times past, he had worked at mining, gardening, picking and packing fruit, typing, woodshopping, or anything that came to hand. However later, after the death of his parents, his expenses had been few and he had had no rent or utilities to pay. Fuel for cooking and heating was wood he cut from his own oak trees. He burned kerosene in old wick lamps for light. Water came from his own spring a few feet from his cabin. When I asked why he did not grow vegetables, he explained that he had tried, but the spring did not supply sufficient water for irrigation.”
P: Which I think is amazing. He lives in this crazy one-room shack and doesn’t pay for anything because he just lives off the land. I can’t even…so weird.
T: Imagine you’re the person who’s having Clark Ashton Smith prune your hedges.
P: Yeah, I…
T: How cool is that? But that’s really interesting!
P: The guy goes on to talk about how much he was still making art work, which was fascinating. We should definitely try to get as much of his art work to put up. I mean, because his art is interesting, it’s…
R: It’s Weird.
P: Yeah, I mean it’s weird in the literary sense and it’s weird in the normal sense. And he gave this guy, made him a piece and gave it to him. It’s kinda fascinating.
T: So, why Clark Ashton Smith? What’s the big deal? What did he write about? How is he different or notable, from Lovecraft or Howard? I actually have a quote here from Clark Ashton Smith to Lovecraft where he kind of boils down the differences between their writings. He wrote it in October 1930 and says “my own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility or series of impossibilities by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose rhythm, metaphor, similie, tone color, counterpoint, and other stylistic resources. Like a sort of incantation. You obtain a black magic, perhaps unconsciously, in your pursuit of corroborative detail and verisimilitude.” And I think that totally boils it down. Clark Ashton Smith is invoking an alien workd in a lot of his stories, where Lovecraft is invoking aliens into our world.
R: That’s why I tend to think of Smith less as cosmic horror even though I’ve heard him called that. But I think Lovecraft is often about the discovery of something here that’s horrifying, like in “From Beyond,” you discover that the air is full of things you can’t see that move through you, whereas in Clark Ashton Smith, you might discover that vampires are real, or end up on Saturn and meet the people there. So it’s a little more sci-fi, but it’s still in the Weird.
T: It is, it’s totally Strange. And especially, and we’ll talk about the settings in a second, but especially in the Zothique setting. Where it’s just in a crazy world where crazy things are happening and you cannot trust that anything is going to work out ok.
R: All the necromancers. My god, all the necromancers in Zothique. It’s insane.
T: So, do we have anything else we want to talk about in his life? I mean, as the podcast goes on, we’ll start filling in more details.
P: I guess that the only thing I’d say on the difference between Lovecraft and Smith I feel like Lovecraft gets, whether by his own design, I think a little bit by his own design but a lot through like after his death, critical interpretation, everything Lovecraft does feels very holistic in a sense. All of his things feel Lovecraftian, which sounds stupid, but they all feel like he had a philosophy he was working on, you know? And Clark Ashton Smith feels, in some sense, wider in range, which doesn’t make him better than Lovecraft, it just feels less like he’s grounded in one specific worldview to me, it feels like he was like “yeah, that’d be crazy, I’m going to write a story about Mars.” [T: Right.] And there’s all kinds of, in some sense, almost more encyclopedic of the Weird than Lovecraft is, because Lovecraft’s very much into his world of…
R: Nostalgia. New England.
T: Yes, and also cosmic horror. Yes, like you said, I don’t think Smith is terribly interested in the same kind of horror effects that Lovecraft is definitely after.
R: But it’s still hororr.
P: But I think he’s more willing to not be horror fic. I think there’s some stories that are strange but he doesn’t necessarily go for the jugular in the same way Lovecraft does.
T: Another thing that they had in common, Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, I kind of wish he had a shorter name, like Herb Smith. *laughter* Clark Ashton Smith…
P: We can call him CAS.
R: It sounds so nice.
T: It does, it does but it’s a mouthful. I guess CAS. I guess HPL has kind of gained popularity. Anyway, they both had the slightest of formal education and were self-educated. They both, although Lovecraft had a bit more of a family base, they both had a kind of small and ailing family. And they both suffered from awful nightmares. That they wrote about.
P: I don’t know what to say about the nightmares. I didn’t know that Smith had nightmares like Lovecraft did.
T: Yeah. I didn’t know that he suffered from tuberculosis. And…
R: And he had scarlet fever.
T: When he was a kid, but later on he had TB and he suffered from awful fevers and he would get these nightmares, which is what he’d write about. I only know of one story that he specifically said that he took from a nightmare. That was “The Primal City.”
P: I haven’t read that one.
T: So, what we’re…we’re not going to be covering his stories chronologically because he would write clusters of stories in different settings. He had a bunch set in, I think this is the first time I’m saying this out loud, we may have different interpretations of how this is said, but “Averoigne”? That’s how I would say it.
R: That’s how I would say it if I weren’t trying to be all French about it.
T: How would you say it?
R: My throat’s not up to it.
T: Is it something like *attempt at nasal French pronunciation*
R: “Averoigne” (attempted French)
T: There ya go. That’s how we’re saying it from now on. I’m gonna isolate that clip and just drop that in whenever we need to say it. So, that is…what is Averoigne?
R: Well, it’s a medievalish France. I’m trying to remember if there’s a specific date attached to it. I know the first story we’re going to be doing, “The End of the Story,” I believe that was set in 1780s, I believe. 1798. But it’s an alternate world. It’s got different topography, it’s not like he’s saying “oh, this is medieval France,” he’s saying “I made a France.” You could best understand it through this sort of date. What people dress like, what their mannerisms might be. It’s connected to our world…for example the first story mentions Ovid and his Metamorphoses. But it’s definitely not the France we know.
P: Yeah, I’d definitely describe the majority of them as alternate history. Alternate fantastical history in some sense. But I think the majority of the stories, excepting “End of the Story,” are set in what we’d call medieval France.
R: I think so, yes. A lot of them seem to be set a lot farther back.
P: The one thing, I’m just gonna go ahead and say it now, that annoys me about the Averoigne stories is that they always talk about werewolves and to my knowledge there isn’t an actual Averoigne story that features a werewolf. Not even “The Beast of Averoigne,” which is actually one of my favorite stories and which has things in it far weirder than werewolves, but there is no werewolf in that story.
T: Don’t you mean “loup-garou?”
P: I think there’s a fragment about a werewolf somewhere in Averoigne, but it’s only like a sentence long. It’s literally like “somewhere in the forest around Vyones there’s a werewolf.” Oh no wait, I’m wrong. We should talk about that. The fragment is actually longer than that. It’s about a man who is a werewolf and then is eventually killed by dogs.
T: Oh. Yeah. CAS is a werewolf tease.
R: Vyones is the main cathedral city of Averoigne…I’m just gonna anglicize it. Averoigne. But it’s got a cathedral, it’s got a lot of priests going on. Larger town setting. A lot of stories take place there or have people coming from there, but he did have a real map going on. We can put that up in the show notes on the website. thedoubleshadow.com, that’s with a “the” because we weren’t able to get just “doubleshadow.com.”
T: So we have Averoigne, which is his fictional medieval France. Then he also has Zothique, which is like the end of the world, right? It’s the last continent on the dying planet.
P: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s the first dying sun of the dying sun subgenre of fantasy, but it certainly must be an early version. Dying sun, which is like Vance’s…I think it’s just called “dying sun,” right? And then Gene Wolf?
T: “Dying Earth?”
P: I’ll have to look that up. And then Gene Wolf’s books are also sort-of set in this version of Earth that is so far in the future that the sun is just going out and magic and technology and intertwined and everything’s super-super crazy. I’d like to think Zothique is the first, btu I don’t know.
T: And then another of his settings is Hyperborea (questions on pronunciation) and that, listeners should know from Conan and some of Lovecraft’s work.
P: Isn’t Conan “Hyborea”?
R: It is Hyborea, you’re right.
P: I think that’s Howard’s way of being proprietary. I view them to be very similar settings. And that’s way way in the past.
T: Yes. It’s primal.
P: It’s a primal Greenland.
R: But greener. It’s not actually icy.
P: What I like about—he had other settings we’ll get to, he wrote a lot about Poseidonis, which is like Atlantis and then Mars and then he did a series, well there are some that are contemporaneous…
T: And there are some about crazy alien planets.
P: Yeah. And then what I like about the three we’ve chosen is that we have somewhat-identifiable actual history and then way in the future. Good balance. So way to go, us.
T: Yeah, that’s what we’ll be covering. We’ll be going through each setting and covering each story chronologically within each setting, right?
R: Yes, we’re starting with Averoigne.
T: We’re starting with Averoigne and the first story we’re going to read is “The End of the Story,” by Clark Ashton Smith. And where can people find it?
R: They can find stories for free at Eldritch Dark. They have copies of almost all of his stories, they’ve been scanned in using optical character recognition technology, I believe, because the stories seem to good quality, but every once in a while you’ll end up with “thern” instead of “them.” It didn’t quite recognize the font, but it’s a great site, a fantastic resource. It’s got all the stories. We’ll be posting a list of the Averoigne stories to start and saying each week what the stories will be.
T: And you said our website, it’s?
T: TheDoubleShadow.com. We’re also on Twitter…
R: Yes, @TheDoubleShadow on Twitter.
P: There’s a theme here!
R: Just a little bit.
T: Wait, guys. Why The Double Shadow? What does it mean? Who made it up?
R: Well, Clark Ashton Smith did!
T: Oh he did?
P: Tim, tell us what it is.
T: Really, that’s all we’ve got, guys? The Double Shadow was the name of one of his stories, but he’d also self-publish some of his stuff and sell it around California and that was one of his…I keep wanting to think it’s a Clark Ashton Smith fanzine that he did himself, but it’s called “The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies” by Clark Ashton Smith. And it was published in 1933. I’m not aware if “The Double Shadow” itself was published somewhere. But when we get to it…
R: And it is available on the Eldritch Dark website.
T: It’s a good story!
R: It is.
T: All right, you guys wanna say anything else before we wrap this up?
R: No, I’m really looking forward to getting into this stuff. I’ve been reading through the Averoigne stuff and there’s some interesting things. Fewer necromancers, I have to say, than Zothique.
P: I have nothing to say except that I’m looking forward to talking about it as well. It’s gonna be great. And it finally gives me a good motivation to do what I’ve been meaning to do for years now and read all of his work. Read along with us, listeners!
T: Please do! So, thanks for listening and tune in to the next show, when we’ll be reading and talking about “The End of the Story” by Clark Ashton Smith. All right. Bye bye.
[Clip of Ruth saying “Averoigne” with a French accent.]