“Time moves at its own pace. Clark Ashton Smith will never be forgotten.”
Nowadays we can find quite a lot of information about Clark Ashton Smith thanks to the work of literary historians or the accounts of his contemporaries who are still with us be it his older students or fans. While alive, Smith remained mysterious; his correspondence depicts him as someone reserved. He didn’t leave any memoirs or autobiographies behind, in his life he experienced temporary popularity and only a tiny, but very dedicated community kept his oeuvre alive. CAS’s carrier was short, but it had undoubtedly marked the world of weird fiction. The documentary entitled Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams commemorates this fascinating yet often ignored carrier, allowing the viewers to discover and understand the personality of the “Hermit of Auburn” as well as the uniqueness and importance of his art.
We can proudly say that the Hungarian H.P. Lovecraft society has a good relationship with many prominent members of the international weird scene that is how, thanks to the kindness of Derrick Hussey, we had the chance to watch the documentary.
Darin Coelho Spring, who lives in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, abandoned his bookselling job to become the writer, director and intellectual father of the film. After many years of amateur film experiments he started working on the documentary, which took him almost four years to complete. He interviewed numerous contemporary literary historians, poets, artists throughout the United States. Jakob Mingle and Peter Scartabello were in charge of the film score; they composed a musical background that was in perfect harmony with the scenes. Scartabello is also the owner of Yuggoth Records which is the home of multiple Lovecraft-themed musical projects. The DVD cover was created by a gentleman who goes by alias Skinner and who also appears in the documentary as the spokesperson of “misunderstood artists.”
The documentary divides CAS’s life in three parts: in a poetic period full of high hopes, the period of prose and the friendship with Lovecraft, then finally the reclusive period of stone carvings. The starting sequences set the mood, the promise of ancient mystery and secret knowledge hides in the melancholic melody of classic guitar as the moon appears from behind the clouds. Donald Sidney-Fryer poet, bibliographer, one of the most well-known researchers of CAS’s life and works, welcomes the viewers to the documentary standing beside a plaque on a library wall. He reads us the ten-line long CAS Poem, The Sorcerer Departs. Fryer talks about the poem with respect and humility; he thinks it was a self-fulfilling prophecy about how his art would outlast the poet. This idea is the main thesis of the film, showing that Clark Ashton Smith’s fantastic work survived the tides of time even without a lot of sponsors or supporters, his popularity reaches us even from beyond the grave.
After Fryer, we hear Harlan Ellison, cult sci-fi writer and editor, who had sadly passed away in 2018, his laudation is mesmerising. He talks about CAS in superlatives until the end of the documentary, saying that one page from him is better than complete books of other writers; Smith was channelling real magic. With this quote, we start the first part of Emperor of Dreams, The Star-Treader, which deals with the period between Clark Ashton Smith’s 1893 birth to 1926. It talks about his childhood, how he became a recognised poet in California and beyond. The narrator explains how Auburn, California had become a mining town, then Fryer shows us the place CAS was born and where he went to school.
Ron Hilger, editor and literary historians shares an anecdote with us, standing among Smith’s original stone carvings. According to this story Smith spent one single day in high school then announced that he was never going back. His parents didn’t object to his decision, so he went on teaching himself with the help of the local library. According to Hilger, Smith had photographic memory, at least when it came to dealing with written text. In 1911 Smith managed to get in touch with his idol, the central figure of the state’s literary life: George Sterling who became his mentor, just as Ambrose Bierce had helped Sterling a decade earlier. In the following year, 1912 the only 19-year-old Smith had his first poetry collection, The Star-Treader; published which got an excellent reception. Numerous praising reviews are mentioned in the film and the narrator even quotes from some of them.
S. T. Joshi, a renowned literary historian, and an honorary member and mentor of the Hungarian H. P. Lovecraft society tells us that Sterling had invited his mentee to meet Ambrose Bierce or Jack London in 1912, but CAS was unwilling because of his shyness. In the following eight years he was riddled with different illnesses; for example, depression. According to Joshi CAS didn’t write that much because of his health condition, while Ron Hilger supposed that the death of a mysterious girl was what depressed him so much. The documentary discreetly avoids discussing the exact nature of CAS’s illness, Joshi briefly mentions tuberculosis, but changes to a more important detail, namely that CAS began drawing (with pencil and crayon) after 1915, to channel the stress that had accumulated in him. He created fantastic creatures and landscapes. As the bohemian artist and magician Charles Schneider points out, it was Smith’s inner muse, or demon, that had driven him to create and not the expectations of his surroundings. He was an excellent artist. Skinner, the psychedelic painter and one of the art directors of the documentary, agrees. He also argues that CAS’s whole life was about finding fulfilment in different creative art forms. We see countless strange faces, dreamlike landscapes and bizarre creatures as the film lets us glimpse into Smith’s artistic world.
The next segment is about the collection entitled Ebony and Crystal, which contains CAS’s most mature poetry. This collection contains The Hashish Eater -or- the Apocalypse of Evil, a monumental poem introduced to us by W.H. Pugmire, an extravagant writer and poet, who talks about the sublime power of the poem. (In Hungarian you can read the first half of the poem in the translation of Ákos Vachter.)
The interviewees talk about the poem with different levels of vehemence, which shows that it’s really a multi-faceted work. Joshi conjures Lovecraft himself, who got to know CAS’s art thanks to this poem, to use his words to praise Smith’s longest work. Fryer starts reading the text and performs it with complete abandon which provides the viewers with an unforgettable experience. Skinner praises it without restraint and as a strange counterpoint Scott Connors, CAS’s biographer compares the poem to Wagner’s oeuvre.
Unaviodable question: was Smith under the influence of drugs when he wrote The Hashish Eater?
Cody Goodfellow, writer, editor and anointed priest of Cthulhu doesn’t rule out that the work might have been written as the product of medication side effects or under the influence of opium, while Scott Connors and Charles Schneider doubt this quoting Lovecraft as an example; his stories were even more bizarre although he was one of the most austere people who has ever walked the earth.
Hyperborea beyond Hyperborea
Before embarking on the second major part, we hear about CAS’s conflict with George Sterling who cautioned him against writing weird stories. He didn’t succeed in keeping him away from this genre, so Hyperborea and the works following it were born, that is why this chapter is called Hyperborea beyond Hyperborea, lasting from 1927 to 1937; covering approximately the period of his correspondence with Lovecraft. While Sterling didn’t support his new direction, Lovecraft explicitly encouraged him. S.T. Joshi presents us with the details how the decade long friendship of Lovecraft and Smith began with one fan letter and how they noticed each other’s work.
Thanks to Lovecraft’s intervention, Weird Tales magazines, who until then had been poetry free, decided to accept poems as well. Thus CAS had a new venue to publish his works. Their mutual interest in cosmic horror created a very fruitful and inspired period for both writers. CAS illustrated one of Lovecraft’s stories, The Lurking Fear for his publication Home Brew magazine; we can see some excerpts in the documentary. They are obscene and provocative which shows how different the world views of the two writers were. Joshi emphasises the difference in their style: while Lovecraft brought the fantastic into the real world, Smith didn’t even want to hear about reality. The interviewees discuss the mythos-creating influence the two writers had on each other.
After this, we hear about Smith’s style and the worlds he created. The narrator goes into a lot of details about these elements, characters and characteristics. We learn the most about The City of the Singing Flames which is one of CAS’s best works from the Zothique-cycle, set in the far future. Harlan Ellison, Donald Sidney-Fryer and Ron Hilger speak with overwhelming enthusiasm about this elemental reading experience. The two characters in the story, who could easily be Smith and Lovecraft, descend into mystical, strange worlds. According to Scott Connor, if we take Lovecraft’s rules for weird stories into consideration, this is one of the best stories of this genre. The story is set in a real place, in the windy and strangely atmospheric Sierra Nevada mountains, a place that inspired CAS and what we can visit alongside the narrator guided by Hilger and Fryer. This is where he found the stones with strange patterns that he also sent to Lovecraft.
In this part we see an actor impersonating CAS in multiple scenes, walking among the stones. These intermissions disrupt the previous pace and style of the film, allowing the viewer to rest a bit from the flood of information. Lovecraft also wanted to visit this place, but sadly he passed away in 1937. Charles Scnheider laments the fact that the two writers could never meet, while Joshi gives us a heart-wrenching rendition of the poem CAS wrote for the death of his friend. In this period CAS faced multiple tragedies and professional rejections; the death of his parents and Lovecraft took their toll on the poet who abandoned writing and started collecting stones that he fashioned into bizarre, naive carvings. The documentary shows us some of these, while Joshi reads the prose poem entitled To the Daemon.
The following images radiate an atmosphere of hypnotic power after the scenes of mourning.
The Sorcerer Departs
The third part of the film is entitled The Sorcerer Departs and it deals with the period from 1938 until the death of Clark Ashton Smith in 1961. Even though his work was taken on by Arkham House Smith never wrote again except for some special occasions. Skinner explains that CAS’s environment can’t have been too supportive which might explain why Smith had become more reclusive. He dreamt about crossing the US border in vain, dreaming about leaving the oppressive mining town behind, he ended up spending twenty more years in Auburn. The documentary shows the relationship of Smith and Auburn, the place where he lived as a recluse. Although there were no roads leading to CAS’s house, he didn’t have electricity or clean water, his reclusive life didn’t mean a complete solitude; there are photos showing that he hosted some of his fans. Since he had given up writing, he was forced to accept odd jobs or fan offerings. Auburn didn’t become so synonymous with Smith as Baltimore did with Poe’s or Providence with Lovecraft’s. Fryer shows us the handful of memorial places that still keep Smith’s memory.
Eventually Smith manages to leave this place behind and the next part of the documentary is introduced by the most suitable person, William Dorman, Clark Ashton Smith’s adoptive son. After a few weeks of knowing each other Smith and Carol Jones Dorman got married and a new era started in the poet’s life. The house where they lived and where Fryer also visited his mentor looks different today, but with Fryer’s help the film tries to evoke how the place must have been. He also tells us what kind of person CAS was. He describes him as an artist with a bohemian look and the photos also seem to suggest that he was quite an eccentric. Fryer’s visit is closed by Smith’s last poem and Dorman tells us about standing beside the death bed of his adoptive father.
The last part of the documentary, the epilogue, if you will, is about the heritage of Clark Ashton Smith. He stayed more of a cult writer, he didn’t enter the mainstream like Lovecraft did for example. His works are now published in quality collections, but he couldn’t escape being treated in an unworthy way. Inspired by The Return of the Sorcerer, Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery horror series would have probably been Smith’s worst nightmare. The last interview, which might be the most touching and powerful part of the whole documentary is Harlan Ellison, who gives his strong opinion about the world and CAS’s place in it. It’s a surprisingly strong, effective monologue that gives you goose bumps.
Fryer has talked about Clark Ashton Smith’s deep and slowly melodic voice earlier in the film and finally the viewers can also hear him. Before we see the credits roll, a battered recording starts and we can hear Smith reading his poem, High Surf. It’s a perfect ending for the bittersweet Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams.
You can hear the following recording in the film (source: The Eldritch Dark)
It’s a fantastically memorable documentary, the only negative thing we can say that it was discursive at times. The whole project radiates enthusiasm, both from the part of the filmmakers and the interviewees. Every image shows humility and respect. The last scenes are touching and the viewer is left wanting to know more about this unique carrier and after the credits have rolled we immediately reach for a volume of Clark Ashton Smith’s works. The film features a lot of photos, contemporary magazines and poems performed with feeling; these all contribute to giving a more detailed picture of CAS’s life. Smith wrote weird stories and dark fantasy, but his gripping and well-crafted style is brought to life by the beautiful aesthetic need the Auburn landscape gave him. Anybody who is at least a little bit interested in Clark Ashton Smith’s life and the golden age of weird literature shouldn’t miss this documentary.
„He explored the most remote realms of the imagination, and he mined it, not for gold, but for something far more precious, beauty.”
Gyula Vidra (English translation: Fanni Sütő)
- You can buy the DVD version of Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of from the website of Hippocampus Press, but you can also watch it online on Vimeo.
- Three Clark Ashton Smith collections have been translated and published in Hungary you can buy all of them in the webshop of Delta Vision Publishing: A sír szava (published in 2010, 1443.- HUF), Gonosz mesék (published in 2013, 2542 HUF), Sarki regék (published in 2017, 3392 HUF)
- Azilum magazine has published multiple Clark Ashton Smith stories that hadn’t been available in Hungarian and further translations are planned for upcoming issues.