When one thinks of cosmic literature, one typically imagines H.P. Lovecraft and the Necronomicon. Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from his peers, however, and he was particularly close friends and creative kin with a man named Clark Ashton Smith, a pulp storyteller, sculptor, and insane poet. Smith’s writing is mythical in its intense depictions of colorful worlds, heinous gods, and unending darkness; and the myths are all Smith’s inventions. He creates his own universe through the originality of his visions in a way that Lovecraft does not.
As in Lovecraft, Smith invents a few deities for his worlds, such as Thasaidon, the Lord of Evil, and the Biblical grimoire The Book of Eibon. Yet Smith reaches a mythical strangeness that Lovecraft never aimed for. Lovecraft’s work created tears in our reality and minds, and while some of Smith’s stories take place in a recognizable world, many of them go beyond the bounds of the universe. These tales often take the shape of battles against frightening alien monstrosities or allegorical adventures. “The Maze of the Enchanter” follows a hero seeking to save a maiden captured by a fearsome sorcerer, whose punishments are existentially disturbing; and “Xeethra” recounts the tale of a boy who is made a king in another world, under the condition that he never lament his situation. In a reference to Lovecraft, Smith restructures At the Mountains of Madness into a martian nightmare called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” in which a group of explorers encounter cowl-like creatures that eat brains—an early and gory example of survival horror.
Smith's poetry stands out because it doesn’t feel bound by story conventions. He transports the reader into a nightmare world of beauty and darkness simply for the sake of exploration. “The Star-Treader” relates someone’s dream, called through the Technicolor realms of the universe by a strange voice. “To the Daemon Sublimity” pleas for release into a sensory overload of wonder, rather than suffering finite doom. “Desire of Vastness” sings praises to empty grandeur and longs to be lost in “bournless waste.” One of the most epic, “The Hashish Eater; Or, the Apocalypse of Evil”, reads like a monologue from an all-seeing but dying cosmic god. He takes a simple concept like a ghoul, the poem’s title, and turns it into the ultimate description of darkness. He evokes Eros, Lilith, and Memnon, scattering their mythic fame across the pages like dark soulless stars.
Smith's fiction contains many of the same principles. Even the language of the stories is poetic; the most typical narratives, such as Xeethra or Yoh Vombis, have bizarre beauty in their names. But it’s the concept that truly reach poetic qualities. The plots may center around human protagonists, jealousy or obsession, but they depart from recognizable environments after that; and many of them explore themes of cosmic madness and emptiness. “The City of the Singing Flame” depicts an immense white fire hidden inside a dreamland, which enchants viewers with its song until their wonder causes them to leap inside - and vanish. The necromancer of “The Dark Eidolon” evokes a mind-endingly powerful god to gain revenge, but the power ends up obliterating him, too. The titular character of “Xeethra” learns that he cannot hold onto his dream for grandeur, and is left to live his withering days with this unending knowledge. These “heroes” may be driven by fleeting desires or angers, but their petty objectives bring them into gigantic nightmares; and thus they are lost.
Smith’s fiction goes beyond fantasy and science fiction. His tales feel like modern myths, representing existential but wondrous versions of the universe. His characters are beyond human, beyond normal beings; they encounter vast realities and world-altering fables. His language expresses this originality, fleeing to bizarre corners of descriptive power that are filled with color and sensation. It’s gorgeous prose, evoking vast and terrifying ideas. He sings invocations and praises to the yawning gulf, celebrating it in a way that his contemporaries did not.