BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: Clark Ashton Smith

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we finish our run of short story writes with someone who seems determined to play eclectically in the themes of his contemporaries.
Clark Ashton Smith is a name that I’ve come across several times, mainly in connection to Lovecraft, and often in pretty glowing terms, but until very recently I’d never read anything he’d written. Consequently, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect from his work, which, as it turns out it, it pretty appropriate. Because the thing is, as you turn the pages on his work, you can never be too sure what you are going to get either, except that it will probably be pretty good.

It find it hard to sum up Smith’s actual native style. His stories break down into a few core types of story, with discrete settings, but they all seem to be somehow drawing on different inspirations – Burrough’s Mars, Howard’s Hyborean Age, Lovecraft’s modern horrors, or even the gothic heaviness of Poe, but that sounds too dismissive for what is a clever blending of influences into something new. For instance, we get several stories whose main structure could come straight from Lovecraft, as characters are taken from their modern settings into strange worlds and arcane encounters, but whereas Lovecrafts story radiate creeping horror of the “other”, Smiths feel suffused with a sense of wonder, sometimes bordering on the transcendent.

It’s still very much in the pulp horror tradition though – ancient terrors and strange, unfathomable things lurk around the corners, and there is some effective and claustrophobic storytelling at work in a piece like “The Return of the Sorcerer” that is feels like an instant classic of unwitting men being dragged into something beyond their understanding. And the chilling story of archaeologists (of Mars!) being doomed by the creatures they uncover is a favorite.

I think what marks Smith the most though, is the breadth of storytelling on show. Sure, there’s some common themes and his works do start to group together into a collections of subsidiary settings, but reading through the collection I had there was a thrill at starting each new story because it felt like it could be set almost anywhere, and where it would go would be hard to predict. Add to that the sense that nearly uniformly pulls off that diversity, I’m surprised that Smith isn’t more widely read.

Next time: We move back to grand English Horror, with a satanic tale from Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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One comment

  1. Dennis Wheatley, I haven;’t read anything by hime for ages and ages, As I recall The Devil Rides Out is the best of his supernatural thrillers, but he could also crank out some rip roaring adventure tales. Most of his stuff was pretty well researched, but written from the viewpoint of an exceptionally privileged upbringing and in later life his politics did get a bit deranged.

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