The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith

Friday, 22 January 2010 • with 8 comments

The 117th anniversary of Clark Ashton Smith’s birth last week was marked by The Cimmerian (here, here, and here), Grognardia, Black Gate, and others with accolades and remembrances. As well it should. Smith, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, formed the weird fiction triptych of the 1920s and ’30s — and in my opinion, he was the most talented member of a talented group. Yet a recurring question in many of these memorials is why Smith remains uncelebrated in comparison to his partners. This is especially vexing when you consider he outlived the other two by almost a quarter-century.

Answer: Because Smith’s estate has kept him unknown.

Lovecraft and Howard are popular today because we have had a full generation grow up with easy access to inexpensive volumes of their work. Lovecraft’s writing has been in paperback fairly consistently since the 1970s; Del Rey alone has been printing his stuff since the mid-1980s. Howard’s legacy, while certainly boosted by Marvel’s Conan comics, is due in large part to the Lancer/Ace mass-market paperbacks of the ’60s and ’70s with their wonderful Frazetta and Vallejo covers.

Smith’s work, alas, has never been managed as well.

A couple of years ago I approached Smith’s estate with the idea of doing a trade paperback omnibus of his Averoigne material, which consists of 11 short stories and a poem. Such an English-language collection — set in his medieval French province haunted by vampires, werewolves, and worse — has never been published, in paperback or otherwise, which I’ve always found odd considering the deep influence Baudelaire (particularly Les Fleurs du Mal) had on Smith. Ballantine Adult Fantasy apparently planned one in the 1970s but the series was canceled before it appeared; and since 1995 Donald M. Grant had touted an Averoigne collection but it too was vaporware.

There was a precedent for my idea. In the ’90s Necronomicon Press offered a few TPB and chapbook collections of Smith’s work, including a volume of his Zothique tales. That’s how I uncovered Smith: dungeoneering through musty used bookstores for the out-of-print Ballantines or mail-ordering from Necropress. Those were your only options 15-20 years ago. Yes, there was Arkham House’s 1988 hardcover A Rendezvous in Averoigne but I was poor and there was a price point I refused to cross. My way took legwork but expense was not the issue.

I shot off an e-mail to Smith’s estate specifically citing the 12 items I was interested in and asked if the copyrights were available. The response:

We would not be able to license a project like this at the current time. Arkham House recently reissued its hardcover of RENDEZVOUS AT AVEROIGNE, and an Averoigne paperback could be directly competitive. As well, the Bison Books imprint at University of Nebraska Press has just reprinted two other Arkham editions, and Nightshade is about to launch a series of complete, collected and corrected Clark Ashton Smith volumes. Adding another title to the market at this time would not be prudent.

With the exception of the Night Shade series, all the books mentioned are greatest-hit collections. This was in 2007. Arkham House had “recently reissued” A Rendezvous in Averoigne four years prior for the low, low price of $32.95. The pair of Bison books, themselves TPB versions of Arkham House hardcovers from the 1940s, are the biggest step Smith’s heirs have taken to popularize him since their incarnations as Panther MMPBs in the ’70s. Yet spread across those three compilations are just five of the Averoigne stories.

Let’s say you buy all three books and have exhausted their contents. Perhaps your taste is whetted by Zothique, or say, Averoigne, and you want to read the whole cycle of that setting. Well, then you can savor them within the authoritative Night Shade Collected Fantasy series — if you don’t mind buying all five hardbacks at $39.95 a pop.

Meanwhile, for less than $50 you can buy three books containing Howard’s entire Conan saga. Or spend $30 or less for 880 pages of Lovecraft.

What we have here is a failure to understand economics. As anyone familiar with price elasticity can tell you, often you can make more money by selling a lot of units at a low price than you can selling a few units at a high price. Smith has been damned to obscurity because his executors have confined his work to expensive hardbacks aimed at collectors. The price of entry into Smith appreciation is too high for newcomers. If you don’t know Smith, there’s little incentive to lay down $30-$40 to discover whether you enjoy him. And even if, like me 15 years ago, you already know Smith from some dog-eared used paperback, there are still financial considerations before pursuing him further.

That is why Smith is not as recognized as Howard or Lovecraft.

But the landscape is changing. In the e-mail quoted above, the estate representative elided my question of whether the copyrights to the stories were available. I sent another e-mail requesting clarification: “Do you or any of your clients own the copyright to any of the twelve items listed below in my original e-mail?” Quoth the agent:

My clients Arkham House and CASiana Literary Enterprises are the rights holders for the work of Clark Ashton Smith.

Fair enough. But then I asked: If that’s so, why does Eldritch Dark have Smith’s corpus posted on their site? And why are a number of Smith paperbacks available from such publishers as Prime Books and Wildside Press? Were all of these sanctioned by Arkham House and CASiana?

Eldritch Dark is essentially the “official” Clark Ashton Smith web site, and per this page http://eldritchdark.com/about has posted the work for non-profit use with the permission of my clients, and would remove it if we were to ask them to do so.

Also note that some of the earliest of CAS’ published works may be considered in public domain, and Wildside (Prime is a part of Wildside) do unfortunately take advantage of this.

Aha.

Just as I discovered Lovecraft and Howard in my teens and twenties so shall the current generation encounter Smith — despite the ham-handedness of his estate. With his work increasingly entering the public domain, other publishers will bring the access that Arkham House and CASiana haven’t. Smith just needs time to catch up with his old Weird Tales buddies.

Let us assume the goals of Smith’s estate are to raise visibility and profits; I’m not entirely convinced they are, but let’s assume. If they were smart, they would outmaneuver competitors by copying the success of the Robert E. Howard Wandering Star/Del Rey series and reprint Smith’s stories in handsome “authorized” TPBs, perhaps grouped by setting as the Ballantines were — and perhaps including an Averoigne volume. But that’s asking a lot. Arkham House co-founder August Derleth possessed low expectations for Smith:

Not that there is no appreciation of Smith’s fine work today — there is a solid core of admirers, and the steady sales of Smith books here at Arkham House testify to it. But there are not enough of those admirers to do justice to Smith’s work, which is genuinely unique…

That narrow-mindedness and lack of vision evidently continues. I am optimistic Smith will escape it.

Scan of the November 1933 cover of Weird Tales — containing Smith’s “The Holiness of Azédarac” — courtesy of Collectors Showcase.


Written by Jackson

Shelved under Books & Writing and labeled with , , ,

8 Responses to 'The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith'

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  1. I encountered Smith in a wonderful series of books by Neville-Spearman in the 1970’s. Priced at just $6.00 each in hardbound, I bought them all from my local fantasy/SF bookstore. Wish I still had them.

    tim mayer

    1 Mar 10 at 7:06 am

  2. […] Clark Ashton Smith’s estate took a different road. It’s not that they didn’t like reprints. It’s that they only wanted expensive prestige reprints to be done… which is not the way to grab people w…. […]

  3. Amen, Mr. Kuhl. The Eldritch Dark has been a godsend for me – I probably wouldn’t have ever gotten into Smith’s work without it, and that would truly have been a shame.

    Art Turner

    22 May 10 at 2:46 pm

  4. A follow-up: I was at our local Barnes & Noble today & thought I’d check out how much shelf space was taken up by Smith’s works versus Howard’s and Lovecraft’s. For Howard, they had a good 9 or 10 inches – all the Del Rey trade paperbacks, the Planet Stories edition of ALMURIC, and one other that I can’t recall. For Lovecraft, there was at least a foot – all the Del Rey tpbs, a couple of the Penguins, a Del Rey paperback of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, the Modern Library paperback of same… you get the idea. And Smith? Not so much a single book in the whole goddamn place.

    Art Turner

    23 May 10 at 11:46 pm

  5. I agree with your take on Smith’s estate. I had been wondering how Eldritch Dark could use his materials, but I’m glad it’s basically authorized.

    As for decreasing his obscurity, some weird-fiction loving/writing friends and I recently started a podcast, The Double Shadow, covering his works (ran across this post doing research). I don’t think we can make him as well known as Lovecraft on our own, but perhaps it’ll do something to bring him more into the spotlight.

    Ruth

    16 May 12 at 10:08 am

  6. Ruth, I wish you and your friends the best of luck!

    Jackson

    23 May 12 at 8:58 am

  7. This is another good reason why intellectual property is crap, just like any other government granted monopoly. Also why superhero and Conan movies suck, because they can only be made by big-money generics who don’t give a damn about the source material. If Shakespeare could write without copyright so can Stephen King, dammit; and if he can’t he can go starve for all I care.

    Bah

    25 Jun 12 at 6:43 am

  8. Nightshade keeps promising to reprint volumes 1 & 2 of their corrected texts of his complete works – possibly as print-on-demand. This would SEEM to make the most sense, as opposed to letting it go out of print. The used book dealers are charge $275 to over $5000 for used VG or better copies of the out-of-print Volumes 1 & 2!!! I am an old time fan of CAS, and did not find out about this series until after 1 & 2 went out of print. I’d pay $40 a copy for a POD reprint,but not these exhorbitant prices. What is wrong with the estate or Nightshade, seeing as how there is still this kind of demand and there’s no reason why anyone but an incompetent jackass can’t license a book out? After all that work putting the corrected edition together, why can’t the estate or the editors do this? Don’t the editors want to see their work preserved? Doesn’t the estate want to make money? The whole thing defies reason…..

    KBK

    15 Sep 13 at 5:50 pm

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