Thursday, May 10, 2012

Decadence and Dying Earth, Part 1.5

I'm reading Clark Ashton Smith for the first time, and I'm doing so with no knowledge of the writer's personal life or work outside of Zothique and the two collections in my university's library, Hyperborea and Xiccarph.  Having read a little about the man I now see that my comparison of Smith to Baudelaire was not off the mark.  Smith, who began his writing career as a poet, was an avid reader of Baudelaire and even produced his own translation of Fleurs du Mal.  In this 1952 letter to L. Sprague de Camp, Smith lists Poe and Baudelaire among his principal influences.  In 1923 he published a poem called "On Re-Reading Baudelaire"; I will spare you a close reading, but it is appropriately Baudelarean in form (a sonnet) and content (witness those juxtapositions of beauty and death), though perhaps a little on the nose.

He never met that other master of the weird tale, H.P. Lovecraft, as Smith spent his life in California and Lovecraft in New England and New York, but they frequently corresponded.  Here's Lovecraft, introducing himself to Smith:
What a world of opiate phantasy & horror is here unveiled, & what an unique power & perspective must lie behind it! I speak with especial sincerity & enthusiasm, because my own especial tastes centre almost wholly around the grotesque & the arabesque. I have tried to write short stories & sketches affording glimpses into the unknown abysses of terror which leer beyond the boundaries of the known, but have never succeeded in evoking even a fraction of the stark hideousness conveyed by any one of your ghoulishly potent designs.
He signs the letter "Yr most obedient Servt. / HPLovecraft."  In later letters, Smith addresses HPL as "E'ch-Pi-El" and signs his letters "Klarkash-Ton," an amusing little affectation.

"Cone Shaped Creature," Clark Ashton Smith

I began this "Decadence and Dying Earth" project as both a writer of far-future fiction that blurs the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy and as a student with an interest in Wolfe and Harrison, but I'm finding Smith's Zothique and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land the most intriguing works of this enigmatic and underappreciated style of speculative fiction.  I'm interested in how these texts foreground the nonhuman elements--the sun, the world, planetary flows across geological time--but I've also come to see the possibility of dying earth as a decadent manifestation of science fiction. Rather than being a set of cultural symptoms or a specific artistic movement, I argue, decadence is something done to art.  In the context of dying earth, it is something done to science fiction.  Everything is pushed outward to a horizon, from the settings of these stories to the syntax and diction to the forms that they take.  There are many stories and novels set in the far future of Earth, during the slow immanent apocalypse of the death-process of the sun, but not all of them have this decadent aspect.

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