Dear Bob; Cordially Yours, Clark Ashton Smith Essay
Rusty Burke once observed that H. P. Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard’s only truly significant correspondent—not just in the number of letters exchanged and the importance of their content, or even in their length, but in the sheer breadth of subjects that the two men covered in their seven years of acquaintance through letters—and perhaps more importantly, because so much of their correspondence has survived. The same cannot be said of Howard’s correspondence with the other great light at Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith.
Only ten of Howard’s letters to Smith remain, and none of Smith’s letters to Howard are known to have survived. Still, this presents an interesting historical puzzle for the literary-minded detective. Given what we know of Smith and Howard, both from their surviving letters, and from the letters and memoirs of their friends and correspondents, especially H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, how much of their correspondence can we reconstruct based on the letters that remain?
As background, the first mention of Clark Ashton Smith in Howard’s letters is in a missive to Tevis Clyde Smith c.
July 1930 (CL2.58) regarding Lovecraft’s mention in a letter to Howard (AMTF1.31) that Smith had praised some of Howard’s work in Weird Tales, and with Howard replying to Lovecraft (c.August 1930, CL2.61) that he in turn had long been a fan of both Lovecraft and Smith’s poems in Weird Tales, and in fact both men had praised each other’s work in the Eyrie (March 1932, April 1932, April 1933). The earliest reference to Howard in Smith’s published letters dates to c.October 1930, commenting in passing on Howard’s “Kings in the Night” in Weird Tales (SLCAS 122). So before they ever began to correspond with one another, both Howard and Smith were aware of each other’s work, and had a mutual correspondent in H. P. Lovecraft, who encouraged Howard to order Smith’s book:
By the way—I enclose a circular of Clark Ashton Smith’s new brochure of weird stories, all of which are splendid. I advise you to pick up this item—and also the book of poems at its reduced price. Both are highly unusual and meritorious. (AMTF2.619)
The first letter from Howard to Smith that survives is postmarked 15 March 1933 (CL3.42-43); however it is clear from the contents that it is not the first letter in the exchange, but a reply to Smith. Probably the correspondence began in early 1933 or late 1932 with a letter from Howard, but almost certainly after Smith’s The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (July 1932) was published, since Howard thanks Smith for a copy that Smith had sent him. In that letter, Howard commiserates with Smith on the demise of Strange Tales, the news of which arrived to Smith in early October 1932 (SLCAS 194), where both men had stories accepted but ultimately not published (“The Demon of the Flower,” “The Seed from the Sepulchre,” and “The Colossus of Ylourgne” for Smith, and “The Valley of the Lost” for Howard). Howard’s mention of “The Dark Eidolon” being accepted by Weird Tales further suggests that Smith’s letter preceding this one is from January or February 1933, since Smith only finished that tale and sent it to Farnsworth Wright late December 1932 (SLCAS 198), and typical replies seem to have taken at least a couple weeks.
Howard thanks Smith for his remarks on the Conan tales, and while few of Smith’s early opinions on these survive in his letters except that he liked “The Tower of the Elephant” (SLCAS 199), in a letter to August Derleth regarding his correspondence with Howard, Smith writes: “The Conan tales, in my opinion, are quite in a class by themselves.” (29 August 1933, SLCAS 219)—and this is probably representative of the substance of Smith’s comments to Howard. Given that Howard is enclosing a check for Ebony and Crystal (1922), we can also presume that Smith gave the price for the volume in his letter.
In a letter to Robert H. Barlow (c. 2 April 1933, CL3.47), Howard writes that he is forwarding some notes, which came from E. Hoffmann Price by way of Clark Ashton Smith—given that no mention of these notes were made in the letter of 15 March, this suggests that Smith had written Howard in reply in either late march or early April, forwarding the material. This was probably Price’s notes on theosophy, which Smith inquired about in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft (1 March 1933, SLCAS 203)
Howard’s next letter (c. July 1933, CL3.95-96) begins with an apology for not answering the previous letter due to being away from home the last few weeks; this probably refers to the same letter as contained Price’s notes. If so, then along with the notes Smith included a signed and addressed copy of his poem “Revenant,” which likely spurred Smith to talk about his proposals for published collections of poetry. The “selection from the already published volumes” is probably a reference to the never-realized One Hundred Poems (SLCAS 206), while the “book of new verse” is likely the also never-realized The Jasmine Girdle and Other Poems (SLCAS 103, 114). The stories Smith mentioned as accepted by Weird Tales depend on when he wrote the letter, but assuming it was late March or early April, likely have included “The Beast of Averoigne” (May 1933), “Genius Loci” (June 1933), and “Ubbo-Sathla” (July 1933). With regard to Howard’s note “Concerning the Necronomicon, etc.” while few of the inquiries remain, Smith later wrote to August Derleth that “HPL and I received dozens of queries, at one time or another, as to where The Book of Eibon, the Necronomicon, Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, etc., could be obtained!” and probably reflects a comment along those lines.
The letter from Howard letter postmarked 22 July 1933 concerns Howard’s signed copy of Ebony and Crystal (now in the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection at Howard Payne University), which Smith probably sent under separate cover from his April letter and which arrived after Howard had mailed his earlier letter, otherwise he would have mentioned it to Smith. None of Smith’s thoughts on Howard’s poetry survive directly, but Howard’s remark “the anthology you mentioned” may refer to Wings, a quarterly poetry anthology edited by Stanton Coblentz which had published Smith’s poem “Lichens” (cf. SLCAS 211; in 1949 Coblentz edited a collection Unseen Wings containing poems from Smith and Lovecraft).
At this point, Smith mentioned his correspondence with Howard briefly at this point in a letter to August Derleth:
Howard is a rather surprising person, and I think he is more complex, and is also possessed of more literary ability, than I had thought from many of his stories. The Conan tales, in my opinion, are quite in a class by themselves. H. seemed very appreciative of my book of poems, Ebony and Crystal, and evidently understood it as few people have done. (SLCAS 219)
It is likely that Smith was delayed in answering Howard; a letter to Barlow dated 19 September 1933 opens with “I have exhumed the unanswered letters of the past month or six weeks […] and am answering them all in one fell swoop.” (SLCAS 222) The next letter from Howard in reply is from c. October 1933, and shows that the two pulpsters had been discussing Conan again; “The Pool of the Black Ones” had featured in that month’s Weird Tales, which Smith elsewhere described as “fine romantic fantasy.” (SLCAS 229) Evidently Smith had also tipped in a drawing of a “reptile-being” and a copy of the Fantasy Fan (CL3.135-136), or possibly a circular, as he sent to August Derleth in June of the same year:
A new “Fan” magazine is being started by Charles D. Hornig of Elizabeth, N.J. It will be devoted more to weird fiction than to science fiction. I enclose one of a bunch of rainbow-colored circulars which Hornig has just sent me. (SLCAS 210)
Howard’s comment on Unusual Stories recalls a similar blurb in a September 1933 letter to Derleth:
One William Crawford, of 122 Water St., Everett, Pa., is projecting a magazine of weird and pseudo-scientific tales, under the title Unusual Stories. No payment. I sent him “The White Sybil” in response to a request for material, and he seemed immensely pleased with it. I have a lurking fear that the venture may fizzle like Swanson’s Galaxy; but hope that I am wrong. If you have some unsalable weirds that you want to give away, Crawford would doubtless be a grateful recipient. I took the liberty of suggesting that he might write you. (SLCAS 224)
Incidentally, after receiving Howard’s reply Smith passed this tidbit on to Lovecraft: “Howard writes me that he has sent Crawford some material.” (SLCAS 236) It was very common of Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard to pass on industry scuttlebutt (leads to new pulps, story acceptances and rejections, and if they were paid) back and forth, just as Smith in this letter apparently informed Howard of the publication of “The Holiness of Azederac” would be published in the forthcoming (November 1933) issue of Weird Tales. Smith’s comments to Howard regarding Astounding and Street & Smith are probably also similar to those made to August Derleth:
[…] the new S. & S. Astounding has three of my tales, none of which has been reported on. These tales are: “The Tomb Spawn” (revised), “The Demon of the Flower” (slightly abbreviated and simplified) and “The Witchcraft of Ulua” […] (SLCAS 223)
The most intriguing comment of Howard’s letter is the postscript, where he mentions Smith’s “remark about the correspondent who maintains that reptile-men once existed.” (CL3.137) This is a clear reference to William Lumley, a correspondent of Lovecraft and Smith’s, and in November 1933 Smith would write of him to Lovecraft: “The idea of a primeval serpent-race seems to be a favourite one with him, since he refers to it in his last letter as well as in one or two previous epistles.” (SLCAS 236) But why would Smith have brought up Lumley? Likely because Smith was at that point working on “The Seven Geases,” which contains a section referring to a race of Serpent-Men, but also perhaps because he made comment or reference to Howard’s own serpent-folk in “The Shadow Kingdom.”
Smith’s next letter probably came in the last half of November 1933, based both on Howard’s apology for the delay in replying (dated 14 December) and as Howard commiserates with Smith that Astounding is no longer accepting weird stories (cf. CL3.136n118). Once again, Smith has enclosed a drawing for Howard, this time of a “life alien to humanity” equated to Tsotha-Lanti of “The Scarlet Citadel”—probably the same drawing of a wizard mentioned in Howard’s letter of January 1934 (CL3.150, 194) Howard’s comment on Smith illustrating his own stories recalls a passage from a letter to August Derleth in October 1933:
Wright finally took “The Tomb-Spawn.” Also, he sprang a genuine surprise on me to do an illustration for “The Weaver in the Vault,” which appears in January. Evidently someone had been extolling my pictorial abilities around the W.T. office. I have done the illustration, taking much care with it, and hope that Pharnabosus will like the result. It will mean seven dollars extra on the story. (SLCAS 232)
It is unfortunate that we don’t have Smith’s description of William Lumley, for both he and Lovecraft have tended to write little about him and his exact beliefs, but would likely have been little more than a restatement of H. P. Lovecraft’s comments to Smith and Howard, though the reference to the “seven-headed goddess of hate” is intriguing. (cf. AMTF 287-8, 307; CL2.369; SL4.270-271, SLCAS 229) It also appears to have been the opening-point for a conversation on the dogmatism of science, where Howard and Smith found some immediate common ground.
Howard’s “I received Lovecraft’s story” is a reference to how both Howard and Smith were part of Lovecraft’s regular circulation of manuscripts, typescripts, and copies of unplaced or out-of-print stories; it is conceivable they might have passed such material to each other before 1933, though if so no record remains. The story in question is Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” as confirmed by a comment in a letter from Smith to Lovecraft dated c.4 December 1933:
I trust that Conan and most of the others on the circulation list fully appreciate the treat in store for them. The ms. goes forward to the Cimmerian monarch today. (SLCAS 239)
At this point, while not yet familiar enough to open his letters with anything but “Dear Mr. Smith,” Howard’s letters to Smith were getting longer, and he felt comfortable enough after nearly a year of correspondence to send Smith a Christmas card; if Smith reciprocated, the card has not survived, but he would certainly have made a point of mentioning it in his next letter, probably also wishing Howard a Happy New Year.
Smith’s letter of January 1934 appears to have begun with a clarification to keep the drawing of the wizard that Smith had sent Howard in November, and praise for “Rogues in the House”; in a contemporary letter from Smith to Lovecraft: “Conan, as usual, put on a very entertaining and imaginative show.” (SLCAS 245) In the publishing scuttlebutt, Smith very likely included on some comments on his illustration for “The Weaver in the Vault” in the January 1934 Weird Tales, probably something close to those he sent to Lovecraft:
The reproduction was not all bad, to judge from the copies on local news-stands. Wright seems to have been pleased with my design for “The Charnel God,” and has now ordered one for “The Death of Malygris.” (SLCAS 245)
The news of Lumley’s literary and poetic efforts, probably gleaned through Lovecraft as Smith had some trouble with Lumley’s mail (cf. SLCAS 250); this is, moreover, the only known reference to Lumley’s story “The Ones Who Hate.” Smith had mused about a possible collection Tales of Zothique in letters to Derleth and Barlow (SLCAS 219-220, 255). Sadly, we lack Smith’s part of his discussion with Howard on the sources of human motivation, though from the context it seems to have grown out of their previous letters on the inadequacies of science, or else the stubborn dogmatism of science; another possibility is that it was brought up from some comments Smith made regarding a letter from Desmond Hall (editor at Astounding):
Psychoanalysis is not my favorite superstition or form of pseudo-science. However, there is no doubt that some excellent weird or semi-weird tales could be written dealing with obscure physical and mental phenomena, without actual recourse to anything supernatural; and I infer that this is what Hall wants. […] Also, I pointed out the glaring inconsistency of science fiction readers, who will swallow any sort of outrageous fairy tale if it is served up with an accompaniment of ray-guns, ether-ships, time-machines, etc. (SLCAS 242)
This is followed by another lull in correspondence, probably brought about by Smith being ill; in a letter c. late February-early March to Lovecraft he writes:
Your last would have had an answer ere this, but I managed to catch a severe cold—the first of the season, and, I hope, the last—which has disinclined me even toward letter-writing, for the past week. (SLCAS 250)
Probably a similar statement headed a letter to Howard at the same time, hence Howard’s opening for his letter of March 1934, and likely led right in to Smith’s praise of “The Valley of the Worm,” which had appeared in the February 1934 Weird Tales; it is likely Smith would also have mentioned Howard’s “Worms of the Earth,” and which Smith considered a “real first-rater” (SLCAS 193), but if so Howard chose not to mention it. What he does mention are Smith’s drawings for Weird Tales, and it seems likely Smith made some similar comments in this letter to those he made in his letter to Lovecraft:
Wright found my drawing for “The Death of Malygris” satisfactory, and has ordered one for “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (June issue.) In my last epistle to Pharnabosus, I conveyed an intimation that I should regard it as an honour if he were to delegate to me the illustrating of “The Silver Key” sequel. If it does not fall to me, I fervently hope that Rankin will be the artist selected for the job. (SLCAS 251)
Also from the same letter, Smith’s remarks on Lumley’s “The Dweller” are probably about the same in form and content: “Lumley’s ‘The Dweller’ is a fine thing, and I was pleased to see it in print.” (SLCAS 250) The note on the rattlesnake may regard an episode that Smith recounted to August Derleth in a letter dated 22 July 1933:
I had a rather unpleasant thrill two hours ago, when I happened to look up from my writing (pencil drafting) and saw a rattlesnake coiled only a yard from my table at the foot of the big live oak under which I work at this season. The fellow had crawled under an old screen, in a position where I could not reach him with a cudgel; so I went for the shotgun in a hurry. The snake had four rattles. It seemed to be sluggish, probably from the heat, for it must have crossed an open area of ground to reach the shelter of the oak. (SLCAS 213)
Smith’s comments on “the forces that play upon the earth” (CL3.198) was probably in line with a few lines he wrote to Lovecraft around the same time:
We are not insulated from the myriad unknown forces of the cosmos that play upon us; and, after all who knows what the real effect of those forces may be? Lacking the effect of some unconsidered radiation, the whole trend of human mentation might be totally different from what it is. (SLCAS 237)
The postscript on the Not at Night anthologies suggests a comment Smith made to H. P. Lovecraft at about the same time:
I received also a new Not at Night anthology, Keep on the Light, and was struck by the immense superiority of the items taken from Weird Tales, over others which, I presume, are by British authors. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” and Whitehead’s “The Chadbourne Episode” were the leaders. (SLCAS 251, cf. CL3.108, 199n188; SLCAS 208)
Howard’s letter of 21 May 1934 begins with an apology for his delay, which suggests that Smith’s letter had arrived sometime in April. The first matter dealt with in Smith’s letter is the last matter in Howard’s previous letter, the Not at Night anthologies, with Smith evidently supplying the address for Argus House. This was followed by the usual mutual back-patting, Smith thanking Howard for his comments on “The Charnel God” and “The Death of Malygris,” and giving corresponding praise to Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight.”
Along with the letter Smith sent clippings, and a picture of “a semi-human, demoniac being, with the hairy, dome-shaped head” (CL3.208); cuttings from newspapers and magazines on articles of weird interest were common fodder for writers in the Weird Tales circle, though this is the first time we know Smith had sent any to Howard, and if he sent copies of the same clippings to Lovecraft or anyone else, there is no record of it.
The mention of Rene Thevenin, undoubtedly suggested by Howard’s comments on prehistoric civilizations in his last letter, suggests a slight telephone game: Howard had sent copies of the articles (“A Race of Supermen Who Perished 20,000 Years Ago?”) from the American Weekly to Lovecraft (AMTF1.251, 268), who in turn sent them to Smith (SLCAS 241, 248), who now unknowingly mentions them to Howard (CL3.209). It is a pity that this line was not developed further, for as Smith notes in a letter to Barlow: “I believe the late R. E. Howard and I would have had a grand time together lambasting civilization; that is, if I have not been misinformed as to his views.” (SLCAS 302)
There is a long gap between Howard’s final letters to Smith; it seems somewhat unlikely that Howard would let a full year go by without answering Smith, and the letter only mentions Smith’s work in Weird Tales going back to January 1935, so it seems more likely that we are missing at least one or two letters from Howard to Smith in the last half of 1934, and probably the same number of replies from Smith—Lovecraft noted in August 1934 that “Nobody had heard from [him]—save for hurried postcards—in long weeks.” (LRB 51) In any event, Howard was very busy with work and taking care of his dying mother, and noted that he owed Smith a letter (CL3.365), which he finally remedied with his epistle of 23 July 1935.
Perhaps because of the long delay, there is no direct mention of the content of Smith’s previous letter, and the general content would depend largely on the date—December 1934 would probably see comments on Howard’s novelette “A Witch Shall be Born” in Weird Tales, and perhaps also the serial “The People of the Black Circle” depending on how far behind Smith was with his own correspondence; both are Conan tales, and so would might explain why the bulk of Howard’s letter is concerned with the barbarian, beyond Howard’s submission of “Red Nails.” Smith himself would have been neglecting his correspondence quite a bit in 1935, due to his mother’s breakdown (SLCAS 266) and his father’s relapse (ES2.704), so 1935 would have been a poor year for letters in any case.
If there were any more direct correspondence between the two men, no record of it survives, though they are both listed on the circulation list for Lovecraft’s manuscripts for “The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Shadow Out of Time” in 1935. (ES2.719, MTS 364) In the end, it was Smith that got the final word, in a letter to the Eyrie in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales:
It seems hard to realize that Howard’s work is at an end, and that a whole world of noble myth and fantasy has perished in his dying. What he has left behind, however, may well outlast many things that have been acclaimed and widely touted as literature.
Conjectural Timeline of Correspondence
Howard to Smith (c. December 1932) – Not extant; an introduction, probably ordering The Double Shadow and Other Stories and asking for the price of Ebony and Crystal.
Smith to Howard (c. January 1933) – Not extant; containing The Double Shadow and Other Stories, Smith’s praise on the Conan yarns, the demise of Strange Tales, on the acceptance of “The Dark Eidolon” in Weird Tales, and the price for Ebony and Crystal.
Howard to Smith (15 March 1933) – CL3.42-43
Smith to Howard (c. April 1933) – Not extant; forwarding the notes from E. Hoffmann Price, addressed and signed copy of “Revenant,” on possible collections of Smith’s poetry, on requests regarding the Necronomicon, et al.
Howard to Smith (c. July 1933) – CL3.95-96
Smith to Howard (July 1933) – Not extant; Ebony and Crystal arrives, Smith’s thoughts on Howard’s verse in Weird Tales and Conan.
Howard to Smith (22 July 1933) – CL3.96-97
Smith to Howard (c. 19 September 1933) – Not extant; more thoughts on Conan, enclosing a picture of a reptile-being and the Fantasy Fan, comments on Astounding, Unusual Stories, and Weird Tales, and a reference to William Lumley.
Howard to Smith (c. October 1933) – CL3.135-137
Smith to Howard (c. 4 December 1933) – Not extant; enclosing a picture of “life alien to humanity,” Lovecraft’s manuscript for “The Thing on the Doorstep,” more notes on Astounding and William Lumley.
Howard to Smith (14 December 1933) – CL3.150-152
Howard to Smith (20 December 1933) – CL3.152
Smith to Howard (c. January 1934) – Not extant; praise for “Rogues in the House,” news on illustrations for Weird Tales and William Lumley in the Fantasy Fan, a desire to collect his Zothique stories in a book, a discussion on the sources of human motivation.
Howard to Smith (c. January 1934) – CL3.194-196
Smith to Howard (c. late February-early March 1934) – Not extant; apologies for late reply due to illness, praise for “The Valley of the Worm” and hopes to provide more illustrations for Weird Tales, on an encounter with a rattlesnake, on the unknown forces that play upon the earth, on the Not at Night anthologies.
Howard to Smith (c. March 1934) – CL3.197-199
Smith to Howard (c. April 1934) – Not extant; address for Argus House as a source of Not at Night books, an enclosed picture of “a semi-human demoniac being” and various clippings, and mention of Rene Thevenin’s prehistoric supermen.
Howard to Smith (21 May 1934) – CL3.207-210
Smith to Howard (c. June 1934) – Not extant; contents unknown.
Howard to Smith (c. August 1934) – Not extant; contents unknown.
Smith to Howard (c. September 1934) – Not extant; contents unknown.
Howard to Smith (c. October 1934) – Not extant; contents unknown.
Smith to Howard (c. December 1934) – Not extant, contents unknown.
Howard to Smith (23 July 1935) – CL3.366-367
AMTF A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
ES Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth
LRB H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Robert Bloch
MTS Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei
SL Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols.)
SLCAS Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith