Klarkash-Ton as Remembered by E. Hoffmann Price

[from "Clark Ashton Smith: A Memoir," by E. Hoffmann Price, included in Clark Ashton Smith's Tales of Science and Sorcery, Panther, 1976.]

The rutted wagon-track became worse as I tooled my way around a bend and shifted to low to pick the best way among the rocks jutting up from the roadbed. Trees on either side formed a tunnel, which appeared to come to a dead-end. I wondered whether, misunderstanding the Indian's words and gestures, I had overlooked a fork that I should have taken. Little chance for any U-turn, even with a Model 'A'.

A not unpleasant stretch of woodland, although too silent. Shadiness had its merits, on an afternoon in May, but there was something overdone about all this. Everything was asleep in this odd spot. If Smith didn't live here, he should. It was a bit too much like a scene by Lovecraft.

Then I saw the marker, done in black paint, a long time ago, with uncertain brush and unsteady hand: Timeus Smith.

Emerging from a dusky tunnel, I entered a clearing of hard earth, and of grass sun-blasted to California hillside-brown. A cabin, weathered gray, squatted in the middle of the nearest of Timeus Smith's thirty-nine acres. No well-house—no spring—no stream—no cistern—no one lived here, nor had, for a long time. But the Indian at least had pointed the way to the lands of a man named Smith.

Upon my arrival on the Pacific Coast, in mid-April of 1934, Clark Ashton Smith had written to assure me that I'd find him at home any time I could make the 165 mile drive from Oakland to Auburn. There were two Auburns, the new, and the old town. The latter was the original gold rush settlement, a mile or so beyond which, and just a piece past the railway tracks, was the road to Smith's home.

The sound of the Ford and the slam of its door called Smith from the cabin and down the slope. Tall, thin, fragile, he at once did, and did not resemble the person portrayed by the snapshot he had mailed before I set out from New Orleans. I heard and saw, as it were, two Smiths at once.

There was an old, old Smith, weary and not too steady, and a little stooped; grave and ancient of expression; high-keyed, sensitive, with a slight twitch near the corners of the mouth. Also, in front of this—or behind, and looking through, I couldn't tell which!—was a smiling, boyish Smith, with a twinkle in the eye, a glint as though he spent much of his time relishing the total silliness and absurdity of things, seeing through surface and substance and laughing at most of what he saw. There was all this during a moment which left me at an emotional standstill, simply because I could not move in two or three directions at once.

Then the Smith Presence, the Smith letters, the Smith Duality, all fused into a firm hand grip, a cordial welcome. I was entirely at home, and glad that I had found the way.

Clark lived with his parents. Each was past eighty, and at first sight, seemed old beyond numbering. The irises of Mr. Smith's eyes had faded to colorlessness, exaggerating the appearance of age. By no means unfriendly, he was nonetheless reserved, mid-way between noncommittal and remote.

Mrs. Smith, white-haired, slight, sharp-faced, moved quickly, spoke with animation and sparkle, restoring the balance at once. And, she lost no time giving me a tour of the cabin.

To my right was a comfortable, welcoming kitchen of the sort I remembered from old times, with its wood stove, its dining table, and work table. To the left, I glanced into the duskiness of Clark's study, which seemed spacious, although it was no more than one of the four quarters of the house, the remaining two being the bedrooms.

Stepping into her son's workshop, Mrs. Smith pointed out the figures sculptured in talc. "Clark gets the material from my brother's mine. When the carving is completed..." She picked a miniature monster, one of Cthulhu's kinfolk, from atop the bookcase that lined the entire wall. "He fires it in the kitchen stove."

Many were android: subhuman, quasi-human, superhuman —comfortably gross —acutely devilish —stupidly comfortable —sinister —malicious —full figures —busts —mere heads. Turning toClark, I caught his relishing of my amazement.

"Where's Pickman's model? I never heard talk of your sculptures."

"The models? I keep them in an abandoned mine shaft."

Then Mrs. Smith resumed charge: "I must show you some of Clark's drawings..."

Pencil—crayon—water color —many, pen-drawn, with inks of diverse colors, these being done in laboriously minute detail. Some were two-dimensional equivalents of his sculpture. Others were ornate and highly stylized representations of plant life which appeared to be merging with the animal kingdom.

"Last Mermaid?" I remarked, and, "Could be, The Saturnienne?"

He liked my reference to the two compositions Weird Tales had published, which had led to my first writing him.

"Sometimes a story suggests the sculpture or drawing. Again, it's the other way about."

The tour being completed, Mrs. Smith shifted to the immediately practical. "Clark, before you settle down to visiting, I wish you'd get a pail of water and bring some things from the cooler."

Following him up the slope, some twenty paces from the cabin, I saw what I had first missed: a low parapet of earth, with a plank roof.

"A mine shaft," he explained. "Come on down."

A ladder slanted down to a ledge on the further face. From this scanty footing, a second ladder reached to the bottom.

"We filled the shaft up to the forty foot level, at the spring."

The trickle of water from the rock collected in a pool from which he dipped a pailful. Nearby, in the chilly dusk, were eggs and butter, vegetables, and milk.

"These hills are dotted with shafts and tunnels," Clark continued. "Most of them are open and unguarded."

We filed up the ladders, delivered the supplies, and then made for the wooded rim of Timeus Smith's acres. There, near a wind-felled oak that persisted in full foliage, were cots, a table, and camp chairs.

"I do all my work out here till winter drives me indoors. Sleep here, too. Unless you'd prefer my room, and a roof over your head?"

"This is too good to pass up ! If I ever collect from Weird Tales, I'd like to get out of Oakland, and find a spot in the hills!"

Well past mid-afternoon, when we needed relief from my yarns of visiting Lovecraft in Providence, Robert Howard in Cross Plains, Texas, and many another of the Weird Tales group, Clark proposed a stroll to Auburn, for a word with Jackson Gregory, the novelist.

I learned quickly that this frail, fragile-seeming recluse could set a long-legged pace across the hills and maintain it effortlessly. He had plenty of breath for telling about the pursuits necessary to supplement income from fiction sales, and the sale of sculptures.

He dug wells. He worked in the orchards that dotted the slopes below Auburn. He sawed and split wood. Turning his hand to whatever he could find to do, he was able to write what he pleased, as he pleased, and be damned to such editors as were not pleased! Clark neither envied the hard-driving, production-line fictioneer, nor did he belittle the benefit of constant and substantial income. Being sufficiently content, self complete, he had no feeling at all of "sacrificing" anything to retain "artistic integrity".

That Jackson Gregory was a large scale operator was apparent from the moment he welcomed us to his enormous studio overlooking the American River. Clark and I spent a pleasant haIf hour in an establishment such as I hoped one day to possess, and such as neither he nor I ever did attain. Looking back, I think that Clark had not the least craving for any such splendor. Over the years I never once heard him express, even in whimsy, a wish for anything beyond what he actually had.

That evening, sitting about the kitchen table, our appetites were honed by the smell of biscuits baking in the wood-fired oven, the savor of chops in the griddle, and gravy reaching a fine brown. And Timeus Smith, warming up from his reserve, told me of his travels, matching my reference to the Philippines with his going ashore in Macao; mention of Madeira wine evoked a few words about Funchal; and things Portuguese finally led to the time he met Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil . . .

Dry, colorless, laconic—understanding and underplaying his memoirs made the old man impressive.

There was no writer shop-talk during this meal. Such trivia were reserved for after supper, as Clark and I sat by lantern light near the fallen oak. And it was very good, finally, to sleep under the stars, and in the mountain coolness.

Having scouted out the land, I brought my wife the next time, some months later, and thus, second hand, I learned more of Clark's background, bits she gleaned during dish washing sessions with Mrs. Smith.

Sensitive as a race horse or a duelling pistol, young Clark could not endure the confusion and clash of schools. After seeing and sharing his four or five years of torment, the Smiths took their son out of grammar school and settled down to giving him a home-made education. In addition to his overwhelming mastery of English, he won sufficient command of French to translate Baudelaire, and enough of Spanish to compose verse in that language.

That autumn, Mrs. Smith, visiting relatives in Oakland, was our dinner guest. In anticipation of seeing us, that amazing old lady had scrambled far and wide over the hills to pick Mariposa lilies for my wife, who during her visit in Auburn had said she'd never heard of such a flower. The picking of wild flowers had long been prohibited by law in California, but statutes in this respect no more inhibited Mrs. Smith than had laws concerning compulsory education for children. In her odd moments, she had engineered the printing, at family expense, of a collection of Clark's poems, and had reached at least the break-even point in promoting the sale of the book.

To this day, I do not know whether Clark supported his parents, or whether they had income from investments sufficient to keep them. I know only that there was an intense solidarity and solicitude, each for the others of the trio.

Mrs. Smith died, as nearly as I can recall, in 1935 or 1936. In 1937, I piloted Henry Kuttner and his mother to Auburn. We brought bottled gifts. And while Clark was giving the newcomers the tour which his mother had in times past conducted, I sat in the kitchen with Timeus Smith. His taste for Spanish sherry warmed my heart.

"Mr. Smith, your glass is empy."

I can still see his hand, gnarled, wrinkled, shakily advance the tumbler, and the appreciative gleam light his faded old eyes.

"I used to take an ounce of Holland gin per diem," he remarked. "For my kidneys."

"Mmm . . . you mean, those bottles, the green, coffin-shaped ones in Clark's workshop?"

He nodded. "Empties. A. V. K. gin. I had to quit."

"Doctor's orders?"

My solicitude amused him. "Not at all. Simply no more A. V. K., nor any other Holland gin in the entire county."

"Nasty business, Mr. Smith. By the way, your glass is empty." Then, dividing the scanty remainder of sherry, "Next time I come up, I'll bring a square-face of gin."

We spoke again of prospecting—historical, not current. He got a box of specimens to exemplify his remarks. One chunk of ore, the size and shape of a small, oval cake of soap, its shape and texture suggesting its origin, the bed of a stream, was flecked with wheat-colored gold.

"My compliments," Mr. Smith said. "Keep this as a souvenir."

This was in September.

Whenever I savored the recollection of that visit, my promise came to mind, and a nagging, sibilant voice said, "Send the old man a bottle of Bols gin, it's just as good as the unprocurable A. V. K."

My answer: "I said I'd bring it, next time I come up."

Business had taken one of those periodical dips, and a Pierce Arrow as long as a Chinese dream would require thirty-five gallons of fuel for the drive. But for sentiment I would have processed the ore sample.

The wordless dialogue was repeated in October.

I dismissed the nagging several times in November.

The thing became something twitchy as December began.

"Ship a bottle—by express—it's quite legal, within the state." I countered, with iron firmness: "I promised I'd bring it, next trip."

Timeus Smith died the day after Christmas.

It was mid-1939 before I drove to Auburn

Clark and I didn't go into the house at once, as we had formerly done. I dug bottles out of the trunk, followed him to the fallen oak, and set the trio on the table.

"I waited too long. I'll have no delay, now that it's too late."

He went to get glasses. I set to work with my key-ring cork screw. Bols, distilling gin since 1575 A.D., had not got around to screw tops, or twist-stoppers.

The stuff was oily as glycerine. The reek of juniper billowed up as I poured three finger dollops into each tumbler.

We rose. "I dedicate this glass to Timeus Smith."

Bottoms up. Smooth, but nasty.

"Just as well your dad didn't live to taste this muck."

Clark grimaced acquiescence. "Rather vile, but I do relish your sentiment."

I grabbed the fifth of brandy. "This'll cut the taste. Or would you prefer Demerara rum?"

A splash of brandy did obliterate the juniper oil . . . we opened the rum, and drank again to the memory of Timeus Smith . . . Curious, but we did not dedicate a glass to Clark's mother. I've always wondered why.

Before sentiment and liquor took charge overwhelmingly, Clark said, "You've never met my Uncle Ed. Would you like to drive out to his place at Kilaga Springs—it's rather interesting."

"That's where you get the talc for your sculptures?"

"That's the spot."

"How about taking him a drink?"

"He'll have something on hand."

We set out, passing the old Golconda and other mines that dotted the hills. The only hazard was a rustic bridge held together by prayer and fasting.

Ed Gaylord—Uncle Ed—was solid, ruddy, white-haired and beaming, happy to see Nephew Clark. He was equally happy because there were no customers to interfere with a good visit. He owned the abandoned copper mine, as well as the Kilaga mineral spring whose curative waters fed a dozen or more tubs in the bath house, as well as the mud pools in one wing of the building.

The mine dump was a vast heap of fragments ranging in color from yellow to maroon. I call the substance 'talc' out of ignorance, and because of the softness that permitted jack knife carving. One look down the ruined shaft made it plain that I'd have no tour. The mine was flooded.

Presently we headed for Mr. Gaylord's cozy home among the tall trees.

"And I bottle Kilaga Springs water," he said, setting out an eight-ounce sample. "The Indians had for centuries come to these springs to cure all manner of ailments." He was eloquent, expansive, glowing. "Good for cuts and burns—dandruff—scalp ailments in general—even scalped Indians found it most helpful."

Clark broke in. "Uncle Ed, do you happen to have a drink in the house?"

Uncle Ed lost no time pouring Bourbon. With his free hand, he unstoppered a bottle of Kilaga.

Bottoms up.

"As a chaser..." He filled my glass with Kilaga. "It's different."

It was. I gagged. Choked. Sputtered. The stuff was astringent, bitter, so paralyzing that I swallowed none.

"Won't hurt you! Kilaga is good for indigestion. Here, take this big bottle. Take it home—good for poison oak—dandruff—eczema."

The old devil so thoroughly enjoyed my spitting and grimacing that I began to enjoy the joke myself. It was a happy meeting, and I was glad we'd made the side trip.

As we risked the bridge a second time, Clark said, "Could you guess how old my uncle is?"

"Must be sixty at least."

"He's eighty."

In the morning, as we turned out of our cots, I said to Clark, "A nip of rum would cut the mountain chill."

Clark agreed.

Then sentiment and remorse took charge. "Wait! This meeting is principally out of respect to your late father. It'll be Holland gin."

Clark did not flinch. I poured the oily stuff. We eyed each other. "Not much worse than Kilaga water," he said, grimly, and we tossed off the morning dram.

We regarded each other amazedly.

"Be God damned ! Not as loathsome as I expected."

Clark said, "Not as vile as last night."

"Just takes getting used to."

Clark reached out with his glass. "Out of respect to my late father..."

After breakfast, we finished the jug.

Liquor had no perceptible effect on Clark, beyond its evoking a glow of enjoyment. The only time he was ever a guest in my house, I opened a bottle of 151-proof Demerara rum. The others cut it with water, or laced their coffee with it, or cautiously ventured a nip from a liqueur glass of the smooth, powerful stuff. Clark let me pour him a three-finger dollop into a tumbler. He savored it, drank it as he would a glass of Spanish sherry. He took a second, and a third. Nothing happened. Nothing, except that the deep-lined melancholy of his old, old face brightened slightly, and a new twinkle came into his eyes.

In 1940, I led the last safari to Smith's place: Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, and Diego del Monte, who wrote for the adventure pulps under the name of Felix Flammonde, were the convoyes; none of them had ever met Smith. He still lived alone in the cabin he had once shared with his parents. He was there, unchanged and unswerving. He had been digging wells. One of the guests was a Turkish well digger. We drank rum, diluted with water from the mine shaft. And this was my final visit to the enchanted area which I could have seen, but did not see as often as many times since that last visit I wished I had. First it was war-time restrictions on gasoline, and later, it was the disintegration of my fiction business that kept me from traveling. We exchanged letters of casual gossip, and he would mail me a copy of each of his various Arkham House publications. He was keenly interested in the horoscope I cast for him, but I am sure that astrological analysis and forecast in no way influenced his decisions.

Unchanging, unchangeable Smith...

Until, late 1954, came the news clipping with a few words penned on the margin: Clark Ashton Smith and Mrs. Carol Dorman had been married in Monterey, and were living in adjacent Pacific Grove. Early in 1955, I went to see him and his bride.

Clark was then 62, and seemed older. His bearing had tapered off, and his enunciation was not as sharp as it had once been. He was stooped, and frail, and shaky. In contrast to vibrant and vital Carol, he seemed all the more indrawn and feeble. Those first few moments in the comfortably cluttered library-living room left me distressed and sad, and groping. Then came a flash of something from behind the surface. The Smith-Shadow became Clark Ashton Smith himself, and I was back again with him in 1934, with only this difference—there was more of him.

This new Smith was happy in a way he had never been in the old days. The oldest honeymooners I'd ever met, these were in their mature expression, also the most radiant—the youngest. The glances they exchanged during pauses in our scramble to blend old memories with the present showed how he and she had found something new and splendid and contenting.

All this they had, and despite a potentially disastrous background: the former Mrs. Dorman's three teen-agers by an earlier marriage bristled with hostility. Unspoken antagonism lanced and prodded until I felt that Clark must have attained his equanimity only through long study with a master of Zen. He was too fully occupied in savoring Carol's presence to have any attention for animosity. Although the youngsters had to resent the old fellow Mommie had married, they could not knife him into defense or retaliation.

Clark and Carol posed on the front steps for their pictures. He was jaunty, with beret and cocked head and gleam-in-the-eye, and she no longer seemed so much younger than he.

When he autographed The Dark Chateau, "For Edgar, in memory of many happy meetings, from Clark, Feb. 13, 1955," it was in sprawling script which dashed recklessly across the page as did lines he had penned on a fly leaf in 1942.

Clark and Carol had been married when he was 61. This, his first marriage, so late in life, evokes the question, "What of her predecessors, the romances never culminating in matrimony?" One answer lies in the tales of Averoigne, and in some of his verses.

Compare these with the entire body of compositions of some of Clark's contemporaries who, whatever experience they may have gleaned from life, had in effect, if not absolutely, bypassed women.

Then, there were unavoidable references, although Clark and I had never had any curiosity concerning each other's personal life. There were quotings and no doubt misquotings of those who knew, might know, or might be imagining. Yet these vague, infrequent bits cohered and were compatible with circumstances which, taken singly, had no force. But the summation of all these bits is that as to women Clark's life had not been lonely, and that there had been at least one long-term relationship of great importance.

And there was another, a fellow writer, a woman I met through Clark's letter of introduction. I know only that they had known each other in Auburn. Whenever we met, there was that toned-down, casual-eager wondering as to news of Clark, and a like mode of response when I told her. Once there must have been more between them than when she and I met. What else could have cut communication between friends? I never asked her. She died some while before he did.

Many an old friendship has been scuttled when one of the comrades marries. Here, I had no qualms. My second visit, mid-1955, confirmed my feeling that Carol was expanding Clark's life, not restricting it. However vivacious and intense and high-keyed, she did not overwhelm him. She drew him out, built him up, so that he was more expressive than of old. And as I left, I repeated to myself what I had said to Clark and Carol: "This is very good, we are neighbors again, and we will hoist many a jug, enjoying old times made new again, and better."

A few months later, I got a card written by Carol. Vandals had burned Clark's cabin. "We need you. Phone's cut off. We're going to Lima, Peru. . ." A confusing message, all the more so in its entirety. I wrote asking for clarification, saying that while the coming week-end was engaged beyond any chance, I'd see them wherever they were, before they made for Lima.

There was no answer. The letter was never returned unclaimed. I wondered how my failure to drive at once to Pacific Grove could have offended Clark—wondered whether Carol had taken offense and had turned him against me.

Each of the several times when I had planned to see the Smiths, during a visiting tour of the Monterey peninsula, the attempts were frustrated by last minute upsets. My own life had become ever more complicated and crowded, and thus I was not as persistent in my efforts as I could have been. Then came the rehabilitation of my house, gone to ruin after 13 bachelor years, and soon thereafter my third marriage.

In August, 1961, I learned from Glenn Lord, in Texas, that Clark had died, age 68. I spent the ensuing two months trying to convince myself that I had not neglected Clark, or our friendship. I reminded myself that over the years I had always gone to see him. Only once had he been my guest. I won each debate, but remained disturbed.

My wife—Loriena—and I set out for Pacific Grove. Carol's welcome made me feel better. I got at once to the cryptic message.

She said, "He never felt that you had let him down. When he got your letter, he just smiled and said, 'Break down of communication.' Often and often he spoke of you, warmly as ever."

Her earnestness convinced me, but did not console me.

There was much about the 39 acres of hillside, desired by a real estate speculator, for a subdivision. She was convinced that burning the cabin had been the final of a series of vandalisms to goad him into selling the land.

Carol told of their holidays in the Big Sur country, some fifty miles south, and of the literati, including the late Robinson Jeffers, who found seclusion in the coastal woodlands. She told of how, during one of her critical illnesses, Clark had taken her to Gilroy Hot Springs, a Japanese resort where he and the solicitous Asiatics pampered her back to health. Although she did not make it clear whether Clark had "become" a Buddhist, he had gone far in that direction.

We went into the little patio to sit in the afternoon sun.

"Clark planted these." Carol gestured. "He made this dead, dry little square come to life. When he wasn't earning a few dollars, tending to other people's gardens."

Despite a succession of minor strokes, which depleted his body but did not impair his mind, he earned a living until the end.

Carol, with Loriena following, went into the house to get glasses and a jug of Burgundy. She paused to say, "Mind getting one of the little tables out of the basement?"

What with woman to woman talk, they were taking their time about things. I sat there, inert. The plants and flowers were simply plants and flowers. Clark's garden did nothing at all to or for me. I was neither happy, nor sad. This was emotional anaesthesia, something quite comfortable.

Finally I stepped into the basement's clutter and waited for my eyes to accommodate to the dimness. I saw the aluminum patio-tables after a moment of blinking.

Someone welcomed me into the cool duskiness. There was neither sight nor sound nor touch, nor was any other sense in any way affected, yet I was suddenly aware of a presence. Clark-in-Essence, Clark-in-Friendliness, abstraction more real than reality. Psychologists and others have proved, by logic and otherwise, that one can respond only to stimulus of the senses. I know otherwise.

1934-1955: first meeting, final meeting.

I stood there, happy and renewed. All was well between me and Clark. All had always been well between us. During that unmeasured shred of time, communication had been complete—that is, without detail.

I carried the table to the patio and sat there, feet out-thrust, hands comfortably folded. Already the reality in the basement had become a memory that summed up happy meetings, long ago.

Presently, the women came out with jug and glasses.

"Carol—as I went to get the table . . . "

She nodded. "Clark is still around the house—he told you . . ."

Later, I sat in his second floor room and looked at the sea, and read one of his magazine publications until I fell asleep, waiting for dinner call. . .

Copyright © E. Hoffmann Price 1976