Monday, August 23, 2021

The Emperor of Dreams

Immense fan though I am of both H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, when it comes to the writers of pulp fantasy, there can be no question that my favorite remains Clark Ashton Smith. Precisely why this is so is somewhat difficult to say, but, were I forced to nail it down, I would say that its a combination of Smith's incantatory language and the overwhelming sense of melancholy that pervades so much of his work. I tend toward the melancholic myself, which no doubt explains the powerful hold so many of Smith's stories exercise over my imagination. Even more powerful than that, however, is his ability to transport the reader to other worlds wholly unlike our own. Whereas both Lovecraft and Howard could be called, to varying degrees, "realists," which is to say, writers whose tales are grounded in the real world, Smith's stories are very often pure fantasies with little or no connection to mundane existence whatsoever.

Interestingly, this is a point that is also made in The Emperor of Dreams, a 2018 documentary about the life and work of the Bard of Auburn. Written and directed by Darin Coelho Spring and released through Hippocampus Press, the film is simply delightful – everything I could have hoped for in a documentary of this kind. At slightly less than two hours in length, The Emperor of Dreams is able to take its time, allowing Smith's story to unfold at its own pace rather than being rushed. There are sections devoted to every period of Smith's life, from his precocious youth to his adulthood as a pulp fantasy writer to his later life as a sculptor and doyen of the growing field of science fiction and fantasy. Watching this, one truly gets a picture of the whole of Smith's remarkable life, aided by the careful selection of still and moving photography of people and places important to him and his development as one of the great outsider artists of the 20th century.

Equally important to the success of The Emperor of Dreams are the reflections and commentaries on Smith by scholars and admirers, starting with Harlan Ellison, who credits Smith's "The City of the Singing Flame" with putting him on the path of becoming a writer. Also interviewed are Donald Sydney-Fryer, who actually met Smith; Ron Hilger, Scott Connors, and S.T. Joshi, among many others (like the psychedelic artist Skinner). Their thoughts and reminiscences about Smith are insightful and at times touching and they do much to elevate the documentary above a mere recounting of the events of Smith's life and times (however valuable that information is). The Emperor of Dreams is thus a celebration of Clark Ashton Smith and his evocations of the weird in poetry, fiction, and art more broadly.

I already knew a fair amount about Smith's life and works, but I still learned a great deal about him from this film. I knew, for example, that Smith had been a protégé of the Bohemian poet George Sterling, but I did not know that there ultimate falling out occurred as a Smith's writing "The Abominations of Yondo" which Sterling considered unworthy of his talent. Likewise, I had never heard the story of how Smith first took up sculpting or had rejected high school in favor of educating himself by reading books in the Auburn Public Library instead. The movie is filled with such details, along with stories told about him by his stepson that only add to my appreciation of the man. There's even an audio recording of Smith reciting some of his own poetry. If only there had been film footage of something similar!

If you're at all interested in Clark Ashton Smith's life, The Emperor of Dreams is well worth a watch. I somehow did not know it existed until just a few days ago, but am I ever glad that I corrected this lacuna in my education. Very good stuff!


  1. Thank you for your post James. As an Arduin aficionado I always remark, from Dave Hargrave, who worte in the Arduin Adventure set " memorium to Clarke Ashton Smith for his fantastic tales of wonder and glory, but mostly for Zothique, the true progenitor of ARDUIN. Thank you."
    I actually gamed in Auburn a number of times at Sick Rick's place out Wise Road about 6 miles northwest of the old Smith "Skyridge" property, located a mile south of Old Town Auburn. I was a little taken aback when I saw the boulder where Clark Ashton Smith's ashes were laid had been moved to make a memorial, then I read that the old Smith property was becoming a housing subdivision.
    Ha, I never knew Clark Ashton Smith was an Auburn local until only within a the past couple years. I argued a trial in 2018 at the old Auburn courthouse probably less than 200 yards north of Bicentennial Park where were placed the boulder, a marker, and some shovelfuls of earth from beneath the boulder's original site.
    Unfortunately Sick Rick's place in Auburn was sold during a divorce so I'll have to figure out another excuse to get up Interstate 80. What a small world.

  2. James, your comment about Howard and Lovecraft as realists is spot on. Smith's work often reads as timeless fairy tales or folklore, divorced from time and place. Not unlike Dunsany.

    Howard's stories are perhaps the most "real." Not that Hyboria is real but they are primarily concerned with the physical world, survival, greed, lust, and violence between men. That, and the hard-boiled, pragmatic writing style, makes them at home with his contemporaries writing pulp fiction detective stories for Black Mask.

    And once Lovecraft became Lovecraft, his trick (borrowed by Stephen King and others) was to juxtapose mundane reality with supernatural or cosmic horror, to contrast and heighten the latter. Chaosium's failure with CoC was to set it in the 1920s. Lovecraft was writing contemporary stories, not period pieces. The more real the setting, the more powerful the violation of that reality.

    Another great review, James. Is the documentary streaming anywhere for free?

    1. I believe it's only streaming through Vimeo and (in the US) Amazon Prime. Neither is free, unfortunately.

  3. Great review. I streamed it a while back on Amz and loved it. Meant to purchase a copy of the DVD and never did. Thanks for reminding me!