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By Gahan Wilson

Clark Ashton Smith’s works have always stirred me to the bones. His writings are both meticulously rendered and totally unabashed, his writings can be outrageously grotesque or exquisitely delicate or both simultaneously and without any clashing whatsoever. They are really and truly wonderful.

It took a lot of luck and considerable effort for me to track them down and delight in them, but once I finally came across the first I knew he was the real thing.

I was, frankly, an odd little kid who was always lured by the fantastic and the bizarre. I remember the thing I loved the most about the yearly visit of Barnum and Bailey’s big circus to Chicago was the freak show, and I would drag my father to its tent even though I knew he hated it.

Of course I also loved the acrobats and the band and the lion tamers, but they all had chosen to become what they now were whereas the grotesquely huge or absurdly tiny or horribly distorted or otherwise drastically different people of the freak show were born that way and had somehow managed not only to accept their condition fully and without reservation, they had the guts to stand on a platform before throngs of regular-sized, regular-looking folk and make it work for them.

I started my search for this kind of strangeness in art with the Sunday strips, mostly Dick Tracy with his ugly villains, but soon expanded the hunt by quietly plucking DC Comics from the magazine racks of the Evanshire Drugstore in Evanston, Illinois, and reading them for free with my small, bare elbows resting on the cool marble counter of the soda fountain while—on the really good days—I spooned and sucked away whole chocolate sodas as, with equal enthusiasm and greed, I read about the early doings of Superman and Batman and their multitudes of spectacular fiends and loved every crowded panel.

After that, I wandered further afield to the tiny little newsstand lurking beneath the elevated train’s Main Street Station in order to collect and soak up science fiction pulp magazines with their shamelessly gaudy covers featuring green and tentacled alien monsters which were all inexplicably but universally attracted to voluptuous Earth girls who had lots of curly hair and looks of horror on their faces.

I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy all of this, but it turned out to be merely a gentle introduction to the glorious day when I worked up the nerve to go to a large and legendary newsstand a whole bus ride further away which was said to carry all kinds of usually unavailable magazines, and my eyes widened and my mouth fell open and joy flooded my heart when I spotted and began to thumb through my very first issue of Weird Tales magazine, a publication unashamedly and even proudly devoted to being creepy, and my life was never quite the same again.

Weird Tales was, for a good part of Clark Ashton Smith’s life, his major source of income. It’s very true the relationship between Smith and the magazine was ever tricky and uneven and that its eccentric and autocratic editor, Farnsworth Wright, was guilty of highhandedly insisting on many alterations and eliminations which were hurtful to both the works and their creators (do note that the producers of this series of Smith’s manuscripts have worked scholarly wonders to correct as many of these ill-advised “corrections” as possible), but without that same editor’s initial OKs on Smith’s stories the great bulk of the tales in these marvelous Night Shade collections would never have been written. Life is complicated.

One very important, if somewhat odd, requirement about creating really good fantasy is that it must be solidly based on reality, and though Clark Ashton Smith was about as romantic as a romantic could get and very gentle with his fellow humans, he was also an astute and occasionally merciless viewer of life and his species and their many failings, and his stories are very often wise teachings as well as entertainments.

I suggest, if you are a Smith beginner, it might be a good idea to start your reading of this book with its title tale—“The Maze of the Enchanter”—as I believe it is a particularly good example of the bizarre startlements, subtly unveiled richnesses and the deeply ironic humor of a great, eccentric artist in top form who is enjoying himself enormously.

At the end of this unabashedly affectionate salute to a man to whom I owe so much, I would like to leave you with a story about Clark Ashton Smith which I deeply treasure. I don’t know where I read it, doubtless in something printed by Arkham House, one of Smith’s most true-blue supporters, possibly in the little magazine good old August Derleth put out for some years toward the end.

A group of Smith’s fans had written the author to ask if he would be kind enough to let them visit him while traveling in the West, and he not only wrote a note saying he’d be delighted to do so, he drew them a little map showing them how to make their way to his secluded cabin.

They were driving in their car, close to their goal, when they came to a fork in the narrow road which was not indicated on the map and they stopped and were puzzling what they should do next when one of them rose in his seat and pointed out the figure of a man climbing down the mountain slope to their left. They peered at him and saw that he was carrying a sign set on a small post. The sign was shaped like an arrow and it pointed at the man’s back and it had CLARK ASHTON SMITH written on it in big bold letters. Of course Smith was on his way to stick it into the ground at the intersection.

I don’t know about you, but this story warmed my heart when I first read it, and it still does now that I write it out.

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