Margaret St. Clair, of Berkeley, California, writes: “I’ve been a good quiet uncomplainng reader of WEIRD TALES for about ten years—but the prospect of another story by Edmond Hamilton moves me to hysterical outcry. He makes me want to scream and bite my nails—’captured thirty-six suns’ indeed! His style is nothing but exclamation marks; his idea of drama is something involving a fantastic number of light-speeds; he is, in the words of one of my favorite comic strip characters, flies in my soup. He is science-fiction at its worst: all WEIRD TALES needs to make the science-fiction atmosphere perfect is a letter from Forrest J. Ackerman and a story by Hamilton. Oh, and another gripe—I dislike the blurbs you are printing at the first of the stories. They are just a waste of space. I hate vampire and werewolf stories—my blood refuses to congeal for any number of undead clammily hooting about. There was a time when I could be made to shiver by the mention of garlic, but now it’s just something to put in salad. Things like Shambleau are what I like. As long as WT prints stories by Clark Ashton Smith, however, I’ll keep on reading it. His tales have a rounded jewel-like self-containedness that is, artistically, a delight. … And Smith’s drawings are, I think, by far the best in the magazine. … In conclusion, Jules de Grandin is a pain in the neck.”
—WEIRD TALES, June 1934
Eva Margaret Neeley was born in 1911; if she was reading Weird Tales for about a decade, then she had begun reading the Unique Magazine from almost the beginning, probably picking up her first issue as a teenager of 13 or 14. She would have read the fantasies of H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith—and in time she would become a prolific pulp writer and novelist herself, one of the last lights of Weird Tales during its waning years in the 1950s under editor Dorothy McIlwraith. Yet Smith is the only one she would come into correspondence with…and therein lies a problem.
Few enough writers get the treatment of even a single book of selected letters, or of a full book-length biography. Lovecraft’s double handful of biographies, from the slight Lovecraft: A Short Biography to the comprehensive I Am Providence, and the dozens of volumes of his letters are a testament to his ongoing popularity and the dedication of fans and scholars. Robert E. Howard has likewise received multiple biographies, and many of his letters were preserved and all of those that survived published in the three volumes of the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Other Weird Talers were not so lucky: there is no Collected Letters for Seabury Quinn or Robert Bloch, no book-length biographies of C. L. Moore or Margaret St. Clair.
Compared to Lovecraft and Howard, Clark Ashton Smith runs a bit of a distant third in terms of scholarship. While bibliographies of his work had been published, and efforts have been made to preserve his fiction, poetry, and translations in print, and even a documentary titled Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, there is as yet no full biography of the longest-lived of the “Three Muskateers” of Weird Tales, and the volumes of his letters that have been published are relatively few, covering his correspondence with his mentor, the poet George Sterling; the poet and bookman Samuel Loveman who introduced him to Lovecraft; fellow Weird Talers H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth; a slim pamphlet dedicated to his letters with Weird Tales artist Virgil Finlay; and a volume of Selected Letters from Arkham House.
While those six volumes represent a considerable work of scholarship, it does mean there are gaps in Clark Ashton Smith’s life and letters that are difficult if not impossible to fill in compared to Lovecraft or Howard. One of those gaps is his correspondence with Margaret St. Clair. We know they did correspond because four of Smith’s letters addressed to Margaret St. Clair and her husband were published in the Selected Letters; but seeing as this covers a period of 7 years from 1933 to 1940, and that both Smith and Margaret St. Clair lived far past the final letter we have, suggests at least the possibility of longer and richer correspondence which has either been lost or simply not published yet. None of Margaret St. Clair’s letters to Clark Ashton Smith have been published.
The first letter is dated 23 May 1933, and opens:
My dear Margaret and Ray:
Your letter was indeed interesting, and I had meant to write before this, but have been swamped by housecleaning and various other duties.
I have never read Thorndyke’s book on magic, but am listing it as a future purchase if I should ever have any more money to spend for books. In reality, I have read very little daling with the occult science, and, in writing about such things, have merely turned my imagination loose. One of my most prized possessions is Montague Summers’ erudite and curious monograph on The Vampire, which contains much that is récherché. [sic] Summers actually seems to believe in the existence of vampires.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 207
Margaret Neeley had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1932, and on May 25th of that year she married Raymond Earl St. Clair—who would publish children’s stories under the name Eric St. Clair. The Great Depression was in full swing, but 1932-1933 was a period of great productivity for Smith; he would have stories in eighteen out of twenty-four issues of Weird Tales in those two years, in addition to stories in other pulps and The Fantasy Fan. From Smith’s letter, we can tell that Margaret and her husband were interested in his fantasy and science fiction, and eager for a collection of his work. Smith commented on his upcoming stories, and noted with a touch of bitterness:
Wonder Stories has nothing more of mine at present, and they have been so dilatory in payment that I hesitate to submit anything more. Since I have given Gernsback some of my finest work, I really think he could make an effort to pay at least a small part of his indebtedness.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208
1933 was also marked by Smith’s self-publication of a pamphlet titled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, which was advertised in Weird Tales and The Fantasy Fan, and based on comments in the letter they had purchased or received a copy from Smith and praised it. Smith also mentioned the appearance of his work in the British Not At Night anthologies edited by Christine Campbell Thomson. The end of the St. Clairs’ letter must have shifted to personal news, because Smith wrote:
I think you are wise to purchase your own house, particularly at a time when monetary values and realty are down to rock-bottom. I know the Cragmont district well, and congratulate you on your selection. My best thanks for the invitation which, sooner or later, I hope to accept.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208
The Cragmont is a district in Berkeley, where Margaret St. Clair was doing her graduate studies. She would obtain her master’s degree in Greek Classics in 1934.
The next letter from Clark Ashton Smith to Ray and Margaret St. Clair would be dated 20 January 1937, in response to a present received around New Years. At this point, Smith was selling original sculptures and castings of the same that he carved by hand from the local rock around his cabin in Auburn, California, and the St. Clairs had bought some:
I am glad the several casts and carving arrived intact, and trust that you achieved satisfactory results from the New Year’s Eve ceremony of interrogation. Perhaps I should have told you that if one drink doesn’t draw a reply, the ibation should be repeated. Perseverance is invariably rewarded by such words of golden wisdom as may well serve to illustrate the old adage, in vino veritas. But no doubt you discovered this.
Re your questy as to the order in which the four carvings were done: do the best of my recollection, The Dog of Commoriom was the oldest, the Sorcerer next, and The Mermaid’s Butler third, with Tsathoggua the most recent. Tsathoggua was done in a curious fibroid form of serpentine; and the casts, as a consequence, tend to look like wood-carvings if tinted with colors appropriate to wood. You will note the fibrous structure if you look closely.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 280-281
Smith carved several hundred figures. An advertisement in The Science Fiction Critic fanzine for March 1937 lists casts for sale with prices, among them “Tsathoggua—relief…40¢,” “The Dog of Commoriom—relief…30¢,” and “The Sorcerer Eibon—head…60¢.” Photos of some of these exist:
The Dog of Commoriom
A decade later, Smith would publish “Checklist: The Carvings of Clark Ashton Smith” in The Arkham Sampler (Winter, 1948), where he describes “The Mermaid’s Butler” as “Head in porphyry. Semi-human, with gills and fish-like side-whiskers.”
Much of the rest of the letter is given over to responses to specific points in the St. Clair’s letter; some are impossible to understand without context (“Your Nazir Indian must have been rather good”), but it is clear elsewhere that they had asked to visit Smith at Auburn, and recommended he try to place some of his art in San Francisco art stores. The tone is more personal and casual than in the previous letter, as might be expected from a longer acquaintance.
The third letter is to Margaret St. Clair alone, and dated 22 February 1940:
I wonder if I can be forgiven the long interim—at last I fear that it is long according to temporal notation—since I last wrote you? But I believe you would forgive if you could know all the circumstances. First, there was my father’s death (I am quite alone now), and since that, a strange and fantastic history of happenings, some of which, I am convinced, have taken place in the realms of fable and socery. So many letters I had meant to write, and should have written, have gone to the bourn of other “good intentions.”
I hope all is well with you and Ray, and that the bulb-gardens (of which you wrote and sent me a fascinating catalogue are flourishing. I can’t think of a better avocation or occupation than gardening.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 328
Timeus Smith had died on 26 December 1937; that would mean Smith’s later letter to the St. Clairs would have been at least a bit more than two years ago. The bulb-garden that Smith mentions is the St. Clair Rare Bulb Garden, and he would no doubt be referring to the 1937 catalog or 1938 catalog. Smith was himself an avid gardener, which he would take up as an occupation in later life. The St. Clairs would operate the Rare Bulb Garden until 1941; possibly the onset of WW2 made it difficult to source plants from overseas.
A major point of the letter involved the change in editorship at Weird Tales; Farnsworth Wright had been fired and was replaced with Dorothy McIlwraith. There was some hard feelings among the older guard of writers about Wright’s treatment, and Wright himself apparently floated the idea of forming a competing weird magazine—but this would not come to pass, and Wright himself would pass away on 12 June 1940. On a lighter note, Smith also noted that the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy had been established not far away from his cabin. In a postscript to the letter, Smith wrote jocularly:
Can’t we start some sort of coven in opposition to that nunnery?
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 329
Smith had a penchant for joking references to sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy in his letters to Lovecraft et al., and perhaps the jokes in his letters to the St. Clairs is no more than that sort of harmless fun. Yet the St. Clairs apparently did have at least some more-than-typical interest in subjects of magic and witchcraft. Some decades later, according to “Letters from Hardscrabble Creek: Chasing Margaret,” the St. Clairs were initiated into Wicca. While they aren’t known to have started a coven, Smith might have been accidentally prescient in suggesting they might.
How the couple felt about hearing from their friend after such a long silence can only be imagined.
The fourth and final letter was dated 21 April 1940, and begins:
Dear Margaret and Ray:
I had meant to write before this but have been dreadfully busy with the attempted perpetration of hackwork fiction. A very small income, which I have had for many years, dried up at the source some months ago, and I am now absolutely dependent on writing if I am to eat, let alone drink. None of the present fantasy markets (Unknown is the best, I guess) appeal greatly to me; so I am having to compromise more and more with my own tastes and learn new tricks. My latest yarn is a filthy mixture of sex and pseudo science, aimed at one of the “spicy” markets, which won’t appear under my own name but under that of a friend, a very successful pulp writer, who had more commissions on hand han he could get through with.
It was good to hear from you. I have never forgotten you at any time during my cyclic silence. But, for a long time, I wrote no letters at all, except business ones and billets doux.
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 330
Smith had struggled throughout his life with poverty; his poetic genius had never managed to translate itself into any sort of ongoing employment or financial success, and periodic handouts from patrons of the arts kept him a bit above living hand-to-mouth, but to survive he was forced into seasonal labor, piecework, and pulp magazines—each of which carried their own issues. The “spicy” story was probably either “Dawn of Discord” (Spicy Mystery Stories Oct 1940) or “The Old Gods Eat” (Spicy Mystery Stories Feb 1941), which bore the byline of his friend E. Hoffmann Price, who sold successfully to the spicy magazines. Despite Smith’s disparagement of his writing, the spicies were not pornographic: all sizzle and no steak.
The severity of Smith’s financial woes is apparent when he admits that he is looking to sell his plot of land, and even offers to sell some of his books as he considers the possible necessity of moving. The letter would end:
As to those nuns, I guess I really wouldn’t need a dachshund to protect me. And I don’t know what seducing a nun would be like, never having had any experience. Balzac says, somewhere, something to the effect that the pleasure is never so great as when the soul is believed to be in danger of damnation. I fear that my notions of damnation are hardly the orthodox ones. The pleasure would be one-sided in that regard. However…even that…
—Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 331
The reference to dachshunds may seem a non sequitur, but among her other interests Margaret St. Clair is known to have bred dachshund puppies for sale, so she probably did offer one (seriously or not).
That is the rather unsatisfactory end; it would be five years before Margaret St. Clair would publish her first pulp magazine story in what would become a prolific career (as she said once: “You just have to keep turning out the paragraphs.”), and there are no mentions of her in the later letters of Smith that have been published. Whether they had a falling-out, or if Smith lapsed once more into a “cyclical silence” from which he never emerged, we don’t know. The finding aid for Margaret St. Clair’s papers at the University of California-Riverside is not especially promising, but perhaps might hold some clue for future researchers into this little mystery.
What we do know is that for those years at least, Clark Ashton Smith and Margaret St. Clair shared a connection, however brief, that matured over the years and letters. We might never know how much or how little Smith influenced St. Clair’s own pulp career and writing—but certainly she doesn’t seem to have ever tried to pastiche Smith in the way some have tried to do with Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. Margaret St. Clair found her own voice, one that fitted the pulp era she found herself in—often lighter and more comedic than Smith’s own sardonic humor. One has to wonder what the author of “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales May 1932) would have thought of “Flowering Evil” (Planet Stories Summer 1950)…but we may never know.
For more details on the life of Margaret St. Clair, see “Wight in Space: An Autobiographical Sketch” in Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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