I don't know about you but my appetite for genre fiction has definite seasonal idiosyncrasies. Although I ecstatically read all kinds of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror every month, paranormal fantasy and short story anthologies seem to go down best during the summer months. Novels by authors like Richelle Mead, Marjorie Liu and Jeaniene Frost, I believe, were ideally meant to be read outside half-naked and slathered in sunblock while sipping a Long Island iced tea. Epic science fiction and fantasy sagas like John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire are perfect winter reads for me. Throwing a few logs in the fireplace and curling up with a 900+ page epic science fiction or fantasy adventure that will surely cut off the circulation to your lower extremities within an hour just seems fitting. Apocalyptic fiction is best consumed after the end-of-year holiday season - in January, February or March - reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example, during the dead of winter will surely make the arrival of spring a decidedly more joyous experience. And late summer and autumn is all about horror and dark fantasy, especially in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
But when the leaves start to fall from the 80-foot sugar maples in my backyard and I start seeing jack-o-lanterns on neighboring front porches, cardboard skeletons dancing in windows and scarecrows crucified on lampposts, I get the overpowering urge to read classic horror - especially (largely underappreciated) work from the masters like Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft.
I'm sure many other genre fiction fans have this craving for classic horror during September and October as well - and there are literally dozens of relatively new collections from Poe, Blackwood and Lovecraft to choose from. But this year, before you make any decisions about what horror novel or short story collection to read during the weeks leading up to Halloween, let me suggest an author that is just as singularly brilliant as the aforementioned writers but, for whatever reason, doesn't have the following here in the 21st century: Clark Ashton Smith.
A contemporary - and friend - of H.P. Lovecraft, Klarkash-Ton (as Lovecraft called him) was born in 1893 and wrote the bulk of his work in a six-year period between 1930 and 1935. During that short period - which happened to be the peak of pulp fiction - he wrote some of the very best short-form horror ever written. Author Gene Wolfe wrote in the introduction to the upcoming collection The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith: "In its heyday, he [Smith] was one of the three musketeers of Weird Tales, the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Let us pause briefly to notice that although Lovecraft has had many imitators (he is in fact quite easy to imitate) and Howard more than a few, no one imitates Smith. There could be only one writer of Clark Ashton Smith stories, and we have had him."
A towering testament to Smith's unparalleled storytelling ability, the majority of his work is still as deeply disturbing - and bladder-looseningly otherworldly - today as they were more than 70 years ago. Highly intellectual, sublimely lyrical and meticulously crafted, to read just one Clark Ashton Smith story is to be a lifelong fan of Clark Ashton Smith. For example, in his 1931 masterwork "The City of Singing Flame," Smith describes the desolate, rocky expanse surrounding a trans-dimensional portal: "...like the slag amid refuse to Cyclopean furnaces, poured out in pre-human years to cool and harden into shapes of limitless grotesquery..." And the consequences of approaching a shrine containing a resonating flame in the middle of an alien city: "I too felt...the captious thralldom and bewitchment, the insidious, gradual perversion of thought and instinct, as if the music were working in my brain like a subtle alkaloid."
So with pumpkin pies and haunted hayrides right around the corner, I would highly suggest seeking out stories by Clark Ashton Smith. After reading just one Smith story, I'll bet you'll agree with me - Clark Ashton Smith and cold, starry autumn nights just go together...like homemade apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
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