Clark Ashton Smith: Emperor of Dreams (2018) poster

Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams (2018)


USA. 2018.


Director/Photography/Additional Music – Darin Coehlo Spring, Music – Jacob Mingle & Peter Scartabello, Other Music – Carleton Melton & Bob Moss. Production Company – Hippocampus Press.


Adam Bolivar, Scott Connors, William Dorman, Harlan Ellison, Cody Goodfellow, Ron Hilger, S.T. Joshi, Kyle Opperman, James Patterson, W.H. Pugmire, Charles Schneider, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Skinner, Richard Stanley


Nick Savino (Clark Ashton Smith)

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is, if this documentary is to be believed, one of the great unrecognised writers of Weird Fiction. Between the 1920s and 1950s, Smith produced numerous short stories primarily dealing in the fantasy, horror and science-fiction field, publishing in magazines like Weird Tales, along with a substantial body of poetry. The interviewees speak of the rich imaginativeness of his prose. Smith was also a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and the two maintained a lengthy correspondence for a number of years,

This is a Documentary about Clark Ashton Smith’s life. The documentary is produced by Hippocampus Press, an independent publisher that specialises in reprinting works of Weird Fiction, including those of Smith and many of his contemporaries such as H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, along with other books and studies that are grouped under the term Weird Fiction.

The documentary is stuck with dealing with a subject who is largely unknown by the public and about whom there is a paucity of archival material – there is little in the way of photographs of Smith and no film or audio recordings. Thus coverage focuses on Smith’s published materials, reminisces from a couple of aging individuals who knew Smith, visits to locales where Smith grew up (most of which have considerably changed now). As a result, the majority of the documentary is given over the people opining about Smith and his works.

All of these details are dragged out to a lengthy one hour and fifty minutes. The film fairly exhaustively covers everything from visits to Clark Ashton Smith’s birth home and school, his first published poems and story, as well as sidetracks off to depict the life of his mentor, the celebrated poet George Sterling. All of this is illustrated with a great deal of material from Smith’s published works and letters.

Author Clark Ashton Smith in Clark Ashton Smith: Emperor of Dreams (2018)
Author Clark Ashton Smith

The result is akin to attending a lecture that offers a very exhaustive and detailed account of its subject matter that manages to drone on for two hours. I only had a peripheral awareness of Clark Ashton Smith prior to this. I kept asking myself what there would be here that would induce a novice reader to want to start reading Smith. I was certainly intrigued enough to go and seek out his poem The Hashish Eater (1920), which is discussed in some detail for its reportedly psychedelic qualities. But I didn’t feel there were that many times where the enthusiasts for Smith’s work manage to convey the passion they feel to the audience enough to inspire me to want to rush off and immediately search for copies of his works.

Sometimes issues get drawn out. There is the question of whether Smith took drugs, which may have led to the writing of The Hashish Eater and its psychedelic qualities. The general opinion is probably that he didn’t but nobody knows for sure, however the issue is dragged out for several minutes as people debate the question. There is also Smith’s illustrations for the publication of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear (1923), where we see reprints of some of these, and people spend several more minutes debating as to whether Smith drew trees with sexualised human forms. The documentary becomes more interesting when it comes to Smith’s friendship and correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, which is dealt with in some detail and then question of who influenced who – all despite Smith and Lovecraft never having met within their lifetimes.

The most interesting interviewee is the normally caustic Harlan Ellison, author of assorted SF works including A Boy and His Dog (1975) and the Star Trek episode vThe City on the Edge of Forever (1967). The interview was filmed shortly before Ellison’s death in 2018. Ellison waxes very enthusiastically about Smith’s prose and its influence on him as an embryonic writer – including he at one point producing a copy of a Smith book that he purloined from a library in his teens.

The documentary wraps up with the sole two Smith filmed adaptations, the Night Gallery episode The Return of the Sorcerer (1972), which everybody looks down on, and the Mother of Toads episode of The Theatre Bizarre (2011), where director Richard Stanley is interviewed.

Trailer here

Actors: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Category: ,
Themes: ,