Film shines light on Auburn’s ‘Poet Smith’

Fantasy writer gets documentary tribute
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Gus Thomson/Auburn Journal

A tile marker is one of the tributes to Clark Ashton Smith in his hometown.


Streets have been named for him in his hometown, namely Poet Smith Drive and Smith Court.

Auburn had a Clark Ashton Smith Day when his 100th birthday came around on Jan. 13, 1993.

There’s a Smith monument in Old Town Auburn, utilizing one of the boulders from the site of his cabin near Skyridge School. The rock-strewn land where the writer once conjured up phantasmagorical imagery is now taken up with houses.

And a grave-marker-like tile laid into the cement on a Downtown Auburn sidwalk pays tribute to the Auburn pulp-fiction fantasy writer and poetic wunderkind.

Add in too many literary tributes to count, throw in the plethora of publications in several languages and you get the idea. He’s sort of a big thing in Auburn and maybe, to a lesser extent, around the world.

But never a documentary. Until now, that is.


Dream Emperor

Placerville’s Darin Coelho Spring has directed and produced “Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams.” It’s now out on DVD and Blu Ray. It’s been screened in New York, Stockholm and Portland since its release in the late fall. And the State Theatre is working with the filmmaker toward a spring screening in Auburn.

“The Emperor of Dreams” combines tributes from respected names in the horror fantasy realm, rarely seen photos of Smith, original “CAS” artwork, and the words of the writer spoken by himself.

Spring says there’s plenty of Auburn in the documentary, which clocks in at 110 minutes. And a bonus for fans of the Auburncentric, the cover of the documentary jacket is a painting by Auburn’s own Skinner.  

One of the golden moments in “Emperor of Dreams” is an on-camera interview with esteemed - and cantankerous - sci-fi and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison. Spring describes the ensuring footage as remarkable.

Ellison, who would be dead mere months after the Los Angeles interview, was emotional if not ecstatic in his dissemination of Smith and his appreciation for the Auburn author’s work, Spring said.

Stephen King is another author who has name-checked Smith as an influence. But Spring’s quest for that interview ended with the documentary made and no response to his queries.

Skinner provides his own take on the Smith pantheon as well as adding his psychedelic-horror tinged artistry in a portrait of Smith featuring not only an ethereal visage but samples of Smith’s own stone carvings.


Lovecraft connection

Hippocampus Press of New York - a publisher that keeps the Smith flame burning brightly - is onboard as publisher of the DVD and Blu Ray, providing valuable access to letters between Smith and H.P. Lovecraft for the documentary before their publication.

For Spring, who works at The Bookery in Placerville and is a newcomer to full-length documentary filmmaking, the journey from concept to onscreen reality was almost a sacred quest. He started with a fascinating story.

Smith was born in Long Valley, near Auburn and would live the last seven years of his life in Pacific Grove, dying there of a stroke in 1961. While his life in Auburn was one of poverty and little recognition, his works have been kept alive by generations of readers drawn to his detailed worlds in a style that’s complex, wordy and hypnotic.

“I’m not a very religious person but it felt like fate,” he said. “I was the perfect person at the perfect time in the perfect place. I just got obsessed and inspired with his work.”

Media Life and Gus Thomson can be reached at Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.