Vintage Treasures: The City of the Singing Flame by Clark Ashton Smith

Vintage Treasures: The City of the Singing Flame by Clark Ashton Smith

The City of the Singing Flame (Timescape, 1981). Cover by Rowena Morrill

We’ve written a lot about Clark Ashton Smith at Black Gate. Like, a lot. Over two dozen articles over the last decade or so by my count, by many of our top writers, including Brian Murphy, Matthew David Surridge, Fletcher Vredenburgh, Thomas Parker, James Maliszewski, M Harold Page, Steven H Silver, John R. Fultz — and especially Ryan Harvey, who’s penned a third of our coverage all on his own.

I’m not an expert on Smith — far from it. Although he published in the pulp magazines I was obsessed with as a teen, I didn’t discover him until relatively late. He had no novels to his name, and was virtually ignored by the editors who assembled the ubiquitous science fiction anthologies I devoured in my youth (I know Isaac Asimov, whose name was on every second anthology I read, strongly disliked Smith’s work, and that was pretty much the kiss of death for SF writers in the 80s).

It wasn’t until David Hartwell, editor of the ambitious Timescape imprint at Pocket Books, reprinted much of Smith’s back catalog in a trio of handsome paperbacks that I corrected this injustice. And specifically, it wasn’t until I laid eyes on Rowena Morrill’s beautiful cover for The City of the Singing Flame in 1981 that I was finally introduced to the rich and fascinating work of Clark Ashton Smith.

[Click on the images for singing versions.]

Wonder Stories July 1931, with “The City of the Singing Flame.” Cover by Frank R. Paul

What makes Smith’s fantasy simultaneously so unique and enduring? Here’s Brian Murphy on the title story.

Fantastic fiction author Giles Angarth discovers a portal to another world while spending the summer in a cabin in the Sierras. Passing through, he discovers an alien city of surpassing strangeness and wonder, from which emanates a siren-like music of ethereal beauty. At the city’s heart is a temple housing a swirling column of flame that draws various alien beings to it like the culmination of some great interplanetary religious pilgrimage. Angarth watches as the bravest step into the flame, and appear to, one after another, suffer instantaneous annihilation. But it also seems to promise, paradoxically, “a rapture of a moth-like death in its lofty soaring, the exultation and triumph of a momentary union with its elemental existence.”

Angarth manages to tear himself away from the scene and return to his cabin but the experience haunts his dreams. “The experience seemed, and still seems, incredible and unreal; and yet it has overshadowed everything else, and has colored and dominated all my thoughts.”

So what is this strange flame and its allure? Its ambiguity and potent symbolism are a few of those qualities which set Smith apart as a writer of weird fiction. Angarth only discovers the portal while summering alone in a cabin in the Sierras, a retreat into the world of his mind. The flame acts upon him with “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.” When he leaves the first time Angarth finds it impossible to return to his stories; the poetic genius has left him, and he must find it again. Thus the flame can be viewed as the creative spark that possesses the most inspired of poets. Angarth is compelled to heed its call, abandoning the life he had known, regardless of earthly ties and obligations. Our bodies may be of perishable clay, but the imaginative power of mankind is eternal.

Read Brian’s complete review (“The Return of the Sorcerer: Falling Under Clark Ashton Smith’s Potent Spell for the First Time”) right here at Black Gate.

Smith followed up “The City of the Singing Flame” with a sequel, “Beyond the Singing Flame” (not included in the Timescape volume). Here’s John Coulthart from his blog.

The story as it’s known today was originally a shorter piece, “The City of the Singing Flame,” followed by a sequel, “Beyond the Singing Flame;” both stories were published in Wonder Stories magazine in July and November of 1931, then as one in Arkham House’s CAS collection Out of Space and Time in 1942. The two-in-one story is now the definitive version…

In “City of the Singing Flame” we have a richer sense of the expanded consciousness which occurs at the height of hallucinogenic experience. Beyond the druggy atmosphere there’s also some fantastic invention: the Cyclopean city and its strange visitors (none of whom are ever a threat to the human observers), the otherwordly landscapes and transhuman sense impressions, and the unseen creatures intent on destroying the home of the Singing Flame who attack the city with a walking metropolis of their own.

Read John’s complete thoughts here.

The Last Incantation (Timescape, 1982). Cover by Rowena Morrill

Hartwell followed up The City of the Singing Flame with two more fine collections, The Last Incantation (1982) and The Monster of the Prophecy (1983). The first two were nominated for the coveted Balrog award for Best Collection. Last Incantation had another splendid Rowena cover, but I’ve never been able to discover who did the cover to Monster of the Prophecy.

All three books reprinted stories that had been collected many times over the decades, and have been reprinted numerous times since. But — like most things Smith related — all three remain highly collectible, and a tough find. They’re available on eBay and elsewhere, but be prepared to pay $20 or so for copies in good condition. Last month I purchased a complete set of all three in unread condition on eBay for $57, and was happy to find them at that price.

I talked about all three books in more detail here.

The Monster of the Prophecy (Timescape, 1983). Cover artist unknown

The City of the Singing Flame contains a fine sampling of Smith’s most popular work, including three Zothique tales (“The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” “The Garden of Adompha,” and “The Dark Eidolon,”) two Hyperborea stories (“The White Sybil” and “The Door to Saturn”), and two tales set in Averoigne (“The Enchantress of Sylaire” and “The Beast of Averoigne”).

Here’s the complete table of contents.

Poet of the Singing Flame, introduction by Donald Sidney-Fryer
“The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories, July 1931)
“The White Sybil” (Fantasy Publications, 1934)
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (Weird Tales, November 1931)
“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” (Saturn, March 1958)
“The Door to Saturn” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, January 1932)
“The Dark Eidolon” (Weird Tales, January 1935)
“The Black Abbot of Puthuum” (Weird Tales, March 1936)
“The Garden of Adompha” (Weird Tales, April 1938)
“The Maze of Maal Dweb” (The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, 1933)
“The Flower-Women” (Weird Tales, May 1935)
“The Enchantress of Sylaire” (Weird Tales, July 1941)
“The Beast of Averoigne” (Weird Tales, May 1933)
“The Hunters from Beyond” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, October 1932)

Here’s a peek at Frank R. Paul’s interior art for “The City of the Singing Flame,” from the July 1931 issue of Wonder Stories.

Interior art for “The City of the Singing Flame” by Paul

Our previous coverage of Clark Ashton Smith includes:

The Ordinary is Ephemeral: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Battle Against Modernism
Adventure and Tragedy on a Far Future Earth: Keith West on Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith
Literary Wonder & Adventure Podcast: Clark Ashton Smith, Poet of the Fantastic
Birthday Reviews: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Maze of Maal Dweb” by Steven H Silver
Starfinder Alien Archive — Clark Ashton Smith Meets Douglas Adams (With Visuals by Ray Harryhausen) by M Harold Page
A Jaunt Through Clark Ashton Smith’s Collected Fantasies — Vol. 1: The End of the Story, by Ryan Harvey
A Jaunt Through Clark Ashton Smith’s Collected Fantasies — Vol. 2: The Door to Saturn, by Ryan Harvey
A Jaunt Through Clark Ashton Smith’s Collected Fantasies—vol. 3: A Vintage from Atlantis, by Ryan Harvey
The End Of The Story: The Collected Fantasies, Vol. 1 by Clark Ashton Smith
Vintage Treasures: The Timescape Clark Ashton Smith
The Shade of Klarkash-Ton by James Maliszewski
One Shot, One Story: Clark Ashton Smith by Thomas Parker
New Treasures: The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
The Crawling Horrors of Mars: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”
Deepest, Darkest Eden edited by Cody Goodfellow by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Adventures in Stealth Publishing: The Return of the Sorcerer
A Few Words on Clark Ashton Smith by Matthew David Surridge
The Unqualified Unique: The Daily Mail Interviews Me for Clark Ashton Smith’s 50th Morbid Anniversary by Ryan Harvey
Of Secret Worlds Incredible: A Psychedelic Journey into Clark Ashton Smith’s Poetic Masterpiece by John R. Fultz
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part I: The Averoigne Chronicles by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part II: The Book of Hyperborea by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part III: Tales of Zothique by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part IV: Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph by Ryan Harvey
The Return of the Sorcerer: Falling Under Clark Ashton Smith’s Potent Spell for the First Time by Brian Murphy

The City of the Singing Flame was published by Timescape Books in August 1981. It is 240 pages, priced at $2.95 in paperback. It has never been reprinted, and there is no digital edition The cover is by Rowena Morrill. Here’s the complete deets for all three books in the series.

The City of the Singing Flame (240 pages, $2.95, August 1981, cover by Rowena Morrill)
The Last Incantation (262 pages, $2.95, August 1982, cover by Rowena Morrill)
The Monster of the Prophecy (238 pages, $2.95, April 1983, cover artist unknown)

See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Thomas Parker

Like probably all Smith enthusiasts, my collection was a mishmash of volumes – a couple of these Timescapes, some British Panther paperbacks, some Ballantine Adult Fantasy volumes, a couple of prized Arkham House hardbacks…all with an insane overlap of content; I had more then one book that I kept because it had just one or two stories that I didn’t have elsewhere. The situation was remedied when Nightshade published their awesome five volume Collected Fantasies, which I snapped up the instant they were published. I still have all those other books, though. It’s a sickness.

Last edited 2 years ago by emcgargle
Tony Den

I have the two Lost Worlds John. Picked up #1 years back and then stumbled across #2 quite recently. Would love to lay my hands on the rest of the panthers.


Thanks for the great overview, in addition to the links to previous posts on Smith.


You might also want to look into two other hardcover publications from Night Shade, by Smith, with covers done by Jason Van Hollander, who did the covers for the 5-volume collection: “The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith,” in the same format as volumes 1-5 (could it be considered volume 6?), and the more garishly colored “Red World of Polaris: The Adventures of Captain Volmar.” These may both be more for completists, but they’re nice complements to the 5 volumes of fantasies.

Thomas Parker

I got ’em both already, Smitty! Though “completist” is a mild word compared to those my family usually use to describe me…

Joe H.

John, it sounds like we both discovered Smith at almost exactly the same way, at almost exactly the same time. When I saw that Rowena cover on City of the Singing Flame on the public library SF paperback spinner, I knew I had to have it.

After that, there was a very small used book store in town, and somebody must’ve disposed of a bunch of their old Ballantine Adult Fantasy titles there, because I found copies of Hyperborea and Poseidonis on the shelf, and snagged them immediately. (In addition to any number of other BAF titles, although at the time I didn’t really know what the BAF was — I just recognized the cover art on, e.g., some of the William Morris novels or some of the Carter anthologies.)

Then came the 1988 Arkham House collection A Rendezvous in Averoigne, with the lovely, lovely J.K. Potter artwork, which is probably my favorite single collection of Smith’s fiction.

These days, as Thomas Parker and Smitty below have mentioned, I have a mishmash of Timescapes, BAFs, British paperbacks, some Arkham House stuff (including his Black Book), and of course the Night Shades, of which I really need to go back and read the last couple volumes.

Joe H.

To say nothing of the interior illustrations!
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Joe H.

Oh, and the other piece of the Smith puzzle — the three-volume Complete Poetry & Translations put out by Hippocampus Press a few years back.

Thomas Parker

There’s also the collection of Smith’s letters that Arkham House put out in 2003, and which I really liked. The Smith of those letters is completely different from the literary necromancer that you picture from the stories, instead being gossipy, chatty, and completely down-to-earth.

Joe H.

Good shout on the letters. Hippocampus also put out a volume or two, although I don’t know how much they overlap the Arkham House volume.

James McGlothlin

I can’t believe no one has mentioned the CAS documentary Emperor of Dreams that came out awhile back! Definitely worth checking out. Some who are interviewed there are no longer with us, such as Ellison and Pugmire. There’s even an audio recording of CAS reading his own stuff included at the end.

Thomas Parker

Where, James? Where?!

Thomas Parker

Apply to Amazon for your kickback, James. Going to watch it today!

AJ Walter

Not to but in here, but you can also pick up the CAS documentary on DVD or Bluray directly from Hippocampus press.

Thanks James and AJ for these links. Totally missed this documentary.

Will Errickson

I’ve had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions since the late ’90s. Sometime in the early 2000s I read one of Harlan Ellison’s many interviews and he mentioned his love for “City of the Singing Flame.” I knew I had to have it! That very day I went to a used bookstore on the off-chance they’d have a copy and–they did! For $6! I couldn’t believe my luck. Magical!

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