Clark Ashton Smith’s The Planet of the Dead (1932) appears on first read to be an elaborated dream fragment or hallucinatory vision. This would be an over simplification, for the story is multilayered and stylistically interesting. The lush prose may remind some of Edgar Allan Poe or even H.P. Lovecraft, with grammatically complex sentences that warrant rereading and savoring. The Planet of the Dead also makes direct and indirect reference to other work by Smith as well as his close associate H.P. Lovecraft. It appears to be closely related to another of Smith’s short stories, The Monster of the Prophecy (1932).
Members of Lovecraft’s circle of writers often created fictional versions of each other for characters in their stories. These authorial characters typically suffered some terrible fate in the end, often prompting a similar story in response from the emulated writer. (See also With Friends Like These… ) For example, in The Monster of the Prophecy, the character of “Theobald” is an unsuccessful poet and writer struggling to make it in New York City. (Theobald is one of Lovecraft’s most frequently used pseudonyms.) An amateur astronomer, Theobald had written a poem called ‘Ode to Antares’. Just as he is about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in despair, he is spirited away by a telepathic alien from Antares, who embroils him in local politics on his home planet.
The Planet of the Dead also involves an Antarian setting, but is much more a dark fantasy than science fiction. In The Monster of the Prophecy, Theobald arrived on the alien planet using a transportation device that is described in considerable detail. In The Planet of the Dead, the character of Francis Melchior—“a dealer in antiques; by avocation he was an astronomer”—arrives by way of a dream he has when he falls asleep at his telescope. He has been gazing at a dim star “in a wide-flung constellation south of the Milky Way.”
He wakes in the dream world and finds himself an inhabitant of a planet that circles the dying star he had been studying from Earth. He is now Antarion, the famous poet of Phandiom, a doomed planet whose culture has succumbed to sepulchural decadence in anticipation of certain annihilation. A strength of the story is the richly described cities of the dead and the final morbid celebrations of the doomed citizenry. Readers may be reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842). The planet has already become an ancient graveyard, its people, animate corpses.
Antarion and his love, the beautiful, sorrowful Thameera, escape the city and hide on the outskirts to await the end of their world. As their huge red sun flickers and dwindles away they make passionate love—for 1930s pulp fiction—one last time. Melchior awakes by his telescope, but can no longer find the star that once enthralled him.
Smith had written his friend Lovecraft into a weird romance with a happy ending in The Monster of the Prophecy, but the two lovers in The Planet of the Dead are doomed just as their planet was doomed. The ending recalls the astronomical comments that conclude H.P. Lovecraft’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919), and the story echoes Lovecraft’s understanding of the metaphysics of dreams: “…Francis Melchior is still a little doubtful as to which is the real dream: his lifetime on earth, or the month in Phandiom below a dying sun, when, as the poet Antarion, he loved the superb an sorrowful beauty of Thameera.”
Unlike the work of other writers in Lovecraft’s circle, Clark Ashton Smith did not polish off his fictional representation of Lovecraft in some gruesome, horrific manner, as in Robert Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars (1935) or Frank Belknap Long’s The Space-Eaters (1928). It is striking that he imagines his friend as successful in both love and work, enjoying a life much more complete and meaningful than the one he endured on earth.