Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Happy Birthday, CAS

Today marks the 116th anniversary of the birth of the Bard of Auburn, Clark Ashton Smith. Of the "Big Three" who wrote in Weird Tales during the 1920s and 1930s, he's the only one to have lived long enough to have died of old age and yet he's also probably the least understood and celebrated. That's a great pity, not just because he's probably my favorite of the Big Three, but also because his works are quite unlike any other fantasy or science fiction writer before or since. Jack Vance probably comes the closest to conjuring up the shade of Smith, but there are lots of subtle differences between the two authors that make such a comparison facile.

For one, Smith considered himself primarily a poet rather than a writer of fiction. Even his most banal prose pieces possess a poetic character to them that transcends his florid vocabulary and indulgence in archaisms. There's an underlying rhythm to his writing that almost demands it be read aloud; I frequently find myself doing just that when I read a Smith story. It's a very strange and powerful thing. Rarely have I encountered a writer whose written words cried out to be spoken. And when you do so, the experience is like few others in literature. Smith's writing is exceedingly sensual, appealing to all our senses, including the mind's eye, that part of our imaginations that doesn't just conceive of people and things and places that have never existed but that strains at the edges of infinity. I find myself at a loss to describe precisely what I mean, but then that's part of my point. Smith's work often gives voice to the ineffable in ways that are both exhilarating and terrifying. Few others writers can do that.

Smith's influence over D&D is mostly marginal. Gygax included him in Appendix N, of course, and various figures in the hobby, such as Rob Kuntz and Tom Moldvay, both show clear debts to his writing. Kieran Forest over The Eiglophian Press recently announced his plan to create an OD&D product inspired by Smith's Zothique cycle and I look forward to seeing it. Yet, Smith is very difficult to translate into gaming materials, in large part because the brilliance of his writings come through not so much in his characters or plots or locations but in the moods he evokes. Smith's writing focuses more often than not on decadence and decline, ennui, and the inevitability and pain of loss, all shot through with a sardonic humor that somehow manages to avoid either the bleakness of Lovecraft or the brutality of Howard. Smith comes across to me as the most "human" of the Big Three, the one whose thought processes and obsessions are closest to my own. Despite that, his genius is elusive and not easily imitated without descending into parody, which is probably why he remains less well known than a writer of his talent ought to be.

Here's hoping that one day, like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard before him, Clark Ashton Smith will receive the attention he deserves.

12 comments:

  1. Gygax included him in Appendix N, of course

    In fact he didn't.

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  2. Dan's right.

    Inspirational Reading:

    Anderson, Poul. THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS; THE HIGH CRUSADE; THE BROKEN SWORD
    Bellairs, John. THE FACE IN THE FROST
    Brackett, Leigh.
    Brown, Fredric.
    Burroughs, Edgar Rice, "Pellucidar" Series; Mars Series; Venus Series
    Carter, Lin. "World's End" Series
    de Camp, L. Sprague. LEST DARKNESS FALL; FALLIBLE FIEND; et al.
    de Camp & Pratt. "Harold Shea" Series; CARNELIAN CUBE
    Derleth, August.
    Dunsany, Lord.
    Farmer, P. J. "The World of the Tiers" Series; et al.
    Fox, Gardner. "Kothar" Series; "Kyrik" Series; et al.
    Howard, R. E. "Conan" Series
    Lanier, Sterling. HIERO'S JOURNEY
    Leiber, Fritz. "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" Series; et al.
    Lovecraft, H. P.
    Merritt, A. CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE; et al.
    Moorcock, Michael. STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" Series (esp. the first three books)
    Norton, Andre.
    Offutt, Andrew J., editor SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III.
    Pratt, Fletcher, BLUE STAR; et al.
    Saberhagen, Fred. CHANGELING EARTH; et al.
    St. Clair, Margaret. THE SHADOW PEOPLE; SIGN OF THE LABRYS
    Tolkien, J. R. R. THE HOBBIT; "Ring Trilogy"
    Vance, Jack. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al.
    Weinbaum, Stanley.
    Wellman, Manly Wade.
    Williamson, Jack.
    Zelazny, Roger. JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" Series; et al.

    OT: Note that he includes _Swords Against Darkness III_ -- so he probably was familiar with at least one of Wellman's Kardios tales.

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  3. I have the DMG sitting on a shelf right above me as I type this, but, after so many years of reading it, I sometimes see things in it that aren't there. The CAS reference in Appendix N is one of them. Until now, I was sure his name was in the list, but obviously it isn't.

    Old age can do funny things to one's memory.

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  4. Moldvay included him among "Inspirational Reading," which might be what confused you in the first place.

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  5. Certainly possible. After 30 years of gaming, even with as good a memory as I have, it's difficult to keep everything straight :)

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  6. Don't forget Algernon Blackwood from TD #4's version of the list.

    Allan.

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  7. CAS is actually my favorite of the Big 3.

    For D&D look towards the module X2: Castle Amber. It is very CAS in tone and open about using his Averoigne cycle. Plus many proper CAS material snuck in under the moniker of “Cthulhu mythos”, Tsathoggua comes to mind, which I think while Lovecraft got him into print first, he was a creation of CAS.

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  8. "Tsathoggua comes to mind, which I think while Lovecraft got him into print first, he was a creation of CAS."

    Yup. From Wikipedia:

    He was invented in Smith's short story "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," written in 1929 and published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales. His first appearance in print, however, was in H. P. Lovecraft's story "The Whisperer in Darkness", written in 1930 and published in the August 1931 Weird Tales.

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  9. Don't forget Algernon Blackwood from TD #4's version of the list.

    CAS isn't on that list either ...

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  10. For D&D look towards the module X2: Castle Amber.

    Yes, I wrote a Retrospective on Castle Amber sometime in the Fall. It's one of my favorite modules.

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  11. For those of you with access to the original "Best of Dragon Magazine", there is an article in there which discusses using fantasy novels as sources for D&D campaigns, and specifically mentions "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan".

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