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.