Monday, May 18, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Out of Space and Time

As others have noted, the writings of Clark Ashton Smith were not in fact included in Gygax's Appendix N. Indeed, as I recall, Gary never read a word of Smith until Rob Kuntz suggested he do so and this was after the publication of OD&D (Someone like Allan Grohe can correct me if I'm wrong about this). I personally find this odd, because, in my case, I discovered CAS at about the same time I discovered H.P. Lovecraft (1981 -- the year both Castle Amber and the first edition of Call of Cthulhu were released) and the two authors have always exerted equal amounts of influence over my adventures and campaigns.

Yet, for whatever reason, Smith seems to be the least well known of the Big Three of Weird Tales. It can't be because his writings weren't widely available. Arkham House, August Derleth's publishing house, which he founded in 1939 specifically to bring HPL's writings to a wider audience, produced a Smith anthology in 1942, before even a second volume of Lovecraft. Entitled Out of Space and Time, its contents were personally selected by Smith as his best and included some of his most famous short stories, most of which are set in his signature settings of Averoigne, Hyperborea, Poseidonis, and Zothique.

Averoigne and Zothique are by far and away my favorite of Smith's settings. Both have a decaying, decadent air to them that I find strangely attractive in their repulsiveness. Far moreso than Lovecraft, whose writings simply state that the history of the Earth is long, far longer than mere men can comprehend, Smith's writings allow us to feel that longevity. The result is not despair at mankind's insignificance in the cosmic scheme so much as a crushing sense of intellectual boredom, an overpowering ennui that reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun -- it's all been done before and probably better.

These are feelings I have in my darker moments and that certainly explains my fondness for Smith and the influence he's had over my worlds of the imagination. I often wonder what D&D might have been like had Gygax been more familiar with Smith's writings than he was. Along with the better known, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, I feel each of these authors offers a unique but complementary perspective on the broad genre of "pulp fantasy." There's plenty of both Howard and Lovecraft in D&D, but barely any Smith at all -- a pity.

18 comments:

  1. I must confess that I only knew CAS as One Of The Other Authors Mentioned In Call of Cthulhu, but because his influence over the game as a whole was less than that of HPL, I overlooked his work. Now, in my second go as a CoC GM, I've been looking further afield for my Mythos inspiration, and CAS was first on the list. I can't believe I ignored him for so long!

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  2. Dang it! There's another name on the list of authors I'm amazed I haven't read yet.

    Zothique especially sounds like it'll be a mental homecoming on a par with reading Dunsany's "Pegana" stories.

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  3. Have you read M John Harrison's Viriconium books? Some of the later ones are dense in prose, but it's right up the same ally. Same with Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergis books, or Jeffery Ford's Memoranda trilogy. All decedent, decaying, interesting cities.

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  4. Although REH is more often used as an inpsiration for D&D, I've personally used Smith far more often, as witnessed by the name of one of my two current campaigns, The Necromancer of Yoros. In fact, within that campaign are such features as Parthuum Abbey and a bunch of other Smithisms.

    Good words on Smith and how he complements the other of the "big three." I knew I liked your blog for some reason!

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  5. Smith is my absolute favorite author of all time. I dearly wish there were more of his influence in D&D. He certainly influences my home campaigns quite a bit.

    I highly recommend picking up ANY of his stuff you can find. The compilation "A Rendez-vous in Averoigne" is particularly good and contains a selection of stories from each of the four aforementioned worlds, Averoigne, Hyperborea, Poseidonis, and Zothique.

    Nightshade books is publishing a five volume collection of Smith's works that is also well worth picking up.

    My two favorite stories of Smith's are "The Last Incantation" and "The Death of Malygris", both about the sorceror Malygris.

    One can read some of Smith's work for free at http://www.eldritchdark.com/

    Both Malygris stories are available there.

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  6. The Zothique cycle is probably one of the best pieces of pulp fantasy I've ever read.
    Also its influence is evident in Vance's Dying Earth, another great love of mine.
    I'm very sorry CAS never tried its hand at a full length novel.

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  7. I count Dunsany and CAS among my favorite authors. Smith could evoke such bizarre images that it is amazing that he did his writing in a small cabin in rural California. His mind was really warped and luckily he wrote down those amazing fever dreams for us to enjoy.

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  8. It is becasue of you I read him now. I hope what we do with SS&S helps introduce more people to him. He is not my favorite of the three, but I really have grown to like Smith.

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  9. I think--and it's no more than that--that CAS is least known simply becuase he is the hardest to read. His deliberately dense and Latinate prose requires more concentration than Howard's Anglo-Saxon heavy writings (somewhere, CAS speaks about the atmospheric effects of using Latinate words over Anglo-Saxon, but I'll be darned if I can remember where).

    Howver, of the Weird Fantasy Trinity, CAS is definitely my favourite. Although his work is not as obviously useful for heroic adventure as Howard's, it's at least as stealable as Lovecraft's. And, actually, "The Flower Women" is a great adventure story of a high-level wizard.

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  10. I picked up the 1974 Panther edition at Half Price Books and took an afternoon to read it. You are right. CAS is one of the few authors able to create baroque, decadent, and beautiful worlds of the imaginaton with a steady hand.

    I also agree with Mr. Slepin. His prose style can be difficult for some to get through. I know when I first read CAS when I was 11, I had to read several of his stories many times. Yet it was worth it.

    The site The Eldritch Dark www.eldritchdark.com has some of his stories that lapsed into the public domain. Check it out.

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  11. CAS, unfortunately, missed the S&S boom of the late '60s and '70s. He got a couple of collections and his stories were picked up for a variety of anthologies, but he didn't get the kind of attention that people like Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber were getting.

    (A. Merritt and Seabury Quinn suffered similar fates.)

    It may just be selection bias on my part, but I feel that Clark Ashton Smith has gotten more attention in the past 10 years than he did in the 50 years before that. (I say selection bias because it may just be that I'm becoming more aware of him. But his work does seem to be coming back into print in a meaningful way for the first time.)

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  12. That cover looks like the work of Hannes Bok. Does it say so?

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  13. "It may just be selection bias on my part, but I feel that Clark Ashton Smith has gotten more attention in the past 10 years than he did in the 50 years before that."

    I've been telling people about him for more than 20 years, but my circle of literary acquaintances is very narrow.

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  14. John Ratliff once wrote an interesting essay on Clark Ashton Smith for the Wizards of the Coast website.

    http://ww2.wizards.com/books/Wizards/default.aspx?doc=main_classicsaveroigne

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  15. Oh, it's still tons easier to find works by almost any major Weird Tales author than to find anything by Clark Ashton Smith. I was a regular at used bookstores from the late eighties on, and I live in a metropolitan area full of sf/f readers and good library collections. But either nobody had Clark Ashton Smith, or the people who did were holding onto him.

    The recent collections are very nice, though. Finally, I could see what the old books had been talking about.

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  16. I fell in love with Clark Ashton Smith's style ever since I read his book when I was twelve.Now I'm in Taiwan. I wonder if there is any of his books available here?

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  17. Although Gygax was not influenced by CAS, Dave Hargrave claimed that Zothique was the inspiration for Arduin.

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