None strikes the note of cosmic horror as well as Clark Ashton Smith. In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer, living or dead.So wrote another great writer of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. Even given the Old Gent's tendency toward hyperbole when extolling the virtues of his colleagues, I find it hard to disagree, particularly on this, the 117th anniversary of Smith's birth in Long Valley, California.
As I've noted many times before, CAS is my personal favorite of the Weird Tales triumvirate and the one whose works I most wish I could emulate. Though I strive mightily against it, I fear that my own writings evince a style more in keeping with the antiquarian Lovecraft than with the otherworldly poetry of the Bard of Auburn, though not for lack of trying. Smith's genius is elusive and not easily reproduced. Only Jack Vance has, in my opinion, come close and even he lacks "the sheer daemonic strangeness" that HPL so rightly noted.
That same elusiveness may also explain why Smith's direct influence on gaming is smaller than it ought to be. Despite my continually believing otherwise, Smith isn't listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N. His name does appear in the bibliography to Tom Moldvay's edition of D&D Basic and, of course, Moldvay's Castle Amber is as true an homage to CAS as you're likely to find in the annals of the hobby, but it's nearly singular in this regard. Unlike Lovecraft's non-Euclidean horrors and Howard's blood and thunder yarns, Smith offered little that could be easily reduced to a formula and imitated to the point of banality. Likewise, he provided neither a coherent mythos nor a recurring protagonist, making it difficult to place him "in a box" the way that many other creators have been.
Yet, Smith's shadow lingers. Monster-haunted Averoigne is a spiritual ancestor of many a fantasy setting, its dark woods home to demons that civilized man believes himself to have banished forever. Hyperborea offers a darkly humorous example to every referee who ever wanted to see player characters reap fitting rewards for their venality. Decaying Zothique reminds us that there are fates worse worse than the death of the sun. Xiccarph, Poseidonis, Polaris and others -- they all reveal aspects of the Smith's multifaceted genius and, sampled like fine wines, each broadens the palette of the mind. That's good training for any roleplayer, not merely those with romantic, ennuied spirits.
To that end, I plan to highlight more of Smith's writings this year, both through my weekly Pulp Fantasy Library, and through other, irregular postings. In both cases, my goal is to look at his tales from the perspective of gaming and how Smith's unique style and mood might bring something to fantasy roleplaying that has never received much attention. I can't say how successful this plan will prove, but it's well worth trying.