Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Shade of Klarkash-Ton

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.

21 comments:

  1. "There is no need to take your soul," said the emissary, with an ominous rumble as of departing storm in the desolate night. "Remain here with the lepers, or return to Pornos and his goats, as you will: it matters little. At all times and in all places your soul shall be part of the dark empire of Thasaidon."

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  2. Ah, Clark Smith! He's my favorite fantasy author not named JRR Tolkien. Certainly the best of the "Lovecraft circle" writers, and you're correct that he cannot really be reduced to a formula (though there are certain themes that can be picked out).

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  3. I think CAS was the inspiration for a major background character in Fritz Leiber's marvelous "Our Lady of Darkness."

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  5. It really would be something if somebody put out a retro clone of Zothique, Averoigne or any one of smith's world.

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  6. There's one for Zothique, if I remember correctly, called Xothique, written by the guy from http://eiglophian.blogspot.com/.

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  7. Besides being evocative and sort of generally inspiring, CAS does have some particular "game adventure" sort of stories: "The Charnel God", "The Isle of the Torturers", and "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" (which had a quote abotu 2 adventurers so good, I had to use it as a blogpost title) just to name a few.

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  8. I am also a huge CAS fan, and I do owe that to playing Moldvay D&D back in the 80's.

    If Lovecraft is the spiritual father of Horror RPGs then CAS has to be the same for Dark Fantasy.

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  9. The uninitiated into CAS' work should take the time to peruse The Eldritch Dark, a complete repository of the Bard of Auburn's work.

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  10. I think CAS was the inspiration for a major background character in Fritz Leiber's marvelous "Our Lady of Darkness."

    Actually, CAS wasn't the inspiration for the character, he was the character (though he is already deceased at the time of the novel, in the '70s). The implication is that CAS was destroyed by the same evil force (paramentals) that the protagonist (a thinly veiled version of Leiber himself) faces. Leiber wrote a lot of semi-autobiographical pieces during the seventies; nice to see him paying tribute to Klarkash-Ton's influence in Our Lady of Darkness. Just as a bit of trivia, CAS also cited Leiber as one of his favorite authors late in life... Too bad CAS didn't take up the pen again; we might have seen some inter-generational cross-pollinization.

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  11. I am reading his stories right now and CAS is becoming one of my favorite authors. I had wanted to get my hands on some of his works for awhile, but they were very hard to find. Then a couple years ago Night Shade Books has been producing hardbacks of his collected fantasies. I am currently at the end of the first volume, "The End of the Story".

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  12. For those of you who've read Ashton extensively, are there any particular collections or compilations you'd recommend?

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  13. I'd recommend the Night Shade series of anthologies, but they are expensive, and since they're arranged chronologically, you'd have to buy several to get CAS's best stories. There is a collection called "The Return of the Sorceror" that should be easily available and makes a good intro to his work.

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  14. Thanks, John. I've added "Return..." to my Amazon list.

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  15. You cannot write enough on the man, a sheer genius of macabre weird fantasy.

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  17. Just about all of CAS's stores are fantastic, but there is someting extra special about his Zothique stories. If you can, I would add Tales of Zothique to your list as well. You won't be disappointed

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  18. 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.

    This is awfully insightful. As pointed out, some of CAS's stories are nearly-perfect evocations of gaming sessions. Both stories featuring the thief Satampra Zeiros spring to mind. But, as an oeuvre, what Smith brings as a "feeling" which cannot be reduced to set of game statistics.

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  19. Just about all of CAS's stores are fantastic, but there is someting extra special about his Zothique stories. If you can, I would add Tales of Zothique to your list as well. You won't be disappointed

    Those are all online for free to! I wanted a copy, and finally tracked one down on ebay after a year of searching. (It's been out of print for a while.) ToZ is supposed to be the best collection of the Zothique stories being that they're all collected in a single volume, in order, with an additional play as the last text.

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  20. @Thomas -- Thanks for the linkage, but for the record the Eiglophian Press hasn't produced any material for Xothique. I'm not sure I could do the material justice, to be perfectly honest.

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  21. It really would be something if somebody put out a retro clone of Zothique, Averoigne or any one of smith's world.

    It's something I've long wanted to do myself. I actually had the permission of Smith's estate to do just this, but I abandoned the project when I discovered that CASiana Literary Enterprises wouldn't grant me the right to use the text of any of Smith's writings without first negotiating a deal with Arkham House, which claims -- dubiously, I might add -- to hold the copyright on said texts.

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