Set in late 13th century France, "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is one of the longest pieces Smith ever wrote. It's also one of his more straightforwardly "adventurous" tales, which isn't to say the story diverges much from his usual approach, since it still retains all the characteristics one would expect from its author, including mordant satire and luxurious language. Nevertheless, the story is one that could easily be turned into a D&D adventure -- and indeed was, in the form Tom Moldvay's Castle Amber, which includes characters and events taken directly from "The Colossus of Ylourgne."
Nathaire, a "thrice-infamous ... alchemist, astrologer and necromancer, with his ten devil-given pupils" suddenly and secretly departs from the town of Vyônes for reasons unknown, although it is commonly believed "that his departure had been prompted by a salutary fear of ecclesiastical thumbscrews and fagots." In point of fact, the dwarfish, deformed necromancer has bigger things in mind, as soon becomes apparent:
Nightly, for a period of two weeks, the cemeteries of Vyônes, and also those of other towns, of villages and hamlets, gave up a ghastly quota of their tenants. From brazen-bolted tombs, from common charnels, from shallow, unconsecrated trenches, from the marble-lidded vaults of churches and cathedrals, the weird exodus went without cessation.Only one person in all of Averoigne, Gaspard du Nord, "himself a student of the proscribed sciences, who had been numbered for a year among the pupils of Nathaire but had chosen to withdraw quietly from the master's household after learning the enormities that would attend his further initiation," has any inkling of what is transpiring -- and what is necessary to stop it.
Worse than this, if possible, there were newly ceremented corpses that leapt from their biers and catafalques, and disregarding the horrified watchers, ran with great bounds of automatic frenzy into the night, never to be seen again by those who lamented them.
The resulting story, while lacking the blood and thunder approach of more conventional pulp fantasies, is nevertheless a gripping adventure tale. Gaspard du Nord is neither a Howardian stalwart nor a Lovecraftian antiquarian, but rather a peculiar mix of the two. He's a man of action and integrity who uses "science" -- in this case, forbidden magic -- to protect people who would otherwise revile and fear him as a servant of the Devil. There's an almost Western "necessary barbarian" quality to Gaspard's portrayal, although I'm not sure Smith intended such a reading, preferring instead to use him and his former master as opportunities to poke fun at the medieval Church and religious sensibilities generally.
"The Colossus of Ylourgne" is definitely one of Smith's most accessible works. Its narrative structure and content are more in line with those of lesser pulp fantasy works, which probably explains why it was so well received by the readers of Weird Tales. Yet Smith sacrifices very little of his distinctive voice in this tale. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that, because its structure is more conventional, it affords Smith a greater opportunity to demonstrate his unique gifts as a writer. Regardless, "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is a classic and perhaps the crowning achievement of his Averoigne stories. It's well worth reading by lovers of weird fantasy generally and gamers in particular.