Had he indulged in the necromantic practices of some of his most memorable characters, Clark Ashton Smith would today be 118 years of age. Instead, this year will also mark the 50th anniversary of his death and, unlike his fellow Weird Tales writers, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, Smith's star has not much risen outside the small circles that have always lauded him and his unique imagination.
As someone whose first taste of Smith occurred long ago (after refereeing Tom Moldvay's Castle Amber in the early 80s, as I recall), I sometimes forget how poorly known CAS actually is. Indeed, until the last few years, I was convinced that Smith had been listed in Gygax's Appendix N and was thus an important influence on one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons. As it turns out, Gygax hadn't read Smith until after he'd created D&D and I've never seen any evidence put forward that Dave Arneson was a devotee either. Outside of the aforementioned Castle Amber, there aren't many Smithian allusions in the game's canon. (Supposedly, Rob Kuntz's Maure Castle contains such allusions, but, if so, it's not in evidence in Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, at least not to me anyway).
This is, of course, a well-worn topic on this blog, something I in fact mentioned on this very day last year. I think it bears repeating, though, because, while it's true that Smith's works provide much less "furniture" to import into D&D's ever-growing treasure house than, say, Lovecraft or Tolkien, he nevertheless has a lot to offer the roleplayer. In particular, CAS reminds us of the power of words to transport us to other places and times and to induce in us feelings and moods. Smith began his literary career as a poet, which is why so many of his stories are better understood as prose poems rather than as narratives in the traditional sense. That's not say that Smith's stories are devoid of plot, but plot is often secondary to the evocation of emotion in the reader through the use of exotic language. Critics of Smith's approach deem his vocabulary unnecessarily ornate and they would be correct if one were to indulge in a steady diet of such language. But, as a "palate cleanser," such language is both useful and inspirational.
Much discussion is had in roleplaying circles about the meaning and purpose of "story" in the context of our shared hobby. Such discussions certainly have value, but, in my experience anyway, it's not "story" that most roleplaying games lack in practice as it is feeling. Too often, neither the players nor the referee has their senses (both internal and external) engaged, which is understandable, because it's hard to do. Clark Ashton Smith did it, though; his best stories really do transport you to weird, otherworldly realms and fill your eyes and ears and other senses with strange feelings, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always interesting. I can think of worse models for how to add this extra layer to gaming than Smith. I'm not suggesting that one adopt his luxuriant diction and fondness for archaism -- though there's no harm in doing so! -- in order to add some depth to your gaming sessions, but I am suggesting that reading a few of his best stories, such as "The Empire of the Necromancers" or "The Charnel God" will pay great dividends for your fantasy roleplaying campaigns.
So here's to Clark Ashton Smith on the anniversary of his birth. May his memory and his work continue to inspire all who seek out the exotic and the weird.