Monday, February 1, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Garden of Adompha

I admit that among the reasons I chose to draw attention to this particular Clark Ashton Smith story is that it's one of the few ever to receive a cover illustration on the magazine in which it appeared (Weird Tales, April 1938). Much like Lovecraft, the high regard in which Smith's stories were held by readers did not translate into many cover illustrations, an honor generally reserved for stories now largely forgotten (though, to be fair, Robert E. Howard did pretty well in this regard, garnering 14 cover illustrations over the course of his Weird Tales writing career).

The cover isn't the only reason I chose "The Garden of Adompha" to discuss this week. Rather, it's that this story -- and others like it -- highlight why Smith, for all his skill as a writer, hasn't had much influence in the gaming world. "The Garden of Adompha" is a tale of Zothique, the last continent of Earth, and takes place on "the wide orient isle of Sotar," whose king, Adompha, "possessed amid his far-stretching palace ground a garden secret from all men except himself and the court-magician, Dwerulas." This garden nevertheless has an unsavory reputation among the credulous, who assume that it plays some role in the disappearance of certain of Adompha's courtiers who'd fallen out of his favor.

In truth, the garden contains growths "such as no terrestrial sun could have fostered."
There were pale, bifurcated trinks that strained upward as if to disroot themselves from the ground, unfolding immense leaves the dark and ribbed wings of dragons. There were amaranthine blossoms, broad as salvers, supported by arm-thick stems that trembled continuously ... And there were other weird plants, diverse as the seven hells, and having no common characteristics other than the scions which Dwerulas had grafted upon them here and there through his unnatural and necromantic art.

These scions were the various parts and members of human beings. Consummately, and with never-failing success, the magician had joined them to the half-vegetable, half-animate stocks, on which they lived and grew thereafter, drawing an ichor-like sape. Thus were preserved the carefully chosen souvenirs of a multitude of persons who had inspired Dwerulas and the king with distaste or ennui.
It's a horrific image, one made all the worse by the last line of the quote: Adompha and his court-magician wrought such horror for the most banal of reasons, one that impels them to inflict the same fate upon a beautiful young woman, "his favorite odalisque for the seldom-unequalled period of eight nights." This being a Smith tale, you can be certain that this undertaking doesn't quite turn out as planned.

"The Garden of Adompha" is filled with luxurious language and disturbing images, as well as an almost-clinical detachment from its characters and events. Despite the moral turpitude of its characters -- and the dark fates visited upon them -- the story offers no censure, no sense that Adompha and Dwerulas "got what was coming to them." But neither is there any approbation for their selfish actions, merely an aloofness that makes the story all the more unsettling to me.

It's that quality that I regularly find in Smith's stories and that's well nigh impossible to transfer into the gaming environment, which almost by necessity demands a greater level of engagement by the referee. Even in old school games, where the referee is supposed to be as impartial as possible, I'm not certain a Smithian level of indifference could be maintained for long enough to replicate the feelings his stories frequently evoke. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Smith much less immediately inspirational than, say, Robert E. Howard or even H.P. Lovecraft, writers whose works were very influential in the early days of the hobby. It may also explain why I consider CAS the greatest of Weird Tales' trinity of greats and boggle at his continued marginalization in literary circles.


  1. Smith is also my favorite of the 'big three' and one of my favorite writers period. But it doesn't surprise me that he's overlooked. He's very often an indifferent storyteller at best, and his stories also often don't go to any particular efforts to engage readers, hanging out at the remote Hyperborean distance you yourself describe. The tools he has, he has on the level of great literary geniuses, but he doesn't have all the tools.

    When Lovecraft's prose seems warm and human next to yours, you can bet that you're going to be an acquired taste for most readers, I guess is what I'm trying to say.

    Doesn't take away from the esteem I myself hold the man in, however.

    P.S. How's the Palace coming? We're still doing layout but if you could send along a few art requests so I could get people working I would be very appreciative.

  2. Gee, this is awkward... I offer another opinion.

    Despite being one of those "rootless" modern gamers raised on console RPGs I've heeded your recommendations and picked up collections of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith stories (still trying to obtain "Jack of Shadows"). Howard turned out to be a great read that truly did give me a deeper understanding of the hobby's origins, so I'm grateful for your bringing him to my attention.

    Unfortunately CAS was... meh. Except for "City of the Singing Flame" I was mostly bored by his "best of," or occasionally amused for all the wrong reasons. I mean, there's some seriously purple prose in those slim tales! We're talking fanfiction levels of titter-inducing verbiage!

    I can't help but wonder if his reputation was built on the fact that there just wasn't that much to compare him to back in the day (big fish - small pond), and the reason we don't hear much about him now is that he has simply been outclassed. I mean, I've read flavor text stories in Warhammer army books more gripping than "Return of the Sorcerer," "Beast of Averoigne," and "The Devotee of Evil." Mood is no longer enough.

  3. A CAS detractor! I'll grab the torches and pitchforks!

    Not everyone is going to be impressed by every writer. I cannot stand Jack Vance's Dying Earth, for example and I find most Conan stories to be a bit boring (although I like the Kull tales).

    I really enjoy CAS' work myself, some of the imagery, especially in the Zothique cycle, has yet to be rivaled by any writer in my opinion. Sometimes it is the little gem in a story by Smith that sets the tale apart. A manticore cloak, hunting of the alpine catoblepas, etc.

    A lot of his writing isn't popular because the language is so detailed that some people need a dictionary at their side to get through the work. (I am not insinuating that is the case for the poster above, it is a complaint I have heard from other readers)

  4. thanks for the excerpt. gonna go pick that up, now.

  5. I'm a staunch fan of CAS, though I find he doesn't have the immediacy and raw vibrancy of REH.

    On the topic of the post, Jame's proposition is fascinating: that CAH is not (or less) transferrable to RPG use because it lacks the moral dimension James feels necessary for the task. (I know you're a smart guy James, so I'm sure you realize this necessity is a personal one, not one intrinsic to the hobby.)

    So what fascinates me about this is the fact that you can totally enjoy this in your literature, but not in your RPGing.

    One pastime is irrevocably personal, the other irrevocably shared. Maybe that has something to do with it.


    "All theories tell more about their proponent than about the phenomena they describes. At least that's my theory."

  6. I think the thing I like best about Smith's work is his ideas and that they could me made into great gaming material. With some work, The Garden of Adompha alone could easily fit into anything from a full scale dungeon complex to the backyard of an evil Archmage or maybe just some forest of it's own hellish design.

  7. I think Smith exceeds the others all put together... and I like the others.

    Good observation about Smith's indifference, James. It is a most unnerving quality of his narration!

  8. I can't help but wonder if his reputation was built on the fact that there just wasn't that much to compare him to back in the day (big fish - small pond), and the reason we don't hear much about him now is that he has simply been outclassed.

    Ultimately, this is a matter of opinion, so I won't attempt to dissuade you of your perspective, even though I don't share the notion that a good writer of any era can be "outclassed." Certainly some writers fall out of style or no longer suit the popular mood, but that's a far cry from claiming they've been surpassed, which doesn't make much sense to me.

  9. "Seldom unequalled"? So...frequently equaled?