Monday, August 23, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Rendezvous in Averoigne

First published in the April/May 1931 issue of Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith's "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" is probably one of the author's most widely reprinted -- and thus read -- stories. There are likely many specific reasons why this is so, but I suspect that they all boil down to a single one: accessibility. Unlike many of Smith's other efforts, even within the Averoigne cycle, this story of the troubadour Gérard de l'Automne and his lady-love Fleurette is extremely accessible to the casual reader. Its fairy tale medieval setting, its cast of characters, its antagonists, and indeed its general subject matter are all well within the bounds of mainstream fantasy or historical romance literature.

Consequently, a lot of Smith fans, who are drawn to him for evocations of the weird and extra-terrene, find "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" boring, or at least a lesser effort. Personally, I think that's a mistake as, despite its conventionality, it's one of Smith's best prose works, an opinion CAS himself shared in a 1930 letter to H.P. Lovecraft. It's easy to see why; Smith's descriptive passages are truly moving, such as this one setting the scene for the woodland tryst of Gérard and Fleurette:
The grass and tress had assumed the fresh enamel of a medieval May; the turf was figured with little blossoms of azure and white and yellow, like an ornate broidery; and there was a pebbly stream that murmured beside he way, as if the voices of undines were parleying deliciously beneath its waters. The sun-lulled air was laden with a wafture of youth and romance; and the longing the welled from the heart of Gérard seemed to mingle mystically with the balsams of the wood.
As you can see, Smith is still very much himself here, crafting passages of verbal beauty, but he also seems more restrained, toning down his penchant for archaisms and unduly exotic words without undermining his literary alchemy.

That aside, this is a Clark Ashton Smith story. The wood where Gérard and Fleurette agree to meet
possessed an ill-repute among the peasantry. Somewhere in in this wood, there was the ruinous and haunted Château des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb within which the Sieur Hugh du Malinbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years. Of these and their phantoms, there were grisly tales; and there were stories of loupgarous and goblins, of fays and devils and vampires that infested Averoigne. But to these tales Gérard had given little heed, considering it improbable that such creatures could fare about in open daylight.
At first, it seems as if Gérard is correct, for, as he travels on his way to meet Fleurette, he instead finds a mysterious woman accosted by "three ruffians of exceptionally brutal and evil aspect." Entering the fray to defend, he discovers too that the ruffians are in fact an illusion and they, like the woman they were attacking, disappear as he gets close to them, leaving Gérard to feel that "there was something after all in the legends he had heard."

Confused by this turn of events and worried that he will miss his rendezvous with Fleurette, Gérard tries to return to his original path, but instead learns that he is lost in the wood, which was "a maze of bafflement and eeriness." Frightened and tired, he finds himself moving in circles, returning again and again to a tarn on whose shores he finds a many-turreted castle.
There was no sign of life about the castle; and no banners flew above its turrets or its donjon. But Gérard knew, as surely as if a voice had spoken aloud to warn him, that here was the fountain-head of the sorcery by which he had been beguiled.
It'll come as no surprise to anyone that Gérard eventually finds himself with no choice but to approach the castle and enter it, in the process learning the truth about his present circumstances and about the fate of Fleurette. What he finds there and how he deals with it form the bulk of "A Rendezvous in Averoigne," which is, I think, both an excellent tale in its own right but also an excellent reminder that not all weird tales need be dark or vicious, even if they deal with dark and vicious things.

It's an important reminder in my opinion, especially given the renewed interest in pulp fantasies in gaming circles. Much as I think this older tradition of fantasy has something unique to offer contemporary readers (and gamers), I think it'd be a mistake to see amoral grimness as that offering. Just as often there's happiness, even joy, and that's as much a part of the pulp fantasy heritage as anything else. We forget that at our peril.


  1. Wow. Pulp Fantasy prose is truly awful.

  2. What you have to remember is that pulp writers were paid by the word, not by the story. So it was in their interest to use as many words as possible! Verbose, yes. Awful, no.

    Also, pulp writers would alter their vocabulary to suit the atmosphere they wanted to create. Clark Ashton Smith wanted to evoke the atmosphere of old fairy tales, and so he used old-fashioned words and sentence structures. E E Smith, on the other hand, wrote action tales and used a different grammar to do so. Both work, in my opinion.

    I like pulp prose as a style of writing.

  3. I wonder if it had any influence on Gary Gygax's prose.

  4. My principal grip with this tale is the abruptness of the ending.

  5. Wow. Pulp Fantasy prose is truly awful.

    Compared to most contemporary fantasy fiction, I'll take pulp fiction every time.

  6. I wonder if it had any influence on Gary Gygax's prose.

    None whatsoever, since Gygax hadn't read Smith until fairly late; CAS isn't even included in Appendix N, despite my thinking he was for the longest time.

  7. Isaac Asimov railed against Clark Ashton Smith a couple times, but I've found a couple of his stories have a beauty and elegance not found elsewhere. The Isle of the Torturers, for one.