Monday, July 4, 2022

Rod Serling and CAS

I've often remarked on this blog how rare it is for the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard to receive good adaptations in visual media and I think I'm more than justified in saying so, but at least HPL and REH got adaptations, no matter how poor. The same cannot be said for Clark Ashton Smith, whose pulp fantasies have left almost no footprint in contemporary popular culture, despite his being one of the most popular and influential writers to have written for Weird Tales during the Golden Age of the Pulps. 

Of course, "almost no footprint" is not the same as "no footprint." As it turns out, one of Clark Ashton Smith's stories has been adapted – and by Rod Serling no less. During the third season of his 1970–1973 television anthology series, Night Gallery, there was an episode that adapted, albeit loosely, Smith's 1931 tale, "The Return of the Sorcerer." Compared to the groundbreaking The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery is somewhat more uneven in quality. However, it does feature a number of genuinely excellent episodes, most which focus on horror or occult subjects, thus giving the series a different overall tone to its illustrious predecessor.

Though "The Return of the Sorcerer" is not one of the show's best episodes, let alone a completely faithful adaptation, it's not without its charms. The primary one is the performance of Vincent Price as John Carnby, the story's titular sorcerer. Price is always a pleasure to watch, even (especially?) when he's hamming it up, as he does here. Bill Bixby plays the translator of Arabic whom Carnby hires (called Ogden in Smith's original and Noel Evans here) to help him decipher a passage from the Necronomicon. The broad outline of the story is the same as its source material, though there are a number of additions that serve no real purpose. Chief among them is the creation of a new character, Fern (Tisha Sterling), who is Carnby's assistant and whose sole purpose in the TV narrative is to add some titillation. I find that odd, because if any Weird Tales author knew when to make good use of sensuality, it was Clark Ashton Smith and he saw no need of it here.

As adaptations go, it's not the worst. It's certainly closer to its source than, say, Conan the Barbarian, but it's nevertheless not something I'd urge anyone to seek out. The episode is more of an oddity than anything else, a unique example of Hollywood taking notice of Smith. Given the treatment Lovecraft and Howard have received over the years, perhaps it's just as well that the Bard of Auburn has largely been ignored.


  1. Oh man, Night Gallery was so much fun to watch when I was a kid. Rod Serling was a genius. Thanks for stirring up great memories, James. Happy 4th!

  2. All I can remember of this episode is Vincent Price being a magnificent ham. Thanks for reminding me. Happy 4th!

  3. Serling's introductions to each piece were often better than the episode itself, and worth watching the show, at least for the first two minutes.

    I do remember watching this episode, and thinking it was maybe C+ quality. There was also the HPL tale, "Pickman's Model," which was an episode on Night Gallery as well, in the B range, if memory serves.

    1. I keep hearing about "Pickman's Model," but I have never seen the episode.

  4. I recently read Tim Powers - Stress of Her Regard which opens with a CAS quote which either inspired or influenced the story line. So there is another one...

    “…yet thought must see
    That eve of time when man no longer yearns,
    Grown deaf before Life’s Sphinx, whose lips are barred;
    When from the spaces of Eternity,
    Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
    On the lost world the stress of her regard.

    —Clark Ashton Smith,
                              Sphinx and Medusa”
    Excerpt From: Tim Powers. “Stress of Her Regard.”