Saturday, March 8, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith in all his glory

So, speaking of Lovecraft reminded me of  the weird and wondrous work of Clark Ashton Smith. My introduction to Smith's work came not through Lovecraft but through a D-and-D module, X2. CASTLE AMBER [1981] by the brilliant and perennially underestimated Tom Moldvay. Moldvay adapted several of the Averoigne stories, Smith's best work, into an intriguing adventure that left me wanting more.

Unlike many, I found Smith's distinctive style and his cold-blooded point of view remarkable and refreshing. While a Lovecraft story would dissolve into incoherence meant to represent the narrator's cracking up, and frequently fell back on the cliche that whatever was happening was too horrible to describe, Smith wd simply go ahead and describe it in precise, almost clinical detail.

Also, whereas Lovecraft liked to use and re-use a few favorite adjectives ("eldritch", "hideous", "unspeakable"), Smith chose his words with great care and specificity. Take, for example, the following tour-de-force passage, where Smith both creates a vivid word-picture and amuses himself (and, hopefully, the reader) with the controlled extravagance of it all:

"Beginning with late spring, the Cistercian monks 
were compelled to take cognizance of sundry odd 
phenomena in the old, long-deserted ruins of Ylourgne, 
which were visible from their windows. They had 
beheld flaring lights, where lights should not have been:
 flames of uncanny blue and crimson that shuddered 
behind the broken, weed-grown embrasures or rose 
starward above the jagged crenelations. Hideous noises 
had issued from the ruin by night . . . and the monks 
had heard a clangor as of hellish anvils and hammers . . . 
and had deemed that Ylourgne was become a mustering
-ground of devils. Mephitic odors as of brimstone and 
burning flesh had floated across the valley; and even 
by day . . . a thin haze of hell-blue vapor hung upon 
the battlements . . . Observing these signs of the Arch
-foe's activity in their neighborhood, they crossed 
themselves with new fervor and frequency, and 
said their Paters and Aves more interminably 
than before. Their toils and austerities, also, 
they redoubled."

--Clark Ashton Smith, "The Colossus of Ylourgne" [1934], 
(Arkham House, 1948), pages 123-124

--John R


Giuseppe Lippi, Milan, Italy said...

I don't know which adaptation you refer to, since I don't play games (perhaps a comic book?), but anyway, you're perfectly right. When you discover Clark Ashton Smith - I began reading him in 1976 and in the long run finished all his published tales - your life is magically changed and summoned as if for rebirth.

Magister said...

I'm not sure about Lovecraft overusing "eldritch" -- you'd be surprised how seldom that word is used.

JL said...

A nice paragraph, although -- playing devil's advocate here -- I don't see that much difference to HPL's word choice and the Gothic stereotypes discussed in your other posting: "old, long-deserted ruins", "broken, weed-grown embrasures", "hideous noises", "mephitic odours", "flames of uncanny blue", "hell-blue vapor" ... again, you could argue the author is merely claiming the uncanniness of a given thing, while one could just as well say "he seems to be afraid of ruins / the color blue and I am not" :)

Granted, since I haven't read a lot by CAS yet, the overall style and atmosphere might be a lot different. So, just nitpicking :)

John D. Rateliff said...

Giuseppe: X2. CASTLE AMBER (CHATEAU D'AMBREVILLE) is a DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS module, a 32 page adventure, published in 1981. The climax transports the player characters to Smith's medieval province of Averoigne, where they can meet and interact with characters and monsters from Smith's stories. Moldvay also included a bibliography of Smith's Averoigne stories in a bibliography of recommended reading at the end. The adventure's important both as a rare example of TSR adapting an author's work and because it was an obvious inspiration of Hickman's I6. RAVENLOFT, which came out about two years later.

Magister: maybe a little eldritch goes a long way . . .

JL: If you like Lovecraft at all, I highly recommend reading Smith; he does everything Lovecraft does, but better.

--John R.

Paul W said...

I agree very much with this post, especially X2. Have you ever seen the movie Ladyhawke? It reminded me so much of a CAS's Averoigne tales that I was certain it must have been based on his work, but I've been unable to find any connection between the two.

Reality Wedge said...

For more on CAS: