None strikes the note of cosmic horror as well as Clark Ashton Smith. In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer, living or dead.
So wrote another great writer of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. Even given the Old Gent’s tendency toward hyperbole when extolling the virtues of his colleagues, I find it hard to disagree, particularly on this, the 122nd anniversary of Smith’s birth in Long Valley, California.
Of the “Big Three” – Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith – who wrote for Weird Tales during the 1920s and 1930s, CAS is the only one to have lived long enough to have died of old age and yet he’s also probably the least understood and celebrated. That’s a great pity, not just because he’s probably my favorite of that glorious triumvirate, but also because his works are quite unlike any other fantasy or science fiction writer before or since. Jack Vance probably comes the closest to conjuring up the shade of Smith, but there are lots of subtle differences between the two authors that make such a comparison facile.
For one, Smith considered himself primarily a poet rather than a writer of fiction. Even his most straightforward prose pieces possess a poetic character to them that transcends his florid vocabulary and indulgence in archaisms. There’s an incantatory rhythm to his writing that demands it be read aloud; I frequently find myself doing just that when I read a Smith story. It’s a very strange and powerful thing. Rarely have I encountered a writer whose written words so cried out to be spoken (intoned?). When you do so, the experience is like few others in literature. Smith’s writing is luxurious and appeals to all his reader’s senses, including the mind’s eye – that part of the imagination that doesn’t just conceive of people and things and places that have never existed but that strains at the edges of infinity. I find myself at a loss to describe precisely what I mean, but then that’s part of my point. Smith’s work often gives voice to the ineffable in ways that are both exhilarating and terrifying. Few others writers I have encountered can do that.
I make no secret of the fact CAS is my personal favorite of the Big Three of Weird Tales and the one whose works I most wish I could emulate. Though I strive mightily against it, I fear that my own writings evince a style more in keeping with the antiquarian Lovecraft than with the otherworldly poetry of the Bard of Auburn, though not for lack of trying. Smith’s genius is elusive and not easily reproduced.
That same elusiveness may explain why Smith’s direct influence over Dungeons & Dragons (and gaming more generally) is mostly marginal. Despite my continually believing otherwise, Gary Gygax did not include him in Appendix N of his 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide. However, Smith’s name does appear in the bibliography to Tom Moldvay’s edition of the D&D Basic Rules (1981). Moldvay’s contemporaneous adventure module Castle Amber is as true an homage to CAS as you’re likely to find in the annals of the hobby, but it’s nearly singular in this regard. I suspect that’s because, unlike Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean horrors and Howard’s blood and thunder yarns, Smith offered little that could be easily reduced to a formula and mimicked to the point of banality. Likewise, he provided neither a coherent mythos nor a recurring protagonist, making it difficult to place him in a “box” the way that so many other creators have been,
Anyway, the brilliance of Smith’s writings come through not so much in his characters, plots, or locations but in the moods he evokes. Smith’s tales focused more often than not on decadence and decline, ennui, and the inevitability and pain of loss – all shot through with a sardonic humor that somehow manages to avoid either the bleakness of Lovecraft or the brutality of Howard. CAS, therefore, comes across to me as the most “human” of the Big Three, the one whose thought processes and obsessions I can most relate to. Despite that, his genius remains mysterious and not easily imitated without descending into parody, which is probably why he remains less well known than a writer of his talent ought to be.
Yet, Smith’s shadow lingers. Monster-haunted Averoigne is a spiritual ancestor of many a fantasy setting: its dark woods home to demons that civilized man believes himself to have banished forever. Hyperborea offers a darkly humorous example to every referee who ever wanted to see player characters reap fitting rewards for their venality. Decaying Zothique reminds us that there are fates worse worse than the death of the sun. Xiccarph, Poseidonis, Polaris and others — they all reveal aspects of the Smith’s multifaceted brilliance and, sampled like fine wines, each broadens the palette of the mind. That’s good training for any roleplayer – or reader – not merely those with romantic, ennuied spirits.
Therefore, I encourage anyone who’s never had the chance to sample Clark Ashton Smith to do so today in honor of his birthday.
Our other coverage of Clark Ashton Smith includes:
New Treasures: The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies, Vol. 1 by Clark Ashton Smith
Vintage Treasures: The Timescape Clark Ashton Smith
The Shade of Klarkash-Ton by James Maliszewski
One Shot, One Story: Clark Ashton Smith by Thomas Parker
New Treasures: The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
The Crawling Horrors of Mars: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”
Deepest, Darkest Eden edited by Cody Goodfellow by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Adventures in Stealth Publishing: The Return of the Sorcerer
A Few Words on Clark Ashton Smith by Matthew David Surridge
The Unqualified Unique: The Daily Mail Interviews Me for Clark Ashton Smith’s 50th Morbid Anniversary by Ryan Harvey
Of Secret Worlds Incredible: A Psychedelic Journey into Clark Ashton Smith’s Poetic Masterpiece by John R. Fultz
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part I: The Averoigne Chronicles by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part II: The Book of Hyperborea by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part III: Tales of Zothique by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part IV: Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph by Ryan Harvey