Monday, August 24, 2015

The Local Styles of Clark Ashton Smith

Unless you've been living under a rock, or are perhaps a well-adjusted adult belonging to 99.7% of the general population, you are no doubt aware of the recent Hugo award controversy. After careful deliberation, I've decided to signal my views on this embarrassing public display extremely important, historic debate by blogging about something completely different.

While working on various projects over the spring and summer, I had the opportunity to listen to all five volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's collected stories published by Night Shade Press. I was already familiar with Smith's various settings and stories, and indeed had read certain of his stories many times over. But hearing them all at once, from beginning to end, in the order in which they were written (and not grouped according to setting and internal chronology, as Lin Carter attempted to do), I was struck very much by the extreme variability of his work.

Anyone who knows anything about Smith has heard of Hyperborea, Zothique, and Averoigne. Less well-known are his planetary fantasies, his science fiction stories, and his supernatural tales. Here's rough account of the milieus that appear in more than one story:
  • Xiccarph*: a planet described without any reference to earth or human exploration; ancient, weird, sublime, alien, terrifying, and perverse. Cf. "The Maze of Maal Dweb," "The Flower Women." The one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," is pretty similar.
  • Hyperborea*: a prehistoric Arctic realm of steaming jungles and wicked cities that slowly succumbs to the advance of the glaciers. Cf. "The Seven Geases," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," "The Door to Saturn," "The Coming of the White Worm."
  • Poseidonis*: the last remnant of foundered Atlantis. Cf. "The Death of Malygris," "A Voyage to Sfanomoë."
  • Averoigne: a fictional province of medieval France filled with mysterious forests and ancient ruins and isolated abbeys and quiet hamlets, and inhabited by monks, bishops, witches, and lycanthropes.
  • California: a state on the western coast of the United States, where stories are typically narrated by one Philip Hastane, writer of fantastic fiction. Cf. "The City of the Singing Flame."
  • Colonial Mars (Aihai): man's colonies on the Red Planet, which are shared with enigmatic aborigines. Cf. "Vulthoom," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."
  • The Alcyone: an "ether-ship" on a voyage to circumnavigate the universe. Cf. "Marooned in Andromeda," "A Captivity in Serpens."
  • Zothique*: the "last continent on earth," a far-future amalgam of the Orient of Victorian romance, mysterious and cruel. These works are classics in the Dying Earth canon. Cf. "The Isle of the Torturers," "The Charnel God."
Most of these stories can be found at Eldritch Dark. Milieus with a star (*) were featured as Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions. There are many miscellaneous stories as well, but most fall under one of these headings.

What I've noticed is that Smith's style varies considerably from story to story, but that the mood and voice of a story seem dictated by its setting. Let me give some examples.

The Xiccarph stories are planetary fantasies with a setting quite different from anything I can think of. They are ornate – bejeweled – but altogether joyless. Their telling is luxuriously sedate and cruel and pointless. There is little climax. They are, in fact, expressions of the ennui bred by indolence and splendor. Which is fitting, given that this is what moves the inexorable protagonist (the sorcerer Maal Dweb) to action. Smith's one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," a planetary fantasy that is dark and ornate but not languorous, seems closely related.

The Hyperborea fantasies are typically told in a tone of lofty irony. Most are dryly humorous. Much of the humor derives from the elevated speech of the characters (reminding one of Jack Vance) and the detached commentary on their actions. The protagonists generally come to some high and unpleasant doom.

The Poseidonis stories are similar in some respects, but typically lack the ironic tone. In "A Voyage to Sfanomoë," for instance, the principals escape the final disaster by voyaging via space ship to Venus only to be devoured by teeming flora, but their fate is presented as weirdly joyous and horrific rather than amusingly nasty. Really the effect is rather hard to describe.

The telling of the Averoigne stories is quite different from any of the above. They're elegant without being ornate or florid. They sound like tales from an old book of romances, and have a certain charming naivety. The supernatural elements are rather ordinary, consisting mostly of sorceresses, werewolves, and vampires. Religion, a matter of dark irony in the Hyperborea cycle, is treated diffidently here. Morality is a matter of concern.

(Averoigne, I have to say, is my least favorite of Smith's invented milieus. I don't know what this says about me, but I prefer votaries of Tsathoggua to Benedictine monks.)

The Philip Hastane stories are written in unadorned prose. The tone is earnest and straightforward, the descriptions vivid, the dialogue commonplace. The descriptions of California are well-grounded in reality. The stories generally concern the irruption of cosmic weirdness into the mundane world. Here I see the influence of British supernatural horror writers like Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and William Hope Hodgson.

The voyages of the Alcyone are recounted with stolid prose and reserved, half-humorous dialogue. I could almost imagine Mr. Peabody doing a voiceover. I've never heard them much commented upon, but find their descriptions of alien life uniquely enjoyable. The unfathomability of alien psychology is particularly well handled. Their plots are pretty similar, each involving a sequence of adventures on some mysterious planet, followed by a narrow escape into space. But it's refreshing to read such quaint (by modern standards) science fiction from the thirties.

To me, the Zothique tales recall Victorian imaginings of the Orient as encountered in works like Burton's One Thousand and One Nights or Beckford's Vathek. Their tone is dark and frequently ironic, but never humorous. It has the slow and somber richness of a grand mausoleum, but here the mausoleum is the world itself. Smith wrote more stories set in Zothique than in any other place. It's a pity that the Ballantine edition is so hard to find.

What intrigues me about all this is the fact that Smith, who invented more settings than any other author I can think of, apparently felt that these trappings were inextricably linked to style. I think he was onto something. I've written in the past about style in fantasy, and in particular the opposing viewpoints of C. S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin. I incline more toward the latter, but in my opinion neither quite gets it right. It's a point I'll have to return to sometime soon.

At any rate, compare this to someone like H. P. Lovecraft, who grew out of his early Dunsanian phase (which owed a large debt to its model) only to settle into the stylistically monolithic Chthulu-mythos phase for which he is most famous. The latter stories are all told in precisely the same voice, even when supposedly narrated by a character. The Lovecraft style is easy to parody precisely because it is so uniform. Taken individually, Lovecraft's stories are much more substantial that most of Smith's, but as a stylist I think Smith can skate circles around him.

It's a shame that Smith is not better known (as noted at Black Gate today), because, for sheer versatility and inventiveness, he has no peer.

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