I’m a great fan of fantasy and science-fiction, much preferring it to “mainstream” fiction. Give me spaceships or wizards any day over the adventures of desperate suburban housewives or men trapped in a job they hate. So it struck me as odd the realize I had never read much of the work of a writer regarded as one of the greats of the Pulp era of “weird fiction,” Clark Ashton Smith. I’d of course seen him referred to in other works, such as Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness,” and knew that he was friends with one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, even contributing elements of Lovecraft’s bleak fictional universe, but I don’t recall ever actually reading Smith’s stories.
So it was, after reading several posts and comments full of effusive praise for Smith at James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog and after mostly enjoying a small folio of three of his stories, that I decided to dive into the deep end and read a collection of what were regarded as his best stories, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”
My one-word review: Ugh.
Okay, okay. That requires some explanation.
The tales contained in Return… come from a time when the barrier between fantasy and science fiction wasn’t as strong as it is today, and so elements of both would often mix in a story, as in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” or “The Chain of Aforgomon, both stories in Return… . That’s representative of the period and something I enjoy quite a bit. Burrough’s John Carter stories on Mars do the same and are quite a lot of fun.
However, two things ruin this collection for me: pathetic endings that break the rules of good storytelling and Clark’s language. That last is sure to be the most controversial assertion in this review, so I’ll deal with the question of endings, first.
There was a convention in weird fiction of the time that one could end a story, not with a real conclusion, but with an ending that the reader left wondering at the horror and… weirdness of it all. “Weird,” in the older, more poetic sense of things strange and unnatural, not that which leaves one puzzled and thinking “that’s weird.” Lovecraft often did that, and it mostly works fine. In the stories in Return… however, Smith often crosses over to the latter, ending a story with something that doesn’t leave one with a satisfying sense of wonder, but rather with the urge to throw the book across the room in frustration. Which is exactly how I felt at the end of “The Seven Geases:” the protagonist suffers a mors ex machina that literally had me saying “That’s it?” aloud. This is the worst example in the book, though several others had similarly unsatisfying endings.
But what really killed my enjoyment of Smith’s stories was Smith’s prose. This, I know, will be heresy to some, but it’s true. Smith was a poet and, as James observes in in an appreciation of Smith on the anniversary of his birth:
In particular, CAS reminds us of the power of words to transport us to other places and times and to induce in us feelings and moods. Smith began his literary career as a poet, which is why so many of his stories are better understood as prose poems rather than as narratives in the traditional sense. That’s not say that Smith’s stories are devoid of plot, but plot is often secondary to the evocation of emotion in the reader through the use of exotic language. Critics of Smith’s approach deem his vocabulary unnecessarily ornate and they would be correct if one were to indulge in a steady diet of such language. But, as a “palate cleanser,” such language is both useful and inspirational.
I’ll have to demur, with respect. Even in very small doses, I found Smith’s prose florid and often pretentious, indeed precious. Smith regularly indulges in circumlocutions that had me more than once muttering “Will you please get to the damn point.” Perhaps that reflects a failing on my part as reader, an impatience that makes me ill-suited to Smith’s writings. It’s worth noting that I don’t often appreciate poetry, either. Others may well enjoy Smith prose — in fact, many do. In my defense, I offer my enjoyment of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, which often engaged in similar “purple prose.” Why I should like Lovecraft while reacting badly to Smith is a mystery to me; perhaps it has to do with discovering Lovecraft in my teen years and having fond memories from that time, whereas I came to Smith only recently and thus I wasn’t willing to “cut him some slack.” Maybe, but I still think Smith’s use of language is inordinately self-indulgent.
So, given I disliked Return… so much, was there anything I liked? Sure. Many of the stories, such as the aforementioned “Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and the eponymous “The Return of the Sorcerer” contain great ideas for fans of roleplaying games, whether fantasy, science-fiction, or horror. Often I found myself being intrigued by a concept Smith introduced, but wishing it had been written by his contemporary, Robert E. Howard. And, should I ever again gamemaster a RPG campaign, I’ll surely come back to the tales in The Return of the Sorceror as an “idea mine.” But for enjoyable reading? No, not when the first word that comes to mind is “chore.”
Summation: Recommended with strong reservations.
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