Sunday, October 23, 2016

Adding to Appendix N: Clark Ashton Smith, the Beast of Averoigne, Castle Amber, and Horror. A scattered bit of writing.

There will be spoilers for Clark Ashton Smith tales and for the module Castle Amber within - be warned!!

note: written late and editing will be done in a day or three.

  Every Halloween I run my players through a classic module. This year it is Castle Amber.



  In 1975 my father took me with him to Chicago to visit relatives. We hit a gigantic used bookstore whose name I lost decades back. He got a third edition of The Outlaw of Torn and I got a ton of pulps, reprints, and some Clark Ashton Smith, including the Beast of Averoigne.

  In 1981 I had ordered ahead and picked up a copy of Castle Amber the day you could, where I lived.
  Part of the adventure is set in Averoigne. There is a blood-red comet in the sky. A horrifying beast stalks the night. It is called the Beast of Averoigne.

  Between 1929 and 1934 Clark Ashton Smith had more than 100 short stories published, mostly horror and weird tales. He created Zothique (the last continent on Earth in a time when the sun shone darker with age, a Dying Earth before Vance) and Averoigne, a fantastical France.

Clark also worked a variety of jobs  never becoming rich. He picked fruit, sold his own sculptures, worked as an editor, and wine maker.

  Before he turned 21 Clark was compared favorably with Bierce and London. His correspondence circle was wide and it is argued by some of his fans that there was no 'Lovecraftian circle' or correspondence - it was Smith's circle and Lovecraft was in it.

  Clark was one of the 'Big Three' of Weird Tales and wrote extensively to Howard and Lovecraft without ever meeting them in person. It is believed that only 1 man ever met all three of them in person.

  Clark's early fame (where his poetry was seen as equal to Shelley or Byron!) was interrupted by a bout of ill health. After his parents, who had cared for him, were old and in ill health. He wrote his short stories to put bread on the table to care for them, but did not like it, far preferring poetry.

  Howard and Lovecraft died in succession. Clark's beloved parents died at about the same time. He stopped writing prose about this time.

  In 1986 while I was living in Monterey a colleague of mine was living in a rented house in Pacific Grove. The landlady said the home across the street had been Clark Ashton Smith's.

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  When I read Clark Ashton Smith I am reminded of Louis L'Amour, and vice-versa. Their pacing, framing, love of language, and evocative descriptions strike me as being from a similar outlook in many ways. Both men did a lot of different things, and both men had a wide range of talents. L'Amour wrote one science fiction/horror book, the Haunted Mesa; read it and compare it to some of Smith's Hyperborea tales and I think you'll see what I mean.

  Both men saw the fey, the faerie, the sidhe as not just different, but other, alien., inhuman in ways that are innately terrifying and hostile. They seem to share the outlook of the old tales of the FOlk where they do incredibly horrible things for no reason comprehensible to humanity for they are not human.

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  Smith had a formidable vocabulary. He grew up at a time when most not only did not go to high school, most did not pass the admittance exam
  You knew that within the last century you had to apply for high school and pass an entrance exam, didn't you?
  He was accepted into high school, but did not go. Instead he read the dictionary and the encyclopedia. His near-eidetic memory shines through is writing. Smith also taught himself foreign languages in order to understand great poets in their native tongue. The majority of his education, however, was what we would now call 'home schooling'.

  Smith fought illness as a child and his adult career as a celebrated poet was essentially ended by serious illness. Or a mental breakdown. At the time they were largely synonymous. He admitted that his tales of horror were sometimes based upon fever dreams of the imaginations he had while "ill".
  And his tales of horror are terrifying in incredible ways; necromancers turned into jelly and locked into rooms while ensorcelled so they will never die, left to spend eternity craving the release of death; apprentice mages knowing that they are slowly being possessed by an inhuman intelligence and that their own identity will soon be snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane and their body is host to a horror from vast eons past; desperately seeking to flee to civilization while knowing that a foul weed has its roots already growing in your brain, desperate to find a cure before a flowering tree bursts forth from your skull; the horror of Smith is often about a loss of control, an illness that leads to madness and death, or the loss of the intellect to nothingness or (worse) to some alien intelligence.

  Fate is never swift to Clark; it is slow and implacable. The horror of his tales is personal and direct. While the scale of cosmic horror is there the tragedy is close, even intimate. In Lovecraft horror is distant, impersonal, and vast. In Smith horror is stroking your hair and looking you in the eye.

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  Castle Amber is an odd mish-mash of house, dungeon, and overland adventure. It requires puzzle solving, parley, diplomacy, and tight dungeon crawling. A beautiful woman might be a gold dragon, or she might be a 25th level chaotic evil mage. But in the background is a horror that wants to hold your hand and tell you secrets.

  The estate of Clark Ashton Smith allowed the creators of Castle Amber to simply use some of his Averoigne cycle tales. The Colossus of Ylourgne is there, as are many other tales. but most important to me was, and is, the Beast of Averoigne.

  In the story and in the module a comet is visible in they sky, a blood-red comet that sheds a crimson light over the land at night. Since the comet appeared a horrifying Beast has haunted the countryside killing anything it finds. The local Abbot prays it will be destroyed. In the end it is learned that for some unknown, unknowable reason the light of the comet is transforming the Abbot into the Beast, changing a holy man into a foul monster, making a good man evil. It is one of the most disturbing of horror tales - a good man is a monster, unknowing, and he can be stopped only by death. A similar tale is told from the viewpoint of the man himself in King's short story Strawberry Spring.

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  How do you make an RPG horrifying? I think one of the best examples in print is the Complete Book of Necromancers by Steve Kurtz. Kurtz obviously knew Smith intimately well and made his book eerie and horrifying like Smith did.
  He made it personal and intimate.

  While some OSR version focus very heavily on horror (obviously LotFP is big there) I dislike D&D campaigns that are primarily horror. That said, I include horror elements in my campaign. Interestingly, my players feel that one of the worst 'horror crept in' games was the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. One player from that session has his characters habitually stab snowbanks out  of terror that snow is actually an alien thing.

  I find that the key to good horror is vagueness in the large things and precision in the odd. The man whose eyes were melted out of his head? he can't really describe what it looked like, but he can look right at your hands with his empty sockets as you fidget. The characters get only a vague glimpse of the outline of it but a very detailed description of the sound its claws make on stone. Hell, let them know that they realize it wanted them to hear its claws on the stone.

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  I ran Castle Amber for my main party in 1981. I have very clear memories of how 8 of 10 characters died in the chateau in various horrifying ways. The only ones to make it to Averoigne were the ranger and the monk. A new party, lead by the ranger and monk, travelled through Averoigne. The monk made it back, 1 character in 18 lived.
  I ran it again twice in 1986 (Spring - TPK; Autumn - success, no permanent death) and I even ran Slaughterhouse Indigo for Hackmaster 4th.

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  The impact of Clark Ashton Smith on the pulps is unavoidable and you should read his works.