June 22, 2019

Reflection on Clark Ashton Smith's "The Return of the Sorcerer"

I recently participated in a discussion on the RPG podcast Plot Points about a Clark Ashton Smith story, "The Return of the Sorcerer" (Strange Tales, September 1931).  Here is an excerpt from Plot Points description: discusses "table-top role-playing games and their supplements as literature. Our quirky panel discusses games old and new, spotlights innovations in the hobby, and links to literature."

The discussion was with Ben Riggs, the host, and Clinton Boomer, a game writer and designer. The concept of the discussion was "Appendix N University." We selected a single author from Gary E. Gygax's "Appendix N" and discussed a story written by that author.

"Appendix N" is a famous list of (mostly) pulp writers that influenced Gary E. Gygax as he co-designed Dungeons and Dragons. It was revised for the recent 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons and has been re-labeled the "Appendix E."

Curious enough, Clark Ashton Smith is not actually on the original Appendix N (but instead appears in the Appendix E of 5th edition). Pulp canon usual suspects, such as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, are there, but Smith isn't included, and his absence is something of a controversy. When people discuss the Appendix N, it is common that Clark Ashton Smith is referenced. Most assume that Smith is an Appendix N author and only realize later that Gygax left him off. Perhaps this is why they included him in the updated Appendix E?

As an enthusiast of the Weird Tales Three (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith), I have something of a theory about why CAS is left off the original but I can't verify this. I speculate Smith was left off because Gygax wasn't able to read Smith's works. In the late 1970s, Lovecraft would have been available in at least the Arkham House editions and probably (more likely) the Ballantine Editions. Howard's Conan stories would have been available in the Lancer editions. Alas, Clark Ashton Smith wouldn't have been available except for the original pulps and some earlier, rarer paperback editions, such as the Panther Lost Worlds anthologies. Am I wrong? Were the Panther's of CAS widely available?

Anyway, as a supplement to the podcast, I want to briefly analyze "The Return of the Sorcerer," the story we discussed in the podcast episode linked above. Spoilers below.

Plot Summary (spoilers): The story is about an out-of-work Arabic scholar, Mr. Ogden, who is hired by a scholarly recluse, John Carnby. Carnby wants Ogden to translate certain passages from the dreaded Necronomicon. Ogden does so. The first translated passage tells of how sorcerers can return from the dead to perform evil acts, and most often for revenge. Carnby then has Ogden translate another passage and this one treats "a singular incantatory formula for the exorcism of the dead" (17). By and by John Carnby confesses that he has murdered his twin brother, Helman Carnby, and so mutilated his body; alas, the many pieces of Helman's body have been shambling around the house. John Carnby is sure that his brother is going to wreak vengeance and so he struggles to exorcise his spirit from the house. The story ends when Helman's mutilated corpse reconstitutes into a gruesome form and murders Carnby. Ogden runs screaming from the house.

I love this bizarre story. There are so many elements that are just right. The way that setting and atmosphere are put to the service of characterization is one element that I want to touch on. Consider this description of the house:
It was a large, two-story house, overshaded by ancient oaks and dark with mantling of unchecked ivy, among the hedges of unpruned privet and shrubbery that had gone while for many years. It was separated by a vacant, weed-grown lot on one side and a table of vines and trees on the other, surrounding the black ruins of a burnt mansion. (11)
The house is painted with shadow and choked by unruly vegetation. On the left is an empty, abandoned lot; on the right, another house, a charred ruin, a fleshless architectural skeleton. Although Smith is rendering a conventional haunted house here, he does so masterfully. It's almost as if the house has a disease. The lots in proximity to it have suffered for their closeness.

Another element of the story that I love are certain descriptive passages. Consider this description of Carnby's study:
There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended. (14)
This description is so satisfying and suggestive and bears some of the weight of characterizing John Carnby and his sorcerous endeavors: Carnby is meditating on the stars (charts), mortality (skull), the past (books), and the evolution/devolution of life (ape, skeleton, crocodile). In a highly compressed description, the narrator has given us a sense of the intellectual hubris of the the character.

I love when writers braid characterization into setting. Even though we have heard very little at this part in the story from Carnby, we have experienced his house from the outside and his study, his intimate space, and so we learn a lot about him.

The final passage I want to look at is the climax, when Helman Carnby's shambling corpse kills John Carnby, his murderous brother. Focus on the shadow and notice how what Smith hides is just as important as what Smith describes:
Huge, elongated, misshapen, the shadow was seemingly cast by the arms and torso of a naked man who stood forward with a surgeon's saw in his hand. Its monstrosity lay in this: though the shoulders, chest, abdomen, and arms were all clearly distinguishable, the shadow was headless and appeared to terminate in an abruptly severed neck. (26)
The shadow of a headless corpse wielding a surgeon's saw to murder: this is pulp at its finest, a kind of literary "Death Metal." The fact that we are not getting the bald description of the phenomenon but instead the shadow cast by it makes it all the more enthralling.

Smith is a masterful storyteller. "The Return of the Sorcerer" is a tightly constructed horror narrative that is structured around the climax of the demented murder. The climax is only one intense paragraph. So, Smith uses that rest of his words to build up to this most important of moments.

In this story, character and setting are inextricably linked; place shines light on character. By contrast, consider the protagonist, our surrogate, Mr. Ogden, who is almost a non-character, an abstract avatar (and strategically so). His function is to allow us, the reader, into this strange world to see for ourselves the horrible, climactic spectacle.

I highly recommend "The Return of the Sorcerer." I read it from an anthology, The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith published by Prime Books in 2009. It has an excellent introduction by Gene Wolfe.

Read the story, check out the podcast episode, and let me know what you think.