Another year has come and gone that marks the passing since Robert E. Howard stormed into the world in 1906. I raise a glass to your memory, friend-that-I-never-had. Your memory still burns brightly within us.
On this day in 1936 Robert E. Howard took his own life.
I have been trying for a long time to capture my love for him and his writing. I've mentioned it before on this blog. Though there are plenty of writers who work I feel very strongly about (Michael Ende, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Oscar Wilde, among many others), it's Howard who keeps coming up in my mind as the one I want to express my deep devotion to. Perhaps it's because, as a pulp writer, he's generally not as well respected as what we would call literary writers (a distinction that in itself is a product of the last hundred years). Perhaps it's because his most famous creation, Conan, has been thoroughly misrepresented in media, to the point that I fear the average person has lost the sense of who Conan really is. Like with so many other icons, the average person isn't getting the real creation, but rather a blurb version with none of his complexity or fire. To them, Conan has lost his brooding and philosophy, and has become an ape in a loincloth.
Part of it is also that I regularly recommend some of my favorite stuff to people, and I've never met someone I recommended Conan to who reacted to it anywhere nearly like how I did all those years ago when I picked up my first Conan pastiche. I repeatedly recommended "The People of the Black Circle" to a fellow student who showed interest in fantasy and even showed him where he could find it, but I don't think he ever read it. When I worked at a bookstore and I talked someone into buying a book of Conan stories, he returned it within a week.
I'm not out to try to prove that Robert Howard was a fantastic writer or that Conan is a brilliant work of art. I believe both of those things, but I also know (after spending too much time dragging myself through the tiers of academia) that REH's fantastic work doesn't need a defender such as I to recommend it; it speaks for itself, and I can neither add to it nor take away. If one day we fans manage to convince the literati that Howard has a vital place in the canon, I will be jubilant, but that's probably beyond my meager power. Now, I just want to be able to express what about his writing I find so compelling.
But every time I try, I feel ridiculous. When I admitted my devotion to Howard to a wonderful poet, he gave me a disappointed look and changed the subject. When I mention my hope to write criticism about his work to colleagues, they suggest I should try popular culture instead of literature. And yet I can't give up.
If we look at writers such as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Rudyard Kipling, who have been accepted into the canon (though I could argue that, unfortunately, their stars have waned over the years), they write about many of the same themes as Howard does: exploration, survival in harsh environments, the triumph of humans over their environment, civilization versus the wild. They might have done so without murderous resurrected mummies, but the exploration of themes in Howard is every bit as rich.
And Howard talked about other themes. Love, mortality, personal fulfillment, science, loyalty, theology, sexism, tradition, and many more.
The writing is strong on a sentence level, too. The descriptions are vivid but economical, the language eloquent, the pacing fantastic. Howard's writing is a model for how to craft an intricate and gripping plot. His characters reveal surprising, even sublime, complexities and contradictions.
Talking about barbarism, conquest, and the bloody truths of steel and sinew is considered outmoded these days, as though civilization has moved beyond this "boyish" interests. We sit back on leather sofas and watch news stories on our giant flat-screen TVs about the brutality that grips other countries and shake our heads at how far "behind" they are at becoming more like us, little realizing that our way of life isn't some end point on a cosmic sliding scale of national improvement. I know, given enough time, all civilizations will collapse back into this "outdated" norm. Barbarism isn't a fantasy but an inevitability. I can picture Roman citizens on their couches laughing about the backwardness of those unwashed simpletons on the frontier.
Maybe that's something Howard has to offer us. Every day, I feel like we're slipping closer to his descriptions of decadent, hedonistic, lazy societies too wrapped up in our petty interests and wars to notice our own slide towards downfall. If we look honestly, we have to admit we're there already.
"You stab me and I'll stab you. Then you can stab me again. It'll be way more fun than actually swordfighting!"
Ladies and gentlemen,
Hit points are an outdated nonsense, a holdover Dungeons and Dragons-style games from the 70's, when hits were determined by rolling dice and consulting charts, and marking off numbers on a piece of paper was the only way to keep track of how much of the blood your character started her day with she still had sloshing around inside her arrow-riddled, sword-sliced body. It's a vague solution to measure injuries that makes up for earlier wargames having two modes for a character who just got hit by something: "dead" and "not dead." Hit points have nothing to do with combat, and they ruin any sense of immersion and realism. I refuse to believe that in an age when you can perfectly animate every hair in the flowing locks on the mane of the griffin I'm flying through a photo-realistic fantasy forest the size of Rhode Island, you can't do better than having a sword magically pass through someone's gut while a shower of blood covers up the two objects clipping through each other, while somewhere a health bar goes down a little bit. You can practically smell the Cheetos as a geek in someone's basement smudges the hit points on his character sheet and writes down a smaller number.
By 'health bars,' I don't just mean graphical representations of health, though that's part of the problem. I mean the assumption that the best way to hurt something is to hit it over and over again the same way, because after a certain number of the same hits, that something will magically fall over. A fight to the death is so much less exciting when the hero can take a sword through the face and keep on swinging. That kind of thing throws realism and immersion right out the window. It takes the dynamic, dramatic, wild excitement of a crazed melee and reduces it to politely trading stabs at the other person's torso, whittling down each other's lives like a synthetic Bloody Knuckles.
"Synthetic Bloody Knuckles" being the title for an awesome cyberpunk band.
There was a time games attempted to re-create a real-life experience in a virtual setting. Sports games still do that: they struggle to be as true-to-life as possible, even including things like weather, exhaustion, and injuries. Battle games, on the other hand, have moved into a world where fights have become more and more removed from reality. Instead of the smell of fresh turf plowed up by the hooves of heavy cavalry, the sound of jangling armor and shouts of fury and pain, the feel of a leather-wrapped hilt sweaty under the warrior's palm, a game is filled with colorful flashes, swirls, and floating pictures. One weapon does ten times as many damage-points as another just because the game says so. A wound that would kill a newbie doesn't even affect a "high-level" player. None of this is meant to feel like actually going to war. The game doesn't represent anything any more. The game just represents the game.
"We shall see battle axes and swords, a-battering colored haumes and
a-hacking through shields at entering melee; and many vassals smiting
together, whence there run free the horses of the dead and wrecked. And
when each man of prowess shall be come into the fray he thinks no more
of (merely) breaking heads and arms, for a dead man is worth more than
one taken alive." Or not.
I understand why some games, like modern shooters, have unrealistic amounts of health for the main character. You don't want to end up writhing in your own entrails when you get hit by the first dozen Nazis you come across. But that's a fundamentally different kind of experience from a real fight: you're simulating what it's like to be an unstoppable, virtually bulletproof juggernaut, a superhuman with Wolverine-like recuperative powers if he or she stays out of the crossfire for seven seconds. But that's not what I'm looking for from a swordfighting game.
Many a long year ago, Bushido Blade on the PS1 gave us a fighting game which attempted to provide a more realistic swordfighting experience. A hit from a weapon could cripple a leg or an arm, and a single good body or head blow would mean death. You had to plan and time each exchange of attacks, and a miscalculation would mean your character's doom. It felt kind of like a real swordfight! Unfortunately, since this was 1997 and therefore the era in which characters looked like papercraft dolls, the simulation left something to be desired. Attacks were slow and ponderous, and you only had a very limited number of ways to swing each weapon.
We've come a long way.
I know I, for one, would give up having every one of my character's nose hairs individually reacting to her breathing just to be able to get something as simple as having her sword clang off my opponent's sword or armor. Every attack would matter as clashing swords would mean the difference between life and death, and my shield might be all that stands in the way of the evil dark lord's massive mace and my squishy internal organs. Imagine how much more interesting it would be if taking a dagger to the stomach caused my character to stumble around, slowly bleeding out, fighting on with the last of his strength, instead of shrugging it off and continuing as normal with a bit missing from his life score.
"I'll just go sit in the hall until my health regenerates."
After a fight, we could incorporate a system of wound treatment that might open up a whole new side of the gaming experience. If this causes a higher mortality among players, I'm okay with that. Maybe less-skilled players will be fairly easy to conquer for a talented player who knows the fighting system better, just like a skilled warrior can overcome a less experienced opponent--while still giving the underdog a fighting chance to score that lucky hit. Maybe it will force players to learn blocks, dodges, and counters to avoid those mortal blows, turning a fight into a series of strikes and blocks and ripostes just like a real fight. Who knows? The player might actually get better at the game by learning new skills, instead of the game arbitrarily giving him or her 'skill points' to represent the character growing stronger while the player just keeps doing the same old moves over and over.
But that's a letter for another day.
PS You might say it's not in the "spirit of a game" for a character to spend weeks convalescing, or to have a shriveled arm or a missing eye from a grievous wound in battle. You might say that gets in the way of killing monsters and taking their loot. Maybe I'm just speaking for myself, but I'm not as interested in getting weapons with numbers attached to them or in 'leveling up.' I just want a good fight. And who knows? A character with a crippling injury might be cool....
PPS If you argue that the game is in a fantasy setting anyway, so life doesn't work the same way, I have two answers. First, can you name a fantasy novel in which a character gets run through a dozen times, shrugs it off, and keeps fighting without being the worse for it, without the novel explaining that this character is remarkable in some way? Second, in cut scenes in that same kind of game, getting stabbed or shot is suddenly treated realistically. No character gets his throat slit in a cut scene only to say, "It's fine! I still have half my life left!" Nobody walks up to you and says, "You look like you have lots of numbers in your points!" Even the game world doesn't acknowledge its own silly mechanics.
EDIT: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/260688528/clang I would totally trust Neal Stephenson with making a badass swordfighting game. He's totally going to do a great... wait a second. What's that I see in the video? Hit point bars? BAH! Still, it's worth checking out.
I remember loving Star Wars deeply as a child. I can't remember many things I was as enthusiastic about as Star Wars. I drew pictures about it endlessly, recreating scenes from memory days, weeks, or even longer after watching the film. My brothers and I played Star Wars all the time, making up our own stories using the characters from the films. Perhaps the biggest piece of praise I can give the films from my childhood is that Star Wars helped form me. Even today, when faced with something I don't know if I can overcome, I sometimes take comfort in the wisdom of Yoda's words: "Do, or do not. There is no try." or "You must unlearn what you have learned." or "So certain are you. Always with you what cannot be done."* or "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." I remember Han coming back for Luke even after he burned his bridges, or the way Obi-Wan sacrificed himself for the others.
One of the most formative times of my life was running around the house playing with Star Wars action figures. My brothers and I made huge plots that deviated wildly from the films, stories in which Obi-Wan survives and the heroes go on all sorts of magnificent adventures, stories which prominently featured Boba Fett and Darth Vader as the main villains. There was a time I watched Star Wars every week. My mother read us the Thrawn Trilogy as bedtime stories.
But that was "Before the dark times. Before the Empire."
Though it wasn't Empire that changed things for me, of course, it was The Phantom Menace. I remember standing in line for hours the day it came out. I didn't see the first showing, but even then the crowd was as excited and eager as I have ever seen an audience. Something changed in the fifteen-year-old me through that film, something which I don't have to get into in detail. I think I lost sight of something that I should have remembered.
That something is all those hours running around with an action figure clutched in each hand, shaking one or the other and making 'pew pew' noises, or making them whack each other with plastic lightsabers, going 'ksh ksh ksh.' It's all the pictures I drew of stormtroopers and laser sword fights and spaceships. Star Wars gave me a huge part of my childhood and some of my happiest memories.
And I owe all of this to George Lucas.
George Lucas has taken a lot of fire, especially from some of Star Wars's biggest fans, for what he has done, first in the special editions of the original trilogy (Han shot first!), and then in the new trilogy. But artists won't always create things I'm happy with. Even my favorite novelists wrote novels I don't like. I have let my own disappointment in the new Star Wars disguise what was most important: my happy childhood memories. And who knows? Maybe in twenty years, some other kid will be writing about how much he loved playing Anakin and Jar Jar.
George Lucas has consistently rejected fans' demands to "restore" Star Wars to the way they want it, and fans have been vocal about how they feel about it. But the truth is, George Lucas didn't ruin my childhood. He made it better.
Sometimes I think about why the live-action Star Wars TV show never materialized, and I wondered today whether that's because of how ungrateful we, as fans, have been. So let me go on record here saying, "Thank you, George Lucas. Thank you for giving me something I truly love."
* I've never been sure about the quote "Always with you what cannot be done." That middle word is hard to make out in the film. I have always heard "what." According to the Star Wars scripts I've looked at online, the word is "it." Hm. It may be time to unlearn what I have learned.
Sometimes I think people with good, solid life skills (reliable, fundamentally solid and capable people) can't be writers, because they just solve all of their problems. Writers need to fail, agonize, suffer, freak out, avoid, and tear hair (theirs and others'). That's what makes for good stories, and you have to write what you know. If you keep it together and overcome your obstacles by working hard, where's the story in that?
Now that I've told the story of my PCA/ACA Adventures, let me say a few thoughts in general about conferencing. I must admit, to start, that the $300 my university gives me to travel to conferences didn't even cover the $500+ for my plane ticket, let alone the $240 for a shared hotel room, the $50 shuttle ride, the $10+ on public transportation, and the $100+ on meals, including fries and chips so hard they left the insides of my mouth feeling like I had brushed my teeth with a dagger. One the other hand, that three hundred bucks did soften the blow a bit, and I'd gladly pay the rest to go hang out with some erudite Howardians. Part of the reason I go is also because some curious people might come over and be introduced to Howard who wouldn't otherwise pick up his work. At one of the panels, a young lady said she came because she was writing a paper about Black Mask magazine and wanted to know how people talk about the pulps, and a young gentleman said he came purely randomly. If those two leave and tell their friends how interesting that Robert E. Howard character seems, it's a job well done.
More than the actual price of being in Boston, it's the fees associated with going to the conference that bother me. We have to pay registration fees, fees to be members of the organization, and we also have to buy the journal they put out. I truly appreciate the opportunity the PCA/ACA gives us to come together and share our interests and scholarship, and I genuinely believe that a large conference like this is necessary, since it allows us to cross-pollinate and raise interest, as I mentioned above. And yet I wish it didn't come with such a prohibitive price tag.
When it comes down to it, I suspect this might be because "popular culture studies" just don't have the kind of academic heft that, say, Victorian studies or Shakespearean studies do. Maybe popular culture studies doesn't get the kind of funding support other areas do. I feel the struggle for legitimacy that we experience is a little hypocritical and short-sighted. After all, how many other disciplines have gone from "popular" to academic? In the 1800s, reading novels was considered low-brow and was even accused of corrupting peoples' morals. In Shakespeare's time, people looked down their noses at the theater, and they were considered so revolting that they stuck them on the other side of the Thames in London (I guess that was the Elizabethan equivalent of the train tracks). And yet now proper academics with patches on their tweed jackets and everything spend their time researching this stuff. Especially now, when there's such a big movement to discover and rediscover voices of minorities who have until now been ignored in the literary canon, I think that "popular" writers such as the weird fiction writers should be embraced and given the due they have so long been denied. The literary world is full of people who talk about the importance of literature and authors' voices; how can we draw a line and say whose voice is meaningful and whose isn't? We are in an age when ignored writers, those who wrote experimentally or went against the grain or were women or minorities, are being rediscovered and lauded. How can we say the contributions of writers once labeled unacceptable were unfairly dismissed and need to be honored, and then turn around and say, "But not those other writers over there!"?
Weird fiction came from a time of change, when the rise of steam, internal combustion, and electricity had all but destroyed the frontier, when social and class awareness rose in the face of the brutal factory system, when science and philosophy were rearranging the place of humans in the cosmos, and when the Great Depression made life brutal and bitter for millions. All of these are reflected in the stories of weird fiction writers. The kind of scholarship I believe will raise these writers in the esteem of academia will focus on examining their use of genuine literary talent to explore the themes of their age, not to mention more general literary analysis of their artistry, examining their work not just in terms of broad themes but looking deeper by using critical theory to analyze their work. I have been delighted to see this taking place at the PCA/ACA conference, with critical readings including gender, imagery, and the use of certain literary devices.
As I prepare for my comprehensive exams, I intend to look at the way weird fiction writers spoke to the class and economic situations of their time. I don't want to just say "they were shaped by the Great Depression" or look at the way they interacted with a mostly lower class literary form, but I rather want to look at ways they responded to this, even subverted types and played on reader expectations. For a group of men and women writing for a magazine that routinely had half-naked women writhing on the cover, they were a remarkably well-read and scholarly bunch, and their interest in history, literature, and science was amazing. They all defy what you might expect "pulp" writers to be like, but that's part of what makes them interesting. As they wrote in a "weird" genre which routinely pushed boundaries, they had the perfect form in which to explore ideas and themes that were taboo to discuss otherwise, and that allowed them to speak vitally and vibrantly to their generation and to literature as a whole.
On April 11, I packed my knapsack, put on my traveling cloak, kissed my mother, and set off from the homestead to find fortune in the greater world. After a trip in a van, two airplanes, a bus that went underground, and another train, I found myself in front of the Boston Marriott at Copley Plaza. In the spacious lobby, I saw a motley assortment of my colleagues, who had arrived for the annual PCA/ACA National Conference. By this point I was so addled by having gone up and down so many times, not to mention the sheer Transformers-like boggle of having been in a bus that hooked up to electric cables and went drove through an underground tunnel pretending it was the metro, I managed to stammer my way through getting my room key. After riding up to the twenty-sixth floor, I deposited my stuff in a room I was sharing with my friend and went in search of adventure.
My first experience was inauspicious: at registration, I put my name card in my pocket, couldn't find it in my bag, and went back to ask for it. Only when the no doubt overworked but extremely patient and polite gentleman told me to look in my pocket did I realize my mistake. Feeling a sheepishness not even my all-black outfit could fully overcome (no doubt due to the fact that I was still wearing white sneakers; I was going to be doing a lot of walking!) I wandered around the conference, checking out the book tables and marking the panels I wanted to go to the next day.
That afternoon, I ran into an old friend from my undergraduate/MA years, who now lives near Boston and showed me and my friend from my current university around. We met up by the huge old library that had murals on the walls and a fine collection of nineteenth century manuscripts, including original letters from Poe and Hawthorne, and set off for Chinatown. We received some second-hand martial arts wisdom and bought some squid jerky, and we also went into a small cafe to buy some bubble tea. We waited perhaps ten minutes in front of the display case while every other customer to walk into the store after us went right up to the counter, pushing aside whoever was already there to place an order. When we finally did order, the nice girl recommended that I try the tea I ordered hot, and then asked me to make sure it was sweet enough after she prepared it for me. It was a surprising bit of kindness after the mild frustration of waiting.
We took our obligatory photos by the big touristy gates, then had dinner at a restaurant that used to be a theater. The walls were beautifully painted with scenic illustrations, and the walls had decorations of carved dragons and other mythical beasts. Although the room was huge, there were only a few families there, and we didn't get to experience having dim sum brought to us on carts. Instead, we ordered from menus, and ended up gorging ourselves on the various still-steaming balls of meat-stuffed dough. When we were done, we told our waiter we wanted our check split three ways, which caused a bit of tension and meant we shuffled out of there as fast as we could, considering the size of the meal we had just eaten.
The day done, I turned in early, and I got up early on Thursday to start attending panels properly. I was surprised to see two of my Howardian cohorts at a panel about science fiction and fantasy, so we touched base and went out to lunch. (I ended up eating perhaps the most expensive burger I have ever eaten, a blow which was only slightly softened by it being stacked so high I had to eat it with a knife and fork.) I couldn't get over how fantastic it is to talk to people who knew much more about one of my favorite topics than I do. Hearing some of the experts in the field of Howard studies discourse about his writings is the reason I went back to the PCA after last year. Sometimes I think I know a thing or two, but the level of understanding and background knowledge these guys has always leaves me listening wide-eyed and trying to remember as much as I can. At one point, I mentioned that the Howardian mountain man Breckenridge Elkins is bearded, but at a later panel every picture showed him clean-shaven. I guess I just assumed, given how often he's compared to a grizzly bear. My paradigm got thoroughly shifted.
I ended up on the last of three panels in the Pulp Studies field. I felt every panel was very interesting, though I admit I had a bit of trouble keeping my eyes open for some of it. (You can see me coming close to nodding off in the second row in a picture on Mark Finn's blog on the same topic.) This was no reflection on the quality of the presentations. One of my comrades-in-arms wrote about C.L. Moore, Margaret Brundage, and the portrayal of female adventurer Jirel of Joiry in Weird Tales (I particularly remember the part that in one scene in Moore's story Jirel changes out of armor into a fresh suit of armor; for her, there is no 'change' between selves--the identity in armor is her real identity). There was also a bit of debate about whether the horrors in At the Mountains of Madness represented immigrants, blacks, or a giant poo monster. There was an interesting connection made between the Necronomicon and censorship (forbidden knowledge!). One of my favorite readings was Mark Finn's presentation about gorillas in Howard's writings. I've often remarked about the frequency with which Howardian heroes come to grips with giant apes, and Mark made some great connections with race, barbarism, and evolution.
If anybody asks why I didn't go to George Takei's talk, I was learning about Robert E. Howard and killer gorillas, which is probably the best excuse I can think of for missing something like that.
As for my own panel, it's frankly a bit of a blur for me. I can't say much about it other than I was terrified, nervous, and I realized that my paper barely made sense to me as the writer, and anyone who was listening was bound to be even deeper in the dark. Everyone was nice about it, though, and I made a thorough mental note to write something more reasonable and straightforward next time and leave connecting Howardian heroes to political philosophy for people who understand that stuff a lot better than I do!
After I collapsed gasping and panting on the other end of my ordeal, we went out for dinner and drinks. This was my favorite part of the conference and worth the price of admission. The topic ranged from Weird Tales, movies, video games, collecting, comics, roleplaying games, and all sorts of other stuff. We ran into a young gentleman we talked to the last year who was in game studies, and we set up a time we would all get together to chuck some dice and talk about elves on Friday night.
My panel completed, or at least over, Friday was a lot easier for me. I attended my UNL friend's presentation, which was stuck early in the morning in a suite up on the thirty-somethingth floor, so the attendance was sadly thin. One day's other highlight panels for me were the Western panel on which one of my Howardian colleagues read about Breckenridge Elkins and rough-and-tumble fighting, which I never knew was a particular fighting style with its own techniques and rituals. The next highlight was the gaming panel about mapping. I had never put that much careful thought into the science of mapping out a roleplaying world, whether as the DM or as a player. While it's certainly true that Conan never carries around a compass and sketches out everywhere he's been, creating a map of the world one visits is an interesting 'living document' mixing elements of cartography with storytelling.
The Friday night Dungeons and Dragons game (I'll admit, it wasn't technically D&D, since we were playing the rules set developed by one of the gentlemen there, called Adventurer Conqueror King (and let me take another parenthetical to say how perfectly that title for the game matches up with playing with a bunch of Howardians)). We played for a while in one of the conference rooms, but then we moved out into one of the lobbies because the night crew had to come in to clean. We were there so late they even shut down the escalators. The adventure was a great deal of fun, though we didn't get to see nearly all of the dungeon or accomplish any of our goals. It captured the missing element of many of the games I had been in before: that sense of going into the unknown with a bunch of untrustworthy cutthroats (including a Family of vermin killers, an elderly priestess of a shall we say reproductive deity, a trio of mad priests worshiping a god of decay, and more kill-crazed dwarves than it is entirely safe to be around). Without modern hand-holding such as balanced encounters and linear paths, we experienced the true paranoia of exploring a mysterious dungeon where everything was trying to kill us, an experience made all the more terrifying by our precariously low hit points and the horrifying results of being incapacitated (having to roll on a chart to see our crippling injury). We spent most of our time not fighting or exploring but debating about which course of action was least likely to lead to our awful demise. Amidst a table crammed with snacks, we played in our imaginations, making only crude diagrams to show our marching order and not relying on figures to mark our places on a board. This made the game much more colorful for me, since it all happened in my mind, which has an even better budget for special effects than a well-stocked game board. Overall, this is exactly the kind of roleplaying experience I most enjoy.
After staying up to around two in the morning (after everyone announcing around ten how beat we all were), I staggered into bed and returned the next day to my university, staggering in a semi-conscious state through the airports. When I got back, my head was still buzzing and a list of things to research. If I find my camera, I'll add pictures to this blog. For the moment, it's lost in Movingspace, the place things go when you move and can't find them while unpacking.
I haven't written for a while, so I thought I'd say something, even though I don't feel I have much to say. I've found, while writing a blog, that it's sometimes difficult to try to reconcile three things I think are essential to a good blog post: a topic I find interesting, a topic my audience might find interesting, and a topic I can write at significant length about
At any rate, moving on from navel-gazing to the meat of the thing, I've been doing a lot of reading in the old Weird Tales-esque sword and sorcery genre. In moving beyond Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft in the genre, I have been reading Clark Ashton Smith. I find Smith's writing in general weaker than either of the two masters I mentioned. His characters are flat caricatures, his prose is excessively stilted and at times purple, and in general his stories feel more like sketchy anecdotes of strange misadventures than they do full stories. That being said, I've found one story I felt moved by: "The Last Incantation."
There's some pretty classic evil sorcerer stuff going on here: the long-bearded ancient magician, the viper familiar living in a unicorn's skull, the ancient and unholy knowledge that no man should possess. But, at its root, the story is about love, melancholy, and remembrance. Even all the power of the universe cannot make Malygris happy, nor recall the happiness he had as a young man who had neither the knowledge nor the magic he possesses in his old age. He doubts even before he begins that the spell will bring him what he wants, and yet he must attempt it.
The emotion is subdued in the end. The magician is neither heartbroken nor furious; I get the feeling he is too old and withered to feel much even from this final disappointment--he has nothing left to him but his weariness and anguish. There is no single dusty tear; the only sign that he is moved is that his voice has become "thin and quavering." This withheld emotion is what makes the story work for me. Nylissa does not recoil from what he has become; she responds empty of emotion, leaving the scene's resonance squarely on Malygris.
Malygris, living alone except for his familiar, has long since seen all that is to be seen and conquered all that he had to conquer. He has sucked the juices out of life, and only the husk remains. He lives in dust and shadows. Even in this last scene, in which he performs an impossible and beautiful miracle, he is only an old man who has outlived his passions, waiting to die alone.
I do think the story is at times over-written, despite the restraint I praise. Smith, as he does in many of his stories, tells the reader what the reader already knows. For instance: "He could believe no longer in love or youth or beauty."
Or later, when Malygris refers to the "Nylissa whom I knew, or thought I knew?", the "or thought I knew" again hits us over the head with the theme. And, if we still missed it, we get the familiar's Aesop-like endingline: "This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn."
Also, this would make for a wonderful low-budget short film.