Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Clark Ashton Smith, illo Jeffrey K Potter, intro Ray Bradbury.
A Rendezvous in Averoigne is a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s short fiction. A Weird Tales contributor and member of the Lovecraft Circle, Smith wrote like a sort of extraterrestrial version of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the title of this book refers to the imaginary medieval setting of Averoinge (compare James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme), its contents span across the various settings and story cycles deployed in Smith’s oeuvre. After “Averoigne” follow “Atlantis,” “Hyperborea,” assorted “Lost Worlds,” and then most fully “Xothique” (the “last continent”).
Each of these stories has a lapidary merit that rewards repeat reading, and I have been able to return to this volume with pleasure many times over the twenty years I’ve owned it. There are no dependable themes throughout; the reliable common denominator is the beauty of Smith’s language, and his ability to communicate a sense of the alien and the abominable.
Noted weird fiction critic S.T. Joshi has dismissed Smith’s stories as superficial, but to my reading they often have profound contents. As an example, I recently re-read the Zothique tale “Necromancy in Naat,” and realized that its household of three necromancers was the centerpiece of an inverted gospel of the post-Christian far future, in which Yadar and Dalili (twisted from Joseph and Mary) come to the three magi, rather than the magi to them. (And the guiding influence is a black ocean current, rather than starlight.) The inaugurating event of the narrative is death, rather than birth. And Dalili is magically sterile, rather than miraculously fertile. There is to be no redeeming death, since the liches stumble along even after the expiration of the magi. And the curious episode in which a local cannibal is fed to the demon Esrit is a symbolic criticism of the Christian Eucharist that is beyond my powers to gloss!
This book also includes an introduction by Ray Bradbury and deliciously surreal illustrations by Jeffrey K. Potter. I don’t think there’s any bad place to start reading Smith, but if you had to confine yourself to a single volume of his work, this might well be the one.