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A Way With Words
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Clark Ashton Smith certainly had a way with words, mostly words I never heard of.

I have just finished rereading his tales set in his fantasy world Zothique. Like H.P.Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Smith wrote for Weird Tales and similar pulps during the nineteen thirties. I encountered his work in the early seventies when Lin Carter collected four volumes of Smith's stories for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Zothique is a world at the end of time where malevolent sorcerers, debauched kings and countless varieties of demons, apparitions and nameless horrors prey upon one another beneath the sanguinary glow from the dying ember of the sun. Its ancient crumbling cities squat athwart forgotten ruins, older still, but in whose subterrene vaults, you can rest assured, lurk enough monstrous beings to bring any number of protagonists, good and evil alike, to inventively horrifying ends.

With Smith it is not a question of whether the story is going to end badly for all those involved, but in exactly what fiendish manner it is going to end badly.

Delightful stuff, and then there are the words he uses. His prose is decked out, like his kings and pagan gods, in gaudy jewels -- verbal jewels -- ancient, forgotten words, plundered from libraries whose books have mostly turned to dust.What a treasure trove of words the man had. His stories corruscate with words I know but would never think to use, words in vaguely recognizable archaic forms, words whose meaning I might venture to guess and others which are as exotic and mysterious as strange shadows glimpsed in the catacombs or the glowing gems in the eyes of an idol.

Consider some words from a single short story, The Black Abbot of Puthuum: drear, ululation, candent, daymare,debouchment, acclivitous, sepulchral, cachinnations, hebetude, dubitation, crisping, dolorously, eidola, shamfast, fantasms, cacodemons.

Or these from The Voyage of King Euvoran: flagitious, fulgurations, louted, malapert, adytum, gonfalon, divagation, oupire, piacular, Stymphalian, magniloquent, terraqueous, chryselephantine.

I don't know how those struck you, but they just reduced my spell checker to gibbering madness.

Most modern readers would consider Smith's style overblown and pretensious. And, although it is apparent from reading Victorian era books that readers in the past had larger vocabularies (or at least very different ones) I wonder how many pulp magazine readers in the thirties understood all of Smith's verbiage?

I happen to love words. Ever since I came across a platypus delightfully described as "roly-poly" (in Rabbit and His Friends by Richard Scarry) I have had a weakness for perfect gems of words. I used to tackle the Word Power quiz in every issue of The Reader's Digest, hoping to add to my personal linguistic collection. Alas, my rote memory is so poor that my vocabulary never grew appreciably. I can only remember things by repetition and it is pretty hard to work fulgurations, or cacchinations or cacodemons into one's day to day conversation. Maybe if I lived in Zothique and dealt with sorcerers and demons on a more regular basis.

Probably it is just as well for my writing that I don't have Smith's vocabulary at my disposal. Gustave Flaubert admonished writers to find le mot juste. But what if le mot juste is, say, chryselephantine? And nobody knows what it means even if it is a more precise description than "made of gold and ivory"? (Damn right I had to look that up!)

But my own personal idiosyncrasies aside, I think Clark Ashton's Smith's exotic language mirrors his exotic stories perfectly. His mysterious, archaic, only partially understandable words help to capture the atmosphere of Zothique with its lost past. I guess I am arguing that his words function as interesting objects, in a concrete way, even when readers like myself might not be able to discern the meanings they convey.

I would never try to emulate such a style. In fact I never turn to a Thesaurus unless I discover I've repeated the same word about twenty times and need some alternative. If a word doesn't readily come to mind, I don't use it. Even so, I have had people remark that I use big words. Well, they never read Clark Ashton Smith.

If you are curious, his stories are collected Writings by Clark Ashton Smith

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