Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne
by Bill Ward
Today we look at one of the iconic settings created by Clark Ashton Smith: Averoigne. This setting was the basis for Castle Amber, and has proven to be a major influence on much of the fantasy genre.
“The very winds appeared to shun the vicinity of the dread castle. An unseen, clammy cloud of paralyzing evil hung removeless upon all things; and the pale, swollen moon, the patroness of witches and sorcerers, distilled her green poison above the crumbling towers in a silence older than time.”
~ Clark Ashton Smith, “The Colossus of Ylourgne”
Clark Ashton Smith’s work explores worlds of imagination removed from us in space, time, and possibility. Most of his writing falls squarely in what today would be called ‘secondary world’ fantasy, that is in settings wholly invented by the author, limited only by his vision and ingenuity. This makes Smith’s fiction cycle of Averoigne a bit atypical of his broader work, as it does take place in a version of our own world, a fictional province of Medieval France called Averoigne.
Averoigne is a land of scattered hamlets and remote abbeys dimly flickering like candle flames in a vast dark night of ancient forest and brooding hills, where druidic secrets from the dawn of time lurk just outside the veil of reality, and black magic rites make monsters out of men. Here the dead leap from their graves, the werewolf howls at night, and the beautiful forest maid is never what she seems.
There are eleven completed Averoigne tales, spanning the breadth of Smith’s short fiction writing career. From “The End of the Story” in 1930, to 1941’s “The Enchantress of Sylaire,” this shadowed corner of our lost history would be a place Smith returned to again and again. These tales are by and large more accessible to new readers than Smith’s other, wildly unrestrained works, and fans of Gothic fiction or the classic creature feature should feel right at home in Averoigne. And it isn’t just because it is by necessity more grounded in our reality, but because many of the conflicts and concerns of the stories are of a more intimate and immediate, less world-cataclysmic, scale.
More than other stories by Smith, the inhabitants of Averoigne experience the longing of chivalric romance (“A Rendezvous in Averoigne”), or simply the base lust and poisonous jealousy of the revenge drama (“The Maker of Gargoyles”). Averoigne may be a weird, half-familiar place of fell beasts and black sorcery, but these are the bugbears of the European tradition, as old and ubiquitous as folklore, part of the tradition of both Le Morte d’Arthur and the Brothers Grimm.
It is common to see writers adapt their style to the point of view of their narrator, but Clark Ashton Smith did much the same with setting. In Averoigne’s devil-haunted woodlands and ancient ruins, Smith found a natural fit for his poetic, somewhat antiquarian idiom. In reeling back his more rhythmical, almost feverishly incantational prose style, the best of the Averoigne stories seem to balance the line between contemporary storytelling and capturing the music of a far-away and forgotten place. There is variance at work between tales, of course. From the supernatural suspense of “The Beast of Averoigne” to the repugnant horror of “The Mother of Toads,” to the impossible-to-suppress sardonicism underlying “The Disinterment of Venus,” Smith repeatedly demonstrates his ability to tell a story in exactly the way it needs to be told.
Luckily for us, complete collections of these tales are readily available for the modern reader, and the overall effect of Smith’s world-conjuring spell is even more apparent when all of the stories are assembled together. Averoigne may be uncharacteristic of Smith’s broader body of work in many ways, but at its core its a strong demonstration of his perennial strengths as a stylist, a world-builder, and a dreamer of dark dreams.