Oct 22

The Door to Saturn


I really enjoyed the discussion of Clark Ashton Smith's "The Door to Saturn", even though I think your conclusions are suspect. Granted, CAS' fiction is an acquired taste, and his diction does not appeal to all readers.


I think one of the most perceptive comments on CAS' Hyperborea stories comes from Steve Behrends, who wrote a critical guide to CAS' writings. To quote Behrends directly (speaking of the Hyperborea stories collectively):


"The prose is intentionally pretentious, so as to mock pretension - a technique found more recently in the work of Jack Vance. We encounter elegantly depicted scenes of great silliness, absurd speeches delivered by sagacious characters, humor that is droll, dry, quiet, and above all, mock solemn." (emphasis Behrends)


Beyond Jack Vance's work (which I am also a fan of), another well-known use of this technique can be found in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.


That said, when I first read CAS many years ago, I did not much like his work at first, for many of the reasons you cited in the podcast episode. But after re-visiting his work a few times, I now think his best work is brilliant, and ranks up there with writers like Dickens, Vance, and François Rabelais. The caveat being that CAS did write some truly awful and formulaic stories, but I don't include "The Door to Saturn" in that category - I think it's really quite an amazing work of short fiction.

Oh, wow, I didn't know about Steve Behrends at all, but I've just ordered a copy of that book, so you'll hear us start engaging with his readings whenever we next get to Smith -- which I hope will be soon, because I really enjoy his work as well. Indeed, I was surprised at how much I disliked this story because I usually think of Smith as the best word-smith of the Weird Tales Big Three.


I'm interested in this comparison with Vance (who's come up this week over on our Gene Wolfe forum, too), because both Smith and Vance are huge influences on Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, but I've never really thought about them as having similar styles. In fact, I was reading Vance's The Languages of Pao the same week we recorded this episode, and I just didn't notice that kind of similarity -- though both stories do focus more on world-building than on storytelling (which I liked quite a bit in the Vance). I'm going to put one of Vance's Dying Earth stories on the January ballot, and since it seems like there's a lot of interest in him, I imagine we'll have an episode on him out early next year. If you've got a particular favorite of Vance's, let us know.


We're glad to have you listening, and thank you so much for joining us on Patreon -- that's a huge help, and we're really excited about the goals that we're closing in on.

Although Behrends didn't mention it in his chapter about CAS' Hyperborea stories, I suspect his comment about Jack Vance's work was probably specific to the Dying Earth stories, which do have more of the "mock solemn" tone than is found in other Vance writings.


Glad to hear you'll be covering the Dying Earth stories on the podcast(s) in the future - those are truly wonderful works!

Hi Jeffrey, thanks for these additional insights into Smith's writing style. Certainly, I think that his style of mock solemnity or mock pretension absolutely works in many cases. Unfortunately for me, the style just didn't work with the plot of the story, which was a sort of odd picaresque, featuring two characters who don't have too much to do.


I'm excited to read more Smith and continue to explore his influence on other writers that I admire. Thanks again for following along with us!

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