Tag Archives: horror

Voicing a Past Master- the Tales of Clark Ashton Smith

I’m always looking for new projects, ways forward that can widen my platform and bring me new challenges. As 2020 finally left our lives, it gave me a final gift in December with a positive Covid diagnosis. The symptoms were fairly mild and I recovered as so many others have done, grateful for my family’s safety and the new year.

But the cough remains. Just a nagging occasional thing, but enough to screw with the spirit of a hopeful audiobook narrator. I’m taking different meds trying to beat it, but in the meantime it’s tough to audition for new projects, because I can’t stick to a schedule with my hack rising up all of a sudden.

Can’t Work, Need to Work

I need to keep doing projects.

But they can’t be long.

And Lord knows, I can’t do much with short! The Book of Tales represents my output of shorter-than-

novella length writing for the past three years, and maybe the next three too.

Once again, it’s better to be lucky than good.

Voicing a Past Master- Clark Ashton Smith

Wiki

A friend and fellow author sometimes writes and enthuses about one of the old pulp masters- what a great tale this is, here’s a link if you want to read it, etc. I sometimes click, and in January I did for a Clark Ashton Smith yarn entitled The Double Shadow. It was perfect; as soon as I started reading I could just hear the tale, the voices, the effects, the whole thing.

And with acknowledgements, opening and closing files, the whole thing was less than forty minutes. I recorded it in a single morning. And became hooked on a feeling…

The Pulp Masters- They Knew How to Write!

I was always more of a Robert E. Howard guy. His tales are more rollicking, a bit more classic. The good guys win fairly often- I like that part, so sue me. I had read a lot of Burroughs and Lovecraft too and they have their features.

But something about Smith. I couldn’t tell you how many of his works I read back then, but there’s this high-flown vocabulary (real tongue-twisters!), words that make my Kindle dictionary cry for mercy just piled thick on each paragraph. I sincerely believe that’s the kind of challenge I can take on, and I loved doing The Double Shadow. My author friend mentioned it was in the public domain–more about that later!– and an idea began to form in my brain.

Audiobooks and “Classic” Tales

You may see occasionally a famous tale, for example a Sherlock Holmes mystery or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, being issued as an audiobook by an ambitious narrator. If the work was performed roughly a lifetime ago and no estate or other person picks up the “estate”, then others can simply come in and make use of the work themselves.

Sort of.

I blew through Double Shadow in a heartbeat, as I said; it stoked me up, and I started the process of publication on Findaway Voices. And I laid out a plan, to do maybe five or six of these tales. Maybe it would get a little notice. Maybe I would become known as “the voice of Clark Ashton Smith”!

Then I got a bad feeling and decided to check into whether his work was really freely available.

Maybe I would get myself in trouble.

It’s a Bit Complicated…

I searched some forums and learned that there IS a rights-holder for CAS’ work (or some of it, anyway) and like the commenters said, it’s just good manners to ask. So I wrote to the gentleman at CASiana Literary Enterprises and he confirmed. It’s complicated.

joshuablubuhs.com

CAS works are not simply in the public domain, but some versions of his tales probably are. The folks at CASiana and Night Shade books collated and edited the latest, clearest and most official versions of Smith’s canon and those works ARE copyrighted, under The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

Having said that, he asked me what my intentions were and I told him. And he graciously gave permission for me to proceed. My sense of it is, the folks minding the Smith estate haven’t thought very much about audiobooks, and the gentleman figured my work might have some merit and attract new customers. I’m on board with that!

All’s Well (Except for the Tales’ Endings!)

So my project is up and running, starting with publication of The Double Shadow due February 15th followed by The Death of Malygris by March 1st. This should keep me out of trouble for a while as I wait for this damn cough to go away… and I can take comfort that my tale seems to be ending much better than most of Mr. Smith’s! These will be fun little horror tales you can curl up with in a loose half-hour or so, but don’t expect to hear of marvelous sunsets and couples kissing. CAS wrote some of the most exotic, bizarre, and usually hero-less tales in all of pulp. I hope it made him happy. Trying to voice and relate his stories to a new audience is certainly giving me joy and satisfaction.

I’ll have plenty of free Author House codes for anyone who would like to take a listen and maybe leave a review. Just let me know in the comments below and I’ll hook you up.

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part 4- So Wrong, They’re Right

Classic: a book people praise and never read.

-Mark Twain

This one took me forever. Not to read, but to figure out. How to classify this classic work?- and yeah, no shot you’ve read it, dear reader, none- that question puzzled me until, to steal the words of The Grinch, my puzzler was sore. The movies clearly ranked it science-fiction: of course, because they wanted to play with the special effects. A horror tale? I really thought so, because the main character is such a threat- but I found myself chuckling so loud and often as I read, I knew it wouldn’t be honest to say so. The  author’s opinion on the flyleaf subtitle calls it “A Grotesque Romance”, but being written in 1897, I knew full well that was only going to confuse people. Back then, neither word meant what it does today. The synopsis definitely doesn’t go “ugly-boy-meets-girl, etc.” In fact, for most of the last half of the book. no one meets the main character at all! Hence the chuckling, amidst which a realization fell on me like a bolt. This story is really all about the crowd– the others, the bit characters and how incredibly wrong they get it (while still being right).

That’s the theme that runs throughout The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a vast trove of unknown lore you need to catch up on by reading this book. The plot would fit on the back of an airmail stamp.

Now you see him...
Now you see him…

Obsessed amoral scientist turns himself invisible, tries to get back to normal, can’t, hurts people and causes chaos, dies. With that title, there’s no whopper of a mystery going on! But that’s where the thread picks up. As with some of his other works, Wells chooses to describe and judge his main character to you through the eyes of everyone else in the story. A mysterious man wrapped from head to toe arrives at a small town inn, and never comes out of his room. So it’s not his thoughts, but those of the tavern-crowd we are treated to. Mrs. Hall the innkeep’s wife is thrilled to have a “gentleman” boarder, but of course insatiably curious, henpecking her indifferent husband to invent excuses for knocking on the door. The regulars at the bar look on, as the guest’s increasingly aberrant behavior comes out onto the landing or is shouted through the walls.

And what do they guess? These sleepy village folk, simple rustics with that classic stolid sense of “what’s right”, do they come close to figuring out what the title character is up to? Not by a country mile: an ‘arful accident, p’raps some nasty disease, that’s what brung him into those wrappings, surely. The story continues- the mystery guest becomes ever more combative and erratic. Windows open and close by themselves, the local prior is robbed, nosy landlords appear to eject themselves from the second-floor guest room. Still no one can make heads or tails of it- you’re screaming “INVISIBLE MAN, IDIOTS!” but it does no good. The crowd continues to bumble and guess wrong- yet somehow, they manage to flush out the IM, brilliant scientist or no. Because

Not this one!
Not this one!

he’s the bad guy- treats people arrogantly, never pays up (“put it on the bill!”), loses his temper. T’isn’t right- and while the full population of the village can’t assemble one clue between them, yet there’s a kind of righteous tide, simple questions pile up and the villain is unmasked, forced from his rooms with some of his criminal intent exposed.

Wells is not faithful to any particular individual in the crowd- your PoV jumps from one stubbornly inane opinion to another, sometimes for the length of one line and never to return. A fair bit of time is spent with an unfortunate hobo, a poor fellow accosted as the IM roamed “naked” through the countryside (what are the odds?) and beaten, petrified into helping him along for a while. In the final third of the story, we settle in the house of IM’s former school-mate, another scientist fortuitously living in the vicinity, to whom he can at last begin to explain his progress.

Here the veil of humor drops away, and I must say the story of his experiments are not appropriate for all audiences. The IM coolly describes how, from his London apartment, he first tried his experimental process on the landlady’s cat- and only later discovered how agonizingly painful it was. “So that was why it meowed so awfully all those hours”- this more than anything coming before or after shows me what a beast he always was. It’s a dreadful scene: perhaps even his fellow scientist is affected by IM’s ruthless, sociopathic attitude. An attempt at betrayal leads to another rampage from the IM, who without clothes always has the advantage (or seems to). The ending is unimportant except for how it reinforces some of the themes I’ve been harping on- the many in the crowd, the entire district roused to action by the threat of an invisible menace who has declared war on mankind, and eventually they get him. In the process, they don’t do much that’s right, and some make horrible mistakes as usual (the laughter is gone from the tale by now- and I STILL don’t know what genre this really should be called). In the end, the IM reappears, which is to say, he dies.

I totally see Kevin Bacon
I totally see Kevin Bacon. You?

Good.

Hollywood seems to have followed the same general idea, both in the 1930s version with Claude Rains and the usual steroid-pumped remake (“The Hollow Man”) with Kevin Bacon. I haven’t seen all of either one, but it seems clear this theme of the common folk is preserved in the first, lost in the second. Without these untrustworthy narrators, without the gaggle of wrong-footed yokels to stare and puzzle and go off on tangents when they theorize, the tale loses a vital something.

This is something you see in epic fantasy all the time- on either side of the village’s only street as the strangers arrive, in battles and at church, and ESPECIALLY of course inside the tavern. They drink, they argue, and most of all they get it comically, horrendously wrong. Through their beloved bigotry and hackneyed catch-phrases I learned a lot about the world, the problems facing the heroes. One tavern scene I chronicled in The Ring and the Flag had so much going on, I visited it again on the same night in Fencing Reputation. {All different material, all still wrong!} And the famous Mark’s Inn of Wanlock sees repeated action in The Plane of Dreams. Some of the greatest heroes the Lands will ever know passed through its door and the regulars hardly noticed, yakking on about adventurers, crime, and the ever popular what’s-wrong-with-the-world-today. They’re totally off about who the heroes and who the villains are, much more often than not. But they get it right in the end. Things ARE going all sideways, and those adventurers (wherever they are), they don’t belong here.InvMan33

More than that; I realized from reading The Invisible Man that Wells was really double-casting the entire process of reading a great adventure. Get this, it’s brilliant. The main character isn’t really there, right? Because he’s YOU. The writer: struggling, trying for genius, losing it- and desperate to keep people from finding out your story until it’s done. And the crowd? The inn-folk, the villagers standing around and apparently too silly to guess what two and two add up to- they’re the readers of your tale. You WANT the reader to be just like them- not catching the whole thread, but very curious and grimly determined to find out more. They press you, they don’t get it, annoying yet persistent. They’re good people. And in the end, both crowds inside and out get it right. That famous saying about how often the customer is not wrong? It applies.

Whenever you hear from the crowd in a fantasy tale, you can see the readers right in their place- it’s a wonderful way to draw them in, make them feel as if they’re standing by the bar, or in the second row. None of them understand your main character, but they’re getting interested in finding out. The Invisible Man teaches a lot about people, the common character of what you might call human nature. And that’s really good news- unless of course you’re a bad person like IM himself, trying to spread chaos and evil with your tale. Then they’ll hunt you down and kill you. But that’s not your problem, unless you’re George R. R. Martin…

Where is the crowd in your story? Are you pulling readers into the book by using the masses?