Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys good stories across many different genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and DMR Books Blog. If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.
Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Master of the Crabs” originally appeared in the March 1948 issue of Weird Tales magazine. It is the penultimate Zothique cycle fantasy published in his lifetime. The supercontinent of Zothique is a geological patchwork made up of sections of Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, east Africa and the Indonesian archipelago. It is the far future and the sun is nearing its extinguishing point, dark sorcery is ubiquitous, and monarchs rule the populace with an iron fist. Technology on the last continent is comparable to that of Earth’s Bronze Age. Taken together, all of these combined factors make for a bleak outlook for our distant descendants. Hallmarks of a typical Zothique story include a sense of pervasive decadence and inescapable doom. Smith did make some exceptions to this formula however. There are a few examples of life affirming, heroic fiction that act as counterpoint to much of the prevailing doom and gloom found in this story cycle. As in all historic periods (fictional or otherwise), there will always be individuals who strive for nobility, even in the face of oncoming eternal night. “The Master of the Crabs” is a spirited piece of adventure fiction that (for me) evokes the works of such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Ursula K. Le Guin and Umberto Eco.
“The Master of the Crabs” starts out in the Xylacian port city of Mirouane, where Manthar, an apprentice sorcerer, is brusquely awoken from his nights slumber by his master, Mior Lumivix. Lumivix orders (via some imaginative oaths about his lineage) the young man to get dressed and pack provisions for a multiple day sea voyage without delay. The master wizard has gleaned the whereabouts of his rival and nemesis, Sarcand and time is of the essence. Through the use occult means and drinking the juice from the purple dedaim, Lumivix has ascertained (through a chancy journey of astral projection) that his enemy has in his possession the ancient chart of Omvor; a pirate from antiquity that sacked the moon god’s temple in Faraad. Once the pirate made away with the swag, he fled across the western sea (to an undisclosed isle) and buried the treasure. The chart is a treasure map of the horde of the moon god, consisting of a fortune in gold and precious stones, along with several magical talismans, phylacteries and grimoires of eldritch elder lore. Sarcand has absconded from Mirouane in the dead of night, due west. His destination is Iribos, known in antiquity as the Island of Crabs, the burial site of the treasure horde. Mior Lumivix collects his assistant and supplies for the two day sea voyage in hot pursuit!
Before they depart their residence for the harbor, the master wizard provides Manthar with a weapon for self defense. At this point in the work, I noted a very Meta moment that brought a smile to my face. Not only does this piece fall squarely in the genre of sword and sorcery, the two protagonists are actual sorcerers, armed with magically imbued athames (CAS’ spelling, arthames). These are commonplace tools of a sorcerer; black handled blades used in magical rites. When I searched for these tools online, the Googleverse consensus lists them primarily as knives, both single and double edged. However, in the story, Smith repeatedly refers to them as swords. The heroes are sorcerers, wielding magically infused swords, in a piece of sword and sorcery fiction. From a rational standpoint, I understand that the term ‘sword and sorcery’ did not exist when this story was written, but still in all, it seems like a self referential, meta-scenario taken straight from a Grant Morrison comic book. The sea voyage that Mior Lumivix and Manthar undertake to the Island of Crabs brings to mind the journey of Ged and Vetch set out on, to track the gebbeth at the culmination of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Besides the fact that the two pairs of protagonists are sorcerers, the comparisons end there. I believe Mior Lumivix and Manthar resemble a different pair of fictional characters; but more on that in a bit.
When the two sorcerers sight the island, they begin to search for the sea tunnel carved through the sheer cliff face that leads to a hidden inlet. The ocean is becalmed and they are forced to row to the entrance mouth. Suddenly, the sea begins foaming a tossing the boat around wildly, all the while pulling them towards the entrance. The two companions notice that the shaft is flooded and if they enter, they will drown. The boat shoots into the opening, snapping off the mast in the process. While inside, the boat is inundated with sea water and sinks. Everything goes black for Manthar. He is awakened (again) by Mior Lumivix, while coughing up the swallowed brine. The two sorcerers have made it beyond the outer ring of the island. Just ahead of them is the curving shelf of a beach, strewn with boulders, driftwood and a beached (intact) boat with a sail the color of fresh blood. The sorcerers notice two half submerged corpses, newly deceased. These were Sarcand’s sailor accomplices who tried double crossing him out of the treasure. The two men notice that the corpses are covered with a yellowish brown drapery. Upon closer inspection, they find out that; “It consisted of a great number of crabs who were crawling over the half submerged bodies and running to and fro behind a heap of immense boulders…We went forward and stopped over the bodies, from which the crabs were busily detaching morsels of bloody flesh.” The multitude of crabs is stripping the flesh from the sailors and carrying it away into the mouth of a hidden cavern; this is the secret burial place of Omvor’s treasure. Master and apprentice follow the crabs into the portal.
Once inside, the cavern opens up cathedral like, with a natural fissure high above admitting ample sunlight. Before them is Sarcand, propped up against an open chest of age darkened bronze. The wizard’s right leg is broken, splinted and bound with shafts of driftwood. Before him on his silk cloak lies spread the ancient spoils, an assortment of gems, amulets, gold coins, bejeweled vessels and an open book, “showing illuminations drawn in fiery ancient inks.” On Sarcand’s index finger is the signet ring of the sea god Basatan, forged in the image of a kraken’s tentacles clasping an orb-like gem. The nemesis wizard is channeling the powers of the sea god and controls the local tides and sea life (in this case, the island’s namesake), not to mention putting Manthar under a hypnotic spell. Sarcand is a native of Naat, the infamous Isle of the Necromancers (of which his father is one). The island is also inhabited by black cannibals that Sarcand states are his mother’s people. Smith describes the wizard of Naat as “His huge ebon-black body, powerfully muscled though inclining toward corpulence, was nude except for a necklace of rubies, each the size of a plover’s egg, that depended about his throat.” The crabs, under the command of the wizard of Naat, are providing him the sustenance he needs in order to heal his injured leg. “His lubber lips were curved in a broad sardonic grin, showing his strong white teeth that were pointed like those of a shark.” Sarcand is planning on killing and eating Mior Lumivix and his pupil. Utilizing the power of the ring, Sarcand compels the crabs to attack the master and apprentice. The pair are swarmed and almost overwhelmed by the host of crustaceans. In a last ditch effort, Mior Lumivix throws his arthame in a circular pattern that amputates Sarcand ring hand. The cannibal wizard, blood gushing from his cleaved wrist, loses control of the arthropods and the throng surges him, tearing him to pieces. Our heroes are left with the ancient treasure.
When comparing Sarcand to another of Smith’s character of color, Ujuk from “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” it cannot be denied that the author’s views are racist in this regard. The question I have however is are the views expressed by Smith a product of the era in which he lived or was he like say, H.P. Lovecraft, an extreme example of a racist and xenophobe? Whatever the answer, suffice it to say, these views are pretty disturbing from the standpoint of a 21st century reader. So caveat emptor. And yet, given the author’s bigotry, there is some nuance involved in Smith’s world building; the vast majority of the population of Zothique is descended from Semitic or Near Eastern people. Certainly a far cry from Tolkien’s lily white pastoral fantasies. The master and apprentice relationship reminds me of Brother William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, from Umberto Eco’s wonderful 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose. Although Mior Lumivix is gruff and curmudgeonly towards his neophyte, he is continually looking out for his well being. Given the seafaring nature of this tale coupled with the Near Eastern flavor of the Zothique cycle, I imagine Mirouane to be analogous to the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (or perhaps Carthage), with the two sorcerers decked out in all the cultural trappings of that ancient metropolis. This lends an exotic flourish to this fast paced sword and sorcery yarn.