Pulp Appeal: “The Tomb Spawn” by Clark Ashton Smith (guest post by Anthony Perconti)

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.

May 1934 cover of Weird Tales. First appearance of Conan on the cover, but inside is “The Tomb Spawn.”

In a wine shop at the northern gate of the city of Faraad, a merchant caravan is settling down for the evening, washing away the dust of the road with the heady vintages of Yoros. A skald is regaling the crowd with tales from antiquity. The story for the evening concerns the mythic Ossaru, wizard-king who ruled over half of the continent of Zothique, whose “armies were like the rolling of sands…He commanded the genii of storm and darkness, he called down the spirits of the sun.” The skald tells of how the long lived Ossaru, in his extensive reign, read the portents of the heavens, travelled to the desert and captured the space demon Nioth Korghai, who arrived by comet.

Ossaru imprisoned the creature in a vault beneath his throne room, whereby the alien would advise the king in uncanny astrological lore. In return for this knowledge, Ossaru, at certain stellar conjunctions would send down into the vaults young maidens and warriors which were never heard from again. At these times, the throne room would resound with the muffled sounds of mad cackling combined with the slow beating of a deep drum and the rilling of water as if from an underground fountain. This ritual persisted for many years until one day, the subterranean noises subsided and died entirely. Nioth Korghai succumbed to a strange disease. After the creature’s death, Ossaru created a double circle barrier within the vault, through sorcerous means, to act as a containment field. After long epochs, at the death of the wizard-king, his attendants lowered his mummified remains down to abide with Nioth Korghai in perpetuity.

In the audience are two brothers, Milab and Marabac, jewel merchants from Ustaim, who inquire of the bard the tales ending, given the fact that a definitive one is lacking. Ossaru’s empire has been lost and forgotten to the sands of time and has yet to be recovered. The skald gives the brothers a cryptic prophesy however, from the long dead sorcerer Namirrha as a clue; “prophesying darkly, foretold many ages ago that certain travelers, passing though the desert, would someday come upon it unaware. And he said that these travelers, descending into the tomb by another way than a door, would behold a strange prodigy.” The next day, the caravan departs for Tasuun at dawn. As the day wears on, the party approaches the borders of Yoros, the desert landscape gradually changes, with dry lake beds caked with salt, crumbling cliff faces and deep walled, boulder strewn ravines. The merchant train is traversing a turn in one such ravine, when suddenly, they are set upon by a large pack of bestial Ghorii (Smith describes them as a cross between a ghoul and jackal). The beasts make short work of the caravan and their dromedary mounts, spilling boxes of pearls, rubies, onyx idols and bolts of rich fabric into the dust.

An audio version of “The Tomb Spawn” someone read and uploaded to YouTube.

Fortunately for Milab and Marabac, they were positioned at the rear of the caravan due to Milab’s camel being lame by a stone bruise and unseen by the beast pack. At the sight, the two brothers unhitch and level their spears, ready to charge the pack, when their mounts, catching the scent of the spilt blood and the Ghorii, balk and bolt in the opposite direction. While they are fleeing, another contingent of Ghorii, on the southern slope of the ravine, spots the two survivors and gives pursuit. Heading eastward, by mid afternoon, the brothers make out over the sunken plain in the distance, the white walls and domes of a city. Having no better alternatives, the two make for the structures.

For two days, the pair trek across the powdery terrain, burning through their limited stores of food and water, losing a camel in the process, in search of that ever receding city in the distance. Half mad from thirst and starvation, Milab and Marabac finally enter the city an hour before sunset; the realization dawns on the brothers that the city is a ruin from ancient days. On the verge of death, the pair begins to search the city in a desperate attempt to locate potable water. They detect several fountains, cisterns and aqueducts, but they carry only dust and sand. Trudging on, the pair eventually find a stately palace whose walls have withstood better than most, the constant eroding force of the desert winds. Upon entering the grand edifice, within a sand choked throne room sits a black veined marble dais. Faint gurgling sounds can be heard, resembling an underground stream. Upon closer inspection, a large crack has formed in the marble from falling debris; as the brothers approach the hole it becomes apparent that the gurgling sound is coming from somewhere beneath the throne room. They remove the leather straps and reins from their camel and knot together a makeshift rope.

Milab descends first and upon determining that at twelve feet he is again on solid ground, Marabac follows. As the last of the sunlight fails to penetrate the subterranean darkness, Milab tears off and lights a piece of his burnoose. Standing before them, dimly illuminated by the small spark is the entity Nioth Korghai. Smith states: “Its main portion or body was urn-like in form and was pedestalled on a queerly tilted block of stone at the vault’s center. It was palish and pitted with innumerable small apertures. From its bosom and flat-tened base many arm-like and leg-like projections trailed in swollen nightmare segments to the ground; and two other members, sloping tautly, reached down like roots into an open and seemingly empty sarcophagus of gilded metal, graven with weird archaic ciphers, that stood beside the block. The urn-shaped torso was endowed with two heads. One of these heads was beaked like a cuttlefish and was lined with long oblique slits where the eyes should have been. The other head, in cose juxta-position on the narrow shoulders, was that of an aged man dark and regal and terrible, whose burning eyes were like balas-rubies and whose grizzled beard had grown to the length of jungle moss on the loathsomely porous trunk. This trunk, on the side below the human head, dis-played a faint outline as of ribs; and some of the members ended in human hands and feet, or possessed anthropomorphic jointings.”

The first page of “The Tomb Spawn” as it appeared in Weird Tales.

In actuality, the looming creature is an amalgamation of Ossaru and his alien monster. The deep bass drum heartbeat thunders within the chamber, while the cuttlefish head shrieks with sinister cackles. The head of the grizzled wizard-king begins a chant in a solemn cadence in an unknown tongue (perhaps in his native dead language, or a spell?). The monstrosity ponderously shambles over to the pair, its multitude of segmented appendages reaching out for them. In horror, they flee towards a half open door on the far side of the tomb. Unfortunately, for the brothers, they fail to notice a few paces from the exit a faint red line etched into the ground. This is the perimeter of the containment spell activated ages ago by Ossaru. Marabac crosses the red line and is immediately vaporized; turned into a cloud of dust. Milab reacts quickly enough to stop in his tracks, when he feels the grasp of the monster’s slimy withered claws on his shoulders. Milab lets out a final cry and leaps over the red line, to his death. The creature reaches out past the perimeter for the ashen remains of his prey, only to have it scorched off as well.

“The Tomb Spawn” is a typical Clark Ashton Smith story as illustrated by its bleak conclusion. The attrition rate of his protagonists is quite high; usually ending in death, but in certain instances, in fates worse than death. Smith was a purveyor of what the French termed the ‘Conte Cruel’ or Cruel Tale. This was a type of short fiction born of the decadent movement, in late 19th century France; typical stories of this genre hinge upon an ironic twist ending that comes crashing down on the main character, illustrating the cruelty of fate. This cruel twist is a mainstay of Smith’s work; unfortunately for them, Milab and Marabac become actors in the denouement of the skald’s tale. The strength of this story in my view is twofold. The first aspect is Smith’s inventive approach in creating a sense of antagonistic Weird Menace. The beastlike Ghorii, described as half jackal and half ghoul, who when attacking, “[u]tter[s] no sound, other than a sort of hoarse coughing and spitting” is pretty unnerving. But these creatures pale in comparison to the big reveal within the tomb. The hybrid Ossaru- Nioth Korghai is worthy of Lovecraft with regards to its bizarre alien biology (large, urn shaped torso, leaking viscous ichor from innumerable apertures and cuttlefish head), very much reminiscent of his Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness.

Sargon the Great

The story’s second strength lies in Smith’s portrayal of Zothique as being a continent that is vastly ancient, with strata upon strata accruing over countless cycles. In a letter to L. Sprague de Camp, Smith stated that; “Zothique as I have conceived it belongs to the future rather than the past, and lies at the other end of the time-cycle from Hyperborea, Mu, etc. The peoples of Zothique, one might say, have rounded the circle and have returned to the conditions of what we of the present era might regard as antiquity.” A subtle way in which the author conveys this sense of vast antiquity is by mentioning the prophecy of the sorcerer Namirrha, who himself was the lead character of 1935’s highly regarded, “The Dark Eidolon.” By stating that Namirrha (and his deeds) lived ages ago, in Zothique’s distant past, coupled with the fact that Ossaru was extremely long lived, surviving from epoch to epoch, Smith is able to communicate to the reader a profound sense of deep time. The author never penned a definitive internal chronology for his Zothique cycle (that I know of); he was not beholden to a strict timeline like later writers such as Asimov, Bradbury or Clarke. However, if you pay close attention, Smith does provide us some scant clues. Of course, this is an intentional act on the writer’s part; the Zothique tales are meant to have a timeless, almost dreamlike quality to them. When Milab and Marabac find themselves in the ancient ruins of Ossaru’s lost city, engulfed by the desert sands, I couldn’t help but recall the section in the Anabasis, when Xenophon and his men encounter the ruins of Larissa: “Here they came upon a large deserted city, the name of which was Larissa: a place inhabited by the Medes in days of old; the breadth of its walls was twenty-five feet, and the height of them a hundred, and the circuit of the whole two parasangs. It was built of clay-bricks, supported on a stone basis twenty feet high. . . . By the side of this city there was a stone pyramid in breadth a hundred feet, and in height two hundred feet.” This passage certainly conveys a sense of majesty and grandeur of places long lost to time. The wizard-king Ossaru, in his prime, brings to mind, a post-historical version of Sargon the Great, first ruler and founder of the Akkadian Empire (2334 BCE to 2279BCE), an actual historical personage who accomplished great deeds in our distant past. Ancient history and post history come full circle.

Guy Pradel's illustration of The Tomb Spawn
The first image from Guy Pradel’s website. The rest is equally awesome, so definitely go check it out.

“The Tomb Spawn” is an entertaining piece of early sword and sorcery fiction that appeared in the pages of Weird Tales in May, 1934. It shares similarities of tone with another tale in the Zothique cycle, published that same year, entitled “The Weaver in the Vault”. Both stories contain the Weird Menace, ruins of long dead cities and the cruel endings that were hallmarks of Smith’s writing style. At their heart, both tales are what RPG enthusiasts today would label as dungeon crawls. These two works complement each other perfectly. While reading this story, I would recommend you check out French artist, Guy Pradel’s website. He has produced six black and white, full page illustrations for “The Tomb Spawn”. The simple, yet striking line work, combined with a heavy dose of India ink is reminiscent of the legendary Alex Toth, at the height of his formidable powers. These six pieces enhance the mood of the story, while enriching the overall reading experience. The images can be found at Guy Pradel’s website, http://guypradel.fr/tomb-spawn/.

The Eldritch Dark: The Sanctum of Clark Ashton Smithwww.eldritchdark.com

“The Tomb Spawn”(direct story link)

This entry was posted in guest post, Pulp Appeal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pulp Appeal: “The Tomb Spawn” by Clark Ashton Smith (guest post by Anthony Perconti)

  1. Pingback: Pulp Appeal: From The Vaults of Imagination: The Forgotten Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith (Guest Post by Joshua Grasso) | Broadswords and Blasters

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