Sunday, January 4, 2015

An Extraterrestrial Ghoul in Zothique

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Weaver in the Vault (1934) is one of his better Dunsanian influenced stories, an interesting blend of dark fantasy and elements of science fiction.  The tale is set in Zothique, a fictional setting created by Smith, that, judging by the flora and fauna, is a vaguely African or Middle-Eastern locale.  It could exist either very far in Earth’s future or long ago in its past.  Three doomed strongmen are directed by a corrupt king to retrieve the remains of an ancestor in the royal line.  Unfortunately, the remains lie somewhere beneath the abandoned and fearful ruins of Chaon Gacca, “where Death has made his capital.”

But there is also death—at least decadence and corruption—in the kingdom of Miraab, from whence the three have set forth.  Their cynical conversations along the way reveal the backstory as well as their fears of impending disaster.  A recurring image in the story is that of the ravages of earthquakes.  This is a fragile, unstable land, precariously held together.  As they near dreaded, sepulchral Chaon Gacca, they must leap over and circumvent numerous cracks and crevasses in the ground, which widen ominously as they approach their destination.  (This feature becomes critical near the end of the tale.)  The sense is that this world and its decadent civilization are breaking up and disintegrating.  The three men and their society may not have much of a future.

There is a bit of cynical irony—the closest that Smith comes to humor—when the trio of soldiers rests in the shelter of a ruined shrine at the outskirts of the city.  The edifice is dedicated to “Yuckla”, the local god of laughter and mirth—the only element of levity in an otherwise dark and fatalistic tale.  The three men offer a libation to Yuckla and pray for his protection from the neighborhood demons.  Why is there so little laughter and sarcasm in Lovecraft, Howard or Smith?

The most interesting aspect of the story is the bizarre entity encountered deep in the catacombs of the mortuary city.  It is unexpectedly extra-terrestrial in appearance and behavior.  The nightmarish quality of the climactic scene will remind readers of similar situations in Smith’s The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis (1932) and The Tale of Satampra Zeiros (1931).  Both of these stories are highly recommended; the latter features the first appearance of Tsathoggua, the malevolent toad-god, who later became a member of the Cthulhu Mythos.  (See also Face-Huggers and Others and Tsathoggua and His Fans.)   

In S.T. Joshi’s interesting footnotes about the story he remarks that a tentative title for The Weaver in the Vault was “The Ghoul from Mercury.”  Joshi cites a letter from Smith to H.P. Lovecraft indicating that Smith had already developed the core of this story as early as 1930.  At the time, Smith was making a disappointing foray into science fiction with his Captain Volmer series.  Marooned in Andromeda (1930) and A Captivity in Serpens (1931) were also published at this time.  Given Smith’s frustration with attempting a shift to writing science fiction, it is tempting to think that The Weaver in the Vault represents an effort to retrench and return to a form he was more successful with.

The Weaver in the Vault contains a smattering of unfamiliar vocabulary, as many of Smith’s stories do, but it never reaches a level where it becomes cumbersome for the reader.  Judicious use of archaic terminology can effectively create an exotic feel to a setting, which is what Smith has done in this story.  One of the author’s strengths is the ability to create vividly detailed descriptions.  Readers can easily visualize the terrain and architectural features, and will want to see what is down there in those dark catacombs.

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