I know. I suck. CAS was one of the most important fantasy writers of the pulp era. Alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, he established Weird Tales as the most important and influential fantasy magazine of the early 20th Century.
It’s not like I haven’t had plenty of folks on the BG staff trying to steer me right. Ryan Harvey’s epic four-part examination of The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith, starting with The Averoigne Chronicles way back in 2007, was a terrific bit of scholarship, and I was proud to publish it. More recently, John R. Fultz offered a detailed study of Smith’s poem “The Hashish Eater,” and Matthew David Surridge joined the discussion with his 2012 article “A Few Words on Clark Ashton Smith.” Just a few examples.
I blame Isaac Asimov for my early ignorance. Asimov strongly disliked Smith’s ornate style, famously relating the tale of the first CAS story he tried to read, in which he encountered the word “veritas,” which Smith used instead of “truth.” Yes, Asimov noted, veritas does mean truth, but he couldn’t fathom why anyone would use it instead of simply using “truth.” He put the story down and never tried Smith again.
Asimov introduced me to most of my early pulp heroes, in books like Before the Golden Age, The Hugo Winners, and The Early Asimov. His prejudice must have stuck with me, since I read almost nothing by Clark Ashton Smith for my first few decades as an SF reader.
Fortunately, this genre gives you lots of chances. Back in September I purchased a marvelous collection of 28 vintage paperbacks. One of the prizes in the lot was Xiccarph, part of Lin Carter’s highly collectible Ballantine Adult Fantasy library. Before putting it away I decided to dip into it. Here’s what I found on page two of Carter’s intro:
Since Weird Tales quite logically had a right to prefer tales that were weird, Smith conformed. In doing so he invented a minuscule sub-genre all his own.
To see precisely what I mean, turn to the story called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” which is included in this book.
The tale, you will see, is set on the planet Aihai, or Mars, and it takes place in the near future. These facts alone qualify it as belonging quite firmly to the province of science fiction. But now read the tale and savor the prose style: this rich, bejeweled, exotic kind of writing is the sort we most often think of as being natural to the heroic fantasy tale of magic kingdoms and fabulous eras of the mysterious past. Finally, read the story straight through and notice the actual plot. As you will see, it is precisely the sort of thing we call weird or horror fiction.
In composing a horror story set in the future or another world and told in the luxuriant, “gorgeous” prose traditional to heroic fantasy, Smith did something quite new and different and exciting, something all his own.
Well, after a promising build-up like that, it was impossible not to put my next New Treasures update on hold for one more day, and settle back in my big green chair to read “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” And that’s exactly what I did.
The story was everything that Carter promised, and more. It’s a terrifically effective and surprisingly gruesome tale set in an archaeological dig on Mars, and one of the most powerful pieces of SF horror I’ve ever read. It stands up remarkably well even today. This one story has turned me into a stone cold Clark Ashton Smith fan.
It originally appeared in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales, alongside Robert E. Howard’s “The Horror From the Mound,” Hugh B. Cave’s “The Brotherhood of Blood,” and “The Terror Planet” by Edmond Hamilton.
I’m going to summarize the story here. I won’t ruin the ending, but there will be spoilers. Come on — this is an 82-year-old pulp story we’re talking about. Based just on how many people post constantly about Clark Ashton Smith on my blog, I’m probably the last person left in North America who hadn’t read it.
(If you want to read the story first, it is currently in the public domain and you can find the complete text on Wikilivres here.)
The tale begins thusly:
If the doctors are correct in their prognostication, I have only a few Martian hours of life remaining to me. In those hours I shall endeavor to relate, as a warning to others who might follow in our footsteps, the singular and frightful happenings that terminated our researches among the ruins of Yoh-Vombis.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. We’re not even five paragraphs in, and the narrator is dead already. They don’t write ’em like this anymore.
What’s all the fuss about? You know that answer to that: something’s not right in the dusty ruins of the ancient alien city:
There were eight of us, professional archaeologists with more or less terrene and interplanetary experience, who set forth with native guides from Ignarh, the commercial metropolis of Mars, to inspect that ancient, aeon-deserted city…
I had often heard of Yoh-Vombis, in a vague and legendary sort of manner, and never at first hand. Even the ubiquitous Octave had never seen it. Builded by an extinct people whose history has been lost in the latter, decadent eras of the planet, it remains a dim and fascinating riddle whose solution has never been approached… and which, I trust, may endure forevermore unsolved by man. Certainly I hope that no one will ever follow in our steps…
“Builded?” Man, my spell-checker didn’t like that. I don’t think that word exists on our planet.
But this is Clark Ashton Smith. And already I can tell that Lin Carter is right about one thing — from a prose standpoint, the man can get away with anything.
So our eight intrepid explorers and their guides set out on foot across the Martian sands. They reach the ruins before sunset and, after walking around and talking like space-suited explorers in a 1950s science fiction movie, expressing boundless awe and explaining things they already know to each other, they bed down for the night. The guides, of course, refuse to come near the strange city, so our eight explorers are on their own.
But just before he dozes off, our narrator notices something unusual.
As my lids were about to close, I received an impression of movement in the frozen gloom; and it seemed to me that a portion of the foremost shadow had detached itself and was crawling toward Octave, who lay nearer to the ruins than we others.
Even through my heavy lethargy, I was disturbed by a warning of something unnatural and perhaps ominous. I started to sit up; and even as I moved, the shadowy object, whatever it was, drew back and became merged once more in the greater shadow. Its vanishment startled me into full wakefulness; and yet I could not be sure that I had actually seen the thing. In that brief, final glimpse, it had seemed like a roughly circular piece of cloth or leather, dark and crumpled, and twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, that ran along the ground with the doubling movement of an inch-worm, causing it to fold and unfold in a startling manner as it went.
I did not go to sleep again for nearly an hour; and if it had not been for the extreme cold, I should doubtless have gotten up to investigate and make sure whether I had really beheld an object of such bizarre nature or had merely dreamt it. I lay staring at the deep ebon shadow in which it had disappeared…. And at last I nodded off into light slumber.
Okay, that’s seriously creepy. Up to now I’ve been reading mostly out of curiosity, and good-natured faith in pulp fiction. But as of now, I’m hooked.
The next morning, the archaeologists stumble on a sand-choked entrance and penetrate the ruins of the city, moving further and further underground. There they find peculiar pictographs on the walls, much like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some of these drawings seem to carry a peculiar warning.
We found that the dark stone beneath our feet was marked off in multiform geometric patterns, traced with ochreous ore, amid which, as in Egyptian cartouches, hieroglyphics and highly formalized drawings were enclosed. We could make little from most of them; but the figures in many were doubtless designed to represent the Yorhis themselves… All of these Yorhis were represented as being nude; but in one of the cartouches, done in a far hastier style than the others, we perceived two figures whose high, conical craniums were wrapped in what seemed to be a sort of turban, which they were about to remove or adjust. The artist seemed to have laid a peculiar emphasis on the odd gesture with which the sinuous, four-jointed fingers were plucking at these head-dresses; and the whole posture was unexplainably contorted.
No. No, you dumb space archaeologists. These aliens have something nasty on their heads. Something they desperately want to get off. Seriously, why are space archaeologists always so out of it?
The dread is building as our clueless explorers penetrate deeper and deeper into the sub-layers of the dead city. And not just because the reader has figured out something that the characters haven’t.
Without warning, at the end of a long, urn-lined catacomb, we found ourselves confronted by a blank wall.
Here, we came upon one of the strangest and most mystifying of our discoveries — a mummified and incredibly desiccated figure, standing erect against the wall. It was more than seven feet in height, of a brown, bituminous color, and was wholly nude except for a sort of black cowl that covered the upper head and drooped down at the sides in wrinkled folds. From the three arms, and general contour, it was plainly one of the ancient Yorhis — perhaps the sole member of this race whose body had remained intact.
We all felt an inexpressible thrill at the sheer age of this shriveled thing, which, in the dry air of the vault, had endured through all the historic and geologic vicissitudes of the planet, to provide a visible link with lost cycles.
Then, as we peered closer with our torches, we saw why the mummy had maintained an upright position. At ankles, knees, waist, shoulders and neck it was shackled to the wall by heavy metal bands, so deeply eaten and embrowned with a sort of rust that we had failed to distinguish them at first sight in the shadow. The strange cowl on the head, when closelier studied, continued to baffle us. It was covered with a fine, mould-like pile, unclean and dusty as ancient cobwebs. Something about it, I know not what, was abhorrent and revolting.
Uh-huh. Step away from the abhorrent alien cowl, space archaeologists.
But they don’t.
Still lifting the torch, [Octave] put out his free hand and touched the body very lightly. Tentative as the touch had been, the lower part of the barrel-like torso, the legs, the hands and forearms all seemed to dissolve into powder…
Octave cried out in dismay… Then, above the spreading cloud, I saw an unbelievable thing. The black cowl on the mummy’s head began to curl and twitch upward at the corners, it writhed with a verminous motion, it fell from the withered cranium, seeming to fold and unfold convulsively in mid-air as it fell. Then it dropped on the bare head of Octave who, in his disconcertment at the crumbling of the mummy, had remained standing close to the wall. At that instant, in a start of profound terror, I remembered the thing that had inched itself from the shadows of Yoh-Vombis in the light of the twin moons, and had drawn back like a figment of slumber at my first waking movement.
Cleaving closely as a tightened cloth, the thing enfolded Octave’s hair and brow and eyes, and he shrieked wildly, with incoherent pleas for help, and tore with frantic fingers at the cowl, but failed to loosen it. Then his cries began to mount in a mad crescendo of agony, as if beneath some instrument of infernal torture; and he danced and capered blindly about the vault, eluding us with strange celerity as we all sprang forward in an effort to reach him and release him from his weird incumbrance.
As you expect, things quickly go from bad to worse. As the pace of the narrative accelerates, the story changes subtly in tone, the prose less descriptive, more focused on the action. Octave vanishes screaming into the black catacombs; by the time they find him, it’s too late. He’s opening an ancient vault.
Before any of us could recover our faculties, Octave flung aside the metal bar and began to fumble for something in the wall. It must have been a hidden spring; though how he could have known its location or existence is beyond all legitimate conjecture. With a dull, hideous grating, the uncovered door swung inward, thick and ponderous as a mausoleum slab, leaving an aperture from which the nether midnight seemed to well like a flood of aeon-buried foulness…
I was the first of our party to throw off the paralyzing spell; and pulling out a clasp-knife — the only semblance of a weapon which I carried — I ran over to him. He moved back, but not quickly enough to evade me, when I stabbed with the four-inch blade at the black, turgescent mass that enveloped his whole upper head and hung down upon his eyes.
What the thing was, I should prefer not to imagine — if it were possible to imagine. It was formless as a great slug, with neither head nor tail nor apparent organs — an unclean, puffy, leathery thing, covered with that fine, mould-like fur of which I have spoken. The knife tore into it as if through rotten parchment, making a long gash, and the horror appeared to collapse like a broken bladder. Out of it there gushed a sickening torrent of human blood…
I bent over him and tore the flaccid, oozing horror from his head. It came with unexpected ease, as if I had removed a limp rag: but I wish to God that I had let it remain. Beneath, there was no longer a human cranium, for all had been eaten away, even to the eyebrows, and the half-devoured brain was laid bare as I lifted the cowl-like object, I dropped the unnamable thing from fingers that had grown suddenly nerveless, and it turned over as it fell, revealing on the nether side many rows of pinkish suckers, arranged in circles about a pallid disk that was covered with nerve-like filaments, suggesting a sort of plexus.
What’s inside the long-sealed vault of Yoh-Vombis? Horror. Crawling, flapping horror.
I beheld beneath my torch, far down beyond the door, as if in some nether pit, a seething, multitudinous, worm-like movement of crawling shadows. They seemed to boil up in the darkness; and then, over the broad threshold of the vault, there poured the verminous vanguard of a countless army: things that were kindred to the monstrous, diabolic leech I had torn from Octave’s eaten head. Some were thin and flat, like writhing, doubling disks of cloth or leather, and others were more or less poddy, and crawled with glutted slowness. What they had found to feed on in the sealed, eternal midnight I do not know; and I pray that I never shall know.
I sprang back and away from them, electrified with terror, sick with loathing, and the black army inched itself unendingly with nightmare swiftness from the unsealed abyss, like the nauseous vomit of horror-sated hells. As it poured toward us, burying Octave’s body from sight in a writhing wave, I saw a stir of life from the seemingly dead thing I had cast aside, and saw the loathly struggle which it made to right itself and join the others.
But neither I nor my companions could endure to look longer. We turned and ran between the mighty rows of urns, with the slithering mass of demon leeches close upon us…
At this point the story changes in tone again, becoming a full-throttled pulp horror piece, as the explorers quickly become separated in the darkness. Our narrator listens in terror to the agonized shrieks of his lost comrades, as they are consumed and converted one by one by the alien things.
But there are more surprises — and terrors — to come, as the narrator gradually discovers the true nature of the horrors that crawled from the Vaults of Yoh-Vombis. But to learn those, you’ll have to read the story yourself.
There were unexpected characteristics to Smith’s prose, too. Despite all that I’ve read about CAS, all the praise I’ve seen heaped on him over the decades, several aspects of his writing still surprised me.
For example, I somehow equated Smith’s rep for ornate prose with a slow-moving narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Smith has a poet’s love for words, his stories move forward with the relentless drive of a Clydesdale.
True, there’s not much in the way of real character development — of the eight members of the expedition, we barely learn the names of half, and only three have any real dialog. And most of that is in routine service to the plot, establishing the setting by having our explorers expound helpfully to each other as they stumble closer to the dark horror at the story’s heart. For all his evident genius, Smith was still a pulp writer, constrained by the demands of the market.
But I was hooked within minutes of picking up “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” It may be one of the most perfect pulp tales I have ever read. I can’t describe it any better than Ryan Harvey did, in Part III of his Smith study, Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph:
Although there is more to the story than its terror — the aura of ancientness is palpable, and the ironic conclusion excellent — Clark Ashton Smith wrote few tales of pure fear superior to this, one of the best examples of the classic “weird tale.” It remains a genuinely frightening read today. In his introduction to the collection Xiccarph, Lin Carter held up this particular story as the ideal example of Smith’s peculiar genre niche. I concur: if I had to select a single work to introduce a new reader to Smith’s style and themes, I would pick this one without hesitation.
Perhaps Ryan’s words stuck with me through the years, and helped guide me (along with Lin Carter, of course) to selecting “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” as my introduction to CAS. If so, I’m certainly in his debt.
Xiccaarph was edited by Lin Carter and published by Ballantine in February, 1972. It is 248 pages, priced at $1.25 in paperback. It is long out of print; I bought my copy for about 70 cents, as part of a collection of 28 volumes. “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” has been included in several excellent collections since, including The Last Incantation (1982), A Rendezvous in Averoigne (2003), and Out of Space and Time (2006).
Smith’s fame continues to grow. Just this month, John R. Fultz and Fletcher Vredenburgh alerted us to a brand new anthology set in Smith’s mythical Hyperborea: Deepest, Darkest Eden edited by Cody Goodfellow.
Interested in other reviews of pulp fiction? Here are a few recommendations:
Understanding Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”
The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan
When Aliens are Delicious: Murray Leinster’s “Proxima Centauri” and the Creepy Side of Pulp SF
Professor Jameson’s Space Adventures, or Zoromes Make the Happiest Cyborgs
The Best One-Sentence Reviews of Manly Wade Wellman
The Beast with Five Fingers by W.F. Harvey
And our recent coverage of Clark Ashton Smith includes:
New Treasures: The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies, Vol. 1 by Clark Ashton Smith
Vintage Treasures: The Timescape Clark Ashton Smith
The Shade of Klarkash-Ton by James Maliszewski
One Shot, One Story: Clark Ashton Smith by Thomas Parker
New Treasures: The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
The Crawling Horrors of Mars: Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”
Deepest, Darkest Eden edited by Cody Goodfellow by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Adventures in Stealth Publishing: The Return of the Sorcerer
A Few Words on Clark Ashton Smith by Matthew David Surridge
The Unqualified Unique: The Daily Mail Interviews Me for Clark Ashton Smith’s 50th Morbid Anniversary by Ryan Harvey
Of Secret Worlds Incredible: A Psychedelic Journey into Clark Ashton Smith’s Poetic Masterpiece by John R. Fultz
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part I: The Averoigne Chronicles by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part II: The Book of Hyperborea by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part III: Tales of Zothique by Ryan Harvey
The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith Part IV: Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph by Ryan Harvey
You can see all of our recent pulp reviews here.