Despite this, or perhaps because of it, "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" is very accessible and nicely highlights Smith's talents as a writer: luxuriant language, an aura of dread, sardonic humor and irony, and the sense of the immensity of history. Reading this first person account of Rodney Severn, "the one surviving member of the Octave Expedition to Yoh-Vombis," one is easily transported to a version of Mars quite unlike anything found in the pages of Burroughs and his imitators. It is, for lack of a better word, "weird Mars," a place that that, while ostensibly within the realm of science fiction, is not limited by the strictures or expectations of that genre but instead plays with those literary boundaries to present a tale that is both enthralling and genuinely unsettling.
We know from the start that Octave Expedition's journey to the ruined Martian city of Yoh-Vombis ended in tragedy. Thus, the story is one of mounting revelation, as we learn, bit by bit, the details of the events that led to demise of everyone except Rodney Severn, who himself hopes to die in order to escape "the compulsion of the malignant and malevolent virus which is permeating my brain." Stories of this sort are, in my experience, difficult to pull off properly. With the conclusion foregone, the writer needs to find some way to ensure that the reader nevertheless is surprised, shocked even, by what it was that led to the already-known end. Smith succeeds in doing just this, but, compared to the atmosphere he conjures, that of an immeasurably ancient and dying Mars -- a kind of "hyper-Zothique" -- it is a small accomplishment.
"That place is deader than an Egyptian morgue," observed Harper.And so Severn and the other members of the Expedition set off into the ruins to discover the fate of once-great Yoh-Vombis. This gives Smith the opportunity to describe the eldritch beauty of the place, illuminated by the lights of Phobos and Deimos. As the archeologists descend into the depths, Smith has the opportunity to employ some of his most evocative language:
"Certainly it is far more ancient." Octave assented. "According to most reliable legends, the Yorhis, who built Yoh-Vombis, were wiped out by the present ruling race at least forty thousand years ago."
"There's a story, isn't there," said Harper, "that the last remnant of the Yorhis was destroyed by some unknown agency -- something too horrible and outré to be mentioned even in myth?"
"Of course, I've heard that legend," agreed Octave. "Maybe we'll find evidence among the ruins, to prove or disprove it. The Yorhis may have been cleaned out by some terrible epidemic, such as the Yashta pestilence, which was a kind of green mould that ate all the bones of the body, starting with the teeth and nails. But we needn't be afraid of getting it, if there are any mummies in Yoh-Vombis -- the bacteria will all be dead as their victims, after so many cycles of planetary desiccation. The Aihais have always been more or less shy of the place. Few have ever visited it: and none, as far as I can find, have a thorough examination of the ruins."
The air was singularly heavy, as if the lees of an ancient atmosphere, less tenuous than that of Mars today, had settled down and remained in that stagnant darkness. It was harder to breathe than the outer air; it was filled with unknown effluvia; and the light dust arose before us at every step, diffusing a faintness of bygone corruption, like the dust of powdered mummies.Here, Severn and his companions discover just what happened to the inhabitants of ancient Yoh-Vombis and pay the price for their knowledge. I won't spoil the ending here, in part because I don't think that, in straight, expository language, I can do justice to it. This is a good example of how Smith's unique ability to transport his readers through an alchemy of language turns what could very well have been a banal, ineffective resolution into something terrifying. "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" shows Smith at the top of his game and I highly recommend it to anyone who's never read it before. It's as good an introduction to this overlooked author as almost any I can recommend.