Monday, April 5, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Charnel God

Published in the March 1934 issue of Weird Tales (whose cover can be seen on the right), Clark Ashton Smith's "The Charnel God" is a favorite of mine. Like other tales of the last continent of Zothique, it's dreadfully evocative, drawing the reader in from the start:
"Mordiggian is the god of Zul-Bha-Sair," said the innkeeper with unctuous solemnity. "He has been the god from years that are lost to man's memory in shadow deeper than the subterranes of his black temple. There is no other god in Zul-Bha-Sair. And all who die within the walls of the city are sacred to Mordiggian. Even the kings and the optimates, at death, are delivered into the hands of his muffled priests. It is the law and the custom. A little while, and the priests will come for your bride."

"But Elaith is not dead," protested the youth Phariom for the third or fourth time, in piteous desperation. "Her malady is one that assumes the lying likeness of death.
Nevertheless, as the innkeeper predicted, the priests of Mordiggian come to claim Elaith for their divine master, despite the objections of Phariom, who then vows to enter the Charnel God's temple and reclaim her.

But Phariom is not the only mortal seeking to steal his way into the sacred precincts for his own purposes. So too does the sorcerer Abnon-Tha, a native of the "half-mythic isle of Sotar," who had slain Arctela, the beautiful daughter of Quaos, an important nobleman of Zul-Bha-Sair,
in a manner none could detect, with a rare and subtle invultuation of that had left no mark; and her body lay now among the dead, in Mordiggian's temple. Tonight, with the tacit connivance of the terrible, shrouded priests, he would bring her back to life.
He had murdered Arctela so that he might claim her as his own, for, as foreigner and a necromancer, he would otherwise have been deemed unfit to seek her hand. Slain, reanimated, and spirited out of the city, Arctela would be wholly within Abnon-Tha's power to possess as he wished. Once inside the temple, events follow their own inexorable logic and Phariom and Abnon-Tha both discover truths about Mordiggian and his masked priests -- truths presented as only Clark Ashton Smith can.

"The Charnel God" is probably one of Smith's "lightest" reads, in the sense that his language is subdued, even if it remains laden with portent. And while not filled with sword fights or indeed anything that might be called "action," it's nevertheless a very "adventurous" tale, closer to swords-and-sorcery in tone than horror. I certainly find it very inspiring when thinking of roleplaying adventures. A whole city in my Dwimmermount campaign is modeled closely on Zul-Bha-Sair, with the bodies of any who die within its walls being claimed by its ruling necromancers for use as workers and soldiers to shore up the city in its battles against Chaos. Consequently, I strongly recommend "The Charnel God" to anyone looking for a straightforward dark fantasy yarn from the pen of Clark Ashton Smith.


  1. I can't pick a favorite CAS tale, but this one is definitely in the running.

  2. On your recommendation, I shall go read this story now (having just finished Le Guin's Farthest Shore in preparation for my class tomorrow morning).

  3. Coincidentally, I read this for the first time only last week. It's my favorite CAS story so far; the city is terribly evocative. Were I to run a campaign in Greyhawk, for example, I could easily see Zul-Bha-Sair becoming the model for Iuz's capital.

  4. I have only started reading CAS over the past week (having read ~40 stories so far), but this one is definitely one of my favourites as well!

  5. One of Klarkash-Ton's best. The story was ((unofficially) adapted into issue # 86 of CTB.

  6. Yip - this desolate city was stolen wholesale and placed in my sandbox campaign - somehow it seems to be right next to another city where the population worship a giant spider god - is that from an early Conan story?

    Anyway, haven't worked out how well the two cities get on now, being so close, but probably not too well.

  7. Reg Greene's reading of this story for the Ziggurat Audio Book is awesome. Unfortunately, it appears that Ziggurat has gone under, and they won't be making anymore CAS audio books.

  8. One of my favorites by CAS, and I continue to appreciate the attention you draw to the Master of Dreams.

    Something interesting I have noted (and this is typical CAS humor) is that "Mordiggian" is homophonous with "mortician".

  9. It's hard for me to pick a favorite Zothique story, but this and "Morthylla" are probably my top two.

    "Morthylla," perhaps appropriately, haunts me. Because despite making such poetic use of Smith's dying world, I always see it in Chandler's Los Angeles, with the lighting from Vertigo.