Monday, June 7, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis

Although the stories of Clark Ashton Smith that most interest me are those that belong to his Hyperborea, Averoigne, and (especially) Zothique cycles, his May 1932 story of Mars, "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," may be his best story. Allow me to qualify that statement somewhat before proceeding. I've noted before that Smith's best writing defies easy categorization. Though clearly fantastical, I think it does these tales a disservice to call them simply "fantasies," as the recent Night Shade Books volumes do. Likewise, to be more specific -- and pedantic -- and narrow down this or that tale as "horror" or "science fiction" or whatever is also, I think, to try and put in a box something that defies easy categorization. Indeed, I suspect that, to a certain degree, Smith's popular reputation has suffered precisely because of how sui generis his writing and subject matter are.

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.
"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."
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:
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.


  1. I had the good fortune to pick up several CAS anthologies, I will have to see if this particular story appears in one of them. Your retrospective has me intrigued!

  2. I love this story! From an old school gaming perspective it's also a perfect yarn because of the whole party-exploring-an-underground-labyrinth/crypt scenario. This story could easily be turned into a gnarly game session (I won't give away the ending either).

  3. Most of CAS's stuff is public domain these days, and can be found on the web with a little use of Google-Fu.

    It's hard to argue with you about "Yoh-Vombis," though. I have it in a paperback anthology somewhere, and it scared the bejeebers out of me when I was a kid... around the same time the movie "Alien" came out... a film that owes something to "Yoh-Vombis," if you ask me.

  4. Of CAS' Martian stories my personal preference is for "The Dweller in The Gulf" - especially the unexpurgated version. That's a story whose horrors really stick in the mind.

  5. This story is one of my absolute favorites of all of Smith's writing. The atmosphere of terror is simply amazing.

    I would recommend reading the original first:

    But there is a nice graphic adaptation here:

    I would also like to mention that I made a little homage to CAS and this story in my conversion of S4, "The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth", when I reimagined it for use with the Conan d20 RPG system. It is available as "The Lost Caverns of Acheron" from this page:

    From my foreword: "... since
    the original cavern complex is (at least in my opinion) a rather mixed bag of monster-filled
    caverns with little internal consistency, I have re-stocked the caverns with a more appropriate
    menagerie. Inspired by "The Witch Queen of Acheron" comic book by Marvel, I have changed
    Drelnza to an Acheronean vampiress named Xaltana, and, in a nod to the master of weird horror,
    Clark Ashton Smith, filled the lost caverns with monsters inspired by the classic tale "The Vaults of
    Yoh-Vombis". In my own humble opinion, the final result is a most satisfying amalgamation."

    When I ran my own group through this converted scenario, one of the PCs fell victim to one of the vampiric leeches almost exactly as it happened in the original tale! A great gaming moment, and one which really freaked out the players! :-)

    - thulsa

    The Spider-God's Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery

  6. The remarkable thing about this story is that it manages to pack such a punch even though the ending is "telegraphed" to a great extent.

    I second the praise for "The Dweller in The Gulf", it's truly a fiendish tale- it works as an allegory for addiction, as well as a horror tale.

  7. I read it in a Chaosium compilation some months ago, and I enjoy it very much. I loved his ability to create a weird atmosphere and his writing style. Smith was a marvelous pulp writer, it's a fact.

  8. How I long for the 5th and final volume of the Nightshade hardbacks collecting all CAS's fiction. Thank you, James, for your continued and unfailing extolment of the greatest pulp fiction writer. It is much appreciated.

  9. This is a pretty cool story... thanks to Xoth for posting the link!