Monday, April 9, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Thing from the Tomb

The next installment in Gardner Fox's saga of Niall of the Far Travels is "The Thing from the Tomb," which appeared in issue #23 (March 1979) of Dragon. What's interesting about this series is that, unlike Robert E. Howard's Conan tales, they're told in chronological order. Fox implies that Niall has other adventures between the published short stories, but each of them clearly takes place after the one that preceded it. Consequently, when we meet Niall at the beginning of "The Thing from the Tomb," he's still in the employ of King Lurlyr Manakor of Urgrik, as he was in "The Stolen Sacrifice." This time, though, he's the supreme commander of the king's armies and is leading a large number of his troops into the Balakanian Desert, where he's on an inspection tour of the forts that dot this desolate area.

While traveling, Niall encounters a wounded veteran, whom he quickly moves to aid. When asked what happened to him, he replies:
The man opened his eyes.
“Death,” he whispered. “Death came in the night and —” He choked and his eyes closed. Niall leaned closer, his arm about the man, half lifting him as if to ease him of his pain.
The soldier smiled, nodded. His eyes opened once again. “Beware the fort. They’re all dead, inside it. Only I got away. Crawled. Crawled until I—could crawl no more.”

His hand closed on Niall’s wrist. “Beware the thing in the fort. It cannot — be killed . . .”

The man shuddered and writhed as pain ate inside him. He gasped at the hot desert air and stared upward into the face of the man who bent above him.

“It began when they were di-digging . . . digging to find more water. They — uncovered an old-tomb. And then . . ."

The man shuddered once more, violently, and then his body sagged. Niall looked down at him with pity in his eyes. Pity and — admiration. If this man had not struggled and fought to crawl out this far away from the frontier fort, he and his men would have ridden into untold danger.
It's a fairly clichéd beginning to what is my least favorite of these stories so far, but one that nevertheless continues to develop Niall's character in ways that clearly distinguish him from Conan and his many literary doppelgangers. That, for me, is what makes "The Thing from the Tomb" worth reading, despite the weakness of its story.

After meeting the veteran, Niall decides to head off — alone — to investigate the fort from which the dying man came. When his lieutenant questions the wisdom of this, the barbarian explains, "I am one man. I may discover what the thing is that has killed. One man may hide where many cannot. Besides, now that I command the armies of the king, mine is the duty to protect them." This explanation makes no sense whatsoever in my opinion. But it sounds noble, establishing that Niall takes his responsibilities as commander seriously. More importantly, it separates him from a huge number of professional soldiers, thus making it possible to place him in credible danger.

In time, Niall learms that the Balakanian Desert was once the realm of Sosaria Thota.
 “A most famous witch. Some said she was the daughter of a demon, She ruled this part of the world with cruel fingers. Kings and emperors paid her fortunes to have her cast spells for them.”
I do not think I'm surprising anyone by revealing that Sosaria Thota is not in fact dead and that she is "the thing" mentioned in the short story's title, whose awakening led to the destruction of the desert fort. When Sosaria meets Niall, she is impressed by his honesty when he says that he would slay her to protect Urgrik. She then asks him of the current state of the world and commands him to show it to her. Niall reluctantly agrees, hoping that he might find a way to destroy her, as he originally intended. How he goes about this is the true meat of the story.

As I said, "The Thing from the Tomb" is fairly weak as a story. Too much of its narrative happens simply because it must or else Gardner Fox can't advance his plot. At the same time, I find myself sufficiently interested in Niall and his world that I am willing to put aside such concerns and allow myself to be carried forward. Whether a reader is able to do that will probably determine whether or not they, too, will enjoy "The Thing from the Tomb."

1 comment:

  1. Well considering that "the thing" was able to wipe out an entire fort and "cannot be killed", it kinda makes sense to me that Niall would not believe a whole army to be a sufficient remedy against whatever it was.  But having not read the story, it could actually be just what the doctor ordered in the end.