Monday, December 21, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Morthylla

Clark Ashton Smith is, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, considered one of the leading lights of the pulp magazine Weird Tales during its Golden Age in the 1920s and '30s. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, Smith did not die prematurely, living until 1961, when he was 68. Consequently, he remained a productive, if far less prolific, writer into his elder years (though most of his time, between 1935 and his death, was devoted to visual art). One story from this period is "Morthylla," which first appeared in the May 1953 issue of Weird Tales – one of the last full-size issues of the venerable pulp, which would ultimately cease publication September 1954 after 279 issues.

"Morthylla" is part of Smith's Zothique cycle, the seminal dyying earth setting that takes place on Earth's final continent, when the sun is "a coal-red decadent star, grown old beyond chronicle, beyond legend." Taking place in "the City of the Delta," Umbri, it concerns a world-weary poet named Valzain. Valzain's mentor, Famurza, is holding one of his famous debauches, at which "there were wines, cordials, aphrodisiacs … [and] meats and fruits that swelled the flaccid pulses." Valzain is in attendance, as he always was, but this time he did so "with indifference turning toward disgust." The older poet takes note of his protegé's apathy and asks if there is anything he can do to alleviate his ennui.

"There is no medicine for what ails me," countered Valzain. "As for love, I have ceased to care whether it be requited or unrequired. I can taste only the dregs in every cup. And tedium lurks in the middle of all kisses."

Famurza feels profound pity for Valzain, he admits that, despite being twice as old as the young man, still finds pleasure in "good juicy meats, women, wine, the songs of full-throated singers." Valzain claims that his only pleasures are in dreams.

"I have clasped succubi who were more than flesh, having known delights too keen for the waking body to sustain. Do such dreams have any source outside the earth-born brain itself? I would give much to find that source, if it exists. In the meanwhile there is nothing for me but despair."

Upon hearing this, Famurza tells Valzain of an "old necropolis" that is haunted by the spirit of the princess Morthylla, who died several centuries ago and sometimes takes mortal lovers. If Valzain is truly takes no pleasure in the things of this world, perhaps he should seek out Morthylla. The young man is unsure whether to believe his mentor but, on his way home from the party, he nevertheless seeks out the cemetery, where he decided to spend the night in thought, dwelling on the tall tale Famurza had told him. 

In the midst of his reverie, he spied a woman sitting beside a mausoleum, a woman whose "profile was such as he had seen on antique coins."

"Who are you?" he asked, with a curiosity that overpowered his courtesy.

"I am the lamia Morthylla," she replied, in a voice that left behind it a faint and elusive vibration like that of some briefly sounded harp. "Beware me – for my kisses are forbidden to those who would remain numbered among the living."

 Valzain doubts that this woman is indeed Morthylla, as she claims, but he decides to play along and, in doing so, he finds himself intrigued by her nonetheless, for "there was a sweetness about her mouth, a shadow of fatigue or sadness beneath her eyes" that enchanted him. Every night for weeks afterward, the pair met in the necropolis, speaking with one another until near dawn, since she was, she claimed "a creature of the night." 

Skeptical at first, he thought of her as a person with macabre leanings and fantasies akin to his own, with whom he was carrying on a flirtation of singular charm. Yet about her he could find no hint of the worldliness that he suspected: no seeming knowledge of present things, but a weird familiarity with the past and the lamia's legend. More and more she seemed a nocturnal being, intimate only with shadow and solitude.

Her eyes, her lips, appeared to withhold secrets forgotten and forbidden. In her vague, ambiguous answers to his questions, he read meanings that thrilled him with hope and fear.

"I have dreamed of life," she told him cryptically. "And I have dreamed also of death. Now, perhaps there is another dream – into which you have entered."

What follows is a short story that is at turns sweet, cynical, optimistic, and bleak, a strangely moving meditation on the tedium that comes from having all one's desires fulfilled – and the self-destructive urges that stem from our efforts to defeat it. These are not new themes for Smith, a great many of whose stories, particularly those set in Zothique, deal with them. Yet, here, they somehow seem more potent, as if, with age, Smith could better articulate them. I'm a sucker for almost anything Clark Ashton Smith wrote; I'm carried away by his prose poetry and morbid explorations of the human condition. Even so, I consider "Morthylla" one of Smith's best pieces and I highly recommend it.


  1. Smith is my favorite of the big three in no small part because his work has a much wider emotional range than Lovecraft or Howard. The sweet sadness of this story is unparalleled in either of their works, but Smith is also capable of eliciting horror to the same degree as either of them, and even tie it to humor without losing its effect, such as in "the Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."

  2. Smith is my favorite author, Zothique is, my favorite cycle and Meatballs is one of my favorite short stories.

  3. Beyond recognizing Smith as the more subdued member of the Big Three, I knew little more until your treatment above. The magazine cover is fantastic, and I detect some early-era Poe bittersweetness in the tale. All elements combine to make it directed reading. Thanks.

  4. I love Zothique and favor Smith way above Howard and, to a lesser extent, Lovecraft.
    My favorite tales are probably "Black Abbot" and "Master of Crabs".