Monday, February 1, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Necromancy in Naat

To atone for the fact that I allowed the birthday of Clark Ashton Smith (January 13) to pass by without comment, I turn again to one of his short stories for this week's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library. "Necromancy in Naat" first appeared in the July 1936 issue of Weird Tales. If its cover illustration, by Margaret Brundage, looks familiar to you, it should, since this issue's headline story was the first part of Robert E. Howard's masterpiece, "Red Nails." The issue is also notable for featuring stories by Edmond Hamilton, C.L. Moore, August Derleth, and Manly Wade Wellman – a veritable who's who of the golden age of the pulps.

"Necromancy in Naat" owes its existence to a "benign, maleficent daemon," as Smith called his muse in a letter to fellow writer, Donald Wandrei. Prior to penning it, CAS had thought himself done with tales of Earth's last continent. Yet, what he produced rivaled Howard's "Red Nails" in the opinions of the readers of Weird Tales. The story concerns Yadar "prince of a nomad people in the half-desert region known as Zyra" who seeks to rescue

Dalili, his betrothed, whom the slave traders of Sha-Karag, swift and cunning as desert falcons, had reft from the tribal encampment with nine other maidens while Yadar and his men were hunting the black gazelles of Zyra.
Grieved and angered, Yadar swears an oath to find his beloved, "whether in slave-mart or brothel or harem, whether dead or living, whether tomorrow or after the lapse of grey years." Long-time readers of Smith will not be surprised to learn that that oath and its wording are central to the narrative and conclusion of "Necromancy in Naat." 

Yadar then sets off in the company of four of his men for "the iron gates of Sha-Karag … where women were the chief merchandise." Unfortunately, he quickly learns that Dalili has already been purchased by slavers who hoped to sell her "to some opulent king or emperor who would pay a city's ransom from the wild, rare beauty of the outland princess." Yadar is undeterred and sets off along the same route as the slavers, hoping to learn what became of Dalili. Over the course of months, he visits multiple cities, seeking the girl, before he learns that she "had been bought by the emperor of Xylac and sent to the ruler of the far southern kingdom of Yoros as a gift concluding a treaty between these realms." Upon learning this, Yadar books passage aboard a ship headed for Yoros (his men having died of a "strange fever" sometime beforehand).

The ship wrecks onto the island of Naat, called the Isle of Necromancers. Yadar barely survives and, when he comes to on the beach of the island, he beholds his rescuer, a young woman who "walked in the fashion of a somnambulist" and took him to her masters, three of Naat's fabled necromancers, chanting beside a fire.

Gaunt as starved herons they were, and great of stature, with a common likeness, as of brothers; and sharply ridged were their faces, where shadows inhabited their hollow cheeks, and their sunk eyes were visible only by red sparks reflected within them from the blaze. And their eyes, as they chanted, seemed to glare afar on the darkling sea and on things hidden by dusk and distance. 

In the light of the fire, Yadar comes to realize that the woman who had saved him was "none other than his lost love, Dalili!" Strangely, she does not react to his kisses or entreaties and Yadar turns to the trio of necromancers, who identify themselves as a father (Vacharn) and his two sons (Vokal and Uldulla), asking what they have done to her. They explain that Dalili is dead, like all their servants, her body washed up on the beaches of Naat after another shipwreck like his own. Vacharn further explains that Yadar's survival was no accident but rather the result of his sorcery and that he had in mind "a certain purpose" for the nomad prince, one he would fulfill in time. Needless to say, Yadar is none too pleased by these revelations and his attempts to come grips with them – and thwart them – propels "Necromancy in Naat" toward its gruesome conclusion. 

I like this story a great deal, despite certain similarities to a previous Zothique yarn, "The Charnel God," though that's perhaps inevitable since both tales deal with weighty matters of love, death, and the connection between the two. Compared to some of Smith's other stories, "Necromancy in Naat" is far more restrained in its vocabulary, focusing more on its theme than on verbal resplendency. Consequently, it feels rather than different than other CAS efforts and that might contribute to my fondness for it. At the same time, I readily admit that it takes some getting used to and I wouldn't blame anyone who prefers the dream-like prose poetry of his other works.