Monday, August 9, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Testament of Athammaus

Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps my favorite pulp fantasy author, which is why his stories appear so often as entries in this series. Nevertheless, I am frequently torn over which of his works to feature. In part, that's because Smith was so varied and prolific, producing tales in multiple genres, some of which can be grouped into cycles of related stories. Of these cycles, I have a personal preference for those set in the far future of Earth's last continent, Zonthique, or in the forgotten medieval French province of Averoigne and, left to my own devices, I look to those two over others that are equally worthy, such as those taking place in Hyperborea.

Hyperborea is a prehistoric continent that existed before the coming of the Ice Age. At its height, Hyperborea was a warm, even tropical, place that boasted populous cities and a sophisticated culture. Educated Hyperboreans had a decidedly scientific cast of mind and dismissed magic and the supernatural as the superstition of the common folk. Of course, such a dismissal was ill-founded. Many of Smith's tales of Hyperborea involve supposedly "rational" people encountering something that can't easily be explained by recourse to reason and they pay a price for such narrowness of vision.

Such is the case with "The Testament of Athammaus," first published in the October 1932 issue of Weird Tales. As its title suggests, the story is a first-person account, written in old age, by a man named Athammaus. Athammaus was once chief headsman of the capital city of Commoriom before its "universal desertion" as a result of "curious and lamentable happenings" in which he "played a signal part." Despite his occupation as a royal executioner, Athammaus is no mere brute. Instead, throughout the narrative, he reveals himself to be a clever, thoughtful man – which is why he struggles to give a proper account of the final days of Commoriom.

Athammaus begins by boasting of his days as a headsman.
there was no braver and more stalwart headsman than I in the whole of Hyperborea; and my name was a red menace, a loudly spoken warning to the evil-doers of the forest and the town, and the savage robbers of uncouth outland tribes. Wearing the blood-bright purple of my office, I stood each morning in the public square where all might attend and behold, and performed for the edification of all men my allotted task. And each day the tough, golden-ruddy copper of the huge crescent blade was darkened not once but many times with a rich and wine-like sanguine. And because of my never-faltering arm, my infallible eye, and the clean blow which there was never any necessity to repeat, I was much honored by the King Loquamethros and by the populace of Commoriom.
He then speaks of an outlaw with the delightfully Smithian name of Knygathin Zhaum, who "belonged to an obscure and highly unpleasant people called the Voormis, who dwelt in the black Eiglophian Mountains." The Voormis, we learn,
inhabited according to their tribal custom the caves of ferine animals less savage than themselves, which they had slain or otherwise dispossessed. They were generally looked upon as more beast-like than human, because of their excessive hairiness and the vile, ungodly rites and usages to which they were addicted. 

Under Zhaum's leadership, the Voormis had begun to terrorize the people living near the Eiglophian Mountains and engaged in both "iniquitous rapine" and anthropophagy, among even worse atrocities. Athammaus comments that Knygathin Zhaum was an unusual kind of Voormis in that, unlike his fellows, he was completely hairless and covered in "great spots of black and yellow." Worse still, he "exceed[ed] all others in his cruelty and cunning."

Eventually, Zhaum is captured, tried – the folk of Commoriom are civilized, after all – and sentenced to death. It's in this capacity that he and the narrator, Athammaus, cross paths. When the Voormis bandit is brought before the executioner, he "surpassed [his] most sinister and disagreeable anticipations."

He was naked to the waist, and wore the fulvous hide of some long-haired animal which hung in filthy tatters to his knees. Such details, however, contributed little to those elements in his appearance which revolted and even shocked me. His limbs, his body, his lineaments were outwardly formed like those of aboriginal man; and one might even have allowed for his utter hairlessness, in which there was a remote and blasphemously caricatural suggestion of the shaven priest; and even the broad, formless mottling of his skin, like that of a huge boa, might somehow have been glossed over as a rather extravagant peculiarity of pigmentation. It was something else, it was the unctuous, verminous ease, the undulant litheness and fluidity of his every movement, seeming to hint at an inner structure and vertebration that were less than human—or, one might almost have said, a sub-ophidian lack of all bony frame-work—which made me view the captive, and also my incumbent task, with an unparallelable distaste. He seemed to slither rather than walk; and the very fashion of his jointure, the placing of knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, appeared arbitrary and factitious. One felt that the outward semblance of humanity was a mere concession to anatomical convention; and that his corporeal formation might easily have assumed—and might still assume at any instant—the unheard-of outlines and concept-defying dimensions that prevail in trans-galactic worlds. Indeed, I could now believe the outrageous tales concerning his ancestry. And with equal horror and curiosity I wondered what the stroke of justice would reveal, and what noisome, mephitic ichor would befoul the impartial sword in lieu of honest blood.

Forgive me for including this entire passage, but I how could I not do so? In any case, Athammaus later proceeds with his assigned task of severing Zhaum's head from his shoulders.

Necks differ in the sensations which they afford to one's hand beneath the penetrating blade. In this case, I can only say that the sensation was not such as I have grown to associate with the cleaving of any known animal substance. But I saw with relief that the blow had been successful: the head of Knygathin Zhaum lay cleanly severed on the porous block, and his body sprawled on the pavement without even a single quiver of departing animation. As I had expected, there was no blood—only a black, tarry, fetid exudation, far from copious, which ceased in a few minutes and vanished utterly from my sword and from the eighon-wood. Also, the inner anatomy which the blade had revealed was devoid of all legitimate vertebration. But to all appearance Knygathin Zhaum had yielded up his obscene life; and the sentence of King Loquamethros and the eight judges of Commoriom had been fulfilled with a legal precision.

With that, the threat of Knygathin Zhaum is ended – or so it appears, for Athammaus learns a few days later the Voormis bandit had "reappeared and had signalized the unholy miracle of his return by the commission of a most appalling act on the main avenue before the very eyes of early passers!" Caught again and charged with an act of cannibalism, Zhaum is once again tried and sentenced, under "a special statute, calling for re-judgement and allowing re-execution, of such malefactors as might thus-wise return from their lawful graves." As I said above, the folk of Commoriom are civilized! Zhaum is once again brought before Athammaus and beheaded. Surely, this must be the end of him, yes?

"The Testament of Athammaus" is an engaging tale, told with the usual mixture of cynicism and humor that one expects of Clark Ashton Smith. If I had a complaint, it would be that the story drags on a little longer than needed to achieve its ultimate conclusion, but the journey along the way, filled with poetic archaisms, horrific turns, and mordant observations, is so enjoyable that I cannot complain too loudly. This is a terrific short story and deserves wider recognition.


  1. This was my favourite CAS story until reading The Seven Geases.

  2. One of my favorite CAS stories, right up there with the Double Shadow. I used Knygathin Zhaum as an antagonist in a RPG adventure, and my players were pretty freaked out by him.

  3. For my druthers, CAS's Hyperborean stories (such as this one) are my favorites. They also strike me as the most D&Dish.

  4. I'm shocked that no one has put out a full-on RPG based on Smith's works, or even a campaign book. Sure, there's the free, 30 page pdf of Zothique and it's good. But I'm talking about a 200+ page book full of great artwork.

    1. It's a project I started to undertake long, long ago, actually. I believe I even wrote about it here.