Monday, September 13, 2021

The Pulp Fantasy Library: The Scroll of Thoth

Richard L. Tierney has long associations with the writings and ideas of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, having penned scholarly articles about these authors as well as fiction derived from their works. Unsurprisingly, Tierney's own fiction is suffused with the sensibilities of both. One such story is "The Scroll of Thoth," first published in the pages of Swords Against Darkness #2 in 1977. It's another installment in Tierney's saga of Simon of Gitta, better known to history as Simon Magus, the sorcerer who challenges St. Peter in Acts of the Apostles. 

In Tierney's telling, Simon is a Samaritan ex-gladiator turned magician who travels across the 1st century Roman Empire, fighting the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Of course, Tierney's revisionism isn't limited to Simon himself. His portrayal of the Cthulhu Mythos is tinged with Gnosticism: the Demiurge is none other than the blind idiot god, Azathoth, for example. Whether one likes this approach or not, there's no question that it's a bold one. More than that, it's a terrific set-up for a Howardian tale of historical fantasy.

"The Scroll of Thoth" takes place at the start of A.D. 41, during the reign of the emperor Gaius Caligula. As it opens, the emperor is overseeing the torture and execution of a prisoner. Upon the prisoner's death, Gaius orders his Egyptian physician to read an invocation from the Book of Thoth intended to restore the deceased man to life once more. The ritual seems to work at first, but the risen corpse quickly collapses into a heap and does not stir again. It's worth noting that, in an aside, Tierney notes that the Book of Thoth was written in "the forgotten language of dark, sorcery-riddled Stygia, the fabled land which had flourished before even nighted Egypt – a revelation that the Thoth of its title is not the Egyptian deity but rather Conan's old adversary, Thoth-Amon (a revelation similar to one found in a previous story of Simon of Gitta, "The Ring of Set.")

Soon after, we learn the reason for Caligula's actions. He boasts to the commander of his Praetorian guardsmen, Cassius Chaerea:

"… never forget, though you are a commander of men, that I am a commander of gods and demons! What you have seen this day is but the birth of my power over all things. Long have I labored to achieve what you have just seen – the conquest of death! Long have a I garnered the occult wisdom of antique Khem and Mesopotamia, and many are the experiments I have performed in this very chamber – and now, at last, as you have seen with your own eyes, I have banished Death himself, if only for a moment, from the lifeless clay. Soon I shall learn to banish him utterly – and then I shall live forever!" He surveyed the room with burning exultant eyes, as though expecting a challenge. No one spoke.

"Forever!" he shouted. "Do you hear me? I'll live forever!"

I have two comments here. First, take a moment to relish the pulpy goodness of the passage above. If ever there was a historical character worthy of being portrayed as a power-mad pulp fantasy villain, it's Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. What makes the above passage so enjoyable is the way it plays with the popular understanding of the third Roman emperor and his claims to divinity. I find it delightfully over the top. Second, for the historically minded, the name of Cassius Chaerea should be well known and a tip-off as to where the narrative of "The Scroll of Thoth" might go. 

We soon learn that the Egyptian physician whom Caligula has employed is named Menophar and that the slave he brought with him to attend the emperor is none other than Simon of Gitta in disguise. Together, they discuss the mad emperor's plan to acquire eternal life "and in the end rule all gods as well as all men." This he hopes to do by gaining the favor of both the Deep Ones, "who live for aeons, perhaps forever," and the Pain Lords (the Great Old Ones).

Simon shuddered slightly. He had long known of Gaius' madness, yet only now did he realize the full extent of it.

"You were right, Menophar: Whatever the cost, the Book of Thoth must not remain in the hands of this lunatic. It is the most dangerous of all sorcerous works, and in Gaius' hands it could make him the most dangerous of men."

"But you, Simon of Gitta, are perhaps the most adept of all magicians – and that is why you have been chosen for this task."

Simon scowled, and then took another sip of wine. "I am not a true magician," he said, "in that there is naught of true magic in anything I do. Yet you are right; I have learned enough to be an accomplished mummer – perhaps the best."

"And a fighter! Your service in the arena may stand you in better stead than ever your 'mummery', as you choose to call it. You have seen the situation here; consider what must next be done. I think you realize, Simon of Gitta, that the fate of all men may rest on the success or failure of this venture."

"The Scroll of Thoth" is quite short – fifteen pages – and to the point, but it's got some terrific ideas and memorable scenes. It's fun, fast-moving historical fantasy filled with Lovecraftian-tinged Gnosticism and sword-and-sorcery action worthy of Robert E. Howard. I cannot speak more highly of this story, especially if you're a fan of Roman history and legend.  


  1. Excellent stuff!

    For some reason, the boast brought to mind Jeff Bezos (though he might have added something about living with the gods amongst the stars).

  2. "the Demiurge is none other than the blind idiot god, Azathoth"

    That works surprisingly well for me. Certainly more dignified than poor Cthulhu fate in modern pop culture. Once you've had a plushy doll made of you there's really no point in even trying any more.

    With strange aeons even death may die, but there's no coming back from being marketed as novelty bedroom slippers.

    1. Very much agreed, but then I've long railed against the merchandising of Cthulhu.

    2. I admit to being conflicted by that. On the one hand, Lovecraft and his work are arguably better known today than ever before in history. So that's good. OTOH, an awful lot of people seem to only have a shallow or even wholly mistaken understanding of him and the Mythos as a whole. So that's bad. On the gripping hand, at least people aren't entirely apathetic about it the way they are about so much older fiction, and it's marginally less difficult to fix ignorance than complete disregard. When's the last time you had any success getting a twenty-something or high school kid to give Clark Ashton Smith or Manly Wade Wellman a try?

      Also, for every chibi Cthulhu thing I've seen there's been at least one truly horrifying re-imagining of Lovecraft's original descriptions, often quite effectively alien and incomprehensible. Whether that makes up for being able to buy Mythos Halloween costumes or not is highly debatable.

    3. Cthulhu plushies are the price to pay for creating something that breaks into culture: that you no longer control it. Today, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Conan, Batman, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster all bear little resemblance to the original incarnations.

      If there were Silver John urban vinyl figures, more people would be reading Wellman, and vice versa.

    4. Accurate - although I will note that in Tarzan's case, Burroughs himself actively and aggressively marketed the character to the public as a multi-media phenomenon, and doesn't seem to have been particularly bothered with what Hollywood, comics, etc. did with the character as long as he was getting a piece of the action, as it were. He was quite the cagey businessman in many ways, something you don't see in a lot of authors, for better or worse.

      I suspect if he were alive today he'd be angry at Disney for their John Crater flick not for the liberties it took with the concept, but for the botched marketing and failure to follow up on it.

    5. Just gonna say, 26 years old here, picked up CAS's work when I was 24.

  3. I'm going to have to look these up. Sounds like it targets four areas where I have done extensive reading - Lovecraft, Howard, Roman history and the Early Church Fathers who provide two or three elaborate tapes of Simon Magus.

  4. Tierney's Simon of Gitta stories are among my favorite pulp fantasy. I like that Chaosium made it easier to collect them, though not as easy as I might like. Their collection, Scroll of Thoth, includes most of the short stories, leavving out only the two collaborations, "Throne of Achamoth", which can be found in Chaosium's collection The Azathoth Cycle, and "The Wedding of Sheila-na-Gog", co-authored with G. Arthur Rahman—the very same Glenn A. Rahman as designed Divine Right. That last is harder to find, but I managed to track it down online. That leaves just two works, the novels The Gardens of Lucullus, which only saw one printing in 2001 and is consequently very difficult to acquire for a reasonable price, and The Drums of Chaos, which is easier to find, though still fairly expensive as these things go at (usually) about $35 for a paperback. It would be nice if someone would put out a three volume set: the short stories and the two novels.

  5. Pickman's Press put out a collection of all the Simon short stories last year. I think they might reprint the novels soon, too.

  6. I think that, in Tierney's schema, the Painlords are actually the Elder Gods rather than the Great Old Ones.

    This story was my first exposure to Tierney's work and I enjoyed it a lot. When I read the other stories years later I was a bit disappointed. The revelation of what Shub Niggurath really looked like was kind of silly, the identification of mythos deities with Jesus and YHWH just seemed petty, and the Gnostic contempt for most of humanity displayed in the stories repels me. Not my cup of tea, but YMMV and all that.

    1. Re: the Pain Lords

      You might well be right. It's been a while since I read the other stories where he deals with them more explicitly.

      Re: later stories

      I largely agree. I think Tierney became so enamored of his initial concept (joining Gnosticism and the Mythos) that it impaired his judgment at times.