Monday, November 22, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Traveler in Desert Lands

As a general rule, I tend to be skeptical of the efforts of writers who take it upon themselves to play in someone else's playground. Heck, I'm similarly skeptical about the efforts of writers who return to their own playgrounds many years after the fact. The results in both cases are rarely good in my opinion, which is why I tend to avoid them. Nevertheless, I occasionally make exceptions, usually because I'd either heard something positive beforehand or because I allowed my own enthusiasm get the better of them. The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique is an example of the latter.

Edited by John Pelan and published in 1999, The Last Continent is an anthology of original stories set in Clark Ashton Smith's setting of Zothique. Now, Zothique is a favorite of mine. Of all of Smith's creations, it's the one I most enjoy – which is saying something. Consequently, when I heard about this collection, I quickly snapped it up, hoping I'd find at least one new Zonthique story worthy of the Bard of Auburn himself.

As it happened, I found several, but the one I most recall, years later, is "A Traveler in Desert" lands by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is, of course, the celebrated author of The Shadow of the Torturer and the other volumes of The Book of the New Sun, so his byline on a short story set in Zothique is not entirely surprising. The world of Severian is a kind of far future "dying earth" with some similarities to Zothique and Wolfe's command of archaic and esoteric vocabulary is every bit as hypnotic as that of CAS. That said, "A Traveler in Desert Lands" contains little that explicitly links it to Zothique beyond its mellifluous style and morbid subject matter. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed it as much as I do; unlike some of the other stories in this collection, it doesn't read like someone's Clark Ashton Smith fan fiction but rather a wholly original homage to his works.

The titular traveler is making his way across a desert on the back of a camel. Tired and thirsty, he stops "in the soft and shifting dust of the lost town of the dead" where he spies a very slender woman walking with a water jar upon her head. Courteously, he asks her if he might take some water from her.

"You would honor me by drinking," the woman with the jar said, "and by filling whatever skins and bottles you may have. If you empty my jar," her face convulsed as if to dislodge some brass-backed carrion fly that none but she could see, "it is a matter of no moment, for I can easily refill it at our well."
Though this surprises the traveler – he did not expect to find water so readily in the desert – he is very grateful. He takes a drink of water to slake his thirst and then asks where the well is, so that he might fill all his canteens and water his camel before moving on. 

The woman does not respond; instead, she simply walks away. The traveler and his camel follow her into the nearby town and its "bleak streets of tombs." 

Some remained sealed – or so it appeared. Others had clearly been broken into, looted, and abandoned. Still others gave evidence of habitation; and at the door of one he saw an old man seated, his dusty cheeks streaked with tears and his raddled face stamped with grief. The woman with the water jar halted to speak to this old man, though the traveler could not hear what she said; the old man nodded in response, his face perhaps a trifle less hopeless than it had been. 

As he continued to follow the slender woman, hoping she was leading him to the well of which she had spoken, his mind wanders. He thinks about the tombs he sees everywhere and what they imply.

Where there were tombs and men who robbed them, there might be silver and gold besides, necklaces and emeralds and torques starry with opals. The thought revived him more, even, than the water had – for the traveler had been born of woman and suckled at the breast, and like all the breed was in need of money. 

I smiled when I first read these sentences, as they struck as being not only true to so many of Smith's venal protagonists but also to the player characters one encounters in many a fantasy roleplaying game campaign. In any case, the woman does eventually lead him to the the well, located underground and accessible by a set of stone steps. She tells the traveler to leave his camel behind and to descend into the depths with her.

He agrees and fills canteens to capacity. He also takes up water for his camel, a process that, even while aided by the woman, takes some time. Before long, the night is beginning to fall. This leads the woman to ask him, "Will you stay in our town tonight?" Again, the traveler agrees, hoping that, in addition to rest, he might be able to buy or trade for provisions from the inhabitants of this strange settlement. The woman assures him her people can provide him with goat's meat, cheese, and vegetables – but only in the morning. The traveler accepts this and prepares to settle in for the night.

This being a pulp fantasy story – and one after the fashion of Clark Ashton Smith, no less – things are not what they appear to be, as the traveler soon learns. What separates "A Traveler in Desert Lands" from other stories of this kind is not so much its revelations as the overall mood of the piece. Wolfe does a superb job of slowly building tension through the accumulation of small details and hints. His description of the town where the woman and her family live is a good example of this, as the reader slowly comes to realize that they actually live inside of a looted mausoleum. "Town of the dead" is not a metaphor; this is no ghost town in the conventional sense. Rather, it is an ancient cemetery whose tombs have now become the dwelling places of later inhabitants. It's wonderfully macabre and exactly the kind of thing I'd expect to find in a good tale of Zothique. That I found it in a Zothique tale not written by Smith is all the more remarkable – but then Gene Wolfe is no ordinary writer.


  1. How's the rest of the book? I tried the similar Dying Earth homage book a while back and wasn't terribly happy with it, makes me kind of gun shy.

    If anyone's going to do a good job with Smith's style and tone it'd be Wolfe.

    1. The other stories vary in quality. Some are quite good, but others didn't do much for me.

    2. I suppose that is inevitable with multi-author anthologies like this.

  2. Immediately tried to purchase this book and the cheapest recommendation that showed was $600! I will have to keep an eye out.

    1. Sadly, I believe the book was a limited edition of 500 signed and numbered copies. Some of the stories contained in it, including Wolfe's, have subsequently been reprinted in other places.

    2. Found it another collection, and thank you for the recommendation. Even picked up a couple new vocabulary words, always a fun time!