Monday, January 24, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Death of Malygris

The final story of Smith's Poseidonis cycle was, appropriately, "The Death of Malygris." By his own account, he was pleased with the tale, particularly for its inclusion of "much genuine occultism and folklore." The editor of Weird Tales, the redoubtable Farnsworth Wright, didn't think much of the story and rejected it as "more like a prose poem than a story" – a common criticism of Smith's tales he rejected. H.P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, admired it, calling it "splendid" in a letter to Robert Bloch. Smith would later re-submit "The Death of Malygris" to Wright, who was more well inclined this time. He not only published the story in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales, but even commissioned Smith to provide an accompanying illustration as well.

The sorcerer Malygris, who had previously appeared in "The Last Incantation" (ironically, the first episode of the Poseidonis cycle), had long exercised power over Susran, capital of Poseidonis, power greater than that of even its king, Gadeiron. Recently, rumors arose that Malygris had at long last died, a claim denied by the other wizards of the city, but one that Gadeiron and his chief advisor, the magician Maranapion, hoped to be true. Because Malygris was a "master of illuding shows, of feints, and beguilements," Gadeiron believes that the old sorcerer pre-emptively made use of his enchantments to hide the fact that he has died, so that, even in death, he might still lord it over the people of Susran. For this reason, the king addresses the assembled wizards.

"Not idly have I called ye to this crypt, O sorcerers of Susran: for a work remains to be done. Verily, shall the corpse of a dead necromancer tyrannize over us all? There is mystery here, and a need to move cautiously, for the duration of his necromancy is yet unverified and untested. But I have called ye together in order that the hardiest among ye may take council with Maranapion, and aid him in devising such wizardry as will now expose the fraud of Malygris, and evince his mortality to all men, as well as to the fiends that follow him still, and the ministering monsters."

Seven of the twelve wizards agree to assist Maranapion in this endeavor. Two others, the brothers Nygon and Fustules, conceived an "audacious plan" of their own. During the next night, they carefully stole into the tower of Malygris, which they soon found devoid of any guardians or protections. Emboldened by this, they sought out the chamber of Malygris, at the center of which contained his "chair of primeval ivory" upon which sat "the old archimage … peering with stark, immovable eyes."

Nygon and Fustules felt their awe return upon them, remembering too clearly now the thrice-baleful mastery that this man had wielded, and the demon lore he had known, and the spells he had wrought that were irrefragable by other wizards. The specters of these things rose up before them as if by a final necromancy. With down-dropped eyes and humble mien, they went forward, bowing reverentially. Then, speaking aloud, in accordance with their predetermined plan, Fustules requested an oracle of their fortunes from Malygris.

There was no answer, and lifting their eyes, the brothers were greatly reassured by the aspect of the seated ancient. Death alone could have set the grayish pallor on the brow, could have locked the lips in a rigor as of fast-frozen clay. The eyes were like cavern-shadowed ice, holding no other light than a vague reflection of the lamps. Under the beard that was half silver, half sable, the cheeks had already fallen in as with beginning decay, showing the harsh outlines of the skull. The gray and hideously shrunken hands, whereon the eyes of enchanted beryls and rubies burned, were clenched inflexibly on the chair-arms which had the form of arching basilisks.

"Verily," murmured Nygon, "there is naught here to frighten or dismay us. Behold, it is only the lich of an old man after all, and one that has cheated the worm of his due provender overlong."

Perhaps predictably for a Clark Ashton Smith yarn, the true situation is not as the wizard brothers believe it to be. One of the familiars of Malygris, the viper featured in "The Last Incantation," springs upon them, while a voice echoes "Fools! ye dared to ask me for an oracle. And the oracle is – death!"

Meanwhile, Maranapion, knowing nothing of the fates of Nygon and Fustules, led the seven remaining wizards in a series of "impious charms and unholy conjurations, and fouler chemistries" intended to prove that Malygris is indeed dead, as he suspected. They start with a spell of invultuation, the crafting of plasmic copy of Malygris, which they cursed with their spells so that, by the principle of sympathy, the body of Malygris might decay. Then, making use of "the blue, monstrous eye of the Cyclops" – a crystal ball – they watch as their enemy seated in the tower above Susran slowly rotted. 

Too easy, the reader might think and indeed it is. Malygris did not ascend to the heights of power in Poseidonis without being well prepared against the machinations of his foes, especially those as potent as King Gadeiron's wizardly advisors, as the reader soon discovers. "The Death of Malygris" is a story of hubris and revenge, filled with images of creeping doom and putrescence. It's thus a fitting end to the stories of Poseidonis, the last outpost of Atlantis.

Smith's own depiction of Malygris in his chair.


  1. Great article. I had to look up irrefragable and invultation, so it was educating as well as entertaining.

  2. My favorite story in this cycle. Wonderfully evocative of the type of mysterious magic that I always wanted out of D&D and never got.

  3. This, and The Last Incantation, are my favorite C.A.S. stories.

  4. Yes, one of C.A.S's finest. The way it all spins out.