Monday, January 10, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vulthoom

Starting at least with the 1897 H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds – and intensifying after the publication of A Princess of Mars in 1917 – the Red Planet and its inhabitants cane to occupy pride of place in "fantastic" literature of all sorts. Writers as different as Olaf Stapledon, Edmond Hamilton, C.S. Lewis, and Robert E. Howard, among many others, penned Martian tales, each presenting their take on Mars. Even Clark Ashton Smith got in on the act, producing a short cycle of three stories that use the Red Planet as its backdrop.

As one might expect, Smith's vision of Mars is dark and eldritch, a place of weird horrors and creeping doom. The first Martian tale, "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," is one of his most well regarded works and is a good introduction to Smithian Mars, though many prefer the more gruesome "The Dweller in the Gulf." Regardless, both are worthwhile reads and I recommend them without any reservation.

The same cannot be said of "Vulthoom" in my opinion, despite its many fine qualities. First published in the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, it's a strange conclusion to Smith's Martian stories, in that it's much more straightforwardly adventuresome take on the Red Planet, albeit one with a darker ending than one might have expected in the hands of another writer. Consequently, there are fewer chills than long-time CAS fans might wish, but the central conceit of the story is nevertheless a solid one that almost makes up for its deficiencies in other areas.

The story begins in a way that I think highlights my description of it as "adventuresome."

To a cursory observer, it might have seemed that Bob Haines and Paul Septimus Chanler had little enough in common, other than the predicament of being stranded without funds on an alien world.

Haines, the third assistant pilot of an ether-liner, had been charged with insubordination by his superiors, and had been left behind in Ignarh, the commercial metropolis of Mars, and the port of all space-traffic. The charge against him was wholly a matter of personal spite; but so far, Haines had not succeeded in finding a new berth; and the month's salary paid to him at parting had been devoured with appalling swiftness by the piratic rates of the Tellurian Hotel.

Chanler, a professional writer of interplanetary fiction, had made voyage to Mars to fortify his imaginative talent by a solid groundwork of observation and experience. His money had given out after a few weeks; and fresh supplies, expected from his publisher, had not yet arrived.

The two men, apart from their misfortunes, shared an illimitable curiosity concerning all things Martian. Their thirst for the exotic, their proclivity for wandering into places usually avoided by terrestrials, had drawn them together in spite of obvious differences of temperament and had made them fast friends.

This sounds to me like the beginning of a fairly typical pulp science fiction story of the era, though it does have the advantage of introducing readers quickly to its two protagonists and their predicament on Mars. Haines and Chanler soon encounter a huge example of one of the native Martian – the Aihai – who extends to them an invitation:

"My master summons you," bellowed the colossus. "Your plight is known to him. He will help you liberally, in return for a certain assistance which you can render him. Come with me."

"This sounds peremptory," murmured Haines. "Shall we go? Probably it's some charitable Aihai prince, who has gotten wind of our reduced circumstances. Wonder what the game is?"

"I suggest that we follow the guide," said Chanler, eagerly. "His proposition sounds like the first chapter of a thriller."

The giant Aihai, whose name we later learn is Ta-Vho-Shai, leads the two Earthmen to his master's home, which is located in a forgotten corner of the old city. More than that, it is located underground, which gives Chanler some pause, especially after a long elevator ride deep into the bowels of the planet.

"What do you suppose we've gotten into?" murmured Chanler. "We must be many miles below the surface. I've never heard of anything like this, except in some of the old Aihai myths. This place might be Ravormos, the Martian underworld, where Vulthoom, the evil god, is supposed to lie asleep for a thousand years amid his worshippers."

Overhearing this, Ta-Vho-Shai confirms that his mysterious master is, in fact, Vulthoom. Haines is initially dismissive, suggesting to his comrade a plausible explanation for what the Aihai had said to them.

"I've heard of Vulthoom, too, but he's a mere superstition, like Satan. The up-to-date Martians don't believe in him nowadays; though I have heard that there is still a sort of devil-cult among the pariahs and low-castes. I'll wager that some noble is trying to stage a revolution against the reigning emperor, Cykor, and has established his quarters underground."

"That sounds reasonable," Chanler agreed. "A revolutionist might call himself Vulthoom: the trick would be true to the Aihai psychology. They have a taste for high-sounding metaphors and fantastic titles."

Ta-Vho-Shai takes no further heed of the Earthmen's conversation and leads them into a cavern that is entirely empty but for "a curious tripod of black metal." The tripod bears a block of crystal and, upon it, what appears to be a frozen flower with seven petals – petals that Smith describes as "tongue-like." After a few moments, a voice seems to emanate from the bottom, "a voice incredibly sweet, clear and sonorous, whose tones, perfectly articulate, were neither those of Aihai nor Earthman."

"I, who speak, am the entity known as Vulthoom," said the voice "Be not surprised, or frightened: it is my desire to befriend you in return for a consideration which, I hope, you will not find impossible. First of all, however, I must explain certain matters that perplex you."

The voice then goes on to explain that he is himself an alien to Mars, a traveler from "another universe" whose ether-ship crashed on Mars eons ago. The kings and priests of the planet at that time saw him and the advanced technology he offered as threats to their power. They then spun dark tales about him, claiming he was an interplanetary demon and so, to protect himself, and the Aihai who were attracted to what he offered, he fled beneath the surface of Mars. Vulthoom knows the scientific secret of immortality after a fashion – alternating thousand-year periods of slumber and wakefulness for all eternity – and he offers this freely to those who would help him, such as the Aihai and even Earthmen like Haines and Chanler.

Indeed, this is why he has summoned the two of them to his subterranean refuge.

"I have grown weary of Mars, a senile world that draws near to death; and I wish to establish myself in a younger planet. The Earth would serve my purpose well. Even now, my followers are building the new ether-ship in which I propose to make the voyage."

Vulthoom is forthcoming with information about his plans and the role the two Earthmen will play in his achieving them, but I won't reveal them here. I will only say that they are not wholly to the liking of Haines and Chanler and the remainder of the story concerns their attempts to foil them.

The overall narrative of "Vulthoom" is one I imagine most readers, then and now, will have encountered many times before. Solely on that basis, I can't really recommend the tale. However, Vulthoom himself is a strangely compelling character, as is the concept behind him: an alien being who forms the basis for the Martian version of the Devil. Beyond that, though, what we mostly have is Smith's incomparable prose and that might not be enough to overcome the hackneyed plot of "Vulthoom." Much as I hate to say it, this is not one of Smith's best works; only completists interested in his Mars cycle will find it of lasting value.


  1. I haven't yet read it, though I have it saved to my laptop. What I am most interested in about it is that it includes a larger glimpse of daily life on CAS's Mars than the other stories give. We hear of a "Tellurian Hotel" that has "piratical rates", that the bridge across the Yahan Canal is a mile long, and so on. But again, I've only just opened the story, so my enthusiasm is somewhat dampened by your tepid review. Still, I want to have read it at least.

    1. I have probably undersold it. There's a lot to like in the story, honestly; it's just not much like its two predecessors in the Martian cycle. I suspect I simply had too high hopes for it.

    2. Well, a bad CAS story is like a bad Leigh Brackett one: still quite good, and better than most.