Monday, September 26, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Seed from the Sepulcher

Nowadays, Clark Ashton Smith is known primarily for the stories written as part of his various literary cycles, such as those of Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique. That's quite understandable, given the general excellence of those series (Zothique being a particular favorite of mine), but it's important to remember that he also wrote a great many more stand-alone pulp stories that are every bit as good. If one were to judge quality solely on the basis of popularity, then one of Smith's best yarns is "The Seed from the Sepulcher," which has been included in more anthologies than anything else he ever wrote (more even than "The Return of the Sorcerer" or "The City of the Singing Flame," two other stories often judged to be among his greatest efforts). 

Originally appearing in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales (which also featured a Conan story by Robert E. Howard), "The Seed from the Sepulcher" tells the story of "James Falmer and Roderick Thone, professional orchid-hunters," who along with their two native guides, "had been following an obscure tributary of the upper Orinoco" in Venezuela. 

The country was rich in rare flowers; and, beyond its flower wealth, they had been drawn by vague but persistent rumors among the local tribes concerning the existence of a ruined city somewhere on this tributary: a city that contained a burial-pit in which vast treasures of gold, silver and jewels had been interred together with the dead of some nameless people. These rumors were never first hand, but the two men had thought it worthwhile to investigate them.

Shortly before the start of the story, Thone had fallen sick and Falmer, curious about the supposed ruins, had gone ahead in a canoe with one of the guides, leaving the other to tend to his comrade. Falmer returned three days later, having found the ruins. He described them as "a queer sort of place, pretty much as the legends describe … Just a few crumbling walls overgrown and half-displaced by the forest trees, and a few falling pillars netted with lianas." As for the rumored treasure, there was none and disappointment had left Falmer taciturn and morose, which struck Thone as quite unlike his friend's usual demeanor.

Falmer, even during extreme hardship or jungle illness, had been heretofore unquenchably loquacious and cheerful. Now, he seemed sullen, uncommunicative, as if his mind was preoccupied with far-off things of disagreeable import. His bluff face had grown hollow – even pointed – and his eyes had narrowed to secretive slits.

Stricken with fever, Thone is in no mood to argue with Falmer when he states that he wishes nothing more than to head back to the Orinoco and home. "I've had all I want of this trip," he adds.

As Thone grew healthier, Falmer in turn seemed to sicken, much to his concern and that of the two guides, who watched him, "as if with some obscure expectancy." Falmer's sleep becomes turbulent and, with each passing day, he became stiffer and more sluggish. Yet, "there was no fever and the symptoms were wholly obscure and ambiguous." Later, Falmer "shook his head at intervals with a sort of shuddering motion that was plainly automatic and involuntary … After a while he began to moan quickly, as if in pain or delirium."

They went on in this manner for several hours; the heat grew more oppressive between the stifling, airless walls of the jungle. Thone became aware of a shriller cadence in the moans of his sick companion. Looking back, he saw that Falmer had removed his sun-helmet, seemingly oblivious of the murderous heat, and was clawing at the crown of his head with frantic fingers. Convulsions shook his entire body, and the dugout began to rock dangerously as he tossed to and fro in a long paroxysm of manifest agony. His voice mounted with a ceaseless high, unhuman shrieking.  

Thinking quickly, Thone orders the boat ashore so that he can come to the aid of his afflicted comrade. Though he had no idea what afflicted him, he gives Falmer a dose of morphine. which eases his suffering and ends the convulsions, at least for the moment. He then takes the opportunity to examine Falmer's head.

He was startled to find amid the thick disheveled hair a hard and pointed lump which resembled the tip of a beginning horn, rising under the still unbroken skin. As if endowed with erectile and resistless life, it seemed to grow beneath his fingers.

Needless to say, Thone is horrified by this revelation but has little time to contemplate its implications. The morphine had sufficiently dulled Falmer's pain that he became "more his normal self than at any time since he return from the ruins" and began to talk, "as if he were anxious to relieve his mind of some oppressing burden."

"The pit! The pit!" said Falmer. "The infernal thing that was in the pit, in the deep sepulcher! … I wouldn't go back there for the treasure of a dozen El Dorados … I didn't tell you much about those ruins, Thone. Somehow it was hard – impossibly hard – to talk.

Falmer's newfound lucidity enables him to relate to Thone all that transpired while he explored the ruins – including the origin of his bizarre malady and it's horrific.

It's easy to see why "The Seed from the Sepulcher" is one of Clark Ashton Smith's most popular stories. The tale is chilling and plays off common fears about one's body being invaded or taken over by something. Consequently, it contains a few genuinely unsettling moments that Smith describes with obvious relish. When I re-read the story in preparation for this post, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me, particularly in the latter part of the story, once Thone (foolishly) had decided to return to the ruins to see for himself the source of his companion's dreadful malady. If you have a little time to spare, I highly recommend it.


  1. Nobody scares me like Clark Ashton Smith.

  2. My favourite Clark Ashton Smith story. Just wonderful. I must re-read it soon.

  3. A wonderfully horrific and disturbing tale by almost any standard. I would have been out of there at the bud's first appearance. "Sorry pal, you are on your own!"

    1. Agreed! That's my only complaint about the story: Thone behaves like a character in a horror movie in his desire to return to the source of Falmer's affliction.