Monday, March 13, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Abbot of Puthuum

Many adjectives could be ascribed to the pulp fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, but "heroic" is generally not among them. Yet, for all of its intimations of hidden horror and ancient secrets (to paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft's own assessment of the story), I cannot help but feel that "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" is a rare example of a largely heroic tale within Smith's canon. First published in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales, the yarn belongs to the Zothique cycle, which chronicles the people and events of the last inhabited continent of Earth sometime in the distant future. As I've noted before, Zothique is one of my favorite imaginary settings, so it's always a pleasure to return to it in the Pulp Fantasy Lilbrary series.

The tale begins simply enough. A pair of mercenaries, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, are traveling as the bodyguards of Simban, the chief eunuch of King Hoaraph's harem. Together, they are making "a tedious journey through the tract known as Izdrel" in order to acquire "a young maiden of celestial beauty" rumored to dwell among the herders of the area. Zobal and Cushara, we are told,

had poured many a libation to their friendship in the sanguine liquors of Yoros and the blood of the kingdom's enemies. In that long and lusty amity, broken only by such passing quarrels as concerned the division of a wine-skin or the apportioning of a wench, they had served amid the soldiery of King Hoaraph for a strenuous decade. Savage warfare and wild, fantastic hazard had been their lot. The renown of their valor had drawn upon them, ultimately, the honor of Hoaraph's attention, and he had assigned them for duty among the picked warriors that guarded his palace in Faraad. And sometimes the twain were sent together on such missions as required no common hardihood and no disputable fealty to the king.

Perhaps it is the use of "the twain" above, but this introduction to Zobal and Cushara reminded me a little of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, at least with regards to their friendship in arms. In any case, the trio make their way to the tribe of herders without any trouble. There, Simban sets about his business on behalf of the king.

Cushara and Zobal, on their part, were instantly smitten by the charms of the maiden, whose name was Rubalsa. She was slender and of queenly height, and her skin was pale as the petals of white poppies; and the undulant blackness of her heavy hair was full of sullen copper gleamings beneath the sun. While Simban haggled shrilly with the cronelike grandmother, the warriors eyed Rubalsa with circumspect ardor and addressed to her such gallantries as they deemed discreet within hearing of the eunuch.

Again, something about this passage brought to mind Leiber's heroes, but perhaps I am seeing something that's not really there. Regardless, Simban is successful in his endeavor and, having acquired Rubalsa, he and his two guards begin the journey back to the kingdom of Yoros. Their journey is interrupted by

a peculiar pitch-black darkness had covered a great portion of the sky and hills, obliterating them wholly. This darkness, which seemed due neither to cloud nor sandstorm, extended itself in a crescent on either hand, and came swiftly toward the travelers. In the course of a minute or less, it had blotted the pathway before and behind them like a black mist; and the two arcs of shadow, racing northward, had flowed together, immuring the party in a circle. The darkness then became stationary, its walls no more than a hundred feet away on every side. Sheer, impenetrable, it surrounded the wayfarers, leaving above them a clear space from which the sun still glared down, remote and small and discolored, as if seen from the bottom of a deep pit.

Zobal and Cushara believe the darkness to be "devilry" and fear the "pestilential mist." Nevertheless, they press forward, hoping that they might somehow outrun it or, if necessary, pass through it. Within the magical gloom, they hear "a horrible multitudinous clamor as of drums, trumpets, cymbals, jangling armor, jarring voices, and mailed feet that tramped to and fro on the stony ground with a mighty clangor" and they believe themselves beset by an enemy army. 

As "the terrain grew rougher and steeper" and twilight was soon upon them, the trio sees a cloaked figure approaching them, bearing a lit lantern, In the distance, behind the figure, they also see "a square dark mass ... [that] was evidently a large buildng with many windows." The figure soon reveals himself to be a large, dark-skinned man "garbed in the voluminous robe of saffron such as was worn by certain monkish orders, and crowned with the two-horned purple hat of an abbot." Seeing their surprise, the man introduces himself.

"I am Ujuk, abbot of the monastery of Puthuum," he said, in a thick voice of such extraordinary volume that it appeared almost to issue from the earth under his feet. "Methinks the night has overtaken you far from the route of travelers. I bid you welcome to our hospitality."

Ujuk then leads them back to his monastery, where he offers them food and drink – but partakes of neither himself. Though Zobal and Cushara assume that this is simply because the abbot has already eaten, they are also wary, all the more so when he seems to know who they are and what they are about.

"How far have we gone astray from the route to Faraad?" asked Simban.

"I do not consider that you have gone astray," rumbled Ujuk in his subterranean voice, "for your coming to Puthuum is most timely. We have few guests here, and we are loth to part with those who honor our hospitality."

"King Hoaraph will be impatient for our return with the girl," Simban quavered. "We must depart early tomorrow."

"Tomorrow is another matter," said Ujuk, in a tone half unctuous, half sinister. "Perhaps, by then, you will have forgotten this deplorable haste."

Upon hearing this, the two warriors become even more suspicious and choose not to partake of "the powerful ale of Puthuum," which both Simban and Rubalsa had drunk and which had quickly made them drowsy. Ujuk then offers them all beds in which to spend the night before bidding them good night and leaving them alone. 

As Smith baldly telegraphs, things are not right in the monastery and the abbot and his fellow monks do not have the best interest of these four travelers at heart when they offered them their hospitality. This is precisely the point when "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" takes a turn that differs from that of most CAS tales. Normally, one would expect a bleak, perhaps darkly humorous, ending; that is, after all, Smith's stock and trade. In this case, though, what we get in something that is genuinely heroic, as the two comrades in arms, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, work together to defeat the evil within the monastery, as well as to protect Rubalsa not merely from the terrors of the monastery but also her fate as another odalisque in King Hoaraph's harem. This is a fun pulp fantasy very much in the spirit of Leiber and is well worth a read.


  1. I love the ending of this excellent tale. Very funny!

    1. An excellent break from the norms of the genre, to be sure.

    2. Come to think of it, just having the primary hero be an archer (and using magical arrows, no less) is a huge break from convention as well. S&S heroes are usually all about melee, even if they're also good shots when the story wants them to be. The pikeman is a bit unusual too, even if it seems like a silly choice for a warrior operating with just one partner. No broadsword and battle axe waving barbarians here.

  2. I have not read this story, but the setup as you describe it reminds me very much of the "evil abbey" section in David Cook's module X4 Master of the Desert Nomads.

    1. Given David Cook's fondness for pulp writers, I would not be surprised if there was some direct influence.

  3. This one's on youtube if anyone prefers audio format.

  4. I read this short story in 2010-ish and wrote/ran a short one-off adventure based on it for a couple of friends. The line I recall to this day is the description of the abbot when the heroes first see him, which included his "salacious tongue." CAS really had a way with words.

  5. "Perhaps, by then, you will have forgotten this deplorable haste."

    ...would fit perfectly as a line in a Jack Vance story as well.

    1. Absolutely. This is why I find it inexplicable that Vance claimed not have read Smith prior to becoming a writer, because there seems to be so much similarity between their styles.

  6. The description of the Abbot's voice makes me imagine James Earl Jones in the role.