Monday, March 27, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Master of the Crabs

Something that's often overlooked when discussing the "Big Three" of Weird Tales is that, while both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were dead by March 1937, Clark Ashton Smith lived for another quarter-century. Now, it is true that, following the death of his own father in December 1937, CAS largely abandoned fiction writing in favor of both his original avocation, poetry, and sculpture, he nevertheless continued to write fiction, albeit with far less industry than he had during the fruitful period between 1926 and 1935. Often, he did so at the behest of others, who encouraged him to pen new stories for his most famous literary cycles.

A good example of this is "The Master of the Crabs," a tale of Zothique he wrote after being asked by Associate Editor Lamont Buchanan to contribute to the upcoming 25th anniversary issue of Weird Tales. This issue would appear in March 1948, making it the second to last Zothique story Smith ever wrote (the last being "Morthylla"), though, like so many of his later fiction efforts, it was based on an idea he'd had years earlier (in this case, 1932 or earlier). Though "The Master of the Crabs" is by no means one of Smith's best works, it's both comparatively short and contains enough imaginative elements to make it worthwhile.

The story is almost Vancian in its set-up: two rival sorcerers – Mior Lumivix and Sarcand – contend for possession of "the fabulous chart of Omvor," which 

was a thing that many generations of wizards had dreamt to find. Omvor, an ancient pirate still renowned, had performed successfully a feat of impious rashness. Sailing up a closely guarded estuary by night with his small crew disguised as priests in stolen temple-barges, he had looted the fane of the Moon-God in Faraad and had carried away many of its virgins, together with gems, gold, altar-vessels, talismans, phylacteries and books of eldritch elder magic. These books were the gravest loss of all, since even the priests had never dared to copy them. They were unique and irreplaceable, containing the erudition of buried aeons.

Omvor's feat had given rise to many legends. He and his crew and the ravished virgins, in two small brigantines, had vanished ultimately amid the western seas. It was believed that they had been caught by the Black River, that terrible ocean-stream which pours with an irresistible swiftening beyond Naat to the world's end. But before that final voyage, Omvor had lightened his vessels of the looted treasure and had made a chart on which the location of its hiding-place was indicated. This chart he had given to a former comrade who had grown too old for voyaging.

No man had ever found the treasure. But it was said that the chart still existed throughout the centuries, hidden somewhere no less securely than the loot of the Moon-God's temple. Of late there were rumors that some sailor, inheriting it from his father, had brought the map to Mirouane. Mior Lumivix, through agents both human and preterhuman, had tried vainly to trace the sailor; knowing that Sarcand had the other wizards of the city were also seeking him.

Despite this, "The Master of the Crabs" is told in the first person from the perspective of neither of the wizards, but of Manthar, the apprentice of Mior Lumivix, whose primary task up to now has been the grinding of ingredients for his master's "most requested love-potions." Manthar's youth and inexperience make him a good viewpoint character, just as his ignorance of arcane matters and the details of the quarrel between Sarcand and Mior, provide excellent excuses for Mior – and Smith – to pontificate amusingly to the reader. 

By occult means, Mior had spied upon his rival, in the process learning of his recent actions and whereabouts.

"Tonight I did a dangerous thing, since there was no other way. Drinking the juice of the purple dedaim, which induces profound trance, I projected my ka into his elemental-guarded chamber. The elementals knew my presence, they gathered about me in shapes of fire and shadow, menacing me unspeakably. They opposed me, they drove me forth... but I had seen — enough."

Sarcand, Mior explains, had traveled by boat westward to the island of Iribos, which in the past had been known as the Island of Crabs. Urging Manthar to gird himself with weapons like himself, Mior decides to set out after Sarcand.

"My familiars warned me that Sarcand had left his house a full hour ago. He was prepared for a journey, and went wharfward. But we will overtake him. I think that he will go without companions to Iribos, desiring to keep the treasure wholly secret. He is indeed strong and terrible, but his demons are of a kind that cannot cross water, being entirely earthbound. He has left them behind with moiety of his magic. Have no fear for the outcome."

With that, the master and his apprentice set out for Iribos – and their confrontation with Sarcand. Their journey to the island takes three days. Iribos is rocky and covered with sparse "funereal-colored vegetation." It is also uninhabited – by human beings at any rate – which only heightens the seeming danger of the place. Rowing closer, the pair eventually spy "the low, broad arch of a cavern-mouth" that Mior Lumivix takes to be worthy of closer inspection. Because of the highness of the tide, piloting their sailing vessel past the archway proves difficult. The low roof of the cavern snaps the boat's mast and, in doing so, causes additional damage that the vessel, which soon takes on water and begins to sink.

The master and apprentice survive by swimming and make their way into the dark cave beyond. Inside is a stretch of sand and a wrecked boat not unlike their own. They also saw "two reclining figures," which they approached warily, their weapons hidden beneath their clothing.

As we neared the figures, the appearance of a yellowishbrown drapery that covered them resolved itself in its true nature. It consisted of a great number of crabs who were crawling over their half-submerged bodies and running to and fro behind a heap of immense boulders.

We went forward and stopped over the bodies, from which the crabs were busily detaching morsels of bloody flesh. One of the bodies lay on its face; the other stared with half-eaten features at the sun. Their skin, or what remained of it, was a swarthy yellow. Both were clad in short purple breeks and sailor's boots, being otherwise naked.

'What hellishness is this?" inquired the Master. "These men are but newly dead — and already the crabs rend them. Such creatures are wont to wait for the softening of decomposition. And look — they do not even devour the morsels they have torn, but bear them away."

It's here that the story approaches its climax, leading to a fairly satisfying, if not entirely unexpected, conclusion, one very much in keeping with Smith's penchant for black humor.

Compared to his best stories of Zothique, "The Master of the Crabs" is undoubtedly one of Clark Ashton Smith's more modest efforts. Nevertheless, it contains all of the elements one expects of such a tale – mystery, mounting horror, baroque vocabulary, and a touch of wit – that I think it worth reading at least once, especially if you've never done so before. My primary pleasure in reading it are its little details about Zothique and its geography and peoples, as it's my favorite of Smith's fictional settings. Your mileage may vary, of course.


  1. Is CAS Vancian, or is Vance Klarkashtonian? ;)

  2. Interesting use of the ancient Egyptian "ka" to describe astral projection.