Monday, April 24, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dweller in the Temple

A frequent counterfactual thought on this blog concerns the state of literary fantasy (broadly defined to include science fiction and horror, among others) had writers like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft lived beyond the 1930s. I have no firm opinions on the matter, since there are simply too many variables to consider. Indeed, it's quite possible any resulting alternate history in which, for example, REH lived into old age rather than committing suicide in 1936 might nevertheless not be notably different from our own. 

A point in favor of this conclusion is provided by Manly Wade Wellman, who's probably best known among players of Dungeons & Dragons for his stories of Silver John, the wandering Appalachian singer and battler of the occult. Wellman was born in 1903, just three years before Robert E. Howard, and his professional writing career began three years after Howard's own, making them rough contemporaries of one another. Wellman, however, lived a half-century longer than REH and continued to write almost until his death, though his output certainly slowed after the 1960s. 

Even so, I'm not sure anyone could argue that Wellman is more well known than Howard (or Lovecraft). This is in spite of the fact that Wellman's work appeared in multiple volumes of Andrew J. Offutt's very influential Swords Against Darkness anthologies published in the late 1970s. (The series is important for the history of D&D because its third volume, which included a yarn by Wellman, was listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N of "inspirational and educational reading.") If anything, I'd say that Wellman is less well known than either of them, suggesting that long years are no guarantee of greater fame than writers who died comparatively young.

That's too bad, because, in addition to his tales of Silver John the balladeer and occult detective John Thunstone, Wellman also penned six stories about Kardios, a survivor of Atlantis, the last of which was published in 1986, just months after the author's death. Though he first appeared in 1977, Wellman had apparently conceived of Kardios sometime during the 1930s, but had trouble selling him because Robert E. Howard had beaten him to the punch with Kull. However, Andrew Offutt (and, later, Gerald W. Page, Hank Reinhardt, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson) recognized the uniqueness of the character and it's through their efforts that we can read about his exploits today.

"The Dweller in the Temple" quickly demonstrates the uniqueness of Kardios by having the Atlantean do something I cannot imagine Conan or most other mighty-thewed barbarian heroes doing: singing. While traveling along the road alone, he "unslung the harp from behind his broad shoulder and smote the strings. He improvised his own words and melody, while his long sword thumped his leg as though joining in." Kardios' impromptu concert meets with the approval of a dozen or so young men, who "thronged around him, smiling and slapping the hafts of their javelins."

"Three times welcome, my lord," said a spokesman. "We'll escort you to your city."

"City?" echoed Kardios, keeping a hand near his sword hilt. "What city? I didn't even know there was one."

"Just over the hill yonder," said the spokesman, pointing. "Your city of Nyanyanya."

"It must be a fine one for you to name it two or three times," said Kardios. "But I never heard of it until this moment."

"Come and reign there, as was foretold.

Though wary, Kardios acquiesces to their offer, especially after the young men "closed around him like an honor guard ... Those sharp-pointed javelins rode at the ready." 

Nyanyanya "was not a large city, but it was beautiful, a grateful refuge for a tired traveler" such as Kardios. He is met there by a crowd of admirers, along with an old man, who identifies himself as Athemar the high priest. Athemar crowns Kardios king by placing a golden circlet on his head, which the wanderer at first takes to be a joke.

"We wouldn't dare joke, Kardios," murmured one of them.

"Never," Athemar assured him. "You see, we have an interesting way of choosing our kings. When one departs, another is mystically brought to us, by decree of the Dweller in the Temple. A committee meets him and brings him to us. It's been like that since Nyanyanya became a city." He stroked his beard. "That was lifetimes ago. But your palace waits for you."

By this point, the Kardios – as well as the reader – is aware that this situation is extremely suspect and indeed probably a trap. Although he recognizes that his life is likely in danger, he does not try to escape. "He would never be happy without knowing the end of this quaint adventure."

Athemar leads Kardios to "a graceful building of the rose-gray stone," where he is shown "a spacious room with a central fountain, chairs and tables and divans, and a red-cushioned throne that seemed chiefly made of emeralds." Before he has a chance to take this all in,

girls entered, spectacularly beautiful girls, gold-haired, jet-haired, jasper-haired, smiling. Their rich, clinging costumes were as brief as the very soul of wit.

"Here are some of your subjects, awaiting your orders," Athemar said to Kardios. "Whatever you may command of them." 

The girls all vie for Kardios' attention, encouraged by Athemar, but, taking a page from Conan, he is most interested in a serving girl named Yola, who alone among them seemed genuinely concerned about him. Kardios is correct in this assessment; it is from her that he first learns something of the mysterious Dweller in the Temple about whom the high priest had spoken earlier.

"What's this Dweller in the Temple you worship here in Nyanyanya?"

"Tongbi," she whispered fearfully.

"Tongbi," he repeated the name. "What sort of god is he?"

"A great god. Great and dreadful."

"Why dreadful? Does he kill your people?"

"No." Her hair tossed as she shook her head. "I don't think he ever killed a single citizen of Nyanyanya."

This piques the interest of Kardios, who asks Athemar for more information about Tongbi. The old man is surprised by this.

Athemar frowned. "The girl told you his name?"

"And said that he was powerful, and has never yet killed a citizen of the town. That's to his credit. How ancient a god is this Tongbi, and how is he served?"

A councilor cleared his throat and tweaked his spear-point beard. "You're our king, mighty Kardios," he said. "The king isn't called on to vex himself with religious matters. Athemar and his junior priests do the worshipping and serving of Tongbi." 

This is all highly suspicious, of course, and Kardios knows it, but his natural curiosity – and sense of adventure – prevent him from fleeing Nyanyanya. He is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on here, as well as the nature of the prophecy that supposedly "foretold" his arrival here.

"The Dweller in the Temple" is a charming, enjoyable romp in the best traditions of pulp fantasy. Kardios handily distinguishes himself from the many rootless, wandering protagonists of the genre, demonstrating not just thoughtfulness – a trait he shares with many others – but also kindness and, above all, humor. Kardios regularly cracks wise and makes light of his circumstances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he reminds a lot of John the Balladeer, Wellman's more famous creation, right down to his propensity to endear himself to others through song. Also, like the tales of Silver John, this one is written in a light, breezy style that sets it apart from the self-seriousness that too often characterizes fantasies of this kind. If you can find a copy, it's well worth a read.


  1. Wellman's heroes are pretty much universally likeable people - unless you're the bad guy, at which point you're going to hate their guts on sight most of the time.

    I seem to recall Conan singing along with the crowd in a tavern on a couple of occasions, but that's hardly the same as being an actual bard who composes their own stuff impromptu.

    A longer-lived REH isn't so much interesting for what impact he might have on the current state of things as it is for imagining what else he might have written, and how it might have changed if he'd had more life experiences than he did. His death came just before WW2, which changed everyone who lived through it in some way or another. What his every-changing subjects might have shifted to if he'd lived is fascinating to speculate on, whether he served in the military or remained at home for some reason. He might not even be thought of as a primarily fantasy author if he'd gone on to write military memoir stories, or transitioned to some other genre that he hadn't touched on yet. Somewhere there's an alternate timeline where Howard went on to write hard-boiled detective fiction and is spoken of in the same breath as Hammett and Chandler.

    1. REH did more than enough for fantasy literature.

  2. I've seen it suggested that, had he lived, REH might well have abandoned pulp writing for more lucrative markets. He had apparently had some success with sports-related fiction prior to his death.

    And it is a damn shame that Wellman's works are almost all out of print.

    1. Lovecraft apparently felt that Howard would eventually write a great work of historical fiction set in the American southwest.

    2. 'Beyond the Black River' was a Conan story but read like a western, and a great one!

      REH and HPL went out at the top of their game, when Weird Tales was at the top of its. I think it helped how they are remembered, compared to CAS who was arguably just as good, but experienced the long slow decline of an industry.

    3. I imagine Howard probably would have made a mark doing westerns and similar historicals for a bit, and I wouldn't be too surprised if during or after WWII he did military stories for men's magazines and the like. I assume for this thought experiment that Howard would die some time in the '60s, so he'd be around for the beginning of the paperback fantasy boom and we might see an all to brief return to the genre.

      Also I'll definitely agree that it's a shame how difficult it is to find Wellman, by the time I was tuned onto him, the Planet Stories collections were super expensive.

  3. I can guess where this tale goes. It sounds a rollicking tale.

    1. Indeed. It's not especially original, let alone unpredictable, but Wellman tells the story in a fun, charming way.

    2. As always, it's the execution not the story.

  4. "Their rich, clinging costumes were as brief as the very soul of wit."

    This is either so-terrible-it's-good-again writing, or intentionally self-parodic. Hard to say without knowing Wellman's style better.

    1. Definitely tongue-in-cheek, if you are familiar with the style of his Appalachian tales.

  5. Wellman follows Howard in writing heroic characters through different milieux who bear obvious similarities to each other. The practice must have come to Michael Moorcock's attention, because he both engaged in it and created a self-aware in-multiverse rationale for it: the "Eternal Champion" incarnated in each of his tragic action heroes (along with the "Eternal Sidekick" who sometimes gets his own show).