Monday, April 3, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tomb-Spawn

If the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales looks familiar, it should. That's because it may well be one of the most famous in the entire run of the Unique Magazine: the first cover appearance by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian, courtesy of Margaret Brundage. Of course, the issue in question featured more than "Queen of the Black Coast," justly famous though that tale is. Also to be found in its pages is Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tomb-Spawn," a short but nevertheless satisfying story set in Zothique.

"The Tomb-Spawn" introduces two brothers, Milab and Marabac, who are jewel merchants from Ustaim. They had traveled by caravan to far-off Faraad, in search of goods to take home with them for sale. While relaxing with other foreign merchants in one of Faraad's wine shops, they listened intently to a local storyteller. He regaled them with the legend of the wizard-king Ossaru, who "once ruled over half the continent of Zothique."

According to these legends, Ossaru was "half immortal" and favored by "Thasaidon, black god of evil." Even more significantly, Ossaru "was companioned by the monster Nioth Korghai, who came down to Earth from an alien world, riding a fire-maned comet." 

"Ossaru, by his skill in astrology, had foreseen the coming of Nioth Korghai. Alone, he went forth into the desert to await the monster. in many lands people saw the falling of the comet, like a sun that came down by night upon the waste; but only King Ossaru beheld the arrival of Nioth Korghai. He returned in the black, moonless hours before dawn when all men slept, bringing the strange monster to his palace, and housing him in a vault beneath the throne-room, which he had prepared for Nioth Korghai's abode.

"Dwelling always thereafter in the vault, the monster remained unknown and unbeheld. It was said that he gave advice to Ossaru, and instructed him in the lore of the outer planets. At certain periods of the stars, women and young warriors were sent down as a sacrifice to Nioth Korghai; and these returned never to give account of that which they had seen. None could surmise his aspect; but all who entered the palace heard ever in the vault beneath a muffled noise as of slow beaten drums, and a regurgitation such as would be made by an underground fountain; and sometimes men heard an evil cackling as of a mad cockatrice.

In time, the monster "sickened with a strange malady" and died. Ossaru then surrounded the body of Nioth Korghai "with a double zone of enchantment, circle by circle" within the vault where had dwelled. Later, when Ossaru himself died, his remains, too, were placed within the same vault, beside the alien beast that had served him.

The legend does not end there, however. According to the storyteller, 

No man has ever found their tomb; but the wizard Namirrha, prophesying darkly, foretold many ages ago that certain travelers, passing through the desert, would some day come upon it unaware. And he said that these travelers, descending into the tomb by another way than the door, would behold a strange prodigy. And he spoke not concerning the nature of the prodigy, but said only that Nioth Korghai, being a creature from some far world, was obedient to alien laws in death as in life. And of that which Namirrha meant, no man has yet guessed the secret."

Milab and Marabac then set off from Faraad toward Ustaim, traveling once more by caravan in the company of other merchants. Unfortunately for them, their caravan is ambushed by a horde of the "wild and half-bestial" Ghorii: " Akin to the ghouls and jackals, they were eaters of carrion; and also they were anthropophagi, subsisting by preference on the bodies of travelers, and drinking their blood in lieu of water or wine." The Ghorii quickly kill the brothers' companions and would have killed them as well, had the camels they were riding not been so frightened that they bolted away from the scene of the ambush.

As their camels flee in unexpected direction, Milab and Marabac spy "the white walls and domes of some inappelable city" that appears to be much closer than it actually was. By the time they finally reach it, a couple of days later, they are in need of food and water. Desperate, they enter the heart of this once-great metropolis, looking for a possible source of refreshment. 

Wandering hopelessly on, they came to the ruins of a huge edifice which, it appeared, had been the palace of some forgotten monarch. The mighty walls, defying the erosion of ages, were still extant. The portals, guarded on either hand by green brazen images of mythic heroes, still frowned with unbroken arches. Mounting the marble steps, the jewelers entered a vast, roofless hall where cyclopean columns towered as if to bear up the desert sky.

The broad pavement flags were mounded with debris of arches and architraves and pilasters. At the hall's far extreme there was a dais of black-veined marble on which, presumably, a royal throne had once reared. Nearing the dais, Milab and Marabac both heard a low and indistinct gurgling as of some hidden stream or fountain, that appeared to rise from underground depths below the palace pavement.

Eagerly trying to locate the source of the sound, they climbed the dais. Here a huge block had fallen from the wall above, perhaps recently and the marble had cracked beneath its weight, and a portion of the dais had broken through into some underlying vault, leaving a dark and jagged aperture. It was from this opening that the water-like regurgitation rose, incessant and regular as the beating of a pulse.

If I have a complaint about "The Tomb-Spawn," it is the lack of subtlety Smith displays in setting up the situation in which Milab and Marabac find themselves. I wish that he had somehow been able to present the legend of Ossaru in such a way that its eventual discovery by the brothers did not seem so obvious. He makes some effort at justifying the course of the tale through Namirrha's prophecy, but that is, in my opinion, a weak, even lazy, artifice on his part. 

Fortunately, Smith outdoes himself when it comes to the conclusion of "The Tomb-Spawn." What the brothers find in the vault beneath the dais is delightfully frightful and more than worth the wait. I don't wish to oversell it, but I believe it's one of Smith's creepier creations. Take the time to follow the link at the start of this post and read the tale – as I said, it's not very long – to see if you agree.


  1. "... of some inappelable city..."

    That is not a word in English. Inappellable and inappeallable are legit spellings, both meaning "final, that which cannot be appealed against" but the quited form is from the French, Spanish, or possibly other languages, and include the broader definition of "inevitable, inescapable" as CAS seems to be using here.

    Interesting bit of an etymological dig there.

    1. It's an italian word, too. "Inappellabile" meaning "without (a possibility for) plea".

    2. I was guessing that he meant this as “unnameable”, as related to “appellation”, but the spelling is odd unless he knew the meaning of “inappellable” and didn’t want his term confused with it.

    3. Figured Italian was in the mix too but I was in a hurry - and it seems that all three "big romance languages" share the same definitions for the word. Unsurprising, given the Latin roots involved.

      And yeah, that was supposed to be "quoted" there. I really was rushing...

  2. Unless... "appellare" means "call by name". In italian, and in french too (je m'apelle Filippo - my name is Filippo). So maybe he really means unnamable...

    1. Both unnamable and inescapable seem to fit the usage he's going for here, so that's a possibility. But it's still not quite English, at least as far as I can tell - and I did look at some older dictionaries to see if it was a case of a spelling drifting out of favor over the last ~90 years. Like I said, an interesting etymological dig.

      Of course, it might also be a typographical error. Spell-check programs weren't a thing in 1934. :)