Monday, May 1, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Guest of Dzinganji

Having enjoyed re-reading Manly Wade Wellman's "The Dweller in the Temple" for last week's installment of the Pulp Fantasy Library, I decided to work my way through his remaining three tales of Kardios and using them as the basis for new posts. Before turning to the third in the series, "The Guest of Dzinganji," which first appeared in the Andrew Offutt-edited anthology, Swords Against Darkness III in 1978, I briefly wanted to make a couple of general comments about pulp fantasy literature that are relevant to all the stories of Kardios (and, by extension, to many similar pieces of fiction).

First, I think it's easy to overlook just how important anthologies were to the survival and growth of sword-and-sorcery literature during the period between the late 1960s and early 1980s. That's because the native form of this style of fantasy is the short story, the publication of which had previously depended on magazines, many of which, like Weird Tales, declined or ceased publication entirely by the start of the '50s. This turn of events left a void in the market that anthologies would eventually fill. Though published less often than their pulp predecessors, these anthologies were nevertheless significant vectors for the transmission of pulp fantasy sensibilities to a new generation of readers.

Second – and this comment is especially relevant in the case of the present tale – there can be little denying that pulp fantasies frequently used and re-used the same basic plots and story elements. How many of them, for example, involve a lone wanderer entering a new place and stumbling upon some problem whose solution has eluded every previous person who's come across it? This is not a weakness in my opinion, as the enjoyment of almost any story lies not in its specific components but in how the author makes use of them. There can thus be multiple stories with the same basic set-up but whose executions vary considerably, some good and some bad. 

In the case of "The Guest of Dzinganji," I feel that Wellman has achieved the former: a good story that makes use of commonplace pulp fantasy elements. These elements are, in fact, so commonplace that Wellman has already made use of them in his previous Kardios yarns. Yet, he somehow manages to use them one more time in this fun little adventure. As with "The Dweller in the Temple," Kardios follows an unknown trail and sings an improvised song as he strums his harp. This time, though, the trail abruptly ends at "an abyss as deep as any he had ever seen."

Down it went, down, down. Standing on the rocky shelf where the trail stopped, he peered. Hazy blue distance below. As he studied that depth, a flat click sounded in the air. He looked up.

Twelve times his length across, another cliff soared into the sky. Against the settling sun moved a dull-shiny something. It hung from chains to a great road or cable that came from far above where the ohter clilff's overhang held it. It was like a great metal basket drifting toward him. He drew back, wondering if his sword would be needed.

Kardios soon realizes that the basket is some kind of conveyance up the cliff-face. As he watches it travel up and down, he hears "a dry voice," which orders him, "Go away and forget." The voice comes from "a man in a ragged gray gown" who sat farther along the ledge between the two cliffs. The nameless old fellow seems to be a seer of some kind, for he knows the name of Kardios, as well as his role in sinking Atlantis. He explains to the wanderer that he has stayed here on the ledge "to warn men to turn back from Flaal. But the tales of treasure draw them. They never return."

The old man urges Kardios not to "let greed tempt you into Flaal."

"What happens to those who go there?"

The white head shook. "My wisdom doesn't reach to Flaal; magic shuts me out. I know only that Dzinganji rules there with a ready ear to listen for visitors and a ready method to entertain them. Dzinganji is a god, Kardios, and an evil one."

"I've met evil gods," said Kardios. "I killed Fith, who oppressed the giant Nephol tribe. I killed Tongbi, who was unpleasantly worshipped in Nyanyanya. What if I kill Dzinganji?"

"I'd be happily amazed. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"I'll never say that," promised Kardios.

This was when Wellman succeeded in completely winning me over. The level of self-awareness that Kardios displays is remarkable, stopping just short of commenting on just how absurd it is that he has yet again run into a so-called god whose villainy demands death at his capable hands. It's a testament to Wellman's skill as a writer that, despite this, the story that follows does not descend into parody; if anything, Kardios's recognition of the situation only serves to make what follows more interesting.

Kardios makes use of the metal basket to reach Flaal, which was "a city, domed and steepled in crystal and gleaming gold and silver. Under the soles of his sandals, the pavement was golden." He had no doubts as to why men were drawn to this place, but it appeared to be completely empty. He called out received "no answer but his own echo." In spite of this, Kardios presses ahead to see what else he might find.

In time, he finds at least one inhabitant of the place.

A superbly proportioned female figure, he saw at once. Her clothing was taut, scanty and many-jeweled. Her pale blonde hair was caught at the temples with a glittering band. Her sandals were cross-gartered in silver to her knees.

"Warm welcome to Flaal, Kardios," said her musical voice. "You're strong and young. You'll be of service to us and your pay princely."

She smiled. Her face was dreamily lovely, her eyes pale blue as the spring sky washed by winter's tears. "My name is Tanda."

Again, the similarities to initial situation in "The Dweller in the Temple" is striking and, in the hands of a lesser writer, would rightly be grounds for criticism, if not outright mockery.  Here, it serves to lull the reader into a false sense of déjà vu so that Wellman might catch him off-guard with subsequent revelations – or so it was for me. 

Tanda is guarded by two towering warriors clad in golden arm and wielding huge, axe-like weapons. This raises the wanderer's suspicions, all the more so when the woman explains that "Dzinganji created them, to perform his will." When Kardios attempts to press on into Flaal without first agreeing to "make submission" to Dzinganji like all "guests" in the city, the two sentinels attack him. During the battle, he notices that his opponents move strangely and do not seem to bleed when struck. When he emerges victorious, Tanda is unhappy.

"Dzinganji will be displeased," said Tanda in a reproachful voice.

"They were trying to kill me," reminded Kardios, bending above the two silent figures. "Did I truly kill them? Where's the blood?"

There showed only a trickle of clear fluid from the wounds he had inflicted. "It looks more like oil than blood," he said.

"They were machines," said Tanda. "Flaal is guarded by machines."

With that, "The Guest at Dzinganji" takes another unexpected turn and it's not the last. Every step of the way, Wellman zigs rather than zags and the result is a pulp fantasy yarn that is familiar without being hackneyed – and original without straying too far from a tried-and-true formula of the genre. It's good fun and exactly what I want out of stories of this kind.


  1. James, you have succeeded in making me delve deeper in Manly Wade Wellman's body of work. I have dim recollections of some of these stories that I may have read 35 years ago or so, but now I'm eagerly reading all of his stuff that I can lay my hands on. Thanks!

  2. I read 5 of Wellman's Kardios stories in this collection:

    I wonder what the sixth one is and where I might be able to find it?
    They were all very entertaining.