A Dying Sun, A Necrophagist Cult, and the Creepiest Courtship EVER
WARNING: some spoilers herein. Normally I am loathe to reveal any plot details of a story, you crazy kids really should read these stories with a fresh mind and minimal expectations. But “The Charnel God” offers up a fairly elaborate plot, so in discussion of this one, divulging some story detail may be inevitable. I’ll do my best to minimize that, nonetheless–LG
“Mordiggian is the god of Zul-Bha-Sair.”
That’s the solemn edict that sets up the story we’ll be exploring in this the third installment of my exploration (and in this case, re-examination) of Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasy story cycle Zothique. In this post, we’ll explore “The Charnel God,” published in the March 1934 issue of Weird Tales.
I’ve been lining up some practical matters for my surgery this month so I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, but have nonetheless resolved to offer at least some base-level insight for every CAS Zothique story before Necronomicon 2017 next summer. It seems fitting that I should pick one of the most grim and grotesque stories of Zothique, and one of my absolute favorites.
TCG was actually the first CAS story I heard when I began exploring him on Audible (my commute sometimes restricts me to audiobooks, which is a great way to discover new writers). The version I found is actually set up like an old-school radio drama, which makes the creepiness of the story all the more immersive.
A young exiled prince Phariom enters the remote desert city of Zhul-Bha-Sair, unaware that its supreme and foremost law is that everyone who dies within its walls becomes the property (read: dinner) of their god Mordiggian. His masked and powerful priests see to that with a startling and unwavering punctuality. Their hidden and masked visage does little to betray their physical ninja-level physical strength. The cult along with their god then literally eat the corpses once inside their temple, often waiting for days so that rot has set in nice and proper. Hey, we’ve had worse at Arby’s, haven’t we?
When Phariom’s wife Elaith succumbs to a seizure (obviously misdiagnosed narcolepsy), Mordiggian’s priests are summoned to their inn, force their way in, and make off with Elaith. All others are convinced she is dead, despite the explanations of her true condition by Phariom. Consequently, the young exile spends the next phase of the story tracking these priests down to the massive, dark temple of Mordiggian that lies at the center of Zhul-Bha-Sair, but once inside he meets a new obstacle he could not have anticipated.
The plans of Abnon-Tha, resident necromancer of Moriggian’s temple, are as simple as they are creepy. The dude obviously can’t get laid, so he uses his admittedly advanced sorcery to fatally poison Arctella, a young noble maiden of the city to whom he has taken a certain necromantic shine. He then plans to resurrect her within the confines of Mordiggian’s temple, and by way of his magic and with the assistance of his pupils Nargei and Vemba-Tsith, plans to resurrect her from death and make her his “unquestioning slave.” They will all then leave Zhul-Bha-Sair in short order, leave the ghoul cult of Mordiggian in their dusty wake, and make tracks for balmier climes in the south of Zothique to the realm of Tassuun. They know all-too-well that to remove any dead from the temple is a dire blasphemy rewarded with extreme wrath. Abnon-Tha haughtily dismisses this threat, and they proceed with their plan.
As this parallel track returns to Phariom, he sneaks into Mordiggian’s charnel fane under cover of darkness, and he runs afoul of the sorcerers when they suddenly decide, upon seeing his wife Elaith laid out on the slab next to to Arctella, to take her along for the ritual. The apprentice necromancer Vemba-Tsith is taken with Elaith’s beauty, unaware of both her betrothal to Phariom and her narcoleptic condition. They are also of course convinced that she is quite deceased, and thus a prime candidate for resurrection, whereas Phariom realizes with horror that she could awaken at any moment.
As Phariom watches the sorcerers commence their ritual in a remote antechamber of the temple, Elaith does awaken from her seizure, but due to shock and disorientation she finds herself unable to move. Her supposed resurrection pleases the apprentice Vemba-Tsith, who boasts to his master that his incantation for Elaith had been quicker than Abnon-Tha’s sorcery with Arctella. No sooner is this spoken when Arctella herself then rises from her couch, but with more of the effect intended by the necromancers: she is still and emotionless as an “automaton,” and stands before Abnon-Tha awaiting only his directives.
Phariom then bursts into the chamber in hopes of rescuing Elaith from the sorcerers. After confronting the group, he succeeds in bringing his wife to his side, and as the necromancers make ready to kill him, they are all interrupted by a new guest: The Charnel God of Zhul-Bha-Sair.
This may very well be my favorite story so far of the Zothique cycle, matched perhaps only by “The Weaver in the Vault,” but keep in mind I’ve got about twenty more stories to go in the cycle, many of which I have not read.
CAS doesn’t speak much about the inner workings of TCG in his published letters, but the elaborate nature of the plot in addition to the smothering, dark atmosphere conveyed within make me think that the story may have gone through multiple drafts. Of course, the often florid prose characteristic to Smith’s dark fantasy writing may not be to everyone’s liking–adverbs abound throughout, but as many pulp writers were paid by the word, let’s keep in mind that CAS was trying to make a living selling these stories during The Great Depression, a time that may have had a direct influence on his portrayal of the dying world of Zothique–a once prosperous era full of wine, promise, high fashion, and cakes is suddenly plunged into chaos, disease, bewilderment, and searing pain. I’ve been wholly familiar with this constant sensation and given reality my entire life, which may be another reason the stories of this cycle, a dying world and our desperate, fumbling efforts to survive within its trappings, appeal to me so readily.
1.) The Double Shadow podcast (devoted entirely to discussing CAS) recently posted an episode about The Charnel God, and I encourage anyone interested to not only listen to what they have to say about the story, but to subscribe to them as well and follow them on Twitter.
2.) Connors, Scott, and Tim Kirk. 2006. The freedom of fantastic things: selected criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. New York: Hippocampus Press.
Among other marvelous insights into the dark fantasy and poetry of CAS, this volume contains the chapter “As Shadows Wait upon the Sun: Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique” by Jim Rockhill, much of which has informed this series of blog posts I am attempting to share with you.
NEXT UP: “The Dark Eidolon”
I am not familiar with this story, which is apparently one of Smith’s most renowned, and also appears to involve a world where sorcery is the default and actions have dire consequences. Sign me up for the ride!
“Incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures. . . Take one step across the threshold of [Smith’s] stories and you plunge into colour, sound, taste, smell and texture: into language.”—Ray Bradbury