Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Charnel God

In a comment for my post about The Hand of Nergal, my pal Al Harron, proprietor of the awesome Blog that Time Forgot and an REH scholar not to be trifled with, mentioned the Clark Ashton Smith story, The Charnel God. I had a vague memory of the story but it had been years since I read it, so I dug into my CAS volumes and found it and sat right down to read it. It's great, and it certainly fits into my pre-Halloween reading of creepy stories. The set up comes in the first few paragraphs. Under the editorship of Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, Smith had learned how to write for the pulps.

"Mordiggian is the god of Zul-Bha-Sair," said the innkeeper with unctuous solemnity. "He has been the god from years that are lost to man's memory in shadow deeper than the subterranes of his black temple. There is no other god in Zul-Bha-Sair. And all who die within the walls of the city are sacred to Mordiggian. Even the kings and the optimates, at death, are delivered into the hands of his muffled priests. It is the law and the custom. A little while, and the priests will come for your bride."
"But Elaith is not dead," protested the youth Phariom for the third or fourth time, in piteous desperation. "Her malady is one that assumes the lying likeness of death. Twice before has she lain insensible, with a pallor upon her cheeks and a stillness in her very blood, that could hardly be distinguished from those of the tomb; and twice she has awakened after an interim of days."
The innkeeper peered with an air of ponderous unbelief at the girl who lay white and motionless as a mown lily on the bed in the poorly furnished attic chamber.
"In that case you should not have brought her into Zul-Bha-Sair," he averred in a tone of owlish irony. "The physician has pronounced her dead; and her death has been reported to the priests. She must go to the temple of Mordiggian."

The city of Zul-Bha-Sair has no cemeteries, no tombs or mausoleums, because the god of the city literally devours all who die. Commoner or King, all are the food for the god. The weird Priests of Mordiggian arrive soon to take the girl, who apparently suffers seizures that make her appear to be dead, and though young Phariom resists, the priests seem stronger and faster than human beings should be, and they easily pummel him into semi-consciousness. When he regains his senses, the priests and his wife are gone. Now the real horror begins as Phariom must brave the temple of Mordiggian before the Charnel god can devour his wife or before she wakes and is driven to madness by finding herself among the decaying corpses in the temple. (Apparently Mordiggian often likes his meals somewhat ripe.)
While generating quite a feeling of horror and dread, The Charnel God is actually one of Clark Ashton Smith's more straightforward stories. His usually Byzantine prose seems more restrained here, and the plot moves along at a faster pace than a lot of his work. I've said before that I don't consider Klarkashton (as H. P. Lovecraft called him) to be a sword & sorcery writer, but The Charnel God comes close to an S&S story. In fact I'm a little surprised that Roy Thomas never adapted the tale into an issue of Conan the Barbarian or Savage Sword. Toward the end of the run of both comics, Thomas was occasionally adapting stories by CAS, C.L. Moore, Clifford Ball, and others.
It wouldn't have taken a lot to drop Conan into this one. Make Phariom a former comrade of Conan, like the young warrior in Drums of Tombalku, and have him run into Conan while on his way to the temple and off you go.
Anyway, The Charnel God is great October reading, as is much of the work of Clark Ashton Smith. Presumably, the fifth and final volume of Nightshade Books' Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith will be out in November. Can't recommend the entire series enough. The Charnel God is in volume four which is availble now, but it's been reprinted before and it's also available online at the link provided below.


Taranaich said...

You're too kind, Charles!

I think there are definitely some CAS stories that could be considered Sword-and-Sorcery: "Charnel God" is skirting the genre, but I still think "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is proper Sword-and-Sorcery. My man Deuce Richardson makes a case for at least some Smithian S&S stories:

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I'll read both Richardson's article and The Colossus of Ylourgne, Al, and give the issue some thought.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the nod, Al. B-)

"The Black Abbot of Puthuum" could've been a Fafhrd & Mouser tale.

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" could easily be a Moorcock story (though MM wouldn't have written it as well).