Clark Ashton Smith was a writer that made an indelible contribution to the genre of sword and sorcery fiction. However, his work is usually associated with the cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, rather than the father of sword and sorcery, Robert E. Howard. In truth, Smith acts as a sort of connective tissue between the two. Many of his characters would not be out of place in say, a Conan story, while the various worlds he created were just as imaginative as any produced by the writer from Cross Plains. As for tone however, Smith drifts towards the Lovecraft side of the spectrum; his stories are fatalistic in tone and the vast majority of his characters die horribly. No setting epitomizes this prevailing sense of fatalism more than his exotic Zothique cycle. This cycle of tales takes place in Earth’s deep future; the supercontinent of Zothique is a geological patchwork made up of sections of Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, east Africa and the Indonesian archipelago. The sun is nearing its extinguishing point, dark sorcery is ubiquitous, and monarchs rule the populace with an iron fist. Technology on the last continent is comparable to that of Earth’s Bronze Age.
“The Weaver in the Vault” tells the tale of three soldiers in the employ of King Famorgh of Tasuun who are sent to the dead city of Chaon Gacca to retrieve the mummified remains of King Tnepreez, founder of the dynasty to which Famorgh belongs. Grotara, Yanur and Thirlain Ludoch are three battle hardened warriors making their way by dromedaries to the dead city over the course of several days (and drinking much wine in the process). Once they arrive at their destination, they find Chaon Gacca in a state of extreme disrepair; centuries ago seismic activity leveled the city and forced the inhabitants to relocate.
The three soldiers pick their way across the ruins, while carrying an empty coffin in tow. Eventually, they arrive at the royal palace where they are to delve into the subterranean catacombs. The trio polishes off the last of the wine, light their torches and begins their descent into the underground labyrinth. Once they reach the dynastic burial chambers, they are shocked to find that all of the royal mummies are gone; the only things that are left behind are their rich trappings. Not a scrap of flesh or bone is to be found; and as is so often the case in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, luck runs out for the protagonists. From beneath the vaults a deep rumbling occurs. The unstable city is going through another seismic event. The catacomb collapses in on the trio and all goes black.
After an indeterminate amount of time, Grotara comes back to consciousness. He is more fortunate than Yanur and Thirlain Ludoch, but only just. They both lay dead, partly exposed from under tons of stone, armor and helmets dented and bodies smashed. Although still breathing, Grotara’s legs are pulverized from his knees down by a gigantic slab of masonry. Trapped and in excruciating pain, the soldier tries to remove the stonework from his shattered legs to no avail.
As is customary in a Clark Ashton Smith story, things deteriorate, going from bad to worse quickly. Hearing a faint humming sound emanating from below in the newly formed fissure, Grotara notes that the dark chamber is slowly being filled by a strange glow. Up from the crack in the earth, a ‘coldly shining, hueless globe round as a puffball and large as a human head’ (1) floats over to the body of Yanur and begins digesting the corpse. This creature is not a ghoul in the traditional sense. It drains the dead of sustenance, shriveling the corpse to the point of liquefying its bones. It then does the same to Thirlain Ludoch: “flushed like a vampire moon… there issued palpable ropes and filaments, pearly, shuddering into strange colors, that appeared to fasten themselves to the ruined floor and walls and roof, like the weaving of a spider” (2). This is the titular weaver of the vault and what an introduction! At this point, as can be imagined, Grotara goes a bit mad and brandishing his sword in desperation, tries to saw off his trapped legs so he can escape; to no avail. The weaver is waiting for Grotara to die so it can consume him as well. Unfortunately for the soldier, it doesn’t have long to wait. Smith’s creative choice for this far future eater of the dead was an interesting one; it bears absolutely no resemblance to mythical ghouls and its strange alien biology is more akin to a cross between a hovering deep sea jellyfish (when extended to full form) and a cuttlefish for its hypnotic light show properties. With a dash of highly corrosive Xenomorph blood as digestive fluid thrown in for good measure. Creepy stuff to be sure.
In table top role playing game parlance, the term TPK stands for total party kill. TPKs can occur for several reasons, but usually can be attributed to a combination of unlucky dice rolls, poor decision making on the part of players and the malevolence of the GM. Smith could be the poster boy for the capricious and lethal game master. His party kill ratio (as evidenced in his works) is nearly one hundred percent. “The Weaver in the Vault” also provides readers with an early example of a traditional dungeon crawl, straight out of the pages of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Although Smith is not officially listed as an ‘inspirational author’ in Gary Gygax’s Appendix N reading list, I find it difficult to believe that the co-creator of D&D was not acquainted with this story. Especially given the subject matter; yet with no proof to go on, I will have to assume that the similarities are strictly coincidental. The Zothique cycle (in general) has an exotic and antique flavor to it. In my view, this is especially present in “The Weaver in the Vault”. The trio of Grotara, Yanur and Thirlain Ludoch are certainly hard bitten, sword and sorcery characters, yet Smith’s description of them is distinctly Near Eastern; Yanur has a ‘black and spade shaped beard’ (3) and Thirlain Ludoch, ‘whose brown beard was faded by hempen hue by desert suns’ (4). These descriptions taken with evidence of bronze plated cuirasses, crested helmets, chariot ruts, the abandoned wayside shrine to the small and grotesque god of laughter, Yuckla (get it?) and the trek across the barren landscape on camelback to a dead city in quest of a mummified king, lends an antediluvian pedigree to this tale. “The Weaver in the Vault” reads like a like a newly discovered fragment of a long lost Akkadian epic, in the tradition of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
1. Smith, Clark Ashton. The Ultimate Weird Tales Collection. Trilogus Media Group, Publication Date Unlisted. Kindle E- Book Location 28043 of 29792-94%
2. Smith, Clark Ashton. The Ultimate Weird Tales Collection. Trilogus Media Group, Publication Date Unlisted. Kindle E- Book Location 28062 of 29792-94%
3. Smith, Clark Ashton. The Ultimate Weird Tales Collection. Trilogus Media Group, Publication Date Unlisted. Kindle E- Book Location 27882 of 29792-94%
4. Smith, Clark Ashton. The Ultimate Weird Tales Collection. Trilogus Media Group, Publication Date Unlisted. Kindle E- Book Location 27892 of 29792-94%
The Eldritch Dark: The Sanctum of Clark Ashton Smith. www.eldritchdark.com
IMAGES/ ART- “The Weaver in the Vault”