Guest post by Anthony Perconti
Clark Ashton Smith’s story, “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. This story, part of Smith’s Zothique cycle, chronicles the adventures of two soldiers in the employ of King Hoaraph of Yoros. The Zothique tales take place in Earth’s far flung 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. A smaller continent lies across the ocean to the south, while to the west, a few small islands reside. Due to the extreme age of the planet, countless sequences of cultures and civilizations have risen and fallen over the long span of eons. Zothique is the last continent, inhabited by the last vestiges of humanity (and other races) prior to the planet’s final demise. In this late, decadent era, a monarch’s rule is absolute, sorcery (or something very much resembling it) holds sway and technology is reminiscent of Earth’s Bronze Age.
Within this setting we are introduced to Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike bearer. These two companions are the veterans of a decade’s worth of armed and bloody conflict against the enemies of King Hoaraph. As a reward for their exemplary service to the crown, they are assigned the cushy duty of guarding the king’s chief eunuch and procurer of concubines, Simban, on an expedition to the far side of the Izdrel wastes. Their purpose is to retrieve (purchase) a girl of rumored celestial beauty from the people of the pasturelands beyond the desert. The outgoing trip through the Izdrel to the herder’s village goes off without any problems. Simban makes the purchase of the gorgeous, white skinned, raven haired Rubalsa, and the group departs at dawn from the village on the following day back to the capitol city of Faraad. By mid-day on their first day’s journey, the four travelers’ luck runs out. They are besieged on the footpath across the wastes by a fast moving, great storm of darkness that blots out their surroundings, leaving them trapped in a small circular clearing amidst a sea of pitch. From the black mass emerges a cacophony of mailed soldiers on the march, the hissing of many colossal serpents, the notes of many discordant instruments and formless figures are glimpsed churning about. The storm is guiding them with some intent, away from their path back to civilization. At one point “it seemed that great fiery eyes glared out of the gloom, floating close to earth or moving aloft at a gigantic height.” Zobal lets fly enchanted arrows at this beast to no avail. For his trouble, all he gets is an “appalling outburst of Satanic laughters and ululations.”
Faced with this no win situation, the warriors come to grips with the fact that their small party is more than likely doomed. The supernatural storm that has been harrying them for the duration of the day suddenly winks out of existence, leaving the travelers far from their intended course. Dusk is quickly fading into night. Out of the gloom, a dark figure holding a horn lantern is fast approaching the group. Behind the figure in the distance looms a large square structure, its windows throwing off illumination. This is the titular abbot of the story. Ujuk is a heavy set dark skinned man, wrapped in saffron robes, wearing a horned hat of station upon his head. Once he introduces himself as the head abbot of the monastery of Puthuum, Ujuk begrudgingly convinces the group to let him provide food and lodging for the night. But the two warriors are suspicious of the dark monk’s hospitality. Upon closer inspection it becomes evident that the abbot is not an entirely human entity. “The black man grinned capaciously, showing rows of discolored teeth whose incisors were those of a wild dog.” A disturbing image, to be sure, within and outside the context of the story. Add to this the fact that the abbot has curved talon-like nails on both his hands and feet, well, let’s just say that the two companions’ suspicions are a little more than piqued. The four travelers stay the night in the monastery, where they encounter servant monks who closely resemble the abbot; with the marked difference that these monks cast no shadow. Once the group enters the monastery, the story begins to pick up steam. What sinister plans does the abbot have in store for the travelers? Will the group make it out alive and return to Faraad? I’d rather not spoil it for you. This title is readily available both in print and in digital format collections. For a free version of this story, check out the online repository of Smith’s work at www.eldritchdark.com. “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” is a fine example of golden age pulp sword and sorcery, teeming with sinister magic, deeds of valor, ancient mummies, and a beautiful damsel in need of rescuing.
“The Black Abbot of Puthuum” is an atypical Smith tale. When one examines his body of work as a whole, you can’t help but notice a consistent strain of fatalism all throughout. As a writer, Smith was a type who put his protagonists into situations that usually did not have good outcomes. Most of his characters end up dead by the story’s end, usually by horrible supernatural means. So much so in fact, that the only recurring character in all of Smith’s writings is Satampra Zeiros, from his Hyperborean cycle. Zeiros, self-proclaimed master thief, appeared in the aptly titled “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (November, 1931 issue of Weird Tales) and in “The Theft of the Thirty Nine Girdles” (March, 1958 issue of Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy). Compared to other Smith protagonists, Zeiros got off easy (his right hand gets bitten off by an eldritch horror at the conclusion of “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”). This sense of ultimate futility is especially present in the Zothique cycle. On a planet with a sun that is sputtering towards its extinguishing point, the selfsame doom is reflected in the people who inhabit this world; as above, so below. Why should they be spared the inevitable end? With no future to look forward to, the twin agencies of decadence and doom hold sway across all the kingdoms of Zothique. The characters of Zobal and Cushara fare better than Zeiros, and they certainly fare better by a greater magnitude than most of Smith’s protagonists.
When comparing the finale of “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” to the other works of the Zothique cycle, I can’t help but wonder why Smith wrote an ending that is, dare I say, hopeful? I have no corroborating evidence, but it seems to me that Smith was leaving himself an open door to revisit these characters if the need so arose. Of course this is blatant speculation on my part, but Smith could have certainly continued cranking out the further thrilling adventures of Zobal and Cushara across the dying planet a la Fritz Leiber’s Swords series. And as my title implies, I am making a near symmetrical comparison between Cushara and his associate Zobal, with Leiber’s looming northern barbarian Fafhrd and his constant companion, the diminutive Gray Mouser. “Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike bearer had poured many a libation to their friendship… In that long and lusty amity, broken only by such passing quarrels as concerned the division of a wine skin or the apportioning of a wench…” This quote provides us with some insight on the duo; they have a long history together and they watch each other’s backs. Much like that matched pair of adventurers from Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga. Friendship and loyalty are two traits that would be an invaluable resource in such a capricious environment such as the last continent.
We can only imagine what the further adventures of Smith’s two bravos would have been like. Part of me laments the fact that we will never get to read such evocative titles as “Swords against the Charnel God” or “The Blood Rubies of Psiom”. But then again, the strength of a work such as Zothique lies not in the adventures to be found therein, but rather in its baroque language, its highly decadent setting and the all encompassing sense of loss and doom. “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” is at its core an entertaining work of early sword and sorcery fiction that appeared routinely (authors like Robert E. Howard and C.L. Moore were regular contributors) within the pages of Weird Tales. Imaginative and entertaining stuff to be sure. But be warned, this story is a palate cleanser of sorts; it’s not representative of the greater whole. The other titles that make up the Zothique cycle are of a far more potent and heady vintage. Be sure to take your time and nurse those stories. They are the dark wine of oblivion.