Short Story Review: “Vulthoom” by Clark Ashton Smith

(Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, September 1935.)

Who Goes There?

Clark Ashton Smith was the third of the big three contributors to Weird Tales during the height of that magazine’s first incarnation—at least with hindsight; Lovecraft or Smith would be replaced with Seabury Quinn if we’re judging by initial popularity. Smith, Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard were part of a circle who frequently exchanged letters, and there’s little doubt that this association allowed Smith any sort of exposure after he mostly stopped writing fiction; that he outlived Lovecraft and Howard by a couple decades and was able to provide commentary on this period in pulp history certainly helped. A strange thing about Smith is that he has to be one of the best writers, at least of the pulp era, who wrote fiction largely for the sake of profit: he found, early in life, that he loathed menial labor too much while also struggling to envision himself hunched over in an office—thus he turned to fiction. Smith’s initial artistic love was poetry, and by the end of his life he had turned to sculpting, but it’s his short fiction (he never wrote a novel in adulthood) that maintains his legacy.

Over a period of about five years (1930 to 1935) Smith wrote the vast majority of his 100+ short stories, amassing a body of work that’s quite big (despite the lack of anything approaching even novella length) and surprisingly varied, ranging from sword and sorcery to science fiction of the ’30s super-science variety; and it’s this latter category that today’s story very much falls into. I like Smith quite a bit, but sadly I’m gonna have to rag on him at points during this review because “Vulthoom” is… not very good. It’s not terrible, it certainly has points of interest which I’ll discuss, but Smith fails to capitalize on his talents with this outing, namely his knack as a highly lyrical prose stylist. Some people give Smith shit because his prose is highly baroque, but when Smith is on the ball there’s a distinct rhythm to his style that, aside from Lord Dunsany and maybe a couple others, is very hard to find elsewhere. In other words, the style is the substance.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. This is one of the more overtly lurid Brundage covers; there’s even a nipple outline! I don’t know how one would feel buying a copy of Weird Tales with a Brundage cover at a newsstand. “Vulthoom” first saw book publication in Genius Loci and Other Tales, from Arkham House, and later saw print as part of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, in the Clark collection Xiccarph. You’d think the Smith collections from Ballantine would go for a reasonable price, but these little mass market paperbacks now go for at least $30 used. As for in-print options we have The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, part of a series that collects all of Smith’s short fiction.

Enhancing Image

We start right off with what will sound like an assbackwards criticism, but hear me out: the first stretch of “Vulthoom” is too fast. Right away we’re introduced to Our Heroes™, two guys who are down on their luck and whose misfortunes have made them become friends. Haines got kicked off his former ship and is now struggling to find a new crew, while Chanler is “a professional writer of interplanetary fiction” whose money has run low. Rather than give us a scene or two where Smith shows these characters interact and grant us insight into their daily troubles, Smith instead opts to tell us outright what their problems are, which is unusually direct and unpoetic for him. We learn everything we need to about Our Heroes™ in not even half a page, but the problem is that we proceed to learn nothing more about them; they remain basically the same at the end as they do the beginning, despite the mind-bending second act.

We do at least learn some about this version of Mars, which sadly is not very imaginative either: it’s a dying planet with a somewhat feudal system of governance, and the Martians themselves are humanoid. And of course there are canals, because this is old-timey SF and Mars has to have canals. Smith’s version of the red planet is undoubtedly informed by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the pulp writers who immediately followed in his wake; what makes its saminess less excusable is that “Vulthoom” came out more than a year after Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” which revolutionized SF depictions of Mars by introducing aliens that are truly alien and not just humans with differences in height and skin tone. Smith was fairly inventive with his fantasy, but less so with his SF is what I’m saying.

Anyway, Haines and Chanler come across one of these Martians one night, an unusually tall guy who, apropos of nothing, informs Our Heroes™ that his master (the tall Martian is a servant) is aware of their plight and wants to make a deal with them. The men, who really should say no to strangers but who have indeed fallen on hard times, reluctantly agree to the proposition—a reluctance that will only grow once they enter a secret underground cavern. The cavern is populated by Martians who are unusually tall like the servant (so we’re told, since we never get to meet a “normal” Martian), with these Martians working for someone called Vulthoom. (This is all in the first five pages, by the way.) Vulthoom is apparently the ancient Martian equivalent of Satan, but the men theorize that the underground Martians work for an anti-government revolutionary who simply has taken on the name of Vulthoom as an alias, which is a curious theory but whose political questions come to nothing since the conflict becomes something totally different.

Even so there’s a sense of wonder to be had during this discovery of the vast cavern, with Smith allowing himself to put the plot on hold for a second to describe this new world, telling us “the improbable was verified, the fabulous had become the factual.” It’s just frustrating to me that Smith fails to play to his strengths here. As someone who often likes Smith’s fiction, I’ve gotten enough experience with him that I can point out his Achilles’ heel, namely his lack of inventiveness as a plotter. Consider his relatively grounded ghost story “Genius Loci” (review here), which is memorable not for its plot, which is pretty simple, but for its psychological intensity, atmosphere, and the rhythmic if also dense structuring of Smith’s prose. At the risk of making myself sound like a moron, “Vulthoom,” in comparison with Smith’s best like “Genius Loci” and “The Dark Eidolon,” is too readable. Characters and plot beats are laid out plainly with little to no poetic digressions, with only the setting and a certain something later on getting the full Clark Ashton Smith treatment, which ultimately makes it read like Smith is imitating a less talented and more conventional writer.

Things do spice up, though, when we meet Vulthoom—or at least hear the voice of Vulthoom, since we never actually see him. Haines and Chanler are taken to what I can only call a giant flower, which seems at first to be Vulthoom’s form but is in fact merely a tool for Vulthoom, who is… somewhere else. It’s hard to separate spoilers from non-spoilers with this one, what with how future developments are easily telegraphed, but I think it’s safe to say here that Vulthoom is a Lovecraftian creation in that it’s impossible for the human characters to comprehend him fully. What we do understand early on is that Vulthoom is leading these Martians to one day leave the red planet and eventually head for Earth, having planned all this for centuries and even putting himself and his minions through thousand-year-long periods of hybernation. I have serious questions about the chronology of the hybernation periods and Smith’s understanding of time, but I think I’ll just head to the spoilers section.

There Be Spoilers Here

Vulthoom wants Our Heroes™ to act as human ambassadors for when they make the trip for Earth, which turns out to be not as innocuous a mission as it sounds… rather predictably, I might add. The flowers release a perfume with a strong hallucinogenic effect, not to mention the capacity to control minds, and for a bit the story becomes something of an anti-drug screed. Look, I love doing some drugs myself, so I’m predisposed to roll my eyes at Smith’s finger-wagging, but I also have to admit that the scene where Haines and Chanler trip some massive balls because of the perfume is pretty entertaining, even if Smith wants to have his cake and eat it too. Oh sure, say drugs are bad while also pulling out all the stops for what equates to an acid trip sequence, whatever you say. Even when it comes to what is undoubtedly the high point of the story, my feelings are mixed.

Something about Vulthoom that I found interesting but which went underdeveloped (like basically everything else) is his androgyny. One of the men sees what he deems an attractive figure inside one of the flowers, but Smith is vague about attributing a gender to said figure, though Vulthoom himself goes by male pronouns. There’s a feminine quality to Vulthoom as both a seducer and how he’s associated with flowers and perfume, but I don’t know what Smith is trying to say here and honestly I’m not convinced he’s actually trying to say anything. It’s a shame because there’s a subtle eroticism and ambiguity with the hallucinated figure in the flower, described as “elfin” and of “symmetrical” beauty, yet Smith refrains from attributing a gender or even a sex to this figure. Vulthoom is effectively the evil temptress often found in pulp fiction of the era, only he’s said to be male

Rather than continue to dwell on this I’ll just bring up the solution to the problem Our Heroes™ face, or rather how they hope to stall it since they can’t escape and can’t even get word back to the surface that there’s an underground plot to invade Earth. Early on we’re introduced to giant glass bottles that store a vapor which apparently causes everything to go into the aforementioned hybernation for a thousand years, which struck me as obvious, like yes of course we’ll get back to these bottles for the climax. And so we do. The victory however is arguably pyrrhic, as Vulthoom points out, since not only are the humans sacrificing themselves, but Vulthoom and his minions are merely entering a period of deep sleep prematurely; eventually they’ll be back to their usual business.

Of course, while a thousand years will pass by like the blink of an eye for Vulthoom subjectively, it’s still a long time for anything not in hybernation. A lot can change in the span of a thousand years, but perhaps wisely Smith leaves this final question unanswered.

A Step Farther Out

Smith has written well on the topics of obsession and cultish behavior, but this is not really one of those good examples. I’m more disappointed than anything. Vulthoom himself (itself?) is a fine creation, but it’s wasted on human characters who are dull as dishwater, such that Smith gives us their backstories upfront and then refuses to elaborate. One is a writer who occasionally says a stereotypical writer thing and the other doesn’t have any distinguishing features to speak of. The setting is also sadly underdeveloped; we start on the Martian surface and we’re there for about two pages before going underground. See, the thing is that Smith’s science fiction is mostly glossed over because he wasn’t a very good science-fictionist: he was a poet first, then a fantasist, and then whatever came after that. “Vulthoom” seems to be Smith deliberately writing in what was the standard super-science mode, and I have to wonder if he considered submitting it to Astounding Science Fiction before going to his regular outlet, Weird Tales. Regardless, this is far from what I consider essential Smith.

See you next time.


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