Monday, February 15, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tale of Satampra Zeiros

The cover to the left is of the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales in which Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" first appeared. As you can see from the cover, CAS did not get the cover image (neither did Robert E. Howard or Otis Adelbert Kline, for that matter), with that honor going to Kirk Washburn, whose story, "Placide's Wife," is all but forgotten today, along with its author. To be fair, REH himself was impressed by Washburn, telling his friend Tevis Clyde Smith that he was "a damned good writer" in a letter from 1932.

That said, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" is a superb story, the first of Smith's Hyperborean tales and a terrific spin on the emerging genre of swords-and-sorcery. The short story is a first person account by the titular thief, who recounts his attempted theft from the temple of Tsathoggua in the ruins of an ancient city:
I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I have no longer any other, the tale of everything that befell Tirouv Ompallios and myself in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua, which lies neglected by the worship of man in the jungle-taken suburbs of Commoriom, that long-deserted capital of the Hyperborean rulers. I shall write it with the violet juice of the suvana-palm, which turns to a blood-red rubric with the passage of years, on a strong vellum that is made from the skin of the mastodon, as a warning to all good thieves and adventurers who may hear some lying legend of the lost treasures of Commoriom and be tempted thereby.
The story that follows beautifully -- and somewhat disconcertingly -- blends elements of swords-and-sorcery with mordant wit and mounting horror, as it recounts the misadventure of two vainglorious thieves who mistakenly believe they can "replenish [their] finances at the expense of a few dead kings or gods." It reads almost like an alternate universe version of a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tale, in which the characters' greed and self-satisfaction get the better of them, leaving them impotent before the eldritch horror that awaits them.

H.P. Lovecraft was apparently quite impressed with this story, telling CAS in a letter that he had "achieved in its fullest glamour the exact Dunsanian touch which I find it almost impossible to duplicate" and adding that it came "close to being [Smith's] high point in prose fiction to date." So impressed was Lovecraft that he is believed to have pressed Weird Tales editor, Farnsworth Wright, to accept the story after he'd initially rejected it as unsuitable for publication. For myself, I find it a moody, evocative story that shows just how compelling an adventure-gone-wrong can be. I think it's a good object lesson for referees and players alike, who might feel that PCs should never suffer permanent setbacks or reversals in their adventures. "The Tales of Satampra Zeiros" shows that, sometimes, a character is made more interesting by his failures, particularly spectacular ones.

12 comments:

  1. Something else to note about this story: it's a major influence on Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories (and his prose style in general).

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  2. When I first read this back in 2008, I immediately thought, "This is D&D!"

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  3. I just finished reading "The End of the Story" anthology a couple months ago and this was one of the three stories that still stands out in my mind and I can recount from memory.

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  4. So happy to see this continued attention to CAS--it justifies me forwarding your links to my non-CAS-aware friends, hammering on the theme.

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  5. http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/208/the-tale-of-satampra-zeiros

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  6. Oh wow, synchronicity. I read this story about two days ago in the Fantasy Masterworks CAS collection.

    I agree with your point about failures being as important as successes. One of my greatest old-school D&D memories will always be a near-TPK venture into the Tomb of Horrors... the sole survivor running flat out to escape the place, a single handful of gems in her hand, dodging, leaping over traps and falling boulders... "and I alone am escaped to tell the tale"...

    The thing had a very CAS/REH feel to it, now that I think of it!

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  7. Like David, I also just read this story--and in the same edition (Fantasy Masterworks) to boot.

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  8. I love this tale! I am with Jim on this one, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" captures the essence of D&D perfectly. "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" is the companion story, and a great follow-up that is also highly recommended.

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  9. John,

    I've often seen it claimed that Vance was influenced by Smith, but I also recall reading somewhere that Vance explicitly denied this, stating that he'd never read CAS until much later in his writing career. I certainly see a lot of affinity between the two, so I wouldn't be surprised if Vance were influenced by Smith. Do you remember where you might have read this?

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  10. A guy named Jason Thompson did a small-press comic book version of this years ago. The character designs are a bit manga-ish, which I speculate you may not like, but I think he really got the look and feel of the setting (note the cover art in the link below):

    http://www.couscous.2dcomics.com/store/index.php?productID=134

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  11. Is this sentence as nasty and brutish as it seems to me?

    "Some of these people, I am sure, must still remember us with regret, for we did not deny ourselves anything procurable that tempted our fancy or our appetites."

    Now that's 'low fantasy.'

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  12. I was just discussing this story myself.

    I'm struck by the impact it seems to have had on Robert E. Howard. The Kull stories which predate it are largely variants on palace intrigues; but several of the Conan stories which follow it (Conan didn't appear until 1932) seem to be heavily influenced by its form.

    In short, I think this story's importance in shaping the basic tenets of the sword & sorcery genre has been largely overlooked, but is nonetheless significant.

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