“Zolamin and the Mad God” (2013) by Lisa Morton

“You can best me at dice, girl, but let’s see how well you do in my bed.”

She’d grinned, but Amarkosa had shouted from the bar, “You, sir, would be well advised to release her arm while you’ve still got one of your own.” The spectators had all guffawed, but the barbarian had flushed and yanked Zolamin close. “I think I can handle this—”

When she broke the bottle of ale over his head, he was only stunned—but when he found the jagged bottleneck pressed to his throat, he’d sobered up quickly. “You can leave like a good boy,” Zolamin told him, “or you can leave like a dead man. Your choice.”
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013) 111

Pedants can argue whether or not Clark Ashton Smith’s stories of Hyperborea count as sword & sorcery; stories like “The Seven Geases” are replete with sorcery, but little swordplay. As with his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, E. R. Eddision, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith took inspiration from Orientalist fiction such as the 1,001 Nights and epic tales such as the Prose Eddas. Their settings of Pegāna and Elf-land, Witchland and Demonland, Middle Earth, the Hyborian and Thurian Ages, Hyperborea and Poiseidonis are exotic fantasy-lands, filled with thieves, warriors, wizards, and monsters. Each of them added to a growing fantasy milieu which blossomed in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, and inspired the huge resurgence in fantasy settings which continues today.

What differed for each writer was the approach. Howard’s tales of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, and and Solomon Kane are action-packed, bloody, dark, with a gritty, hardboiled American sensibility. Clark Ashton Smith’s stories such as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” are more sardonic, less focused on bloodshed, giving more detail to the descriptions of gems and cruelty, to sorcery and horror. If Howard’s tales are heroic fantasy, driven by protagonists that live by their swords and their wits, Smith is closer to dark fantasy, with few heroes to triumph, where many of the main characters are undone by their own hubris and unbridled desires.

Lisa Morton’s Zolamin shares a literary lineage with Howard’s Valeria (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”) and Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, in that she is a woman warrior and mercenary; but the setting of the story and the overall tone is definitely Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea…though a little more explicit than Smith could ever publish:

She remembered her mother, forced into a life of prostitution after her parents had traded her at the age of ten for a pair of oxen. Zolamin’s mother had borne her while still a teen; her father could have been any of dozens of men. Determined that her daughter would not follow in her footsteps, mother had done her best to disguise the child’s gender and raised her as a boy […]
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden 114

Zolamin’s backstory is essential to her character for this story, because the Mad God plays on her ambitions, small and different as they are. Her character drives the story, and if it is not quite hardboiled fantasy in the vein of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest with swords, it is still a respectable entry in a fairly small body of work: stories set in the worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, and striving to capture some of the mood of his tales rather than pastiche the way he wrote them. Like “Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, it isn’t sword-skill which determines the course of the story as much as choices made which are a bit darker and more psychologically driven. There are scenes of action but they are often anti-climactic, interrupted by the visions of the Mad God, and that in itself is part of why the story works, because Zolamin has to decide how to handle the messy affair she has stumbled into…and unlike Conan and the Tower of the Elephant, there is no mercy to be dealt out here.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” was published in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013). It has not yet been reprinted.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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