Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tennessee Williams' Sweet Sacred Ibis Of Youth

By Stephen J. Gertz

Cover by C.C. Senf.
"Hushed were the streets of many peopled Thebes. Those few who passed through them moved with the shadowy fleetness of bats near dawn, and bent their faces from the sky as if fearful of seeing what in their fancies might be hovering there..."

An emotionally iffy ancient Egyptian princess, sister to the Pharaoh, seeks revenge on those who conspired to execute her beloved brother, ascends the throne, builds a temple as an elaborate death-trap, drowns them all with sadistic glee, and then kills herself.

It's Tennessee Williams' first published story, his second appearance in print, The Vengeance of Nitocris, issued under his given name, Thomas Lanier Williams, and published by Weird Tales,  the American fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine, in 1928. It might just as well have been titled  A Chariot Named Desire, or The Orisris Menagerie. 
"I was sixteen when I wrote [the story], but already a confirmed writer, having entered upon this vocation at the age of fourteen, and, if you're well acquainted with my writings since then, I don't have to tell you that it set the keynote for most of the work that has followed" (Tennessee Williams, New York Times interview, as cited by Francesca M. Hitchcock, "Tennessee Williams' Vengeance of Nitocris: The Keynote to Future Works," The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 48, 1995).

A strong if emotionally fragile woman, a close brother-sister bond, a descent into madness, and  death - this is, indeed, Williams territory, with revenge and lurid blood and guts thrown in as a nod to the Bard, Titus Andronicus, according to Hitchcock, William's favorite play by Shakespeare. In this weird tale for Weird Tales, as in so much of Shakespeare - and pulp fiction - everybody dies miserably ever after. It's necropolis-noir.

Little Tommy Williams was in good company in this issue. Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, contributed the featured story, Red Shadows, which introduced 17th century Puritan swashbuckler Solomon Kane and is considered to be the first published example of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

This issue also contains Crashing Suns, a story by science-fiction pioneer Edmund Hamilton. Hamilton, in 1946, married science fiction writer, and screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, perhaps best known for her collaborations with William Faulkner (The Big Sleep, 1946);  five Westerns for director Howard Hawks; Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye, 1973); and Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars' The Empire Strikes Back, 1979). This copy, in fact, belonged to Hamilton and Brackett; their ownership stamp appears on its first page.

"What more horrible vengeance could Queen Nitocris have conceived than this banquet of death? Not Diablo himself could be capable of anything more fiendishly artistic. Here in the temple of Osiris those nobles and priests who had slain the pharaoh in expiation of his sacrilege against Osiris had now met their deaths. And it was in the waters of the Nile, material symbol of the god Osiris, that they had died. It was magnificent in its irony!...

"When in the evening the queen arrived in the city, pale, silent, and obviously nervous, threatening crowds blocked the path of her chariot, demanding roughly an explanation of the disappearance of her guests. Haughtily she ignored them and lashed forward the horses of her chariot, pushing aside the tight mass of people. Well she knew, how-ever, that her life would be doomed as soon as they confirmed their suspicions. She resolved to meet her inevitable death in a way that befitted one of her rank, not at the filthy hands of a mob.

"Therefore upon her entrance into the palace she ordered her slaves to fill instantly her boudoir with hot and smoking ashes. When this had been done, she went to the room, entered it, closed the door and locked it securely, and then flung herself down upon a couch in the center of the room. In a short time the scorching heat and the suffocating thick fumes of the smoke overpowered her. Only her beautiful dead body remained for the hands of the mob."

Sweet Sacred Ibis! The maturation from purple pulp to poetic prose may have been Williams' greatest achievement as a writer, though the recognizable, often delicately tough, real yet unnatural and not quite of this world turn of his language can be glimpsed this early.


WILLIAMS, Thomas Lanier [Tennessee Wiliams]. The Vengeance of Nitocris. [In Weird Tales, p. 253]. Indianapolis, Indiana: Popular Fiction Publishing, 1928. Octavo. 288 pp. Illustrated wrappers.

Images courtesy of Between the Covers, with our thanks.

Of related interest: 

Unpublished Significant Early Tennessee Williams Poem Surfaces

Tennessee Williams Rocks the Rare Books Round Up at L.A. TImes Festival of Books.

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