Saturday, April 22, 2017

Part Three:  Olathoë, Commoriom, and Tsathoggua


The last two posts discussed the creative interaction between H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith beginning around 1929, as each developed an interesting collection of stories—the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos” in Lovecraft’s case and Smith’s Hyperborean cycle.  Of special interest is the entity known as Tsathoggua, which originated with Smith but received some attention and development from Lovecraft.  While Smith seemed to favor a more concrete depiction of the monster—“You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his bat-like furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad…”—Lovecraft preferred a more amorphous, protean, Shoggoth-like being.

(A side note:  alert readers know that in the closing paragraphs of Lovecraft’s masterpiece, “At the Mountains of Madness”, Shoggoths are explicitly associated with ‘the colour out of space’, another amorphous Lovecraftian horror from 1927.  Are the two phenomena made of the same stuff?  “The Colour Out of Space” was published just a few years before Smith’s foundational Tsathoggua story, “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”.)

A fairly thorough discussion of the connections between Lovecraft, Smith and Tsathoggua can be found in of all places John L. Steadman’s interesting book H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition (2015).  More adventurous occultists have been worshipping and invoking members of the pantheon of Old Ones since at least the 1970s, and possibly since the early 1930s.  For example, S.T. Joshi quotes William Lumley, an occasional collaborator of Lovecraft’s and author of “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”, (See also H.P. Lovecraft’s Charity Collaboration.):

We may think we are writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry.  

This is essentially Steadman’s conclusion as well, although he develops the idea that the entities which comprise the mythos, while nominally fictional, are probably archetypes of primordial energies.  Under the right circumstances, a connection with these energies can be brought about through occult ritual.  Admittedly, it seems far-fetched that the literal nightmares of weird fiction can become actual supernatural realities using certain procedures and paraphernalia. 

However, at the risk of committing blasphemy I can think of at least one Book where “characters” became powerful entities after centuries of devotion and veneration.  This may have come about as the result of an egregorical process, by which an undifferentiated Shoggoth-like something was shaped by the human imagination into an entity with agency, independence and a capacity to draw continually on the mental energies, attention and will of its believers.

Steadman notes that Clark Ashton Smith contributed several other beings to the mythos he and Lovecraft helped co-create:  Besides Tsathoggua, Smith added Ubbo-Sathla, Abhoth, and Atlach-Natcha.  The last two appear in “The Seven Geases” (1934).  Steadman cites Fred L. Pelton, an occultist and “transcriber” of the Cultus Maleficarum, who believes that Abhoth, Sothoth, and Ubbo-Saathla comprise the three creative powers of the Old Ones, while the better known trio of Nyarlathotep, Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth are the “administrative, or ruling powers.”

However that may be, Tsathoggua—or possibly one of his devoted proto-plastic worshippers from the benighted depths of Yoth—appears in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”.  He is also visited by the over-confident nobleman Ralibar Vooz, who suffers the repeated humiliation of being an unacceptable blood sacrifice to various mythos entities in “The Seven Geases”.  With respect to the fictional timeframe, Commoriom was still a thriving city when Ralibar Vooz undertook his ill-fated hunting expedition; it was long abandoned when Satampra Zeiros and his partner attempted to burglarize the Tsathogguan temple.  Both stories were discussed in previous posts.  (See also Tsathoggua And His Fans and Geas Who Is Coming to Dinner.).  About ten other stories make up the balance of Smith’s Hyperborean cycle, and some representative examples are discussed below. 

The character of Satampra Zeiros also shows up in a late career effort, the 1958 story “The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles”.  It is also known by its less risqué title, “The Powder of Hyperborea”.  (Smith passed away in 1961.)  The story is a hoot, remarkable for its intriguing mix of sensuality with larceny.  Satampra Zeiros and his femme fatale Vixeela—“We had consummated several lucrative burglaries”—make away with 39 bejeweled chastity belts from the temple of the moon-god Leniqua.  A kind of biological warfare weapon creates a hallucinogenic distraction, allowing the thieves to evade the corrupt High-Priest and escape with their loot. 

Compare Vixeela to Robert E. Howard’s Valeria in the classic Conan adventure “Red Nails” (1936).  With respect to the fictional timeframe, Satampra Zeiros’s Leniqua temple caper seems to occur much earlier in his life than his grim encounter with Tsathoggua in the haunted city of Commoriom.

Similar to “The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” is the 1932 story “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan”, whose main character succumbs metaphorically to the third of the Seven Deadly Sins, that is, greed.  Wuthoqquan is “the richest and most avaricious money-lender in all of Commoriom”, still a vibrant metropolis at this time.  Did Smith have in mind a Depression era banker for this character?  Wuthoqquan mistreats a beggar at the beginning of the story, refusing to give the poor man even one pazoor.  In many fables such a lack of generosity is usually repaid by the administration of extremely rough justice at the end.  In this case, Wuthoqquan gets his comeuppance at the hands—tentacles?—of a creature that resembles and may be Tsathoggua himself.    

The tone of these two stories is markedly different from the rest of the Hyperborian cycle, much lighter in tone and more tongue-in-cheek.  They may remind some readers of Lord Dunsany’s “wonder tales”, especially “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” (1912) and “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912).  The influence of Dunsany on both Lovecraft and Smith is pretty obvious, not just in the use of exotic, unpronounceable character names but in plot lines and fable-like structure.  Dunsany’s stories have great charm and power and are well worth reading, even though over a century old now.  Smith was more successful than Lovecraft at incorporating Dunsany’s approach and making it his own.

“The Door to Saturn” (1932) is a more traditional mythos story in some respects, though initially set in Mhu Thulan, in the far north of the Hyperborean continent.  The principle character is the sorcerer Eibon, author or compiler of the Book of Eibon, the Hyerborean companion volume to the Necronomicon. Eibon seems to have suffered a fate similar to that of Malygris in Smith’s Poseidonis cycle of stories:  deemed a heretic for his dabbling in Tsathogguanism—in Mhu Thulan vernacular the entity is known as Zhothaqqua—he is cornered by his ecclesiastic rivals in his seaside castle.  Before they can torture and perhaps execute him Eibon escapes through a magical door in the castle tower.

However, he is followed through the portal by his nemesis, the high-priest Morghi, defender of the faith and the local inquisitor.  At this juncture “The Door to Saturn” transforms into an interesting transitional piece, halfway between fantasy and science fiction.  The magic door in Eibon’s castle is not very different from the “trans-dimensional portal” used in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The City of Singing Flame” and again in “Beyond the Singing Flame”, both published in 1931.  (See also An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal and ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal Redux.) 

Eibon and Morghi are transported to Cykranosh, which is Mhu Thulanese for Saturn, the sixth planet in our solar system.  There they encounter the paternal uncle of Tsathoggua, as well as bizarre and incomprehensible flora and fauna.  Smith uses the novel approach of depicting extraterrestrials as beings that violate Earth’s rules regarding the symmetry of form and even-numberedness of appendages.  Lovecraft of course does the same thing. 

The description of Cykranoshian life-forms as utterly alien will remind some readers of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s classic science fiction story, “A Martian Odyssey” (1934).  Weinbaum is often credited with breaking the convention of using anthropomorphized or exaggerated versions of Earth biology to represent extraterrestrial life forms.  However, Smith’s work predates that of Weinbaum’s by a few years, so it seems reasonable to ascribe the innovation—and greater imaginativeness—to Smith and his colleague Lovecraft.

Eibon and Morghi eventually settle in Cykranosh, putting aside their theological dispute to become valued members of the local community.  My favorite line is this denouement regarding the zealous defender of the Yhoundeh faith:

Morghi, perchance, was not entirely happy; though the Ydheems were religious, they did not carry their devotional fervor to the point of bigotry or intolerance; so it was quite impossible to start an inquisition among them.

Aside from its entertainment value, “The Door to Saturn”—along with “The Mound”, “The Shadow out of Time”, “At the Mountains of Madness” and other stories referenced earlier—provides a wealth of back story for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and the Hyperborean cycle. 

Readers can easily locate an abundance of internet commentary from enthusiasts who have documented the geography and evolution of Lovecraft’s Mythos and Smith’s Hyperborea.  This series of posts is hardly exhaustive.  The concern here has been not so much the detail or historical accuracy of the fictional record as the pattern of ideas shared and modified among various authors across time.  In my view, it is fascinating to study recurring themes and images, unique to one author or shared among several, in order to map out the extent to which each author influenced the creative product of another.

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For future reference, here is a timeline of stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean cycle arranged contemporaneously with key references in H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  Who knew that Lovecraft’s “silver key” was fashioned in Hyperborea, or that three of the minds captured by the Great Race in “The Shadow Out of Time” were worshippers of Tsathoggua?  And so forth.


Year
Clark Ashton Smith
H.P. Lovecraft
1930

“The Mound”, with Zealia Bishop, (written in 1929-1930; published in 1940)
1931
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”
“The Whisperer in Darkness”, “At the Mountains of Madness”, (written in 1931; published in 1936)
1932
“The Testament of Athammaus”, “The Door to Saturn”, “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan

1933
“The House of Haon-Dor”, “The Ice-Demon”,“Ubbo-Sathla”

1934
“The Seven Geases”
“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”, with E. Hoffmann Price, (written in 1932-1933)
1935
“The White Sybil”

1936

“The Shadow Out of Time”, (written in 1934-1935)
1941
“The Coming of the White Worm”

1958
“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles”