Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Hazards of Curiosity Shops

A number of horror stories written in the early 20th century begin with a purchase made in a curiosity shop, typically from an aged representative of some ethnic minority.  Not too many of these shops are in business these days, and those that are no longer carry such eldritch merchandise as cursed amulets, strangely glowing orbs, obscure figurines or occult how-to manuals.

Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933) begins in this fashion, and is easily recognized as a Cthulhu Mythos story.  All of the trappings are present: a prehistoric pantheon of elder gods, an ancient occult textbook, and a crystal talisman that serves as a gateway to the primordial past.  Smith references the Necronomicon, the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, and such familiar Lovecraftian entities as “Yok-Zothoth” and “Kthulhut”.   

Smith’s contribution is the pre-prehistoric deity of Ubbo-Sathla, the “unbegotten source” that “lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime” of a newly formed Earth.  It is possible to learn something of Ubbo-Sathla from the Book of Eibon, which also contains reference to an ancient wizard named Zon Mezzamalech.  Zon Mezzamalech possessed a “cloudy crystal” that allowed him to experience visions of the world’s distant past.  The wizard flourished in ancient Mhu Thulan, a forgotten civilization that occupied what is now Greenland, when the subcontinent enjoyed a much warmer and more congenial climate.  He also vanished mysteriously, as wizards often do.

Paul Tregardis, a writer and amateur occultist, purchases an unusual milky crystal in a curio shop.  The stone appears to glow intermittently from within.  The shopkeeper tells him that the crystal is probably palaeogean, and was originally found underneath a glacier in Greenland, in the Miocene strata.  “It may have belonged to some sorcerer of primeval Thule”, he says.  It is always helpful to talk to a knowledgeable store clerk.

Almost immediately, Tregardis is entranced by the stone, and driven to spend time contemplating its odd visual properties every day.  Intense visions follow, as well as the progressive dissolution of his personality and its replacement with another—that of the ancient wizard Zon Mezzamalech.  The wizard is on a quest to obtain knowledge about Earth’s pre-human gods.  When the psychic possession of Trigardis is complete, he takes a final leap into the temporal void and is taken back through aeons to reach Ubbo-Sathla.  What follows is the hallucinatory devolution of Tregardis/Mezzamalech into one of Earth’s most primitive life forms—he rejoins the primordial chaos at the very beginning of life on the planet.

Ubbo-Sathla features Clark Ashton Smith’s typically vivid description, circular plot, and wildly imaginative stream of consciousness writing.  As in several of his stories, there is reference to hashish, a substance which may have contributed to a style that was unique in its time.  In some respects, Smith’s fiction has a trippy, proto-hippy feel that anticipates some of the avant-garde writing of the 1960s.

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