The Necronomicon, that most famous item in H.P. Lovecraft’s hazardous, fictional bibliography, appears in many of his stories, but only as a sprinkling of quotes and paraphrases. His scholarly narrators thought it sufficient to substantiate the origins and reappearance of the Old Ones with just a few references, often the same ominous couplet: “That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Other writers who contributed stories to the Cthulhu Mythos quoted more liberally from a variety of unholy books, creating what is now a cliché in horror: the forbidden book. Which forbidden book, at least in Western culture, is most likely modelled on the Good Book, the Bible—at least in part—as well as popularized archaeology.
One can see this in the archaic, King James Bible-ese that genre writers use to create the impression of antiquity and supernatural verve in these unhallowed texts. The notion seems derived from a much older idea: that books are to be revered and preserved over time for the wisdom or secrets they contain—not merely purchased, consumed, and discarded. That the written word itself is sacred, or at least transformative.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of this trope as print media is gradually replaced by digital forms stored in the “cloud”. The technological conjuring of texts both holy and otherwise out of thin air now seems just as magical as the powers imputed to the books themselves.
Clark Ashton Smith supplies an entire chapter of the Book of Eibon—the ninth—in The Coming of the White Worm (1941). As the title suggests, this is a worm story, not a wyrm story, one that features a dragon or giant serpent. (See also Vermiphobia). The entity known as Rlim Shaikorth is clearly depicted as an annelid monstrosity:
Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. And amid the visage a mouth curved uncleanly from side to side of the disk, opening and shutting incessantly on a pale and tongueless and toothless maw.
Unpronounceable character and place names combined with antique grammar make The Coming of the White Worm an example of the influence of Lord Dunsany on Smith’s style. In fact, Smith’s chapter nine of the Book of Eibon would fit comfortably and indistinguishably among the chapters of Dunsany’s Time and the Gods (1906).
Readers will want to have a dictionary on hand to decode sentences like “Frorely burned the sun above Mhu Thulan from a welkin clear and wannish as ice.” Frorely is an actual word, not a typo or the best guess of some annoying auto-correct function; it means “frostily”. To be fair, Smith uses the exotic vocabulary effectively as an underpinning to the mood and fantasy setting. As with reading older classics like Shakespeare, readers calibrate themselves to the archaic language and it becomes less a distraction after a page or two.
The Coming of the White Worm tells of the last adventure of Evagh, a sorcerer in the land of Mhu Thulan. Evagh is forcibly recruited by fellow wizards to join with Rlim Shaikorth on board his immense floating ice citadel, a vessel called Yikilth. The ‘fat white worm” and his entourage travel up and down the coast of Mhu Thulan, destroying shipping and port cities with a kind of ice ray that enfrosts anything it touches. These days, Smith’s story can be seen as a metaphor for disastrous worldwide climate change, in this case global cooling as opposed to global warming. Evagh has second thoughts, especially as the iceberg grows in size and his fellow wizards begin disappearing one by one, and takes desperate action.
Rlim Shaikorth, though depicted as a monstrous worm, is not the lonesome, voracious annelid in David H. Keller’s bio-horror tale The Worm (1927). Smith’s creature sits inertly on a throne and does not move the entire story. Rlim Shaikorth, which may be extraterrestrial in origin, is meant to be an all-consuming god, devouring both flesh and soul. In the reactions of the wizards to the monster’s depredations, Smith makes some interesting observations about theology and human interactions with the divine.
H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated 10/3/33, praised The Coming of the White Worm, describing it as “a stupendous fragment of primal horror and cosmic suggestion”. He goes on to write:
Thank God you spared your readers the worst and most paralyzing hints—such as the secret of Yikilth’s origin, the reason why it bore certain shapes not of this planet, and the history of Rlim Shaikorth before he oozed down to the solar system and the earth through the void…
The Coming of the White Worm is a story in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean cycle, of which there were ten stories and one poem, all set in a fantasized ancient northern continent. Smith’s other stories are roughly divisible into several other cycles, also distinguishable by setting: Averoigne, Zothique, Atlantis, and even Mars. All of these worlds are well worth exploring.