Sunday, April 30, 2017

1. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World

How do we know what we know?  How do we persuade others that what we know is the truth?  And most importantly, in the creation of horror entertainment, how do we convince others that some outlandish and terrifying idea can be experienced as a reality, as truth?  The literary term for this, which is a component of Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief”, is verisimilitude.  The concept typically refers to the believability of a fictional work, how lifelike it is in its conception.

But the term verisimilitude also contains more general philosophical implications that pertain to knowledge and its acquisition.  The philosopher Karl Popper and others have noted that the goal of scientific research is to arrive at some reasonably and objectively true assertion about an object of study.  However, the history of scientific research shows that over time, successive theories about various phenomena have been either false or only approximately true, needing further modification as new data emerges. 

Thus some scientific theories contain more “truthiness” than others, as Stephen Colbert might put it.  Or some science fiction and horror stories are more effective, because more believable, than others.  In both fiction and in scientific research, verisimilitude is strongly dependent on context: culture, economics, politics and sociology all impact whether a fictional product or a scientific result can be accepted as being at least provisionally true.  It is also worth noting that this acceptance of the “truth” is a more general and willful “suspension of disbelief”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who with William Wordsworth was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England at the beginning of the 19th century, was the poet who gave us “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798.  (See also The Crime of the Ancient Mariner).  Here is Coleridge discussing the importance of his insight to the enjoyment of poetry and other types of literature:

"... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith…”                              

Another useful concept, in addition to verisimilitude and a “willing suspension of disbelief”, is the sci-fi critic Darko Suvin’s concept of “cognitive estrangement”.  Suvin refers to the genre of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”.  Writing in the mid to late 1960s, Suvin noted:

…if one takes as the minimal generic difference of SF the presence of a narrative novum (the dramatis personae and/or their context) significantly different from what is the norm in "naturalistic" or empiricist fiction, it will be found that SF has an interesting and close kinship with other literary subgenres that flourished at different times and places of literary history…Moreover, although SF shares with myth, fantasy, fairy tale, and pastoral an opposition to naturalistic or empiricist literary genres, it differs very significantly in approach and social function*…

It is this “newness” and opposition to naturalism and empiricism that creates the “estrangement” which, if effective, contributes to readers’ enjoyment and experience of speculative fiction.  Elsewhere Suvin suggests that science fiction “has always been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good, (or to a fear of and revulsion from its contrary).”

In attempting to distinguish science fiction from other kinds of literature, Suvin proposed that the genre typically contains an utterly new and unfamiliar device or machine, the presence of which forces the reader, at least temporarily, to view the world from a new perspective.  Ideally, this new perspective supports different ways of thinking about society—here cognitive estrangement can be a kind of subversive thinking, a consideration of alternatives to the status quo, a basis for resistance.

Resistance—where have I heard that word lately? 

All three notions—verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, cognitive estrangement—seem applicable to several of H.P. Lovecraft’s longer, more ambitious works.  In particular, Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” may be operative in the development of Lovecraft’s cosmicist world view, which is not so much a resistance to the status quo as perhaps a revelation of what that status quo really entails—some terrible and shattering truth.

Lovecraft was primarily a horror writer who incorporated style and techniques from Poe, Dunsany and others, eventually developing his own “eldritch” approach.  But enthusiastic Lovecraft readers know that he made numerous attempts, some more successful than others, at science fiction.  These include “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), “Cool Air” (1928), “The Shunned House” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), “From Beyond” (1934) “The Challenge From Beyond” (1935), “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936). 

All of these stories involved technologies or processes that ultimately challenged the narrators’ preconceived understandings of the world.   Admittedly, most of these are transitional works, halfway between fantasy and the science fiction that would later emerge in the “Golden Age”.  They are adorned with devices of various kinds, but the science behind them is still for the most part “weird”.  How did Lovecraft make these ideas—some of which originated in dreams—believable and effective?

Of the stories listed above, “The Whisperer in Darkness” seems to exemplify Lovecraft’s skill at persuading readers of the reality of an essentially outlandish notion:  that severe flooding in a remote area of Vermont would bring to light compelling evidence of a colony of Nyarlathotep-worshiping extraterrestrials from Yuggoth.  (This story has been discussed in earlier posts; see also ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best.)

Lovecraft establishes verisimilitude through a variety of conventional techniques.  He makes Wilmarth, the narrator, an “expert”, a rational, detached, and presumably objective and skeptical observer—at least initially.  Hence readers can trust his conclusions, because he is a professional folklorist, professorial and authoritative.  Akely, his doomed correspondent, reporting live from the scene of an alien infestation, is similarly described as “a notable student of mathematics, astronomy, biology, anthropology, and folklore” and earlier in the story as coming from “a long, locally distinguished line of jurists, administrators, and gentlemen-agriculturalists.” 

Both men are thus credentialed and believable, a hedge against being perceived as delusional or lacking credibility.  Until very recently, it has been assumed that the pronouncements of wealthy, educated, advantaged people are more believable than those coming from lower classes or different ethnicities.  What the two men discover in the Vermont Hills is further supported by ample documentation:  Wilmarth reviews local newspaper articles, letters, his own folklore research, and hieroglyphs on a strange stone artifact—which hieroglyphs strongly resemble those described in a horrible desk reference he makes occasional use of, the Necronomicon. 

Lovecraft was writing at a time when reverence for the veracity of the printed word was still strong, and several of his stories depict a diligent antiquarian scholar compiling reliable facts that by degrees bring some horror into focus.  Few would assume today that what is published is necessarily true, even partially so, given the prevalence of “alternative facts”.  Wilmarth’s research also includes photographs, and even a recording.  The evidence is overwhelming.            

Going back to Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement, it is interesting to note the presence of two important devices in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”.  The first is the recording apparatus.  One of the story’s strengths is Lovecraft’s use of an emerging technology, still novel in the late 1920s, to support the believability of the tale—instead of pseudo-scientific gadgets common in the pulp science fiction of the time.  Akeley has proof—he has recorded a sample of the speech of one of the aliens—“…I took a phonograph there—with a dictaphone attachment and wax blank…”—and he also has Kodak photographs.  Thus instrumentation, a method of objective measurement, shores up the queasy hypothesis that is forming in the reader’s mind.

The second device is of course the means by which the beings from Yuggoth transport the minds of their captives across vast stellar distances.  

There, in a neat row, stood more than a dozen cylinders of a metal I had never seen before—cylinders about a foot high and somewhat less in diameter, with three curious sockets set in an isosceles triangle over the front convex surface of each.  One of them was linked at two of the sockets to a pair of singular-looking machines that stood in the background.  Of their purport I did not need to be told… 

The discovery of this device and of its extraterrestrial owners provides Wilmarth a completely new understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos, one much more perilous and terrifying than his quaint folklore studies have to date revealed.  “Sometimes I fear what the years will bring, especially since that new planet Pluto has been so curiously discovered,” Wilmarth says near the end.  Unlike Suvin, but very typical in the case of  Lovecraft, science fiction has never “been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good”, but to its opposite.

The next post will apply these three concepts—verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief and cognitive estrangement—to H.P. Lovecraft’s foundational horror classic “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928).


*Darko Sevin’s work can be placed in the larger context of Marxist criticism, which emphasizes the  relevance of literature and other cultural products to economic, political and social struggles for justice and equality.

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.


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.

Clark Ashton Smith
H.P. Lovecraft

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

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

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


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

“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Part Two:  Olathoë, Commoriom, and Tsathoggua

The last post examined the cross pollination of ideas between Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft that came to fruition in Smith’s Hyperborean cycle of short stories and Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”.  Besides sharing roughly the same psycho-geographic region—a dark and doomed northern continent—the two authors conjured one memorable Old One, the evil entity known as Tsathoggua.  The cities of “Commoriom” and “Olathoë” are referenced in over a dozen stories written by the two authors, as is the afore-mentioned “Toad God”. 

Fans of Smith and Lovecraft are probably familiar with this passage from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), one of his best proto-science fiction stories in my view.  Lovecraft’s character Henry Akeley provides Albert Wilmarth, the story’s narrator, with some fearful background details about one of the Old Ones.  But Lovecraft cannot resist a playful reference to his colleague:

They’ve [the crustaceous beings] been inside the earth too—there are openings which human beings know nothing of—some of them in these very Vermont hills—and great worlds of unknown life down there; blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N’kai.  It’s from N’kai that frightful Tsathoggua came—you know, the amorphous, toad-like creature mentioned in the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon and the Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-ton.    

“Blue-litten K’n-yan” is a reference to the eerie subterranean world depicted in the H.P Lovecraft-Zealia Bishop collaboration “The Mound”.  This remarkable story was written in 1929-1930, but published in 1940.  Note that the period of its creation corresponds to the years in which Clark Ashton Smith began publishing work about Hyperborea and its civilizations, including their interactions with Tsathoggua.  Scholars suspect that Lovecraft did most of the work on “The Mound”, which is well worth reading, in fact mandatory.  This is because “The Mound” contains a wealth of ideas that Lovecraft and his colleagues shared about evolution, cosmicism, and the ideal society, among others.  It is also an attempt to codify the mythos of the Old Ones that both authors were contributing to at the time.  (See also 1.H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2.But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting.)   

“Red-litten Yoth” is also described in “The Mound”, as a domain lying beneath the underground world of K’n-yan, and populated by quadrupeds that “had undoubtedly been reptilian in affiliations”.  A similar hierarchical layering of societies, with a devolution of social class, civility, and intellect the deeper towards Earth’s center one goes can be found in more vivid form in Lovecraft’s late career work, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, published after Lovecraft’s death in 1943.  The equating of the subterranean and the reptilian—or amphibian on occasion—with chaos, evil and regression to the primitive also recalls Robert E. Howard’s preoccupation with serpent imagery in his horror stories. 

However, “black, lightless N’kai” is partly a creation of Clark Ashton Smith, and appears in his wonderfully grim “The Seven Geases” (1934), though not named as such.  It is an enormous and fathomless cavern deep inside the mountain Voormithradreth—the earthly home of Tsathoggua.  (We learn in another work from this period, Smith’s 1932 story “The Door to Saturn” that Tsathoggua originally came to Earth from the sixth planet in our solar system.)

There is intriguing back story material in “The Mound” which may help explain the contradictory depictions of Tsathoggua as a furry toad-like Chiropteran—as he is described in “The Seven Geases”—or an amorphous amoebic monster, which is his description through much of Smith’s foundational work, “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931).  This discrepancy between Toad God and proto-plastic life form was noted in the previous post.  Here is some ancient history from K’n-yan:

What ended the cult [that is, the worship of Tsathoggua in K’n-yan] was the partial exploration of the black realm of N’kai beneath the red-litten world of Yoth…At any rate, when the men of K’n-yan went down into N’kais’s black abyss with their great atom-power searchlights they found living things—living things that oozed along stone channels and worshipped onyx and basalt images of Tsathoggua.  But they were not toads like Tsathoggua himself.  Far worse—they were amorphous lumps of viscous black slime that took temporary shapes for various purposes.  The explorers of K’n-yan did not pause for detailed observations, and those who escaped alive sealed the passage leading from red-litten Yoth down into the gulfs of nether horror.

Thus, the monster encountered by Satampra Zeiros (and his much less fortunate partner in crime) in the 1931 story was not Tsathoggua, but a lone—and hungry—worshipper of the Toad God, from the darkest depths of Yoth.  Who knew?

The image of a dark, viscous, shapeshifting horror from “down below” appears in a number of Lovecraft’s most memorable stories.  It is in late career gems like “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936), “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936”) as well as earlier items like “He” (1926), “The Shunned House” (1928), and “The Mound”.  

What is interesting about this last passage from “The Mound”, at least to me, is that it shows Lovecraft, and perhaps some of his colleagues as well, making the leap from the religiosity of horror—Lovecraft is all about Old Testament idolatry—to the emerging genre of science fiction, represented here by “atom-power searchlights” as well as a nightmarishly exaggerated microorganism.  There are similar transitions or tensions in some of the other stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean cycle, for example, the afore-mentioned “The Door to Saturn”.  This will be the focus of the next post. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Part One: Olathoë, Commoriom, and Tsathoggua

In H.P. Lovecraft’s horror-adventure tale, “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936), the narrator makes this comment upon the discovery of the vast cyclopean city in remote Antarctica:

Here sprawled a palaeogean megalopolis compared with which the fabled Atlantis and Lemuria, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum, and Olathoë in the land of Lomar are recent things of today—not even of yesterday…

“Olathoë in the land of Lomar” is a location featured in an early prose poem by Lovecraft called “Polaris” (1920).  It was referred to in a late career publication, “The Quest of Iranon” (1935), and mentioned in the posthumously published “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1943).  Here is how Lovecraft describes “Olathoë in “Polaris”:

Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow between strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men.     

Olathoë is also cited in “The Mound” (1940), one of Lovecraft’s most effective and haunting collaborations.  According to the K’n-yan, the decadent subterranean race that dwelled in a vast underground city beneath Oklahoma, Olathoë was the recipient of “the smallest of the images” of dreaded Tsathoggua, which allowed its cult to be established on the surface of the earth.  Which cult may have survived the great ice sheet and the barbarian Gnophkehs that later destroyed Hyperborean civilization. 

In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith in December of 1929, in which he praised Smith’s “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” Lovecraft exclaimed “I must not delay in expressing my well-nigh delirious delight…What an atmosphere!  I can see & feel & smell the jungle around immemorial Commoriom, which I am sure must lie buried today in glacial ice near Olathoë in the land of Lomar!” 

A couple years later, in correspondence with August Derleth, (May of 1931), Lovecraft writes: “I shall identify Smith’s Hyperborea with my Olathoë in the land of Lomar.”  As readers of Clark Ashton Smith know, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum were the principle cities of Smith’s fictional Hyperborea, a continent doomed to frozen obscurity because of an advancing ice age, metaphorically depicted in Smith’s chilling—pun intended—“The Coming of the White Worm” (1941).

The placement of Lovecraft’s Olathoë in close proximity to Clark Ashton Smith’s Commoriom shows the merging of these two psycho-geographies, creating an imaginary region that was fruitful in the development of the Cthulhu Mythos.  Readers familiar with both authors know that an important link between Olathoë and Commoriom is the mythos entity known as Tsathoggua, who first appears in Smith’s 1931 story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”.  (See also Tsathoggua And His Fans). 

Elsewhere in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, the traumatized narrator observes the “limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses…” and connects the dots:

I thought again of the eldritch primal myths that had so persistently haunted me since my first sight of this dead Antarctic world—of the daemoniac plateau of Leng, of the Mi-Go, or Abominable Snow-Men of the Himalyas, of the Pnakotic Manuscripts with their pre-human implications, of the Cthulhu cult, of the Necronomicon, and of the Hyperborean legends of formless Tsathoggua and the worse than formless star-spawn associated with that semi-entity.  

Lovecraft provides an interesting detail about Tsathoggua that seems to contradict how he—it?—is depicted in earlier stories:  that the “semi-entity” is formless.  This is not exactly how Smith first describes Tsathoggua in stories like “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931) or “The Seven Geases” (1934).  From the earlier of the two tales: 

He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like that of a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague suggestion of both the bat and the sloth.

However, the author is describing an idol, not the actual being in action.  In “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, it is striking how similar Tsathoggua behaves to the evil entities in “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931), “The Double Shadow” (1933) and “Ubbo-Sathla” (1933)—that is, as an amorphous, amoebic predator, slithering and stretching its substance outward in an “ophidian” manner.  (The entity’s physical appearance in the later story “The Seven Geases” does resemble the idol: “And the mass stirred a little at his approach, and put forth with infinite slothfulness a huge and toad-shaped head.”)  

What is interesting in “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, to me at least, is that aside from some superficial similarities—a mouth with sharp teeth that periodically takes shape from the protean mass—the monster is not at all like the idol of Tsathoggua that the two thieves find on the altar.  Why is this?  The dark, writhing, shape-shifting mass, able to elongate itself limitlessly and nightmarishly in pursuit of Satampra seems a more modern, sci-fi creation, despite the fable-like setting of Smith’s tale.  Because Smith seems to favor more concrete and demarcated beings in many of his stories, the protean aspect of Tsathoggua seems a Lovecraftian influence.  Or perhaps both authors were influenced by the popularity of amoebic horrors of the type depicted in Anthony N. Rud’s classic 1923 story “Ooze”. (See also Clues at the Scene of the Slime and The Amoeba in the Attic.)  

Satampra visits the legendary but now abandoned city of Commoriom—not far from Olathoë—relatively late in Smith’s Hyperborean cycle of stories.  At this point in Hyperborian history, the sepulchral granite town is reverting to primordial jungle and swamp, as if the city’s environment and desolation is evolving to accommodate the Toad God’s presence.  In Jungian dream psychology, this is typical of the first phase of cyclic dream imagery, the nigredo:  themes of deterioration, putrefaction, intense gloominess, and images of dismemberment predominate.  Sure enough, Satamparas loses his hand in his struggle to escape Tsathoggua, which is also the rough justice administered to thieves in some traditional societies.

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” is one of a number of stories by Clark Ashton Smith that comprise his Hyperborean cycle, of which there are about eleven.  For future reference they are listed below, along with links to earlier posts about this interesting aspect of Smith’s work.  The next installment of The R’lyeh Tribune will delve more deeply into representative stories from the Hyperborean cycle.


The following are stories considered to belong to Smith’s Hyperborean Cycle:
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)
“The Testament of Athammaus” (1932)
“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan (1932)
“The Door to Saturn” (1932)
“The House of Haon-Dor” (1933)
“The Ice-Demon” (1933)
“Ubbo-Sathla” (1933)
“The Seven Geases” (1934)
“The White Sybil” (1935)
“The Coming of the White Worm” (1941)
“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” (1958)

Here are some earlier posts about stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean cycle:

Geas Who Is Coming to Dinner (The Seven Geases)
Tsathoggua And His Fans (The Tale of Satampra Zeiros)
A Chapter from the Book of Eibon (The Coming of the White Worm)