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. 

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