dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,

Why is Ubbo-Sathla particularly heinous?

I am sure that, somewhere along the line, Clark Ashton Smith wrote a story so packed with esoteric words and sly allusions that I will not be able to figure it out at all (most likely I will take it for one of those spam pieces you get which are completely incoherent). This isn't that story, though. "Ubbo-Sathla" shows Smith doing a fine Lovecraft impression and his vocabulary remains within reasonable limits. Unfortunately, it also means that the droll sense of humor which marks Smith at his best only rises once or twice to smirk at us from the page.

From the July 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES, "Ubbo-Sathla" is (on the surface, at least), Smith making his own contribution to the "Cthulhu Mythos" which Lovecraft started and which he playfully encouraged his colleagues to embellish. Lovecraft and Smith together must have annoyed proofreaders considerably, what with their bizarre words and names. I know my spellchecker overheats and makes stuttering noises when I tap in stuff like "Ph'nglul mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"; to pronounce that rightly, you are supposed to have your jaw broken in several places and speak before the pieces heal together.

In this story, Smith not only introduces the sorcerer Zon Mezzamalech of ancient Hyperborea, but he brings up Lovecraft's beasties again with variant spellings, Yok-Sothoth and Kthulhut, just in case the editor was getting complacent. And he tosses his own Tsathoggua in as well, this time as Zhothaqquah.

Be that as it may, "Ubbo-Sathla" is a rather slight and inconsequential story, but interesting in its existential way. An antiquarian named Paul Tregardis is loitering in a London curio shop, where he finds something interesting amid the fossil eggs, Aztec idols, ornate daggers and old black & white copies of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. This is a small crystal orb, slightly flattened at the ends, which seems to contain a pulsing light within it. The stone reportedly was found in Greenland under the glacial ice. The shopkeeper thinks it might have belonged to "some sorcerer of primeval Thule. Greenland was a warm, fertile region beneath the sun of Miocene times." (Whoa, is he telling us there were human civilizations twenty million years ago or did he just get his terms mixed up? Maybe Pliocene, but even that's stretching it.)

Buying the crystal and hurrying home, Tregardis shows us that he is no mere dilettante but a serious student of Forbidden Knowledge. He gets out his own copy of THE BOOK OF EIBON, which he obtained with great difficulty. This is the medieval French translation of a work "which is supposed to have come down through a series of manifold translations from a prehistoric original written in the lost language of Hyperborea." THE BOOK OF EIBON is thus much much older and more blasphemous and mind-blowing than even the NECRONOMICON itself (so there, you Mad Arab you!).

Tregardis takes to gazing into the gem, drifting back in spirit through the ages until he becomes one with the wizard Zon Mezzamalech. (I'm not clear if Zon was an earlier incarnation of Tregardis or if they just have crystal-ogling in common, and maybe it doesn't matter.) Tregardis finds it increasingly harder to snap out of the reveries and get back to 1933 London in time for tea, and eventually he yields altogether. Actually, the same thing is happening to Zon Mezzamalech too; twenty million years earlier, he is fading back to delve into the very source of all living things. Yep, it's Ubbo-Sathla his own self.

Now, the various gods or aliens or what-have-you we meet in these stories tend not to make a good first impression. But this being is remarkably unattractive even by Cthulhian standards. "There, in the gray beginning of Earth, the formless mass that was Ubbo-Sathla reposed amid the slime and the vapors. Headless, without organs or members, it sloughed from its oozy sides, in a slow, ceaseless wave, the amoebic forms that were the archetypes of earthly life."

Hmm. Well, it's not quite how scientists think life evolved the way I last heard but if a theory (with good reasoning behind it) was put forth that the first living cells formed a large mass from which smaller organisms broke off, I suppose I could tentatively accept it. It certainly wouldn't fill me with shuddering horror and give me nightmares from which I woke up sweating. (I rather enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould's WONDERFUL LIFE, for example.)

But then I am not one of the 1933 readers that Clark Ashton Smith was mischievously trying to shock and apall. If you believe in a literal interpretation of the book of GENESIS or simply that we were directly crafted and shaped by a Creator, then Ubbo-Sathla is a blasphemous thought; and if you found evidence that Ubbo-Sathla really existed, I think it might shake you up a bit. Come to think of it, as disturbing as Lovecraft's concepts are even in these morally flexible times, they must have been really unsettling to the more conservative audiences of their first presentations.

There are a couple of other points worth noting in the story, such as the mention of "the lost serpentmen who reared their cities of black gneiss and fought their venomous wars in the world's first continent." I take this as a reference to the Kull story "The Shadow KIngdom " by fellow WEIRD TALES contributor Robert E. Howard. And there is Smith's concept of premundane "gods who died before the Earth was born. They had passed to the lightless void, leaving their lore inscribed upon tablets of ultrastellar stone..." Quite a concept. I think Clark Ashton Smith deserves to have his work thoroughly annotated the way Lovecraft and Howard have been.
Tags: clark ashton smith, horror, pulps
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