Introduction to 'The Book of Hyperborea'

Will Murray

The following is the introduction to The Book of Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Will Murray, and published by Necronomicon Press. This piece is copyright 1996 by Necronomicon Press. This file may be freely distributed by electronic means, providing that all publication information and this copyright notice is left intact. Hard or paper copies of this file are restricted to one per user. Any questions should be directed to Necronomicon Press.

"I suppose I'm hopelessly inadaptable," wrote Clark Ashton Smith to poet George Sterling in response to Sterling's somewhat negative reaction to his first truly weird story, "The Abominations of Yondo," "but I simply cannot attain to that faith in material values professed by the humanists and the Babbitts. Many attempts have been made to convert me; but I still fail to see that the 'impossible'—or problematical—is any more futile than anything else as a poetical topic. Indeed my fondest dream is to find a Hyperborea beyond Hyperborea, in the realm of imaginative poetry. I have the feeling that my best and most original work has still to be done."

What Smith did not realize when that letter was written on November 4, 1926, was that he would find his Hyper-Hyperborea in fiction, not verse. And it would be his active correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft that would impel him in this new direction.

If Clark Ashton Smith had not come into contact with Howard Phillips Lovecraft and fallen under his mesmeric literary influence, he would probably not have written his legendary Weird Tales stories. And he certainly would never have written the Hyperborean tales that comprise this volume.

First and foremost, Clark Ashton Smith saw himself as a poet. His brief 1910-12 foray into fiction—a handful of short Oriental tales published in obscure magazines like The Black Cat and The Overland Monthly—was of little moment to the promising young man who achieved international acclaim at the age of 19 with the publication of The Star-Treader and Others in 1912.

But Smith's poetic comet was soon dashed into the hard concrete of commercial reality. Fame was not food, and poetry may fill the soul but not the belly. A laudatory letter from HPL in August 1922 forever altered Smith's literary trajectory. Lovecraft was an admirer of Smith's work. They shared an interest in the macabre and the cosmic. An active correspondence between like-minded souls resulted. Soon, HPL had CAS reading Weird Tales, where the seminal Cthulhu Mythos story, "The Call of Cthulhu," appeared in 1926. And before long, Smith returned to fiction. But this time he shucked off his Oriental preoccupations—not to mention all earthly themes.

"The Abominations of Yondo" was the earliest fruit of this association. It was during this period that CAS began dreaming of his Hyperborea beyond Hyperborea, and the geographically unplaceable Yondo was his first tentative stab in this direction. But three years passed before Smith undertook the task of realizing this fantastic realm on paper.

Smith's Hyperborean tales were not his first venture into a cycle of stories laid in a fantastic realm. His Atlantis and Averoigne tales preceded Hyperborea by several months. Nor were they his best, nor his longest-lived. By all accounts, the Zothique tales—which CAS considered his "main cycle"—deserve those honors. Smith wrote but ten Hyperborean tales. Strangely enough, 28 years passed between the premiere entry, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," and the curtain closer, "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles." Yet the bulk of these stories were first published in Weird Tales in a scant three-year period. The remainder found homes in obscure pamphlets and ephemeral and ill-paying pulp magazines.

More than any other Smithian story cycle, the Hyperborean tales are heavily influenced by Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. But Clark Ashton Smith was not Howard Phillips Lovecraft. His interpretation of the Mythos was radically different from HPL's, and it was marked by a surfeit of sardonic un-Lovecraftian humor.

Smith himself acknowledged this years after the fact when he told Arkham House publisher August W. Derleth, "My Hyperborean tales, it seems to me, with their primordial, prehuman and sometimes premundane background and figures, are the closest to the Cthulhu Mythos, but most of them are written in a vein of grotesque humor that differentiates them vastly. However, such a tale as 'The Coming of the White Worm' might be regarded as a direct contribution to the Mythos."

Smith's Hyperborea was not the Hyperborea of the Greeks, who imagined a race of people who lived in the far north, behind the apparently imaginary Riphaean Mountains, and who worshipped Apollo. It was instead a sprawling pre-Ice Age northern continent peopled by a colorful assortment of rather Rabelaisian rogues and scoundrels who worshipped elder gods akin to, but conceptually far removed from, the indifferent cosmic entities created by H. P. Lovecraft. Its upper reaches, dubbed Mhu Thulan to evoke the mythical lands of Mu and Thule and identical to present-day Greenland, form a subset of the cycle concerned with the encroaching Ice Age. "Beyond the North Wind" is the generally accepted translation of Hyperborea.

The Greeks left few specifics of their conception of Hyperborea to posterity, so as Smith explained to Lovecraft in a March 1, 1933, missive, he took inspiration from the Hyperborea of Helena Petrova Blavatsky's occult pseudo-religion, Theosophy:

"Theosophy, as far as I can gather, is a version of esoteric Yoga prepared for western consumption, so I dare say its legendry must have some sort of basis in ancient Oriental records. One can disregard the theosophy, and make good use of the stuff about elder continents, etc. I got my own ideas about Hyperborea, Poseidonis, etc. from such sources, and then turned my imagination loose."

Smith wrote the opening Hyperborean entry in November, 1929. "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" was at first rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, which set the tone for what was to come. Smith's next two Hyperborea tales, "The Door to Saturn" and "The Testament of Athammaus," were also refused by the Unique Magazine. Although Wright ultimately took the first and third stories on resubmission, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" did not appear in print until November 1931, a full two years after it was penned.

It was HPL who in fact helped get both tales into print as CAS himself acknowledged in an August 18, 1931, letter to August Derleth:

"Wright is readily influenced by other people's opinions, as I happen to know. I believe he reconsidered Satampra Zeiros and Athammaus partly or mainly through Lovecraft's recommendation of these tales."

"The Door to Saturn," which by Smith's own reckoning had been rejected six or seven times, found a home in Weird Tales' better-paying rival, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, two months after "Satampra Zeiros" saw print.

"The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" contains seeds of subsequent Hyperborean stories, dating the era of Hyperborea as contemporary with Lemuria, establishing that its latter-day capital, Uzuldaroum, replaced deserted Commoriom owing to a dire prophecy made by the White Sybil of Polarion, and frequently evoking Smith's signal contribution to the still-developing Cthulhu Mythos, the toad-god of Hyperborea, Tsathoggua.

As it happened, at the time he first read "Tale" in manuscript form, HPL was ghostwriting a story called "The Mound" for revision client Hazel Heald. In keeping with what was fast becoming a playful custom among friendly Weird Tales writers, he co-opted Smith's creation on the assumption that "Tale" would soon see print in Weird Tales.

One bizarre consequence of this borrowing was the premature introduction of Tsathoggua to Weird Tales readers. But not in "The Mound." For it too was rejected. It fell to HPL again to evoke the dread name in "The Whisperer in Darkness," which saw print in Weird Tales, August 1931. It was in this same tale that HPL spoke of "the Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-Ton," perhaps an ironic dig at Farnsworth Wright, inasmuch as the myth-cycle was at the time wholly unpublished.

Smith, who once signed a letter to HPL as "Ci-Ay-Ess, the evangelist of Tsathoggua," employed Tsathoggua often in his Hyperborea stories. In Mhu Thulan, he was known as Zothaqqua. Under the variants of Sodaqui and Sadoqua, he reappeared in select chronicles of medieval Averoigne.

Other Hyperborean gods also showed their sardonic visages over the life of the series, their names not so much evocative of Cthulhu Mythos coinings as deadpan parodies of them. Chief among them were Ubbo-Sathla, Rlim Shaikorth, Abhoth, Hziulquoigmnzhah, the spider-god Atlach-Nacha, the elk-goddess Yhoundeh, and ". . . the woman-breasted cat-goddess, Phauz, whom Hyperboreans worshipped aeons before Bast was set up in Khem," mentioned only in a 1935 letter to Robert H. Barlow.

In deliberate counterpoint to Lovecraft's remote entities, Smith's Old Ones were more in the nature of the Greek gods, meddling in human affairs and concerns despite their often outlandish names and semi-anthropomorphic forms, and issuing pronouncements in human tongue. Other than Tsathoggua, the wizard Eibon and his Book of Eibon (ironically first introduced to Weird Tales readers through another story HPL revised for Hazel Heald, "The Man of Stone"), Lovecraft, recognizing that they belonged to another echelon of gods entirely, never incorporated the bulk of Smith's pantheon into his own.

So different was Smith's treatment of the Lovecraft theme that it was once dubbed the Clark Ashton Smythos. In keeping with a main conceit of this shared Mythos, Smith devised Hyperborean variant spellings of HPL's familiar entities, coining Kthulhut and Yok-Zothoth.

The degree to which CAS had fallen under the Lovecraftian spell is evidenced by a studied playfulness that crept into his correspondence when discussing Mythos elements in his stories, especially with Lovecraft himself and Robert H. Barlow, whom he calls Ar-Ech-Bei. A 1934 letter to HPL attempts to reconcile Smith's extraterrestrial birthplace of Tsathoggua with the subterranean origin described in "The Mound":

"I have done what I could toward elucidating the genealogy of Tsathoggua, and am sending Ar-Ech-Bei the result of my delvings into the Parchments of Pnom, the chief Hyperborean authority on such matters. Pnom has much more to say about Tsathoggua than about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth; but no doubt you have access to other records, mainly concerning these entities; and I'd be glad of more specific information about them. As I am pointing out to Ar-Ech-Bei, Pnom's account of Ts. can be reconciled with the legendry told to Zamarcona in 'The Mound.' The myth, through aeons, was varied in the usual mythopoeic fashion by the cavern-dwellers, who came at last to believe that merely the images of Tsathoggua, and not the god himself, had emerged in former cycles from the inner gulf. Ts., travelling fourth-dimensionally from Saturn, first entered the Earth through the lightless abyss of N'kai; and, not unnaturally, the Yothians regarded N'kai as his place of origin. Undoubtedly the god now resides in N'kai, to which he returned when the ice overwhelmed Hyperborea."

Only too happy to wed his Hyperborean gods to Lovecraft's cosmic ones, CAS continued his very Greek approach by ascribing bizarre sexual relationships between his branch of the Cthulhu family tree and Lovecraft's, describing Hziulquoigmnzhah as the "uncle" of Tsathoggua, Shathak as his "wife," and declaring in a September 19, 1934, account to Barlow the following:

"As to the marriage of Y'houndeh and the flute-player Nyarlathotep, I am inclined to suspect that something of the sort is hinted at or adumbrated by Pnom. I quote the reference: 'Houndeh in the 3rd cycle of her divinity was covered by that spawn which pipes perennially the dire music of chaos and corruption.' If this doesn't refer to the Azathothian flute-player, I'll undertake to drink a straight gallon of the next segur-whisky that is imported from Mars."

Smith once explained the cross-borrowing of Mythos entities to August Derleth this way: "The intent here, it would seem, is to suggest a common immemorial background for mythic beings and places created by various modern writers."

Smith often drew or carved from rock images of his creations, and as he wrote Lovecraft on one occasion, the fidelity to actual primal shared myth-systems was startling:

"Here . . . is a recent portrait-sketch of our Lord Tsathoggua, which I made for you the other day. My Indian wood-cutter saw it . . . and said instantly: 'That's one of the Old Boys.' He then proceeded to narrate a tribal legend about a young squaw who was carried away by some prehuman entity into a cavern. Nearly a year later, the squaw emerged to the light, bringing with her an infant that was half human and half something else."

Even as they began appearing in print, Smith found significant editorial resistance to his Hyperborean stories in Weird Tales, largely due to their elevated language and ribald, ironic-satiric tone. Yet these very qualities appear to have suggested to Smith that they could one day be collected in hardcover.

"I have had it in mind to get together my Hyperborean yarns, 'The Testament of Athammaus,' etc. and try them on some book publisher. These tales, on account of their marked ironic elements, might form an entering wedge," he wrote to Derleth in 1937.

Astonishingly, almost from the beginning, Smith conceived of writing sufficient stories to comprise a collection, as he told HPL in a February, 1931 missive:

"It has been a week or more since I wrote the above. In the interim I have drafted a tale from the Commoriom myth-cycle--'The Testament of Athammaus'—which I have probably mentioned to you as being among my tentatives. I guess you won't wonder that Commoriom was deserted when you read this explanation of the raison d'etre. In my more civic moods, I sometimes think of the clean-up which an entity like Knygathin Zhaum would make in a modern town. I really think he (or it) is about my best monster to date. It would be nice (if I ever get to the book-cover stage) to publish a separate volume of tales under some such title as 'The Book of Hyperborea.' This primal continent seems to have been particularly subject to incursions of 'outsideness'—more so, in fact, than any of the other continents and terrene realms that lie behind us in the time stream."

In marked contrast to his very popular Zothique tales, which also suffered indiscriminate rejection before ultimately finding homes in Weird Tales, Smith was forced to let some of his Hyperborean stories suffer the relative indignity of fan publication, or much-delayed professional print in such ephemeral titles as Stirring Science Stories and Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy. Two stories were taken by the nonpaying fanzine Unusual Tales. Both went unpublished when it folded.

Thus, Smith turned to the series only at long intervals, producing but two or three tales a year for a sustained period of only four years. Yet he counted the stories of this cycle among his very favorites, notably "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," "The Door to Saturn," "The Coming of the White Worm," and "The Seven Geases."

Perhaps influenced by this resistance, Smith converted a Hyperborean idea called "The Voyage of King Euvoran" into an entry in the Zothique cycle, curiously retaining its humorous tone. Hoping to increase its chances for acceptance, Smith suggested Wright also consider it for his companion title, The Magic Carpet.

If such was Smith's reasoning, he was doubly disappointed when, early in 1933, Farnsworth Wright rejected the story as devoid of plot. Agreeing with Wright, Smith immediately decided to publish the tale in his planned self-published book, The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, which was a repository for tales judged unsuitable for pulp markets. No Hyperborean version of this story is known to exist—otherwise it would be included in this volume for completeness' sake.

A full year after completing two unsellable entries, "The Ice-Demon" and "The White Sybil," Smith revisited the icebound realm with renewed vigor. He undertook a terrestrial tale with Hyperborean overtones called "The House of Haon-Dor," but put it aside when his father became ill in July of 1933, ultimately abandoning it unfinished owing to his increased family responsibilities attendant to the scalding of his mother that October.

But despite those setbacks, two additional Hyperborean tales emerged.

Writing to August Derleth on August 29, 1933, Smith revealed,

"I am, by the way, writing an Arctic fantasy, 'The Temptation of Evagh,' which purports to be a translation of Chapter IX from the celebrated Book of Eibon. It is hard to do, like most of my tales, because of the peculiar and carefully maintained style and tone-colour, which involves rejection of many words, images and locutions that might ordinarily be employed in writing."

A month later, writing to HPL, CAS reported:

"I have not yet completed the IX Chapter of Eibon, but expect to bring it to some sort of conclusion before long. I have renamed it 'The Coming of the White Worm.' The story takes its text from the saying of the prophet Lith, which no man had understood: 'There is One that inhabits the place of utter cold, and One that respireth where none other may draw breath. In the days to come He shall issue forth among the isles and cities of men, and shall bring with Him as a white doom the wind that slumbereth in His dwelling.'"

But the story was rejected by Weird Tales as too poetic, and did not see print until the April, 1941, issue of Stirring Science Stories in a drastically pared-down form. It subsequently appeared in a Canadian pulp magazine, Uncanny Tales, December 1941.

Smith immediately penned "The Seven Geases," expressing to Barlow, "I am rather partial to the opus myself. These grotesque and elaborate ironies come all too naturally to me, I fear."

Upon the all-but-inevitable rejection of "The Seven Geases," which Wright dismissed as merely "one geas after another," Smith concentrated on the more salable Zothique and Averoigne cycles. The cancellation of Strange Tales the previous autumn, just after editor Harry Bates rejected "The Ice-Demon," may have played a role in Smith's thinking, inasmuch as a year later he was still lamenting its passing:

"'The Seven Geases' is finished, but Tsathoggua alone knows what I can do with it," Smith told Derleth on October 4, 1933. "Bates, who liked 'The Door to Saturn' so well, would have grabbed it in all likelihood; but I don't believe the other fantasy editors have any sense of humor."

After Weird Tales' refusal, "The Seven Geases," along with "The Coming of the White Worm," went to Astounding, which also declined them.

Typically, Wright reconsidered the story, illustrating it with an ink portrait of Tsathoggua received from Smith previously. Published in the October 1934 Weird Tales, "The Seven Geases" became the last tale of Hyperborea to grace its pages.

Twenty long years passed between "The Seven Geases" and the return of Satampra Zeiros in "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles," which, in a delicious irony, brings the series full circle.

This volume, as did Necronomicon Press' previous Tales of Zothique, arranges the stories collected within in strict chronological order as Smith first penned them, because we believe this best reveals the creative mind of the artist at work and we generally shun attempts to impose chronological rearrangement based upon internal evidence as unilluminating at best and of dubious scholarly value at worst.

Fortunately, Smith dated his manuscripts, so determining the most correct order of stories is fairly straightforward. He also maintained a running list of his various story-cycle entries in his Black Book. Inasmuch as he entered unfinished and fragmentary stories as soon as they were undertaken, sometimes coming back to an incomplete story after finishing a subsequent entry, we have elected to rely on the manuscript date—invariably the date of completion—as our final authority.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the internal chronology imposed by anthologist Lin Carter in the 1971 Ballantine Adult Fantasy collection Hyperborea is quite sound—although it bears no relation to the order in which Smith penned the tales.

Accordingly, the reader coming to Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea for the first time will find that the story sequence skips back and forth through Hyperborean eras, with cities rising up and falling back into ruin at random, and doomful hints and portents bearing cold fruit in later tales while older dooms are explained long after the fact.

Bewildering as the experience may be, it is uniquely rewarding to read, or reread, the Commoriom myth-cycle in this sequence, for it reveals the inner creative workings of an uncommonly inventive author undertaking one of the most exacting tasks in fantasy writing—the creation of a fabulous, vibrant realm that never was: Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea.

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