Monday, May 31, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Ubbo-Sathla

The July 1933 issue of Weird Tales was an impressive one, containing notable stories by several pulp luminaries. In a previous post, I already discussed H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House", which premiered in this issue. Also present were "The Horror in the Museum" by Hazel Heald (though ghost written by Lovecraft) and "The Hand of Glory," a Jules de Grandin yarn by Seabury Quinn, not to mention stories by Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton. 

Then there's the subject of today's post, "Ubbo-Sathla," a very unusual story by Clark Ashton Smith. It's usually classified as a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, but, aside from an epigraph from The Book of Eibon, which references "Yok-Zothoth" (Yog-Sothoth) and "Kthulhut" (Cthulhu), there's nothing particularly Lovecraftian about the tale. Instead, it's largely another exploration of a theme common in not just Smith's own writings but in many pulp stories of the time: metempsychosis and mental time travel. 

Paul Tregardis, an antiquarian living in London, stumbles upon a "milky crystal in a litter of oddments from many lands in eras" while visiting the establishment of a curio-dealer. Tregardis asks the dealer about the crystal, who replies:

"It is very old – palaeogean, one might say. I cannot tell you much, for little is known. A geologist found it in Greenland, beneath glacial ice, in the Miocene strata. Who knows? It may have belonged to some sorcerer of primeval Thule. Greenland was a warm, fertile region, beneath the sun of Miocene times. No doubt it is a magic crystal; and a man might behold strange visions in its heart, if he looked long enough."

Tregardis is startled to hear this, not least because it reminded him of things he had read in The Book of Eibon. The tome described, among other things, the life of the wizard Zon Mezzamalech, who was said to have possessed a crystal just like the one he'd stumbled upon. Even though he considered The Book of Eibon "sheer superstitious fantasy," there was nevertheless "something about the crystal that continued to tease and inveigle him." Consequently, he purchased it "without bargaining" and "hastened back to his lodgings instead of resuming his leisurely saunter."

There, he opened up his copy of the French translation of The Book of Eibon and re-read those sections that pertained to Zon Mezzamalech and the crystal. 

This wizard, who was mighty among sorcerers, had found a cloudy stone, orb-like and somewhat flattened at the ends, in which he could behold many visions of the terrene past, even to the Earth's beginnings, when Ubbo-Sathla, the unbegotten source, lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime … 

 Tregardis continued to be "tantalized and beguiled," which led him to stare ever more intently into the "cold, nebulous orb." 

Minute by minute he sat, and watched the alternate glimmering and fading of the mysterious light in the heart of the crystal. By imperceptible degrees, there stole upon him a sense of dream-like duality, both in respect to his person and his surroundings. He was still Paul Tregardis – and yet he was someone else; the room was his London apartment – a chamber in some foreign but well-known place. And in both milieus he peered steadfastly into the same crystal.

After an interim, without surprise on the part of Tregardis, the process of re-identification became complete. He knew that he was Zon Mezzamalech, a sorcerer of Mhu Thulan, and a student of all lore anterior to his own amateur epoch. Wise with dreadful secrets that were not known to Paul Tregardis, amateur of anthropology and the occult sciences in latter-day London, he sought by means of the milky crystal to attain an even older and more fearful knowledge.

 As astounding as this is, this is only the beginning of a process by which Tregardis recalled "unnumbered lives" and "myriad deaths" – as "a warrior in half-legendary battles," "a child playing in the ruins of some olden city," a woman "who wept for the bygone dead," and many, many more. Over the course of the short story, Tregardis finds his mind flung back untold eons, through a host of lives in a variety of times and places, until he reached "the grey beginning of Earth" itself, where "the formless mass that was Ubbo-Sathla reposed amid the slime and the vapors."

"Ubbo-Sathla" is almost entirely devoid of action in the usual sense of the term. The quest of Paul Tregardis is entirely mental – or perhaps psychic is a better word – as he observes and learns from the past he can now view through the agency of the milky crystal orb. Like so many Smith stories, the reader is treated to a verbal phantasmagoria of bizarre and unexplained sights and sensations, mirroring those of the story's protagonist as he plumbs the depths of time and space. Unlike efforts like the widely celebrated "The City of the Singing Flame,"  "Ubbo-Sathla" is not quite as effective. Yet, what it might lack in execution, it makes up for in its ambition. Smith endeavors to show the origin of all life on Earth, at once exhilarating and terrifying. It's thus another worthy example of Clark Ashton Smith's ability to evoke the sometimes contradictory feelings occasioned by the acquisition of knowledge.


  1. " evoke the sometimes contradictory feelings occasioned by the acquisition of knowledge..."

    Only sometimes? I can think of precious few things of any significance I've learned in my lifetime that didn't lead to a complex emotional response. If nothing else, the more you learn, the more you realize you still don't know and may very well never know. Bittersweet at best, maddening at worst.

    That said, I enjoyed this one but wouldn't rate it as one of CAS's best. It's certainly not a Mythos story in any meaningful way.

    1. I always like to hedge my bets, so I generally avoid absolute statements about matters of individual experience. Your experience of learning is mine too, but I can't speak for everyone, hence the "sometimes."

    2. I would say it a Mythos tale, as the story references the Book of Eibon and Cthulhu, as well as the protagonist going on a mind-bending journey to encounter what could be defined as a primal Elder God and older then the rest of them (except for maybe Azathoth).

    3. Fair enough on the lack of universal experience.

      As for being a Mythos story, if name-dropping a few Lovecraftian horrors and meeting an eldritch abomination are what it takes to qualify, then Awoken by "Serra Elinson" qualifies just as well as this story - and it was a hoax Twilight parody novel casting Cthulhu as the protag's supernatural love interest.

    4. I guess, one could defined that as a mythos story too. But that's basically a comedic parody while Smith's tale is not. So I would possibly consider "Awoken" (as I haven't read it) farther down on the list.

  2. This is one of my absolute favorites, eons ago when I was a teenager first discovering Lovecraft and his circle.

  3. Boy, I wish my CoC players were as curious and/or gullible as the story's protagonist. If they were to encounter something like this, they'd chuck it into the nearest hole. I have to trick them or make it necessary for them to stare deeply into the macguffin's opaque heart to go forward (or at least gain a major advantage in knowledge) in the adventure.