Thursday, May 11, 2023

Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea stories

I’ve been a fan of the work of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) for years. Smith was a member of Lovecraft’s circle and he’s notable for the extreme ornateness of his prose. Smith’s Hyperborea cycle shows Lovecraft’s influence very strongly and it has definite links to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Hyperborea is a mythical world with some similarities to Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. Hyperborea is a world of wizardry and lost prehistoric civilisations.

In The Tale of Satampra Zeiros two thieves set out to loot the treasures of the lost city of Commoriom, a city shunned by all. The thieves soon find out exactly why everybody shuns the ruined city. The city might be dead but the old gods that had been been worshipped there might not be entirely dead. And they are rather savage gods. There’s more excitement than is usual in a Smith story, there’s a superbly evoked atmosphere of decay and malevolence and there are some definite touches of black humour.

The Door to Saturn is literally about a door to Saturn. The sorcerer Eibon is facing charges of heresy and makes his escape from the enraged inquisitor Morghi just in time. Eibon is a devotee of the god Zhothaqquagh and that deity has provided the sorcerer with a very convenient little door that opens on the surface of the planet Saturn. The only downside is, it he uses the door it will be a one-way trip.

Morghi somewhat unwisely follows Eibon through the door. They find that Saturn is a profoundly strange place. It’s not particularly dangerous, just strange.

This is very much a tongue-in-cheek story with a number of elaborate jokes. There’s no real terror and there’s no real action but it is amusing.

The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan is an enjoyable little story about a greedy money-lender chasing two fabulous emeralds. Literally chasing the emeralds, which ran away from him while he was admiring them. The ending is rather neat. You know that something bad is most likely in store for the luckless money-lender but his fate is not quite the one you might be expecting.

The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles is a very late story, originally published in 1958. It’s another tale of thievery and although the methods used by the thieves are highly imaginative they do not quite qualify as sorcery. The thirty-nine girdles are chastity girdles belonging to the sacred virgins of the temple of Leniqua. Virgins is perhaps not an entirely accurate description, the young ladies in question being in fact temple prostitutes. Stealing is a difficult enough art. Ensuring that one actually keeps the rewards of thievery is even more challenging but Satampra Zeiros is a thief of vast experience.

The Coming of the White Worm is perhaps the most ambitious of the Hyperborean tales. And the most successful. A galley is cast ashore. The crew members are dead and when the wizard Evagh suggests that the bodies should be burnt he gets a nasty surprise. The bodies will not burn. Then the monstrous iceberg appears. The iceberg houses a god, a gigantic white worm. The worm makes Evagh an offer he is in no position to refuse although he is by no means certain that this god should be trusted. This is a tale of icy terror, of the horror of the cold that is beyond any natural cold, and the horrors do not end there. Smith was always good with atmosphere but in this story he excels himself. A wildly imaginative and disturbing tale.

The Seven Geases is a dark little tale with more than a tinge of black humour. A magistrate and big game hunter falls foul of an ill-tempered sorcerer who imposes a geas (a kind of magical obligation) upon him. Which seems to lead to more and more geases imposed on the luckless magistrate each o0f which requires him to descend further intro the bowels of a magical mountain wherein he keeps encountering more and more strange and unpleasant creatures. This plot gives Smith the opportunity to really go to town on the atmosphere of dread and malevolence and on the general weirdness. Which he does, to marvellous effect.

In The Testament of Athammaus we learn the exact nature of the fate of the once-proud and now deserted city of Commoriom. Athammaus had been the headsman of the city and was proud of his ability to carry out executions with efficiency and certainty. Only once did he fail in his duty, with awful consequences for the city.

Anything by Clark Ashton Smith is worth reading. Not just a great writer of weird fiction but a great writer of decadent literature as well. Highly recommended.


  1. Smith is one of my favorites as well. Remembering getting a collection of his works and never losing interest. Liked The Tale of Satampra Zeiros in particular.

    1. The Tale of Satampra Zeiros is a very fine story.