Saturday, December 24, 2022

Outside the Human Aquarium: Clark Ashton Smith on Art and Life

The same source of the E.R. Eddison letter discussed in my last blog post contains some letters from Clark Ashton Smith that I found quite interesting. Here is give a long quote from the first of Smith's letters, dated 10 November 1932:

Your questions touch on problems that are, I think, vastly more difficult to elucidate than you imagine. The ultimate motivations of any man’s life, philosophy, art, likes, dislikes, etc., are probably more obscure than is realized; and I doubt if modern psychology has approached them. For this reason, I am not sure that I understand myself, or that any human being can understand himself or others. And understanding is even harder to communicate than achieve, since words may, and usually do have, extremely divergent values for different minds. Having delivered myself of this warning, I’ll try to answer some of your questions.

To the best of my belief, the style in which I write is a perfectly natural mode of utterance for me, and is not affected. My approach to literature is primarily artistic, poetic, esthetic, and for this reason I like the full-hued and somewhat rhythmic type of prose. For many years, I wrote only verse (I have published three volumes of it); and I have always had a prejudice in favor of what is called “the grand manner.” I have also made many paintings and drawings, of a fantastic type; and this pictorial trend has probably influenced my story-writing too. Perhaps, in some case, it has led me to an overuse of adjectives in the effort to achieve a full and vivid vizualization, or rendering of atmosphere.

My stories spring from a profound liking for the imaginative and fantastic, together with a deep speculative interest regarding the cosmic mysteries, and the actual possibilities of other inhabited worlds and alien modes of being. I suspect that nothing  any of us can imagine is half so fantastic as the truth of what may exist outside the human aquarium! Together with my interest in the cosmic, I have (without definitely believing in the supernatural) a vast curiosity concerning what may lie behind the veils of the material world. Life, as I see it, is surrounded and permeated by insoluble mysteries; and I strongly suspect that it is influenced by many forces that science has not yet been able to detect. Perhaps this will help you to understand the mental background of my tales.

As to what life means to me, I think I can safely say that it is largely synonymous with work. I am trying to establish myself as a professional story-writer, and to earn, if possible, enough money so that I will ultimately be able to devote part of the time to the poetry and painting which I have been forced to lay aside through financial exigency. I consider myself fortunate to write (and enjoy writing) a type of fiction that appeals to any considerable portion of the public.

My letter in S[trange] T[ales] touched on a many-sided problem, and I suppose any pronouncement as to what is the highest or most important element in a story is, after all, a matter of personal preference. Your point as to a mingling or co-relating of human and unhuman elements in a horror tale is well-taken, and I agree with you that Poe has obtained some magnificent effects by such opposition. The convincing evocation of macrocosmic or “outside” elements is, I think, far rarer than the adequate presentment of the human, and seems to require a greater capacity for imaginative projection, so for this reason I was tempted to put it higher. But it all depends on what you want, I suppose. It is obvious that the widest public appeal in a story must be based largely on common emotions. Genuine appreciation of the ultrahumanly fantastic presupposes a certain capacity for detachment from the everyday interests and feelings of life. There has to be, temporarily, an objectifying interest, a transcending of the material concerns of the species. The emotion evoked by work of this sort is largely esthetic—a delight in ideas. images, style, etc., for their own sake, rather than a rudimentary solar-plexus tickling. Fantasy represents the effort of the human mind to go beyond the rather painful limits of experiences and observation, it is, so to speak, an aspiration toward the unknown infinities. It corresponds in the world of art and intellection, one might say, to what mysticism is in the spiritual world—an effort toward a broader consciousness than that achieved through the relativities of mundane existence.

From all this, you must not infer that I am indifferent to work that deals with the actual happenings and possibilities of life. The thing that I deprecate is the sort of modern realism, or, more properly, literalism, which treats such happenings and possibilities as a closed microcosm, thoroughly known and charted, and sealed against the unknown elements of the macrocosm. This type of stuff I have come to regard as thoroughly sterile and limitary. It is not, as I see it, a true realism at all, The most elementary facing of the facts of our position in the unverse should include an acceptance of myriad unknown potentialities. Any day, forces may be stumbled upon by investigative scientists that will give an entirely new value and bearing to observed data, and invalidate the whole kit and kaboodle of accepted theories.

I hope that this will make my standpoint, and my stories, clearer to you.*

Smith’s letter to Strange Tales was printed in the January 1933 issue under the title “The Tale of Macrocosmic Horror.”  It is reprinted in Planets and Dimension: Collected Essays of Clark Ashton Smith (1973), edited by Charles K. Wolfe, pp. 18-19.

 *"Clark Ashton Smith letter to Richard Dodson 1932-11-10", Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho

Friday, December 16, 2022

Why is E.R. Eddison's Worm Ouroboros set on Mercury?

It’s always nice to learn an author’s answer to a vexing question about their works. A new (to me) small cache of letters from the early 1930s provided some enlightenment.

In the early 1930s a young American fan sent letters to some of his favorite authors of fantasy and science fiction, asking for autographs, and sometimes making comments and asking questions. This young fan, Richard Wolford Dodson (1915-2002), became a very distinguished scientist, working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the Second World War, and later he founded and ran the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Chemistry Department.  

Like many readers of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, Dodson wondered why it was set on Mercury. So in writing Eddison on 26 December 1933, after fulsome praise of the book he noted:

Only one thing about the story would I have had otherwise: its place. Mercury is so tiny a planet, so near the sun. One of its small hemispheres must be piteously [and] constantly fried by the heat. This doesn't jibe with the story, whose atmosphere is distinctly that of earth. The tale is too vast, possessed of too much grandeur to be pinned down to such a prosaic clod as Mercury. Why must Dreamland and Carce and all the other fabulous lands be definitely located?  Wouldn’t it be artistically better to have their position indefinite in both time and space? I should have preferred it that way. [Note 1, text from a draft of the letter retained by Dodson]

Eddison replied on 21 January 1934:

Perhaps you are right about Mercury. But I meant it as a pure convention. As you say, the world of the Worm is so obviously earth-like (or heaven-like?) that it should make the reader dismiss any idea of astronomical accuracy. Probably the martlet told L[essingham] it was Mercury in order to stop him asking too many questions! [Note 2]

The mentions of Mercury first appear in the opening “Induction” in conversation between Lessingham and his wife. In chapter one, after Lessingham and the little black martlet have landed “as in a dream,” the martlet tells Lessingham, “thou, first of the children of men, art come to Mercury."

Eddison continued:

Lessingham himself, & the whole Induction, are perhaps little more than machinery for letting the reader down gently into another world. But personally I have an affection for L. & for his wife (née Lady Mary Scarnside), & I am glad I made their acquaintance in this book, if only because they have, after 10 years or so, furnished me with the theme for a new book which I hope will be out before long. [ibid.]

The book to which Eddison refers took a year to come out. Mistress of Mistresses: A Vision of Zimiamvia was published by Faber & Faber of London in January 1935, and by E.P. Dutton of New York in July 1935.



1. "Richard Dodson letter to Eric Rocker Eddison 1933-12-26", Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library

2. "Eric Rocker Eddison letter to Richard Dodson 1934-01-21", Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Hobyahs: A Reconsideration

In the 16 January 1938 issue of the London newspaper The Observer, there was a query, signed "Habit", from Queensway, asking whether J.R.R. Tolkien might be persuaded to discuss more about his book The Hobbit, published four months earlier. Habit also noted:

On mentioning the hairy-footed hobbit, rather like a rabbit, to one of my contemporaries, I was amazed to hear her shudder. She said she remembered an old fairy tale called "The Hobbit" in a collection read about 1904. This creature, she said, was definitely frightening, unlike Professor Tolkien's.

Tolkien's reply, published in the 20 February 1938 issue of The Observer,  is justly famous (it appears as Letter 25 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) as an early and delightful commentary by Tolkien of his own works.  He noted that he didn't know of "any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904" and stated in a footnote that "I should like, if possible, to learn more about the fairy-tale collection, c. 1904." 

In the first edition of my Annotated Hobbit (1988), I identified this story as very probably "The Hobyahs" and the fairy tale collection as More English Fairy Tales (dated 1894, but published in October 1893 to catch the Christmas market) edited by Joseph Jacobs, where the Hobyahs are given juvenile but scary illustrations by John D. Batten. (See at right the first page of the story with a few of the recurrent illustrations of Hobyahs.)

In the "Notes and References" section at the rear of the book, Jacobs notes the source of his story. It came not from England but from America, in "American Folk-Lore Journal, iii., 173, contributed by Mr. S.V. Proudfit as current in a family deriving of Perth" (p. 255). But this isn't entirely correct, and with the full context we can better place the origins of this tale. 

The tale actually appeared in The Journal of American Folk-Lore (to give it its correct title), in the issue for April-June 1891,  under the title "The Hobyahs: A Scotch Nursery Tale" contributed by S.V. Proudfit of Washington D.C, who notes that "When I was a child, I used to hear the following story told in a Scotch family that came from the vicinity of Perth. Whether the story came from the family I am unable to say. I have spelled the word "Hobyah" as it was pronounced" (p. 173).

Some of this information can be researched further. S.V. Proudfit was Samuel Victor Proudfit (1846-1934) who worked as a lawyer for the U.S. government for many years. He did not publish much, but a lecture titled "The Lodge Dwellers" given before the Anthropological Society in Washington in April 1886 duly appeared in the July 1886 issue of The American Antiquarian. It concerns prehistoric earthworks in southwestern Ohio. Proudfit was involved for years with the editing a serial, Decisions of the Department of the Interior and General Land Office in Cases Relating to the Public Lands, and he published one book also related to his work: Public Land System of the United States: Historical Outline (1924).

In 1891, when he published "The Hobyahs" (incidentally only two years before Joseph Jacobs appropriated it for his book), Proudfit was forty-five years old. (He had married in 1874, and had three children, the right age to have been told "The Hobyahs". After Proudfit's wife died in 1895, he remarried in 1899, but had no further children.) He had been born in  Edinboro, a small town just south of Erie, Pennsylvania. But by 1860 he and his family had moved to Illinois,  so if Proudfit heard the Hobyahs story as a child, it would have been during his childhood years near Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Interestingly, the US Census confirms one single Scotch family who lived close to the Proudfit family in the 1850s. This family was headed by Robert Allison (1801-1885) and his wife Barbara Scouller Allison (1807-1846), who emigrated from Scotland with three children (a daughter and two sons) around 1838, and had two more sons born in Pennsylvania, the youngest being Joseph, who was about the same age as Samuel Proudfit and they were likely playmates. Genealogical sources confirm this family came from Renfrewshire, not Perth. So perhaps by 1891 when Proudfit was recalling the Hobyahs story, he misremembered where the family he had known thirty-some years earlier were actually from in Scotland. 

The story of the Hobyahs was unknown to the world before Proudfit told it in 1891, so its provenance, and even details of the story itself (like the spelling of Hobyahs) are murky. It is remarkable to consider how quickly it became accepted as a authentic fairy tale, which leaves us to wonder how many other famous fairy tales (like those of Grimm) are constructs put together and codified by later tellers. 

My current ruminations on the Hobyahs began after I watched an Australian horror film, Celia (1989), set in Melbourne in the 1950s, written and directed by Ann Turner. The film was marketed in North America as "horror", but it's really more of a disturbing and unclassifiable coming-of-age film, about a disturbed young girl. The Hobyahs play a central role. Some digging revealed that in the 1920s the Hobyahs story was included in Australian government readers for young students, and within a few years it was re-written to give it an Australian context. For more than two decades the Hobyahs story thrilled second grade students as one of the most popular stories in their school reader. It was later removed as a group of concerned and meddlesome mothers objected to it, but the story itself lived on, and appeared in other printed and illustrated editions.

What an unexpected life the tale of the Hobyahs took on! For all we know it may have been only a tale of household bogies among the Allison family (from Scotland) living in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, codified into print from the memories of a neighbor-boy decades later, and now it is acclaimed and recognized as an enduring fairy tale in England, the United States, and Australia.

The 1891 publication was less than two pages long.  I copy the story below.