Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Scarlet Dream

In a bazaar, Northwest Smith buys a scarlet scarf with a strange pattern. After going home, he falls asleep and is trapped inside a strange dream of scarlet fields. While there, he consoles a distraught girl whose sister was taken by some Thing, which will come to take them both, one by one. Under this ever present threat, the two grow closer, until Northwest Smith can no longer endure the dread.

This time it wasn't even Northwest Smith's fault. The smuggler had the bad luck to buy the wrong shawl. For that, he gets whisked away to a dream world that is closer to a living coral reef than a grassland. I did expect that one of the inhabitants of the dreamworld would vanish when it was feeding time for the rest, as blood is the only meal, but I never noticed it. Also, while this is yet another poisoned garden, complete with love interest and the escape that kills her there was a sense that this dream was tucked away inside a monster's digestive system, rather than the hunting ground for a predator.

If there is one complaint to the Northwest Smith tales in the collection, it's that for all talk of the inseparable Northwest Smith and Yarol and their swift ship the Maid, we see very little of Yarol and nothing of the Maid.  Fortunately, there are thirteen Northwest Smith tales, two of which deal specifically with their partnership. These are "Dust of Gods" and "Yvala", and can be found in Northwest Smith.

As a final note, for those who would read more of Moore, take a good close look at the contents of any of the new ebooks out there before you buy. Not only are "Shambleau" and "Black God's Kiss" frequent reprints throughout all of her books, at least one of her books is sold under two different titles by the same company. On a more cheerful note, make sure you check out the work of her husband, Henry Kuttner. Not only was he an excellent writer in his own right, once thought to be one of the original Big Three of science fiction (alongside van Vogt and Heinlein), the couple often wrote together. Their collaborations are legendary for how well they meshed, with the two of them often unable to tell which partner wrote what. Fortunately, after a long ebook embargo on Kuttner's work, official collections are now available.


Check out the Frisky Pagan's take on "Scarlet Dream" here.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tree of Life

Northwest Smith is dry-gulched in a old temple by patrols. As hunger and thirst start playing with his mind, he see a strange alien girl crying about being lost. He decides to help her, leading her towards a tree mural. She then takes the lead, pulling him into a strange, gray land filled with trees. In the shadows, little people murmur, "beware of Thag..."

Once again, Northwest Smith is alone, once again he is in peril, once again he meets an alien girl, and once again, some thing wants to eat him. What should be formulaic still remains fresh on the strength of the monsters of each story. In this case, Thag is a superdimensional being currently shaped like a tree. It is just as predatory as Shambleau and the Alendar, and it farms its food in a similar manner to the Alendar. But it embodied a different form of malice from the other two.

C. L. Moore loves the Poisoned Garden trope. "Black God's Shadow," "Black Thirst," "Tree of Life," and "Scarlet Dream" each feature their own dangerous garden, complete with hidden perils. This trope has a long history in weird fiction, tracing back to at least 1844 when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Rappaccini's Daughter." In it, a young woman, Beatrice, lives among a poisoned garden, guarded by her father and the poisonous plants. Giovanni falls in love with  her, but succumbs to the plants that have made Beatrice poisonous herself. The antidote he made to free her from the poisons of the garden instead kill her. (The text can be found here.) While "Black Thirst" is the purest example of Hawthorne's influence on Moore's storytelling, as it follows the same beats, the influence of the poisoned garden pervades her settings as a key element to the eeriness of her works.

All in all, "Tree of Life" was a solid story, even if Northwest Smith should be locked in a monastery for his own safety.

Check out the Frisky Pagan's take here.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Far Reach of C. L. Moore

Pulp fiction was not just a phenomenon isolated to the 1930s Chicago publishers that C. L. Moore wrote for. The idea of cheap paper magazines spread worldwide, living on in such countries as Germany and Japan. These writers often pay homage to their forebears, hiding references in their works. While we strive to keep C. L. Moore's memory alive in America, she has been recently celebrated in Japan, with references to her works included in two classic space operas

In 2006, Haratoshi Fuuki wrote the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn series of light novels (Japanese YA pulps).  The story "In the Depths of a Gravity Well" featured a monstrous red mecha called the Shamblo, piloted by a female pilot and equipped with psychic projectors. The Shamblo's fate is the same as Shambleau's: incineration. An anime adaptation was televised in 2010.

Shamblo, Shamblo!

In 2012, studios AIC and Xebec remade the classic Space Battleship Yamato anime series (Star Blazers in the US) with Space Battleship Yamato 2199. In it, the crew of the Yamato encounters a psychic race known as Jirel aboard the space ark Shambleau. Per the Yamato Secret Files #03:
The Jirellians are an exceptionally talented race who can read people’s minds, but are now on the verge of extinction. When the two Jirellian girls Miezela Celestella and Mirenel Link were rescued by Garmillas President Dessler, it was thought that they were the only two left. However, when their mother planet was destroyed, Lerelai led a handful of survivors on a pilgrimage to Shambleau, which allowed them to avoid extinction.
The Jirellians of Yamato 2199 bear little resemblance to Jirel of Joiry, but the homage paid to C. L. Moore is evident. 

More about Moore.

In the anthology of C. L. Moore's short stories I'm reading —and now that I think about it, I suspect it is not the same book the other Puppy contributors are using— there are still more tales about Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith. And although I believe Shambleau proper and The Black God's Kiss are the best, the others still deserve a few words.


In Black God's Shadow, Jirel of Joiry finishes the job she had started in the previous story, but this times it's, well, it's still personal, but now even more since there are few thing more personal than guilt (even more than revenge, I'd say.) The Black God's Kiss ended with Jirel killing Guillaume with a cursed kiss, and then grieving over the realization of what she had done. Now, in the second story, she has apparently recovered her castle and is, once again, a proud feudal (or something like that) lady. Unfortunately, sleep eludes her, and she is haunted by a hellish voice which she recognizes as Guillaume's. He is in pain and suffering, doomed to be tortured in that infernal domain to which Jirel unwittingly sent him. Her revenge has turned its ugly head, and now she is cursed by Guillaume's ghost and her own guilt. 

The solution is obvious. Drink yourself into a stupor? Nah, this is a pulp story after all! The answer is to go back to hell and free Guillaume's soul. To accomplish that, Jirel of Joiry must descend once again through the slithery dark tunnels until she arrives at that strange land where darkness is safety, and sunlight is torture.

Like other Moore stories, there isn't much action or typical swashbuckling elements here, at least in their traditional shapes. The garments and "tropes" are there, but her focus is on her evocative language, the psychological descriptions, and mental contests. Personally, I think she still manages to pull off an interesting and disturbing alien landscape, but the (three?) "mental fights" in which she engages bored me a bit. That is a problem with these overly abstract or intellectual descriptions of incomprehensible horrors; they can become so abstracted they fly away, and so incomprehensible they actually don't scare at all.

In any event, Jirel resists the soul-devouring attacks of the Black God, and manages to free Guillaume and, also, herself.


I quickly noticed that all of Northwest stories I have read follow the same pattern: Northwest Smith, with a woman being involved somehow —possibly following her— falls into a dreamlike (nightmare-like, usually) world, where he must battle a hellish creature which disguises itself as a human (or a tree, as in The Tree of Life.) This fight is a psychological attack which tests his Will Saving Throw, and when he finally manages (through force of will, anger,  stubbornness, or a little philosophical introspection) to resist the creature's psychic mind-rape, he pulls his trusted ray-gun and sends the demon back to its original dimension. Shambleau deviates a bit from that formula since it is his friend who shoots the creature, but the basic structure is similar.

Black Thirst is no exception although this story never leaves Earth, well, Mars. As usual, Northwest Smith follows the trail of a woman in peril and ends up entering the walled and mysterious fortress of the Minga, an exotic (orientalist, a more modern reader would say) castle-city that evokes all those legends about the forbidden cities and harems of the East. To the rest of the world, it is a place of mystery and the source of the most beautiful princesses and concubines. The woman that hires him is, in fact, one of those maids, and she explains to him, in obvious distress, that she saw the face of her master, the creator of those women. For that crime, she believes, she will be punished with something worse that death, like many other women who also end up disappearing and never heard of again. 

In this story, the Creature is the master of the Minga, an antediluvian monster which is, as usual,  only human in appearance. Curiously, this one tests Smith with an extreme form of Stendhal Syndrome, showing him women beautiful beyond comprehension —the final one barely had a body since it was almost a spirit of light. Those women are the secret creation of their master, cattle used to satisfy its black thirst for beauty. However, the creature has grown tired of always devouring the same perfection, and it realizes that the masculine, aggressive, and rough beauty of Northwest Smith is also appetizing (obviously, this story was written by a woman.) And this is where the psychic battle happens.

This story is also notable because it dabbles a bit in aesthetics, with that traditional observation concerning the uselessness of beauty: that something is beautiful not in spite of that uselessness but because of it. Something that Moore also uses to throw a few punches at, well, I think it's obvious at who:

"You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women... the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else."


The Tree of Life pits Northwest Smith against an interdimensional, all-devouring, transmogrified tree (yes, a tree) which I like to imagine as the child of Shub-Nigurath from the Quake video game and the Sleepy Hollow tree.

As with his other encounters with extradimensional entities, Northwest Smith's brain falls victims to some form of psychic attack. In this case, a charm-like spell that compels him to saunter towards the tree and accept its embrace (and then be eaten* alive, body, soul, and all.) From all the soul-swallowing creatures Moore created, this seems one of the most effective and well-crafted. 

*Disintegrated, actually. 


Something tells me that if Moore were alive today, as a twenty-something-year-old woman, she'd probably be in her gothic phase. I can't really put my finger on it, but it may be the psychosexual imagery, the constant vampirism, that feeling dread and damnation her stories exude, her constant use of metaphors to describe mental and spiritual anguish, or perhaps that THERE ARE BLOODSUCKING GRASS AND A TEMPLE WITH BLOOD-GUSHING SPIGOTS, WHICH ARE THE ONLY SOURCE OF FOOD IN THIS STORY. Also, as a side note, all the women (with the exception of Jirel, of course) that appear in these stories die.

In this story, Northwest Smith finds himself in a dream-like world where the grass eats you and the only food to eat is blood. Ignoring the creepiness of the whole thing and the fact that the few inhabitants of that world are terrified of some unknown menace, the place is pleasant enough, almost Edenic. In fact, our hero decides to face the creature, not because of anger, a desire to rescue someone, or survival instinct but out of boredom.

I think that in this short story the Monster seems to be almost an afterthought, as if Moore had realized she needed a creature or menace only after she had thought the whole thing. It is, in fact, quite a pathetic enemy but fighting was clearly not this story's purpose, so that's understandable.

In conclusion, I still believe that Shambleau is the crown jewel of this anthology. The other stories are also well-made, and certainly unique, but they don't get close to that one.


I'd also like to give my opinion on why I believe Shambleau succeeds where the other stories fall (short); and since I think there are many writers or aspiring writers reading this blog, perhaps this may help some of them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, first one must understand what writing (especially fiction) is all about. It's about manipulation or, if you don't like that word, evocation. The writer and its creation have to compete with all the other stimuli that could draw the reader's attention away from the book, which means anything at all, from television to his own imagination and musings.  And they can accomplish that only through words, whose work is to push specific semantic buttons inside the reader's mind. That includes everything that exists inside his head, with around 20 000 to 50 000 words, thousands of mental images and memories, an encyclopedia of previous works they have read/watched, and, of course, the whole range of human emotions, personalities, and mindsets.

Now, if you grab someone's attention is because you are provoking a reaction in them (probably emotional and visceral.) You certainly wouldn't listen to music that leaves you cold, right? The same with books and stories. So, if there is attention, there will be interest, and people will remember your story since memory is mostly a function of attention and interest. For example, I remember a lot about Shambleau, but not so much about the Black Thirst, even though it was the last story I read. For the same reasons, I suspect I will remember my mental picture of the Shambleau, bathed in moonlight, showing her true nature and slowly locking back over her shoulder, for a long, long time.

Not all minds are alike, and what works for one may not work for others, but I think Shambleau accomplishes its purpose. But why? Because it appeals to a very primal, or even primitive side of us, and then it attacks us by transforming it into a horror that, even if apparently "alien" and beyond comprehension, is still concrete and down-to-earth. Some parts of the description of the Shambleau could have worked for an erotic novel, and on top of that then Moore added a monstrosity and horrors which could only appear in a fantasy setting. But even if the whole thing is fantastic, the foundation is still human, unlike in the other stories, where the horrors are too alien.

I think the other stories don't achieve that feat because they lack that visceral, all-to-human foundation. The horrors they describe are too abstract and depend too much on a game of stacking metaphors in an attempt to describe an indescribable horror. They are mental horrors but, unfortunately, you cannot describe a mental horror; you have to show how the victim reacts and feels that fear. And because in Shambleau that is achieved through the contrast between sensuality and paralyzing terror, it works. That story could, in fact, be a perfect example of that "show, don't tell" thing everybody keeps talking about. 

Also, I can't finish this piece without mentioning that if there is something that Moore does is to shatter the belief that the Pulps were formulaic, a boys club, or unimaginative" Without even trying, they were more diverse and varied than today's fantasy. Did they write about barbarian warriors killing everything that moved? Sometimes, but here you have stories with combat being an apparent afterthought. Did they have damsels in distress? A few, but here you have a warrior lady, the master of her own domain and -to use today's language- a liberated woman, descending into hell to rescue the soul of a man. Did the pulps indulge in mindless hacking? There was something of that -but quite less than in contemporary fiction, I believe- but here you have stories which are tales of psychological terror. Did the pulps lack the imagination of today's genre-bending and trope-subverting writers? Pah! Certainly not, because just in this collection we have a pocket dimension with blood-drinking grass and whose only entrance is the dream-like pattern drawn in a mystic shawl found in the husk of one of the first spaceships; then you can also read about a haunted forest in another dimension, ruled by a demon-tree that is worshipped as the creator of the Universe. Then you can read about a Hell where sunlight is worse than darkness, and a Forbidden City where an entity made of the primordial soup of life engages in a eugenic program to create perfect beauty (and then devour it.) Contemporary writers are still too occupied trying to ape Tolkien while replacing their heroes with tokenized minorities to realize what true creativity and imagination actually mean. Even for all its faults, and a certain formula she seems to follow, Moore showed more creativity in a few stories than modern writers in their whole sagas.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Jeffro Johnson's book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons and Dragons, hit Amazon this week like the fist of an angry God.  It rocketed up the lists to claim the top spot in multiple categories, and has people talking all over the place.  One of those places is a podcast hosted by Declan Finn (aka A Pius Geek), a very Sad Puppy and Dragon Award nominee, and the author of Honor At Stake).  You can hear the whole thing here:

It would be hard to understate how big an impact Jeffro has had on my way of looking at literature.  Jeffro is pretty much the sole reason that Appendix N books are listed in the categories of books chosen by the Puppy of the Month book club, and we've had more than a few of them so far.  It was his advocacy that sold me on the inclusion of Appendix N works, and so in many ways this blog was started as an answer to his call to arms for the true believers and modern day heirs of Howard, Burroughs, and Moore.

So it was extremely gratifying to hear him endorse our little corner of the culture war (at about 1:23:00 in the podcast) when he said, "Those guys are onto something, and if they wanted, they have the talent to go in and put stuff on Amazon in the list of criticism and theory of science fiction...they could just go in and camp out there.  They would have a presence there that I don't think existed before."

That sort of acknowledgement makes it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Black Thirst

Out on the Venusian waterfront, Northwest Smith is approached in secret by one of the fabled Minga women, a sheltered odalisque from a line of legendary beauties. Vaudir wishes to secure Smith's services, an unheard of request from a secretive woman of beauty and virtue. Drawn by curiosity, Smith agrees, and meets Vaudir by the Minga castle's back entrance, risking the wrath of its lord, the Alendar.

By accident, Vaudir had met her lord's eyes, and saw something utterly inhuman within his gaze. Now she fears that she will vanish like so many other Minga girls, and asks Northwest Smith to help her escape. But by telling him about the knowledge that has damned her, Vaudir recognizes that she has likely killed Smith as well. Then the Alendar makes himself known...


C. L. Moore has a tendency towards what today would be derisively called scenery porn. Where a Howard or a Herstrom might sketch a setting in quick, but vivid strokes, Moore instead lingers over the surroundings.  Yet it is not without purpose, as it serves to add to the mood of her stories. The twisted plant life of hell heightened the dread around Jirel in "Black God's Shadow."  Here, the lingering over hall and treasure underscores not only the beauty which the Alendar surrounds himself with, but Vaudir's worry that something wrong hides behind it.

Despite Vaudir's beauty, it is not a pretty face that suckers Northwest Smith into this caper. He demonstrates his resistance to her charms. Instead, it is mystery that lures him in. Minga girls don't normally act like Vaudir - with reason, for spirit has been bred out of them. There is a vacancy in the Minga beauty that allows Northwest to resist, a beauty of form lacking spirit. As Shambleau showed, it was her spirit and mystery that hooked him.

"Black Thirst" was written prior to World War Two, when science fiction and politics still had a fascination with eugenics not yet extinguished by the horrors of the Final Solution. Unlike contemporary science fiction stories like the Lensman series, "Black Thirst" delves into the potential horrors of eugenics, as the idea of humans bred like livestock is considered. But to what end? Where many of her contemporaries portrayed the guiding hand breeding generations of humanity as essentially benevolent, with the aim of improving the species, C. L. Moore instead worries that the breeder has a more sinister end in mind. A prized cow, no matter how exquisite a bloodline, may still end up on the dinner plate. And it is that fate that Vaudir seeks to escape.

This is the second Weird Tale that I've read where a damned soul begs for cremation upon death, so that they might escape their fate. Both of these tales have been vampire stories. In "The Undead Soldier," by Manly Wade Wellman, an unburnt werewolf turned into a vampire because his request was ignored. Here, Vaudir asks for cremation after the Alendar feeds on her. It is uncertain if she would become a new Alendar had Northwest not burned her corpse; she did share the Alendar's memories.

"Back is bare without brother behind it." - For a pair of rogues as allegedly inseparable as Northwest Smith and Yarol were made out to be in "Shamblaeu", Northwest's troubles in this collection always occur when he is alone.

‘There are girls here now, in this building, so much lovelier than I that I am humbled to think of them. No mortal man has ever seen them, except the Alendar, and he— is not wholly mortal. No mortal man will ever see them. They are not for sale. Eventually they will disappear. 
‘But the world never knows of these mysteries. No monarch on any planet known is rich enough to buy the loveliness hidden in the Minga’s innermost rooms. It is not for sale. For countless centuries the Alendars of the Minga have been breeding beauty, in higher and higher degrees, at infinite labour and cost— beauty to be locked in secret chambers, guarded most terribly, so that not even a whisper of it passes the outer walls, beauty that vanishes, suddenly, in a breath— like that! Where? Why? How? No one knows. 
‘And it is that I fear. I have not a fraction of the beauty I speak of, yet a fate like that is written for me— somehow I know. I have looked into the eyes of the Alendar, and— I know. And I am sure that I must look again into those blank black eyes, more deeply, more dreadfully…

Check out Jon's take on "Black Thirst".

Yippe-Ki-Ay, Futurians

Vintage Season reminds me of "Die Hard"
How many times have you seen or read this story?  Time travelers arrive in a time just prior to a world-shaking disaster and either take in the sights or have a goal to accomplish before the end of the world.  It’s a template built to appeal.  The need to wrap everything up before the expected disaster strikes adds a literal deadline that’s no less dramatic, but a little more subtle, than the blinking red numbers of a digital clock ticking down to the detonation of a bomb.

It’s such a natural and accessible framing device for a story it’s hard to know where to begin listing examples.  The film Twelve Monkeys is a classic of the breed.  That most famous of time-travelers, Doctor Who, runs with a variation on the disaster tourist theme at least once every other season. 

It’s such a classic of the genre, it’s a simple matter for those steeped in science-fiction to unravel the mystery of the strangers who arrive on Oliver’s doorstep early in the story.  We smug twenty-first century types might be forgiven for knowing the answer to a mystery we’ve solved a dozen times before, and in the hands of a lesser writer Vintage Season might feel like the most clich├ęd example of the disaster tourist tale.  But Moore manages to pack so much into the story that this first example feels as fresh and unique as it must have the day she first crafted the template.  Aside from the mystery that arises from the story’s native time point-of-view character, Moore packs in a love story, the politics of the squabbling future-folks, and enough hints to fully flesh out the future timeline.  It’s a lot to take in.

One of the natural theories as to the identity of the odd Sancisco family that the reader might develop is that they are aliens.  While that idea is explicitly denied by the Sanciscos themselves, it holds true for a certain understanding of the term, “alien”.  The Sanciscos might be human, but the future is no less a foreign country than the past, and almost everything about the family is alien.  Yes, the trappings are strange and near indecipherable.  The music in the future is cacophonous to the ears of the past. (Speaking as an old man, I can attest to the veracity of that!)  The adult beverages are more potent. Their dress is always Hollywood perfect at all moments.  The decorations glow and shift about in designs strange to the eyes of the past.  But these are all just window dressing.

The Sanciscos themselves look and behave as humans on a holiday, but Moore includes a number of subtle impressions about how strange these folk truly are:

There was a coldness in the man’s voice, as if some gulf lay between him and Oliver, so deep no feeling of human contact could ever bridge it.

Their reactions to everything about them, even something as simple as a salad, the way slovenliness is trained out of them as children, even Kleph’s odd style of flirtatiousness, rings of alien ways of thinking.  Moore is relentless in bombarding the reader with constant allusions and reminders that Oliver’s boarders aren’t just wealthy and strong-willed, they are almost indecipherably different to the point of ominousness.  Hardly a paragraph goes by featuring one of the Sanciscos that doesn’t impress on the reader a feeling of impending but indescribable doom.

Where most works that utilize the Moore template are written from the smug omniscience of the future-folk (the film Millenium notwithstanding), Moore’s decision to write the story from the point of view of the doomed natives gives Vintage Season an impact that’s hard to beat.  Know Vesuvius is about to erupt, or that the Titanic should slow down a little, or that today would be a good day to skip that meeting at the World Trade Center, it becomes just a ticking clock.  When you know something is going to happen at the end of May, but not what, it leaves the mind free to fill in the gaps.  And the fact that time-travelers would choose this one, of all the disasters at their fingertips, only serves to enhance the imagination.  The monster vaguely glimpsed is always worse than the monster clearly shown.

We future folk to Moore’s life in the foreign country of the past have enough exposure to media in its various forms to come to take for granted that as times evolve, the classics of a story-type become imitated so often that the genius behind the originator is often forgotten.  Who can forget the raft of Die Hard on an X, movies that followed in that classic’s wake?  Those pale imitations generally fall short – any imitator who surpasses the original quickly becomes the new standard by which the followers are judged.  That’s simply not the case with Vintage Season.  Moore’s deft touch, expertise with romantic sub-plots, and the breezy sense of impending doom that underlies the story make this an unsurpassed classic.  Vintage Season stands as an example of a story type that is often imitated, but never surpassed.  Just like Die Hard.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fruit of Knowledge

C. L. Moore picks the thread of romance back up with this narrative re-telling of the first chapter of Genesis.  When you want terse prose, you can’t do any better than the bible, and here Moore takes a few short passages and weaves them into a tale of love and betrayal where everybody gets a turn. 

As a child, the story of the Garden of Eden was always one of those tales that felt incomplete to me.  Most bright children ask the obvious questions: “Where did the girl that Cain married come from if Adam and Eve were the first people?” The truly imaginative struggled to put images to the garden beyond a vague, happy place filled with flowering trees and soft, thick grasses.  Here, C. L. Moore takes the unimaginable beauty of paradise and make it imaginable.  Everything from the diffuse light of God’s attention to the chorus of angels, to the sudden and dramatic fall from grace of Adam and Eve gets painted in rich language that helps the reader gain a glimpse of that first chapter of God’s plan for humanity.  And yet, she manages to leave enough unsaid to hint at the greater beauty that lies even beyond the sight of mortal men – men such as the reader.

Her descriptions and characterization of the Serpent in the garden are equally evocative, and while they don’t give the reader a detailed and concrete image of the first fallen angel, they provide enough hints and guides to suggest a terrible dark beauty.

So too with Lillith, who makes for an interesting choice of viewpoint character. As the most knowledgeable of the three members of the very first love triangle, hers in an obvious choice…in retrospect.  And that’s one of the marks of genius.  The mind that can show the world a new idea that anyone could have thought of, but no one did, is looking at the world with a clarity and creativeness that is awesome to behold.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Black God's Shadow

Jirel lays awake at night, haunted by Guillaume. The Black God's Kiss came with a price.  Guillaume is dead, and now Jirel will have no other lover.  In her dreams, she hears his voice begging her to free him.  Compelled by the cries, Jirel arms herself and descends for a third time down the dark passage to hell.  Emerging from a cave, she finds herself lost in the nightmarish land, unable to find the lake where she had once found the black god.  Jirel travels blindly, following a river, until she finds the black god who has taken Guillaume's form.  Three times does Jirel give chase, clashing with the dark god until she forces Guillaume's spirit from first the black god's image, then its shadow, and then, finally its voice.  With Guillaume's spirit finally free to find whatever rest after death he might find, Jirel leaves hell.


I'll be honest, it took me a reread or two to appreciate this story. Not only do I prefer Northwest Smith's adventures to Jirel's, overcoming the current fashion in writing mechanics creates a hurdle as well. Spending so much time in Jirel's thoughts, such as at the beginning of the story, is considered a literary sin as of late, and, like many a maxim, it's one that I absorbed uncritically from other writers. But fashion changes, and, like Kipling's "nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays", what may be out of favor might be right for the story.  As "Black God's Shadow" is a direct sequel to the earlier "Black God's Kiss", C. L. Moore had to reintroduce Jirel and the events of "Kiss" so that readers would understand why Jirel would risk hell once again to free Guillaume's soul.  By presenting this from Jirel's point of view, it explains her motives in a manner less clunky than the encyclopedia-style introduction to "Shambleau".  It's also a reminder to modern readers, such as myself, to put prejudices aside when reading.  Styles change.

Jirel's journey through hell reminds me of Arizona, where even the plants want to kill you.  Her clashes with the dark god are close-run things every time, and Guillaume's soul is gradually pried free from its grasp as Jirel's victories mount.  She is an equal to the dark god, never its superior, and she makes mistakes in the battles that, if the dark god were a little quicker to act on, would have led to her defeat.

The ending could have so easily gone for the fairy tale "let this not have happened" resolution, with Guillaume returning to life and Jirel finding love. Instead, C. L. Moore chose to have Jirel make things right. As a side-effect of the curse that slayed him, Guillaume is prevented from going to his soul's fate by the dark god. Jirel never seeks to undo the choice that slayed Guillaume, but is resolute in undoing the injustice caused by her own hand.

All in all, "Black God's Shadow" might not be my favorite in this collection, but its place as one of the more celebrated tales in C. L. Moore's bibliography is deserved.

And something in Jirel knew warmly that the image of life as a tiny spark flickering out in limitless black was a false one— that without light there can be no darkness— that death and life are interdependent, one upon the other. And that she, armoured in the warmth of her aliveness, was the black god’s equal, and a worthy foe. It was an even struggle. She called up the forces of life within her, feeling them hurled against the darkness, beating strongly upon the cold and silence of oblivion.
-"Black God's Shadow", C. L. Moore. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Greater Than Gods

This story of C. L. Moore’s provides a solid indication of why she fell out of style when fantasy and science-fiction was co-opted To Serve Man – in the Twilight Zone sense.  The naked admission that men and women are fundamentally different, desire different things, and follow different paths is anathema to those who both deny the differences between the two sexes while doing everything possible to drive a wedge between the two sexes.  This sort of fiction cannot stand.

It would be a mistake to analyze every C. L. Moore through the lens of, “What does her writing say about those who tried to throw her down the Memory Hole”.  Her writing has a timeless beauty that stands on its own, and indeed, most of the analysis here at the Book Club does just that.  But it would also be a mistake not to point out the rampaging elephant in the room: C. L. Moore’s writing – and specifically stories like Greater Than Gods, had to be downplayed by the Futurists if they had any hope of reshaping the genre one concerned with engineering and its effects on humanity.  Her brazen insistence on writing men of the unashamedly masculine sort and women of the deliciously feminine sort was, and remains, a constant thumb in the eye of those who favor the “men with screwdrivers” style of science fiction.
Blonde versus brunette and he chose brown?
He still chose the wrong woman.
In Greater Than Gods, Moore takes things one step further.  She doesn’t just write about men and women, she writes about the love between men and women, and more importantly about the paternal love of a father for his children.  This is a Sophie’s Choice style story presented with science-fiction trappings.  Note well that though the doctor laments the end result of both of his potential marriages, in each case he spends just as much time agonizing over the direct result his choice will have on one of his all-too-real children.  (Children by proxy, but his love for even these many generation removed descendants strikes him as forcefully as if each was a babe he rocked on his knee.) The fate of the world and humanity is present is important, but he’d burn either future to the ground to save his child – as would any father.

In these modern times when fathers are presented as dundering buffoons – when not presented as an un-necessary afterthought – a story like this shines like a beacon of what we’ve lost.  Clearly C. L. Moore has a greater understanding of fatherhood and true strength of a father’s devotion to his children than anyone working successfully in Hollywood today.

That the Doctor finds a third way, a solution to the conundrum that snuffs out both children on his desk, does not strike one as a cop-out.  In fact, it’s merely the Doctor faced with two doors containing tigers and finding a third door which conceals a woman.  He is a brilliant scientist, so that sort of problem solving is completely within character.  It also allows him a potential future filled with hope and possibly, just possibly, one in which he can spend time with both his daughter and his son.
And really, that may be a sign that Moore understands one of a father’s best weapons against the darkness of the world and the pressure of a future he knows will assault his children all too soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Six Gun Shambleau

One of the common comments online about "Shambleau" is that it is a space western, playing with the tropes of western stories while giving them a raygun reskin.  Because of this, critics have used "Shambleau" to tee off on the treatment of Indians in real life and fiction (see Frisky Pagan's recent skewering of a drunken Indians rant).  Others have postulated an "Ur-Shambleau", a previous draft of a Western turned into the Mars of the final story.  And despite C. L. Moore's own words contradicting them, these claims remain pernicious.

At first blush, these critics have a superficial case to make.  Earth's most recent colony, Lakkdarol, is a frontier village dependent upon a long lifeline to civilization.  The Martian landscape does summon images similar to the deserts around Tombstone and the prairies of the Great Plains.  A conflict exists between the townspeople and a brown skinned indigenous savage, which prompts the traveling Northwest Smith to intervene. Add rayguns, leather, and a line in the sand spot reminiscent of the Alamo, and it is easy to leap to the conclusion.  However, closer examinations of western tropes, such as those found in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, by John G. Cawelti, reveal the flaws in the space western conclusion.

In a Western, when there is conflict between the town and the savage (either outlaw or alien), the savage threatens the town's way of life, and the hero is required to settle the conflict.  However, it is Shambleau who is threatened by the town, and Northwest Smith needs rescue from another. She does represent a potential threat, but the townies showed that they could drive her off. Northwest Smith's intervention does not settle the conflict between the town and the Gorgon, rather he interferes with their attempts to rid the town of a monster. Rather than focusing on how Shambleau affects the life of the townspeople, "Shambleau" is about the seduction and destruction of Northwest Smith, conveniently averted by Yarol. The confrontation between the townsmen and Smith serves to set the hook of Northwest's attraction to Shambleau, not to stage further conflict between Shambleau and the town. 

The elements for a western might be present, but they are not used in the same way as a western. Just as beef and potatoes can be turned into either steak with a baked potato or stew, the elements instead are used to tell another type of story with Shambleau.

Instead of an "ur-Shambleau" western, C. L. Moore stated her inspiration for Shambleau came from a poem, probably written by Victorian poet William Morris,
The red, running figure in the poem had been a young witch pursued by soldiers and townspeople in some medieval village. In my story they had perfectly sensible reasons for killing her as soon as possible. 
Moore, C.L.. The Best of C.L. Moore (Kindle Locations 5345-5346). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition. 
The seed of "Shambleau" came from the romantic and Victorian eras, by literary movements that gave the world Frankenstein and Dracula.  The earliest of these works predate Western fiction by more than a full century. And the connection shows in the story. The Martian mob chasing Shambleau would not have been out of place next to the pitchforks and torches of Universal monster movies. And Shambleau is not an indigene confronted by civilization, but a Gorgon and an outright monster from myth.  Strip away the rayguns, and the story could have taken place in the same medieval village that Morris's red witch ran through. It is unfortunate that the jump to label "Shambleau" as a space western shrouds its ties to Romantic literature.

Pooka Approved

The Puppy of the Month Book Club has earned a place on the Sad Pooka's Hugo Nomination Slate.  That's right, it's a slate and dang proud of it.

In the category of Best Fanzine it shares space with the inestimable Castalia House blog.  All three Contributors made the list for Best Fan Writer, along with Six of Five Award winner Jeffro Johnson and Hooc Ott, who really deserves an award for his 2016 Twitter posts alone. 

It's up to you, dear reader, you have the power to end Pooka related sadness.

February's Puppy of the Month Book: Swords against Death, by Fritz Leiber

The loss of your first true love and being cursed by their ghosts. Of a gigantic treasure trove rumored to be unguarded but surrounded by unknown dangers. Of thieves and stealing houses. Of the Mingol horde, sunken lands, seven black priests, and the mysterious wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, and how to become their servants. All of that and a lot of treasure, jewels, and adventure is what we will find in February thanks to Swords against Death, by Fritz Leiber, a classic of the sword & sorcery genre. 

This Appendix N classic, a template for what years later would become D&D, is the second collection of short stories about the adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, but it includes some of the earliest written stories about them.

You can buy the kindle version here at Amazon, but if you can get your hands on the First Book of Lankhmar, from the Fantasy Masterworks collection, that's also an excellent option (it includes the first four books, Swords against Deviltry, Death, Mist, and Wizardry.) 

Welcome to Lankhmar.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A comment concerning Shambleau and drunken Indians.

If the previous C. L. Moore's story (even if good) did not leave me a great impression because, unfortunately, I was constantly comparing it with R.E. Howard's Worms of the Earth, I can now say that Shambleau has become one of my favorite short stories I have ever read. And I have to take back what I said about her being in her "learning phase" because Shambleau was Moore's first story, and if this is what being an apprentice looks like, I can't imagine what being a master may look like.

The story is certainly not perfect. The ending, for example, suffers from unnecessary exposition through dialogue, which breaks the flow and intense mood the story had created, and the beginning may be a little confusing as it relies on Northwest Smith apparently suffering from a sudden attack of dimwittedness because he forgets to ask some basic questions. Still, nothing really egregious, and the core of the story, its real meat, is still great.

I do not know what creative spirit possessed Moore when she wrote this story, but it did a great job. This is one of a kind story, and it's easy to understand why it caused quite a stir when it was first published. Especially because it has quite an unassuming and minimalistic plot, and when people talk about how something needs to "grow up," Shambleau is close to what that expression should actually mean. In any event, there is no great quest or evil to vanquish. No great nation depends on the resolution of the story. It's just the soul of a man at stake. 

There is barely any action, and the monster isn't even that unique. Although alien or even infernal traits are hinted, it is just a medusa. Perhaps all those D&D concepts have spoiled me, but the core of the story would be just a failed saving throw against a creature that, compared to other titanic Lovecraftian abominations, is quite humble. And concerning Lovecraft... many of his creatures, which were an attempt to create a new type of horror and fear different from the classic monsters (which, ironically, probably includes the medusa,) have been so much overused that now you can actually make comic parodies of them. However, I challenge anyone to make a pastiche of Shambleau

At first, I wanted to link to other interesting places that discussed this short story. But then I realized, what better way to celebrate a story about soul-sucking, mind-warping, psychosexual feral vampires than to see what other soul-sucking and mind-warping people are saying about it? Because, you see, C. L. Moore had the misfortunate of having being born a woman, which means that while the rest of us men can enjoy in relative calmness (barring the occasional razzia from the Kommentariat)  our crappy gung-ho pulp stories and the sexist profits they accrue, Moore (like any woman with a modicum of skill) has to suffer the indignities of being an object of analysis by an army of intellectual ghouls (the Patriarchy wins again!)

Oh, you know very well the creatures I am referring to. You are reading an entertaining pulp yarn, or perhaps following an internet debate concerning some pop culture nonsense, when one head of the nefarious hydra darts out and hisses "problematic!" You cut the thing down, but it's useless, as two more spawn from the chopped neck, and they both start yelling "colonial narrative!" to you. Did you know, for example, that the Martian dustlands and their scruffy inhabitants are, in fact, a representation of the Old West and the underclass of drunken Indians? It's true:

"The setting of the story on the Martian frontier, of course, is an instance of the common science-fictional trope of relocating narratives of the American “old West” on other worlds. The dissipated “dryland Martian” (7) whom Smith and the Shambleau encounter on the way to his quarters is an obvious echo of innumerable “drunken Indians” familiar from Western films. In such a context, the smuggler Smith corresponds to the heroic loner cowboy, in this case accompanied (and ultimately saved) by his less interesting, less masculine sidekick (recall that Yarol is from Venus)."

And did you know that the relationship between Yarol and Smith is a "homosocial bond between Smith and Yarol [that] replaces and supplants the (hetero)sexual bond between Smith and the Shambleau (a process which here insists upon the death of the woman in question)"?

"No, no more, please! We get it, but no more!" I can hear some of you scream. Ah, but I am afraid I must still quote more from the esteemed professor, so you can finally understand the nature of the creature we are dealing with.

For example, you may think that C. L. Moore was appreciated because she was a great writer who wrote unique and good stories, as this anecdote mentioned by Lester del Rey shows:

"I sat in the audience at a World Science Fiction Convention banquet, listening to Forrest J. Ackerman announce a special award that was about to be presented to a writer. As is customary, Ackerman was saving the name of the recipient for the climax. But he mentioned a story called “Shambleau” and never got to finish his speech. As one, the 2,000 people in the audience came instantly to their feet in unanimous tribute—clapping, shouting, and craning their neck to see a gracious and lovely lady blushingly accept the applause. (ix)"

But you'd be wrong because you are an unsophisticated thinker. This is what Bredehoft says:

"Upon a first reading, del Rey’s anecdote seems simple, direct, effective.
[But nothing here is as it seems!]
"But a closer examination reveals a number of illuminating parallels to the situation described in the first scene of “Shambleau” itself. The image of a shouting, clamorous crowd which is brought to life by the single word “Shambleau” and which eagerly directs its gaze towards the (presumably redly) blushing figure of a woman calls to mind the mob pursuing the red-clad woman of “Shambleau” in the story’s first narrative paragraph"

Keep reading:

"Consider also del Rey’s comments about Moore’s story “Bright Illusion,” published a year after “Shambleau,” in 1934:

Now in those days, as countless letters to the editor indicated, the one thing readers of science-fiction magazines did not want was a love story. Yet here was a tale of the pure quintessence of love that transcended all limits! Nevertheless, the readers raved about it and clamored for more. (x)"

Just another example of how much appreciated she was? Not at all!

"Again, the raving and clamoring readers are disturbingly [my emphasis] reminiscent of both the WorldCon audience and the Lakkdarol mob. Superficially, del Rey’s introduction reveals his respect for Moore as a writer, but insofar as the textual parallels between his introduction and “Shambleau” serve to establish a parallel between Moore and her creation, he repeatedly casts the writer as a sort of monster, the agent of a Fall.

"The publication of “Shambleau,” del Rey’s essay suggests, rewrites, reconfigures, and “retools” the largely masculine sf world. Moore (the female writer, the female sf author) is implicitly figured as being parallel to the Shambleau, both appealing and repellent, monstrously so."

Yes, she may have received a standing ovation, but that is only because they were, in fact, reenacting the lynching of Shambleau, the monster that threatened the homobonding dynamics of science fiction, uh... of the Martian frontier! It is all so obvious now. 

And what about her pen-name or the name of the protagonists? You may believe this sentence in Moore's afterword in The Best of C.L. Moore is clear and straightforward: "Brace yourself for some rather dull but necessary background: My name was Catherine Moore and I lived in a large midwestern city and the Depression of the 1930s was rampant over the land."

But that is just another sign of how unrefined and anti-intellectual your minds are. This is what the wise academic says about this short biography:

"Although she offers no explicit comment upon it, Moore’s first move here functions to remind us that her name was Catherine, a name which is explicitly gendered in a way that her pen-name was not. Her “self-fashioning” as a science-fiction writer clearly involved a re-gendering (or de-gendering) of her name."

And what about Yarol? Just an anagram of the typewriter she used at the bank where she worked?

“His name was Yarol, and I cannot conceal from you that it is an anagram from the letters in the name of the typewriter I was using” 

A silly or perhaps anecdote? Of course not!

"These details, as Moore knows, are crucial. She “cannot conceal” the origins of Yarol’s name not because it is obvious (it is not, unless we know in advance what sort of typewriter Moore used) [note: deep stuff!], but perhaps because she dares not conceal it. It seems reasonable, at least, to suspect that understanding Yarol and his genesis in the workplace is important for understanding “Shambleau.
"But Yarol, as Moore “cannot conceal,” embodies the link between the masculine community within the story and the masculine discourse outside of the story which attempts to define Moore herself as a reproducer of texts [my comment: because she worked as a a typewriter, a typically gendered job in a system of patriarchal domination.] His (and the mob’s) reliance on the dream of a perfect language is obvious—Yarol’s alter ego, the typewriter, is by definition a machine which writes in ‘type,’ a kind of linguistic sign system supposedly without variation on the literal level. Thus, within the story, Yarol’s mastery of the word “Shambleau” and his ultimate control over her fate tellingly correspond to the typewriter’s impossible promise of controlled textual and linguistic (re)production—and the control of Moore the secretary as a reproducer of controlled texts. Moore’s appropriation of the typewriter exposes the impossibility of that dream of control as surely as Smith’s wavering promise to Yarol exposes his own incomplete integration into (or submission to) the mob’s linguistic [note: and masculine] community."

The meaning of that is so obvious and simple I don't think it needs elucidation.

Still, for those who do not speak academese, I will write a recap: The meaning of Shambleau is not unlike the underlying question of textual analysis, "what is the meaning of a text?" "Anything" say the professors because, otherwise, they'd be out of a job, but The martian mob, like Moore's employers, believe in objective and controlled meaning, in what the word Shambleau "actually" means (i.e. soul-sucking space medusa) and that the job of a typist is just that of a reproducer of texts. Both are masculine cultures that believe in the direct and objective transmission of meaning and cultural values. Shambleau (the creature,) like Moore, is a hybrid or aberration that defies a dominant culture and exposes the impossibility of control over meaning. And all the praises and commendations for Moore are, in fact, a reenactment of Shambleau's lynching, but the effect Shambleau has on Northwest Smith is similar to the effect Moore's story had on sf, as we cannot go back to the traditional masculine linguistic community of sf anymore. Also, the lynching mob are drunken Indians, or somthing.


Now, after reading all of this, do you feel somewhat dead inside, bewildered, devoid of energy but, at the same time, you feel a masochistic urge to keep reading and suffer even more? Well, now you know how Northwest Smith felt after three days with Shambleau.

Remember, kids, Literature and Gender Studies, not even once.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Thoughts on Shambleau

While walking through the streets of a Mars colony, Northwest Smith collides with a young woman in scarlet - and the mob baying for her blood.  After dispersing the crowd with his heatgun pistol, Northwest takes her to his home at her suggestion.  He is fond of the alien woman, who keeps her hair under wraps.  But when he goes to kiss her, a tendril of scarlet coil writhes free from her turban...

I picked C. L. Moore for this month's Puppy author on the strength of "Shambleau" alone, before reading the rest of Northwest Smith's adventures.  I have rarely read a debut story so evocative at the adventure and the emotional level, almost as if the Shambleau were hypnotizing from the page. I like that Shambleau plays against modern expectations of pulp seductresses.  The expectation is a fallen and worldly woman, perhaps a gun moll in red.  Instead, while Shambleau is certainly in scarlet, she is outwardly the sort of demure girl that a hero is supposed to protect.  Certainly, there is no mystery as to her Gorgon-like nature since the somewhat superfluous prelude clues us into the fact that this is a monster tale.  Unbeknownst, Northwest Smith has clutched a viper to his chest, and the drama of the story hinges on whether or not he will realize his danger. (Of course not.) Fortunately, Northwest has a crewmate, Yarol, who keeps an eye on him.

When Women Were Women...

"Shambleau" and Jirel of Joiry are antitheses of the pedistalization of women in science fiction.  Both men and women are guilty.  On the male side, there's outright porn, moe - a kind of emotional porn, and a hundred different "pinup" characterizations, from princess to gadget girl, who are always pretty and quick to bed. The female side tends to write men with breasts - gender-flipped reskins of male power fantasies, the now standard fantasy where social mores no longer apply to women, and, worst of all, women created the Mary Sue, the despised trope where an author avatar around which stories and entire series revolve. Both sexes write women to match an ideal, rather than as individual, human characters.  And under that tide, flaws and foibles are swept away, leaving bland characters that are easily forgettable.

Written by a pedestal writer, Jirel would have never been captured in the first place, and never would have gone down to hell in search of the Black God's Kiss.  Shambleau's emotional vampirism would have been downplayed, and the crowd revealed to be prejudiced towards a misunderstood creature.  But the plot of Jirel's stories lies in her weaknesses driving her choices.  And Shambleau is an anglerfish, a pretty and demure morsel dangling in front of a monstrous appetite. Like colored diamonds, it is the flaws that bring value to these characters, and thus to their stories.

This is not to say that Moore falls into the trap of women being weak or inherently evil.  As mentioned in an earlier post, both Jirel and Shambleau are fantasies themselves.  However, Moore allows her characters to have their own motives and desires, regardless of the good or evil those will inflict.  In doing so, she allows her women to be women, complete with strengths, weaknesses, motives, and the ability to make mistakes*, instead of quirky pinups and Mary Sues.

*And by mistakes, I mean diving headfirst into horrific soul-damning blunders.  C. L. Moore wrote for Weird Tales, after all.

Northwest Smith: Malcolm Han Dumarest of Mars

When selling Shambleau as this month's Puppy pick, I originally explained Northwest Smith in terms of Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds. The comparison still holds, as Northwest Smith, Yarol, and their swift ship Maid do form a proto-Han, Chewie, and Falcon dynamic, albeit one hinted at here.  That said, after rereading "Shambleau", I think E. C. Tubb's Earl Dumarest is a closer match.  While Solo and Reynolds are pulp heroes in space opera, Dumarest's adventures carry him through worlds and societies alien to our own - as opposed to the paint job that Star Wars and Firefly place on the familiar.  And Dumarest, like Northwest Smith, is a sucker for the ladies.  Not necessarily in the bed-hopping found often throughout science fiction, but a romantic that's a little too eager to commit to a pretty face.

There is a recent tendency, post-Firefly, to bundle the adventures of all four men into the space-western label.  I remain unconvinced at this time, as the critics opine a western origin for Northwest Smith that I have yet been able to source.  Perhaps it is time to open up my copy of The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel and test one of Northwest Smith's adventures against the western's tropes in a future post.

 C. L. Moore on writing "Shambleau" 
I couldn’t let my character Shambleau go on running forever, could I? I had the whole scene in hand now— medieval setting, red, running figure, pursuing soldiers and citizens. But then what? 
Obviously she was going to need help— also a foil to set her off effectively and to give the story a shape it didn’t yet have. So Northwest Smith strolled onstage without even a glance my way, perfectly sure of what he was going to do about this. (Northwest Smith? Well, once I had typed a letter to an N. W. Smith, and the name lingered tantalizingly in my mind, waiting for this moment. What would a man named Northwest Smith look like? Be like? Occupy himself with? I soon found out.) 
To complete the triumvirate of lead characters to whom my typewriter introduced me that day long ago, a companion and foil for Smith slouched carelessly into view, thirsting for drink and women. His name was Yarol, and I cannot conceal from you that it is an anagram from the letters in the name of the typewriter I was using. But I like it anyhow.

Here we return to my conviction that you must read enough, enjoy it enough, to absorb unconsciously the structure of the fiction you like best. In this case Shambleau needed help urgently. There wasn’t any yet. The story required a backbone strong enough to support the plot, and Northwest Smith arrived on cue. For contrast with the seemingly helpless fugitive, “Shambleau” needed a strong, tall, romantically steely-eyed male. I think it was along about here my mind got devious and I realized that after his use as a defender was over she might just possibly spring her trap and destroy him. You will note that this gave my still unfledged plot a way to go after the rescue.
So Smith himself was going to need help. Preferably from someone as antithetical to Smith as Smith was to Shambleau. (Who needs two Northwest Smiths?)
Therefore, Yarol. 
And that’s how it all began.
-C. L. Moore, "Afterward: Footnotes to Shambleau...and Others", The Best of C. L. Moore 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Black God's Kiss and Tryst In Time

Four stories in, and I've got to admit that C. L. Moore just doesn't turn my crank.


And it's a big one.  The more of her work I read, the more I realize that she truly is a forgotten treasure whose face should be carved far higher on the sci-fi totem pole than it currently rests.  Writers like Heinlein, Le Guin, and Campbell stand on her shoulders.  They were treading old ground that she blazed like a pioneer.  Her works in this collection so far have read more like romances seamlessly braided together with weird fiction and either sci-fi or fantasy.  She takes those disparate elements and weaves them together to make a whole that was unlike anything that came before, and that remain unlike anything I've ever read.

And I've read a few "Supernatural Romances".  They are dishwater compared to what Moore writes.  The supernatural romances are little more than teen-age bodice rippers with a light veneer of paranormal slathered on, and they generally feature broken people trading idiot balls and lamenting their love that could never be, and that's when they have coherent characters behaving like real people.

One of the all time greats.
C. L. Moore in just four stories has shown a deeper understanding of people, what motivates them, and how their emotions lead them to make tragic mistakes that fit who they are rather than mistakes shoe-horned into the story to make the plot work.  Jirel's mistaking her passion for Guillame for hatred rather than love and Paul's relentless pursuit of adventure as a cover for his search for a soul-mate are just two examples.  Even her creation and use of the character of Father Gervase shows more understanding of the many shades of love - in this case a priestly love for a member of his flock rather than a romantic love - than you'll find in most modern works.

Which is not to say that I'm a fan of her works.  The heavy, heavy handed use of love and weird, roiling descriptions of psychological fights and struggles are not the sorts of stories that appeal to me.  But just as I can appreciate the power and finesse of a well timed slam dunk even as the sport of basketball holds no interest, or understand my brother's love of the digits and stratagems that go into the game of baseball, so too can I understand the towering achievements of a woman like C. L. Moore in taking the weird fiction and fantasy and scientifiction of her day and crafting an entirely new kind of story by making romance and affection the critical factor in her stories.

It's a shame more people don't read her works, I think they'd be surprised at how well crafted and how original they are even compared to the decades of pale imitations they've spawned.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gender Bending with the Black Gods.

R. E. Howard's Worms of the Earth was published in 1932. C. L. Moore's Black God's Kiss was published in 1934. She was 23. He was 26.

Both were stories written by young writers and, in the case of Moore (or that's my understanding,) her story seems to be part of her young or apprentice phase (in my opinion, Howard was already old when he was born.) Why am I mentioning all of this? Well, because I think the Black God's Kiss would not have existed without the Worms of the Earth. In fact, one could argue Moore's story is a retelling of Howard's short story. Writers of that Weird Pulp era were part of a small circle, so these of influences and borrowings were standard and, sometimes, encouraged. For example, the Worms of the Earth borrows heavily from H. P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos.

Both stories begin with the protagonist, the ruler of a nation, witnessing an evil against their people at the hands of invaders (actual or potential.) In Black God's Kiss, Jirel of Joiry is captured and humiliated by Guillaume, who also captured her castle and, it is assumed, her lands. In R. E. Howard's story, the Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn, is forced to watch the crucifixion of a fellow Pict, an execution ordered by the cruel Roman governor Titus Sulla.

In both stories, the protagonists swear revenge against a villain that is beyond their grasp. To accomplish their impossible goals, they need a demonic or monstrous tool. The tribal king wants the help of "The Worms," ancient Lovecraftian creatures one of his ancestors had banished a long time ago from the surface of the Earth. Jirel goes down to an almost literal Hell to seek something she suspects it is there and that will help her get her revenge. And in both cases, the protagonists are told that they are playing with dark forces and that no mortal enemy deserves to die at the hands of Them (or It.) Again, both of them descend to a Hell-like landscape to get the help/tool they need. Morn needs to steal the Worm's Black Idol, which will allow him to blackmail the creatures and force them to kidnap Titus Sulla in exchange for the idol. Jirel, on the other hand, "steals" a kiss from a Black Idol.

The descent to Hell is, in both stories, so similar I can imagine C. L. Moore reading that story and, during that scene, realizing she had to write a story like that one. In both stories, the protagonist descends through serpentine and claustrophobic (a feeling masterfully evoked in Howard's story) tunnels, passages that were clearly not made for humans. Both places speak of an ancient and alien evil, and both lead to a hell-like domain. Whereas in Howard's version, it is a purely terrestrial place (although psychologically speaking it is not,) Moore uses that descend to create a Dantesque extraterrestrial landscape where half the story occurs.

Once the protagonists got what they wanted, they return to the surface, only to realize they made a pact with a devil. Morn discovers the destruction the Worms have caused, and when they give him what he wanted (the Roman governor, his mind now completely broken,) he understands that not even a Roman deserves that fate. At the same time, Jirel realizes too late the true nature of her feelings for Guillaume, but to save herself she has to kiss him, an action that destroys the body and mind of Guillaume, not unlike what happened to Titus Sulla.

Comparing Moore's story to Howard's may be a bit unfair. Worms of the Earth may easily be one of his best tales, and it has a strength and power that you almost never see even in the sword & sorcery genre. Still, I simply could not have passed over their similarities. And differences.

Even if I did not know that the C. in C. L. Moore means Catherine, I think I would have deduced the author was a woman after reading The Black God's Kiss. I am not saying it in a negative way, by the way, but this is clearly a woman's story. The probability that any men would have written this story, although not 0, is nonetheless small. In fact, at least in our contemporary cultural and critical landscapes, if any man had tried to write this, he'd probably had suffered the wrath of the Cultural Police. 

That is, by the way, what true diversity means; it means tales written by different minds, not the same characters and plots under differently colored or gendered garments. It is not the quota-driven attempts at representation, mandated by studies of current demographic targets, where skin, genders, and identities can be swapped like someone swaps dresses, but the deep-seated, mostly invisible and hidden drives that distinguish the fantasies of a man from those of a woman (or those between people with widely different personalities, for that matter.) You simply cannot change the sex of Jirel and Guillaume and assume the story is still the same or that it still would make sense. 

But if this had happened recently, if an author had written a fantasy classic and someone had tried to do a gender-bending version of it, that is exactly what would have happened. The barbarian warrior would have been changed for a barbarian princess, but her psyche, motivations, fears, and desires would still be masculine. Or worse, Jirel of Joiry would become Jirolio of Joiry, and then we'd have to try not to laugh ourselves to death at the thought of that powerful warrior giving the kiss of death to the conquering amazon he loves but hates at the same time because she had tried to humiliate him with a forced kiss.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Random Thoughts on The Bright Illusion

In lieu of one long specific analysis of this work, here’s a short list of my thoughts on The Bright Illusion:
  1. It’s a shame that the 1930’s didn’t have a genre magazine specifically for Weird Romance, because that would have been a natural fit for C. L. Moore.  The Bright Illusion is the third tale in the C. L. Moore collection (that I’m reading from), and it is the third tale to revolve around a whirlwind romance that is doomed from the start.  In the first two Northwest Smith allows himself to be seduced into dangerous situations by aliens to which even Captain Kirk would have succumbed?  This third tale breaks that mold by pushing Dixon into the role of deicidal assassin who fails to strike at the opportune moment by the fear that his actions will forever bar him from being with his one (eyed) true love.
  2. This is also the third story to incorporate ancient and otherworldly evils that we know today as Lovecraftian.  Two elder gods of strange dimensions fighting for control of a city of bizarre angles, tentacle denizens, and impossible colors?  Tell me that doesn’t ring of Lovecraft.  This almost feels like a thumb in Lovecraft’s eye, though.  For one thing, the alien city in The Bright Illusion reads far stranger and yet far more imaginable than any description of R’lyeh.  For another, the final message of the story is that love really does conquer all.  Even enormously powerful and uncaring gods.  Even death.  You won’t find an ending with such strong undercurrents of hope in Lovecraft’s work.
  3. I keep using Lovecraft as a yard-stick, and the more I read of Moore, the more I realize the unfairness of that comparison.  The two were contemporaries, and shared the corner of the Great Conversation marked by what we know today as “Lovecraftian”.  That word comes to us by the happy circumstance of Lovecraft’s name being associated with the RPG “Call of Cthulhu”.  Had that game been less well written, and less well received, it’s a good bet that Lovecraft’s name might have disappeared down the same Memory Hole as Moore.  It isn’t too big a stretch to imagine a world where the term “Moore-ian” was used to describe works like this – all it would have taken was a brilliant mind like Sandy Peterson [CHECK THIS – WHO WROTE CoC] choosing Moore’s universe as an RPG setting over Lovecraft’s.  Chalk another win up for those who argue that RPGs serve as an opening for a cultural flanking attack on the Narrativists.
  4. These days Supernatural Romance represents a significant chunk of book sales with the sparkly vampires of Twilight serving as the classic (and most lucrative) example.  If you want analysis of this kind of work, you’ll have to find another book club to read, because my experience is limited to watching one Twilight movie.  (I make no apologies*.  It was my daughter’s birthday, and even she soured on the material after that snooze-fest.)  It’s a safe bet that The Bright Illusion is weirder than even the most daring Supernatural Romance, though. 
  5. Christendom shines through even in a Weird Horror tale like this, and the tale is better for it.  Even the great god-being IL admits that when it eats the beings who worship it, “The energy which was theirs in life supports me – but something escapes.  I do not know what.  Something too intangible even for me to guess at.  No – I am a god, and even I do not know what comes after death.”  This small escape of some un-knowable essence, which can only be that of a soul, acknowledges that even strange dimensions and weird alien gods are subjects of something greater and all powerful.  That’s an incredibly optimistic undercurrent to this otherwise sad affair, and it keeps the story from descending into the sort of pure, pointless nihilism that marked the man from Arkham.
*  No apologies, only excuses.