Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Shammin' on the Bleau

Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do.  Shambleau, as my introduction to Northwest Smith is pretty much all about the man falling victim to a pretty obvious trap. 

Not that kind of trap - but close.
This trap takes the form of a mental vampire race that may have been the template for the myths and legends of bygone ages.  Over the last fifty years the notion of myths being distorted retellings of actual aliens that visited mankind in days gone by has become something of a cliché.  The BBC’s Doctor Who in particular has used this trope as inspiration for dozens of monsters-of-the-week.  It would take a better historian than I to track down the first example of myths as aliens, but surely Shambleau represents one of the better examples.

Several commentators have suggested that the protagonist, Northwest Smith, serves as a template for the roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold who wants to be a mercenary but just can’t stop himself from righting wrongs.  For me, the jury is still out on that.  This story shows hints and suggestions of Smith’s heroism, but the bulk of his actions consist of finding a dangerous gal flashing literal red “DANGER” signs at every opportunity, and being reeled slowly into the mouth of the beast.

Granted, his introductory scene features him saving a slight girl from a raving mob.  That counts for something.  On the other hand, while presented as a cautious man who has survived countless exploits, his refusal to ask the mob why they wanted the girl is striking in its recklessness. 

This story does, however, make for an excellent introduction for the real hero of the piece – the Venusian, Yarol.  He saves the day in the nick of time, displays courage and cleverness in defeating the space-vixen-vampire, and loyalty to his friend.  Yarol also proves to be the more learned as he fills Northwest in on the common understanding of who and what the Shambleau’s might be.

All that said, Moore displays a great gift for word craft here.  The weak criticism that Northwest might be less than heroic for falling victim to the strange terror of the Shambleau belies the skillful way that Moore describes his seduction.  That seduction in the hands of a lesser writer may have been a mere physical or mental weakness, but Moore imbues it with a subtle, primeval, and (dare I say) Lovecraftian depth that leaves the reader in no doubt that nothing Northwest could have done outside of turning the girl over to the mob could have saved him from her clutches.

Moore also manages to present Northwest as a gray-marketing adventurer operating on the edge of the law with a modicum of words.  She hints and suggests at his activity in and around Lakkdarol when not in the presence of the Shambleau, and manages to paint him as a complicated man engaging in complicated maneuvers, but doesn’t dwell on those scenes, since their only relation to the real story of the Martian Medusa is that they take him out of danger just long enough to build the tension and dread of his final encounter.

While Moore shows flashes of brilliance here, this story alone would not be enough to sell me on chasing down more of her works.  As things stand, Northwest looks like an exciting character let down a little by the order in which this volume presents his stories.  Perhaps future installments reveal a more dashing and proactive Northwest Smith engaging in something other than acting as a damsel in distress for Yarol.  Stay tuned, Pups…

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