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)."
Source: Thomas A. Bredehoft, Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore's “Shambleau.”(1997) in Science Fiction Studies #73, Vol 24.3
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"
"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.