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".

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