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.
BLACK GOD'S SHADOW
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
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.
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.