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 


  1. I received a copy of the Best of C.L. Moore for my birthday back in 76, and was delighted. I still have it, and after reading this post, took it out and read through that Afterword. Over the years, I have heard that same story that she mentions, that she shopped Shambleau to every publishing house in NY and was rejected. That it was only after she used just her initials to hide her sex and tried one last time with Weird Tales that she was able to sell her first story. Moore herself debunks this yarn: she sent it to Weird Tales because it was the only such magazine she knew the name of, and they sent her an acceptance letter and a check almost by return post.

    She was good, and the people at Weird Tales knew it the first time they read Shambleau.

    I don't get the vibe of a western when I read NW Smith, rather I feel what might be the influence of Talbot Mundy's tales of the Middle East, or of the Jimgrim stories. Mundy was quite popular during the 20s and 30s.

  2. There's a lot of received wisdom about C. L. Moore on the internet that gets contradicted by that Afterword. And for prospective writers, it contains excellent insight into how she designed her stories. Plenty of writing podcasts discuss plots. Few discuss contrasting and complimentary characters.

    I've just started reading Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, and so far, while there are a couple of similarities to Westerns in "Shambleau", the differences shatter any attempt to fit it into a mold of a Western that I've come across. The claim struck me as wrong when I first read it.