Beauty As Keen As The Flash of Blades -By Christopher M. Chupik
(This one was a real challenge to write. It would have all been in vain if not for the help of Deuce Richardson, Keith West and Morgan Holmes. A shout-out is also due to Jennifer Jodell, for her thesis Mediating Moore: Uncertain Origins and Indeterminate Identities in the Work of C. L. Moore. While her analysis takes a more feminist approach to the subject than I would, I still recommend it as as well-researched piece about an author often shrouded mystery and misinformation. http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1783&context=etd)
This article was brought to my attention a while back:
They managed to get Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie and N. K. Jemisin on the list, yet somehow they failed to mention Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, or, the subject of today’s column, C. L. Moore. Sadly, this isn’t the first or only example, only the latest. The grand old dames of SF are being pushed aside, and that’s not only wrong, it’s rude. So let’s take a look at another one of those women that other women don’t see (to borrow Keith West’s paraphrase).
Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987) was frequently ill as a child and spent a great deal of her time reading. She later said she was: “reared on a diet of Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs.” Another author who she admired was Abraham Merritt, writer of such works as The Ship of Ishtar and Dwellers in the Mirage.
Moore sold her first story “Shambleau” to Weird Tales in 1933 for $100. It was published under her initials and it frequently claimed that C. L. Moore did this to disguise her sex. However, I have learned recently that this is not true. In an interview in Chacol 1 in 1976, Moore states that she used her initials because she didn’t want to be fired from her job as a secretary for having a second source of income. She later wrote a letter to Weird Tales using her full name. Not that her gender was known to everybody. Henry Kuttner, her future husband, met her by sending her a fan letter addressed to “Mr. C. L. Moore”. Moore replied with a letter signed with her full name.
In an interview for Contemporary Authors in 1980, Moore, speaking about her writing process, said: “Nothing I have ever written was given the slightest deliberation. It was there in the typewriter and it came out, a total bypassing of the brain.”
Much of her fame rests on a pair of series characters, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry. Northwest Smith is one of the prototypical space adventurers, a hard-boiled hero transplanted to outer space. Take this description from the opening of the story “Yvala”:
“Northwest Smith leaned against a pile of hemp-wrapped bales from the Martian drylands and stared with expressionless eyes, paler than pale steel, over the confusion of the Lakkdarol spaceport before him. In the clear Martian day, the tatters of his leather spaceman’s garb were pitilessly plain, the ray-burns and rents of a hundred casual brawls. It was evident at a glance that Smith had fallen on evil days. One might have guessed by the shabbiness of his clothing that his pockets were empty, the charge in his ray-gun low.”
“Shambleau”, first of Smith’s adventures, is a take on the legends of the Gorgon and the Siren. When Smith rescues a mysterious and alluring young woman from a murderous mob, he nearly becomes the victim of her inhuman hungers.
“There was no hair upon her face — neither brows nor lashes, and he would have sworn that the tight scarlet turban bound around her head covered baldness. She had three fingers and a thumb, and her feet had four digits apiece too, and all sixteen of them were tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat’s. She ran her tongue over her lips — a thin, pink, flat tongue as feline as her eyes — and spoke with difficulty. He felt that throat and tongue had never been shaped for human speech.”
While her Northwest Smith stories may have taken place on other planets, they were far more Fantasy than SF. In the pre-Tolkien field, Fantasy as we currently understand it was rare. Full-fledged Secondary Worlds were even rarer. When we had Fantasy it tended to be set in historical times (Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, or James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme), imaginary prehistoric realms (Atlantis, the Hyborian Age) or other planets, as Brackett did. Thus, you had interplanetary tales appearing in Weird Tales alongside Horror by H. P. Lovecraft and early Sword and Sorcery by Robert E. Howard.
“Shambleau” opens with an introduction that sets the Science-Fantasy mood:
“Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names — Atlantis, Mu — somewhere back of history’s first beginnings when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues — heard Venus’s people call their wet world “Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet slurring speech and mimicked Mars’s guttural “Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongue of Mars’s dryland dwellers. You may be sure of that.”
- P. Lovecraft said of “Shambleau”: “[Shambleau] begins magnificently, on just the right note of terror and with black intimations of the unknown … it has real atmosphere and tension — rare things among the pulp tradition of brisk, cheerful, staccato prose and lifeless stock characters and images.”
Here is a recording of Moore herself, reading “Shambleau”:
Her other famous series character is Jirel of Joiry, a French warrior-woman of the Dark Ages. Jirel is introduced thus:
“Guillaume scarce heard her. He was still staring, as most men stared when they first set eyes on Jirel of Joiry. She was tall as most men, and savage as the wildest of them, and the fall of Joiry bitter enough to break her heart as she stood snarling curses up at her tall conqueror. The face above the mail might not have been fair in a woman’s head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades. The red hair was short upon her high, defiant head, and the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire.”
There were other swordswomen of the Pulps: Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino (who later become Marvel’s Red Sonja of the Chainmail Bikini) and Valeria from the Conan story “Red Nails” being prominent examples. Over in the Hero Pulps, we have Patricia Savage, cousin of Doc Savage, and Nita Van Sloan, the Spider’s gun-wielding partner in love and crime-fighting. A. Merritt’s Lur the Wolf-Witch, from his novel Dwellers in the Mirage, is a likely literary predecessor.
Jirel is no invincible Amazon, though. In fact, when we first meet her, she’s been defeated and is seeking revenge. Her search takes her into an otherworldly realm where she seeks supernatural power to wreak her revenge, a power that comes at a great cost.
Her stories were fan-favorites, and three — “Shambleau”, “Scarlet Dream” and “Black Thirst — were chosen as the best stories of their issues. She even wrote the crossover story “Quest of the Starstone” in which Jirel and Smith would meet.
After their marriage in 1940, Kuttner and Moore became a writing team, much as Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton did only to an even greater degree, writing under shared pseudonyms like “Lewis Padgett”, “C. H. Liddell” and “Lawrence O’Donnell”. They were a positive influence on each other, both writers growing immensely from their partnership with one another. Together they wrote a large number of stories, novellas and novels and their work regularly appeared in the pages of Astounding.
From that period comes her best novel: Judgment Night. We once again have Science-Fantasy, with an empire where they have spaceships and fight with ray-guns, but also ride horses, wield “fire swords” and avoid forbidden forests where living gods dwell.
Juille, her protagonist, is another one of Moore’s fierce female characters, a beautiful-yet-morally-conflicted Space Princess, the scion of a galactic dynasty fighting to suppress the rebellion that threatens to topple her family from power. The scope of the novel manages to be both sweeping and intimate all at once. Here, Juille destroys the man-made environments of an artificial pleasure world:
“There was something truly godlike about such destruction as she was wreaking. This was more than human havoc. As she went striding and destroying from room to room she left ruin in her wake that could not have been paralleled since God first created the galaxy out of similar chaos. All the ingredients of creation were here, tossed together in utter confusion. And if her race was doomed, if it never ruled the stars again, then she was creating here in miniature all the havoc her race would leave behind it when it fell. World by tiny world she returned them to the original anarchy from which God had assembled them, but there would be no gods to come after her and build them up again.”
Judgment Night also features a “romance” so tense and dangerous that love scenes are as suspenseful as battles.
And here we reach one of the intriguing elements of her work. Moore’s stories are replete with sexual overtones. The titular Black God of Jirel’s first story is described: “It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its’ one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss.” The same story makes clear that Jirel herself is no blushing virgin. “Oh, God knows I’m not innocent of the ways of light loving,” she admits to a priest. The Northwest Smith story “Scarlet Dream” contains some of the most disturbingly sexual imagery you could get away with in 1934, with people suckling obscene fluids from spigots. I don’t think I need to draw you a picture.
No, seriously, I’m not drawing you a picture.
She spoke of writing from her unconscious, and that is perhaps the element that gives her work such lasting power.
If her series stories have a flaw, it is that they tend towards formula. Northwest Smith encounters some supernatural temptation (usually in the form of a woman) which he must overcome. Jirel is taken to some otherworldly setting where she faces supernatural temptations which she must overcome, etc. It is a testament to her power as a writer that, like L’Amour and Burroughs, that she transcends the limitations of formula and creates something that still has the power to thrill, even after all these decades.
There’s a wealth of wonder for the modern reader to discover in Moore’s work. Most of her work is now available in e-book format. For those looking for dead-tree editions for Jirel and Northwest Smith stories, I highly recommend tracking down the Black God’s Kiss and Northwest of Earth collections published by the sadly-defunct Planet Stories line from Paizo.
Those who say they want to honor the contributions of women to the genre should remember that they are not the first to walk upon those distant worlds. Man has conquered Space before. And so has Woman.
You may be sure of that.