Today for Vintage Science Fiction Month I am happy to host a guest post from official Friend of the Blog and fellow local book reviewer Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer. Andrea has been blogging about books of the speculative variety since 2010. That’s a hell of a lot of book reviews and one hell of a lot of good ones. Andrea has launched a Kickstarter for a print book to showcase the best of her work.
Andrea recently picked up her first C.L. Moore—Shambleau and Black God’s Kiss—and has kindly agreed to share her thoughts here.
Shambleau was C.L. Moore’s first professional sale and was published in 1933 in Weird Tales, and Black God’s Kiss would follow soon after in 1934 in the the same publication. These two stories deal with cosmic horror, attraction vs revulsion, and a sense of “man versus nature”, but by nature I mean some incomprehensible alien intelligence that humans can fear all we want, but we’ll never understand it.
When I read older scifi, I can’t help but ask myself “do these stories feel dated?”, and these two C. L. Moore stories do not feel dated. Like, at all. Other than uses of words that have fallen out of style, these stories could have been written in the 80s. Moore’s writing is descriptive and lush, with the high octane pace of a modern action movie, and bold archetypal characters. If you like adventure movies, you’ll love C.L. Moore.
Shambleau features Moore’s famous character Northwest Smith. He is a Han Solo type character – a smuggler with a heart of gold and a trusty blaster by his side, he travels where his work takes him, often doing illegal things off the page, and quite often coming across beautiful women who need his help (and in some cases, they know he’ll help any beautiful woman, so they take total advantage of him!).
Smith can’t help but step in when he sees a mob chasing a woman. He steps in protect her, and when he claims “She’s mine!” more in aggression against the mob than actual possessiveness, the mob disperses, disgusted with Smith’s interaction with the woman. She appears weak, hungry, vulnerable, and victimized, so Smith allows her to stay in his rented room. As they spend more time together, he finds himself drawn towards her. She doesn’t speak much, but allows him to call her Shambleau, and promises that one day, they will speak together in her language. In the dark safety of his rented room, at night she opens the window and takes off her turban. Does her hair simply have a mind of its own, or is there something evil and sinister lurking under that turban?
The closer Smith physically gets to her, the closer he gets to kissing her or touching her skin, the greater his feeling of revulsion. The language Moore uses to describe Smith’s pleasure/pain of being attracted to her in his hindbrain but his forebrain screaming “run!” is pulpy, hella fun, and incredibly entertaining. As much as I wanted Smith to just kill her and be done with it, I knew that the moment he wised up to what was going on, the story would be over, and who wants that? So yes, I enjoyed myself while he was nearly dying. I’m a terrible person, i know. As it turns out, by the time he does wise up, it is way, way too late, and his friend has to save him. The closing lines are pretty brutal, Smith promises his friend that if he ever sees a Shambleau again, he will kill the thing on sight, but it’s a very weak promise.
If myths came from a story that had a kernel of truth, where did the Medusa story come from? Some ancient hominid memory of something that terrorized early humans, something from before we even knew what stories were? The Shambleau, does she deserve to survive? Is she evil? Or is she just doing what is in her nature to do? Lions eat gazelles because they are hungry and need to hunt to survive. They don’t eat gazelles because they are evil or hate gazelles.
I went into Black God’s Kiss knowing absolutely nothing about Jirel of Joiry. So I got quite the surprise when the armored helmeted soldier is brought before the Guillaume the Conqueror, under the multiple guards needed to keep this prisoner inline. They pull off the prisoner’s helmet, and it’s a woman! It’s Jirel! Guillaume tries to kiss her, she punches him, he hits her back, and she wakes up in the dungeon with vengeance on her mind. She escapes the dungeon, and this is where this sci-fantasy story goes off the rails, and gets super weird and fun.
Jirel knows that no human weapon can destroy Guillaume, so she must acquire an unhuman weapon. In the lowest levels of the dungeons under the castle, is a secret passage to a hellscape of horrors. I love that Moore never quite explains what this otherworld is. Jirel travels through a tunnel where gravity maybe does some weird things, so is it a dimensional gate? A wormhole? Since Jirel herself doesn’t know, the reader isn’t told either. Her descriptions of her surroundings are equally lush and terrifying, the environs are what Lovecraft dreamed of.
Jirel survives the journey, but she can’t return without a weapon. She walks towards a building, and passes the first test. There’s no weapon in the building, but there is information of where she can find what she needs. To get what she needs, she must face the Black God. As she nears the idol, the language become more and more Lovecraftian. Through sheer force of will, Jirel gets what she came for, and then gets home. She uses the unearthly weapon on the unsuspecting Guillaume, and cements her reputation as an epic badass.
I see echoes of the legacy of Black God’s Kiss in so much new weird. The little idol that Silas kisses to access its arcane powers in China Mieville’s The Scar, the tunnel scene in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, all sorts of generally weird shit that refuses to be categorized because it is too busy giving the reader a sense of pure unease.
You can find The Little Read Reviewer Kickstarter here.
I previously gave my own thoughts on Shambleau and Black God’s Kiss. I will publish a post on the rest of Moore’s Northwest Smith stories next Thursday, and I will publish a post on the rest of Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories sometime next month.