Hither came Northwest Smith, the earthman, sunburnt skin, paled-eyed, in spaceman’s leathers, a pirate, a smuggler, a gunslinger, facing life and death with an equal grin, to tread the back-alley bars and lost ruins of the solar system heatgun in hand.
Northwest Smith is one of C.L. Moore’s two great early creations for Weird Tales. But where her Jirel of Joiry was straight sword and sorcery, Northwest Smith traverses Venus and Mars in spaceman’s leathers. He may have been an inspiration for Han Solo, but Northwest Smith definitely would have shot first. As he was walking in the door. Northwest may have as much in common with Jirel as he does Solo. This isn’t Campbellian science fiction, or even space opera. Northwest barely sets foot on a spaceship in-story, and the stories are thick with fantasy and horror elements. (The similarity to Moore’s Jirel stories also provide her Northwest Smith stories with their biggest weakness.)
Northwest netted Moore her first professional sale. The story is “Shambleau” and—what a way to start a career! I’ve read it a couple times and, even with a somewhat weak climax, “Shambleau” may be the best short story I’ve ever read. It showcases Moore at her best: rich, decadent prose, a story that straddles genres, and a creeping, existential, highly sexualized, subtle horror. Just check out this writing:
And still it squirmed and lengthened and fell, and she shook it out in a horrible travesty of a woman shaking out her unbound hair—until the unspeakable tangle of it—twisting, writhing, obscenely scarlet—hung to her waist and beyond, and still lengthened, an endless mass of crawling horror that until now, somehow, impossibly, had been hidden under the tight-bound turban. It was like a nest of blind, restless red worms . . . it was—it was like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness, terrible beyond words.
A few more stories like that and this collection (I have the Ace collection from October 1982 with the Baldwin brother on the cover) is worth the price of admission. Heck, “Shambleau” alone is worth the price of admission. The good news is that this volume does indeed contain stories like “Shambleau.” The bad news is that they are a little too much like “Shambleau.” And like Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories, which themselves suffer from repetitiveness. Moore exceeded Robert E. Howard as a prose stylist and as a writer of Lovecraftian horror, but she isn’t nearly as original in her storytelling. Moore is staler to me after two volumes of stories than Howard is after five.
Northwest Smith gets surprisingly little to do, and surprisingly little of it involves spaceships and smuggling, but he remains a relatively well known pulp character for a reason. He is an antihero at best: he saves Shambleau from a mob in the first story but takes a job for slavers in the (second-to-) last. He faces it all with a grin and an indomitable spirit. He enjoys segir whiskey and women more than a little but doesn’t have a weakness for either. His name bars him from his home planet (although two stories do take place on earth) and is synonymous enough with illegal activity that to say it is to signal the job you’re hiring him for is illicit. His name lives in infamy across the solar system but he still finds himself strapped for cash. He may or may not have a heart of gold, but there is definitely murder in it. He is the prototypical Western character but he is more Man With No Name than John Wayne.
As I mentioned above, I have an Ace volume of Northwest Smith stories. It is titled simply, Northwest Smith. The list of stories is below. They are not quite in publication order. It appears to only be missing the fanzine stories “Nymph of Darkness” and “Werewoman” and the Henry Kuttner collaboration and Jirel of Joiry crossover “Quest of the Starstone.”
The Tree of Life
Dust of the Gods
The Cold Gray God
Song in a Minor Key
4.5 of 5 Stars.
My previous post here on “Shambleau”.
The Little Red Reviewer on “Shambleau” in a guest post here.
Admiral Ironbombs on Northwest of Earth by C.L. Moore at SF Mistressworks.
Keith West on “Yvala” at Adventures Fantastic.