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Northwest of Earth, CL Moore

February 21, 2012

Northwest of Earth, CL Moore (1954)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

She was unbinding her turban…

He watched, not breathing, a presentiment of something horrible stirring in his brain, inexplicably… The red folds loosened and–he knew then that he had not dreamed–again a scarlet lock swung down against her cheek… a hair, was it? A lock of hair?… thick as a thick worm it fell, plumply, against that smooth cheek… more scarlet than blood and thick as a crawling worm… and like a worm it crawled.

Catherine L Moore is one of the greatest forgotten pulp legends. She sold her first story, ‘Shambleau’, to Weird Tales when she was twenty-two, and established herself as a leading author in the weird tale short-story field. She was written a fan letter in 1936 by fellow forgotten SF legend and Lovecraft Circle writer Henry Kuttner, and the story goes he mistakenly thought “CL Moore” was a man; that awkward segue lead somewhere, because they married four years later. Moore and Kuttner would collaborate on numerous stories and four novels, the most famous being ‘Mimsy Were The Borogroves’. After Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958, Moore stopped writing altogether. She left behind a swath of short stories, but only two novels without Kuttner’s collaboration: Doomsday Morning and Judgment Night.

Pick up any best/greatest science-fiction anthology from the 1950s or 1960s, and there’s a strong chance there will be a mention of Moore and Kuttner, if it doesn’t include one of their stories. (Most often ‘Mims…y or the similar ‘When The Bough Breaks’ will show up.) They received praise from the likes of Asimov, Silverberg, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Greg Bear, and CJ Cherryh.

Today, Moore and Kuttner are nowhere to be seen on such lists. As the authors of the pulp age die off, there are fewer voices to put Moore and Kuttner on best-of lists, fewer people who remember their impact on the field. Paizo’s trying to bring them back with their Planet Stories line; two of Moore’s longer series characters, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, and Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis had their tales collected for early Planet Stories books. (Kuttner’s The Dark World and his Gallegher stories have since been reprinted.) Meanwhile, Haffner Press has been reprinting numerous pulp legends, including a recent collection of Moore/Kuttner stories and Henry Kuttner’s weird tales output.

‘Shambleau’, the opener for this collection, is one of the best non-Lovecraft weird tales I’ve ever read, a fantastic little thriller retelling the Medusa legend. Smith helps out a girl, more than meets the eye, and things take a dark twist pretty quick. It has imagery and description that caught Lovecraft’s attention; the descriptions are beautiful and vibrant. And they’re lurid descriptions, as you’d expect from pulp; ‘Shambleau’ has an overt sensuality pulsating just beneath the surface, oozing sexuality from Moore’s tone and word-choice. It’s a unique experience, and stands as one of the best 1930s-era Lovecraftian-style eldritch horror stories of the pulp era; give it a read and prove me otherwise. (That version cuts the amazing pseudo-intro history, alas.) And it’s the first thing Moore wrote.

Alas, Moore figured what worked once would work again, and so all the other stories attempt to replicate ‘Shambleau’ as close as possible, with only the specific details changed around. They all break down into one simple formula:

  1. Northwest Smith is lounging around some seedy port-city, looking for a job/something to do/a source of booze, when he runs into
  2. a beautiful woman, in reality a femme fatale who is mentally dominated by, enslaved by, or is herself the
  3. strange, nightmarish entity/nameless horror from beyond space and time/a dark and long-forgotten being of deific power that
  4. somehow catches Smith unawares, making him freeze in terror/madness/a dream fugue-state/abject misery, whereupon it begins to do something horrific to Smith/the femme fatale/his pal Yarol the Venusian, until
  5. Smith forces himself out of this mental paralysis/his pal Yarol the Venusian arrives in the nick of time to save Smith, whereupon
  6. the dark entity is shot to death with heat-guns, and the femme fatale slips into the tranquil peace of being dead/fades off into the mists of obscurity/was the eldritch nightmare what just got melted, at which point
  7. Smith and Yarol flee into the night/wander off, shaken, to get drunk/the story ends.

Congratulations, those are the elements of every single Northwest story Moore wrote. You can now write your own, following that brief outline. Each story is different, but it’s like playing mad libs with the specifics of the psychological madness, descriptions of the unspeakable horror, and the horrible trance/dream-world the horror puts Smith in. (Also, why it needed to stun Smith in the first place; in order to devour emotions or eat his past or drink blood or whatever.) Smith spends most tales not doing anything, and relies more on the girl and Yarol to pull his ass out of the fire; when he takes action, it’s to kill the monster to finish off the story, or pull Yarol out so they can kill it together. His main accomplishments in each story boil down to 1) meeting a femme fatale, 2) getting into some serious shit, and 3) not dying.

Needless to say, they wear thin quicker than you’d think. While this wouldn’t have been as noticeable back in the 1930s, when there were several months between stories, the modern edition makes their similarity quite clear by placing them end-upon-end. (Not that there’s any other way to go about reprinting them, unless you’re up for a dozen or so weird tale anthologies needed to spread them out.) Having the stories all together like this is more of a hindrance than an asset, considering they’re mostly identical, novella-length, and there’s around a dozen of them.

On the bright side, they all have beautiful writing dripping with lush description, lurid imagery, and a throbbing sensuality just beneath the surface. (Note that they can be pretty lurid and sensual, but sex is never explicit, in case you lean towards the prudish.) Moore is quite capable of painting the setting and characters, whether they be dreamy or nightmarish. When I chide other authors because their description was lacking, this is what I’m thinking of: Moore wins a gold star in every story on description alone. Her hand at writing was amazing, even if her pacing and sense of action needed work. They are works of art, some of the best writing of the pulp era, and if you don’t go overboard when reading them they will be damn enjoyable.

The setting is the standard Venus/Mars of the pulps, but there’s a limit to the “science fiction” in each story. With talk of gods and ancient star-monsters, these lean closest to science fantasy in the truest sense of that tag. (I read the gods as Lovecraft-style entities, powerful extraterrestrial beings rather than the deities in traditional fantasy fiction.) ‘Yvala’ is the only story in which our brave heroes even enter a starship; the rest may involve Martians, Venusians, segir-whiskey and heat-guns, but they’re science-light and pure action-adventure yarns.

For strong stories… ‘Shambleau’ is an obvious choice, being the first and best of the bunch; I’m a huge fan of that one. ‘Dust of Gods’ is one of the more science-fictional in the collection, reading like a game of Dungeons & Dragons in space: Smith and Yarol enter lost alien ruins to steal what’s said to be the dust of a lost god from an asteroid chunk. I love it for its strangeness and scale, and also that it involves Smith doing things instead of sitting around petrified. Most of the other ‘Shambleau’-clones were strong, if similar; ‘Black Thirst’ and ‘Scarlet Dream’ in particular, but also ‘The Cold Grey God’. ‘Lost Paradise’ reminds me of the great Lovecraft short ‘Polaris’, with the theme of stellar time-travel causing the downfall of an earlier civilization.

Bad ones? It took me until ‘Yvala’ to start getting bored with them. It might be the inundation with their repetition, even though I read about a half-dozen other books while I was reading Northwest of Earth (and had taken two weeks off between ‘Yvala’ and the previous one to boot), but ‘Yvala’ felt too long, dry, and dull. Dull in that I knew Smith wasn’t going to do anything; indeed he didn’t, and the story was another technicolour dream-fugue while Smith struggles to fight off the alien menace’s mental powers in order to stand up and shoot it. Was it bad? No. Was it better than the half-dozen previous stories in the same vein? Your mileage may vary.

It’s also worth mentioning ‘Quest of the Starstone’, the Jirel/Smith crossover Moore wrote with her husband. It’s a lot more action-packed than the others, and is a taut little tale of sorcery; for a crossover, it’s pretty damn good. The downside is that Moore’s vibrant prose isn’t on display here, instead reflecting Kuttner’s more workmanlike prose. My biggest problem with it is that Paizo also reprinted it in the Jirel of Joiry collection; I understand the desire to present each character series as a whole, but it’s not like this compilation needed any more length.

This was one I thought I’d be reading for my Halloween Horror Roundup; yeah, look at the size of this 400-page tome. I must have been buying the wrong Planet Stories, since this one’s twice as long as any of the Bracketts or Moorcocks or Gygaxes. Instead, I ended up reading it over the period of two months (plus change), one story a night for a few nights every week, while reading and finishing other novels at the same time, and I think I still managed to overdose on Northwest Smith. Amazing as they are, I’m not kidding when I say they’re identical: spread these out and pace yourself, otherwise you won’t make it through this book alive.

I really enjoyed most of these, even though many – ‘Juhli’, ‘The Cold Grey God’, ‘Black Thirst’, ‘Scarlet Dream’ – lean on the basics introduced in ‘Shambleau’. Northwest Smith is an underwhelming protagonist; I can see how he’s built up as a badass space outlaw with his background and character, but from these stories I can’t really see “the inspiration for Han Solo” / “the original space outlaw” other than the aesthetics. So they’re beautiful, with poetic prose, but somewhat identical and repetitive, with an inactive protagonist and little action, but have wonderful Lovecraftian horrors.

In the end I liked it enough to give it a hesitant recommendation… if you like Lovecraft’s style of eldritch nightmares and evil deific extraterrestrials, written with vibrant imagery, this is your book. If you’re expecting something else, you’re not going to get it. On an individual basis the stories are excellent; together, they wear thin from repetition. But they’re still so damn good as to put many modern writers to shame.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 2:07 pm

    I read a collection of the Northwest Smith stories back in high school and I remember liking Yarol best…but not why I liked him. Perhaps because he usually saved the day?

    • February 21, 2012 9:35 pm

      Yarol was a pretty awesome guy to have as a sidekick. He’s an exotic alien, which is a plus, and he has a stellar tendency to save the day🙂

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