Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, CL Moore (1933-1940)
Review by Paul Kincaid
When we first meet Northwest Smith, he is leaning in a doorway in a dusty frontier town. He is tall and lean and sunburned and dressed in old leather. A pistol is strapped low on his hip. He is, in other words, a cowboy. The fact that the brawling frontier town is on Mars and the pistol in his holster fires a heat ray does not alter the fact that he is a classic drifter, a man without ties who will ride into any lawless town looking for adventure and ride out again afterwards without a backward glance. We are told repeatedly that he is an Earthman, though it is only in the later stories that we actually see him on Earth; for all his sentimental attachment, Earth is a place to come from, not a place to be. He is subtly marked as an alien by his eyes, which are colourless. It is only a small step to see the colourless eyes of Northwest Smith turning into the albinoism of another wanderer from exotic adventure to exotic adventure, Michael Moorcock’s Elric.
In this, our very first glimpse of Northwest Smith on the very first page of CL Moore’s first published story, ‘Shambleau’ (1933), it is worth noting that he is in a doorway. Doors and doorways feature heavily in the 13 Northwest Smith stories that Moore wrote. Smith is forever passing through doorways into other planes and strange realms, or stepping through a door to meet an elder god or a vampiric woman.
Smith is an outlaw of the spaceways who breaks the law only in extremis (his association with the slavers in ‘Yvala’ (1936)), and is seen in a spaceship only once (again in ‘Yvala’). His natural habitat is the cheap bars, grungy hotels and dangerous alleyways of port towns on Mars and Venus. But this futuristic backwoods is only the stepping-off point for wild journeys of the imagination into exotic and erotic realms that always somehow open out from our base reality. From such dark and dusty starting points, the stories explode into colour; everything in these other realms is in scarlet or blue, purple or gold. Always bold primary colours, there are no tints, shades or pastels to be seen, for these are bold primary adventures.
Mars, as we encounter it here, is the planet as it was once imagined to be, a place of canals and deserts, while Venus is a world of seas and dense cloud cover. Earth, when we do briefly glimpse it, is that favourite future of crowded cities, soaring towers and high-level walkways, though it is more often presented as a sentimental memory of green hills. But we barely explore any of these primitive science-fictional settings, for the stories that begin here are certainly not science fiction. All but three of the stories gathered in this collection, subtitled The Complete Northwest Smith, first saw the light of day in Weird Tales (of the others, ‘Nymph of Darkness’ (1935), a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman, was in Fantasy Magazine, while the brief and belated ‘Song in a Minor Key’ (1957) came from Fantastic Universe), and they conform to the creeping supernatural horror most closely associated with that magazine. Thus ‘Shambleau’ recounts a meeting with the medusa, ‘Black Thirst’ (1934) along with several others involves a form of vampirism, ‘Scarlet Dream’ (1934) takes Smith into a nightmarish land of dream, ‘Yvala’ brings him up against Circe, and so forth. The most commonly used adjective, cropping up a half dozen times or more in some of the stories, is “nameless”.
Sometimes, these confrontations with nameless horror are presented in a very straightforward way. ‘Dust of Gods’ (1934) is perhaps the most science-fictional tale in the collection. Smith and his occasional companion, Yarol the Venusian, are hired to undertake an expedition to the polar mountains of Mars. There they meet what seems to be a ghost and discover a lost city, beneath which they open up a vast chamber that is really a hollowed-out asteroid containing the dust of a god who once ruled the planet that used to orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Within this chamber they find light that ebbs and flows like water, one of the most breathtakingly science-fictional moments in this entire collection. In this case the elder god is dead and so hardly a supernatural player in the drama, which means that other than the ghostly guardian of the lost city there is little weird to be found in this tale.
More often, however, the story is not so straightforward in either structure or content, and the supernatural is the be-all and end-all of the tale, although a shot from the ray gun is often all it takes to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.
The stories, in the main, follow variations on a pattern. At the beginning (or close to the beginning in the case of ‘Scarlet Dream’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (1936)), Northwest Smith rescues a beautiful girl who then acts as the agent through whom he encounters the nameless. Sometimes the girl herself is (or houses) the horror with whom he must contend (‘Shambleau’, ‘The Cold Grey God’ (1935), ‘Yvala’), though more usually she leads him to this horror, which may well take the form of an even more beautiful woman (‘Julhi’ (1935), ‘The Tree of Life’). The beauty of women is emphasised throughout these stories, which lay great stress on the sensuality of long hair and clinging skirts slit to the thigh; twice, in ‘Yvala’ and ‘The Tree of Life’, the woman is naked except for her incredibly long hair which is wrapped around her like a cloak. In all the stories beautiful women are manipulative, using their beauty as a form of power; though there is also an uneasy linking of beauty with slavery in both ‘Black Thirst’ and ‘Yvala’. Sex, never explicit, is often an implied part of these encounters (‘Shambleau’, ‘Scarlet Dream’), but be that as it may the visions, the sensory overload, the separation from self that Smith will invariably experience as he enters or is entered by the nameless being, has a distinctly orgasmic quality (‘Julhi’). Typical is the late story ‘Werewoman’ (1938), for instance, where “something quivered in answer within him, agonizingly… and then he leaped within himself in a sudden, ecstatic rush” (p 356) until “each time he reached the point… a shudder went over him and blankness clouded his mind” (p 366). The old identification of sexual climax with the “little death” is here expanded into the image underpinning the whole sequence. And at the end, the girl must die; either slaughtered by Smith or his male allies (‘Shambleau’, ‘Julhi’, ‘Werewoman’) or by sacrificing herself (‘Black Thirst’, ‘Scarlet Dream’) so that Smith might escape the entrapment of sexuality and move on to the next adventure released from the possibility of any emotional ties.
Sex, itself a “nameless” subject in the popular literature of the relatively straitlaced 1930s, was a fairly common subtext of those encounters with the mysterious that were related in the typical weird tale, and a suggestion of the erotic must have been a selling point in colourful popular magazines. But the sexual aspect of Moore’s Northwest Smith stories is hardly a subtext, the imagery is too potent, too central, too omnipresent for that. These are stories in which sex is death, beauty is a commodity independent of the person, and women are a danger and must be killed. Exceptionally, the Circe-figure remains alive at the end of ‘Yvala’, but that is because she is too powerful for Smith to defeat and he must be satisfied only with escaping. The unnamed girl in ‘Scarlet Dream’ is Smith’s guide and guardian in the world of dream, providing companionship, sex, food and trying to make him happy; yet in the end she must die, terribly and of her own volition, in order to allow Smith’s escape.
The sexual stories we are being told here are strange and disturbing, especially as they come from the most important female genre writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Catherine Moore stormed the all-male bastion of the pulp magazines; went on, alone and in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner, to write some of the finest examples of mid-century fantasy and science fiction; and created the great feminist heroine, Jirel of Joiry (who re-appears here in ‘Quest of the Starstone’ (1937), co-written with Kuttner, which carries far less sexual innuendo than any other story in the book). Yet here, repeatedly, she writes of women as sexualised beings whose very sexuality makes them the embodiment of evil or its agent, and as such deserving of and indeed desirous of death. Was she trying to outdo in machismo her male confreres (significantly, when Kuttner first wrote a fan letter to the new writer CL Moore he thought he was writing to a man)? Or was this how she imagined the male mindset of a character like Northwest Smith, to be offset by the strength and independence of Jirel, whose stock in trade was that she could outfight any man? Whatever the truth of the matter, and regardless of the relative subtlety of their telling (Moore was one of the more accomplished writers to emerge from the pulp magazines of the 1930s), sex as a death struggle that can only lead to the rightful destruction of the woman is the abiding image left by these stories.
For all that, the Northwest Smith stories have a raw power that makes them enduringly readable. They represent the peak of 1930s pulp fiction, and if their plot lines and two-fisted hero seem out of place compared to today’s fiction, that also makes them fascinatingly different.
This review originally appeared on SF Site.