The Best of CL Moore, CL Moore (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse
In the mid seventies Ballantine Books, just before it renamed itself into Del Rey, launched a “Best of” series of short story collections by classic science fiction and fantasy authors which I personally think is perhaps the best such series ever produced. Just at a time when science fiction was switching from being a short story, magazine orientated genre to one in which the novel is supreme, here were collections by all the old masters who had made their name in the pulp magazines of the thirties, forties and fifties. The series offered a sense of history to the genre just when science fiction was in danger of losing touch with its roots. It offered both a reminder to old fans of what had attracted them to the genre in the first place and to new fans a sampling of authors they may have thought old-fashioned or perhaps never had the chance to read in the first place.
One of such authors must have been CL Moore, who had made her reputation writing science fantasy stories for Weird Tales in the 1930s. In the 1940s, after she met and married Henry Kuttner she almost completely stopped writing on her own, instead collaborating with him (often under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym) on a series of classic sf stories, then moving on to writing crime stories and for television, both of which unfortunately paid better, in the late 1950s. By the time The Best of CL Moore was published it had been the better part of two decades that she had written much new science fiction. Now that more than twice as much time has passed, this collection is still a great introduction to what CL Moore had to offer when not collaborating with her husband.
The story that first introduced me to CL Moore, ‘Vintage Season’, was however originally published under both her and Kuttner’s names. I first read it in a Dutch anthology of crime and detective stories written by women, which sort of made sense as it can be read as a detective puzzle story. For years that was the extent of my CL Moore reading, until I read this collection. It was enough to realise how great a writer she was.
The Best of CL Moore is a well balanced collection, with most of the stories from before she met and married Henry Kuttner. Both of her best known heroes, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry are represented but do not dominate. In general the stories here vary from outright fantasy to pure science fiction, but what they have all in common is the human touch. Her characters are fully human, three dimensional in a way that was rare for pulp science fiction. She builds her stories around the characters of her protagonists, even in the science fantasy of her Northwest Smith and Jirel stories. There are no clunkers whatsoever in here, as we’ll see.
‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is the story that introduced both Northwest Smith and Moore herself to Weird Tales, her first published story. It’s space fantasy of the kind Leigh Brackett also wrote, with some of the clichés of that genre, but already with the same craft and power brought to all the stories here. It starts with a mixed race mob – Martians, Venusians, Earthmen – chasing a slim nutberry brown beauty in a radiant scarlet cloak down the streets of a Martian town and Northwest Smith rescuing her. But she’s shambleau and Smith does not know what this is and only finds out — almost too late.
‘Black Thirst’ (1934). Another Northwest Smith story, about a Venusian castle where they breed beauty and its master who feast on it. Almost as good as the first story.
‘The Bright Illusion’ (1934). A man dying of thirst in the great Saharan desert is set on a quest on a strange world by an intelligence so powerful it can only be described as a god, to meet this god’s priestess and fall in love with her, no matter her innate alienness. This should be schmaltzy as hell, but Moore’s skill as a writer makes this work.
‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934). The first Jirel of Joiry story, a Medieval French swordswoman whose kingdom is taken over through sorcery, who manages to escape her captor, then has to travel much farther than she could’ve ever imagined for her vengeance. As with the first Northwest Smith story this has an immediate impact: everything Jirel is, is here fully formed.
‘Tryst in Time’ (1936). Another love story, where a man who has grown bored with everything the modern world has to offer, who has tasted all adventure and sensation that’s in it, volunteers to be the guinea pig for his genius friend’s time machine. He gradually realises that in all the historic scenes he witnesses one girl remains constant and falls in love with her – but does she know him and could they ever be together?
‘Greater Than Gods’ (1939). On one man’s decision which of the two women he loved he wanted to marry rested the faith of the future. Hinging on this decision, Earth would become either a slowly dying, rural idyllic paradise, or it would rule the universe but at the cost of human happiness. Which alternative is better and is there truly no other option? As a story it does depend on a certain gender essentialism we’ve largely grown out of, but if you can swallow this, this is a clever, sentimental story.
‘Fruit of Knowledge’ (1940). According to Jewish legend, before Eve Adam had another wife, Lilith, who refused to be dominated by him and therefore was cast aside. Normally I don’t like this kind of Biblical fantasy, but Moore manages to make this story interesting by making Lilith a sympathetic character without quite making either Adam or Eve into the villains of the piece.
‘No Woman Born’ (1944). A woman, the greatest dancer of her generation, is caught in a horrible accident and given an experimental cyborg body, her brain in a metal shell. The male scientists and psychologists responsible for her transformation worry about her and whether or not she can remain human living like this. An interesting psychological story.
‘Daemon’ (1946). A simple-minded Brazilian boy is shanghaied on a Yankee clipper as a cabin boy, but he has a secret: he can see the soul or daemon every person but he himself carries with him. It keeps him alone in a world full of people, until on a small remote island he discovers others like him…
‘Vintage Season’ (1946). The best story in the collection, this bittersweet tale of how a group of strange foreigners hiring a house at the edge of an unnamed American city slowly are revealed to be time-travelling tourists with a penchant for the horrible and tragic. In this way Moore shows us the mirror image of how we ourselves treat historical horrors as entertainment, where whatever tragedy we’re witnessing can be dismissed as destiny, just as these tourist from the future dismiss what happens to the narrator and his city and world as something that happened long ago in their past…
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.