Wednesday, June 1, 2016

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories are classic sword-and-planet tales (with a fairly generous helping at times of out-and-out horror) from the pulp magazines. They were originally published in Weird Tales between 1933 and 1936.

Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987) was one of the more notable female pulp writers and is best remembered for the Northwest Smith stories and for her Jirel of Joiry sword-and-sorcery tales.

Northwest Smith is a kind of early prototype of Han Solo - a space adventurer whose activities are generally not exactly legal. In fact they’re mostly totally illegal. He’s brave and sometimes noble but he’s not overly burdened by moral scruples. 

Her first and most famous Northwest Smith story is Shambleau, a tale of an alien mind vampire. The story, set on Mars, is a futuristic take on the legend of Medusa. It’s a fine and very atmospheric story and it’s most intriguing aspect is that it features Smith displaying certain definite character flaws, or at least very human weaknesses. This makes him a decidedly unusual adventure hero. It’s also noteworthy for its unflinching look at the perils of sensual addiction and the price that must be paid for the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Hedonism proves to be a snare and a delusion.

Also interesting is Moore’s idea that the human conquest of space at some time in the future is merely an echo of a more ancient conquest. She is an author fascinated by the idea of mingling the distant future with the very ancient past and she does it with remarkable confidence.

If pleasure can be dangerous so can beauty, as we see in Black Thirst. The Minga is a shadowy ancient organisation based on Venus. The Minga castle is where they breed women. Very beautiful women. Impossibly beautiful women. Dangerously beautiful women. The purpose behind this is obscure, lost in the mists of time, although it is fair to assume that power has a good deal to do with it.

The Tree of Life is a rather ambitious story. Northwest Smith is lured into a strange world by a sobbing girl - a girl who seems oddly insubstantial. It’s a kind of artificial world, or even an artificial mini-universe, created aeons ago by a Martian wizard named Illar. Although it’s obvious Illar was more a master of science so advanced it defies comprehension than a master of magic. What Northwest Smith finds in this artificial world is a horror that sends him to the brink of madness. In this tale Moore demonstrates her ability to deal with big concepts and cosmic timescales and she also demonstrates her rather extraordinary gifts of imagination. This is a lot more than just a pulp adventure tale.

Scarlet Dream is another hidden world story. A pattern on a shawl transports Smith to a dream world, but is it a dream or another reality? Either way it’s a strangely seductive world of terror. 

Smith and his Venusian partner have undertaken some strange jobs during their careers but never before have they taken in anything quite so strange as searching for the dust that is all that remains of a long-dead god in Dust of Gods. Although whether the god is really dead or not is another matter, gods by their very nature being deathless. Why would would anyone employ them to perform such a task, a task that has sent other men mad? While Moore cannot be described as a Lovecraftian writer she does at times touch on subject with some affinities to Lovecraft’s work and elder gods, gods that existed before the Earth’s oceans had even cooled, is a slightly Lovecraftian concept. Moore’s ancient gods also bear some vague resemblance to Lovecraft’s in that they are not evil as such but so alien and so indifferent to humanity that they are effectively indistinguishable from actual evil. And there are those who still worship these elder gods. Moore handles the material quite differently from the way Lovecraft would have handled it - she was in no sense merely a Lovecraft imitator.

Lost Paradise explores similar themes. A chance encounter with a strange little white-haired man has momentous consequences. The man belongs to a mysterious and very ancient race living in the mountains of Tibet but they came originally from somewhere else, and possibly not from anywhere on Earth. This race has a Secret. Smith learns the secret, and perhaps it was a secret it would have been better not to know. The secret lies in the dim past and that’s where Smith finds himself. This is an unconventional time-travel time and once again  it touches on the theme of strange alien gods, gods that may not be entirely benign. Another ambitious story, superbly executed and with a zinger of a twist.

In Julhi a door has been opened between two different realities. The doorway is a ruined city built by a sorcerer-king with (so the rumour goes) assistance from strange entities. Northwest Smith encounters a girl who is they key to this door. The other reality is peopled by beings who have their own distinctive and very hedonistic outlook on life and they take a great interest in the humans they now encounter - an interest that might not be entirely healthy. This a typical Moore story - more focused on ideas than action, wildly imaginative and more than a little disturbing. A very fine story.

In The Cold Gray God Smith has to struggle for his survival against a goddess, and one with rather unpleasant designs on him.

Yvara finds Smith on one of the moons of Jupiter, a moon inhabited by a large number of very beautiful women. Trouble is they’re just too beautiful and they all look exactly alike. It doesn’t seem natural, and it isn’t. 

There are certain theme that run through Moore’s work. Vampirism is one but Moore’s vampires have little in common with conventional vampires - they are both more subtle and more dangerous. They are mind vampires, or emotional vampires, or sensual vampires. Beauty and sensual pleasure are like drugs and can be every bit as addictive and every bit as destructive.

The pulp magazines printed their share of stories that were nothing more than lightweight entertainment but they also printed stories by far more ambitious writers and Moore qualifies as one of the most ambitious of all. She is entertaining whilst also being rather cerebral and her imagination is startling and original. Despite some occasional superficial similarities to Lovecraft she is very much a writer with her own voice and her own style. She has always had a following but sadly she remains relatively little known even among science fiction fans. She deserves to be recognised as a major writer in the genre. Very highly recommended.


  1. Catherine Moore, together with her better-known husband Henry Kuttner, produced two classic short pieces of SF: "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," and the novelette "Vintage Season." Both were disturbing and fascinating stories, and both are in the [i]Science Fiction Hall of Fame[/i] volumes edited by Robert Silverberg.

    1. I haven't read much of Henry Kuttner's work but he's on my list of writers I need to get around to reading.