C.L. Moore is a
forgotten master of speculative fiction. During the golden age
of science fiction, she and her husband, Henry Kuttner, were
rightfully lauded among and above the masters of the genre. They
were the envied peers of one generation of writers and inspired
another before Kuttner’s young death in 1958 cut short their
careers. Over the next decade, without new works to keep the
interest of fickle publishers, their works slowly fell out of
print. If you’re under thirty, there’s a good chance you
won’t even recognize their names.
probably read their work. A handful of their short stories
continue to see nearly perpetual reprint as a dim testament to
their once titanic stature and limitless talent. Of these, the
story you’re most likely to have read is “Shambleau”: C.L.
Moore’s first published work of fiction and a lasting
masterpiece of the genre.
“Shambleau” is only one small part of a much larger
tapestry. Between 1933 and 1936,
would write nine stories featuring “Shambleau”’s star, the
enigmatic Northwest Smith.
To put this in
some context, imagine if the world only knew of Conan through a
continual and isolated reprinting of “The Tower of the
Elephant”. Or if James Bond was only remembered because CASINO
ROYALE was occasionally squeezed into an omnibus between three
unrelated novels with an introduction touting the fact that it
was once one of JFK’s favorite novels.
Such has been
the fate of Northwest Smith – an anti-hero and a rogue; an
utterly captivating figure drawn with a stunningly vivid
reality. His stories sweep us into a pulp future of science
fantasy. His boots track their way through the dusty sands of
Mars and the murky jungles of Venus, threading their way through
a queer mixture of young border towns and the ruined remnants of
ancient civilizations beyond human comprehension.
It is this
latter dichotomy which give the Northwest Smith stories their
unique flair and quality. Humanity, with the fervor and rawness
of the Wild West, has pushed out into a solar system
superficially drawn from Burroughs and his ilk. But lurking
scarcely beneath the surface of these worlds are elder gods and
forgotten civilizations utterly alien – their essentially
Lovecraftian nature fundamentally inimical to humanity.
I think it can
be strongly argued that, even as Robert E. Howard was
transforming the fantasy genre with a strong Lovecraftian
influence, C.L. Moore was doing the same to science fantasy. Of
course, like Howard,
was not simply grafting Lovecraft’s Mythos, she was making her
own unique contributions to it. A strong influence of Hellenic
myth lends her vision a singular identity, but it is ultimately
her disturbingly sensual take on Lovecraftian madness
’s work stand apart.
crafts from all these disparate elements is made utterly
’s sheer skill and attention to detail: You can see, hear,
smell, taste, and touch the fantastic vistas she conjures forth
before your mind’s eye. There is a tangible, persistent
texture to her creation, achieving the nigh-impossible goal of
making you forget that it is a creation: You are left
with the sensation of having read a chronicle which scarcely
scratches the surface of a depth you will never see.
At the center of
these tales, of course, there is Northwest Smith. And like the
worlds we see through his eyes, the larger-than-life Smith is
drawn with absolutely compelling depth and detail.
takes you directly into the heart of Smith’s soul and sets up
residence, giving you a blow-by-blow accounting of Smith’s
very being. Yet somehow, despite this easy – yet stunning –
intimacy with the character, Northwest Smith remains an enigma.
it is Northwest Smith who I foresee drawing me back to these
stories time and time again.