Thursday, October 18, 2007

By C.L. Moore

Northwest Smith is Jirel of Joiry’s outer-space companion. Both were created by C.L. Moore in the ‘30s and made regularly appeared in Weird Tales alongside Conan the Cimmerian, Cthulhu, and many other notable creations of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Moore definitely should be mentioned in that context because here work explores similar ground as the three greats, but with some rather different results.

Northwest Smith is a regulation space-opera hero, a smuggler and outlaw who shuttles from the lawless drylands of Mars to the reeking jungles of Venus. His best friend is Yarol, a handsome and deadly Venusian adventurer. In his spaceman’s leathers and with the fastest ray-gun this side of the asteroid belt, Smith might seem to be a precursor of Han Solo or Mal Reynolds. Smith doesn’t really encounter the same kind of situations they do though. Moore turned the space-opera adventure formula on its head even before it had really begun to harden into cliché.

One can reduce Moore’s formula to a simply equation: an action hero is transplanted into a horror story. That is not to say the stories are simplistic. Moore eschewed the straight-ahead violence and fast paced action of REH or Doc Smith. She gave her hero a hard-edged attitude and a man-of-action simplicity that contrasts with the often passive qualities of horror-story protagonists.

What Smith encounters are dreamworlds of great beauty and even greater terror. In “Shambleau” an act of selflessness on Smith’s part plunges him into a nightmare embrace that threatens to destroy his soul. Vampirism, whether for blood, or the soul, or beauty, or the spirit is a recurring motif in Moore’s stories. Everything that lives does so by taking, irrevocably, from the essence of others. “Shambleau”, “Black Thirst”, “The Tree of Life”, “Scarlet Dream”, and “Julhi”.

Moore’s other great motif is that of gods that have been forgotten or lost. “Dust of Gods” and “The Cold Gray God” both feature deities who have been forgotten by man but may forcefully return to this universe. “Lost Paradise” and “Yvala” put Smith and Yarol into head on confrontation with mythic powers.

While Moore’s plots may be simple, her imagery is vivid and filled with moments of great beauty and a rich language of symbolism that would keep a more psychoanalytically minded critic scribbling for months. Suffice to say that Moore’s unique blend of space-opera and horror will be of interest to fans of both genres.
-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I really like Moore's writing and you're dead on about the quality of her prose. I'm often torn as to whether I like Northwest Smith or Jirel better. Depends on my mood. Love 'em both.

Dave Hardy said...

It's good to see the Jirel and NW Smith sotires combined in a single, affordable volume. Now if they could only do the same for Leigh Bracket's Stark sotries...

BTW, there is a good article on Moore over at the Black Gate website.