Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos: C. L. Moore


Catherine Lucille Moore worked by day as a secretary in Indianapolis during the Great Depression. By night, she was C. L. Moore, writer of the dark fantastic. Though many literary scholars have tried to lump her work into the science-fiction and fantasy genres, there’s no doubt Moore used those strange landscapes as mere window dressing for her tales. With strong, recurring characters and a flair for the weird, Moore published many stories in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and then later in Astounding Science Fiction. Her stories earned her praise from many of her contemporaries, including H.P. Lovecraft, and Henry Kuttner, who wrote her a letter not knowing she was a woman, then eventually married her after meeting her and collaborated with her on many stories.

The hat-tip here goes to Scott Nicolay, host of The Outer Dark, and a fantastic writer as well. He provided the gateway to Moore, suggesting her among many other female weird fiction writers. I’m not much of a fantasy fan, especially of the Sword & Sorcery variety. A quick scan of some of her work revealed that even though she knew her way around science-fiction and Sword & Sorcery, there was much more than just Conan rehashes going on there. Not that Robert E. Howard is a bad thing, it’s just that it’s very difficult to top what he brought to the genre, and if I’m going to indulge in those genres, I prefer the stories as dark and violent as possible. Moore does not disappoint in either of those departments, especially considering the time her tales were written. But there was the overall sense of doom, and dread, that infuse her stories, and she maintained that feeling throughout the work, allowing it to intensify with each turn of the page. And that—the feeling of dread combined with a strong sense of adventure—is one of the many things that sets her stories apart from other writers of those genres.

Moore’s tales typically deal with two main characters; Northwest Smith, a cavalier Buck Rogers type of antihero with a ray gun, globe hopping across the solar system; and Jirel of Joiry, a mysterious woman who tangles with the supernatural. While the Northwest stories appear to be based during a time of interplanetary travel, he often finds himself faced with mythological creatures. This is not just dropping a monster into a science-fiction setting and seeing what happens. Moore’s characters are not mere stereotypes, but quite fleshed out, and as flawed and complicated as you would expect from any modern writer. Jirel is a strong woman, fearless, and willing to face the supernatural, yet knows when she’s in over her head, displaying a very human restraint which only adds to the tension of the stories.

One such Northwest Smith story is ‘Shambleau’. First published in Weird Tales in 1933, the story features Smith’s encounter with a strange mythological creature. Without spoiling the story, Smith comes to the aid of a strange woman shunned from her community. Taking her under his wing, Smith begins to learn more about the woman while trying to figure out why the others didn’t want anything to do with her. She is different, somewhat crude even, with a strange appearance, but not necessarily unpleasant. In fact, it seems Smith is becoming a little attracted to her. It is at this point in the story that the weird begins to take over, and things become very strange indeed. Moore uses our own recollections of mythology as dramatic irony, and while this is very subtle, the way it affects Smith is intense, and quite personal.

‘Black God’s Kiss’ is a Jirel of Joiry tale steeped in Sword and Sorcery, and has opened my eyes to what that genre is capable of beyond Conan. Another tale first published in Weird Tales (1934), it features Jirel captured and forced against her will to submit to a terrible warlord. This is the beginning of an incredible journey with Jirel, covering several tales, culminating at last with a collaboration with Moore and her then husband, Henry Kuttner, that teamed Jirel with Northwest Smith. With this tale there is a little swordplay, but it is the sorcery that is abundant, with revenge beyond the grave and portals into other worlds. Are these parallel dimensions, dream-states, Hell? All of the above? Who knows except for Moore, and she leaves it all rather ambiguous.

“In a dream of dizziness and confusion she seemed to feel the iron-cold lips stirring under hers. And through the union of that kiss—warm-blooded woman with image of nameless stone—through the meeting of their mouths something entered into her very soul; something cold and stunning; something alien beyond words. It lay upon her shuddering soul like some frigid weight from the void, a bubble holding something unthinkably alien and dreadful. She could feel the heaviness of it upon some intangible part of her that shrank from the touch. It was like the weight of remorse or despair, only far colder and stranger and—somehow—more ominous, as if this weight were but the egg from which things might hatch too dreadful to put even into thoughts.”

With these tales, Moore manages to capture a strong, complex heroine while maintaining a sense of dread throughout. And this isn’t something that was tacked on to the story as an afterthought, but is effortlessly woven into the narrative from the first scenes onward. With this dread comes a sense of adventure, which surprisingly suits these tales just fine and adds to the tension. The worlds she builds are fluid and captivating, yet reminiscent of our own in ways we can all relate to. These fantastic settings amplify our own world, our own experiences, allowing us to step into the hero’s boots for a few moments. This is what makes the weird in her tales even more powerful, because we never see it coming, yet it never feels out of place. Moore’s tales contain a darkness, chaotic and nameless, which push her work further away from science-fiction and fantasy into the weird, perhaps more so than any of her contemporaries, except for Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  Of course, our focus here is the other practitioners of the weird, and readers could only enhance their experience by reading Moore’s tales.

Fortunately, most of C.L. Moore’s work is in eBook form and paperback reprints from 3rd party suppliers online, so finding her tales is as easy as a few keystrokes. Readers seeking something out of the ordinary in weird fiction will do no wrong reading her work. Next month, as winter begins, we will visit one of the coldest places known to man, and see how a group of men face a cosmic terror with a tale many are familiar with. Join me in December as we explore Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell.



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