Getting to the end of Vintage SciFi Month, I’m back to the 1930s again with the amazing Northwest Smith Stories by C. L. Moore. Lurid and pulpy though they are, well matching the Weird Tales cover art of Margaret Brundage, each story is a tour de force of riveting intensity. But be prepared. Lurid they most definitely are.
I was skeptical about Northwest Smith at first. After all, a space-faring, leather clad, ray-gun toting outlaw hero roaming the wild west-like streets of Venusian and Martian towns, or in the jungles of a moon of Jupiter? (Obviously, writers of the 30s weren’t encumbered by any real knowledge of what the solar system was like.) Well, the Northwest Smith stories are pulp fiction at its best, and I enjoyed the hell out of them.
That’s entirely because C. L. Moore’s remarkable writing lifts this material, complete with its male gaze and ethereally beautiful, compliant women, to an extraordinary level of descriptive power. Each of the stories in this Kindle edition delivers unforgettable supernatural adventure. And that despite the fact that they mostly follow the same pattern.
It goes like this. Northwest Smith is just hanging out in a bar or minding his business walking down a street when he is approached by a strange woman who lures him into uncanny adventure. Alternatively, a man accosts him, offering a lot of money if he will agree to go to some destination from which few have ever returned alive or sane. Sometimes he’s on his own, sometimes accompanied by his “little Venusian” friend, Yarol.
Often the women he encounters are more complicated than they might first appear:
“Obviously her milky, unseeing eyes held a magnetic power that carried her thoughts to him without the need of a common speech. And they were the eyes of a powerful mind, the outlets from which a stream of fierce energy poured into his brain. Yet the words they conveyed were the words of a terrified and helpless girl. A strong sense of wariness was rising in him as he considered the incongruity of speech and power, both of which were beating upon him more urgently with every breath.”Northwest Smith Stories, Kindle edition, Location 1117
Moore drew on the legends of Medusa, the Sirens and Circe, as one woman after another, usually in a trance herself, lures Smith into an altered state of consciousness induced by a vampiric force or a god trying to break its way back into the world of humans.
In each story, Smith loses his grip on reality and disappears into a trance or loses consciousness or travels deep into a transdimensional world that threatens to destroy him. Descriptions of these altered states of mind or transhuman reality are where Moore’s writing draws me in:
“For a mad instant his reason staggered before the terrible fascination beating out from that dweller in waves that wrenched at his very soul—incarnate loveliness tugging with strong fingers at every sense and every nerve and intangibly, irresistibly, at deeper things than these, groping among the roots of his being, dragging his soul out… Only one glance he took, and in the glance he felt his soul answer that dragging, and the terrible desire tore futilely through him.”Northwest Smith Stories, Kindle edition, Location 878
Every step of the way, Moore builds the tension of each adventure with her prose that itself becomes a mesmerizing force, and each climactic encounter with a terrible, life-sucking evil force never disappoints. Even though you know that Northwest will preserve some tiny corner of awareness and strong-willed resistance that will enable him to recover his humanity and fight back, it’s endlessly fascinating to let yourself be drawn into Moore’s long sentences that wind themselves into your mind.
“When she spoke, the sustained, fluting note of her voice was breathless as a whisper, and he realized anew how infinitely more eloquent it was than a voice which spoke in words. She could infuse into the vibrant lilt bloodstirring intensities and soft, rich purrs that went sweeping along his nerves like velvet. His whole body was responding to the pitch of her voice. … She was playing upon him as upon a harp, … And it strummed not only upon the responses of his body but also upon the chords of his very mind, waking thoughts to match her own, compelling him into the channels she desired. Her voice was purest magic, and he had not even the desire to resist it.”Northwest Smith Stories, Kindle edition, Location 2930-33
I won’t try to summarize each of the stories in this collection because to do so would reduce them to the bare pattern I’ve mentioned. That’s not what makes each one so surprising and intense. It’s the richness of Moore’s imagination and the skill of her writing that transform what could be absurdly pulpy into absorbing fiction.
C. L. Moore is now probably best known for creating the early female hero of sword and sorcery, Jirel of Joiry. Those stories have the same kind of intensity and drive as these, and I highly recommend them, even if you’re as skeptical as I was of these supernatural tales.
There was a remarkable range of SFF in the 1930s, and it’s worth going back to discover a period when women writers were breaking into commercial SFF. Yes, they had to disguise their gender with initials or male pseudonyms, and they mostly had to adopt the male-centered conventions of the time to sell their fiction. But they nevertheless produced great work that broke new ground. C. L. Moore was one of the best.