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.
But you’ve 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.
But “Shambleau” is only one small part of a much larger tapestry. Between 1933 and 1936, Moore 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, Moore 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 which makes Moore ’s work stand apart.
The universe which Moore crafts from all these disparate elements is made utterly believable through Moore ’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. Moore 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.
And, ultimately, it is Northwest Smith who I foresee drawing me back to these stories time and time again.
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