Retrospective: The Best of C.L. Moore, by Jeffro Johnson

C.L. Moore, author The Black God’s Kiss, billed as “the weirdest story ever told”, was both prolific and profound in her influence on science fiction in her day; Jeffro Johnson looks at the work of this author who is today often erased or forgotten!

C. L. Moore is a difficult author to discuss. In the first place, she is so revered she makes for an imposing subject matter. On the other hand, the things that are most often asserted about her are in fact false. She did not, for instance, cloak her identity as a woman in order to break into the field of science fiction.[1] Meanwhile, the era in which she wrote has been virtually erased from science fiction history. If the pulp period comes up at all, it is often mischaracterized, dismissed, discounted, or even slandered. In the minds of even dedicated fans, science fiction leaps from the days of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells directly to the “The Big Three” of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov.

Where does that leave us? It means that if C. L. Moore is ever brought up, it is typically in a passing remark about how she revolutionized science fiction and fantasy with her groundbreaking female protagonists. People will venerate her… but very few people are discussing her actual work. And that’s a shame, really—her stories are positively stellar, and they really hold up. She deserves better, really. You see, C. L. Moore wrote some of the best science fiction and fantasy ever penned. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that her work is in some cases better than what is generally accepted as the “best” the field has to offer—better than Dune. Better than the Foundation Trilogy. Better even than Earthsea or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Now, a longtime fan might point out that this goes without saying, but it really doesn’t. Fandom has moved on more than once since Moore’s day. From any given era, there’s often only room for a couple of giants to remain in the collective consciousness. In role-playing games, for instance, Marc Miller and Ken St. Andre do not have even a fraction of the stature of a Gary Gygax, despite the depth and breadth of their contributions. Moore is similarly overshadowed by H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, perhaps because the latter two launched two distinctive genres that endure to this day. And while Moore can be credited with doing the first “time tours” story, that’s a fairly niche thing that isn’t really comparable to Cthulhu mythos or swords & sorcery.

The thing that most strikes me in reading The Best of C. L. Moore is the extent to which she fits in with the other writers of her period. This is something that is left out of the tributes to her by people that are only interested in portraying her as laying the groundwork that would prepare the way for later and radically subversive authors. But while Moore may have legitimately been an inspiration to such people, she betrays absolutely no desire to play the part of an iconoclast. Given that Francis Stevens actually followed that route decades before Moore even hit the scene, the fact that Moore passed on that approach is not because it was unthinkable at the time.[2]

Indeed, Moore was a fan of the top weird fiction authors of her day. In a letter to Robert E. Howard, she gushed that she stood “in absolute awe” of him. Her stories have countless connections to other pulp tales that betray just how deeply she embraced the conventions of the field. “Shambleau” is a horror story that reworks a classical myth in the context of a science fiction setting. The result is well in line with weird fiction dating back to even before the twenties. The low-gravity super-leaps of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter put in an appearance in her “Black God’s Kiss”, as does the weird mind-bending geometry invoked in Lovecraft’s stories. “Tryst in Time” begins like one of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Haskel van Manderpootz stories—with the hero being cut from virtually the same cloth as the protagonist from A. Merritt’s “Through the Dragon Glass.”

While it is not unusual for authors of this period to reference the classics in their stories—de Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea stories romped through everything from Spenser’s Fairie Queen, the Orlando Furioso, and the Kalevala, for instance—Moore maybe shows a little more panache here. Her “No Woman Born” is in conversation with James Stephens’s poem “Deirdre” while recapitulating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her “Vintage Season” invokes Chaucer’s Pardoner. Similarly, her famous Jirel of Joiry stories are not set in some watered-down never-never land but take place in a fully realized historical setting—a fact which is made clear the moment the title character dons the “greaves of some forgotten legionary” and heads off into a frightening underworld in search of some arcane implement of revenge.

It had to be that way, of course. Weird fiction necessarily drew on a wealth of literature, myth, legend, and history because there simply wasn’t a large body of genre fiction to borrow from or build on at the time. This is the environment that the literary antecedents of Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca sprang from. (They are patterned after characters like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Dejah Thoris and C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Yarol, of course.) While her peers are often chided for their facile and dated notions about how the future would ultimately play out, Moore succeeded in transcending the conventions of her day. Compare “Vintage Season” to Fredric Brown’s depictions of far future vacuum tubes, Canada’s prohibition, and bebop-like eighties music which he extrapolated in his story “Pi in the Sky”. Just as Stanley G. Weinbaum produced some of the first aliens that were truly alien, Moore managed to create time travelers from the future that are just as believable now as they were in 1946.

I do have to admit that I do feel somewhat betrayed. C. L. Moore’s work is so good that I really do wonder why no one insisted I read it before now. More than that, it puts the lie to nearly everything I’ve ever heard said about the pulp era. According to the reigning stereotypes, it’s supposedly all about square-jawed heroes punching evil in the face in order to get the girl in the end. But far from being exercises in misogyny or Madonna-Whore complexes, it was not uncommon for the stories to achieve almost transcendental effects when dealing with romance. Where Belit’s love for Robert E. Howard’s Conan made it possible for her to return from the grave to save him, C. L. Moore’s love-struck characters from “The Bright Illusion” were willing to gamble everything on the small chance that they might be reunited in the afterlife. Her “Tryst in Time” presents a romance that is gradually developed across dozens of time periods. While the emotional beats she presents are often a little more nuanced thanks to the perspective that she brings that her male colleagues lacked, she is nevertheless just as much of a romantic as A. Merritt.

What is perhaps most surprising about Moore’s stories is her handling of religious elements. Now… she was not unusual in her penchant for relying on Christian lore in her tales. That sort of thing was almost ubiquitous during the pulp era. Where Moore stood out from the crowd was in how far she went developing these elements. Sometimes she is subtle with them, of course—as in prayer and concepts of God being ancient invocations against a very real evil in “Shambleau”, and in “Black Thirst” there is a palpable threat of a damnation—a fate worse than death that is never fully defined. In “Fruit of Knowledge”, however, she turns the story of Adam and Eve into what can only be described as an epic romance which hinges on imbuing the concept of “forsaking all others” with a supernatural significance.

Recent fantasy and horror fans that have grown up under the assumption that these genres are necessarily irreligious or anti-Christian will be shocked to see that Jirel of Joiry—one of the most famous fighting-woman of all time—adventures in a setting where a Crucifix has significant power:

Abruptly she felt the immense, imponderable oppression cease. No longer was she conscious of the tons of earth pressing about her. The walls had fallen away and her feet struck a sudden rubble instead of the smooth floor. But the darkness that had bandaged her eyes was changed too, indescribably. It was no longer darkness, but void; not an absence of light, but simple nothingness. Abysses opened around her, yet she could see nothing. She only knew that she stood at the threshold of some immense space and sensed nameless things about her, and battled vainly against that nothingness which was all her straining eyes could see. And at her throat something constricted painfully.

She lifted her hand and found the chain of her crucifix taut and vibrant around her neck. At that she smiled a little grimly for she began to understand. The crucifix. She found her hand shaking despite herself, but she unfastened the chain and dropped the cross to the ground. Then she gasped.

All about her, as suddenly as the awakening from a dream, the nothingness had opened out into undreamed-of distances. She stood high on a hilltop under a sky spangled with strange stars. Below she caught glimpses of misty plains and valleys with mountain peaks rising far away. And at her feet a ravening circle of small, slavering, blind things leaped with clashing teeth.

This is not a setting where its peoples’ sincere beliefs are the root cause of the power of religious artifacts. Christianity here corresponds to reality in significant ways just as it does in Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions”. And this is not the only parallel between Anderson and Moore on this point. Her story “Daemon” has passages like this that are very similar to ones in Anderson’s “The Broken Sword”:

“I asked about the banishment, and they said that it had happened long ago, very long ago. A great star had stood still in the sky over a stable in a town whose name I do not know. Once I knew it. I do not remember now. It was a town with a beautiful name.

The skies opened and there was singing in the heavens, and after that the gods of Greece had to flee. They have been fleeing ever since.”

And for those wishing to know more about how the question of whether or not elves have souls can be an absolutely critical question in a fantasy setting, that same story has this passage:

“Those who lost their power when the Child was born can never lay hands upon men who possess a soul. Even a soul as evil as the captain’s stood like a rock between him and the touch of Pan. Only the pipes could reach a human’s ears, but there was that in the sound of the pipes which did all Pan needed to do.”

But it’s not these explicitly Christian elements that cause so many of today’s readers to recoil in horror from her work. Really it is the things that she brought to weird fiction as a woman that will be most “problematic.” As Matthew Gatheringwater puts it in his review on Goodreads:

“C.L. Moore is on my feminist history of science fiction reading list, but the role of women in her stories is not exactly liberated. In fact, it is pretty disturbing, even when considered within its own cultural context. Despite this, she turns out to the author [sic] of stories I’ve never forgotten after reading them once during childhood. Vintage Season is timeless, despite having been written in 1946. Still, her particular kind of horror–dark, wet, clinging, and feminine–is not mine.”

And it’s true. C. L. Moore’s stories are drenched in an overpowering femininity that is practically unimaginable today. As tough and streetwise as Northwest Smith is, he is nevertheless powerless in the face of the Shambleau’s glamour. He’s so mesmerized that he can’t even agree to kill such a dangerous creature on sight in spite of the mortal threat he knows it poses. Jirel of Joiry, in her most famous story, defeats her antagonist not with superior swordplay but with a demonic kiss.

“Greater than Gods” presents a woman-dominated future that is devoid of war as many later science fiction writers posit. The kicker is that it’s nevertheless completely primitive due to woman’s lack of interest in science, invention, mechanics, and engineering. Even that is not so offensive to today’s ethos as what she did in “No Woman Born”. Compare it to Kary English’s 2014 story “Totaled” where a female scientist becomes a “brain in a jar”—the few weeks Kary’s protagonist gains as a result of this are dedicated to completing her research and gaining recognition for it. In contrast, Moore’s protagonist focused on song and dance—she is successful in making a comeback as a performer in her lithe robotic body… but even as she is consumed with being beautiful and feminine, there is nevertheless a manic edge to her emotional state that threatens to turn her into a striking answer to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moore’s writing is surprisingly potent horror. I’m not sure that people can really write something like that today. And though people like Mr. Gatheringwater are legion, I can’t help but think that Moore had access to an emotional palette that far exceeds what is conceivable among today’s creators. She certainly deserves every accolade she has ever gotten as a grandmaster of science fiction.

Jeffro Johnson is the Hugo-nominated author of “Appendix N” and the editor of the Castalia House blog

[1] See “C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett (pulps–1950s)” by Glason Marques for details.

[2] See my post at the Castalia House blog on “Friend Island” by Francis Stevens for more on this.