Review: Shambleau and Others

C.L. Moore
1953

Catherine Lucille Moore is probably the better known half of the Lewis Padgett team.  Her husband Henry Kuttner – the opposite half – being more prolific but writing under numerous pseudonyms.  I use the phrase ‘opposite half’ here for good reason.  I read Padgett’s ‘Robots Have No Tails’ several months ago (see the Close Up & Review) and since discovered that it was in fact as claimed by Moore herself, penned entirely by Kuttner.  These two books provide an interesting basis for comparison and I do indeed find Ms Moore’s and Mr Kuttner’s styles to be opposite.  ‘Robots’ is light, whimsical, funny and is a breeze to read.  ‘Shambleau’ is very, very different.  Dark, heavy and serious are words I’d use to describe Ms Moore’s work here.

While we are touching on the style of prose in this book, a couple of other authors sprang to mind while I was reading.  It didn’t take long for me to identify similarities with H.P. Lovecraft.  Quite often a turn of phrase here, or a word there would remind me of the great man.  Here is an example as Northwest Smith reflects upon “fearful symmetry” as he regards Thag – the Tree of Life – for the first time.

Truly a more than human agency must have arched these subtle curves so delicately into dreadfulness, into such an awful beauty that the very sight of it made those atavistic terrors he was so sternly holding down leap in a gibbering terror.

The Tree of Life, p153/154

I’m sure you’ll agree, this could be lifted straight out of any Lovecraft story.  I’m not suggesting C.L. Moore is an H.P.L. knock off, just illustrating how similar the prose is at times, and apparently Mr Lovecraft was a fan of Ms Moore’s according to a brief biography at Red Jacket Press.  I think I would place her in a stylistic space somewhere between Lovecraft for the darkness and depth, Clark Ashton Smith for slightly less archaic expression of the same and Mervyn Peake for her descriptive use and control of color.  Color features very heavily in every tale; she uses it very well to help us enter and visualize her stories.

Well, enough observation on the style front, what about the stories themselves??

This collection consists of four Northwest Smith stories and three Jirel of Joiry tales.  Each of the seven is an excellent entertaining (if dark) read.  But first, lets get the negative out of the way.  The structure of the stories are the same.  If we look at the four Northwest Smith tales, they all go something like this:

  • Smith is hanging out somewhere on some unnamed errand/mission.
  • Some unexpected person appears or random event happens.
  • Smith gets sidetracked into some sort of alternate dimension.
  • After a cool little adventure, Smith saves the day or otherwise escapes.
  • Smith’s nefarious life gets back on track.

You could more or less throw the same blanket over the Jirel tales as well.  This gave all the stories a kind of sameness that bugged me a little.  But, Ms Moore’s aforementioned wonderful style overrode this structural similarity and allowed me to just enjoy each.

On the positive side, I keep mentioning the style as a big plus, but also we get to know these characters very well.  They are very similar in many ways despite being of opposite genders.  Hard, uncompromising, strong, practical, and at the end of each tale it isn’t Jirel’s prowess with the sword, or Smith’s speed and skill with his blaster that come through as the determining factors, it’s their mental strength that enable them to overcome the sticky situations they find themselves in.  Indeed, there is very little physical action at all throughout this collection.  This is part of the reason why for me these individuals are elevated beyond the archetypal hero of typical pulp fare, and into the realms of true literary characters.  They have so much, well… character.

Thank you C.L. Moore, you have introduced me to two people that will stay with me forever:  Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.  Now I can’t wait to read the GP collection ‘Northwest of Earth’ for more dark adventures with these true heroes from the golden age of science fiction.

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