As to the work of C. L. Moore—I don’t agree with your low estimate. These tales have a peculiar quality of cosmic weirdness, hard to define but easy to recognise, which makrs them out as really unique. […] In these tales there is an indefinable atmosphere of vague outsidesness & cosmic dread which marks weird work of the best sort. How notably they contrast with the average pulp product—whose bizarre subject-matter is wholly neutralised by the brisk, almost cheerful manner of narration! Whether the Moore tales will keep their pristine quality or deterioriate as their author picks up the methods, formulae, & style of cheap magazine fiction, still remains to be seen.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William F. Anger, 28 Jan 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 227
C. L. Moore burst into the pages of Weird Tales in 1933 with “Shambleau”—a science fantasy that earned universal praise and introduced her character Northwest Smith. She followed that success with three more tales of Smith: “Black Thirst” (WT Apr 1934), “Scarlet Dream” (WT May 1934), and “Dust of the Gods” (WT Aug 1934). These stories were all self-contained, with a common setting and and characters, but with no strong narrative continuity. These episodes all took place during Smith’s life as an interstellar outlaw, but there was no overarching plot between episodes, and few if any clues to put them in any order aside from order of publication.
Then in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, Moore introduced a new character—a fiery, red-headed warrior-woman in medieval France—Jirel of Joiry. In later years, recalling the character, Moore remembered:
Long, long ago I had thoughts of a belligerent dame who must have been her progenitor, and went so far as to begin a story which went something like this: “The noise of battle beating up around the walls of Arazon castle rang sweetly in the ears of Arazon’s warrior lady.” And I think it went no farther. So far as I know she stands ther eyet listening to the tumult of an eternal battle. Back to her Jirel of Joiry no doubt traces her ancestry.
Jirel’s Guillaume whom I so ruthlessly slew in the first of her stories, yet whom I can’t quite let die, was patterned after the drawing of Pav of Romne with which I illustrated her latest story, “The Dark Land” in Weird Tales. I made that drawing somewhere in the remote past, and have cherished it all these yars in the confidence taht someday it would come in handy. I meant to use it to illustrate “Black God’s Kiss,” first of the Jirel tales, but somehow the story got out of hand, and I’ve never since been able to introduce a situation it would fit until “The Dark Land.”
—C. L. Moore, “An Autobiographical Sketch of C. L. Moore,” Echoes of Valor 2, 37-38
Weird Tales Jan 1936
In later years, she would write of her two most famous redheads:
Shambleau and Jirel bear a close relationship to each other, and both, I believe, unconsciously reflect the woman I wish I could have been. I owe a great deal of my literary outpourings to Himself, My Unconscious.
—C. L. Moore, The Faces of Science Fiction
The basic plot, of a strange journey and a Faustian bargain, are familiar enough elements from a dozen weird fiction stories. Female protagonists, especially swordswomen, were rare. Robert E. Howard had included Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast” (WT May 1934), and long-time readers might recall R. T. M. Scott’s “Nimba, The Cave Girl” (WT Mar 1923), so it wasn’t as if Jirel was exactly the first to grace the pages of the Unique Magazine—but Moore brought her own unique style.
At least, H. P. Lovecraft thought so, and wasn’t shy to tell others about it:
Black God great stuff—real nightmare outsideness.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 7 Oct 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 183
Oct. W.T. about average, on the whole. The Moore item is really very notable—full of a tensity & atmospheric suggestion of encroaching dream-worlds which none of the other authors seem able to achieve. I’ll try to look up the item in Astounding, even though it be les from the the hackneyed & conventional.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Oct 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 187
“The Black God’s Kiss”, despite overtones of conventional romance, is great stuff. The other-world descriptions & suggestions are stupendous.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin et al. 248
Nor was Lovecraft alone in his praise, as the story received praise in “The Eyrie,” Weird Tales‘ letters pages, such as:
I (and I’m sure many others) want to hear a great deal more of Jirel. She’s the kind of person I’d like to be myself. A sort of feminine version of Conan the Cimmerian. He, too, is one of my favorites.
—Mary A. Conklin, Weird Tales Dec 1934
The creator of Cthulhu’s admiration for the tale can be easily understood; this is easily the most Lovecraftian of C. L. Moore’s early stories. Jirel’s descent into the tunnel recalls stories like Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Festival,” and her description is as pure an effort at non-Euclidean geometry as anything Lovecraft attempted:
There was something queer about the angles of those curves. She was no scholar in geometry or aught else, but she felt intuitively that the bend and slant of the way she went were somehow outside any other angles or bends she had ever known.
—C. L. Moore, “Black God’s Kiss” in Weird Tales Oct 1934
The comparison of Jirel with Conan is one that would be made again, as Jirel and the Cimmerian’s adventures continued. They were contemporaries, and their creators thought a bit alike, as they would find out through correspondence, when Robert E. Howard let her read his own story about a flame-haired French swordswoman, Dark Agnes de Chastillon. Moore’s Jirel stories tend to lean more into the sorcery than the swordplay; while she has a sword and uses it in “Black God’s Kiss,” her quest is a very un-Conan-like one for a sorcerous weapon to aid her where force of arms has failed, and in many of her other stories she faces supernatural threats where her blade is useless.
If many of the readers liked “Black God’s Kiss,” at least one of them did not:
The Black God’s Kiss was by far the poorest C. L. Moore story yet. The first three of C. L. Moore’s tales were excellent, but the last two were rather pediculous.
—Fred Anger, Weird Tales Dec 1934
William F. Anger’s sour note in “The Eyrie” might be forgotten, except for one coincidence: he had become a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft had not yet started to correspond with C. L. Moore, as he later would, he felt obliged to defend the merits of Moore’s fiction, including “Black God’s Kiss”:
Regarding the Moore stories—one has to separate the undeniably hackneyed & mechanical romance from the often remarkable background against which it is arrayed. “The Black God’s Kiss” had a vastly clever setting—the pre-human tunnel beneath the castle, the upsetting of gravitational & dimensional balance, the strange, ultra-dimensional world of unknown laws & shapes & phenomena, &c. &c. If that could be taken out of the sentimental plot & made the scene of events of really cosmically bizarre motivation, it would be tremendously powerful. The distinctive thing about Miss Moore is her ability to devise conditions & sights & phenomena of utter strangeness & originality, & to describe them in a language conveying something of their outre, phantasmagoric, & dread-filled quality. That in itself is an accomplishment possessed by very few of the contributors to the cheap pulp magazines. For the most part, allegedly “Weird” writers phrase their stories in such a brisk, cheerful, matter-of-fact, colloquial, dialogue-ridden sort of style that all genuine ene of shadow & menace is lost. So far, Miss M. has escaped this pitfall; though continued writing for miserable rags like the current pulps will probably spoil her as it has spoiled Quinn, Hamilton, & all the rest. The editors will encourage her worst tendencies—the sticky romance & cheap “Action”—& discourage everything of real merit (the macabre language, the original descriptive touches, the indefinite atmosphere, the brooding tension, &c.) which her present work possesses. Nothing will ever teach the asses who peddle cheap magazines that a weird story should not & cannot be an “action” or “character” story. The only justification for a weird tale is that it be an authentic & convincing picture of a certain human mood; & this means that vague impressions & atmosphere must predominate. Events must not be crowded, & human characters must not assume too great importance. The real protagonists of fantasy fiction are not people but phenomena. The logical climax is not a revelation of what somebody does, but a glimpse of the existence of some condition contrary to nature as commonly accepted.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William F. Anger, 16 Feb 1935, LRBO 229
While Lovecraft never wrote these exact words to C. L. Moore, when they did get to corresponding she had her own response:
Also, since I’m disagreeing with everything today, I’ll have a shot at your dislike for romance contrasted with your love and understanding of fantasy. You don’t ahve to take Dumas any more literally than you do Dunsany. Of course lots of people probably do look persistently through rose-colored glasses, but then dear, sincere old Lumley believes implicitly in his phantasms. To me it’s just as pleasant to imagine during the duration of the story that there is a loely springtime world people exclusively by handsome heroes and exquisite heroines and life is one long romp of adventure with no unpleasant attribtues at all, as it is to believe for the length of the story that time, space and natural law can be elastic enough to permit the existence of a Shambleau or a Cthulhu (have I spelled him right?). Your point, of course, is that to be acceptable as release-literature the hapenings must be incredibly outside, not aganst the phenomena of nature. Does that mean that you can’t with self-respect, enjoy Howard’s gorgeous Conan sagas, which are surely pure romance for the most part?
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 88-89
A large part of the charm in the early Moore stories, be they tales of Northwest Smith or Jirel of Joiry or science fiction tales like “The Bright Illusion” (Astounding Stories Oct 1934) is the imaginative and lush descriptions, often trying to capture in words some utterly alien emotion or experience above and beyond what anyone might imagine a young woman working as a secretary in an Indianapolis bank during the Great Depression might ever dream of. Yet she did dream them, and her early fantasies made a mark.
There are two interesting sequels to “Black God’s Kiss.” The first is quite literally a direct sequel: “Black God’s Shadow” was published only a couple months later in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This would be the first direct sequel she had ever written, a step away from the disconnected adventures of Northwest Smith—and while she never developed the setting of Joiry with as much depth as Robert E. Howard did the Hyborian Age for Conan, it was still a step in the direction of the fantasy worlds that would follow in coming decades.
The second sequel is more complicated. In early 1934, Lovecraft’s young friend R. H. Barlow began to correspond with C. L. Moore. Barlow learned that Moore was in talks with William Crawford to try and publish some of her stories. Barlow was an amateur printer and bookbinder, and wanted to publish a small edition of her stories. The correspondence between C. L. Moore and Lovecraft actually began when Barlow enlisted Lovecraft’s aid to try and convince here to give Barlow the good stories:
I shall be glad to cooperate in any way possible, & will endeavour at the earliest opportunity to write the authoress such a letter as you suggest—pointing out sound as distinguished from commercial lines of development, yet avoiding any air of supercilious fault finding or lack of appreciativeness. There is no question but that her work possesses a strain of authentic cosmic alienage & extreme originality found in no other weirdist since Klarkash-Ton—a pervasive atmospheric tension, & a curious facility in evoking images of utter trangeness & suggesting monstrous gateways from the tri-dimensional world to other spheres of entity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Mar 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 217
There was some finagling, but eventually Barlow and Lovecraft convinced Moore to allow Barlow to publish a small edition containing “Shambleau,” “Black Thirst,” and “Black God’s Kiss”—Lovecraft considered her best stories at the time. As it happened, neither Barlow or Crawford’s volumes ever came to press, although Barlow did print and bind some other works of Moore’s, notably a few copies of “Were-Woman.”
Without “Black God’s Kiss” and Jirel of Joiry, H. P. Lovecaft and C. L. Moore may never have begun to correspond—which would have changed the trajectory of both their lives.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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