[…] it was a rainy afternoon in the middle of the Depression, I had nothing to do—but I really should’ve looked busy because jobs were hard to get! I didn’t want to appear that I wasn’t earning my daily keep! To take up time, I was practicing things on the typewriter to improve my speed—things like ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” That got boring, so I began to write bits of poetry I remembered from my college courses…in particular, I was quoting a poem called “The Haystack in the Flood.” […] The poem was about a woman in 13th century France who is being pursued by enemies of some kind…she was running across a field and these men were after her. I had misquoted a line in my mind, as well as on the typewriter, and referred to a “Red, running figure.” […] At the time I thought, “Ha! A red, running figure! Why is she running? Who is she running from and where is she running to? What’s going to happen to her? Strangely enough, I just swung from that line of poetry into the opening of “Shambleau.”
—”Interview: C. L. Moore Talks To Chacal” in Chacal #1 (1976), 26
Red running lions dismally
Grinn’d from his pennon, under which,
In one straight line along the ditch,
They counted thirty heads.
—William Morris, “The Haystack in the Floods”
Then into his range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street. It was a girl — a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933
Catherine Lucille Moore was was 22 years old in 1933, and engaged to be married. The Great Depression had nixed her short-lived effort to go to college, and she had gotten a job as a typist at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis—where her fiance also worked. In her spare time, she read pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding, and Weird Tales—and began to write and submit stories to them.
“Shambleau” was the first tale of Northwest Smith to hit print; the protagonist was inspired by a depositor at her company, who signed their letters as “N. W. Smith.” (“C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner” in Science Fiction Writers 161-167), and originally was meant for an entirely different genre:
I have remotest glimmers of memory about a wild, wild Western that never went beyond the idea that there ought to be a One-Eyed Jack, (possibly of hearts) and a Northwest Smith on a ranch called the Bar-Nothing. Thence the name, but whence the character no one knows, least of all myself. When I first began to consider him as a space-ranger, I was guilty of a saga which started out,
Northwest Smith was a hard-boiled guy
With an iron fist and a roving eye—
of which the less is said the better.
—C. L. Moore, Echoes of Valor II, 37
Northwest Smith would not be quite a space cowboy, but the literary genesis makes sense. The Martian town presented is the spaceport equivalent of a little town out west, maybe up by the Canadian border or down south near Mexico—the kind of place that attracts lean, hungry operators who reach for the heat-gun on their hips as easily as a shootist might reach for the big iron on their hip. Other details of the story were more prosaic; for instance, Moore maintained that the name “Yarol” had derived from the Royal typewriter she was using to type the story (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 10 Sep-9 Oct 1934).
The manuscript for the story ended up on the desk of Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales:
The peak was reached in 1933, when he handed me something by one C. L. Moore.
“Read this!” he commanded, the moment I stepped into the new editorial rooms at 840 North Michigan Avenue, in Chicago.
I obeyed. The story commanded my attention. There was no escape. I forgot that I needed food and drink—I’d driven a long way. […] The stranger’s narrative prevailed until, finally, I drew a deep breath, exhaled, flipped the last sheet to the back of the pack, and looked again at the by-line. Never heard of it before.
“For Christ’s sweet sake, who and what is this C. L. Moore?”
He wagged his head, gave me an I-told-you-so-grimace.
We declared C. L. Moore day. I’d met Northwest Smith, and Shambleau.
—E. Hoffmann Price, Book of the Dead 16
The story was ~11,000 words. Farnsworth Wright wrote to Moore and offered $100; a cent-per-word, payable on publication, was the average for a Weird Tales story.
[…] after I sent it off to WT, I more or less forgot about it. One day I came home from work and there was a long letter on the hall table for me. I opened it up and it said that they were going to pay me a hundred dollars. And that was like TEN THOUSAND dollars at that time. I screamed at the top of my voice! My father came charging downstairs thinking that I had been murdered or something (laughter) and nobody believed it until they read the letter. Then joy was completely unconfined—everyone was so happy about it.
—”Interview: C. L. Moore Talks To Chacal” in Chacal #1 (1976), 27
It wasn’t her first publication, because Moore had a few things published during her brief time at college, but it was her first professional sale…but she couldn’t quit her dayjob just yet.
I used the initials “C. L.” simply because I didn’t want it to be known at the bank that I had an extra source of income. I wrote “Shambleau” in the midst of the Depression. The bank was a very paternalistic organization. If was always firing those people whose services weren’t really needed. I had the feeling they might have fired me had they known I was earning extra income. Using my initials was simply a means of obscuring my identity.
—Pulp Voices; or Science Fiction Voices #6 47
“Shambleau” saw print in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales. Competition in the issue was stiff: regulars and fan favorites like Edmond Hamilton, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith filled the issue…yet it was “Shambleau” and C. L. Moore which garnered the most attention, the most praise. For the sixteen years that Farnsworth Wright edited Weird Tales, he kept a tally of the most popular stories of all time—and not only was “Shambleau” the most popular story of the issue—it was the most popular story of 1933, and the second-most popular story to ever run in the magazine, beating out “The Outsider” by H. P. Lovecraft (3rd place), and second only to A. Merritt’s “The Woman of the Wood” (Weird Tales Aug 1926).
It was the most impressive arrival that any writer ever had at Weird Tales…and it’s easy to see why.
Shambleau! Vaguely of French origin, it must be. And strange enough to hear it from the lips of Venusians and Martian drylanders, but it was their use of it that puzzled him more. “We never let those things live,” the ex-Patrolman had said. It reminded him dimly of something … an ancient line from some writing in his own tongue . . . “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” He smiled to himself at the similarity, and simultaneously was aware of the girl at his elbow.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933
The world is rich, lived-in, and perhaps a little like the Martian stories that Clark Ashton Smith had begun to write, such as “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales May 1932) and “The Dweller in the Gulf” (Wonder Stories March 1933). Aliens, Medusa, and Mars were all familiar to readers of weird fiction in the 1930s, and even the tentacle’d horror was no stranger to Weird Tales, though rarely in so sexually suggestive a manner; Robert E. Howard had beaten her to the punch with “The Slithering Shadow” (Weird Tales September 1933) just a couple months before, but both offered the readers suggestions of new and thrilling sins:
A dark tentacle-like member slid about her body, and she screamed at the touch of it on her naked flesh. It was neither warm nor cold, rough nor smooth; it was like nothing that had ever touched her before, and at its caress she knew such fear and shame as she had never dreamed of. All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to down her in seas of cosmic filth.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Slithering Shadow” in Weird Tales September 1933
And something . . . some nameless, unthinkable thing . . . was coiled about his throat . . . something like a soft snake, wet and warm. It lay loose and light about his neck . . . and it was moving gently, very gently, with a soft, caressive pressure that sent little thrills of delight through every nerve and fiber of him, a perilous delight—beyond physical pleasure, deeper than joy of the mind. That warm softness was caressing the very roots of his soul with a terrible intimacy. The ecstasy of it left him weak, and yet he knew—in a flash of knowledge born of this impossible dream—that the soul should not be handled. . . . And with that knowledge a horror broke upon him, turning the pleasure into a rapture of revulsion, hateful, horrible—but still most foully sweet.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933
There were few hard lines between science fiction and fantasy in the 1930s, and C. L. Moore didn’t give a damn for any such distinctions; her Northwest Smith stories often involve encounters with alien gods, sorcerers, and other supernatural elements. Her characters are often driven to terrible experiences that tax and imperil the mind and spirit as much the physical body, seek to describe such states of mingled ecstasy in horror with fantastic, poetic language. In one letter she wrote:
I know now why my fiance looked at me in that peculiar way after he’d read “Shambleau”—the first and only one of my stories he was ever persuaded to read. I know now what he was thinking. What kind of a person is this who can think of such things?
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 12 Nov 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 73
H. P. Lovecraft read the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales, and his initial reaction to the story was modest:
There is a germ of originality, despite much commonplaceness, in “Shambleau” […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Nov 1933, Essential Solitude 2.613
The argument over “commonplaceness” probably has much to do with the general setting with its humanoid aliens and inhabitable planets; Lovecraft’s essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” poo-pooed many of the tropes of Space Opera and Sword & Planet fiction which feature in “Shambleau.” However, to the editor of Weird Tales he offered effusive praise:
Shambleau is great stuff, too. It begins magnificently, on just the right note of terror, and with black intimations of the unknown. The subtle evil of the Entity, as suggested by the unexplained horror of the people, is extremely powerful—and the description of the Thing itself when unmasked is no letdown. Like “The House of the Worm”, it has real atmosphere and tension—rare thing amidst the pulp traditions of brisk, cheerful, staccato prose and lifeless stock characters and images. The one major fault is the conventional interplanetary setting. That weakens and dilutes the effect of both by introducing a parallel or rival wonder and by removing it from reality. Of course a very remote setting had to be chosen for so unknown marvel—but some place like India, Africa, or the Amazon jungle might have been used…with the horror made more local. I trust your revisions may make Mrs. Moore’s second story as striking and interesting as this one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 21 Nov 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.38-39
Wright published an excerpt from this letter in the Jan 1934 issue of Weird Tales, along with other praise for “Shambleau.” The editor of Weird Tales wrote to Moore requesting more of her work. By March 1934, she had sold two more stories (“Black Thirst” and “Scarlet Dream”) to Wright, and she had gotten in touch with her first fan—Robert H. Barlow. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 8 Mar 1934)
Barlow was a friend and correspondent of Weird Tales writer H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, and in the early 1930s had begun writing to authors like Robert E. Howard requesting copies of the manuscripts for their stories. Boldly, he asked her for the draft of “Shambleau,” but Moore told him the draft had been destroyed. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 28 Mar 1934) Instead, she sent him a drawing she had made of Shambleau:
Lovecraft commented on this as well:
Yes—C. L. Moore is certainly the most powerful & genuinely weird new writer secured by W.T. in many years. She is indeed of the feminine gender, the C. standing for Catherine. It is her wish, however, not to have this widely known—since she hopes to conceal the fact of her writing from her regular employers. She has a secretarial job with some corporation in Indianapolis, & fears she will be fired if it is known that she has another source of income. Miss Moore is also an artist of ability—last month she sent Barlow a drawing of Shambleau which displays phenomenal power.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 17 June 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 184-185
As to Miss Moore’s drawings—“Shambleau” is extremely well done, though not as subtly horrible & richly potent as Howard Wandrei would have made it. It is pen & ink, & so far as I know all her other drawings are. She most certainly has great & enviable talents.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 23 July 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 195
Ar E’ch Bei shewed me the “Shambleau” sketch, which certainly displays vast cleverness even if it lacks the indefinable menace & cosmic remoteness that you or Howard Wandrei would put into it. As a writer, Miss Moore is certainly the discovery of the last few years. No other newcomers is even in the running.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Sep 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 571-572
Lovecraft’s admiration was by all accounts sincere, and he held “Shambleau” among the best stories Moore had written until the end of his life. In time they would collaborate on the round-robin “The Challenge From Beyond” (1935), and they would correspond briefly (see Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore). He would comfort her after the death of her fiance in 1936, and introduce her to her future husband Henry Kuttner; she would inform him of the death of Robert E. Howard, create the Sword & Sorcery character Jirel of Joiry, inspire Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), and go on to a writing career that would last decades…and all, perhaps, because of this story, “Shambleau” and its singular reception.
It is interesting to compare this tale with Lovecraft’s revision “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop. “Medusa’s Coil” is often considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories and “Shambleau” one of Moore’s best, so a comparison of the prose tells us little, but it’s interesting to see how develops their themes. Neither story makes any effort to lift straight from the the ancient Greek myth, except by visual inspiration: a woman with deadly hair. This sets these tales apart from stories like Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Gorgon” (Weird Tales Apr 1932). Both Lovecraft and Moore explore what makes these women dangerous, and yet attractive. They suffer prejudice, for different reasons, and we get only limited hints of the female characters’ viewpoints because the perspective comes from men…and mostly their victims relay what little we know of their words and character.
Like Lovecraft’s, Moore’s story is not a moral tale in any strict sense. Northwest Smith’s action in saving the persecuted Shambleau was heroic; his efforts to care for her without taking advantage of the situation sexually is, if not commendable, at least shows Smith as not the worst of criminals…but the purpose of the story is not to show that Smith should have let the mob have the alien woman, though some readers may take that away from the ending. The “no good deed goes unpunished” interpretation of the narrative is a rather weak “I told you so,” and it doesn’t stop Smith from getting into other troublesome situations in later stories. Likewise, the “transgression” of marrying Marceline Bedard is not the focus of “Medusa’s Coil”—it’s just how the Medusa-character is brought into the story.
The difference is, at the end of “Medusa’s Coil,” nobody is alive to marry the Medusa-character again. The act cannot be repeated. With “Shambleau,” the horror is not Shambleau’s alien appendages or strange appetites, but the addiction to her terrible feeding. What Northwest Smith knows and fears is that he has become a junkie, and if the opportunity comes again—he might embrace it. That is rare territory for a weird tale, especially with the feeding so explicitly pseudo-sexual in nature—and shows something of the different approach both brought to their respective works. With Lovecraft, the horror rises from the grave, but with Moore, it might dash through the next Martian alley, a red, running figure…and Northwest Smith unable to stop himself as it plays out again.
C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” can be read for free online here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).