“Shambleau” (1933) by C. L. Moore

[…] 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 Mexicothe 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:

Shambleau original art

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).

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore

Dear Mr. Lovecraft:

Your letter has impressed me tremendously. It’s awfully nice to be flattered, and Mr. Barlow’s compliments in particular have pleased me a great deal, but not until yesterday when I read your letter did it really occur to me that my “pulp”-published and extrav[ag]ant romances might actually, after all, contain a nucleus of worth which should be taken seriously.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 3 Apr 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 28

If C. L. Moore had never received a letter from Howard Phillips Lovecraft, she would still be known and regarded as one of the greatest Weird Talers of the 1930s. Yet they did correspond, from 1935 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and in that brief span of time that exchange of letters changed both of their lives.

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987) was an employee at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis, Indiana, and engaged to be married. The Great Depression had caused her to leave Indiana University after only three semesters; she needed the $25 a week from her job as a typist to help support her parents and brother. On the sly, she read pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and Weird Tales—and she began to write, after hours. In 1933, she sold her first story: “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) was an instant hit among the readers of Weird Tales, receiving high acclaim from fans and pulpsters alike. To keep her bosses from finding out about her extra source of income, she was published under the name “C. L. Moore”—but her gender was an open secret, revealed in a fanzine in 1934.

That same year, Moore received her first correspondence from a member of Lovecraft’s circle: the young R. H. Barlow, then living in Florida, who had a habit of writing his favorite pulp writers and asking for copies of their manuscripts and artwork. Moore provided both, and through Barlow she was eventually put in touch with others, including E. Hoffmann Price, Robert E. Howard, and in 1935…H. P. Lovecraft.

On the subject of titles, I envy you your ability. The most painful part of writing, so far as I’m concerned, is naming the stories. Mr. Wright more or less takes it out of my hands sometimes, as in the case of a story scheduled for mid-summer sometime, which he is calling “The Cold Grey God”. I’m getting a regular spectrum of colored gods, starting with black and working slowly upward thru grey toward goodness knows what.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 34

With most of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the reader’s interest is on Lovecraft himself. His letters to them typically survive, and hopefully are published; Lovecraft himself rarely kept the letters of those who wrote to him, and many of those he did keep are lost. Volumes of his letters thus tend to be very one-sided affairs; we get only Lovecraft’s side of the conversation, his perspective—and generally, that is what people are interested in. Lovecraft’s correspondents are rarely as interesting to readers of today as the Old Gent himself.

More to the point, the vast majority of Lovecraft’s correspondents are not folks whose letters are often kept. Fans, often-forgotten pulpsters, agents at publishing companies; family, friends, and acquaintances personal and professional—these are some of the great, mostly silent masses of history who are little more than names on the page. When they die, their letters and journals are rarely kept or archived, much less read. Their literary afterlife is quiet, sometimes no more than a few lines on a census form or a government registry or a name in a family bible. Sometimes not even that.

Not so with C. L. Moore. Not only is there interest in her life and writing outside of and independent of her correspondence with Lovecraft, but a considerable portion of her side of the correspondence has survived and been published, so that we can actually read the back-and-forth between those two masters of the weird tale, which comes out to about 37 letters and 200 pages. A bit more of her correspondence with R. H. Barlow survives, though that remains unpublished. Other than that…a handful of letters buried in fanzines and pulps; interviews and introductions.

There has never been a volume of the Collected Letters of C. L. Moore. There might never be. How much of it still exists is unclear; there is no centralized archive of her papers at any university. The bulk of her published correspondence are her letters to Lovecraft, and those were published only recently. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others was only printed in 2017, though portions of Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence had been printed in his Selected Letters from Arkham House. So much of what we know about her life in the crucial period of 1935-1937 comes, then, from her letters to Lovecraft.

Things did happen in that brief period. In 1935, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long collaborated on the round robin “The Challenge from Beyond.” Moore began corresponding with Robert E. Howard, praising his story “Sword Woman” who, like her own heroine Jirel of Joiry, was that rare female pulp protagonist. They talked writing, poetry, economics, politics…and of more somber subjects.

Thank you for your sympathy. I can’t yet dwell on the topic without becoming a bit maudlin, so had better change the subject.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 112

On 13 February 1936, Moore’s fiance Herbert Ernest Lewis  a 28-year-old bank teller at the Fletcher Trust Company where Moore worked, died while nominally cleaning his firearm. The death certificate records it as a suicide. Lovecraft immediately rushed to reply:

Despite my upheaved programme I at once started a letter of what I thought to be the most consoling & useful sort—with sympathetic remarks & citations of others who have bravely pulled out of similar bereavements) gradually giving place to the cheerful discussion of general & impersonal topics in which long time-stretches (thus placing local & individual sorrows at the small end of the telescope) are concerned—answering a letter received early in February. History was the main theme—the dominant topic being Roman Britain & its long decline, as brought up by C L M’s discussion of Talbot Mundy’s “Tros” stories. That, I fancy, is the kind of stuff a bereaved person likes to get from the outside world—sincere sympathy not rubbed in, & a selection of general topics attuned to his interests & quietly reminding him that there is a world which has always gone on & which still goes on despite personal losses. […] I managed to finish & despatch the epistle last Monday. But the tragic accident surely is a beastly shame—far worse than deaths which do not his promising young folk with everything before them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 321

In the wake of her grief after the fatal sundering of her long engagement, perhaps Lovecraft’s letters proved a distraction and a relief. A few months later, on 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard would also take his own life using a firearm when informed of the impending death of his mother. It was Moore who received the news first, and quickly passed it to Lovecraft—who spread his bereavement at the loss of his friend and one of the greatest pulpsters the world had ever known far and wide. For her part, Moore would do as Lovecraft had done, and send Howard’s father a letter commiserating in the death of his son and consoling him. Dr. Howard had it published in the local newspaper:

Nothing that I can say now would help you—I know, for four months ago I too suffered bereavement under very similar circumstances. The young man whom I was to marry this year was accidentally shot in the temple and instantly killed while leaning a gun which he thought unloaded. So I can understand what you are enduring now, and I know that nothing but time will help you find life worth living again. In one respect you are luckier than I, for you have memories of a full and happy life with your wife and son that nothing can take away.
—C. L. Moore to Dr. I. M. Howard, 26 Jun 1936, Cross Plains Review 3 Jul 1936

Life went on. In less than a year’s time, Lovecraft himself would be dead. Yet he was inadvertently to set the stage for Moore’s future.

Henry Kuttner had just broken into Weird Tales in the March 1936 issue with “The Graveyard Rats,” but Lovecraft quickly adopted him as a new pen-pal, and set him to circulating some views of Marblehead, Mass. (the inspiration for Kingsport):

Keep these views—when they come—as long as you like; & when you’ve finished with them you may forward them to Miss C. L. Moore, 2547 Brookside Parkway, South Drive, Indianapolis, Indiana—the gifted creator of “Shambleau” having expressed a wish to see these glimpses of crumbling “Arkham” & “Kingsport”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 18 May 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 240

It isn’t clear whether Kuttner had written to Moore before this, but when he did finally send her a letter in 1936, she recalled with amusement that he addressed it “Dear Mr. Moore.” By February 1937, they were collaborating on their first joint piece of fiction, “The Quest of the Star-Stone.” Lovecraft would not live to see it—nor would he be there in 1940, when C. L. Moore stopped working at the Fletcher Trust company and married Henry Kuttner, becoming half of one of the most prolific and noteworthy partnerships in science fiction during the 1940s and 50s.

Most of the fiction written after Moore & Kuttner’s marriage was under Kuttner’s name, or a shared pseudonym, regardless of how much or little each had contributed to the work. For this reason, to weird fiction fans Moore seemed to all but disappear just as Weird Tales was undergoing a period of transition—in 1940, Farnsworth Wright was fired and Dorothy McIlwraith took over, heralding many changes to the magazine she would helm for the next 14 years. Moore was not gone, nor forgotten; and she continued contact with other former correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft such as R. H. Barlow and E. Hoffman Price.

Their letters were not quite formal affairs, but they never got beyond “Dear Miss Moore” and “Dear Mr. Lovecraft”—though in her letters with Barlow later on, she would sign herself as simply “KAT,” and in his letters with Barlow, Lovecraft would dub her CLM, Doña Caterina, Catherine the Great, Katrinje, Sister Kate and Sister Katy, and Katie or Katey. She was accepted by Lovecraft as a peer, one of the group. What would Moore have done without that? How differently would life have played out, if each of them did not have such a crucial roll in the long series of events that were their lives!

Her last letter to Lovecraft was a long one, written in bits and pieces from 24 October to 15 December 1936, as was sometimes necessary due to the constraints of work and life. There she wrote:

A correspondent of mine, Thurston Torbett of Texas, friend of REH’s, has been regaling me with passages from books on the occult which state that all the dreadful things we imagine must have had origin or fact or we would be unable to picture them. If one reverses that, then by the very act of writing of Cthulhu (spelling right?) and Shambleau we must conjure them into vague life, and you will doubtless eventually wind up the victim of your own ingenuity. I hope that you aunt does not some morning find you a mass of black putrescence on the floor […]
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 199

A gruesome little joke, but a fitting one. It is easy to think of Lovecraft smiling at the jest, planning his own riposte. Yet how fitting at at last Cthulhu and Shambleau, their two more popular and enduring creations, would be cast side by side at last. For those two would be remembered more for their pulp fiction than anything else they ever wrote or did later in life…and part of that was due to this correspondence.

Catherine Lucille Moore and H. P. Lovecraft’s correspondence has been published in Letters to C. L. Moore and Others (2017, Hippocampus Press); some of Lovecraft’s letters to Moore had previously been published in volume 5 of the Selected Letters V (1976, Arkham House).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is, despite her mea culpas, perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm and developing a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to the Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters and her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)