Catherine Lucille Moore started something important in OSS history in 1933.
As the back-cover blurb of my Ace Books edition has it: "Here is the mystery and glory of the universe - Here is a legend come to life - Here is NORTHWEST SMITH".
Stid: The universe? Shouldn't it say - the Solar System?
Zendexor: Ah, now let's get this awkward little point out of the way before we proceed.
Yes, Stid, there are hints in the stories, that Man has spread - or his knowledge has spread - into interstellar space.
Northwest Smith bought the shawl in the Lakkmanda Markets of Mars. It was one of his chiefest joys to wander through the stalls and stands of that greatest of marketplaces whose wares are drawn from all the planets of the solar system, and beyond. - Scarlet Dream
But that "and beyond" is never followed up. One is free to dismiss it as an isolated bit of hyperbole. Or to accept it, while at the same time appreciating that the whole weight of the stories is OSS and OSS alone. Whatever may be going on out among the stars, Northwest Smith and his friends and enemies are enacting their fates on the worlds of the Solar System. So let's not worry about the setting - it's vintage 1930s OSS, all right?
Harlei: Like the adventures of Lucky Starr by Isaac Asimov. They too are entirely Solar System events, though we hear of the Sirians influencing matters.
Zendexor: And in the case of Northwest Smith we don't even have that peripheral outside influence. The perils he encounters are entirely based in our own family of worlds.
Stid: Quite a few of them originally came from other dimensions, though. Yvala, for instance. Sorry to keep putting a spanner in the works -
Zendexor: No, no, don't apologize - you are the official Opposition after all. And we don't really disagree, do we, that the present weight of the stories lies in the OSS alone. So let's regard this issue as settled and go on to consider why C L Moore deserves her classic status in the literature. Here, I suggest, is what she's like at her best:
On all sides stretched the moving, restless woods, farther than the eye could reach. The grasslands rippled, and over the dim horizon the far mountains beckoned him. Even the mystery of the Temple and its endless twilight began to torment his waking moments. He dallied with the idea of exploring those hallways which the dwellers in this lotusland avoided, of gazing from the strange windows that opened upon inexplicable blue. Surely life, even here, must hold some more fervent meaning than that he followed now. What lay beyond the wood and grasslands? What mysterious country did those mountains wall? - Scarlet Dream
Stid: I find it hard to decide, having read that story, how real that dreamy "land of the shawl" is supposed to be.
Zendexor: Real enough to kill you, I suspect. Typical of the unearthly perils that lie in wait for even the most hardened outlaw, in the ancient worlds of the System. Evils that fester secretly, in a thousand nooks in a myriad alien cultures...
Harlei: Maybe it's time we related Northwest Smith's scene to that of the Brackett OSS.
Zendexor: Yes, it certainly is valid to link the works of C L Moore with those of Leigh Brackett. Both belong to that branch of OSS literature which creates sinister thrills from festering mysteries, rather than the more openly swashbuckling ERB branch.
Also, whether coincidentally or not, the Moore / Brackett branch gives us a scenario of well-established interplanetary travel and institutions, sufficient to allow some veneer of regular contact between the worlds, not so thoroughly administered as to solve or control those worlds' multifarious perils and mysteries, but enough to touch upon them and bring them into the story.
Now, it seems to me to be high time we thought up a term for this tatterdemalion sub-genre.
I suggest the acronym RIM-OSS. The Ramshackle Inter-world Medley version of the Old Solar System. Perfectly adapted for C L Moore's outlaw-hero Northwest Smith, or Brackett's semi-outlaw Eric John Stark.
It was a motley crowd... hard-faced Earthmen in space-sailors' leather, sleek Venusians with their sidelong, dangerous eyes, Martian drylanders muttering the blasphemous gutterals of their language, a sprinkling of outlanders and half-brutes from the wide-flung borders of civilization. - Dust of Gods
Harlei: All the colour of the Conan stories, but with worlds instead of mere kingdoms to play with - a kind of Hyborian Age transposed and enlarged into an interplanetary setting; and qualitatively enlarged too, because the perils are more alien. Can't fail to grip!
Stid: But like Conan, Northwest Smith has his lapses. I mean, most of the time he has his own code of honour, of a sort, but he rather disgraces himself in Yvala, where - being hard up - he joins an expedition of slavers.
Zendexor: That, I admit, was quite some lapse. We'll just have to pass it over in embarrassed silence. Let's look instead at episodes which demonstrate his better qualities.
...though he had not the reputation of a chivalrous man, something in her hopeless huddle at his feet touched that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman, and he pushed her gently into the corner behind him and jerked out his gun, just as the first of the running mob rounded the corner. - Shambleau
Smith means well, up to a point. Not realizing what the "girl" is, he is willing to go to some trouble to rescue her from the mob that has been pursuing her through the narrow streets of Lakkdarol, Mars.
Behind their self-appointed leader the crowd milled impatiently, and threatening voices began to rise again. Smith heard the girl moan at his feet.
"What do you want with her?" he demanded.
"She's Shambleau! Shambleau, you fool! Kick her out of there - we'll take care of her!"
"I'm taking care of her," drawled Smith.
"She's Shambleau, I tell you! Damn your hide, man, we never let those things live! Kick her out here!"
The repeated name had no meaning to him, but Smith's innate stubbornness rose defiantly as the crowd surged forward to the very edge of the arc, their clamor growing louder. "Shambleau! Kick her out here! Give us Shambleau! Shambleau!"
Smith dropped his indolent pose like a cloak and planted both feet wide, swinging up his gun threateningly. "Keep back!" he yelled. "She's mine! Keep back!"
He had no intention of using that heat-beam. He knew by now that they would not kill him unless he started the gunplay himself, and he did not mean to give up his life for any girl alive. But a severe mauling he expected, and he braced himself instinctively as the mob heaved within itself...
That neatly sums up the extent of Smith's virtues: he'll put himself out so much and no more. He's not really heroic, certainly not quixotic.
Harlei: Ah, but I think there is a heroic side to old Northwest. It's a quality he has which stands him in good stead in view of the frightful soul-manipulating foes he meets. A bedrock-sense of his own identity...
...Smith felt adoration pouring out of him as blood gushes from a severed artery. Like life-blood it poured, and like life-blood draining it left him queerly weaker and weaker, as if some essential part of him were gushing away in great floods of intensest worship.
But somewhere, down under the lowest depths of Smith's subconsciousness, a faint disquiet was stirring. He fought it, for it broke the mirror surfaces of his tranced adoration, but he could not subdue it, and by degrees that unease struggled up through layer upon layer of rapt enchantment until it burst through into his conscious mind and the little quiver of it ran disturbingly through the exquisite calm of his trance. It was not an articulate disquiet, but it was somehow bound up with the scarcely seen beasts he had glimpsed - or had he glimpsed? - in the wood. That, and the memory of an old Earth legend which try as he would he could not quite exorcise: the legend of a lovely woman - and men turned into beasts... He could not grasp it, but the elusive memory pricked at him with little pinpoint goads, crying danger so insistently that with infinite reluctance his mind took up the business of thinking once more. - Yvala
Stid: A latter-day Ulysses confronted by a cosmic Circe... More than once in these stories the author hints that the old classical myths may have had an extraterrestrial origin.
Zendexor: And Harlei's right, there is something heroic about Smith's ability to resist take-over by these baneful super-beings. Come to think of it, his selfishness is no barrier to being considered a hero in the Homeric mould. Quite appropriate, actually.
Harlei, you mentioned the Conan stories a while back. Well, just as Conan escapes from predicaments by means of his unusual physical prowess, so Northwest Smith survives due to outstanding mental muscle - by which I don't mean cleverness, I mean just stubbornness. It's a valid solution to problems in a short story, though it wouldn't do so well in a novel.
Even so, sometimes it's as if the author herself is in a quandary about how to get her hero out of his scrape. The tone becomes one of speculation, of uncertainty as to how Smith managed to survive.
Here he is regaining control of his usurped body in The Cold Gray God:
The Thing that opposed him was strong, and firmly entrenched in the nerve-centres and brain-cells that had been his, but he was fighting the more hotly for the familiarity of the field he sought to win. And slowly he won entrance. Perhaps it was because he was not striving at first for full possession. In its struggles to cling fast to what it held, the Thing could not oppose his subtle sliding in among the centers that controlled motion, and by jerky degrees he dragged his own body to its feet and backward, step by hotly contested step, away from the seething pattern that oozed upon the wall...
By the time I got to read this story, I had developed a tolerance for C L Moore's emphasis on psychic combat as the kernel of her plots. But at first, let me admit, I was put off by a feeling of long-winded sameness.
I recommend that newcomers to the series do not do what I did, which was to read Shambleau and Black Thirst consecutively. The second tale gave me a "no, not again!" reaction: not another flipping life-force-sucking-vampire! It was years - in fact, decades - before I gave the stories another try and I got to appreciate them better. Collectively they create an unforgettable milieu, an abiding addition to sf iconography. Just don't expect too much and you'll enjoy them.
In order of publication:
"Shambleau", Weird Tales, November 1933
"Black Thirst", Weird Tales, April 1934
"Scarlet Dream", Weird Tales, May 1934
"Dust of the Gods", Weird Tales, August 1934
"Julhi", Weird Tales, March 1935
"The Cold Grey God", Weird Tales, October 1935
"Yvala", Weird Tales, February 1936
"Lost Paradise", Weird Tales, July 1936
"The Tree of Life", Weird Tales, October 1936
"Song in a Minor Key", Fantastic Universe, June 1957 (an epilogue or coda to the series, rather than an actual story)
For an important OSS collaboration between C L Moore and her husband Henry Kuttner, see the Kuttner-Moore Venus.
For changing assessments of Black Thirst, see Evergreen Promises.