Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Huddle Of Burning Scarlet





"Shambleau," by C. L. Moore. Weird Tales, November 1933.

In his introduction to Love Of Life And Other Stories by Jack London, George Orwell pointed out that even London's best stories "have the curious quality of being well told and yet not well written."

This could also be said of "Shambleau," which is not so much badly written as over-written. Within a few years after this debut, Moore's work would become leaner in both narrative technique and in prose, with stories like "Black God's Kiss" and "Julhi." Here, the prose often limps from the weight of too much information and of too many repeated details:

“'Shambleau! Ha… Shambleau!' The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol’s narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undernote to that swelling bay, 'Shambleau! Shambleau!'"

Wild hysteria tends to rocket more chaotically than calm hysteria. Who would have guessed?

"Smith dropped his indolent pose like a cloak and planted both feet wide, swinging up his gun threateningly."
[A few sentences later]
"Smith spread his booted legs wide before the crouching figure and flourished his gun."

This overdose of needless information not only cripples the sentences, but also creates narrative speed bumps. "Black God's Kiss" would begin without preamble in media res, but "Shambleau" begins with a prologue that says nothing we could not learn from the story itself:

"Man has conquered space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues...."

When the narrative begins, the prose reveals weaknesses and strengths.

One major weakness: unconscious rhyming.

"The foremost of the crowd -- a burly Earthman in tattered leather from which the Patrol insignia had been ripped away -- stared for a moment with a strange expression of incredulity on his face overspreading the savage exultation of the chase. Then he let loose a deep-throated bellow, 'Shambleau!' and lunged forward."
[...]

"Guns would have appeared before now if they were coming out at all. So he grinned in the man’s angry face and leaned lazily against the wall."
[...]
 "He did not expect, then, ever to see her again."

Certain passages are hobbled by clumsy assonance, uncontrolled alliteration:

"And they were leaving his vicinity as swiftly as if whatever unknowing sin he had committed were contagious."

Another limitation: present participles used instead of the simple past tense. This can make action seem poorly visualized:

"He crossed to the bed and sorted out a pair of blankets from the untidy heap, tossing them to the far corner of the room."

These are samples of Moore at her beginner's worst, but there are better passages:

"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. She ran wearily, and he could hear her gasping breath from where he stood. As she came into view he saw her hesitate and lean one hand against the wall for support, and glance wildly around for shelter. She must not have seen him in the depths of the doorway, for as the bay of the mob grew louder and the pounding of feet sounded almost at the corner she gave a despairing little moan and dodged into the recess at his very side.

"When she saw him standing there, tall and leather-brown, hand on his heat-gun, she sobbed once, inarticulately, and collapsed at his feet, a huddle of burning scarlet and bare, brown limbs."

This is not a subtle style. I would have trimmed it of certain modifiers and reduced alliteration, but at the same time, I can appreciate its movement, the way that it uses verbs and visual details to make the scene vivid.

Moore's undeniable flair for detail helps to make Shambleau seem real:

"There was no hair upon her face -- neither brows nor lashes, and he would have sworn that the tight scarlet turban bound around her head covered baldness. She had three fingers and a thumb, and her feet had four digits apiece too, and all sixteen of them were tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat’s. She ran her tongue over her lips -- a thin, pink, flat tongue as feline as her eyes -- and spoke with difficulty. He felt that that [sic] throat and tongue had never been shaped for human speech.

“Not -- afraid now,' she said softly, and her little teeth were white and pointed as a kitten's."

Moore also has a good eye for the sinister:

"'Some day I -- speak to you in -- my own language,' she promised, and the pink tongue flicked out over her lips, swiftly, hungrily."

[...]

"She had fallen to the floor beneath the window, and as she lay there against the wall with bent head he saw, curiously, that her turban had slipped -- the turban that he had been so sure covered baldness -- and a lock of scarlet hair fell below the binding leather, hair as scarlet as her garment, as unhumanly red as her eyes were unhumanly green. He stared, and shook his head dizzily and stared again, for it seemed to him that the thick lock of crimson had moved, squirmed of itself against her cheek."

In one passage, Moore tries to convey the blur and jumble of a dream state:

"Smith had a strange dream that night. He thought he had awakened to a room full of darkness and moonlight and moving shadows, for the nearer moon of Mars was racing through the sky and everything on the planet below her was endued with a restless life in the dark. 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 and 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. He tried to lift his hands and tear the dream-monstrosity from his throat -- tried but half-heartedly; for though his soul was revolted to its very deeps, yet the delight of his body was so great that his hands all but refused the attempt. But when at last he tried to lift his arms a cold shock went over him and he found that he could not stir… his body lay stony as marble beneath the blankets, a living marble that shuddered with a dreadful delight through every rigid vein."

A state like this can be hard to convey. I find Moore's loose, run-on clauses less precise, less effective than similar passages from M. R. James:

"He had taken the crucifix off, and laid it on the table, when his attention was caught by an object lying on the red cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain with their own incalculable quickness.

"'A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black. A large spider? I trust to goodness not -- no. Good God! a hand like the hand in that picture!'

"In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny, and wrinkled."

-- "Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book."

"The main occupation of this evening at any rate was settled. The tracing of the plan for Lady Wardrop and the careful collation of it with the original meant a couple of hours’ work at least. Accordingly, soon after nine Humphreys had his materials put out in the library and began. It was a still, stuffy evening; windows had to stand open, and he had more than one grisly encounter with a bat. These unnerving episodes made him keep the tail of his eye on the window. Once or twice it was a question whether there was -- not a bat, but something more considerable -- that had a mind to join him. How unpleasant it would be if someone had slipped noiselessly over the sill and was crouching on the floor!

"The tracing of the plan was done: it remained to compare it with the original, and to see whether any paths had been wrongly closed or left open. With one finger on each paper, he traced out the course that must be followed from the entrance. There were one or two slight mistakes but here, near the centre, was a bad confusion, probably due to the entry of the Second or Third Bat. Before correcting the copy he followed out carefully the last turnings of the path on the original. These, at least, were right; they led without a hitch to the middle space. Here was a feature which need not be repeated on the copy -- an ugly black spot about the size of a shilling. Ink? No. It resembled a hole, but how should a hole be there? He stared at it with tired eyes: the work of tracing had been very laborious, and he was drowsy and oppressed. . . . But surely this was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that, down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it, utterly bewildered. Just as, when you were a child, you may have pored over a square inch of counterpane until it became a landscape with wooded hills, and perhaps even churches and houses, and you lost all thought of the true size of yourself and it, so this hole seemed to Humphreys for the moment the only thing in the world. For some reason it was hateful to him from the first, but he had gazed at it for some moments before any feeling of anxiety came upon him; and then it did come, stronger and stronger -- a horror lest something might emerge from it, and a really agonizing conviction that a terror was on its way, from the sight of which he would not be able to escape. Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards -- towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face -- a human face -- a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them."

-- "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance."

Even if we disregard the occasionally awkward sentences, the story's biggest drawback is too much needless information. I would have chopped out entire passages that contribute nothing:

"He must have spent two hours at the least idling by the spaceport, watching with sleepy, colorless eyes the ships that came and went, the passengers, the vessels lying at wait, the cargoes -- particularly the cargoes. He made the rounds of the town’s saloons once more, consuming many glasses of varied liquors in the course of the day and engaging in idle conversation with men of all races and worlds, usually in their own languages, for Smith was a linguist of repute among his contemporaries. He heard the gossip of the spaceways, news from a dozen planets of a thousand different events. He heard the latest joke about the Venusian Emperor and the latest report on the Chino-Aryan war and the latest song hot from the lips of Rose Robertson, whom every man on the civilized planets adored as 'the Georgia Rose.' He passed the day quite profitably, for his own purposes, which do not concern us now, and it was not until late evening, when he turned homeward again, that the thought of the brown girl in his room took definite shape in his mind, though it had been lurking there, formless and submerged, all day."

The swifter narratives of "Black God's Kiss" and "Julhi" show that Moore was able to grow beyond this limitation.

She would also learn to describe alien strangeness with a more firm and confident prose. Here is a passage from "Julhi":

"Her features were arranged in a diamond-shaped pattern instead of humanity’s triangle, for the slanting nostrils of her low-bridged nose were set so far apart that they might have been separate features, tilting and exquisitely modeled. Her mouth was perhaps the queerest feature of her strange yet somehow lovely face. It was perfectly heartshaped, in an exaggerated cupid’s-bow, but it was not a human mouth. It did not close, ever. It was a beautifully arched orifice, the red lip that rimmed it compellingly crimson, but fixed and moveless in an unhinged jaw. Behind the bowed opening he could see the red, fluted tissue of flesh within."

And from "Shambleau":

"He watched, not breathing, a presentiment of something horrible stirring in his brain, inexplicably… The red folds loosened, and -- he knew then that he had not dreamed -- again a scarlet lock swung down against her cheek… a hair, was it? A lock of hair?… thick as a thick worm it fell, plumply, against that smooth cheek… more scarlet than blood and thick as a crawling worm… and like a worm it crawled.

"Smith rose on an elbow, not realizing the motion, and fixed an unwinking stare, with a sort of sick, fascinated incredulity, on that -- that lock of hair. He had not dreamed. Until now he had taken it for granted that it was the segir which had made it seem to move on that evening before. But now… it was lengthening, stretching, moving of itself. It must be hair, but it crawled; with a sickening life of its own it squirmed down against her cheek, caressingly, revoltingly, impossibly… Wet, it was, and round and thick and shining...."

This long passage, in which the hero is metaphysically raped, suffers from the weak and loose construction of the sentences. Revision, a tightening of the prose, would have made the scene more vivid and more disturbing. A similar tightening could have reduced the coda from several pages to a few paragraphs:

"They’re a species of the vampire -- or maybe the vampire is a species of -- of them. Their normal form must be that -- that mass, and in that form they draw nourishment from the -- I suppose the life-forces of men. And they take some form -- usually a woman form, I think, and key you up to the highest pitch of emotion before they -- begin. That’s to work the life-force up to intensity so it’ll be easier… And they give, always, that horrible, foul pleasure as they -- feed. There are some men who, if they survive the first experience, take to it like a drug -- can’t give it up -- keep the thing with them all their lives -- which isn’t long -- feeding it for that ghastly satisfaction."

All of this information had already been implied with clarity; there was no need to spell it out.

C. L. Moore would learn quickly, and apply better technique to later efforts. This leads to a question: on its own terms, as a separate work and not as a hint of better things to come, is it a story that I can call good?

No.

Reading it, I can sense a strong personality behind the words. I can sense imagination, a keen eye for sinister detail, a willingness to explore strange ideas. These put "Shambleau" far beyond the typical hack-work that littered Weird Tales, but are not enough to make it a classic on its own. What makes the story important are the more carefully-written stories that followed, the stories that justified all of the interest prompted by Moore's first appearance.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Darkness Visible

"Julhi," by C. L. Moore. (Weird Tales, March 1935.)

The ways to write badly are few, and we have terms to describe them:

Misplaced modifier. Tonal inconsistency. Unconscious end-rhymes. Plot holes. Character inconsistency. Poorly-visualized action. And so on.

In contrast, the ways to write well are perhaps infinite, and hard to describe. Often, we can only say, "It works."

All of this leads to my notes on C. L. Moore's "Julhi."

It works.

Here, the prose reveals more confidence and competence than it did in "Scarlet Dream." It has economy of means, and flow:

"Her fingers twined firmly in his, and she stepped forward without hesitation into the dark. He followed, stumbling over debris, bruising himself against the broken walls. How far they went he did not know, but the way turned and twisted and doubled back upon itself, and he had, somehow, the curious idea that she was not following a course through corridors and passages which she knew well enough not to hesitate over, but somehow, under the influence of Julhi’s sorcery, treading a symbolic pattern among the stones, tracing it out with unerring feet -- a witch-pattern that, when it was completed, would open a door for them which no eyes could see, no hands unlock."

When they appear, the physical details are uncluttered and simple:

"The room was a small cleared space in the midst of a forest of shining pillars of polished stone. Tapestries were stretched between some of them, swinging down in luxuriant folds. But as far as he could see in all directions the columns reached away in diminishing aisles, and he was quite sure that they had not made their way to this place through the clustering pillars. He would have been aware of them. No, he had stepped straight from Vonng’s stonestrewn ruins upon this rug which carpeted the little clear space, through some door invisible to him."

Unusual events are described in the same uncluttered way. When the tormented girl Apri tells Northwest Smith (clumsy name!) that there is no escape from their prison, he refuses to believe her:

"He turned without further words and plunged at random into the wilderness of pillars surrounding the little carpeted room. The floor was slippery under his boots, and dully shining. The pillars, too, shone along all their polished surfaces, and in the queer light diffused throughout the place no shadows fell; so that a dimension seemed to be lacking and a curious flatness lay over all the shining forest. He went on resolutely, looking back now and again to keep his course straight away from the little clear space he had left. He watched it dwindle behind him and lose itself among the columns and vanish, and he wandered on through endless wilderness, to the sound of his own echoing footsteps, with nothing to break the monotony of the shining pillars until he thought he glimpsed a cluster of tapestries far ahead through the unshadowed vistas and began to hurry, hoping against hope that he had found at least a way out of the forest. He reached the place at last, and pulled aside the tapestry, and met Apri’s wearily smiling eyes."

I want to quote from a passage at length. As a description, it is far more static than anything from "Black God's Kiss," but I can forgive the stasis for the vivid details on display:

"In the center of the room rose a low black couch, and upon it -- Julhi. He knew that instinctively the moment he saw her, and in that first moment he realized nothing but her beauty. He caught his breath at the sleek and shining loveliness of her, lying on her black couch and facing him with a level, unwinking stare. Then he realized her unhumanity, and a tiny prickling ran down his back -- for she was one of that very ancient race of one-eyed beings about which whispers persist so unescapably in folklore and legend, though history has forgotten them for ages. One-eyed. A clear eye, uncolored, centered in the midst of a fair, broad forehead. Her features were arranged in a diamond-shaped pattern instead of humanity’s triangle, for the slanting nostrils of her low-bridged nose were set so far apart that they might have been separate features, tilting and exquisitely modeled. Her mouth was perhaps the queerest feature of her strange yet somehow lovely face. It was perfectly heartshaped, in an exaggerated cupid’s-bow, but it was not a human mouth. It did not close, ever. It was a beautifully arched orifice, the red lip that rimmed it compellingly crimson, but fixed and moveless in an unhinged jaw. Behind the bowed opening he could see the red, fluted tissue of flesh within.

"Above that single, clear, deep-lashed eye something sprang backward from her brow in a splendid sweep, something remotely feather-like, yet no such feather as was ever fledged upon any bird alive. It was exquisitely iridescent, and its fronds shivered with blowing color at the slight motion of her breathing....

"There was a fluidity about her, a litheness that partook more of the serpent’s rippling flow than of any warm-blooded creature’s motion, but her body was not like any being, warm-blooded or cold, that he had ever seen before. From the waist up she was human, but below all resemblance ended. And yet she was so breath-takingly lovely. Any attempt to describe the alien beauty of her lower limbs would sound grotesque, and she was not grotesque even in her unnameable shape, even in the utter weirdness of her face.

"That clear, unwinking eye turned its gaze upon Smith. She lay there luxuriously upon her black couch, ivory-pale against the darkness of it, the indescribable strangeness of her body lolling with a serpent’s grace upon the cushions. He felt the gaze of that eye go through him, searching out all the hidden places in his brain and flickering casually over the lifetime that lay behind him. The feathery crest quivered very gently above her head.

"He met the gaze steadily. There was no expression upon that changeless face, for she could not smile, and the look in her single eye was meaningless to him. He had no way of guessing what emotions were stirring behind the alien mask. He had never realized before how essential is the mobility of the mouth in expressing moods, and hers was fixed, immobile, for ever stretched into its heart-shaped arch -- like a lyre-frame, he thought, but irrevocably dumb, surely, for such a mouth as hers, in its immovable unhinged jaw, could never utter human speech.

And then she spoke."

When Moore describes physical detail, she can be as vivid as any writer of fantasy, but this is not her standard approach; instead, she relies upon metaphysical implication in ways that remind me of this passage from Book One of Paradise Lost:

"At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades...."

Darkness visible in the style of C. L. Moore:

"Rapidly the illumination was failing all about them, and the columned forests melted into dimness, and dark veiled the long vistas, and presently everything clouded together and black night fell once more. This time they did not move, but Smith was aware, remotely, of a movement all about them, subtle and indescribable, as if the scenes were being shifted behind the curtain of the dark. The air quivered with motion and change. Even under his feet the floor was shifting, not tangibly but with an inner metamorphosis he could put no name to."

I have no head for metaphysics; I prefer descriptions of the physical world that imply a world beyond the physical. Moore takes the opposite approach, and makes the metaphysical tangible. This often leaves me in a fog, but can sometimes pierce the haze of my own aesthetic preference:

"Stars reeled all about him, streaks of light against a velvet black almost tangible in its utter dark. Slowly the lights steadied. His giddiness ceased, though the rush of his motion did not. He was being borne more swiftly than the wind through a dark ablaze with fixed points of brilliance, starry and unwinking. Gradually he became aware of himself, and knew without surprise that he was no longer of flesh and blood, a tangible human creature, but something nebulous and diffused and yet of definite dimensions, freer and lither than the human form and light as smoke.

"He was riding through the starry dark a something all but invisible even to his keen new eyes. That dark did not muffle him as it would have blinded a human being. He could see quite clearly, his eyes utilizing something other than light in their perception. But this dim thing he rode was no more than a blur even to the keenness of his dark-defying gaze.

"The vague outlines of it which were all he could catch as they flashed and faded and formed again, were now of one shape and now of another, but most often that of some fabulous monster with heaven-spanning wings and a sinuous body trailing out to incredible length. Yet somehow he knew that it was not in reality any such thing. Somehow he knew it for the half-visible manifestation of a force without name, a force which streamed through this starry dark in long, writhing waves and tides, taking fantastic shapes as it flowed. And those shapes were controlled in a measure by the brain of the observer, so that he saw what he expected to see in the nebulous outlines of the dark."

The keys to her method are verbs and motion:

"For a long while he swept and curved and volplaned upon those forces which flowed invisibly through the dark, giddy with the intoxicating joy of flight. He was aware of neither up nor down in this starry void. He was weightless, disembodied, a joyous ghost breasting the air-currents upon unreal wings. Those points of light which flecked the blackness lay strewn in clusters and long winnowed swaths and strange constellations. They were not distant, like real stars, for sometimes he plunged through a swarm of them and emerged with the breathless sensation of one who had dived into a smother of foaming seas and risen again, yet the lights were intangible to him. That refreshing sensation was not a physical one, nor were the starry points real. He could see them, but that was all. They were like the reflections of something far away in some distant dimension, and though he swung his course straight through a clustering galaxy he did not disarrange a single star. It was his own body which diffused itself through them like smoke, and passed on gasping and refreshed."

What matters, too, are the implications of personal stakes. How the protagonist responds to metaphysical vagueness will give the darkness emotional form:

"He stood among the ruins of a court which must once, long ago, have been the court he had just left -- or had he? For he saw now that it too surrounded him, flickering through the ruins in glimpses of vanished splendor. He stared round wildly. Yes, shining through the crumbled walls and the standing walls that were one and the same, he could catch glimpses of that columned wilderness through which he had wandered. And rising above this, one with it, the misty-walled chamber where he had met Julhi. They were all here, occupying the same space, at the same time. The world was a chaos of conflicting planes all about him. There were other scenes too, intermingling with these, places he had never seen before. And Apri, incandescent and agonized, peered with mad eyes through the bewildering tangle of worlds."

Danger also matters:

"Around him through the chaotic jumbling of a score of planes prowled strange forms. They were like Julhi -- yet unlike her. They were like those figures which had rushed upon him in that other Vonng -- but not wholly. They had bestialized in the metamorphosis. The shining beauty was dulled. The incomparable grace of them had thickened into animal gropings. Their plumes burned with an ugly crimson and the clarity of their eyes was clouded now with a blind and avid hunger. They circled him with a baffled gliding."

I should mention the plot, here, but out of respect to those few people who have not read this, I refuse to spoil the ending. What I can say is that Moore has followed through on the implications of her story. She has told enough to the readers to give the development a sense of logic. There is a Chekhov's gun above the mantelpiece of "Julhi," and at the end, it goes off.

Another point worth mentioning is that in other stories, Northwest Smith (awkward name!) lacks agency; as a passive character, he is often rescued by someone else. In "Julhi," Smith has the knowledge and the will to resolve the story on his own, but his victory becomes hollow. Sometimes heroes do terrible things.

A Maelstrom Of Invisible Tumult

A few notes on "Scarlet Dream," by C. L. Moore. (Weird Tales, the May 1934 issue.)

A disappointing story that reveals many of Moore's weaknesses, along with two of her strengths.

The prose is often clumsy enough to match the norm for Weird Tales, with adverbs that tell us what we already know, unconscious rhymes, and stuttering alliteration:

"She clutched his knee excitedly."
- - - -

"She shrugged again, apathetically."

- - - -
"'It -- it’s alive,' he stammered, startled."

Worst of all is a gimmick used by A. Merritt, and one that has no place in the work of a writer as good as Moore:

"'Better not to -- speak of it,' she said."
- - - -

“We believe it best not to wonder what lies -- beyond.”

 - - - -
"It may be a long time before my next -- meal.”

Also reminiscent of Merritt is a crippling vagueness in the descriptions. Moore was able to compensate for this vagueness in "Black God's Kiss" by emphasizing the fierce emotions of an active protagonist, Jirel. Here, in a languid setting, with a protagonist of little agency, the vagueness has nothing to provide contrast:

"Presently steps rose under his feet, almost imperceptibly, and after a while the pressure on his arm drew him aside. They went in under a low, heavy arch of stone and entered the strangest room he had ever seen. It appeared to be seven-sided, as nearly as he could judge through the drifting mist, and curious, converging lines were graven deep in the floor.

"It seemed to him that forces outside his comprehension were beating violently against the seven walls, circling like hurricanes through the dimness until the whole room was a maelstrom of invisible tumult."

Despite these limitations, two things make the story worth reading.

There is a mood of hopelessness and resignation that reminds me of the Eloi in H. G. Wells:

"He began to harry his companion with questions that woke more and more often the look of dread behind her eyes, but he gained little satisfaction. She belonged to a people without history, without ambition, their lives bent wholly toward wringing from each moment its full sweetness in anticipation of the terror to come. Evasion was the keynote of their existence, perhaps with reason. Perhaps all the adventurous spirits among them had followed their curiosity into danger and death, and the only ones left were the submissive souls who led their bucolically voluptuous lives in this Elysium so shadowed with horror."

That sense of bucolic life tinged with horror leads to some quietly striking passages:

"The darkness had deepened until he could no longer see any more than the nearest wavelets lapping the sand. Beyond, and all about, the dream-world melted into the violet-misted blueness of the twilight. He was not aware that he had turned his head, but presently he found himself looking down on the girl beside him. She was lying on the pale sand, her hair a fan of darkness to frame the pallor of her face. In the twilight her mouth was dark too, and from the darkness under her lashes he slowly became aware that she was watching him unwinkingly. [ Ugh! ]

"For a long while he sat there, gazing down, meeting the half-hooded eyes in silence. And presently, with the effortless detachment of one who moves in a dream, he bent down to meet her lifting arms. The sand was cool and sweet, and her mouth tasted faintly of blood."

Finally, there is a startling, often disturbing emphasis on sexual imagery and implications. This is typical of Moore, and perhaps one of the many reasons why her stories left a strong impression on her decade.

"The great hall lay straight and veiled before them, but after a few steps the girl drew him aside and under another archway, into a long gallery through whose drifting haze he could see rows of men and women kneeling against the wall with bowed heads, as if in prayer. She led him down the line to the end, and he saw then that they knelt before small spigots curving up from the wall at regular intervals. She dropped to her knees before one and, motioning him to follow, bent her head and laid her lips to the up-curved spout. Dubiously he followed her example.

"Instantly with the touch of his mouth on the nameless substance of the spigot something hot and, strangely, at once salty and sweet flowed into his mouth. There was an acridity about it that gave a curious tang, and the more he drank the more avid he became. Hauntingly delicious it was, and warmth flowed through him more strongly with every draft. Yet somewhere deep within him memory stirred unpleasantly… somewhere, somehow, he had known this hot, acrid, salty taste before, and -- suddenly suspicions struck him like a bludgeon, and he jerked his lips from the spout as if it burnt. A tiny thread of scarlet trickled from the wall. He passed the back of one hand across his lips and brought it away red."

A weak story, then, but with compensating virtues to make it readable.

Vagueness In Motion

Margaret Brundage, October 1934.

Along with Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore is, for me, by far the best writer to contribute to Weird Tales. Even if the standards of that magazine were not painfully low, I believe her stories would match the work of fantasy writers anywhere. "Black God's Kiss," for example, can justify belief.

Although I could argue that her prose is better than much of the writing found in Weird Tales, I can still see limitations. It is very much a pulp style, without nuance, and often without grace. It offers the vividness of primary colours, with no room for subtlety:

"Many little hatreds she had known in her life, but no such blaze as this. Before her eyes in the night she could see Guillaume’s scornful, scarred face laughing, the little jutting beard split with the whiteness of his mirth. Upon her mouth she felt the remembered weight of his, about her the strength of his arms. And such a blast of hot fury came over her that she reeled a little and clutched at the wall for support. She went on in a haze of red anger and something like madness burning in her brain as a resolve slowly took shape out of the chaos of her hate. When that thought came to her, she paused again, midstep upon the stairs, and was conscious of a little coldness blowing over her. Then it was gone, and she shivered a little, shook her shoulders and grinned wolfishly, and went on."

What Moore's writing offered, instead, was economy of presentation. She begins the story in media res:

"They brought in Joiry’s tall commander, struggling between two men-at-arms who tightly gripped the ropes which bound their captive’s mailed arms. They picked their way between mounds of dead as they crossed the great hall toward the dais where the conqueror sat, and twice they slipped a little in the blood that spattered the flags. When they came to a halt before the mailed figure on the dais, Joiry’s commander was breathing hard, and the voice that echoed hollowly under the helmet’s confines was hoarse with fury and despair."

Her transitions come rapidly:

"Jirel opened her yellow eyes upon darkness. She lay quiet for a while, collecting her scattered thoughts. By degrees it came back to her, and she muffled upon her arm a sound that was half curse and half sob. Joiry had fallen. For a time she lay rigid in the dark, forcing herself to the realization.

"The sound of feet shifting on stone near by brought her out of that particular misery. She sat up cautiously, feeling about her to determine in what part of Joiry its liege lady was imprisoned. She knew that the sound she had heard must be a sentry and by the dank smell of the darkness that she was underground. In one of the little dungeon cells, of course. With careful quietness she got to her feet, muttering a curse as her head reeled for an instant and then began to throb. In the utter dark she felt around the cell. Presently she came to a little wooden stool in a corner and was satisfied. She gripped one leg of it with firm fingers and made her soundless way around the wall until she had located the door.

"The sentry remembered, afterward, that he had heard the wildest shriek for help which had ever rung in his ears, and he remembered unbolting the door. Afterward, until they found him lying inside the locked cell with a cracked skull, he remembered nothing.

"Jirel crept up the dark stairs of the north turret, murder in her heart."

She also has a narrative technique similar to Clark Ashton Smith's, in which the descriptive details are never static, but are presented as actions in which the reader participates:

"Presently in the distance she caught a glimmer of something bright. The ground dipped after that and she lost it and skimmed through a hollow where pale things wavered away from her into the deeper dark. She never knew what they were and was glad. When she came up onto higher ground again, she saw it more clearly, an expanse of dim brilliance ahead. She hoped it was a lake and ran more swiftly.

"It was a lake -- a lake that could never have existed outside some obscure hell like this. She stood on the brink doubtfully, wondering if this could be the place the light-devil had meant. Black, shining water stretched out before her, heaving gently with a motion unlike that of any water she had ever seen before. And in the depths of it, like fireflies caught in ice, gleamed myriad small lights. They were fixed there immovably, not stirring with the motion of the water. As she watched, something hissed above her and a streak of light split the dark air. She looked up in time to see something bright curving across the sky to fall without a splash into the water, and small ripples of phosphorescence spread sluggishly toward the shore, where they broke at her feet with the queerest whispering sound, as if each succeeding ripple spoke the syllable of a word."

This method allows the reader to experience events with Jirel, to discover new details at the same time that she does.

Unlike Smith's, Moore's details are often more abstract than concrete. In this, her technique resembles A. Merritt's, but unlike Merritt, she had the verbal skill to combine abstraction with movement:

"Now she could see the temple more closely, though scarcely more clearly than from the shore. It looked to be not more than an outlined emptiness against the star-crowded brilliance behind it, etching its arches and columns of blankness upon the twinkling waters. The bridge came down in a long dim swoop to its doorway. Jirel took the last few yards at a reckless run and stopped breathless under the arch that made the temple’s vague doorway. She stood there panting and staring about narrow-eyed, sword poised in her hand. For though the place was empty and very still, she felt a presence even as she set her foot upon the floor of it.

"She was staring about a little space of blankness in the starry lake. It seemed to be no more than that. She could see the walls and columns where they were outlined against the water and where they made darknesses in the star-flecked sky, but where there was only dark behind them she could see nothing. It was a tiny place, no more than a few square yards of emptiness upon the face of the twinkling waters. And in its center an image stood.

"She stared at it in silence, feeling a curious compulsion growing within her, like a vague command from something outside herself. The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semihuman figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away."

I find this prose dangerously vague, but at the same time, I can respect the self-discipline that keeps the vagueness in motion, and keeps Jirel at the forefront of perception. Moore is constantly aware of how Jirel thinks and feels; this gives focus to environments that rely less on imagery than on moods.

Given that fantasy can rely on mood as much as it relies on imagery, writers can be tempted to avoid the hard work of making strangeness vivid; they can litter their clauses with adjectives and adverbs in the hope that readers might mistake assertion for description. Moore avoided this while remaining true to her concepts of alien experience, of events or perceptions beyond the realm of human understanding. Too many writers have toppled from this wobbling tightrope, but Moore was able to walk with confidence. Her achievement might not be repeatable, but it does fascinate me.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

We Have Nothing to Fear but Optimism

As a pessimist and a coward, I do what the doctors tell me to do. In consequence, my weight is down, my blood sugar levels are down, and if these trends continue, I might have to bring my medication down. Gosh!

All of these changes were motivated by fear, which has gained a bad reputation despite its benefits. Yes, fear can make us hate people who are almost but not quite like us; fear can make us retreat from the often wonderful chaos of life. In that sense, fear is harmful, but a reasonable fear, balanced with a sense of perspective and proportion, can guide us to places where we need to go.

So toss away that blinding optimism! Fear can be a patient's friend.