"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?
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.