Due to an unfortunate (or perhaps I should say, “fortuitous”) comment I let slip in an email, Howard Andrew Jones discovered I had no idea who C.L. Moore was.
My comment was something to the effect of, “C.L. Moore? What did he write?”
I met Howard in person once, about a billion years ago at World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs. I retain no clear picture of him in my head, except from images I’ve gleaned off of his Facebook profile page, but from his quick reply, I could so clearly see the bare patches on his skull where he had just torn out huge clumps of hair in rage and frustration.
But he was quite polite about it all.
In his email, he linked me right to Ryan Harvey’s thorough and passionate overview of Herself, Catherine Lucille Moore, Mighty Sorceress of the Pen, Queen Mother of the First Female Sword-Swinging Spit-Fire Protagonist in Fantasy and Science Fiction. This article I happily read, promising myself I would devour some C.L. Moore books the first chance I got!
And then I promptly forgot all about it.
But Howard Andrew Jones and John O’Neill, undaunted by my insouciance, both earnestly strove to further my education in this, our beloved genre. By hook, crook and conspiracy, they contrived to smuggle me a copy (through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered) of C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry for my birthday.
What a slender little volume. How fragile the glue that binds this old paperback.
There is a woman on the cover! In a horned helmet! With red hair and a red cloak and haughty cheekbones and a very big sword!
I eyed my new acquisition with suspicion. I put it on the chair next to my bed and stared at it every morning after I woke, every night before I slept. We were getting friendly, the book and I. You don’t just crack a book like that on first meeting, you know. You have to grow used to each other. Ease into it.
On Sunday, January 2nd, 2011, I read it. It was, I believe, the first book I read of the New Year. Begin as you mean to go on, eh?
Gracious, what a quest! I guess I didn’t realize that A.) It was a collection of short stories (I thought it was a novel), and B.) sometimes Moore’s much more Science Fiction than Fantasy — in that febrile, dreamscape, Lovecraftian way.
The first story, “Jirel Meets Magic” (originally published in Weird Tales, July 1935), is pretty fantastical; she climbs through a window to pursue her enemy, and finds herself in another world. There she mostly contends with the magic — not of her foe, oh no — but of her foe’s foe: this catty, smirking, dryad-murdering sorceress who owns a hopping tower and is, in my humble opinion, rather overly fond of purple.
The whole climbing-through-windows-and-out-of-worlds conceit totally reminded me of James Branch Cabell’s Figures of Earth (crap! I made a pact with James Enge to write more Cabell blogs. Remind me!), and I wonder if Mme. Moore was at all under a Cabellian influence during the writing of this story, or if windows (like wardrobes and mirrors) exist in Fantasy as the natural thresholds between dimensions? Mmn. Bears thinking on. MOVING ON!
In “Black God’s Kiss,” “The Dark Land,” and “Hellesgarde,” without giving away too much, our red-headed Commander of the Armies of Unconquerable Joiry seems to encounter the same problem in three different ways. Namely: big scary dudes who want to snog her. And she, Jirel, impetuous and impregnable, simply isn’t having any of it.
Now, in “Black God’s Kiss” (originally published in Weird Tales, October of 1934 — the first Jirel story ever), it’s Guillaume the Conqueror who’s doing the snogging. Thing is, he forgot to ask first.
Oh, and also he took over Unconquerable Joiry, so you can see how that might get Jirel’s back up. Enough so that she, that night, escapes her prison cell, gets her quaking priest to shrive her, and goes down to hell “to pray the devil for a weapon.” Only what she thinks of as hell may very well be a whole other planet/dimension/plane of existence.
There is this cool coiling tunnel thing she has to slide down (sort of like in The Goonies!), until she comes to a cavernous blackness. She has to remove her crucifix in order to see through the dark, find her way to the mouth of the cave, and emerge into the new world. She must also battle gibbering horrors under a strict time limit. (In this world, the dawn is far, far worse than the dark. Best not stick around when the sun — or whatever it is — starts rising.)
The weird landscape she enters is itself a character, a treacherous nightmare with black spots and soft spots and pitfalls. It seems sometimes to breathe. There, after some shenanigans, she finds the Black God, i.e. the Devil, i.e. something there really aren’t any words for, and she, uh, “prays” it for a weapon. In the, you know, “Romeo and Juliet” kind of “let lips do what hands do” praying.
Guillaume the Conqueror never stood a chance in, well… hell.
Ha! Eat it! That’s what you get for snogging Jirel of Joiry without permission, you bastard!
I liked everything about this story except the last two paragraphs. Several times in the course of the narrative I’d expected something like the last two paragraphs, and was grateful when they never appeared. But then they did. It took me all of the next story and some of the one after that to get over my disappointment at being right.
In our next tale is the sequel to “Kiss,” entitled “Black God’s Shadow” (Weird Tales, December 1934). It’s basically about Jirel’s return to that land and the laying of a ghost. Emotionally, the story seems to resonate with the idea that Jirel’s compassion can be just as stubborn as her passion, and that for her, hatred and love must sidestep each other on a very fine tightrope over a very large pit of fire.
If you want to read an in-depth review of “Black God’s Kiss,” our man Ryan Harvey has written one here just for you!
But let’s get back to snogging. Not only do black-bearded, white-toothed conquerors want to snog Jirel, but so does the Dark God of The Dark Land (Weird Tales, January 1936). A pattern emerges.
I admit I had rather a crush on Pav, King of Romne. He did treat Jirel better than Guillaume had, healing her of that mortal pike wound and all, but still he wanted to snog her without asking. And also to subsume her bright proud soul in the process (possibly a side effect he did not intend). So of course she has to fight him! He gives her permission to seek throughout Romne for a weapon to destroy him (pretty big of him, except I know his secret), and on the way, through another badass landscape, Jirel meets a scary skeleton-lady who “helps” her. I’m not telling you what happens.
I think that may have been my favorite, but I also had a lot of fun reading “Hellesgarde”(Weird Tales, April 1939). In this one, it’s the severed head of an angry ghost named Andred that keeps trying to snog Jirel, but don’t worry! That’s the least interesting bit of the story (still pretty interesting, as these things go). There’s also a castle that appears in the marshes (“a dismal place, full of mists and fevers”) only at sunset, a company of dead men standing guard, and castle denizens that have “CREEPY” written all over their foreheads in invisible ink. Many adventures ensue.
And you know what? “Hellesgarde” has one of my favorite last lines in a Fantasy story. Clear and malicious and beautiful, that one line is a story that never needs to be written because the shape is already there, defined in negative space. It could be a cliffhanger, or it could be a conclusion. It was very satisfying in either case. As was the whole Jirel of Joiry experience.
What fascinated me most was the sense of history in the pages. These stories came from a time before the Third – or even the Second – Wave of Feminism. Where was Moore writing from? What were her frustrations? Who were her influences? Did she feel alone and adrift in the male-dominated world of pulp fantasy and science fiction? Was she excited to be a part of it? Did she realize that Jirel was blazing trails, not only through swamp and pandimensional realms, but through history and literature?
I’m very keen to read her Northwest Smith stories now. I’m ready. Bring it on.