James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Special Double Review! Part One! 

Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith

By C L Moore 

15 Nov, 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

And now, a very special double review! 

C.L. Moore was one of the comparatively few1 women active in pulp-era fantasy and science fiction. Whether on her own or with husband Henry Kuttner (whom she met when he sent her fan mail), she was one of the big names of the period. Moore won both the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Gandalf Grand Master Award; she would have been the first woman Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America had her second husband not intervened to prevent this2 on the grounds it would confuse Moore, now suffering from Alzheimers . 

Among her many works were two series linked by a common setting. Her two protagonists, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry, were born two thousand years apart in a solar system that was old before humans ever conquered it:

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 — heard Venus’ people call their wet world Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ guttural Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.

Humans are not the only ones who have left relics across the many habitable worlds of the Solar System. Visitors from other stars and other universes have also laid claim the worlds orbiting the sun. Some of those visitors are long since gone. Others.…

Although Northwest lived two millennia after Jirel, I am going to look at his stories first because that’s the order I first read them, because I prefer the Jirel stories, and because it’s funnier that way.


Northwest Smith: The Complete Northwest Smith

Northwest Smith: Earthman, reprobate, adventurer! Armed with a ray-gun and a pretty impressive lack of common sense, Northwest is a space-tanned ne’er-do-well who, with his Venusian companion Yarol, is considered by the Patrol a Person of Interest in any number of shenanigans. The Patrol has never quite managed to hang anything on the Earthman or his pretty (pretty bad, that is) friend, which — given some of the stories reviewed here — reflects badly on the Patrol.

What I learned from this collection is that I read it the wrong way. The Northwest Smith stories are best read individually, with a certain amount of time between them, and not all in a row over one long session. If you read them all at once, the weird and fantastic elements and the colourful prose become overwhelmed by certain other recurring themes. Very disturbing themes. 

Teaching the World to Dream,” essay by C. J. Cherryh

This is a very favourable but all too short tribute to Moore. 

Shambleau (1933), novelette by C. L. Moore

When he sees a pretty woman being chased by a lynch mob, Northwest steps in to save her. Northwest notices that the crowd reacts with disgust when he claims the woman — denounced as a shambleau”— but is not curious why. Nor does it occur to him ask the meaning of the word shambleau”3. Their brief cohabitation is marked by increasingly disquieting revelations. 

Moore’s prose in this tends towards the purple. While I don’t feel like typing in reams of text, there’s at least one sentence that seems to have bucked the author off before galloping off towards the horizon. The section where Yarol and Smith discuss what just happened goes on a bit longer than I expected. Later in her career, Moore would have fed the reader information more gracefully. The author can be forgiven some infelicities, as this is a very early story; possibly her third, if ISFDB is to be believed. 

Taken in isolation — which is how the people who read this in the November 1933 Weird Tales would have had to take it — this is a pleasantly weird story about a space-tanned adventurer who stumbles into a situation he had no idea would go south so quickly. What the subsequent stories showed was that there were any number of queer things like the Shambleau here and there across the Solar System, that this was in no way a secret, and also that Northwest had a real penchant for ignoring warning signs if a woman was involved.

Black Thirst (1934), novelette by C. L. Moore

Hired by a beautiful woman who proves to be one of the Minga maids, the products of a millennia-long program aimed at creating unbelievably beautiful women, Northwest discovers that dark purpose behind the breeding program is far more unsavoury than merely selling its products to horny lords. This ends badly, although not for Smith. 

I was a bit surprised to encounter the term streetwalker” casually tossed out early in this story, a little silly of me given that it appeared in Weird Tales and Weird Tales at this time was not exactly prudish. 

It turns out this setting overtly contains both prostitutes and sex slaves. And it’s not clear there are any prostitutes who are not also slaves.

Smith’s Solar System seems to have whole ecologies built around the consumption of items not normally considered food. In this case, it is beauty and a later story suggests Smith himself is good-looking enough to be a snack for such beings. 

Although this is only the second story, there’s a pattern here: Northwest may think of himself as a hardened adventurer (he is a handy man with a ray-gun) but a huge part of his schtick relies on being pretty enough that women will throw themselves on grenades for him. 

Scarlet Dream (1934), novelette by C. L. Moore

On a whim, Northwest buys a striking scarf only to discover that it is yet another one of the artifacts of evil that litter the Solar System. He is drawn into a dream world whose inhabitants have nothing to do but enjoy simple pleasures while waiting for death. He dallies with a beautiful young woman but soon becomes bored. He makes the unfortunate discovery that if escape is possible (which is debatable), the price will be unspeakably high. Although not for Smith — as always. 

Twice could be coincidence, but three stories is enough to establish that you really, really don’t want to be the beautiful woman in a Northwest Smith story. Your life expectancy is going to be shorter than any given Bond girl’s. 

Dust of Gods (1934). novelette by C. L. Moore

Northwest and his Venusian friend Yarol explore a cave under an abandoned Martian temple. The cave turns out to contain relics of humanity’s lost homeworld, the shattered Fifth Planet. This find is a very, very bad thing indeed. While humans may have come from the Fifth Planet, the beings that controlled that world are best described as eldritch horrors and they are not yet gone from this universe.

Moore’s Solar System is one in which an announcement of an upcoming archeological expedition, (or hints of a tomb-robbing foray, as in the case of Smith and Yarol) should cause responsible persons to reduce the explorer to ash with their trusty heat-rays. Are you listening, Indiana Jones? 

Julhi (1935), novelette by C. L. Moore

Northwest is kidnapped by an enslaved priestess, who plans to feed him to her god. The god just happens to look like a beautiful girl. This ends badly, although not for Smith.

Pretty girls don’t always sacrifice themselves for Smith but that’s OK, because he’s more than willing to give them a helping hand when necessary. I found Apri’s death pretty disturbing, particularly the part where Smith assures himself that he is doing her a favour as he wraps his hands around her pretty little throat. Smith may be some combination of Distressed Dude and the Load but he also has a pretty healthy line in killing attractive women. 

Nymph of Darkness” (1935), short story by C. L. Moore and Forrest J. Ackerman

Northwest encounters an odd translucent woman; her skin is the Colour Out of Space, more or less because her father was an Unspeakable Thing From Beyond the Stars. The cultists who raised her don’t much care for Northwest, which is how the cultists find out how far they can push a half-god. This ends badly, although not for Smith. 

While the cultists showed questionable judgment when they chose to worship an Unspeakable Thing From Beyond the Stars, I think alarm and outrage was a pretty reasonable reaction to discovering a woman they loved was hooking up with Smith. 

The Cold Gray God (1935), novelette by C. L. Moore

Northwest helps a beautiful woman, only to discover that she is just a living shell being used by some incomprehensible and malign entity. The monstrous visitor quite likes the look of Northwest Smith, enough that it decides to cast Smith out of his body so it can take Smith’s body for its own.

Northwest, you genre-blind man-whore. 

You might ask Hasn’t Smith learned anything at all about helping beautiful strangers from the Shambleau, the beauty-eating god, and little Miss Daddy was an Eldritch Horror?” The evidence strongly points towards Not one damned thing.”

Yvala (1936), novelette by C. L. Moore

Northwest and Yarol go hunting sirens on one of Jupiter’s tropical moons. What they find is Yvala, an irresistible alien thing that can appear as the perfect object of desire for each being and in whose presence men become bestial. 

Apparently if enough time goes by without Smith encountering some enchanting Thing wearing the shape of a beautiful woman, he and his buddy will actively seek them out. It’s worse than it sounds, because the point of hunting the sirens was to capture and sell them on the slave-woman market; Smith and Yarol can add would-be pimps and human(ish)4 traffickers” to their CVs. Even given that sex-slavery is explicitly a thing in this setting and that Smith is an anti-hero, this is pretty low. 

Lost Paradise (1936), novelette by C. L. Moore

Yarol tricks one of the last of an ancient, fallen race into revealing that race’s ancient secret. The reward is a vision of the last days of the living Moon, a world kept habitable thanks to the ongoing intervention of a dark and hungry god. Unfortunately for the Lunarians, Mr. Northwest Say, is that a great red button I could press?” Smith is a participant and the vision is all too interactive. This ends badly, although not for Smith. 

This officially moves Smith’s personal body count into six or seven figures, maybe higher. It also reincorporates some Lost World history; the entities who once ruled the Fifth Planet did not die just because one planet did. 

The Tree of Life (1936), novelette by C. L. Moore

A woman enchants Northwest, who follows her into her god’s pocket universe. The woman worships a tree-god, one whose ravenous nature may be explained by the fact that it is not an arboreal deity; it is a tentacle monster. The monster is so horrific in form that the human mind refuses to comprehend it. The tree prefers to consume beautiful women but Smith is pretty in his own space-tanned way and he will do very nicely. This ends badly, although not for Smith.

Add and then there was that time Smith destroyed an entire pocket universe and all of its inhabitants, who by the way seem mostly to have been beautiful women” to Smith’s body count. Moore’s penchant for framing her stories to end with the deaths of beautiful women is kind of disturbing. 

Quest of the Starstone (1937), novelette by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner

For reasons that will become clear, I decline to comment on this story at this time.

Werewoman (1938), novelette by C. L. Moore

A comparatively minor story about Smith’s encounter with this world’s version of lycanthropy, which combines conventional werewolfism with strong elements of Maenadism . This ends badly, although not for Smith. 

Song in a Minor Key” (1940), short-story by C. L. Moore

Another very short piece which explains a bit about Smith’s past. Only a little bit, though, but enough to reveal that his back-story ended badly, although not for Smith. 

This collection ends with a very brief About the Author” essay by an uncredited author. It is all too brief and repeated in the next volume. 

Moore never tries to paint Northwest as a good guy. He’s a career criminal who does a lot of terrible things on purpose. Sometimes his weakness for women inspires him to try to help them, which is when he does terrible things inadvertently. That said, wow, even for a career criminal and multiple murderer he is not a positive role model. There’s still something addictive about these stories, though. 

On to part two!

1: Few but not zero. 

2: I have heard that he was in general hostile to her history as a successful writer (prose, radio, and TV) and it seems that she stopped writing about the time she married him in 1963

3: Or to look it up in a library but Northwest doesn’t seem to be the reading sort. Too bad for him, because he lives in a world where cautious study probably works out better than just charging in blindly. 

4: While it is not clear that sirens legally count as humans, it is not clear that they don’t. What is clear is that the sirens are intended as a substitute for the Minga maids, who definitely are humans.