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The writings of C. L. Moore are a rarely-glimpsed window into a secret sanctuary. To the hooked and voracious reader the mystery becomes: why did she shutter it up for over the last half of her life? I suspect she embraced her own mystery, held it dear, and scoffed it off in the presence of the outer world. Unlike Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr), who could also disguise her work as a man's, Moore did not possess that more confronting, bird-like intellect “to pick up on every shiny thing” (Joni Mitchell, “Black Crow”, c.1976). She chose to live in soft shadows. Her best stories are singular, inner journeys seeking resolution and/or contentment in lush, almost palatable, dreamscape worlds. She was interested in her heat and heart, not in the socio-political pulses of the rest of us.
Catherine Lucille Moore had been publishing for 7 years before she married Henry Kuttner in 1940. She was 29 years old. Had she written her best work? She'd certainly created her two sharpest character studies in Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry. Their influences are apparent today in the prolific marketings of Hans Solo dolls and female action heroes. But starting around World War II, her oeuvre becomes nettlingly clouded in pennames and collaborations with her husband. If the Kuttners' professional lives were in an aquarium, Catherine seemed to swim with the fishes while Henry rose like a submarine. Who wrote what? Some are no-brainers like “Vintage Season” (c.1946), “Heir Apparent” (c.1950), and “Promised Land” (c.1950). They are all stitched together with Moore's phraseologic, verbal embroiderings. But what about the allonyms? The duo used up to 17 different aliases, probably to cover a very prolific output into the pulps of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Biographic authorities claim true collaborations were under the name of Lewis Padgett, while Lawrence O'Donnell was used solely for C.L. Moore's work. If this is the case, Clash by Night (c.1943) and its celebrated sequel, Fury (c.1947)—both universally accepted as Kuttner's novelistic magnum opus —should be attributed to his wife, as they originally appeared in Astounding under the O'Donnell moniker. However, both bear the signature stylistics of Kuttner's clever but practical plotting, and, when renewing their copyrights after Henry's death in 1958, Catherine registered them in his name only.
As for her singular efforts, the choicest are collected in The Best of C. L. Moore (Nelson Doubleday, SFBC edition, c.1975) rounded up by Lester del Rey. Moore wrote novelettes and novellas, which most consider "an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic" ( Stephen King, Different Seasons, c.1982). Magazine editors have evolved the attitude that this length (45 to 120 pages) is beyond the attention span of their audience. Considering Moore's rather adorning, plenteous style, the later collaborations certainly served as a practical adaptation to a changing century's literary demands.
She hit the blocks running with “Shambleau” (c.1933) when she was 22 years old. The hero, Northwest Smith, sprinted further in a series of adventures best anthologized in Ace's 1981 Scarlet Dream. Shambleau is the Medusa, and Moore stretches that hypnotic, cross-threaded desire into the profound. On one level, it's simply about that initial attraction that puts stone in the bone, but later turns flaccid as snakes when an underlying sourpuss is revealed. Deeper, it explores that sometimes-seen criminal persona in oneself which raptures a revulsion into pleasure and turns the darkly horrible “most foully sweet” (p.16). But, deeper still, it is “all beauty and terror, all horror and delight, in the infinite darkness upon which her eyes opened like windows” (p.23). Ultimately, Northwest Smith is shaken the most by knowing he “was one with, and saw—God” (p.32). Rarely does a horror tale bite so deep and draw so much blood.
Her other series character is Jirel of Joiry. She is Eve to the current cycle of warrior princesses. Yet, as fierce and determined as Jirel appears, her formidable fighting skills are rarely engaged. She is an emotional swashbuckler, blasting from her cannons of love and hate, fear and marvel, into risks and adventures few men would attempt. In the introductory “Black God's Kiss” (c.1934), she explodes in medias res with no backstory whatsoever, then slides pell-mell into a phenomenal landscape “so unholy that one who bore a cross might not even see it” (p.98) in search of a weapon to vanquish her conqueror. But quelling the proud, red-hot flush from Guillaume's peremptory kiss ends up “far colder and stranger and—somehow—more ominous, as if . . . too dreadful to put even into thoughts” (p.107). Instead of the outraged blood tasting of sweet revenge, Jirel learns a far more visceral lesson about herself. Five of Jirel's six-some adventures can be found in paperbacks and SFBC as Jirel of Joiry, Grant's LTD Black God's Shadow , or Gollancz's Black Gods & Scarlet Dreams.
As Medusa is to myth, Lilith is to Christian lore. The Despoiler. The Usurper. The Trickster. “Fruit of Knowledge” (c.1940) is a take on this fable like no other. Similarly, “No Woman Born” (c.1944) uses the common theme of cyborgs and wrenches it into an antipodal analysis of living and legend, emotion and intellect, mind and metal, willpower and instinct. Out of these struggles merges a portrait of a true artist, an embracing woman, and an illimitable human being, but with “the conviction of mortality, in spite of her immortal body” (p.212).
“Daemon” (c.1946) is pure magic. It is a rare—for Moore —first-person narrative of a simpleton who carries the unbearably lonely gift of seeing other men's souls or demons, he knows not which. Maybe they are both, as they grant man immortality, something he will never acheive. For, Luiz o Bobo—Louis the Simple—a man with the vision of a god, has no soul. The world through his eyes is tinted with multi-colored auras, mythological and religious entities both humanesque and animalistic, and ninfas, who are possibly extraterrestrial beings. The story is a battlefield for the ethereal and mundane, marvelous for being fought in the same arena and ultimately humbling for man's perceived influence over it.
The finale, “Vintage Season” (c.1946), is a story that has been told many times since. Its themes of inane tourism and world-wide implosion gussied up in a time-travel framework proves irresistible for a modern, cynical viewpoint. Whether it is better than, say, Varley's Millennium, is a qualitative speculation. What dates C. L. Moore is not her conceptualization or storytelling. It is her prose style. She writes unencumbered, as in a trance while just letting it flow through the typewriter. She repeats to shore up the trail blazed by her creative notions. To modern readers, this seems slow, lumbering, and overworked, but by describing things over and over she polishes each artistic kernel with transcending luminance. The fault of verbosity is minor compared to the sublime feelings and intellectual challenges she brings to the table. She is what every true creator hungers to be: brilliant and unique.
In the end, I like to think Moore wiggled her phantasmagorical élan deeper inside herself in the spirit of her marriage and for the professional unity with another creative and caring mind. As a result, the world has some more great stories like “The Twonky” (c.1942), “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (c.1943), “The Proud Robot” (c.1943), “Home is the Hunter” (c.1953), and “Two-Handed Engine” (c.1955), regardless of who's damned name are on them.
In 1984, she entered the hospital with Alzheimer's disease, and was released in finality 3 years later. She was 76 years old.
There will always be that shutterless, fleeting glimpse, so unfeigned, that Catherine gave us of the beauteous cares and fears that filled her soul a half-century ago.
Let the Mistral blow.
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