Monday, May 11, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Black God's Kiss

Catherine Lucille Moore -- who wrote under the name C.L. Moore, to disguise her gender -- was one of the finest practitioners of pulp fantasy and science fiction. Over the course of her long career, she created many memorable characters, including interplanetary ne'er-do-well Northwest Smith, but the one that stands heads and shoulders above them all is Jirel of Joiry. Even more remarkable than the fact that Jirel is ruler of her own domain in a fantastical version of medieval France is that, like her male counterparts in pulp fantasy, she matches her sword against sorcery rather than being a passive damsel in distress.

Of course, Jirel is more than a master swordswoman and to emphasize her prowess with the blade is to do the character a grave injustice. Much like the best pulp heroes of the time, Jirel's true appeal lies in her strength of will and psychological fortitude in the face of peril. Quick witted, insightful, and intelligent, Jirel is a true "leader of men," as evidenced in each of the six short stories in which she appears, the first of which is "Black God's Kiss," which appeared in Weird Tales in October 1934.

"Black God's Kiss" begins with Jirel captured and humbled by a rival lord, who throws her into his dungeon because she will not submit to him. Concerned only with the safety of her demesne, Jirel embarks on a plan that, quite literally, results in a deal with the Devil. The story is probably the best and most interesting of the Jirel stories and the one that most powerfully establishes her character. Though a creation of pulp fantasy, she is no female Conan; though a woman, she is no man's plaything, as her antagonist in "Black God's Kiss" learns all too well. Neither is Jirel a Red Sonja. She's not some adolescent male vision of what a warrior-woman might be like; she's the real thing.

For a long time, it was quite difficult to find all the Jirel stories in one volume. Fortunately, Paizo has corrected this problem by publishing a new collection of them. I highly recommend it to anyone who'd like to read what are probably the first swords-and-sorcery stories to feature a female protagonist, written by a woman no less.

10 comments:

  1. This is not something I know about, but it sounds really cool.

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  2. Absolutely 100% agree, James.

    I have both Paizo collections in my library - highly recommended. I was just recommending them this past weekend at RandomCon in Phoenix.

    And since we're on the topic of getting great stuff back in print, thanks to you, James, for getting those Piper stories reprinted.

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  3. Another important point about Jirel is that her sense of social class is roughly appropriate to a pseudo-medieval world. She is NOT a modern feminist in chainmail -- she is medieval in outlook.

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  4. I think C L Moore is the best of the best among the pulp writers, both for Jirel (which has been a key inspiration for my games for years) and for her Northwest Smith stories (especially Shambleau).

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  5. Before I found the Paizo version, I found the wonders of Jirel in this paperback collection:

    http://www.amazon.com/Jirel-Joiry-C-L-Moore/dp/0441385702/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    Just some local used bookstore loot, that I treasure to this day. Amazing stories, great character(s), incredible writing!

    I do now have several (maybe 8 or so?) of the Planet Stories re-releases (Paizo), but I have yet to actually order any. I picked them up from my local Borders or Barnes&Noble when they would show up there. They would only ever have one single copy, so I don't think too many other folks around here were hip to them.

    I would just subscribe to the darn things from Paizo, but I wonder if it's tough to get it straightened out on which ones I already have and which ones I still need. HHmmn....

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  6. I read the Jirel stories contained in this collection:

    http://www.amazon.com/Black-Scarlet-Dreams-Fantasy-Masterworks/dp/0575074175

    ...and I was struck by the fact that in most of the stories, Jirel is an almost entirely passive observer. They all seem to follow the formula:

    a) Jirel enters/is sucked into weird realm, on some pretext
    b) Jirel sees many disturbing sights, culminating in an all-powerful inhuman entity
    c) Jirel says "no".
    d) Jirel exits weird realm

    I cannot dispute that they are well written, but I have to say that overall, I found them rather boring.

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  7. I'm with Rafial--I mostly enjoyed the story "Black God's Kiss", but found the other Jirel stories awfully repetitive and dull. And, actually, I found BGK's a bit trying after a while, because Jirel doesn't do anything.

    Wait, there's one story where Jirel goes into a kind of haunted keep. I liked that one better than BGK's, although it too followed the passivity formula.

    CAS or someone can do those kind of atmosphere stories because A)they tend to be shorter, B)they use more interesting language, and C)don't create an expectation of some ass-kicking.

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  8. I love her writing style but Jirel herself... well, she just doesn't do too well. She's always been saved by supernaturla elements or always having them act upon her or using them to get her own way, such as in the first story.

    Read them as history but don't be surprised when things just don't turn the corner of her actually doing SOMETHING.

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  9. Wow, guys, thought I was the only one. Moore's fiction doesn't appeal to me at all for the same elements the last few posters mentioned. I always thought maybe I was alone in disliking the NW Smith and Jirel stories for their extreme passivity....maybe I'm not!

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  10. I love the older tales Piazo has put out. I have this one and its great.

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