Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which comes 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's people call their wet world "Sha-ardol" in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars's guttural "Lakkdiz" from the harsh tongues of Mars's 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. There have been too many myths and legends for us to doubt it.That's probably one of my favorite openings of any pulp fantasy and certainly one of Moore's best. It not only sets the stage for this terrific and frightful tale but it's simply evocative in its own right. Moore's future world was conceived more than three decades before Man has stepped foot on the Moon, so it's not surprising that her conception of an inhabitable -- and inhabited -- solar system might seem quaint to 21st century readers. And, yet, for all their scientific implausibility, there's something very compelling in her sci-fi yarns, something mythic, as stated in the excerpt quoted above.
Of course, Moore's SF stories, "Shambleau" not least among them, are helped by her protagonist, Northwest Smith, who, I am convinced, is one of the principal inspirations for Han Solo. Smith is a dark-haired smuggler who travels the solar system in his seemingly unremarkable but surprisingly fast spaceship, the Maid, accompanied by a Venusian named Yarol. Like Solo, Smith is a cynical and self-serving rogue, yet he's got a good heart and usually ends up doing the right thing in spite of his natural inclinations. He's a fun character and makes it easy to overlook the implausibilities of Moore's fictional future history.
The presents story takes place on Mars, where Smith comes across a mob about to violently vent its anger on a "sweetly made" girl whom they taunt with the mysterious name of "Shambleau." The smuggler, "though he had not the reputation of a chivalrous man," decides to intervene, stepping in front of them, drawing an arc in the slag pavement with his heatgun, and daring anyone to cross it. Smith is baffled by the mob's behavior.
"What do you want with her?" he demanded.These words seem to get a reaction out of the mob, who were at once puzzled and disdainful at Smith's declaration.
"She's Shambleau, I tell you! Damn your hide, man, we never let those things live! Kick her out here!"
The repeated name had no meaning to him, but Smith's innate stubbornness rose defiantly as the crowd surged forward to the very edge of the arc, their clamor growing louder. "Shambleau! Kick her out here! Give us Shambleau! Shambleau!"
Smith dropped his indolent pose like a cloak and planted his feet wide, swinging up his gun threateningly. "Keep back!" he yelled. "She's mine! Keep back!"
"It's -- his!" and the pressed melted away, gone silent, too, and the look of contempt spread from face to face.
The ex-Patrolman spat on the slag-paved street and turned his back indifferently. "Keep her, then," he advised briefly over one shoulder. "But don't let her out again in this town."I do not think I am spoiling the short story by revealing here that the woman whom Smith saved is not all that she appears to be. Indeed, Smith soon finds himself in unexpected danger thanks to his defense of the object of the mob's ire. Beyond that, I won't say any more, because it'd spoil a suspenseful, strangely sensual, pulp adventure. If you've never read "Shambleau" before, you ought to do so. It's one of Moore's best tales and is a fine introduction both to her as a writer and to Northwest Smith and the universe he inhabits. The first time I read it I was hooked and quickly devoured the dozen or so other stories in which Smith appears. I'd be amazed if other weren't similarly entranced.