Monday, September 19, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Shambleau

Pulp fantasies are often criticized for, among other things, their purple prose and, while it's true that more than a few of them are overwrought in this area, I can't help but think that this quality sometimes lends them a certain power. Take, for example, the beginning to C.L. Moore's debut story, "Shambleau," which first appeared in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales:
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.

"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!"
These words seem to get a reaction out of the mob, who were at once puzzled and disdainful at Smith's declaration.
"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.


  1. Pulp fantasies are often criticized for, among other things, their purple prose and, while it's true that more than a few of them are overwrought in this area, I can't help but think that this quality sometimes lends them a certain power.


    Judging from your evident antiquarianism/conservatism/nostalgia (and your own comments to this effect!), the quoted excerpt would seem to be less important as prose than as an appeal to your longing for a specific kind of comfort, i.e. the 'Glorious World of Old, Now Lost' story. It's fine, stirring prose, but it's also 100% cliché - but I bet you don't actually credit the cliché, you respond to the evocation of a particularly common childhood fantasy. Indeed, a fantasy of childhood itself: when everything was bigger, older, more mysterious; nights (and dungeons) were darker, the sun threw brighter light...that kind of thing.

    I quite enjoy these Pulp Fantasy Library posts, but it's worth noting (perhaps you already have) that by the time *you* came to these stories, they were already ratified by age - officially old and weird. I'd note too that this is one of your constant refrains with D&D, that much of its initial appeal for you was the sense of belonging to a historical lineage, even if it only stretched back to bigger kids a few years older, or to friendly adults.

    And of course your treatment of Gygax and his contemporaries fits neatly into the same myth-system, e.g. where modern scholars see semi-competent design, you hail the long-lost pioneer spirit, etc. (It wouldn't be interesting if it weren't long-lost.)

    I don't mind all these things, I just wanna pitch this comment against any tendency to see these stories' 'literary' virtues as universal. They're not. Put another way: 'mythic' is something you're happy to find in your stories, which is useful information about you, but not necessarily about the 'mythic.'

  2. I'll have to look that up, thanks for the heads up. I've always felt that the scientific correctness of SF literature is pretty irrelevant, since stories are usually more about the author and his or her society's world views, hopes, fears and dreams.

  3. This story was also adapted by Roy Thomas for Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic... it actually worked really well!

  4. I wasn't thrilled with a Jirel of Joiry story I read years ago, so I've passed on Moore since then. This story sounds intriguing, though, so I'll have to look it up. Thanks for the lead. :)

    (Regarding "purple prose," I'd call the excerpt quoted a rather light example, almost "lavender" when compared to the full, florid, royal purple of authors like Smith or Lovecraft.)

  5. "Shambleau" is indeed a great story. It was seen that way in the era it was released by the readers of Weird Tales and it remains so today.

  6. When Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright received Shambleau in the mail and read it, the first time he'd ever read Moore's work, he declared "Today is C.L. Moore Day!" He never did that for any of his writers - not Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, Seabury Quinn...nobody.

  7. I'm not sure this is really purple prose.

  8. So was Shambleau inspired by CAS's The Gorgon? Or vice versa? Because the thematic similarity is striking...

  9. "The disturbing undercurrent is that the lynch mob turns out to have been right in wanting to kill the 'sweetly made girl'. Smith was wrong in his chivalrous impulse to save her, and the mob was right to despise him for it."

    The righteousness of the Mob against the dangerous ignorance of the individual. Where would we be without its vile brainwashing...

    @Billy Billerson: It goes back further. Out of the Silence by Erle Cox(1919) in which the 'lone hero' discovers a woman in suspended animation who turns out to be 'gorgon in disguise' and is admonished by the 'knowledgable mob' who see the threat she poses even when the hero does not.

  10. Spot on - I agree and highly recommend both "Shambleau" and the Pazio collection of C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith series.

    I'll admit I was unfamiliar with her work until the last few years. Great, flavorful stuff.

  11. A name like "Northwest Smith" is pretty cool in its own right.

    Aside from that, the purple prose is perhaps like a soufflé - something great if done right, but something which can also easily fall under its own weight. The above passage is great. However, there are many that are not as good.

  12. What strikes me with Shambleau is the strong sexual reference and background the novel has. It's more about a relationship than anything else, and about a relationship of destructive sexual passion, which is consistent with modern analysis of the Gorgon's myth and maybe even vampire stories.

  13. Sometimes in the 90s, a French RPG magazine had published a Call of Cthulhu scenario set in Shambleau's universe. It was working very well.

  14. @Wally - you could have saved yourself a lot of time by simply informing us that we are viewing our games and pulp stories through the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia and been done with it.

  15. Went and read it on line. Now there is a kitty who needs worming tablets...bad kitty! Bad!

  16. @Jason Juta: A plausible story tells about what could be. We respond to 2001 in part because it was believable; it could have happened. Fantastic stories need to resonate more on the epic. If you want to tell me about my society, the easiest way is to show me my society or what it could realistically evolve into.

    @yellowdingo: The reverse of a great truth is another great truth. We can speak about the danger of the unthinking mob versus the clear-seeing individual--and a lot of stories are written on that. At the same times, the wisdom of established knowledge versus the danger of a rash individual who dismisses that wisdom without trying to understand it is also a good parable. Society suffers a lot of fools who don't bother to understand something before dismissing it as the Man trying to keep us down.

  17. I think it's already been mentioned, but Paizo's compilation of all the Northwest Smith stories (Northwest of Earth, I think) has been a great read since it comprises Moore's numerous stories about the character.

    Two further questions for James:

    In relation to Moore, did you plan on tackling any of Kuttner's stories in the future? I just finished reading his Gallehger stories and started the Elak of Atlantis series. Curious to hear your take on any of his work.

    Secondly, it was thanks to your blog that I decided the read Little Fuzzy and found it a fun read. Just wondering if you have any comments on the other stories in the Fuzzy series. I hear its a mixed bag compared to the first story.

  18. Disregard part of my previous question. Just found you've talked about Elak before in a previous post. Apologies for my ignorance.

  19. @Prosfilaes: indeed we could argue the evil of the Mob and had we looked at 'Out of the Silence' we see an elder civilization whose achievement was to become the 'gorgon'. So if we look again at Shamballa we see a darker secret - this 'ancient species' is just another 'Mob' who have become the 'gorgon' and survived as a consequence.

    So not only is the Mob 'Right' out of long term survival it is also the 'Gorgon' out of long term survival.

  20. Just wondering if you have any comments on the other stories in the Fuzzy series. I hear its a mixed bag compared to the first story.

    The second Fuzzy novel, Fuzzy Sapiens, is actually quite good. I haven't read the third one nor any of the various sequels written by others (with the exception of Scalzi's mediocre reboot).

  21. Shambleau is probably my favorite NW Smith story, but I like 'em all. Again, Planet Stories is your friend if you are one of those who have not treated yourself to C. L. Moore: