Monday, November 2, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dust of God

The cover to the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales is a fairly famous one. Painted by Margaret Brundage, it depicts a scene from Robert E. Howard's "The Devil in Iron," a tale of Conan the Cimmerian. I hesitate to employ the overused word iconic in describing it, but it does seem fitting in this case. Between the giant snake, the struggling barbarian, and scantily clad Octavia, its quite representative of its era, so much so that it even appears in the 1996 film, The Whole Wide World, as a visual stand-in for all of Howard's writings – action-packed, larger than life, and racy by the standards of the time.

Though "The Devil in Iron" receives top billing in this issue, it's not the story I want to talk about in this post (I'll save that for next week). Instead, I want to talk about the first name that appears below that of Robert E. Howard: C.L. Moore. Catherine Lucille Moore is an incredibly fascinating figure, one of the bright lights of the golden age of the pulps. Among her most memorable creations is Northwest Smith, an interplanetary smuggler and gunslinger who is almost certainly the ultimate ancestor of Han Solo.

Smith appeared in thirteen short stories published between 1933 and 1940, the fourth of which is "Dust of God," the subject of today's post. The story begins with Smith and his Venusian comrade, Yarol, down on their luck in a Martian saloon – so impoverished, in fact, that Yarol briefly contemplates robbing the place before Smith reminds him that he "ought to know better than to start anything here." Instead, he suggests that the Venusian look around for someone who might have a job for them. "We're open for business – any kind." 

Yarol surveys the room.
It was a motley crowd the weary black gaze scrutinized – hard-faced Earthmen in space-sailors' leather, sleek Venusians with their sidelong dangerous eyes, Martian drylanders muttering the blasphemous gutturals of their language, a sprinkling of outlanders and half-brutes from the wide-flung borders of civilization. Yarol's eyes returned to the dark, scarred face across the table. He the pallor of Smith's no-colored gaze and shrugged.

"No one who'd buy us a drink," he sighed. "I've seen one or two of 'em before, though. Take those two space-rats at the next table: the little red-faced Earthman – the one looking over his shoulder – and the drylander with an eye gone. See? I've heard they're hunters."

"What for?"

Yarol lifted his shoulders in the expressive Venusian shrug. His brows rose too, quizzically. 

"No one knows what they hunt – but they run together."

"Hm-m." Smith turned a speculative stare toward the neighboring table. "They look more hunted than hunting, if you ask me."

An Earthman seated at another table takes note of Smith and Yarol's interest in the hunters and asks if he can join them. Without any introduction, he explains that he has a job to offer, one at which "those two," referring to the hunters, had failed. The stranger then launches into a strange tale.

"There were gods who were old when Mars was a green planet and a verdant moon circled an Earth blue with steaming seas, and Venus, molten-hot, swung around a younger sun. Another world circled in space then, between Mars and Jupiter where its fragments, the planetoids, now are. You will have heard rumors of it – they persist in the legends of every planet. It was a mighty world, rich and beautiful, peopled by the ancestors of mankind. And on that world dwelt a mighty Three in a temple of crystal, served by strange slaves and worshipped by a world. They were not wholly abstract, as modern gods have become. Some say they were from beyond, and real, in their way, as flesh and blood."

I adore this bit of mythology and the additional details that follow, such as the fact that, despite the destruction of the Lost Planet, "the old gods have not died utterly," but the bodies by which they chose to make themselves visible to mankind did. But – and this is the important part – because those bodies were material, fragments of them must still exist and it's those fragments the enigmatic patron wishes to find – and he wishes to hire Northwest Smith and Yarol to help him do it.

The story only gets pulpier from there, becoming a heady stew of sword-and-planet, Indiana Jones, Lovecraft, and Von Däniken, all told in a languid, noir-ish style. It's also great fun and a terrific introduction to both Northwest Smith and C.L. Moore, if you're unacquainted with either. Though most fans tend to consider "Shambleau" the best story featuring Smith, "Dust of God" is my preferred candidate for that honor. Even if you disagree, the story is well worth your time.

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