Monday, August 22, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cold Gray God

Though C.L. Moore is probably best known for her stories of the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry, it's her tales of interplanetary smuggler Northwest Smith that I've long found most appealing. Smith debuted in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales and, over the course of the next six years, appeared in a dozen more stories in the Unique Magazine and elsewhere. Like adventures of John Carter and other early science fiction, these yarns are now wholly improbable, based as they are on incomplete or just plain erroneous science. They're also a lot of fun, filled with memorable characters and exciting situations.

"The Cold Gray God" opens in the "outlaw city" of Righa at the North Pole of Mars. A mysterious woman, hooded and cloaked in "the concealing folds of rich snow-cat fur," strolls down the down the cobblestoned streets of the city in search of someone. She only stops when she spies 

a man as he belted his heavy coat of brown pole-deer hide and stepped briskly out into the street. He was tall, brown as leather, hard-featured under the pole-deer cap pulled low over his eyes. They were startling, those eyes, cold and steady, icily calm. Indefinably he was of Earth. His scarred dark face had a faintly piratical look, and he was wolfishly lean in his spaceman's leather as he walked lightly down the Lakklan, turning up the deer-hide collar about his ears with one hand. The other, his right, was hidden in the pocket of his coat.

This is Northwest Smith, the very person for whom she's looking. She asks him to come with her, but he's reluctant to do so.

"What do you want?" he demanded. His voice was deep and harsh, and the words fairly clicked with a biting brevity.

"Come," she cooed, moving nearer again and slipping one hand inside his arm. "I will tell you that in my own house. It is so cold here."

Smith allowed himself to be pulled along down the Lakklan, too puzzled and surprised to resist. That simple act of hers had amazed him out of all proportion to its simplicity. He was revising his judgment of her as he walked along over the snowdust cobbles at her side. For by that richly throaty voice that throbbed as colorfully as any dove's, and by the subtle swaying of her walk, he had been sure, quite sure, that she came from Venus. No other planet breeds such beauty, no other women are born with the instinct of seduction in their very bones. And he had thought, dimly, that he recognized her voice. 

When at last the woman takes Smith to her home, she flings back her cloak "in one slow, graceful motion," revealing her face for the first time. The smuggler's "iron poise" is shaken by what he sees; not only was she a "breath-taking beauty," she is a famous woman.

Judai of Venus had been the toast of three planets a few years past. Her heart-twisting beauty, her voice that throbbed like a dove's, the glowing charm of her had captured the hearts of every audience that heard her song. Even the far outposts of civilization knew her. That colorful, throaty voice had sounded upon Jupiter's moons, and sent the cadences of "Starless Night" ringing over the bare rocks of asteroids and through the darkness of space.

And then she vanished. Men wondered awhile, and there were searches and considerable scandal, but no one saw her again. All that was long past now. No one sang "Starless Night" any more, and it was Earth-born Rose Robertson's voice which rang through the solar system in lilting praise of "The Green Hills of Earth." Judai was years forgotten.

And now she was standing before Northwest Smith in a criminal haven atop the Red Planet. Judai explains that she had come because "something called" to her and she "could not resist it." "I have been searching for a long time … for such a man as you – a man who can be entrusted with a dangerous task." Though suspicious, Smith is nevertheless intrigued and wants to know the nature of this task. 

"There is a man in Righa who has something I very much want. He lives on the Lakklan by that drinking-house they call the Spaceman's Rest … The man's names I do not know, but he is of Mars, from the canal-countries, and his face is deeply scarred across both cheeks. He hides what I want in a little ivory box of drylander carving. If you can bring that to me you may name your own reward."

Like any good story of a noir-ish sort, nothing, including Judai of Venus, is what it seems, but, of course Northwest Smith is a man accustomed to such situations. Still, he is ever in need of money and, when Judai agrees to his terms – "Ten thousand gold dollars to my name in the Great Bank of Lakkjourna, confirmed by viziphone when I hand you the box." – he accepts the job. He soon finds himself entangled in a mystery far worse than he could have imagined, involving one of the dark, nameless "gods" that once ruled over Mars millennia before the coming of Earthmen.

"The Cold Gray God" is a quintessential Northwest Smith tale, in which the world-weary interplanetary smuggler finds himself face-to-face with a malevolent cosmic entity when he agrees to help a beautiful woman in trouble. What sets it apart from others with a similar plot are the very personal stakes for Smith. He finds that it's not Judai who is seeking "a man like [him]," but rather the something that called her to Mars. It's a compelling set-up and it contributes greatly to the success of the tale, especially if, like me, you're fond of science fiction from the first half of the last century.

1 comment:

  1. "The Green Hills of Earth" - of course, a great inspiration to Heinlein.