Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Retro Review: "Garden of Evil" by Margaret St. Clair

Not an illustration of "Garden of Evil", but a white-washed Eric John Stark from Leigh Brackett's "Queen of the Martian Catacombs".

"Garden of Evil" by Margaret St. Clair is a planetary romance short story, which appeared in the summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1950 Retro Hugos, should they ever be held. The story may be found online here.

I came across this story when SFFAudio pointed out on Twitter that the entire summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories, including "Garden of Evil" was now public domain. And since I've enjoyed everything I've read by Margaret St. Clair so far, I decided to make it the subject of my next Retro Review.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The story begins with a man called Ericson – we never learn his first name – waking  up after spending what appears to be several months in a haze. Ericson is not alone. There is a green-skinned woman named Mnathl with him, who gives him something to eat.

We gradually learn that Ericson is on a planet named Fyhon that is not unlike the Venus of the shared pulp science fiction solar system – a place of jungles and seas – except that it has sunshine on occasion. And in fact I suspect that the reason that Margaret St. Clair did not set her story on Venus is because her alien planet needed to have direct sunlight.

Ericson is an ethnographer supposed to study Fyhon and its people. He fell in love with the lush planet and decided to stay. All would have been well, if Ericson hadn't managed to get himself addicted to a drug called byhror, when he got lost in the jungles of Fyhon during a one-man expedition without supplies or food and had to resort to taking the drug to survive.

When we meet Ericson, he has just been through a lengthy and painful withdrawal and is clean for the first time in three years. Mnathl helped him to get clean by taking him to an otherwise deserted island, strapping him down and subjecting him to a combination of injections of human drugs and the healing properties of some local herbs. The treatment is extremely painful and makes Ericson intermittently violent.

The story made me curious whether medical addiction therapy was already a thing in the 1940s, so I did some research. The results, however, were inconclusive. Methadone, the most commonly used substitution drug, had been developed by German chemists in the late 1930s and was introduced to the US market in 1947, after the US had stolen (and yes, that's what it was) German patents and brand names post WWII, so it was already available by 1949. However, methadone was originally marketed as a painkiller and only was used for drug substitution therapy from the 1960s onwards. However, there had been other attempts at medical addiction therapy before, going back to the late 19th century. To help them get clean, addicts were injected with all sorts of substances such as cocaine, a solution of gold and strychnine in alcohol, bromide, insulin and even heroin with predictably horrible results. Was Margaret St. Clair familiar with such treatments? It's certainly possible.

Once Ericson is clean again, he is eager to get back to the human settlement of Penhairn and find a job. However, Mnathl insists that they instead go to a place called Dridihad in the unknown heart of the south polar continent of Fyhon. Ericson doesn't want to go to Dridihad, but he doesn't have any choice in the matter, for Mnathl injects him with a drug that saps his will. "Mnathl had made other things in her cooking pots besides soup", a resigned Ericson notes.

Mnathl's drug eventually wears off, but by now Ericson is no longer unwilling to go to Dridihad. After all, the ethnographic paper he plans to publish about this adventure will hopefully help to get him his old job back. Mnathl teaches Ericson how to kindle a fire and hunt, but she refuses to answer any questions about why they are going to Dridihad and what they will find there.

After a few days, Ericson and Mnathl come across a giant pyramid in the jungle. Ericson is fascinated, Mnathl less so. When he asks her who built the pyramid, Mnathl replies that her people built it.

More days pass and Ericson is bitten by a venomous snake. Once again, Mnathl saves him by sucking the poison from the wound, risking her own life in the process. If you're thinking by now that Mnathl is a little too good and too self-sacrificing to be true, you're not alone.

After sixty-six days, Ericson and Mnathl finally reach the foot of the plateau upon which the city of Dridihad lies. After a laborious climb up the plateau, the gates of Dridihad finally open for Mnathl and Ericson.

The people of Dridihad treat Ericson like a prince, while Ericson dreams of the fame and fortune his paper will bring him. After all, none of the human scientists on Fyhon even knew that there was such an ancient and populous city in the heart of the supposedly deserted south polar continent. Too bad that no one in Dridihad will give Ericson any writing materials.

When Mnathl reappears, she is dressed in splendid robes like a queen or a priestess. She takes Ericson hunting on the plateau, shows him around the city and takes him to a ritual in the main temple of Dridihad, which involves sacrificing an animal and eating it. Mnathl officiates at the ritual, which confirms Ericson's suspicions that she is a priestess.

Ericson also wonders why such an important personage even bothered to help an alien drug addict like him and comes to the conclusion that Mnathl is in love with him. This is a problem, because Ericson is not remotely attracted to her.

After several more days and more rituals, rituals which seem to be leading up to some kind of climax, Mnathl takes Ericson to the top of the pyramid-shaped temple. Ericson tries to have an awkward, "It's not you, it's me" conversation with her, but Mnathl blows him off and starts to laugh. She definitely does not love him, but instead wants Ericson to be the messenger of her people to the gods. "And then", Mnathl says, "we eat."

Mnathl's people, she tells him, became interested in Ericson when they heard of his ill-fated solo expedition into the interior of the continent. They were particularly fascinated by Ericson's unusual colouring, a combination of near golden tanned skin and blonde hair. And so they decided that he would be an excellent messenger to their gods and sent Mnathl to find him, nurse him back to health and bring him back to Dridihad.

Ericson now knows what his fate will be. Not only has he witnessed several religious rites by now, he also recalls a remark in another ethnographer's paper that the people of Fyhon are definitely not engaging in ritual cannibalism, which strikes him as very ironic.

However, Ericson is also remarkably resigned to his fate. After all, he is free of his drug addiction now and besides, he got the ethnographic experience of a lifetime, even if he never got to write that paper and never got tenure either. And so Ericson smiles, as the temple guards chop off his head. Mercifully, Margaret St. Clair spares us what comes after.


Margaret St. Clair in the 1940s

This is a fascinating story, in spite of the downer ending. On the one hand, it's pure pulp science fiction with a human explorer on an alien planet who falls in with an indigenous beauty and comes to a sticky end. And indeed, if you're the protagonist of a pulp science fiction story, it's never a good idea to hang out with alien women, no matter how beautiful, seductive and helpful they seem to be, because they will inevitably want to enslave you, steal your body, kill you or eat you. Just ask Northwest Smith and Eric John Stark, who narrowly escaped such a fate more than once. In fact, Eric John Stark escapes a similar fate in "Queen of the Martian Catacombs", the lead novella of that very same issue of Planet Stories.

However, Ericson is no Eric John Stark or Northwest Smith. He's a nerdy academic and a recovering drug addict besides. And indeed, the fact that the protagonist is a junkie makes "Garden of Evil" feel almost like a New Wave story from the 1960s at times. Not that the drugs never appeared in the science fiction and fantasy of the pulp era – indeed, a lot of SFF of the 1930s and 1940s is absolutely drug-soaked to the point that I'm glad all that stuff went over my head as a teenager. But while descriptions of alien landscapes may be nigh hallucinogenic and alien opium dens abound in golden age science fiction, the protagonists usually do not dabble in mind-altering substances.

In fact, the only other golden age science fiction story with a drug-addicted protagonist I can think of is Leigh Brackett's "The Moon That Vanished" from 1948 (the protagonist of Brackett's 1944 novelette "Terror Out Of Space" is also high as a kite on amphetamines for most of the story, but he's not an addict). Interestingly, "The Moon That Vanished" bears striking similarities to Margaret St. Clair's 1952 story "Island of the Hands", which I reviewed for Galactic Journey last year. In fact, I wonder whether Brackett and St. Clair knew each other, especially since they both lived in California at the same time, published in the same magazines and tackled similar themes.

Both Brackett and St. Clair deal with colonialism in many of their stories from the 1940s. "Garden of Evil" is no exception, because it's a story about indigenous people turning the tables on a western explorer. Even though he's an ethnographer, Ericson assumes a lot about the indigenous people of Fyhon, that they're primitive, but harmless, that they're stoic and unemotional, that Mnathl is in love with him, that her people definitely do not practice ritual cannibalism. Every single one of those assumptions is wrong. And what makes Ericson a target is his blonde hair and golden tanned skin.

Aliens in pulp science fiction are often stand-ins for indigenous people, usually the indigenous people of North America. "Garden of Evil" is an exception here, because the names, the religious practices and the pyramid-like temples are reminiscent of Central America. Furthermore, the drug that Ericson gets himself addicted to is a powerful natural stimulant found in a type of leaves native to Fyhon, which brings to mind cocaine.

Planet Stories is often dismissed as a purveyor of cliched space opera adventures and indeed, there are many of those to be found in its pages. However, even at its most cliched, the fiction in Planet Stories is always entertaining. Furthermore, the magazine also offered a home to stories, which did not fit the rather narrow editorial standards of the more upscale science fiction mags like Astounding or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which had only just started in 1949, or Galaxy, which would start up the following year and would never publish "that pulp stuff". Or can you imagine John W. Campbell publishing a story like "Garden of Evil", where the protagonist is a down and out drug addict (even if he also is a scientist), who does not triumph due to his human ingenuity, but instead loses his head at the end?

Margaret St. Clair is one of the neglected woman authors of the golden age (though her careers spans both the silver age and the New Wave as well and she kept writing into the early 1980s). I have no idea why she isn't better known, since Margaret St. Clair can easily stand alongside Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore and Andre Norton with regard to quality of her fiction. She was also very versatile – more versatile than any of the others except maybe C.L. Moore with her work spanning science fiction, fantasy and horror and ranging from screwballs comedies like "The Sacred Martian Pig" (which I should really review for Retro Reviews sometime, since it's such a delightful story) to downers like "Garden of Evil".

Yet when her name comes up at all these days, it's usually in connection with Appendix N, the one page list of inspirational science fiction and fantasy authors and novels for further reading to be found in the back of the first Dungeon & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. Even though the Dungeon Masters Guide was published more than forty years ago, there has been a renewed interested in works listed in Appendix N in the past few years. And whenever Appendix N is discussed, Margaret St. Clair is often mentioned as the most obscure author on the list (here is a recent example), though personally I find several others (John Bellairs, Sterling Lanier, Andrew J. Offutt) more obscure.

Like many of Margaret St. Clair's stories, "Garden of Evil" has never been reprinted, which is a pity because it's a fascinating story which combines the adventure of pulp science fiction with the sensibilities of the New Wave. Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Retro Review: "Transparent Stuff" by Dorothy Quick

This cover illustration, the last one Unknown ever had, has nothing to do with "Transparent Stuff", but is for "But Without Horns" by Norvell Page.

I'm continuing my reviews of Dorothy Quick's Patchwork Quilt stories with "Transparent Stuff", the second story in the series, which appeared in the June 1940 issue of Unknown. The story may be read online here. You can also read Steve J. Wright's review of the story along with the rest of the issue here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

This time around, Dorothy Quick plunges us right into the story by having her protagonist Alice select another square of fabric of the enchanted patchwork quilt to take her into the past. For those who missed the first story, Alice accidentally came across a magical patchwork quilt owned by her aunt Annabel. Many years ago, a witch assembled the quilt from scraps of fabric with powerful and often terrifying memories attached to them. If someone falls asleep under the quilt while touching one of the squares, they will relive whatever memory is attached to the respective square in their dreams.

"Transparent Stuff" is clearly set some time after the previous story "Blue and Silver Brocade", for while Alice was terrified by her experience in the first story (to be fair, she did relive a black mass complete with bloody sacrifice and then found herself strangled to death), by now she has become almost addicted to the experiences the patchwork quilt can give her. Considering that the quilt has killed at least one person and driven another mad, this is very risky indeed.

The square Alice has chosen for her latest adventure is made of very sheer, nigh transparent linen, interwoven with golden and silver threads that form a floral pattern. And so, Alice falls asleep with her hand touching the square and suddenly finds herself clad in a gown made of the same transparent fabric and wearing elaborate jewellery. She manages to look at herself in a reflective surface and finds her own face looking back at her, though with very different make-up and hairstyle. So is Alice reliving the experiences of an ancestor this time or is reincarnation in play here?

Alice – and the reader – quickly learns that the body she is inhabiting belongs to a Babylonian princess named Star of Light. Star is the only child of King Mi-Bel of Babylon and she is about to be married off to a man of her father's choosing. There is a rundown of suitors, none of whom sound remotely promising. One is too old and Star’s cousin besides, another is a drunk and a womaniser and the third is rumoured to consort with demons and engage in black magic. Star is understandably none too thrilled about these marital prospects and so she decides to ask the goddess Ishtar for help, aided by a priest named Abeshu.

Abeshu takes Star to a secret sanctuary inside the great temple and summons the goddess. After some ritualising and incense burning, the goddess Ishtar appears and tells Star that she need not marry any of the suitors vying for her hand and that she may marry the one her heart desires. She also promises Star the gift of eternal love, but warns her that there will be a price.

Finally, Ishtar also grants Abeshu his wish, even though he never utters it out loud. When Star asks Abeshu what he wished for, he gives her an evasive answer, but also asks that Star make him her counsellor. Star agrees, but Alice is sceptical about Abeshu's motives, for she feels that the priest hates the young princess.

Next, Star and her lady-in-waiting Rima take a tour of the hanging gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world, in Star's royal litter. Star's reverence for the beauty of the gardens is interrupted, when a young boy cries for help. Star signals the litter to stop and asks the captain of her guard to bring the boy to her.

The boy tells star that a man saved his mother's life, when she was nearly trampled by a horse. However, the horse was injured in the process and now a mob is about to lynch the helpful stranger for harming one of the horses of Khian, Prince of Egypt and one of Star's unwanted suitors. Star orders her guards to save the stranger. When Star lays eyes on the handsome stranger and his exposed muscular chest, it is love at first sight. Star is thrilled, for Ishtar has kept her word.

The stranger turns out to be an Egyptian mercenary named Belzar who was in service to Prince Khian, but quit, because he disliked the Prince. Star promptly engages his services and as she chats with her new guardsman, Belzar confesses that he loves her. Star responds that she loves him, too, and that it's all Ishtar's will. Of course, this is also a very convenient excuse for what romance readers call insta-love. However, a novelette doesn't offer much space to slowly develop a romantic relationship, so divinely ordained insta-love is a handy shortcut.

Meanwhile, Alice remembers that Ishtar promised Star eternal love and since Alice is Star's reincarnation and/or descendant, she wonders when she will find a Belzar of her own.

But Belzar also has bad news for Star, because Prince Khian is planning to abduct the princess and thus bypass the other suitors. Belzar, Star and the guard captain inform the King, who plans to set a trap for the kidnappers and hides his own guards and Belzar behind the draperies in Star's chambers. Nonetheless, one of the kidnappers manages to throw a bag over Star and carry her off. But Belzar stops him with a dagger to the eye and rescues Star who is now even more in love with him than before. They kiss, but are quickly interrupted by the other guards.

However, King Mi-Bel still has other plans for his only daughter. Now that the plot of the treacherous Prince Khian has been exposed, Mi-Bel plans to wed Star to her much older cousin Ditmah. The betrothal will be announced at a great feast to be held that very evening, as Star learns from the duplicitous Abeshu. However, Abeshu has a plan to bring Star and Belzar together after all.

At the feast, Abeshu fills the King up with wine to make him more mellow. Belzar, who has been granted noble status as a thank you for saving Star from the kidnappers, is there as well. Just as the King is about to announce who will marry his daughter, Star stands up and begs the king to grant her to choose her own husband. She also asks that she and her chosen husband be allowed to live in a small palace near the temple of Ishtar. King Mi-Bel, who is well and truly drunk by now, grants her both wishes. So Star names Belzar as her chosen husband.

Mi-Bel is not at all pleased by Star's choice, for what about all the carefully plotted political alliances that Star has just upset? So he asks Abeshu how to undo this match. This is the moment that the duplicitous Abeshu has been waiting for. He whispers his poisonous advice to the King.

The King now announces that Star shall wed Belzar and that she shall have a wedding feast befitting a princess. She and Belzar will also be allowed to dwell in the palace near the temple of Ishtar, just as Star desired. However, they will be immured inside a chamber in this palace, to be buried alive for all eternity, while cousin Ditmah becomes king of Babylon.

Belzar is surprisingly resigned to his fate – after all, the goddess Ishtar said that there would be a price, but she also promised them eternal love for all time. Star, meanwhile, confronts Abeshu about his treachery. Abeshu tells Star that she is the traitor, for she placed her own desires over her duty to Babylon, because women wanted to choose their own partners with no regard for political alliances – well, next they’ll be demanding the vote, too. And besides, Ditmah no more wanted to marry Star than Star wanted to marry him. Instead, he is in love with Abeshu's niece and now she will mount the throne instead of Star. But Abeshu apparently has second thoughts about the awful fate to which he condemned the lovers, so he gives Belzar two lockets filled with a poison that will grant him and Star a painless death.

After a weeklong wedding feast, Abeshu escorts Star and Belzar to a small niche inside the palace where they will be immured. They both take the poison and once more proclaim their undying love for each other. Before the last stone is in place and the effect of the poison kicks in, the voice of Ishtar appears, telling Star and Belzar that she will remain true to her promise and that their love shall last forever.

Alice awakens, not at all troubled that she just died for love… again. Because the goddess Ishtar promised Star and Belzar that their love shall last forever. And if Alice is the reincarnation of Star, that means that the reincarnation of Belzar is waiting for her somewhere out there. Will she find him? Maybe we'll find out in the third Patchwork Quilt story.

Sadly, this collection of novelettes eligible for the 1941 Retro Hugos is the only time "Transparent Stuff" has ever been reprinted.

While the first Patchwork Quilt story "Blue and Silver Brocade" mixed historical fiction with gothic horror and some surprisingly lurid violence, "Transparent Stuff" is more subdued – no black masses and graphic strangulation scenes – but the central love story is no less tragic and once again the lovers can only be united in death and beyond. The Patchwork Quilt stories are undoubtedly romance, but not romance in the modern sense, where a happy ending is required.

The downer ending of the forbidden lovers entombed together reminded me very much of Aida by Guiseppe Verdi, which is set in ancient Egypt rather than ancient Babylon, but ends in the same way, with the titular character, an Ethiopian princess turned Egyptian slave, and her lover, Egyptian general Radames, sentenced to be entombed together, because Radames betrayed his country for Aida. Considering how popular and frequently performed Aida is, it is very likely that Dorothy Quick was familiar with the opera. She also did have a thing for immurement – after all, her 1944 short story "The Gothic Window" features an immured sorcerer haunting a window (or does he?).

I've been an opera fan since I was a teenager, an age when most people listen only to pop music. Not that I didn't listen to and enjoy pop music – I did and still do. However, I also loved operas and operettas, because they combined two things I loved, stories and music. And yes, I adored the melodramatic plots of operas, the more melodramatic the better. Concert performances of operas baffle me, because they omit all the fun stuff. And if I want to listen only to the music, I can do so at home.

Aida was always one of my favourite operas. When I was a teen, my Great-Aunt Metel, upon learning that I liked opera, gave me all the opera stuff that my Great-Uncle Rudy, another opera fan who sadly died before I was born (a pity, because I'm sure we would have gotten along just splendidly, since we both loved Italian opera), had left behind. That opera stuff included not just full orchestral scores of various operas, but also the libretti. And one of those libretti was Aida, which I loved so much that I even organised a spoken word puppet show (because though I had the orchestral score thanks to Uncle Rudy, I couldn't recreate it on a single piano) for friends and family. And yes, that downer ending was tragic, though most operas ended with everybody dying for love, which my teen self thought was so romantic. So my reaction to the Patchwork Quilt stories is basically, "Wow, these stories very much channel everything my teenaged self loved", which is unusual in itself, because I certainly wasn't your average teenager. First we had Angelique, whose adventures I devoured, and now Aida.

All three Dorothy Quick stories I reviewed for the Retro Review project had female protagonists and POV-characters, which is rare in golden age speculative fiction. All three stories also pass the Bechdel test – though "Transparent Stuff" only passes it due to a quick conversation between Star and her lady-in-waiting Rima about the hanging gardens – which is even rarer.

Another thing I find notable about Dorothy's Quick's stories is that their protagonists are all women who know what they want in life, romantically and otherwise, and are not afraid to go after it, even if this doesn't always end happily for them. Star wants to marry for love and not politics and gets her wish, even if it ends with her death. Francoise from "Blue and Silver Brocade" is willing to do literally anything to keep the attention of King Louis XIV of France and the influence it brings and her friend/companion Jeanne is willing to do anything to protect her. Anne from "The Gothic Window" arranges a weekend getaway in a house that may or may not be haunted in order to persuade her own boyfriend to propose, to fix up two friends with each other and protect another friend from her abusive and cheating husband. Unlike Star, Francoise and Jeanne, she even succeeds and does not die either. And finally, Alice, the protagonist of the framing stories linking the Patchwork Quilt tales, decides to explore the experiences the quilt can give her, even against all warnings.

The first Patchwork Quilt story, "Blue and Silver Brocade", has only one named male character, Raoul, doomed lover/killer of the equally doomed Jeanne whose life and death Alice gets to relive. "Transparent Stuff" has more named male characters, but nonetheless it's still a very woman-centric story. Star's three unwanted suitors remain cyphers. Cousin Ditmah is the only one who actually appears on the page in a brief cameo. Prince Khian stages a kidnap attempt, but otherwise remains off stage. As for the third suitor, I can't even remember his name – all I remember is that he is rumoured to be involved in black magic. Star's father King Mi-Bel gets more screen time, but he also remains vague and indeed, Star notes at one point that her relationship to her father isn't close, since she barely sees him. And of course, Mi-Bel is a hot candidate for the 1940 Retro Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Exceptionally Horrible Fictional Parents.

Of all the male characters in "Transparent Stuff", the one who is the most fleshed out is the villainous priest Abeshu. He is also more complex than the average pulp villain, since his motivation is understandable. In many ways, Abeshu is a more sympathetic character than Mi-Bel who is just plain awful.

What's interesting is that Belzar, Star's one true love for all time, is not particularly fleshed out either. His role in the story is basically generic love interest/hero. Come to think of it, the love interests in the other Dorothy Quick stories I've read were mostly generic hero types as well. In fact, it's fascinating how woman-centric Dorothy Quick's stories are, for Quick completely reverses the common pattern of pulp era SFF. Instead of having several at least reasonably fleshed out male characters, while the women are generic love interests or equally generic femme fatales/villainesses, Dorothy Quick features more complex female characters and generic men.

Dorothy Quick is the sort of writer who likes to delve into details and describes clothing, buildings, interiors, etc… And her description of ancient Babylon impressed me with how fairly closely it matches what we know of ancient Babylon today, especially considering how bad Unknown was about historical accuracy otherwise. True, Quick is vague in her description of the hanging gardens, but then we still have no idea what they actually looked like in bloom. So I dug a bit into the exploration history of Babylon and found that the archaeological exploration of Babylon began in the early nineteenth century. Of particular note is the German team of archaeologist Robert Koldewey and orientalist Eduard Sachau, who started their excavations in Babylon in 1897 and found among other things what remains of the hanging gardens as well as the spectacular Ishtar Gate with its blue glazed tiles. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate may be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (and I recommend that everybody who visits Berlin go and see it, because it's very impressive). The reconstruction was finished in 1930, i.e. ten years before "Transparent Stuff" was published. Again, it is likely that Dorothy Quick was familiar with Koldewey and Sachau's work and the Ishtar Gate and incorporated this knowledge into her story.

Though this is only the second of three Patchwork Quilt stories, the central gimmick of an enchanted quilt which can make those who sleep under it relive the past is already well established by now, so well that Dorothy Quick introduces a new element in the form of reincarnation and fated soulmates. It's a great way to maintain interest in the series. After all, the readers wants to know when/if Alice will find her own fated soulmate, the reincarnation of Belzar. This reader at any rate wants to know. Considering that Unknown seems to have been aimed mainly at the same nerdy young men as its sister magazine Astounding, as Steve J. Wright notes here, I'm not so sure about other readers. And it is notable that the Patchwork Quilt series had only three instalments, the last of which appeared in December 1940, even though Unknown would continue until 1943. So did Campbell drive away Dorothy Quick like he drove away so many other talented writers over the years?

I don't know, but I'm definitely looking forward to reading the last Patchwork Quilt story. Next to Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, this is definitely the best series to come out of Unknown. A pity that it has never been reprinted.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Retro Review: "Blue and Silver Brocade" by Dorothy Quick

This cover illustrates not "Blue and Silver Brocade", but the rather lacklustre novel "The Elder Gods" by Don A. Stuart a.k.a. John W. Campbell

I'm taking a bit of a break from Jirel of Joiry, because in my experience, those stories are best, when not read directly one after another. And so I decided to take a look at another underrated woman author of the golden age, Dorothy Quick.

Comrade-in-arms Steve J. Wright recently came across the gothic horror story "Blue and Silver Brocade" by Dorothy Quick in the October 1939 issue of Unknown. The premise sounded interesting, so I decided to review it myself. The story may be read online here

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

In true gothic fashion, "Blue and Silver Brocade" starts on a cold night in a spooky mansion on the Scottish moors. The narrator, a young woman named Alice, cannot sleep, because she's cold. Alice would love to have another blanket, but she is loath to wake her Aunt Annabel, owner of the mansion, or the servants.

So Alice searches her room for something that will keep her warm. In a closet, she finds several boxes and looks through them in search of a blanket. In the last box, finally, she finds a patchwork quilt and decides that this will do just fine to keep her warm for the night.

The quilt is quite unusual. For starters, the patches are quite large and made from vastly different materials – velvet, silk, brocade, wool, ancient linen, some kind of parchment that might also be human skin – whereas quilt patches are normally made of the same material, usually cotton, because otherwise the quilt won't properly fit together (ask me how I know). What is more, the edges of the squares are embroidered and the embroidery seems to spell out words in what looks like runes.

One square made from blue brocade with silver embroidery and tiny crowns particularly fascinates Alice, because the material is so beautiful. And so she falls asleep with her hand resting on the blue and silver brocade square. This turns out to be a big mistake.

Alice suddenly finds herself in an unfamiliar room and equally unfamiliar body, wearing a gown made from the same silver and blue brocade as the quilt square. It quickly becomes clear that Alice is now inhabiting the body of a young woman named Jeanne in seventeenth century France. Alice can see and feel everything Jeanne experiences, but she cannot influence events nor does she know anything about what's going on apart from what she directly witnesses.

Jeanne is quickly joined by a beautiful woman named Francoise with whom she is about to embark on some kind of dangerous venture, which will put Francoise ahead of her rival, a mysterious woman only known as "the lady". Jeanne is apparently an attendant of this mysterious lady and wears the lady's silver and blue brocade livery, though her loyalty is to Francoise. Jeanne and Francoise both put on black hooded cloaks and leave through a secret passage. Outside the passage, they are met by Jeanne's lover Raoul.

A carriage takes Jeanne, Francoise and Raoul to a shabby house, where a rat-faced, toothless woman awaits them. Alice knows that Jeanne is terrified, though she has no idea of what.

Inside the shabby house, Jeanne and Raoul are taken to a ritual chamber where other cloaked and hooded figures are already waiting. Alice finally realises that she is about to witness a black mass.

Francoise is lying naked on the altar, while the ritual goes on around her. Raoul supplies some helpful dialogue explaining that Francoise – though already beautiful like a Greek statue – is attending the black mass in search of even more beauty, because she wishes to regain the affection of the king – Louis XIV of France – who has transferred his attention from Francoise to the mysterious lady.

We are now treated to a graphic description of the black mass, complete with a blood sacrifice that is initially implied to be a baby, but thankfully turns out to be only a black rooster whose blood is splattered all over the naked Francoise.

Before the black mass can reach its climax and more blood sacrifices can be made, the cultists are interrupted by a patrol of the king's men who break down the door on the orders of the mysterious lady. The satanic priest commits suicide, Raoul throws his cloak over Francoise's head and tells her to play dead.

Then the guards break down the door. The guard captain recognises Raoul and is clearly surprised to see him attending a black mass (I can't even blame him, since I would be surprised to see any acquaintance of mine attending a black mass, particularly one with blood-splattering sacrifices). Raoul claims that it was just curiosity which brought him there. However, the guard captain informs Raoul that he has to arrest everybody present, including Raoul.

Raoul asks if the captain if he could at least let Jeanne go and sweeps aside her black cloak to reveal the silver and blue brocade livery of the lady. The captain, however, insists that he has to arrest everybody - king's orders and the lady's will – and that there will be no exceptions for anybody, not even an attendant of the lady.

So Raoul, Jeanne and the rest of the cultists are arrested. Jeanne is glad that at least Francoise will be able to escape, since the guard captain thought she was dead, because her naked body was covered in (chicken) blood, and left her behind.

The captain grants Raoul and Jeanne a few minutes alone in a cell. Raoul says that this is good-bye for both of them. For the lady will be furious that Francoise escaped the trap she set for her and will have everybody who was arrested at the black mass tortured. However, of all the cultists, only Jeanne and Raoul know Francoise's name. Raoul also casually drops Francoise's full name, so Alice is able to use her knowledge of history to piece everything together. Francoise is Madame de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV. The "lady" is her successor, Madame Scarron a.k.a. the Marquise of Maintenon. So Francoise's attempts to regain the king's favour by satanic means were ultimately futile.

Raoul now asks Jeanne if she is strong enough to withstand torture. Jeanne says that she hopes she will be strong enough, but she is afraid. However, Jeanne also declares that she would rather die than betray Francoise. So she begs Raoul to kill her. Raoul kisses Jeanne and strangles her. We get another quite graphic description of Jeanne being throttled to death, while a desperate Alice wonders what will happen to her, when Jeanne dies.

However, Alice does not die. Instead, she wakes up screaming, while her Aunt Annabel and Annabel's maid Hester stand over her bed. Both Annabel and Hester are horrified to see that Alice has found the quilt. Hester says that the quilt should have been burned long ago, while Aunt Annabel finally tells Alice the story of the quilt.

The quilt, it turns out, was made by an old witch who collected scraps of fabric with terrible histories connected to them. She pieced the scraps together with her magic, so that if someone falls asleep with their hand touching one of the squares, they will relive whatever terrible memory has been encoded in the square.

The quilt ended up with an ancestor of Aunt Annabel's late husband who put it in a guestroom and then waited for his guests to tell him about their nightmares. But then, one guest went mad and another died and the quilt was packed away. Aunt Annabel's husband showed her the quilt and Annabel slept with it for two nights, until she could not stand it anymore. However, she could never bring herself to destroy the quilt either.

Aunt Annabel wants to destroy the quilt now, but Alice won't let her. She wants to try sleeping under it again and she also has just the square picked out that she wants to try, the one which looks like parchment or human skin…


A portrait of the historical Madame de Montespan by an unknown artist.

"Blue and Silver Brocade" is a highly effective and – by the standards of the time – remarkably graphic story of gothic horror. It's yet another example of the "tale within a tale" stories that were popular during the golden age and that particularly Dorothy Quick was clearly fond of. But unlike other "tale within a tale" stories, here we don't have people sitting around a fireplace or dinner table telling a spooky story. Instead, there is a unique delivery vehicle, a haunted patchwork quilt that transports those who sleep under it into other eras and lives.

I have to admit that I love the idea of a haunted patchwork quilt that contains spooky stories and not just because I have been known to make quilts myself (not haunted, though). And making a real world replica of Dorothy Quick's fictional quilt – hopefully not haunted – sounds like a great craft project. Maybe an idea for a future Worldcon.

However, the haunted quilt is simply a great premise for a series of interconnected stories, though keeping the quilt in a box in a room where guests can stumble upon it unaware of the danger does strike me as very negligent. And indeed, Dorothy Quick wrote two more stories about the haunted patchwork quilt, which I will eventually review, if only because I love the premise.

While the framing story offers a standard gothic spooky mansion on the moors set-up, the dream story takes us into a completely different genre, namely that of historical fiction. Francoise de Montespan and her romantic rival, Francoise, Marquise de Maintenon a.k.a. "the lady" (probably because Luis XIV going for two women with such similar names would have been very confusing for readers) are both actual historical figures, though Jeanne and Raoul are fictional. There even is a portrait of Madame de Montespan wearing a dress of golden brocade like the one she wears in the story.

Madame de Montespan really was rumoured to have been involved in black masses where a rogue priest named Étienne Guiborg pouring blood over her naked body. She was also rumoured to have been a client of Catherine Monvoisin a.k.a. La Voisin (implied to be the rat-faced woman mentioned in the story), poisoner, abortionist and sorceress to the French aristocracy, who implicated Madame de Montespan after her arrest. Historical fiction generally is not kind to Madame de Montespan and tends to portray her as a villainess of the worst kind, even though we cannot be sure how many of the terrible stories told about her are really true and how many are the result of people arrested in connection with Catherine Monvoisin during the so-called affaire des poisons in 1677 (the story is implied to be set during this time) giving false confessions under torture. Interestingly, both history and fiction are much kinder to the Marquise de Maintenon who is generally considered to have been a good influence on Louis XIV, to have treated his legitimate wife well (unlike Madame de Montespan) and who founded a school for impoverished aristocratic girls.

So it's interesting that Dorothy Quick turns Francoise de Montespan into a semi-sympathetic character who commands loyalty unto death from Raoul and Jeanne, though it's never clear just why these two would be willing to die for her, while Madame de Maintenon is portrayed as the villainess of the story.


The tragic adventures of the doomed lovers Jeanne and Raoul in seventeenth century France reminded me very much of the Angélique series by Serge and Anne Golon, which my teenaged self devoured with great glee. Not just because of the setting – seventeenth century France during the reign of Louis XIV – but also because of the quite graphic violence and bloody happenings. And trust me, the Angélique series has a lot of that and is full of torture, executions, murders, sexual violence, pirates, harems, the inquisition, etc... Madame de Montespan actually does appear as a supporting character in some of the Angelique novels (as does Louis XIV), once again engaged in black masses, poisonings and other mischief. Though the first Angelique novel, Angélique, the Marquise of the Angels, did not appear until 1957, eighteen years after "Blue and Silver Brocade" was published, so it can't possibly have inspired this story.

Which begets the question, what did inspire this story? For while there are a lot of historical sagas full of romance and quite graphic violence with female protagonists, the examples that come to mind – the Angelique novels, the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor – all postdate "Blue and Silver Brocade". And the historical fiction of the era, works by writers like Raphael Sabatini, Georgette Heyer, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, Margaret Mitchell, Hervey Allen, etc… is quite different from the historical scenes in "Blue and Silver Brocade". The rivalry between Madame de Montespan and the Marquise de Maintenon and the affaire des poisons has been frequently chronicled, often in a quite sensational manner, so Dorothy Quick may well have come across the story. The graphic violence may have been inspired by the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, but the blood-drenched horror plays presented at that famous Paris theatre were usually not historical. So was Dorothy Quick the first to merge romantic historical drama with graphic violence? This is certainly a mystery to be explored further.

Steve J. Wright was quite shocked at how graphic the violence in "Blue and Silver Brocade" was. And indeed, the story is remarkably graphic by 1930s standards. We not only get a graphic description of a blood-drenched black mass and an equally graphic description of a woman being strangled to death from the POV of the victim, we also have nudity and several passionate and thrilling kisses, including one kiss which happens as Jeanne is strangled to death (which hints at erotic asphyxiation). By 1930s standards, this is strong stuff.

What makes this even more remarkable is that "Blue and Silver Brocade" was not published in the fairly liberal Weird Tales, where graphic violence, satanic rituals, passionate kisses and hints of sex all showed up more or less frequently, but in John W. Campbell's much more prudish Unknown, which was focussed more on proto-urban fantasy, humorous fantasy and Arabian Nights type adventures than on gothic horror. I'm not surprised that Dorothy Quick chose to submit this story to Unknown. After all, Campbell paid better and much more promptly than Weird Tales, which was notoriously slow to pay, particularly under Farnsworth Wright. However, I'm surprised that Campbell bought it, because "Blue and Silver Brocade" is so very much not a John W. Campbell type story and would seem much more at home in Weird Tales or even the likes of Spicy Mystery or Spicy Adventure.

"Blue and Silver Brocade" is also a depressing story, because the actions of the characters in the historical flashback are ultimately futile. Jeanne dies by the hand of Raoul, it is strongly implied that Raoul will be executed for his part in the conspiracy (and for killing Jeanne) and Francoise does not regain the affections of the King, but will be banished from court. It's very much a downer ending, which also heightens the impact of the graphic violence.

"Blue and Silver Brocade" passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, something which is exceedingly rare for golden age SFF stories. What's even more remarkable is that except for Raoul, all named characters are female. The other Dorothy Quick story I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project also passed the Bechdel test, which shows that Quick centered women characters and their experiences in her fiction.

Next to Fritz Leiber's justly beloved Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, Dorothy Quick's Patchwork Quilt series is certainly one of the most interesting and unusual works to appear in Unknown. Dorothy Quick is vastly underrated and I for one will be very interested to read the other two stories in this series.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Retro Review: "The Werewolf's Howl" by Brooke Byrne

I'm continuing my quest to review stories by obscure women authors of the golden age with "The Werewolf's Howl" by Brooke Byrne, a gothic horror short story which appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. I came across the story, while reviewing "Black God's Shadow" by C.L. Moore. The story may be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

The story starts in full gothic manner with young Doctor Gradnov walking through a dark and sinister forest on a cold night, making his way to the equally sinister Castle Martheim, which is located on a cliff overlooking a nameless river. It's obvious that this errand will not end well.

The reason that has brought Doctor Gradnov to Castle Martheim is that the last Baron Martheim lies dying. Doctor Gradnov is troubled by this, because the Baron is not just a patient, he was also a friend with whom the Doctor played chess and talked about vintage wines.

Doctor Gradnov finds the Baron near death and clearly terrified of something. However, the Baron refuses a sedative – though not the brandy the Doctor gives him – and insists that he has to share his secret with the Doctor.

And so, the Baron tells his story. Some forty years before, the Baron – we now learn that his first name is Konrad – went to university and would hold forth about his grand theories about the nature of existence in the local coffeehouses, where he also fell for a waitress named Hilda. However, he had a rival for Hilda's affections, an older student named Ivan. Hilda preferred the young Baron, whereas Ivan was left stewing with jealousy.

One night, Ivan confronts Konrad in a tavern near closing time. The Baron knows that Ivan hates him and so he is very surprised that Ivan sits down to share a drink with him. Once the innkeeper has withdrawn, Ivan leans close to Konrad and asks if he still denies the existence of the soul. Konrad answer in the affirmative and declares that no, he has no returned to superstition. Next, Ivan asks if Konrad believes that one can sell one's soul. Konrad declares that this is nonsense. I guess we can all see where this is going by now.

Ivan now tells Konrad that he has sold his soul in exchange for great wisdom and the secrets of the old ones. Ivan also offers to show Konrad ghosts, werewolves and the undead. Konrad still doesn't believe Ivan, but agrees to go with him, when Ivan taunts him that he is just scared.

Ivan takes Konrad to a ruined castle in the deep dark woods. There, Ivan opens his bag, pulls out all sorts of ritual implements, which he had wisely brought along, and sets them up. He also has an old pistol and a blessed silver bullet marked with a cross, which is the only thing that can slay a werewolf. Ivan hands the pistol to Konrad and tells him to load it. He also tells Konrad that if he fires the bullet at a werewolf and misses, his soul shall forever be forfeit to the undead.

Then Ivan begins his ritual, which generates a lot of smoke. Outside the ruin, the wolves are howling. One appears inside the castle and attacks Konrad. Konrad fires, misses and gets bitten.

The next morning, Konrad flees the university town. He travels the world, looking for a cure, but finds none. For forty years, the Baron has lived in fear of the werewolves who will take his soul once he dies. And now that he is about to die, he is utterly terrified.

Doctor Gradnov tries to calm down the old Baron and tells him that he is safe and that there is no such thing as werewolves. The Baron claims that he can already hear them howling, that he know Ivan is waiting for him. However, Doctor Gradnov and the Baron's lone servant Hans can't hear anything.

The Baron finally expires, his face a twisted mask of horror, and now the young Doctor finally does hear something. Outside the castle, a wolf is howling. Three times the wolf howls, a long bitter howl of inhuman despair. Hans, the servant, and even the otherwise atheistic Doctor Gradnov both pray.

This is a typical example of the filler stories often found in Weird Tales. There are no real surprises here and it's clear from the beginning where the story is going. Not to mention that the title is a spoiler, which was a common problem during the pulp era. Like many other filler stories, "The Werewolf’s Howl" is also an example of a "tale within a tale" story. I have reviewed a couple of other stories of this type, including two from Weird Tales.

However, "The Werewolf's Howl" is nicely written and dripping with gothic atmosphere. It's set in the vaguely German, vaguely Slavic never-neverland of gothic fiction, where every dark forest is full of vampires and every castle is home to a vampire and a couple of ghosts.

Unsurprisingly, there is no German or formerly German town called Martheim nor is there a castle by that name. The university town where much of the tale within a tale takes place is never named. It might be Heidelberg, it might be Leipzig (I can't be the only one who got distinct Faust vibes from this story about university students hanging out in wine bars and coffeehouses and making deals with dark powers), it might be Göttingen, it might be completely fictional.

The mix of German and Slavic names is also typical for this sort of story. And so the Baron and his servant and the Baron's university paramour have solidly German names, while the young Doctor and the villainous Ivan both have Slavic names. Now you do find plenty of people with Slavic names particularly in the eastern parts of the former German Empire and universities have always attracted students from abroad anyway. Nonetheless, the coexistence of German and Slavic names in gothic fiction is a strange convention, especially since you never find German and French names existing side by side in this sort of story, even though this common in the areas along the French-German border.

Hilda, the waitress, with whom both Ivan and the Baron are infatuated, vanishes from the story once the rivalry between Konrad and Ivan has been established. I hope she found herself a nice solid student who did not dabble with dark powers.

The depiction of the werewolf legend in this story is certainly interesting, especially regarding the details which differ from the most common modern version of the legend. For example, I was surprised to see silver bullets mentioned as the sole weapon that can slay a werewolf, since I always assumed that this particular detail was invented (along with a big chunk of the modern werewolf legend) by Curt Siodmak for The Wolf Man, a film which did not come out until 1941, more than six years after "The Werewolf's Howl" appeared in Weird Tales.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Baron is doomed to become a werewolf after death reminds me of the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel, a German Imperial cavalry officer and guerrilla leader fighting the Swedish occupation during the Thirty Years War. Sprengepiel really did exist and lived on an estate just outside the town of Vechta, where he built a grain mill that still exists today and is still operational.

However, no one would remember a 17th century cavalry officer if not for a local legend which claims that Sprengepiel made a deal with the devil, allowing him and his men to turn into bushes at will to confuse and ambush the Swedish forces. However, in return Sprengepiel was cursed to turn into a hellhound with glowing red eyes after death and roam the moors around Vechta (more on the Sprengepiel legend may be found on the website of the Museum im Zeughaus in Vechta). There even is a statue of Sprengepiel in Vechta – in hellhound form. Little children love riding on him.

I've been fascinated by the story of Lambert Sprengepiel, ever since I stumbled across him while teaching at the University of Vechta. He even shows up as a supporting character in one of my stories.

Was Brooke Byrne familiar with the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel? It's not completely impossible, since the story has appeared in collections of local myths and legends several times, including Elisabeth Reinke's collection of myths and legends from the Oldenburger Land, which was published in 1922. However, it's not all that likely either, since the Sprengepiel story is an intensely local legend, little known outside the immediate area where it's set. And there might well be similar legends elsewhere.

So who was Brooke Byrne, author of "The Werewolf's Howl"? Unfortunately, Brooke Byrne is one of those golden age authors who are a complete enigma. According to ISFDB, she had this one story as well as a poem named "Sic Transit Gloria" published in Weird Tales in 1933/34 and then never appeared again under that name in the SFF genre anywhere. Did she find greener pastures elsewhere in the pulps?

It's impossible to say, because unfortunately Brooke Byrne shares a name with an Instagram influencer who makes videos reviewing eyelash extensions as well as a class action lawyer, a softball player and a dozen other people, none of whom are the person who sold a story and a poem to Weird Tales in the 1930s. There is a Brooke Byrne who penned Mending Books Is Fun, a non-fiction book about bookbinding and book repair, in 1957. Is this the same woman as the Weird Tales author? Goodreads seems to think so, but we all know that Goodreads is not exactly reliable.

Interestingly, there is also a young writer from San Diego named Brooke Byrne whose story "Wolves at Twilight" was selected for an anthology of fiction by middle grade students. This Brooke Byrne is very obviously not the same person, but I still found it fascinating that two writers called Brooke Byrne would both write werewolf stories eighty-six years apart.

Considering how obscure Brooke Byrne is, I was surprised that "The Werewolf's Howl" has been reprinted in a 1994 horror anthology called 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg. This anthology was part of a series of anthologies that the bookseller Barnes & Noble published in the 1990s. Those anthologies drew heavily from the pulps, particularly Weird Tales. Considering that Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Robert Weinberg are both Weird Tales specialists, this isn't surprising.

A neat if predictable gothic horror story that is very typical of the bread and butter fiction published in Weird Tales.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Retro Review: "Black God's Shadow" by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery

This is not Jirel, but Tamaris and Salome, the twin sisters at the heart of Robert E. Howard's "A Witch Shall Be Born". Leave it to Margaret Brundage to ignore one of the most iconic scenes in the entire Conan canon - Conan crucified in the desert - to draw two attractive women fighting.

My last post was a review of "Black God's Kiss" by C.L. Moore, the story that introduced the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry to the world. So it's only fitting that I review the direct sequel, "Black God's Shadow", too. The sword and sorcery novelette "Black God's Shadow" appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, two months after the original story. Coincidentally, that issue also contains plenty of letters responding to "Black God's Kiss". The story may be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Also trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

"Black God's Shadow" takes place a few weeks or even months after "Black God's Kiss". Our heroine Jirel of Joiry is still haunted by the events in the previous story and it shows. She's having trouble sleeping and she still has flashbacks to enemy knight Guillaume forcibly kissing her in the famous opening scene of "Black God's Kiss". The ongoing flashbacks all but confirm what I said in the review of the previous story, namely that the kiss is a stand-in for a far more serious sexual assault, because Jirel's reactions are those of a rape survivor. And just case there was any doubt, Jirel explicitly states that she always used to boast that her fortress would never fall (which can be read both literally and metaphorically) and that no lover would dare lay hands on her except in answer to her smile. Of course, today's heroines would offer a more enthusiastic form of consent than a smile, but nonetheless it's very clear that Jirel did not consent to being manhandled by Guillaume.

What complicates matters is that Jirel still believes herself to be in love with Guillaume. To complicate matters even more, Jirel also hears Guillaume's voice in her dreams, calling her his murderess (to be fair, Jirel did kill him with a cursed kiss) and begging her to have mercy on his soul. And considering that in life, Guillaume was not at all the begging type, this is certainly something.

From Guillaume's plea from beyond the grave, Jirel deduces that Guillaume is not in hell, as she initially assumed (after all, he died without sacraments, though Father Gervase, who is absent from this story, could have done the honour in "Black God's Kiss"), but trapped in the strange dream dimension that can be accessed from a handy portal in the cellar of castle Joiry. And because Jirel still fancies herself in love with Guillaume and also feels guilty about killing him, she decides to hear his plea and descend into the otherworldly dream dimension once more to free his soul.

We now get a repeat of Jirel descending into the dungeon, opening the portal and further descending the strange spiralling ramp that seems to have been made by giant serpents rather than humans, though there still is no sign of any giant serpents living in Jirel's basement. Once more, Jirel also comes to the point, where she needs to take off her crucifix in order to venture onwards.

Once Jirel has taken off her crucifix, she is in for a shock, because while it was night in the dreamworld last time Jirel visited, it's bright daylight this time around. And since Jirel is convinced that she will go mad, if she sees the strange dreamworld by day, she decides to wait in a cave until nightfall.

But when night finally falls, Jirel is in for another shock, because the landscape outside the cave looks completely different than the last time she visited. The tower of light is gone, instead there is a mighty river flowing through strange misty fields. Not knowing where to go, Jirel decides to follow the faint sound of Guillaume's voice blowing in the wind.

We now get another detailed tour of the wondrous sights Jirel encounters in the nightmarish dreamworld. This time around, there are fields in which glowing insects grow, which sting when released. There are monstrous trees with malignant shadows. There are brooks and rivers speaking evil things in a language that is almost understandable. There are disembodied shadows with nothing to cast them. And above it all, a green moon with a face like a decomposing corpse shines in the alien sky.

Jirel eventually finds Guillaume or rather what is left of him. For Guillaume has been turned into a grotesque statue that symbolises all the evil in him. And there was a lot of evil in Guillaume, as Jirel knows only too well. However, chained to the grotesque statue of evil Guillaume is the ghostly form of all that was good and noble in Guillaume, forever forced to reckon with the evil inside himself. Jirel declares that this punishment – confronting Guillaume with the evil inside himself – is both just and enormously unfair.

Nonetheless, Jirel decides to free Guillaume from his predicament and suddenly finds herself under attack by the black god himself. As before, she feels a heavy leaden weight upon her soul, feels her body freezing and turning to ice. But whereas Jirel could save herself before by passing on the black god's curse to Guillaume, there is no way out for her this time. Jirel is doomed. Not long now and she will turn into the same grotesque representation of all that's evil inside her (and Jirel is very much not a saint) as Guillaume.

What saves her in the end is yet another flashback to Guillaume forcing a kiss on her. These flashbacks have been haunting Jirel since the previous story, but now they remind her of her humanity, causing her to fight back against the black god. The darkness and ice that enveloped Jirel slowly retreat, as Jirel sees ghostly forms of herself in different moods and emotions dancing around the grotesque statue that once was Guillaume.

Eventually, Jirel's humanity prevails. The black god retreats and the grotesque statue representing all the evil in Guillaume crumbles to dust. All that's left is Guillaume's disembodied shadow, which now leads Jirel on a mad chase through the dream world.

The battle with the black god repeats twice more. Both times, Jirel suddenly feels herself overcome by despair, her body and soul turning to ice. And both times, what saves her and reminds her that she is human is a flashback to Guillaume forcing a kiss upon her. After the second fight with the black god, Guillaume's shadow vanishes and all that remains is his voice wailing on the wind.

The third and final fight takes place at the black god's temple. There is no statue this time, just murals of twisted and evil figures. And once more, Jirel is saved by the memory of Guillaume's unwanted kiss reminding her of her humanity.

After the third and last fight, Jirel no longer hears Guillaume's voice on the wind, so she assumes that he has finally found peace. She also knows that even though she was able to beat back the black god three times, she can never fully defeat him, because without darkness there can be no light and vice versa. Weary but satisfied, Jirel makes her way back to her castle.

Even though "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow" are basically two halves of one long story, "Black God's Shadow" is much less well known than "Black God's Kiss". I suspect the reason is that unlike the previous story, "Black God's Shadow" takes place almost entirely inside the dream world and the battles Jirel fights are entirely psychological. Jirel does use her sword at one point to free herself from a malign tentacled monster tree, but her three duels with the black god all happen only in the mind. Readers looking for sword and sorcery action will be better serves by the Conan story "A Witch Shall Be Born" by Robert E. Howard, which was originally published in the selfsame issue of Weird Tales. And to be fair, it is a good story, though marred by unfortunate antisemitic stereotypes.

The flashbacks to Guillaume's sexual assault that Jirel already experienced in the previous story continue to haunt her throughout "Black God's Shadow". But this time, Jirel's experience of the flashbacks is different. Whereas they only elicited murderous fury in Jirel in the previous story, in this story the flashbacks are what keeps Jirel alive, what allows her to prevail against the black god at least for the time being. During her first battle with the black god, Jirel experiences the flashback as "something that happened to some other woman somewhere far away". Modern psychology would call this dissociation.

Nor is it an accident that what Jirel experiences every time the black god attacks her – the darkness, the leaden heaviness, the despair, the sensation of turning to ice and no longer feeling her body – very much mirrors the symptoms of depression. Jirel's battle with the black god truly is psychological, for what Jirel is battling here is depression.

In the end, the duology of "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow" is very much the story of a woman coming to terms with sexual assault. In my review of the previous story, I already argued that the forced kiss in "Black God's Kiss" was a stand-in for the rape that C.L. Moore could not mention in the confines of a 1930s pulp magazine. "Black God's Kiss" chronicles Jirel's reactions immediately after the sexual assault – the flashbacks, the red-hot fury, the grief and the confusion, because her body responded to the man who assaulted her.

"Black God's Shadow" is set several weeks or months later and Jirel's initial anger has been replaced by the leaden heaviness of depression. The flashbacks to the assault still haunt her, but this time Jirel turns them into a weapon against a far more dangerous enemy than Guillaume, namely her own depression. And in the end, she prevails, though she knows that the black god will never be fully beaten, that depression will always be a part of her life.

The story also illustrates how Jirel's image of Guillaume literally changes. In "Black God's Kiss", Guillaume was repeatedly described as magnificent and was also very much an arsehole who has never heard of consent. The version of Guillaume that Jirel encounters in the dream world, first as a statue and later as a shadow, is literally the embodiment of all that is evil in Guillaume, a grotesque and twisted thing. But bound to this grotesque image is a ghostly version of all that is good and noble in Guillaume, a Guillaume who is magnificent, but not an arsehole, a Guillaume whom – so Jirel muses – she never got to know. Jirel even agrees that Guillaume's punishment, being confronted with all the evil inside himself, is both just and unjust. Because regardless of everything Guillaume did to Jirel, there was also good in him.

It's notable that Guillaume, even though he's dead, is portrayed as a much more nuanced character in "Black God's Shadow" than in the previous story. In "Black God's Kiss", Guillaume was either the magnificent knight or the despicable villain who assaulted our heroine with no shades of grey in between. We and Jirel encounter both of these versions of Guillaume again in "Black God's Shadow" in the form of the twisted statue and the ghostly heroic Guillaume, but they are revealed for the caricatures they are. The real Guillaume is somewhere between those two, capable of both good and evil, but still an arsehole.

By the end, it's not just Guillaume's soul that has found peace, it's also Jirel herself. She can now see Guillaume for what he was. She is no longer haunted by flashbacks of his assault nor does she fancy herself in love with him any longer. It's been awhile since I read the other three Jirel of Joiry stories, but I don't recall Guillaume ever being mentioned again. Jirel is over him, one way or another.

The "Black God" duology is a powerful story of a woman experiencing and recovering from sexual assault. In fact, it's so powerful that I wonder whether C.L. Moore had any experience with the subject, whether it happened to her or a friend or loved one.

However, considering the subject matter of the story, it's also very clear why the sort of sword and sorcery fans who mainly want action and adventure are not satisfied with the Jirel of Joiry stories. Because psychological insights and metaphors for recovering from trauma are not what these readers want out of sword and sorcery. Which is perfectly fair and if it's action and swordfights you want, well, there's Conan getting crucified in the desert and surviving to wreck vengeance on those responsible right there in the very same issue of Weird Tales.

Nonetheless, it's fascinating that how much internal battles as well as trauma and recovering from trauma are baked into the sword and sorcery genre, which is something that I at least never quite realised before. Because Jirel is far from the only sword and sorcery heroine who experienced and recovered from trauma.

Let's take a look at Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. In "Ill Met in Lankhmar", an absolutely brilliant story and probably the best Hugo winner for Best Novella of all time (and yes, I will eventually review it), Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet the most important person in their lives, namely each other, on the same day they lose everything – the lives they only just made for themselves and the women they love or at least think they love – for the second time in the space of a few months. What makes the situation even worse is that Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are trying to help their girlfriends overcome their own trauma – the brutal murder of her friend and partner in crime in the case of Fafhrd's lover Vlana and growing up with an abusive father (at the very least physical abuse and there are hints at sexual abuse as well) in the case of Mouser's girlfriend Ivrian – and cause their deaths in the process. And Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are deeply traumatised by that experience. They will be haunted – quite literally – by the ghosts of their murdered lovers for years, even as they live on, having great adventures and living largely satisfying lives. They also face down the literal Death – as well as their murdered lovers – in Death's realm several times.

What makes the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories so fascinating is that Fritz Leiber kept returning to the characters and writing stories about them for a period for fifty years, longer than any other sword and sorcery author. Leiber bridged the first sword of sorcery boom of the 1930s and the second boom of the 1960s and kept writing into the third sword and sorcery boom of the 1980s – the only of the original sword and sorcery authors to do so, since Robert E. Howard was dead and C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith had both stopped writing SFF. Over this almost fifty year span, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories demonstrated both how the SFF genre changed, for example with regard to how much sexual content was acceptable, but also how the characters themselves and Leiber's insight into them changed.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" was published in 1970, shortly after Fritz Leiber lost his wife of more than thirty years. The grief Fafhrd and Grey Mouser experience is so relatable, because their author shared it. And indeed, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories written during the early 1970s are all on the gloomy and depressing side, showing both the characters and their author dealing and coming to terms with their grief. Leiber eventually came out on the other side and so did Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. They both found partners who fit them and were willing to put up with the fact that you only get Fafhrd and Grey Mouser as a duo, they both learned they had children they never knew about plus the possibility of more children in the future, they both ended their story in a good place. And so I think, did their author.

The early 1970s streak of dark and depressing Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories is very noticeable, when reading the series in order, but it's not the only time during their lengthy career that Fafhrd and Grey Mouser dealt with trauma. Their respective origin stories, "The Snow Women" from 1970 and "The Unholy Grail" from 1962, are both stories of trauma and escaping from it, an overbearing mother and an absent and idealised father in Fafhrd's case, and the murder of his mentor in Mouser's case. Indeed, there are parallels between "The Unholy Grail" and the "Black God" duology, because Mouser is also willing to risk his soul to avenge himself on the murderer of his mentor and he also defeats his enemy in a purely psychic battle (by pure necessity, because Mouser is bound to a rack, about to be tortured to death, at the time and also not yet all that great as a swordsman). Other Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories that deal with trauma and overcoming it (or succumbing to it) include "The Cloud of Hate" from 1963 as well as "The Bleak Shore" and "The Howling Tower" from 1940 and 1941 respectively, which are among the earliest stories in the series. Just like Jirel and Guillaume, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser also come face to face with the not so good aspects of themselves (and their lovers) at several points during the series.

So what about other sword and sorcery heroes? Well, Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné is often so gloomy and depressed that he makes Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, surely one of the most depressed characters in popular fiction, seem cheerful. Karl Edward Wagner's Kane is the most anti-hero of sword and sorcery heroes anyway. As for Robert E. Howard, he certainly knew the black god of depression and the shadow of that black god only too well – with devastating results. Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane never deal as directly with their author's demons as Jirel and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser do – though Conan is crucified in "A Witch Shall Be Born", the novella that was published in the same issue of Weird Tales as "Black God's Shadow", and if that isn't a very metaphorical fate I don't know what is – but I can't help but wonder what stories Howard would have written, if he had lived. I can't say much about Clark Ashton Smith, because I bounced hard off his work, when I tried to read it many years ago. I should probably give him another try.

It's been long since clear to me that sword and sorcery is much more than just muscular men and women with broadswords having adventures. However, until I reread the first two Jirel of Joiry stories, I never fully realised how much the sword and sorcery genre is also about dealing with and overcoming trauma and grief. But the theme is there in many of the important works of the genre. And indeed, I wonder whether these deeper themes aren't what separates the great and memorable sword and sorcery characters from Conan pastiches like John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian, Clifford Ball's sorry attempts at replacing Robert E. Howard and the many forgettable sword and sorcery novels of the 1980s. It's certainly something I will keep in mind for my own contributions to the genre.

Fritz Leiber was almost sixty when he wrote "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and revealed the formative trauma that lies at the heart of the story of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Robert E. Howard never got there, before his own depression claimed him, and part of me is still angry that his friends and loved ones and modern medicine couldn't save him, if only because I mourn the stories he could have written, if he'd lived to experience the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s.

C.L. Moore, on the other hand, wrote about trauma and recovering from it at age 23. And that makes her one of the greats of a genre that is so much more than just heroes and heroines with big muscles and bigger swords.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Retro Review: "Black God's Kiss" by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women's Sword and Sorcery Writing

As I said a few posts ago, I will be reviewing vintage SFF stories beyond the confines of the Retro Hugos as well, beginning with "Black God's Kiss", a sword and sorcery novelette by C.L. Moore that was the cover story of the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and also introduced the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry to the world. The story may be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Also trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

"Black God's Kiss" starts with an iconic and oft imitated scene. The castle of Joiry in a vaguely defined medieval France has just been conquered by a knight called Guillaume. The floor is still covered in blood and bodies, when the master of the castle is brought before Guillaume, still in armour, but with bound hands. Guillaume orders his men to remove the helmet of his defeated foe, only to get the surprise of his life, when his captive is revealed to be an attractive, red-haired woman, Jirel of Joiry. Guillaume is quite delighted by this turn of events and forces a kiss on Jirel. Jirel is considerably less delighted and tries to bite his throat out. The confrontation ends with Guillaume knocking her out.

This opening scene is so iconic that variations of it still show up all across SFF and beyond. Whenever a seemingly male or genderless figure in armour, a spacesuit or motorcycle gear takes off the helmet to reveal an attractive woman shaking long, often red hair (though it must be pointed out that Jirel actually wears her hair short) it's a callback to this scene.

One of the best known variations on the opening scene of "Black God's Kiss" may be found in Leigh Brackett's 1951 novella "Black Amazon of Mars". In this story, Eric John Stark finds himself tangling with an axe-wielding Martian warlord named Ciaran, whose face is hidden behind a black helmet Ciaran never takes off. Here, the reveal occurs in the middle of the story when Stark is fighting Ciaran, fully intending to kill his opponent (and with good reason, too, because Ciaran had Stark whipped almost to death). However, Stark wants to see Ciaran's face first, before he kills his opponent and so he rips off the helmet to reveal a beautiful woman with long red hair. Sadly, the reveal was once again spoiled by Planet Stories cover artist George Rozen. But while Guillaume decks Jirel, after she bites him, this confrontation ends with Ciaran knocking out Stark, when he stands there staring at her dumbfounded. The ending is more optimistic as well, when Stark and Ciaran go off together in what is surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship, even though neither of them is the type for a committed relationship. Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton were friends with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, so I strongly suspect that "Black Amazon of Mars" was a direct response to "Black God's Kiss". I reviewed the 1964 expansion of the novella last year for Galactic Journey, but I've never reviewed the original. I guess that's what I'll be doing next.

Rereading "Black God's Kiss" for the first time in years, I was struck with how masterfully the opening scene is written. Up to the reveal, Moore uses not a single pronoun and only refers to Jirel as "Joiry's tall commander". Pronouns only appear once the helmet comes off. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like to read this story in 1934, with no foreknowledge of what was to come. Though unfortunately, interior artist H.R. Hammond spoils the surprise and also manages to put even fewer clothes on Jirel than Margaret Brundage did on the cover. For while Jirel wears a chain mail tunic and greaves in the story itself, Margaret Brundage draws her in lingerie and H.R. Hammond draws her naked altogether, though at least he does get Guillaume's beard right.

Interior art for "Black God's Kiss" by H.R. Hammond

When Jirel comes to again, she finds herself locked up in her own dungeon. However, she doesn't stay there for long, but knocks out a guard and escapes. Guillaume and his men have passed out in a drunken stupor, so Jirel sneaks back to her private quarters and changes her heavy armour for a lighter chain mail tunic. Then she heads for the castle chapel to see the resident priest Father Gervase.

Gervase is happy to see Jirel alive and free and offers to help her escape the castle. However, Jirel has other ideas. She wants to take revenge on Guillaume and she knows just where to find the weapon that will defeat him, namely beyond the handy portal to the underworld that may be found in the dungeon of Castle Joiry.

Gervase is horrified that Jirel as much as entertains the thought of venturing through the portal. He even threatens to wake Guillaume to stop her, for surely the fate Guillaume has in store for Jirel is kinder than what awaits her beyond the portal. Jirel tells Gervase that she knows exactly what Guillaume is going to do to her. First, he'll rape her and then he'll either kill her or sell her into slavery. We also learn that Jirel is no blushing virgin, she's "not innocent in the ways of light loving", as she puts it. However, Jirel insists on consent and she won't let Guillaume force himself upon her. She'd rather destroy him, whatever it takes.

Father Gervase agrees that it would be a shame if Jirel were to be raped, killed or sold into slavery, but there is always absolution and atonement for sex and shame (though why would a rape victim need absolution?) and if she were to be killed, well, there's always heaven. But if Jirel ventures into the underworld, Father Gervase warns her, that she will forfeit her immortal soul. Jirel, however, values bodily autonomy higher than the integrity of her soul and is determined to put her plan into action. Reluctantly, Father Gervase gives her his blessing.

Contrary to what certain quarters claim, religion, particularly Christian religion, doesn't play much of a role in golden age pulp SFF, probably because most of the writers were secular Jews or equally secular Christians. During the course of Retro Reviews project, I have only come across two stories, "The Veil of Astellar" by Leigh Brackett and  "Intruders from the Stars" by Ross Rocklynne, where Christianity plays a role. However, the few explicitly Christian works of the era, such as the Space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, usually come from outside the pulp SFF scene. But in American SFF magazines of the golden age, religion – if it is mentioned at all – is either a) a sham, b) for aliens, foreigners or prehistoric people or c) both. Even Weird Tales with its focus on the supernatural contains surprisingly little religious content and you are far more likely to find a reference to Cthulhu than to the Judeo-Christian God in its pages.

Therefore, I was quite surprised to find what is in essence a theological argument in the middle of an early sword and sorcery story. And yes, one can argue that it is nigh impossible to write about Medieval Europe without mentioning religion, but then Jirel's world is clearly not our version of Medieval Europe and not just because in our world, castles don't normally come with portals to the underworld in their cellars. It's also interesting that Gervase thoroughly loses the theological argument he has with Jirel. And considering how frankly misogynist Gervase's point is – "Never mind bodily autonomy, you'll be given absolution, if you're raped, and you'll go to heaven, if you're killed." – I wonder whether this scene wasn't a sly commentary on the misogyny of the Catholic church.

After her argument with Father Gervase, Jirel does venture into the underworld. We learn that she and Gervase found the secret passage that leads there years before and that Gervase ventured in further than Jirel and apparently saw something terrible there, but won't say what. But when Jirel first goes down a strange corkscrew slide that seems to be made for giant worms or serpents rather than humans (which begets the question what became of those serpents and do they still live in the cellar of castle Joiry?) and then creeps through a pitch-dark passage, she initially sees nothing, but finds that she cannot go any further, because something is holding her back. Jirel realises that what's holding her back is the crucifix around her neck, so she takes it off (more religious symbolism) and suddenly finds herself standing in a dreamlike world under strange stars.

Jirel's journey through the strange world in which she finds herself makes up the bulk of the novelette. The things she encounters there include brooks that murmur to themselves in what almost sounds like a language, "small, blind, slavering things with clashing teeth" that assault Jirel, faceless misty women who hop like frogs through the swamp, a herd of blind white stallions that race across the land, while calling out women's names, a tower made of light, inside of which Jirel encounters a mirror image of herself, a lake full of fallen stars, an invisible bridge and finally a temple on an island where the titular black god resides.

After the theological argument outlined above and the medieval trappings, I at least would have expected a more traditional version of the Christian idea of hell. And indeed, Jirel remarks at one point that this is what she expected as well. But instead, the world Jirel must transverse to gain her weapon against Guillaume bears more resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands than to any Christian depiction of hell.

Now Lovecraft's influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre is well documented, but often considered to be limited mainly to the cosmic horror aspect. However, Lovecraft's Dream Cycle was just as much of an influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre as the Cthulhu Mythos. Because sword and sorcery is chock full of journeys through strange and perilous dreamworlds. Pretty much every single Jirel of Joiry story features Jirel travelling through strange dimensions, much to the frustration of those who prefer their sword and sorcery with more swordfighting and fewer magical worlds. But it's not just Jirel either. Robert E. Howard's heroes, most notably Kull, occasionally found themselves in strange dreamlike worlds as well. So did Elak of Atlantis, a sword and sorcery hero created by C.L. Moore's husband-to-be Henry Kuttner. And Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have several adventures in the Shadowlands, where Death resides (and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet their murdered first loves Vlana and Ivrian), as well as under the sea and in other strange realms. They also travel into the parallel worlds accessed through the cave of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes (one of which is our world) and battle the interdimensional Mad Men known as the Devourers in "Bazaar of the Bizarre". So travel to strange realms is as much an integral part of the sword and sorcery genre as swordfights and physical action, barbarians and scantily clad women, evil sorcerers and various cosmic horrors.

Jirel's journey into the hellish dreamworld culminates in a temple on an island in a lake full of fallen stars, wherein the titular black god resides. This god is not a tentacled monstrosity like Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep, but a one-eyed sexless statue of black stone whose lips are pursed for a kiss. Much as I love the work of Margaret Brundage, her cover illustrations for Weird Tales are usually vague interpretations of the stories they're meant to illustrate. But the cover for "Black God's Kiss" is a very accurate representation of the statue of the black god, even if Jirel does not wear lingerie in the story and her sword is nowhere to be seen.

Once Jirel finally reaches the temple, she kisses the statue, driven by a strange compulsion. After the kiss, she feels a cold, heavy weight on her soul. She also experiences a bout of panic and runs back the way she came. Up the this point, Jirel has experienced the strange dreamworld wherein she finds herself only in the dark, but now the sky is lightening. Jirel runs faster in the belief that if she sees the strange land by daylight, she will go mad. It a race against the sun, but Jirel makes it back to the passage that leads to the castle of Joiry just in time, retrieves her crucifix and climbs up the spiralling passage that leads to the dungeons of Joiry.

Jirel notices that there is light at the end of the passage, where it was dark before, but is too weary and too depressed by the heavy weight on her soul that the kiss implanted in her to be particularly bothered about that. She thinks it's Father Gervase waiting for her, for he is the only other person who knows that the portal exists and where Jirel was planning to go.

But when Jirel staggers out of the passage, visibly ill and weakened from the effects of the black god's kiss, she finds herself faced not just with Father Gervase, but also with Guillaume and his torch-bearing men-at-arms, which begets the question just how did Guillaume know where to find Jirel, when the only two people who know about the portal to the underworld in the dungeon of the castle of Joiry are Gervase and Jirel herself? Did Guillaume torture the truth out of Gervase? Or did Gervase wake Guillaume, as he threatened to do during his theological argument with Jirel, and tell him where Jirel has gone?

The story itself never answers this question and Jirel herself never asks it, probably because she is too far gone by the time she emerges from the passage. As a matter of fact, Jirel is actually glad to see Guillaume, because that will make her vengeance so much easier. And so she staggers towards him, flings her arms around him and kisses him.

Guillaume is triumphant, because he thinks he'll finally get what he wants. But no one in this story gets what they want except maybe the black god of the underworld. And so Jirel passes on the black god's deadly gift to Guillaume via the kiss. Jirel revives, while Guillaume turns stiff and grey and finally dies, but not without first realising  exactly what is happening to him.

Now it should be Jirel's turn to be triumphant. Except that she isn't, for the moment that Guillaume collapses dead on the floor of the dungeon, she realises that she didn't hate him after all, like she thought, but was attracted to him and that the emotions she experienced were lust, not hate. By the sequel "Black God's Shadow", Jirel has convinced herself that she was in love with Guillaume and that he is the only man she'll ever love, but Jirel, no matter how much I like her, has no idea what love is.

And so Jirel kneels by Guillaume's side, crying, until Father Gervase takes her away. Amazingly, Guillaume's men-at-arms do nothing, even though Jirel just slew their commander with a sorcerous kiss.

"Black God's Kiss" is a classic sword and sorcery story, but it's also a highly disturbing story and it becomes even more disturbing, the more you think about it. When I first read the story many years ago, I had the same reaction that many people have to the story. Yes, Guillaume is a jerk with zero respect for consent, but isn't murdering him by magic a little extreme? Wouldn't just decking him and throwing him and his followers into the castle moat be a more appropriate response to an unwanted kiss?

However, let's not forget that the pulp magazines, even the more risqué ones like the Spicy line, still had to play coy with the subject of sex, lest they be subject to censorship and outright bans. Quite often, this dancing around the subject of sex led to some truly disturbing moments such as a woman getting raped to death by orang-utans – thankfully off-page – in an issue of The Spider or a scene from a story in a 1937 issue of Spicy Mystery, in which the narrator lovingly describes the orgasmic twitching and squirming of an attractive woman – as she is executed in the electric chair. And as if that wasn't disturbing enough, that scene is also illustrated in the interior art by Joseph Szokoli.

In spite of Margaret Brundage's erotic covers, Weird Tales was a lot tamer than the Spicy pulps, though positively risqué by the standards of pulp SFF. Astounding/Analog was so prudish that Anne McCaffrey was thrilled to have snuck a sex scene past John W. Campbell in her 1969 story "A Womanly Talent" – a sex scene that was so tame that it barely registered when I first read the story in question as a teenager some twenty years later. Though Anne McCaffrey wasn't the first to have snuck a sex scenes past Campbell. Other authors did it as well, including C.L. Moore herself in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner. And even though the covers of Planet Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories are full of bug-eyed monsters threatening to do interesting things to scantily clad women, the most erotic thing found behind those lurid covers are euphemistic descriptions of the female form.

Weird Tales is unique among the SFF pulps, because sex does happen in its pages on occasion and not just in the missionary position and between married couples either. And so Jirel is no blushing virgin and "not innocent in the ways of light loving", as she admits to Father Gervase who must have heard some very interesting confessions from her. Jirel also has no illusions what Guillaume will do to her, namely rape her and then either kill her or sell her into (sexual) slavery. Not to mention that Guillaume did slay her men-at-arms – in the famous opening scene, Moore explicitly describes the dead bodies and blood on the floor of the throne room. So from Jirel's point-of-view, killing Guillaume before he can rape and/or kill her is perfectly justifiable self-defence.

However, I'd also argue that the forced kiss at the beginning of the story is not just sexual assault, but a stand-in for an actual rape that Moore could not describe in the confines of a 1930s pulp magazine, even a fairly liberal one like Weird Tales. Because Jirel's reaction to the forced kiss is very much that of a rape survivor. Throughout "Black God's Kiss" and its sequel "Black God's Shadow", Jirel keeps having flashbacks, keeps feeling Guillaume's arms around her and his mouth pressing down on hers.

The description of the second kiss is also remarkably orgasmic, considering that Jirel is kissing a statue. As for the fatal final kiss, with which Jirel takes out Guillaume, one could read that as a vagina dentata fantasy or an analogue for sexually transmitted diseases, for even though arsphenamine a.k.a. Salvarsan was available since 1909, syphilis was still a dangerous and often deadly disease in the 1930s. And Guillaume's fate does overlap with some of the symptoms of syphilis.

So "Black God's Shadow" is an early example of a rape-revenge story. However, the ending isn't just disturbing because Jirel kills Guillaume. What makes it even more disturbing is that Jirel realises that she has fallen in lust with the man who assaulted her almost as soon as Guillaume lies dead at her feet. And indeed, Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth explain how much they hate the ending of "Black God's Kiss" in their review of the story. I hated the ending upon first reading as well, not just because Guillaume was obviously a jerk, but also because Jirel's attraction to him comes out of nowhere. However, upon rereading the story, I noticed that the hints are there. Guillaume is repeatedly described as magnificent and attractive in scenes which are clearly told from Jirel's point-of-view.

Besides, Jirel and Guillaume would actually make a pretty good couple, if not for Guillaume's massive consent issues. Cause they are very similar, both warriors and fighters who love life and intend to live it to the fullest. In fact, I strongly suspect that Leigh Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars" is a rewrite of "Black God's Kiss" with a happy ending, cause Eric John Stark and Ciaran wander off into the Martian sunset together at the end. Interestingly, it is also the only Eric John Stark story that has a "happy for now" ending, cause normally Stark is just as unlucky in love as Moore's Northwest Smith. And since Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore were friends, it makes sense that they influenced each other.

Women falling in love with their rapists is a very common plot in the romance novels of the so-called "bodiceripper" era (which began with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss almost forty years after "Black God's Kiss") and still crops up on occasion, though thankfully much less than it used to. Now rape fantasies are common, but there was also another reason behind the popularity of those "raped into love" stories. For they allowed their authors to write about sex and allowed their heroines to enjoy sex, while still remaining good virtuous women. After all, it wasn't as if the heroine initiated the sex or even consented, they were forced into having mindblowing, multi-orgasmic sex. The "raped into love" romances of the bodiceripper era eventually faded away as American society became more comfortable with the idea that yes, women do enjoy sex and that this doesn't make them sluts.

However, unlike the rape-happy bodicerippers of the 1970s, there is no happy ending for anybody in "Black God's Kiss". Jirel is heartbroken and Guillaume dies and winds up as a wandering spirit in the hell dimension Jirel visited earlier, as revealed in the sequel "Black God's Shadow". And indeed, there are very few happy romantic endings in C.L. Moore's fiction. Northwest Smith keeps getting entangled with beautiful women, who will inevitably be dead by the end of the story. Jirel usually winds up entangled with men who won't take "no" for an answer, until Jirel shows them the error of their ways, usually with permanent results. By the end of "The Children's Hour", James Lessing cannot even remember his beloved Clarissa. Juille from Moore's 1943 space opera Judgment Night gets into a relationship with an enemy assassin named Egide. They are both still alive at the end of the novel, which is at least something, though the war that Juille's and Egide's people have been waging on each other has destroyed much of the galactic empire that is their home, which is not exactly an optimistic ending either. And indeed, I recall reading somewhere (only I can't find it now) that C.L. Moore said in one of the few interviews she gave that "love will destroy you in the end" was a core theme of her writing. Her stories, both her solo stories and those she wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner, certainly confirm this.

I have to confess that I've always been a bit baffled by C.L. Moore's tendency to write love stories with disastrous endings, since her own romantic life doesn't seem to have been unhappy. Her marriage with Henry Kuttner was happy according to all accounts, even if it was cut short by Kuttner's untimely death in 1958. And even though SFF fandom has nothing nice to say about C.L. Moore's second husband, largely because Moore stopped writing as soon as she married him and he later declined the SFWA Grand Master honour on her behalf, because C.L. Moore was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time, there is no indication that the actual marriage was unhappy.

I recently learned from this blogpost by Bobby Derie quoting from letters that C.L. Moore exchanged with H.P. Lovecraft (as well as from C.L. Moore's letter of condolence to Robert E. Howard's father after Howard's suicide) that C.L. Moore was engaged to a fellow employee at the bank where she worked, when she penned her first stories. In 1936, her fiancé died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in an incident which might have either suicide or an accident while cleaning his gun. This tragedy must certainly have been a blow to C.L. Moore and might well have permanently influenced her views on romantic relationships, except that the stories she wrote before the death of her first fiancé, stories like "Shambleau" or "Black God's Kiss", also have a bleak view of romantic relationships. Maybe C.L. Moore was simply a pessimist.

Another thing which struck me upon rereading "Black God's Kiss" is how frankly the story talks about sex in an era when that was not at all common. Now most pulp magazines were not as downright prudish as Astounding and its fantasy-focussed sister magazine Unknown, but while romance quite frequently happened in the pages of Planet Stories or Startling Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, those romances were usually chaste. A one paragraph extremely euphemistically described memory of a sex scene in "Lorelei of the Red Mist" by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury earned Planet Stories outraged letters accusing them of publishing pornography.

Compared to this, "Black God's Kiss" is very direct. Jirel makes it clear that she is not a virgin, that she know what Guillaume wants from her and that she might not even mind, if Guillaume had grasped the concept of consent and that conquering her castle and slaughtering her men doesn't exactly make Jirel predisposed to like him. Moore's earlier story "Shambleau" is even more direct, since there is a two page long nigh psychedelic scene of Northwest Smith essentially having tentacle sex with Shambleau. It's not just those two stories, too, but all of C.L. Moore's early stories for Weird Tales are suffused with eroticism. For example, the 1935 story "Julhi" begins with Moore lovingly describing every single scar on Northwest Smith's naked body and he sure has a lot of them. Compare that to the chaste romance described in "The Children's Hour" ten years later, where the relationship between James Lessing and Clarissa does not seem to go beyond holding hands and taking long walks – which is for the better, lest Lessing accidentally commit paedophilia, considering Clarissa is much younger than she looks.

Now no one will be surprised to find sex in the pages of Weird Tales – just look at those covers. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I was surprised to find so much eroticism in stories written by a woman in her early twenties. Of course, C.L. Moore was in a committed relationship at the time she was writing the Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith stories and people did have premarital sex in the 1930s (my maternal grandmother who was a few years younger than Moore, admitted to having had premarital sex with my grandfather sometime in the late 1930s and she was the most prudish woman imaginable), so she was not necessarily inexperienced. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be surprised if the subject matter she wrote about, in a magazine with scantily clad women on the cover at that, was a factor in Moore's decision to publish her stories under her initials rather than her full name, so she wouldn't lose her job at the bank.

The Jirel of Joiry stories are among the foundational texts of the genre now known as sword and sorcery, making C.L. Moore one of the pioneers of the genre, along with Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber with H.P. Lovecraft as a kind of honorary grandfather (sorry). Nonetheless, the Jirel stories tend to get less attention than those of the male founding fathers of the genre. Even the Conan-wannabe stories by Clifford Ball, Norvell Page's Prester John stories (Steve J. Wright reviewed one of them recently) and the Elak of Atlantis stories by C.L. Moore's husband-to-be Henry Kuttner sometimes get more attention than Jirel of Joiry, even though neither are what anybody would consider top-tier sword and sorcery.

And what might the reason for that be? Well, that's not difficult to determine. A woman writing stories featuring a swordswoman that don't fit easily into any mould is simply too much for some folks. And indeed, last year a debate broke out whether sword and sorcery was an inherently masculine genre that women cannot write nor want to read. Examples of that debate may be found here, here and here, with counter arguments here and here (some links go to

These claims are complete and utter nonsense and easily refuted by looking at the number of women who wrote, provided art for and edited Weird Tales as well as at the number of women who read Weird Tales and wrote letters to the magazine. Angeline B. Adams provides some samples of these letters here and here. And the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s was largely due to the efforts of a woman, Cele Goldsmith-Lalli, editor of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, who gave Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser a new home, introduced John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian and also published the occasional sword and sorcery yarn by Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny and others.

However, the existence of C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry throws a wrench into those claims that's too big to ignore, because here is a woman who was part of the sword and sorcery genre right from the beginning, a woman who was highly respected by her fellow sword and sorcery writers, a woman who corresponded with Howard and Lovecraft and wound up marrying Henry Kuttner.

And so those who claim that sword and sorcery is an inherently masculine genre throw the whole spectrum of the strategies outlined by Joanna Russ (another woman who wrote sword and sorcery, though she is better remembered for her other work these days) in How to Suppress Women's Writing at C.L. Moore. "She wrote it, but look what she wrote about" a.k.a. the double standard of content features heavily as does "She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist and it's not really art" a.k.a. false categorisation with a dose of "She wrote it, but she had help" (less useful for the Jirel stories, but often deployed to credit the later Kuttner/Moore collaborations solely to Kuttner). And so, the critics in question claim that the Jirel of Joiry stories aren't really sword and sorcery, because there are too many descriptions of otherworldly realms and not enough swordfighting. Furthermore, Jirel has – gasp – romantic feelings and icky emotions and mourns the man she believes she was in love with. Never mind that Conan mourns Belit and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser mourn Vlana and Ivrian.

Now it seems to me that there is a significant number of sword and sorcery fans who are primarily Conan fans and ignore all other branches of the subgenre, whether it's the more humorous and more human Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, the Jirel of Joiry stories with their strong emphasis on otherworldly realms, Michael Moorcock's Elric stories with their not very likeable anti-hero or even Robert E. Howard's non-Conan stories such as the more philosophical adventures of Kull. But while those sword and sorcery fans who exclusively enjoy Conan just tend to ignore the existence of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser or Elric, they feel the need to actively deny Jirel due to the character's and author's sex.

Another strategy Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women's Writing is creating a lack of models by downplaying the contributions of female writers and artists. We can very clearly see this strategy at play here, for ignoring and denying C.L. Moore as a founding mother of the sword and sorcery genre makes it easier for certain reactionary forces to claim that women just don't write sword and sorcery and that there are no sword and sorcery heroines except maybe Red Sonja, a character often credited to Robert E. Howard, but actually created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for the Conan comics, even though Howard did write several female sword and sorcery heroines. But the problem of erasing C.L. Moore's contributions to speculative fiction goes even deeper, because Moore also created the archetype of the space rogue with her other famous character Northwest Smith. All latter day space rogues, from Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark via Han Solo to Malcolm Reynolds owe their existence to Northwest Smith. And even today, the space rogue is a character more likely to be written and championed by women SFF writers. Even Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, though both created by men, were written by women (one of them Leigh Brackett) in some of their most memorable appearances.

These discussions are not new, either, but were already going on in The Eyrie, the letter column of Weird Tales, in the 1930s. In the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, one Bert Felsburg from the unfortunately named Frackville, Pennsylvania, complains about a perceived lack of action in "Black God's Kiss" and hopes that C.L. Moore will kill off Jirel soon. However, Bert Felsburg also has nothing but praise for Moore's other character, Northwest Smith, as well as for Robert E. Howard's Conan and declares that in all the pulp magazines he reads, no other characters appeal to him as much as Northwest Smith and Conan. I tried to find out more about Bert Felsburg, but all that remains of him is that one frequently quoted letter to Weird Tales, a classified ad in an amateur radio magazine and an entry in a genealogy site, which suggests that he was born in 1920, i.e. he was fourteen years old when he wrote that letter, which very much puts his views into perspective.

One Fred Anger from Berkeley, California, was also not a fan of "Black God's Kiss", which he called the poorest C.L. Moore story yet. One Alvin Earl Perry from Rockdale, Texas, was not wowed by "Black God's Kiss" either, but does like Jirel and would love to see more of her. Ernest H. Ormsbee from Albany, New York, not only misgenders C.L. Moore (but then, it was not yet widely known that Moore was female and her future husband Henry Kuttner would address her as Mr. Moore as late as 1936), but also declares that "Shambleau" was the only story by her that he loved (to be fair, it is a good one) and that her other stories were just a little too weird for him, "like the dreams of an opium eater".

However, "Black God's Kiss" was also voted the most popular story in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and attracted its share of fans such as Jack Darrow from Chicago as well as such famous names as Manly Wade Wellman and Robert Bloch, who briefly commented "Conan vile, C.L. Moore splendid". The "vile" Conan story was "People of the Black Circle", by the way, the second part of which appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as "Black God's Kiss". One M.A. Reynolds of Glendale, California (not Mack Reynolds, the science fiction author and Astounding regular – the details don't fit) declares themself a C.L. Moore fan and also heaps praise upon "The Three Marked Pennies" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, which appeared in the August 1934 issue and must have been very popular indeed judging by the amount of praise it received several months later, which means I should probably review it sometime. Reynolds also declares that he wouldn't mind if Weird Tales published nothing but stories by Mary Elizabeth Counselman and C.L. Moore. So much for "Weird Tales readers didn't like stories by women."

Another famous name, Virginia Kidd, then thirteen years old, was also enthusiastic about "Black God's Kiss" and demands to know how Jirel and Guillaume would get back together (I'm afraid she was disappointed on that account). Young Virginia Kidd also had nothing but praise for Margaret Brundage's covers. Nor was she the only female Margaret Brundage fan writing to The Eyrie that month. One Mary A. Conklin of Coldwater, Michigan, also praises the beautiful ladies in Margaret Brundage's cover (though interestingly she was unaware that Brundage was a woman) and admits a particular liking for red-headed and brunette models. Indeed, the only people who had issues with Margaret Brundage's covers being too sexy were male readers.

Mary A. Conklin also praises "Black God's Kiss" and declares that Jirel is the kind of woman she'd like to be herself. And just to prove that Conan and Jirel were not rivals and that female readers of Weird Tales did like the Cimmerian barbarian, too, Mary A. Conklin calls Conan one of her favourites and hopes that Robert E. Howard won't have Conan settle down and marry, because she enjoys Conan's adventures with the lovely ladies. Maybe it's just me, but I do get the impression that Ms. Conklin was not entirely straight. I did try to find out more about this Mary A. Conklin, but none of the women with that name I found online could have been the reader from Coldwater, Michigan, who wrote several letters to Weird Tales in the 1930s.

Many of the stories I enjoyed as a teenager and revisited for the Retro Reviews project have suffered a visit from the suck fairy in the meantime. "Black God's Kiss" is the opposite, because I actually enjoyed the story more the second time around. It's still a disturbing story and less beloved than it should be, because both the story and its heroine don't fit into any mould. For better or for worse, Jirel is unique among her peers.

I guess I should review the sequel "Black God's Shadow" next or maybe "Black Amazon of Mars", Leigh Brackett's take on the same material. I'll also revisit Northwest Smith in the near future.