What I’m Reading: C. L. Moore – Black God’s Kiss

This volume from Paizo’s Planet Library (which is a great and praiseworthy undertaking, although I’ll have to frown at the very sloppy copy editing for this volume which is full of typos) collects all of C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories. It fulfills all the usual conditions for a true classic: It is old (all the stories in here were published in the period from 1934 to 1939), it was innovative back in its day (presenting the first ever female Sword & Sorcery protagonist, and – although that was not common knowledge at the time – written by a woman, too), and it had a significant impact on what came afterwards (it was a huge influence on female fantasy authors in the 70’s and 80’s, like C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee etc.). The stories are also very good and remain compelling and readable to this day.

Black God's Kiss (Trade Paperback)They are not quite what one might expect from pulp magazine stories, though – while they undoubtedly belong to the Sword & Sorcery genre (which in itself, it should be noted, had one leg still firmly planted in the horror genre at this stage), there is not a lot of sword-swinging going on here, not even (with the exception of the final story which Moore co-wrote with her later husband Henry Kuttner) a lot of action – what you get instead are long and vivid descriptions of fantastic dreamscapes. Suzy McKee Charnas, in her excellent, enthusiastic introduction to this edition, points towards a possible reason why people might have looked for different things in the pulp literature during the 1930s than they do today – namely the scarcity of visual media back then (at least compared to today’s proliferation of images). She argues that today’s genre writers tend towards a sparser style because they rely on the diverse media to provide a visualization; and complementary to that, I think that in the first half of the twentieth century – in the absence of TV and video, internet and DVD – it fell to writers to supply their readers with pictures to feed their imaginations, leading to a more vivid style in their writings in order to conjure up weird and exotic images in their readers’ minds.

As for the style of the Jirel stories in particular, what it lacks in polish (the stories were all written early in her career), it more than makes up for in passion. McKee Charnas remarks in her introduction that Moore did not have much interest in small historical details but that her Middle Ages were a grand canvas, and the same can be said for her writing – it has an almost expressionist quality, she paints in raw, bold strokes, and her language has a distinct, driven rhythm to it that thrusts her vibrant images into the reader’s mind where they won’t get easily dislodged again. I don’t usually do quotes (to avoid the risk of being taken seriously) but I’ll make an exception for this scene from “Black God’s Kiss” which is bound to stick in the memory of anyone who has read it (and it is even more intense when taken in context):

She crossed a brook that talked to itself in the darkness with that queer murmuring which came so near to speech, and a few strides beyond it she paused suddenly, feeling the ground tremble with the rolling thunder of hoofbeats approaching. She stood still, searching the dark anxiously, and presently the earth-shaking beat grew louder and she saw a white blur flung wide across the dimness to her left, and the sound of hoofs deepened and grew. Then out of the night swept a herd of snow-white horses. Magnificently they ran, manes tossing, tails streaming, feet pounding a rhythmic, heart-stirring roll along the ground. She caught her breath at the beauty of their motion. They swept by a little distance away, tossing their heads, spurning the ground with scornful feet.
But as they came abreast of her she saw one blunder and stumble against the next, and that one shook his head bewilderedly; and suddenly she realized that they were blind – all running so splendidly in a deeper dark than even she groped through. And she saw too their coats were roughened with sweat, and foam dripped from their lips, and their nostrils were flaring pools of scarlet. Now and again one stumbled from pure exhaustion. Yet they ran, frantically, blindly through the dark, driven by something outside their comprehension.
As the last one of all swept by her, sweat-crusted and staggering, she saw him toss his head high, spattering foam, and whinny shrilly to the stars. And it seemed to her that the sound was strangely articulate. Almost she heard the echoes of a name – “Julienne! Julienne!” – in that high, despairing sound. And the incongruity of it, the bitter despair, clutched at her heart so sharply that for the third time that night she knew the sting of tears.
The dreadful humanity of that cry echoed in her ears as the thunder died away. She went on, blinking back the tears for the beautiful blind creature, staggering with exhaustion, calling a girl’s name hopelessly from a beast’s throat into the blank darkness wherein it was for ever lost. (p. 38-39)

“Passionate” seems to me to not only best describe Moore’s prose in these stories, but it is also what characterises their protagonist most concisely. While she is described as a strong and competent warrior, we do not see Jirel do much fighting here – instead, it is mostly by the force of her personality that she vanquishes her opponents, the fierceness of her temper and the strength of her determination. (And it might be interesting to compare Jirel with that other famous medieval warrior-woman as she appears in Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc and discuss the various meanings of passion involved here.) As is probably obvious from what I wrote earlier, this is yet another book where plot is not central to the enjoyment, in fact all of the stories in this collection have much the same basic plot (Jirel wanders / is snatched away into a fantastical realm where she faces and finally overcomes an opponent) and like most pulp tales of the period are best read and savoured one at a time rather than in quick succession.

As a final remark – I was going to comment on Arnold Tsang’s cover for this edition and its inappropriateness for a character that usually wears full plate armour or at least a chainmail tunic… but then I came upon this picture, the cover of the issue of Weird Tales in which “Black God’s Kiss” was first published:

I guess we at least have come some way since then…

This post is part of Lurv A La Mode‘s Year of the Fantasy Classic Challenge.

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4 comments

  1. Very interesting choice, Heloise! I haven’t really read any pulp fantasy that I’m aware of, unless this one titled Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic is such. I seem to recall some talk about it qualifying or being written in that style. Maybe. I don’t think it’s really for me, though. I had a hard time remaining interested in it, and the passage you quote in your review seems a little overdone to me. I dunno, maybe it’s that I’m used to more…how to say it, tight writing (I hesitate to say sparse and will explain)? Prose that isn’t so overly descriptive. Kell’s Legend felt a lot like the style above.

    I don’t agree with Suzy McKee Charnas that the diverse media of today is being used by writers to provide a visualization, and therefore they can write much more sparsely as a result. I think that, like everything else, things just change over time, and that’s how writing has morphed to the writing of today, but I suspect it has more to do with publishers believing they know what readers want. I think we readers *are* busier, so a less purple prose style might just work better for today’s reader, as opposed to a paragraph or fifty that go on almost endlessly with description. A tighter style doesn’t have to mean sparse, but even if the vocabulary used is more limited, a talented writer can still get every minute detail across to the reader if they care to.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed your review and I’m excited to see what others choose for this reading challenge! Looking forward to learning more as we all go along.

  2. Glad you liked the post, and thank you very much for taking the time to comment!

    I agree with you that there certainly has a been a shift in reading preferences, but that does not mean one can’t wonder as to why it happened, and why it was that particular shift, and I think Suzy McKee Charnas’ theory has something going for it – we’re so flooded and saturated with images these days that it does not take much of a verbal stimulus to trigger a visual reaction from what’s stuck in our memories. Of course it is likely not the only reason, and publishers’ attitudes might very well take a part, too, but someone needs to write it before they can sell it.

    And I had not intended “sparse” as a criticism (I’d probably have used something like “bland” in that case) – if well done, a lean, cut down writing style can be very beautiful. If not, though, it leads to lazy and unimaginative writing, and I think there’s rather a lot of that around. And while there are still writers around who cultivate a somewhat lusher prose style – Tanith Lee, Catherynne Valente or China Mieville come to mind – they are in a bit of minority. Which I at least think is rather a pity. But then, I also read poetry…

  3. Charnas’ introduction is extremely problematic, though it’s probably because of her offhanded dismissal and misunderstanding of Robert E. Howard and Conan: considering Moore thought highly of Howard’s work, and that Howard’s Red Sonya was a possible inspiration – or at least spiritual sister – I’d rather Charnas gave Howard the respect Moore did herself.

  4. Well, Howard still has a reputation of being a misogynist, something I have my own thoughts own which maybe I’ll find the occasion to share here some time. Your mileage obviously varies, but I for one found the introduction had so many interesting thoughts and was carried by such an obvious admiration for C.L. Moore’s work that I’m more than willing to overlook any minor injustices Chamas might have comitted towards Howard (who I do like a lot myself, just to avoid misunderstandings).

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