C.L. Moore began her writing career producing a celebrated run of stories for Weird Tales. With skilled use of initials, she kept her gender private in the early phases of her career, primarily to avoid issues in her day job, but soon enough the information began percolating out after she disclosed it to the various other fans and writers she’d corresponded with, having first struck up a correspondence with R.H. Barlow before corresponding with Lovecraft himself.
Though in theory Lovecraft was the more experienced writer and Moore was a fellow padawan alongside Barlow, Lovecraft quickly recognised her merits as an author and, even before he was in contact with her, was talking her up in his correspondence and regarding her as part of the top of Weird Tales authors; for her part, Moore told Lovecraft that his praise did more than anything to make her think her stories had some merit beyond being pulp adventure. Lovecraft was not alone in admiring Moore’s work; Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard were also fans, and when the oft-cited Big Three of Weird Tales all concur that a writer is on their level, isn’t it time to start talking about a Big Four? Not for nothing was Moore chosen to kick off the astonishingly silly round-robin story The Challenge From Beyond, penned by an all-star roster of the Weird Tales authors at the time.
The On an Underwood blog has an excellent post with choice extracts from her correspondence of these years, revealing how she was held in high esteem by her peers, how the Weird Tales letters pages were home to fannish arguments over whether Conan or Northwest Smith was the best hero, how she was held in very great esteem by her peers (Lovecraft, writing grumpily about the slim pickings of a particular issue of Weird Tales, noted that he didn’t really expect to enjoy any of the stories except for the Robert E. Howard and Moore entries), and how during a childhood troubled by illness she found escapism both through crafty reading of material her parents considered unsuitable for and through imaginative worldbuilding of the sort that the Brontë sisters famously indulged in. (Had she been born some 50 years later, the odds of her having been big into tabletop RPGs as a teen are pretty high.)
It also reveals that she kept her gender under wraps for at least her initial foray into publication. The very fact that readers were surprised to learn she was a woman suggests that, had she gone with a more obviously feminine byline to begin with, there may have been a different reception of her stories; as things stood, the readership was largely won around prior to them knowing that much about her. Indeed, she seems to have received critical acclaim almost immediately, with Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith being among the first to applaud her work.
Another good post on this background hails from Deep Cuts In a Lovecraftian Vein, whose author, Bobby Derie has more patience for the volumes of Lovecraft’s letters than I do. Here we see that Moore’s 1930s Weird Tales career coincided with a tumultuous time in her life. Moore was working at the Fletcher Trust Company, and was engaged to a bank teller at the same firm, Herbert Ernest Lewis, who died in 1936 after shooting himself in the head. Reports vary on whether it was accident or suicide – the death certificate said the latter, Moore said he was merely cleaning his gun and hadn’t unloaded it properly. Mere months later, Robert E. Howard, who Moore also corresponded with (and indeed, the two of them were fans of each other) would commit suicide, and it was Moore herself who broke the news to Lovecraft and the rest of the Circle.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that after a fairly fruitful 1934-1936, Moore’s output lessened in 1937-1938. Nonetheless, she kept at it. From her 1933 debut to 1940, when her career changed fundamentally, Moore put out a stream of stories, the vast majority of which were in two series. The protagonists of these – Northwest Smith, space smuggler, and the swordswoman and medieval noble Jirel of Joiry – would become influential archetypes in the development of fantasy and science fiction, especially the more sword and sorcery-esque parts of fantasy and the sort of science fiction which, say, takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Northwest of Earth
Northwest debuted in the first story Moore sold – 1933’s Shambleau. This introduces both Northwest himself – the archetypal space smuggler, a clear literary ancestor to Han Solo (and, based on description of his “leather-brown” skin, perhaps another non-white protagonist smuggled into the pulps to match Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark) – and the universe he lives in, both of which being fleshed out further by the subsequent stories. This follows the standard planetary romance parameters at the time – Mars and Venus and the moons of Jupiter are home to cultures of broadly human-like locals, as well as stranger inhabitants – but has an interestingly non-colonialist take on things.
Sure, Earth’s gone out into the wider solar system and established little outposts on other worlds – but these are more like the sort of trading outposts established in China or Japan in the early days of European trade with those places, rather than frontier towns intended to project force into a land intended for annexation as in the American West. Indeed, space-farers are referred to sometimes as sailors in this setting, and there’s little of the “space Western” about Moore’s setting: the ports of call Northwest hangs out at tend to be cosmopolitan places, where people of all worlds can be found, rather than outposts of colonial supremacy.
Continue reading “Planetary Peril and Seductive Sorcery”