C.L. Moore's Black God's Kiss

Mar 30 2008 Published by under Fantasy fiction, Robert E. Howard

I mentioned in a previous post the "Planet Stories" publications, which are reprints of classic pulp fantasy, horror, and adventure stories. I finished recently one of those publications, Black God's Kiss, the collected stories of C.L. Moore's character Jirel of Joiry. The character of Jirel is especially notable as being the first strong female sword-and-sorcery character written by a woman!

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987) published her tales in the 1930s under the sort of 'pseudo-pseudonym' C.L. Moore. In 1936, Henry Kuttner (a writer who we will have much more to say about in later posts) wrote her a fan letter, assuming her to be a man, and after that confusion was cleared up they married in 1940! Many classic science fiction stories were written as a collaboration between the two under various pseudonyms, including one of my favorite science fiction stories of all time, Private Eye, about a future in which crime is seemingly impossible but loopholes can be found nevertheless. Moore and Kuttner were apparently so in sync in their writings that they could take over each other's work at a moment's notice. A friend and contemporary Julius Schwartz described a visit to their home as follows:

“On one occasion I was invited to spend the weekend with Henry Kuttner at the home he shared with his wife, Catherine L. Moore, at Hastings--on--Hudson in New York state. About midnight Catherine went up to bed while Henry and I talked a little while longer. When it was time for me to hit the sack on the spare cot downstairs in the area of the house where the two did their writing, Kuttner took up his place on the other side of the room and set out to get some writing done. I eventually nodded off to the music of Henry Kuttner at the typewriter. Kuttner quit work at about 4:00 A.M. and the sudden interruption of keystrokes and his footsteps on the stairs woke me up. I turned over and was just nodding off again when the typewriter music began again with a slightly different pace and keystroke. Catherine had taken her husband’s place and was taking up right where he left off. They were really good collaborators, and their work together was so seamless that not even they could tell where one had left off and the other had started. Kuttner was the better plotter, but Catherine was the better craftsman in terms of literary ability.”

Returning to Catherine Moore's solo work on Joiry, one can agree with the assessment of her literary ability. The stories have an elegance and descriptive power that is comparable to Robert E. Howard's fantasy work. Joiry's nightmarish visit to a land which may or may not be Hell, for instance, is described so beautifully that one wishes to visit, in spite of the consequences. From Black God's Kiss:

Jirel gathered a handful of the coarse grass which grew there and wiped her legs of the obscene splatters, looking about with quickened breath upon this land so unholy that one who bore a cross might not even see it. Here, if anywhere, one might find a weapon such as she sought. Behind her in the hillside was the low tunnel opening from which she had emerged. Overhead the strange stars shone. She did not recognize a single constellation, and if the brighter sparks were planets they were strange ones, tinged with violet and green and yellow. One was vividly crimson, like a point of fire. Far out over the rolling land below she could discern a mighty column of light. It did not blaze, nor illuminate the dark about it. It case no shadows. It simply was a great pillar of luminance towering high in the night. It seemed artificial -- perhaps man-made, though she scarcely dared hope for men here.

Jirel's land of Joiry is not as well fleshed out as Howard's Hyboria. Indeed, the French names and indirect references to Christianity suggest perhaps a medieval setting instead of a purely fictional one. However, the stories suffer little, if any, from this.

Jirel of Joiry herself is a character of undeniable strength but also definite femininity. She has emotions, doubts, regrets and a depth of character that is lacking in comparable swordswomen such as, for instance, Howard's Valeria. Whereas the strongest swordswoman of male authorship inevitably needs a man to rescue her, Jirel solves all of her problems herself. One of the interesting aspects of the stories of Jirel is their maturity: Jirel learns in several of her stories that her rash actions can have unexpected and unpleasant consequences. There is also a level of sentimentality unseen in male penned sword-and-sorcery tales.

There are roughly only a handful of Jirel stories, but each of them is a treasure. A brief synopsis of each follows:

  1. Black God's Kiss. Jirel, her kingdom conquered by the loathsome warrior Guillaume, delves into the depths of her castle, and into dimensions beyond, in search of a terrible weapon with which to kill him. This is a wonderfully descriptive and creepy tale.
  2. Black God's Shadow. Jirel returns to the otherworldly Hell in an attempt to right a wrong she made in her first visit.
  3. Jirel Meets Magic. Jirel chases a foul sorcerer Giraud through a dimensional portal, and battles him and his powerful master, the sorceress Jarisme.
  4. The Dark Land. Mortally wounded on the field of battle, Jirel does not die, but instead finds herself whisked to a land of night by its almighty king in order to be his bride. Not to be shackled to any man against her will, Jirel naturally resists. There are some interesting indirect references to non-Euclidean spaces here.
  5. Hellsgarde. I consider this my favorite Jirel story. Her men captured by a ruthless tyrant, Jirel agrees to quest for a powerful artifact in the damned, abandoned fortress of Hellsgarde. She quickly finds that others have arrived before her, with agenda unknown.
  6. Quest of the Starstone (with Henry Kuttner). A titanic teamup! C.L. Moore's science-fiction character Northwest Smith is hired to defeat Jirel of Joiry and steal the Starstone from her. Anyone who reads comic books will be familiar with the plot line: "Good guys are tricked into fighting. Good guys realize they have a common enemy. Good guys work together to defeat common enemy." This may have been one of the first uses of this particular device, though!

2 responses so far

  • Kandace says:

    I LOVE CL Moore's writing, and I'm glad people are starting to recognize how talented she was!

  • Kandace: I have to admit, I didn't know what to expect when I picked up Black God's Kiss, but I was quite blown away by the writing. I'm currently working my way through Moore's Northwest stories, as well!