Sunday, September 26, 2021

Weird Tales Oct '34: C L Moore, C A Smith and M W Wellman

Let's continue our quest to read at least one story in each 1930s issue of Weird Tales by reading three stories from the October 1934 issue of the magazine of the bizarre and unusual.  This issue includes the second part of Robert E. Howard's "The People of the Black Circle," which I blogged about in March, and stories by our old friends C. L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith, stories which I read years ago and which I will reread today.  To round out the post I'll read the story contributed by Manly Wade Wellman, whom I feel I am just sort of starting to get to know.

"The Black God's Kiss" by C. L. Moore

The people at WT sell this story for all they are worth, proclaiming it "the weirdest story ever told."  I am reading it in my copy of 2002's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, where it appears as "Black God's Kiss," without the article.

"Black God's Kiss" comes to us in five parts over 30 pages, and brief Part I consists almost entirely of eroticized violence!  The land of Joiry (which I guess is in medieval Western Europe) has just been conquered by the army of some guy named Guillaume, and he sits on the throne of Joiry, surrounded by dead bodies and pools of blood.  His men bring to him the captured commander of Joiry's defeated armies--when the bound warrior's helmet is removed all see that the captive is a tall yellow-eyed and red-haired woman!  Guillaume kisses her against her will, and in the struggle she bites him and he smacks her across the face, knocking her across the room!  Va va voom!

In Part II Jirel escapes form imprisonment in a cell of her own dungeon and sneaks to the chapel to see a priest; she requests a blessing because she is about to go on a terrible mission, to a place "outside God's dominion" to seek a super weapon with which to destroy Guillaume.

At the bottom of the dungeon below Jirel's castle is a winding twisting chute-like tunnel to another dimension built by intelligent beings who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  In Part III Jirel slides down this tunnel, the curves of which seem to be of an alien geometry.  In a level portion of tunnel Jirel is briefly tormented by a sort of living wind--the spirits of unhappy beings who transmit their misery to her--and then stumbles on a dinosaur-sized footprint.  Finally she comes to the end of the tunnel, and emerges on an alien world into which she cannot proceed without first removing her crucifix necklace.  Here, under a black sky filled with constellations she doesn't recognize, Jirel encounters strange creatures and crosses a swamp to a tower made of light.

In Pat IV Jirel enters the tower, meets a haughty being of light that mockingly takes Jirel's own form.  The alien, which Jirel thinks of as a "light-devil," tries to lure Jirel into a death trap, but when Jirel proves to have the intelligence and fortitude to avoid the trap, the alien offers her a boon.  When Jirel asks for a weapon to destroy the man she hates, the being hints that Jirel's hatred is the product of sublimated lust for Guillaume, then directs her to a black temple in a lake.  There she feels compelled to kiss the statue in the temple, a sexless "semi-human" cyclops figure that crouches forward, lips pursed.  After the kiss she is filled with fear and a spiritual or psychological weight and runs frantically to the tunnel, fighting monsters as she goes.

Back on Earth our heroine kisses Guillaume, passing that horrible weight on to him.  In his eyes she can see that he suffers a despair that no human has ever felt, an agony only aliens have ever before experienced, and then he keels over dead.  Only when she sees him dead before her does Jirel realize that he was the man for her, and she kneels over his corpse and cries.

Thumbs up for "Black God's Kiss;" all the weird landscapes and creatures work, and of course we like all those rough sex themes with women being tied up and kisses being a means to humiliate or kill somebody.  On a less exploitative level, the story is full of thematic tensions that contribute to making it compelling.  It is the tale of Jirel's triumph, but also of the tragedy she brings upon herself.  Moore integrates a sort of feminist revenge narrative in which a woman puts her soul as well as her life at risk to punish the guy who kissed her against her will with a not-at-all feminist narrative in which a strong woman realizes that what she really wants out of life is a man stronger than her, and that her very strength has kept her from the life she didn't realize she wanted to lead.  I think the role of Christianity in the story is also interesting, the way Brackett is trying to depict a universe in which all that Lovecraftian "there are alien monster gods and before humans the world was ruled by nonhuman people" stuff and Christian beliefs about hell and the power of Jesus are both true.  This is totally a sex and violence story, but Moore imbues it with emotion and even some level of (ambiguous) philosophical and psychological meaning.

On the back of my copy of Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams there is a Fritz Leiber quote about Moore's work: "there are strains of A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and even H. P. Lovecraft...."  Moore here definitely handles travel to other planets much like Lovecraft does in "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" and "Dreams in the Witch House," and Jirel does things like those Conan does; for example, carrying her two-handed sword in her teeth--Conan carries his sword in his teeth in "Jewels of Gwahlur," though Howard has the Cimmerian cut his lips in doing so.  (Jirel bites her lip, drawing blood, while trying to stifle a scream of terror while fleeing the alien world.)  Looking forward instead of back, I think we can see similarities to "Black God's Kiss" in Leigh Brackett's work (like the sexualized violence in the 1949 Eric John Stark story "Enchantress of Venus") and in the oeuvre of Michael Moorcock--I feel like in his Eternal Champion stories guys are always going to some other dimension or to some tower to get a super weapon.  

"Black God's Kiss" was a hit, the most popular story in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, and has been reprinted in many Moore collections, anthologies of superior fantasy stories and anthologies of SF by women.  isfdb lists five more Jirel stories, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of them.        


"The Seven Geases" by Clark Ashton Smith

Here we have one of Smith's stories of his prehistoric fantasy realm Hyperborea, where mastodons, dinosaurs, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and other creatures stalk an Earth haunted by wizards and alien gods.  "The Seven Geases"'s appearance in Weird Tales was augmented by a little sidebar defining the word "geas" and one of Smith's own drawings of the wide-faced god Tsathoggua.  I am reading "The Seven Geases" in a library copy of the electronic version of The Last Hieroglyph, the fifth volume of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. 

Lord Ralibar Vooz, third cousin to the king, goes hunting at the head of a party of twenty-six men.  His quarry: the subhuman savages known as the Voormis, who live in caves high atop volcanic Mount Voormithadreth.  Mount Voormithadreth is also said to be home of Tsathoggua, a god who came to Earth from Saturn long ago, but Ralibar Vooz is an atheist and scoffs at such stories.

Forging ahead of his fellows, Ralibat Vooz by chance stumbles upon the lair of a hermit wizard, interrupting the sorcerer's incantations.  His spell ruined, the angry wizard puts a geas on Ralibat Vooz, a sort of curse or hypnosis that compels him to pursue a quest--the quest is to fight his way through the fangs and claws of a tribe of Voormis to present himself to Tsathoggua as a snack!

Ralibat Vooz fights his way successfully to the god Tsathoggua, who looks kind of like a giant toad covered in bat fur.  He offers himself as a meal, but Tsathoggua is full, having just eaten.  So he puts a geas on Ralibat Vooz that has the man travelling through tunnels to a different monster god who lives under Mount Voormithadreth, a spider god who spins webs that serve as bridges across an abyss.  This monster god doesn't want to devour Ralibat Vooz either, and puts still another geas on the hunter that sends him to yet another dangerous creature.

This happens again and again to Ralibat Vooz--he is repeatedly sent to what seems like certain death at the hands of some wizard, monster, or race of serpent-people only to be rejected and then compelled to present himself to yet another diabolical being deeper under the mountain.  The shaggy dog ending of the story has the man getting killed thanks to an unlucky coincidence that has nothing much to do with the geases.

In letters quoted by Conners and Hilger in the extensive and insightful notes to "The Seven Geases," Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright complains that the story lacks plot, and H. P. Lovecraft expresses exasperation with plot, saying plot is "not only unnecessary but even intrinsically inartistic."  I have to agree with Wright here; I personally like plots--I like a story to have a logical course and ending, to present characters who pursue goals and make decisions and who are rewarded or punished based on those decisions or other factors attributable to them, their strength or intelligence or ideology or whatever.  Anyway, though "The Seven Geases" is well written and all the little episodes are fun, I, unlike Smith and Lovecraft, think it suffers from lacking a strong plot.  I am still giving it a passing grade, but my enthusiasm is only moderate.

"At the Bend of the Trail" by Manly Wade Wellman

In a interview conducted by Karl Edward Wagner for the second and final issue of the fanzine Chacal in 1977, Manly Wade Wellman, contra Lovecraft,  talks about how great an editor Weird Tales's Farnsworth Wright was, how he helped Wellman improve his stories.  He also talks a little about Wright's successor at Weird Tales, Dorothy McIlwraith, and her assistant, Lamont Buchanan, who Wagner and Wellman suggest was doing much of the actual editing, and about Hugo Gernsback, who was very reluctant to pay those writers whose work he had purchased.  At one point, Wellman, a big man who had played football, admits he physically intimidated someone in Gernsback's office, a David Blasser, in his efforts to secure the return of a story Gernsback had bought but never paid Wellman for.  (Wellman got the story back and sold it to Astounding editor F. Orlin Tremaine for a tidy sum.)  

We also learn from this interview that Wellman was born in Angola and lived in Africa until the age of six.  Which brings us to "At the Bend of the Trail," a very brief tale set in Africa.

Two British guys, one green, one an old Africa hand, are travelling through the jungle with their black bearers.  The older man, talking about how Africans invest unusual objects with "a supernatural personality," points out a long serpentine root sticking out of the ground at a bend in the trail, a somewhat mysterious root because there are no large trees nearby.  Every time he and his crew walk this way the Africans avoid the root scrupulously, and he follows suit.  The young man, determined to expose this as nonsense, intentionally steps on the root--everybody is alarmed to see the root writhe like an animal, and they all resolve to leave it alone.

But the young Englishman can't stop thinking about the root, and at night decides to take an axe to the thing.  But when he gets to the bend in the trail, the odd root is gone!  He goes back to bed, and later that night the root, like a constrictor snake, attacks, trying to crush the life out of him!  Luckily the older Briton snatches up the axe and chops up the monster; the young know-it-all suffers some broken bones, but will live.

A mediocre filler story, barely acceptable.  In the 1990s this thing reemerged in a fanzine, The Tome, and in Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg, and Robert Weinberg's Barnes & Noble bargain book 100 Tiny Tales of Terror.  In 2001, "At the Bend of the Trail" would be included in the Wellman collection The Devil is Not Mocked and Other Warnings.

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Another issue of Weird Tales we can cross off our list, and an experience which has acquainted us with a host of pretty crazy monsters.  Maybe we'll be meeting some new monsters in our next episode when we again read stories from an issue of Weird Tales.

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