Monday, October 12, 2009

Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"


In the last installment of "Blogging Northwest Smith," I discussed how C L Moore's tales of Northwest Smith included elements of Space Opera and Weird Horror and pushed the envelope of what constituted a Science Fiction tale. By Space Opera I am referring to the earlier "Space Opera equals Space Westerns" description often used during the early days of the genre.

I am far from the first to notice that Moore incorporated elements of Weird Horror into the tales of her space faring anti-hero, Lin Carter noticed her inclusion of these elements and thought it likely they were added to garner publication in Weird Tales. Whatever Moore's reasons for including Weird Horror elements, as she did with her adaptation of the Medusa into "pleasure vampire" in "Shambleau," she was deeply enough tied to the Lovecraftian circle that she was one of the co-authors (in fact she was the jump start author) of a Lovecraftian "shared world" tale entitled The Challenge from Beyond (more on this in a later post).

For the modern fan of Science Fiction, the incorporation of horror elements into a Science Fiction narrative seems perfectly natural. Everything from the Atomic Horror films of the 50s and 60s to Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien (based on A.E. van Vogt's 1939 Astounding story "Black Destroyer" which was included as chapters 1-6 of The Voyage of the Space Beagle) to Joss Whedon's Firefly demonstrate how deeply saturated film and television are with the SF horror story. But for fans of "Space Westerns," Foundation, or modern Space Opera, the shift in suspension of disbelief from hard SF to Weird Horror SF isn't guaranteed.

When I read "Shambleau," I was struck by how much the narrative followed the format of a classic Western and by how the monster/alien of the tale was Lovecraftian in nature -- tentacles and all. "Black Thirst" takes the combination of Science Fiction and horror a different direction than "Shambleau." Where in "Shambleau" the tale was one of Weird Horror overlaying a Western, "Black Thirst" is a tale of Gothic Horror that contains no small elements of the Western and Weird Horror genre.

Our tale begins with our protagonist, Northwest Smith, leaning against a warehouse wall in some unfriendly waterfront street on Venus. He soon encounters a woman, immediately recognizable as a Minga maid, who begs Northwest to visit her in the Minga stronghold in order to provide her some sort of aid.

Moore spends some time describing the Minga palace as a building that pre-existed the majority of civilization on Venus, describing how the stronghold was already built by the time some great Venusian explorer had sailed the seas in search of new land. The Minga maids themselves are as mysterious as the palace from which they are sold, they are "those beauties that from the beginning of history have been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as race-horses are bred on Earth, and reared from earliest infancy in the art of charming men. Scarcely a court on the three planets lacks at least one of these exquisite creatures..."

Establishing the mysterious origins of the stronghold and the maids, Moore quickly establishes the dangers associated with attempting to "lay a finger" on a Minga maid. It is a danger with no appeal as "The chastity of Minga girls was proverbial, a trade boast." The purpose of these beauty slaves seems not to be a sexual one, and this is reinforced later when the real purpose of the breeding of the maids is reveals, but a purely aesthetic one. The women are bred for their beauty, in form and manner, and the price paid is for these things alone.

The concept of a stronghold of courtesans, trained in the art of charming men, combined with the similarities between Malcolm Reynolds and Northwest Smith leave one wondering if Joss Whedon had read this tale before creating Firefly. Not to imply with any certainty that Whedon was directly influenced by Moore, but it is hard for me to visualize anyone other than Nathan Fillion playing Northwest Smith in a movie -- and if he did Whedon fans would cry foul that Northwest is a direct Mal ripoff.

As the Minga maid, named Vaudir, leaves Smith she does so with a warning. She warns Northwest about the evil that is the Alendar and hints at his origins when she discusses there are "elemental" things that don't sink back into the darkness from which they came if a civilization develops too swiftly. "Life rises out of dark and mystery and things too strange and terrible to be looked upon." Here she hints at the history of the Minga and the Alendar and Moore incorporates imagery from Weird Horror. The concept of elemental evil is one of Weird Horror and it is the type of horror that is used to describe the Alendar.

Smith agrees to help the maid and approaches the stronghold as she told him he should. What follows is a series of scenes reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula in which our hero plays, a much braver version, of Jonathan Harker. Smith wanders the hallways of the palace sensing, but not seeing, the great evil that awaits him. He arrives at Vaudir's room, but it is not long before he encounters the Alendar him/itself. The Alendar is a manlike creature possessed of great psychic powers, powers which overwhelm our protagonist and could kill him in an instant. But a quick death is not to be for Smith as he possesses something of value that the Alendar desires.

The Alendar, it seems, is -- like the Shambleau -- a kind of vampire. Unlike the Shambleau the Alendar does not feed on sexual/physical pleasure, instead he/it feeds on beauty. For the Alendar beauty is a tangible thing, an objective thing that provides real nourishment. The only way in which beauty is subjective regarding the Alendar's hunger is in its "form." What is beauty for a human female isn't beauty in a human male, which is why the Alendar has spared Smith. Smith possesses the quality of male beauty which must be fully developed before the Alendar can feed on him. As the Alendar describes his method of nourishment, Smith is given glimpses of unimaginable beauty -- beauty that can cause madness.

How the tale unfolds from here I will leave for you to discover on you own, but I would like to spend some time discussing some of the interesting concepts Moore threw into this story.

She is quite obviously writing a tale about slavery and presents human trafficking as a horrible affair, but she is also presenting a discussion of beauty and what constitutes true beauty. The Alendar describes beauty as follows:

"Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate distinct force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women... the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else...

For beauty, as I have said, eats up all other qualities but beauty."

The beauty that Moore has the Alendar describe is in itself horrifying, yet it is also an interesting spark for discussion. Vaudir -- who has asked Smith for assistance and led to his current state of danger -- is beautiful, but she possesses something more. She possesses and intelligence and free will that make her more desirable to the Alendar than her beauty alone would demand. Smith too possesses this combination of independence and beauty, a combination that the Alendar seeks to use in order to overcome the boredom which results from the consumption of his current fare of pure beauty. Moore is simultaneously critiquing the "cult of beauty" and proffering an alternative -- a beauty that combines intelligence, independence, and appearance. There is a strong feminist spirit underlying the story and it is this spirit that separates this tale from a run of the mill narrative.

As before, Moore combines elements from a variety of literature in this piece in a manner that is fluid. The discussion of elemental evil has ties to Weird Horror. The Alendar, his stronghold, and the equation of beauty itself with the horrific echo Gothic Horror. The manner in which Smith is encountered and the stories resolution are straight from a Western, one could easily see "Black Thirst" as an episode of Wild, Wild, West. With all that Moore combines genre elements one might expect to become lost in some residual narrative clutter, yet that never occurs. Moore has a story she wants to tell, of a vampire who consumes beauty yet seeks something more, and it makes for quite an entertaining ride.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"
Post a Comment