Friday, July 22, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Scarlet Dream" (Reprise)



Published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales, "Scarlet Dream" is the third of C. L. Moore's tales of the interplanetary rogue trader Northwest Smith. It is also the third story in Paizo's Northwest of Earth collection. With this tale one can really see C. L. Moore developing her voice as an author of the weird supernatural horror story. Of the three Smith tales I have read for this series of blog posts, this is the best of the bunch so far.

Like in her previous Smith stories, there is little within the narrative itself that signifies that this is a science fiction story. Other than the fact that Smith eventually uses his magic wa... err ... "gun" against a foe, this story fits firmly within the narrative tropes of the "faerie" tale. Like Christina Rossetti's wonderfully frightening Goblin Market the tale demonstrates the consequences of tasting the "fruit" of Faerie. Like Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter, this tale has time in the land of magic move at a different pace than that of the real world. Unlike either of those tales, morality offers no salvation for our hero.

"Scarlet Dream" begins with Northwest Smith wandering the streets of a vibrant bazaar where he purchases a shawl made of an unbelievably light textile and bearing a mysterious glyph. The shawl, "clung to his hands like a live thing, softer and lighter than Martian 'lamb's-wool.' He felt sure it was woven from the hair of some beast rather than from vegetable fiber, for the electric clinging of it sparked with life. And the crazy pattern dazzled him with its utter strangeness."

In describing the physical properties of the shawl, Moore provides foreshadowing to the events that are about to unfold as the tale progresses. It is masterful foreshadowing as it occurs in a description where one does not assume the author is providing a map to the structure of the tale. Who would guess that the shawl clinging "to his hands like a live thing" hinted at darker things to come? Not darker things from the shawl itself, that would be obvious, but darker things that come as a result of the unnatural properties of another world. The use of strange patterns and objects of alien make would be used again by Moore in her section of Challenge from Beyond -- a shared universe tale she wrote in 1935 with H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long. Each of those authors adding their own characteristic touches to the story. In Moore's case, that touch is an artifact -- a shawl in "Scarlet Dream" and a crystal in "Challenge."

The market where Smith buys the shawl is in the city of Lakkmanda on Mars, but the description of the market is similar to one that might be given to the bazaar of Baghdad. It is not until Smith returns to his hotel room, a small cubicle of polished steel, that one gets any visual sense of the science fictional (sfnal). It doesn't detract from the story that it isn't a "hard science" tale, it adds to the mystery and sense of wonder as the tale unfolds.

Smith falls asleep covered in the shawl and is overtaken by a disturbing dream. He awakens, only to fall back asleep into another dream. It is in the second dream that Smith's consciousness is transported into a fantastic land. When he arrives he meets a young woman who is fleeing a horrible beast. She is covered in blood and frantic. Smith calms her and soon discovers that he is in an eerie bucolic paradise. The weather is pleasant and the lakeside landscape is beautiful. The temple building where he arrived in the world is the only large man made structure. There are no books, no worldly distractions, and as he soon learns...no food.

He is initially puzzled by the lack of food, but the beauty of the land -- and of the woman (whose name is never revealed) -- intrigue Smith and he follows the young woman to her house. The next day Smith finds himself overcome with hunger and asks the young woman to take him to the temple to acquire sustenance. When he arrives, he sees people kneeling before spigots docilely consuming the liquid being dispensed. He himself begins to partake when he realizes that the people, and now he himself, are feeding on blood! No mention is made of where the blood comes from, and Smith recoils in horror at the thought of feeding on blood. Yet...he has found it satisfying. As the days pass, he eventually partakes in a routine of idyllic days and nights with the young woman interrupted only by regular feedings at the temple. Smith has completely overcome any moral objections to the feeding, satisfied that it sustains him.

Throughout the story, there are references to a beast of some sort that was responsible for the murder of the young woman's sister -- beast that eventually comes for everyone when their time has come. Smith is unworried, and the girl is fatalistically accepting of her mortality. Life in this world is idyllic, yet the routine of it eventually over comes Smith. He needs adventure and discovery, not a dull routine in a beautiful setting. Unable to return home, he decides that he must journey within this realm to find adventure, but this is to be denied him. The planet has no food to sustain him, save for the temple's blood spigots, and Smith learns another terrifying fact. It seems that the entire planet, plants and all, are alive and feed on the blood of living things. If you stand too long in one place, the grass will drain you of your blood. You cannot sleep if you aren't on stone as the plants will eat you. This is a world where all the denizens are sustained by blood.

Smith is not shocked or terrified by the prospect, he is resigned to satisfy his sense of adventure. His spirit cannot be sentenced to a life of dull routine. It is his Fredrick Jackson Turnerian frontiersman spirit that saves him from a fate worse than death.

How? That's for you to find out when you read the story.

What is particularly interesting in this story is the way that Moore uses the traditional elements of the faerie story, that of entering a beautiful but dangerous world, while demonstrating how a non-moral actor would react to the environment. What use has the adventurer for bucolic paradise? Apparently, not much. It would be unfair to leave out that the girl, like the sister in Goblin Market, sacrifices herself in order to save a beloved, but in Goblin Market the spirit of curiosity is the culprit and not the savior. Also interesting was Smith's reaction to the feeding process in the world. He is initially revolted, as I imagine any one would be, but he quickly overcomes his moral rejection and feeds like everyone else. This is the moment where the audience, though not the character, get to feel a sense of cosmic horror. We look into the abyss with Smith, horrified, but he allows the abyss to look back into him and is largely unaffected. This is a disturbing thing to read. How does one react to a protagonist who so quickly, Smith does not resist eating for days nobly suffering before succumbing, to temptation?

Smith may never have discovered the name of the young woman, but the audience never discovers the origin of the blood the people feast upon. Is it the blood of those killed by the beast? Is it the blood of those killed by the planet? Is it the blood of the planet? If it is the blood of those killed by the beast, is some of it the young woman's sister's blood? Creepy...and wonderful.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"
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