The peak was reached in 1933, when he handed me something by one C. L. Moore.
“Read this!” he commanded, the moment I stepped into the new editorial rooms at 840 North Michigan Avenue, in Chicago.
I obeyed. The story commanded my attention. There was no escape. I forgot that I needed food and drink—I’d driven a long way. [...] The stranger’s narrative prevailed until, finally, I drew a deep breath, exhaled, flipped the last sheet to the back of the pack, and looked again at the by-line. Never heard of it before.
“For Christ’s sweet sake, who and what is this C. L. Moore?”
He wagged his head, gave me an I-told-you-so-grimace.
We declared C. L. Moore day. I’d met Northwest Smith, and Shambleau. (BOD 16, cf.261)
I was reared on a diet of Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so you can see I never had a chance. (EV2 36)Along with reading, the young woman also began to write:
What happened was that I had a cousin with whom I was very close, and we used to make up romantic tales of mythical kingdoms. We would take long, long walks in the neighborhood under the trees—it was a lovely time in the world to be alive—and we each worked out our own fantasy kingdom with dashing young heroes and lots of swashbuckling adventure. Then we began separately to write it out. It was not anything that either of us considered offering for publication; it never occurred to us. (Ross 326)
Ever since we were about nine a friend and I have been evolving a romantic island kingdom and populating it with a race which, inevitably, is a remnant of Atlanteans. We've a very detailed theology and mythology, maps all water-colored and scroll-bordered and everything, a ruling house whose geneology and family tree and so forth has been worked out in tables and charts from the year minus—oh, just about everything that two imaginative girls could think of over the space of fifteen years. [...] We have songs and long sagas of heroes, and a literature full of tradition and legends, and we even made and colored a series of paper dolls to illustrate the different types and their costumes, and then there were wars and plans of battle, and we have the maps of all our favorite cities, and we've written a good deal of history. And that history is what I take seriously.
We centered on a favorite period, around 1200-1250, and the history gradually became the biography of the outstanding man of that generation, and for the past ten years at least I have been writing, off and on, about this rather picaresque hero and his adventures. [...] And of course a lot of it is romantically school-girlish, and a lot full of undergraduate tragic, because it's grown up with me and has a long way to grow up yet. [...] The hero's name was Dalmar j'Penyra, and he had red hair and black eyes and was a pirate and a duke and a mighty lover and quite invincibile in anything he chose to undertake. How we used to thrill over his escapades. he died in 1256, at the age of 35 (that seemed to us the absolute ultimate at which a man might remain even remotely interesting) and almost wept whenever we thought about it.After high school, Moore entered Indiana University, “with art school and business college filling in summer vacations,” but was forced by the Great Depression to quit school after three semesters and find work. (Roark 26, EV2 36) It was then in 1931 that she found her first pulp magazine, Amazing Stories “whose cover portrayed six-armed men battling to the death”—the September issue—at a newsstand across from where she worked. (Elliot 45, cf. EV2 37)
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 10 Sep-9 Oct 1934 (cf. LCM 89-94)
From that moment on, I was a convert. A whole new field of literature opened up before my eyes. (EV2 37)C. L. Moore began reading pulps on the sly:
[...] my parents quite naturally believed that those magazines with the screaming naked girls on the cover had to be unsuitable reading. At that time science fiction was the lowest of the low. It seemed so obviously impossible that anything like space travel, for instance, could ever happen that nobody but a nitwit would read about it. But at my first job I found myself without very much to do at times, and I had to look busy. I used to spend a lot of time reading science fiction in between the covers of bank reports and stuff like that. (Ross 326)
My mother was literally horrified by the thought that I was reading this “Trash.’ But when she saw how much I enjoyed it, she just gritted her teeth and let me read it. [...] It was pure escapism. I should think that any middle-class girl, reared as I was in middle America, would have been enormously grateful for the opportunity to go to Mars. I certainly was. (Elliot 46, cf. Roark 26, Ross 326)More than just reading fantasy and science fiction, Moore desired to write. As a student she had published a few pieces in The Vagabond, the student literary journal at Indiana University, but now she turned to a different kind of writing:
[...] it was a rainy afternoon in the middle of the Depression, I had nothing to do—but I really should’ve looked busy because jobs were hard to get! I didn’t want to appear that I wasn’t earning my daily keep! To take up time, I was practicing things on the typewriter to improve my speed—things like ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” That got boring, so I began to write bits of poetry I remembered from my college courses...in particular, I was quoting a poem called “The Haystack in the Flood.” [...] The poem was about a woman i 13th century France who is being pursued by enemies of some kind...she was running across a field and these men were after her. I had misquoted a line in my mind, as well as on the typewriter, and referred to a “Red, running figure.” [...] At the time I thought, “Ha! A red, running figure! Why is she running? Who is she running from and where is she running to? What’s going to happen to her? Strangely enough, I just swung from that line of poetry into the opening of “Shambleau.” (Roark 26, cf. C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 31 Dec 1934)Regarding some of the names in her stories, she commented:
I usually glance around in desperation and seize on the first thing that I see. Alendar is simply Calendar with the C left off. And N.W.'s friend Yarol is a transposition of the name on the Royal typewriter I wrote the story on.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 10 Sep-9 Oct 1934Her protagonist Northwest Smith was inspired by a depositor at her company, who signed their letters as “N. W. Smith.” (Shroyer 162) The initial concept for the character was for a very different genre:
I have remotest glimmers of memory about a wild, wild Western that never went beyond the idea that there ought to be a One-Eyed Jack, (possibly of hearts) and a Northwest Smith on a ranch called the Bar-Nothing. Thence the name, but whence the character no one knows, least of all myself. When I first began to consider him as a space-ranger I was guilty of a saga which started out,
Northwest Smith was a hard-boiled guy
With an iron fist and a roving eye—
of which the less is said the better. (EV2 37)In later years, Moore maintained that she had mailed it directly to Weird Tales, but pulp scholar Sam Moskowitz suggests it was actually submitted to and rejected by Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories before Farnsworth Wright handed the story to E. Hoffmann Price to read. (Moskowitz 1980, 85-87)
[...] after I sent it off to WT, I more or less forgot about it. One day I came home from work and there was a long letter on the hall table for me. I opened it up and it said that they were going to pay me a hundred dollars. And that was like TEN THOUSAND dollars at that time. I screamed at the top of my voice! My father came charging downstairs thinking that I had been murdered or something (laughter) and nobody believed it until they read the letter. Then joy was completely unconfined—everyone was so happy about it. (Roark 27, cf. Elliot 47)At the time, Moore was only making $25 a week. (Roark 27) However, this in itself was a cause for concern:
I used the initials “C. L.” simply because I didn’t want it to be known at the bank that I had an extra source of income. I wrote “Shambleau” in the midst of the Depression. The bank was a very paternalistic organization. If was always firing those people whose services weren’t really needed. I had the feeling they might have fired me had they known I was earning extra income. Using my initials was simply a means of obscuring my identity. (Elliot 47, cf. Roark 27, LFB 184-185)“Shambleau” was published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales, and the seminal story of the interplanetary outlaw Northwest Story was an immediate sensation. Wright kept a tally of the most popular stories, and “Shambleau” raced to the top; it was not only the most popular story in the issue, beating out stories by established writers like Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price, and Edmond Hamilton, it was the most popular story during the 1933 year—and ended up being the second-most popular story in Weird Tales between 1924 and 1940, beating out H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Seabury Quinn and many other luminaries. (Moskowitz 1983) Among this early praise, one bit in particular stands out:
Shambleau is great stuff, too. It begins magnificently, on just the right note of terror, and with black intimations of the unknown. The subtle evil of the Entity, as suggested by the unexplained horror of the people, is extremely powerful—and the description of the Thing itself when unmasked is no letdown. Like “The House of the Worm”, it has real atmosphere and tension—rare thing amidst the pulp traditions of brisk, cheerful, staccato prose and lifeless stock characters and images. The one major fault is the conventional interplanetary setting. That weakens and dilutes the effect of both by introducing a parallel or rival wonder and by removing it from reality. Of course a very remote setting had to be chosen for so unknown marvel—but some place like India, Africa, or the Amazon jungle might have been used...with the horror made more local. I trust your revisions may make Mrs. Moore’s second story as striking and interesting as this one.—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 21 Nov 1933, LA 8.38-39Wright published an excerpt from this letter in the Jan 1934 issue of Weird Tales, along with other praise for “Shambleau.” Lovecraft would write varying degrees of praise regarding the story to others (LA 8.35-36, ES 2.613, LRS 18). The editor of Weird Tales wrote to Moore requesting more of her work. (Elliot 47) Wright apparently returned her second Northwest Smith story, “Were-Woman,” asking for revisions. (Roark 26, C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow 1 Jul 1934) Undeterred, Moore kept writing and submitting stories. By March 1934, she had sold two more stories (“Black Thirst” and “Scarlet Dream”) to Wright, and she had gotten in touch with her first fan—Robert H. Barlow. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 8 Mar 1934)
Barlow was a friend and correspondent of Weird Tales writer H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, and in the early 1930s had begun writing to authors like Robert E. Howard requesting copies of the manuscripts for their stories. (CL 2.519) Boldly, he asked her for the draft of “Shambleau,” but Moore told him the draft had been destroyed. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 28 Mar 1934) By this time, Barlow may have already seen the solicits for the April 1934 issue of Weird Tale where another adventure of Northwest Smith was promised, and it appears the young fan was concerned whether Northwest Smith should become a series character like Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, E. Hoffmann Price’s Pierre d’Artois, or Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane or Conan the Cimmerian:
I'm finding that you are quite right about the disadvantages of pursuing one character through a series of stories. I've finished four now and am working on a fifth, and though I'm feeling the limitations already it's hard to break out of the rut.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 28 Mar 1934.
|WT Apr 1934|
I'd like to read everything Robert E. Howard has ever written. The first story of his I read was WORMS OF THE EARTH, and I've been a fanatic ever since. And of course Lovecraft and Price.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, n. d. [early Apr 1934]She would later expand on her appreciation for this story slightly:
And you were quite right about THE KING IN YELLOW. It's beautifully done, and hints with the exact degree of delicacy at forbidden things. By the way, that's what I like so very much about Robt.E.Howard's WORMS OF THE EARTH, which I still think the best I ever read in that line, THE KING IN YELLOW, DUNWICH HORROR, etc., notwithstanding.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 10 Sep-9 Oct 1934Lovecraft would praise “Black Thirst” as he had “Shambleau” to friends like Clark Ashton Smith (DS 552), August Derleth (ES2.629), F. Lee Baldwin (LFB 81), Duane W. Rimel (LFB 169), Robert Bloch (LRBO 102), R. H. Barlow (OFF 129), and Robert E. Howard:
The present issue, I think, is far above average—with your tale, the splendid Burks reprint, the powerful Smith yarn with self-drawn illustration, and the strikingly potent, original, and distinctive “Black Thirst”.—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 3 Apr 1934, MF 2.727At this point, Barlow apparently revealed his own friendship and correspondence with Lovecraft et al. to Moore, who wrote back:
What sort of a person is he? Interesting, I think, to wonder about the personalities behind the stories we get so much fun out of. I've often tried to imagine what Dr. Smith is like, and Mr. Howard and Mr. Quinn and the rest.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 23 Apr 1934In the letter dated 28 March 1934, Moore revealed her gender to Barlow—but the proverbial cat was soon out of the bag through other sources; in the May 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan industries fans Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz gleefully announced:
C. L. Moore, who is creating a hit with the ‘Northwest’ Smith stories in W T, is also a woman!One of the subscribers to TFF who may have been interested in this little tidbit was Robert E. Howard. (CL2.136) Most of the readers of Weird Tales, however, apparently had no idea that Moore was a woman, and the news was apparently slow to spread, through Lovecraft and others. (LFB 184-185)
The third Northwest Smith tale to see print was “Scarlet Dream,” in Weird Tales May 1934. Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “Queen of the Black Coast” had the cover for the issue, but Moore’s story was voted most popular by the readers. Lovecraft gave it due praise in his letters. (DS 557, LFB 180)
Barlow by this time had sent Moore a collection of pulp magazine back issues, and reading through them she noted:
I've taken your advice at last about burying dear old Northwest Smith, temporarily at least. Just yesterday I had a letter from Wright accepting a new story with a medieval lady as the central character.“Red Shadows” (Weird Tales Aug 1928) was the first story of Solomon Kane, and one of the first stories that Howard had managed to sell to Farnsworth Wright after a spate of success in 1925. While a good story, it was not quite as mature as the work he was publishing five years later, and Moore appears to have realized that.
You know, Robert E. Howard's RED SHADOWS was a terrible disappointment. In fact, with one or two exceptions I did not think that the stories of 1927 and 1928 measured up at all well with the present tales.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 23 Apr 1934
|Shambleau Illustration |
Original Art (1933)
I was awfully interested in what you told me about Mesrs. Lovecraft, Howard and Quinn. Are you sure that Mr. Howard is as—well, Conan-ish—as you say? Somehow it seems too good to be true—I'd resigned myself to hear about an anemic and bespectacled clerk escaping into the past for his vicarious adventures. According to what you tell me, he's only two years older than I, and if he continues to improve as he has since '28—well, he'll get places. What do you think of him? Of course, as much as he writes, he can't turn out consistent good work, but I think that his WORMS OF THE EARTH was really splendid, and one or two others have shown what he can really do when he tries. [...] I'm a fine person to be criticizing Mr. Howard as I just did, too. I'm rather settled down to grinding them out—and don't know how to escape it.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 1 Jun 1934While Barlow and Howard had their correspondence, most of the impressions that the young fan had regarding the Texas pulpster would probably have come through H. P. Lovecraft, and possibly a little garbled (Howard was born in 1906, for example, and was thus five years older than Moore, not two). She makes a similar error in her next letter, where she is going through another early issue of Weird Tales:
I just skimmed thru the volume, reading WOLFSHEAD (which of course disappointed me, for I am more fiercely critical of Robert E. Howard than any other writer, tho realize it was really splendid work for a 17-year-old boy)—and THE OUTSIDER, by HPL, which is beyond words.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 12 Jun 1934“Wolfshead” (Weird Tales Apr 1926) was written when Howard was 19 (CL3.80); “The Outsider” by H. P. Lovecraft was published in the same issue.
Meanwhile in the “Eyrie,” the letters-pages of Weird Tales, Conan and Northwest Smith were facing comparison:
Northwest Smith has become my idol in Weird Tales. Believe it or not, I’ve fallen passionately in love with him. There is a character for you! Warm, human, lovable and incredibly realistic. No barbarian baboon hot-head, this one, who slices off human and unhuman heads on the slightest pretext; nor snarls and growls at his girlfriends; nor socks his dames with such manly toughness as would make Clark Gable and Jimmy Cagney look like sissies in comparison.—Sylvia Barrett, WT Jun 1934
In my humble opinion Conan is the greatest of WT’s famous characters; although this new hero, Northwest Smith, in C. L. Moore’s stories, isn’t far behind.—Alvin Earl Perry, WT Jun 1934
I have always found your stories varied and entertaining and am only asking now for you to keep up the stories of those two bold, very interesting and yet not so good young men, Northwest Smith, and Conan the Barbarian. Northwest takes us into the history-making, romantic frontiers of the future, while Conan brings them to us out of the past. So keep up the good work, and don’t worry about the covers as long as we have these two bold, bad and glamorous men with us.
—A. Coffey, WT Jul 1934
I like a lot of atmosphere and if possible some interesting characters, something like Solomon Kane or King Kull in Howard’s stories (in preference to his latest character, Conan), the monk in the The Holiness of Azedarac by Clark Ashton Smith, and Northwest Smith in Moore’s stories.—Victor Arugeti, WT Aug 1934
Perhaps I am not in agreement with the majority of your readers in my estimation of C. L. Moore, for I think he is far surpassed by Howard, whose Conan stories are excellent things of their kind.—C. A. Burts, WT Aug 1934
My favorite story characters are Conan and Northwest Smith. The bloody adventures of Conan are very interesting, and C. L. Moore has such unusual and original conceptions that reading his stories is a pleasure.—Edgar Hurd, WT Sep 1934
With each succeeding tale Howard becomes better; his unique character, Conan, is the greatest brain-child yet produced in weird fiction, even overshadowing Moore’s Northwest Smith and Quinn’s dynamic littler Frenchman, Jules de Grandin.—Alvin Earl Perry, WT Oct 1934
In my opinion, Dust of Gods rated first by a nose over Howard’s The Devil in Iron...—Eugene Benefiel, WT Oct 1934The quality of Moore’s work, with only three stories published, was already so great that expectations for the continued quality of her work were high:
I got the new W.T. yesterday, but have not had time even to glance at it. Doubt if it amounts to much except for the Moore & Howard offerings.The August 1934 Weird Tales saw the publication of the fourth Northwest Smith tale (“Dust of the Gods”) and the tenth Conan story (“The Devil in Iron”), which also had the cover. Neither story was the most popular with the readers; Lovecraft remarked on having read the manuscript of Moore’s story while visiting with Barlow in Florida (LFB 206), and while he found it a little below her previous efforts was swift to point out “As a writer, Miss Moore is certainly the discovery of the last few years. No other newcomer is even in the running.” (DS 571-572)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 11 Aug 1934, LRBO 109
C. L. Moore earned her first cover from Margaret Brundage with “The Black God’s Kiss” in the Oct 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This was the first story of Jirel of Joiry, the medieval swordswoman, whose origins were a little mysterious, even to the author:
Long, long ago I had thoughts of a belligerent dame who must have been her progenitor, and went so far as to begin a story which went something like this: “The noise of battle beating up around the walls of Arazon castle rang sweetly in the ears of Arazon’s warrior lady.” And I think it went no farther. [...] Back to her Jirel of Joiry no doubt traces her ancestry. (EV2 37)Once again, Moore’s story was voted the most popular in the issue. (Moskowitz 1983) The Oct 1934 WT also contained the second part of Robert E. Howard’s Conan serial, “The People of the Black Circle.” Lovecraft praised “The Black God’s Kiss,” (OFF 183, 187; LRS 34), in his fullest comment writing:
Certainly, only a very few of the WT stories have even a rudimentary claim to mature literary standing. The conceptions are trite, the characters artificial & wooden, & the development slovenly & mechanical. This weird stuff follows a set of lifeless & meaningless formulae just as closely as does any other pulp junk. However—Smith, Howard, Whitehead, Moore & (less often) others occasionally get beyond this welter of mediocrity & produce things worth remembering. In the October issue “The Black God’s Kiss”, “The Seven Geases”, & (very possibly) “Old Sledge” are worth saving from the waste-basket. (Also, probably, “The People of the Black Circle”—though I’m waiting for its completion before reading.)In addition to the stories she was publishing in Weird Tales, Moore at this point was pushing into other pulps. These were limited for her variety of weird science fantasy, but she finally found a second paying market:
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Nelson, 14 Oct 1934, LRBO 215
A story of mine which I've just sold to ASTOUNDING and which will appear in Oct. is really a third of one original N.W.Smith tale. I had that almost finished I saw that it was two stories, and split it apart. Then the half I got to work on began to show amoeba-like tendencies toward division, and the third attempt resulted in THE BRIGHT ILLUSION, which I've sold to Astounding.—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 5 Jul 1934 (cf. C. L. Moore to Barlow 12 Dec 1935)“The Bright Illusion” was published in the Oct 1934 Astounding, and was well-received in their letters-page, “Brass Tacks”:
E. E. “Doc” Smith was well-known as the author of the Lensmen series, and his occasional letters in the ‘Eyrie’ (and reference to this as her sixth story) showed him to be a regular reader of Weird Tales—and curiously enough, he knew what many WT readers did not, which was that Moore was female.
And last, but far from least, there is C. L. Moore. I read five of her stories without being impelled to rave. Good jobs they all were, and done in workmanlike fashion; but nothing calling for repeated reading. Then The Bright Illusion! Man, there is a job of work—adult fare, that; no fooling! I have read it three times so far, and haven’t got it all yet. I have no idea whether Miss (or Mrs.) Moore is a young girl with an unusually powerful mind and a full store of unsullied idealism, or whether she is a woman whose long and eventful life has shown her that real love is man’s supreme dower. But whoever or whatever she may be, I perceive in her Bright Illusion a flame of sublimity brighter, whiter, fiercer, and more intense even than the eternal fire of IL’s great temple.—Edward E. Smith, Astounding Stories Jan 1935
E.E. "Doc" Smith
BOD Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear
CAS Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
CL The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
DS Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith
ES Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth
EV2 Echoes of Valor II
IMH Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard
LA8 Lovecraft Annual #8
LCM Letters to C. L. Moore, &c.
LFB Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c.
LJS Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c.
LRBO Letters to Robert Bloch and Others
LRS Letters to Richard F. Searight
MF A Means to Freedom: Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard
MTS Mysteries of Time & Spirit
OFF O Fortunate Floridian!
SL Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft
Other Works Cited
Elliot, Jeffrey M. (1983). Pulp Voices; or Science Fiction Voices #6: Interviews with Pulp Magazine Writers and Editors. San Bernadino, CA: Borgo Press.
Josh, S. T. (2010). A Weird Writer in Our Midst: Early Criticism of H. P. Lovecraft. NY: Hippocampus Press.
Moskowitz, Sam (1967). Seekers of Tomorrow. NY: Ballantine Books, Inc.
______________ (1980). “Some Thoughts on C. L. Moore” in A. Langley Searles (ed.), Fantasy Commentator vol. 4, no. 2
______________ (1983). “The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales 1924 to 1940” in Jim van Hise (ed.) Sword & Sorcery #13.
Price, E. Hoffmann (2001). Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
Roark, Byron (ed.) (1976) Chacal #1. Shawnee Mission, KS: The Nemedian Chronicles.
Ross, Jean W. (1982). “CA Interview” in Frances C. Lochler (ed.) Contemporary Authors volume 104. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co.
Shroyer, Frederick (1982). “C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner” in E. F. Bleiler (ed.) Science Fiction Writers 161-167. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Wagner, Karl Edward (ed.) (1989). Echoes of Valor II. NY: Tom Doherty Associates.
Letters from C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow are held at the John Hay Library.
Letter from Forrest J. Ackerman to Mrs. Burnhill, 7 May 1936 in personal collection of the author.
Letter from Forrest J. Ackerman to C. L. Moore, 2 Aug 1938 in personal collection of the author.
With thanks and appreciation for the help of Dave Goudsward and Marcos Legaria.