Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore

Catherine Lucille Moore wrote six tales featuring her sorcery-fighting swordsmistress Jirel of Joiry, published in Weird Tales between October 1934 (“Black God’s Kiss”) and April 1939 (“Hellsgarde”). The second, “Black God’s Shadow”, appeared in the December 1934 issue alongside Robert E Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the story in which a crucified Conan bites back at a vulture.

Weird Tales, October 1934

Margaret Brundage cover to Weird Tales, showing Jirel of Joiry and the Black God

Impetuous, fearless and undaunted by danger, Jirel shares many characteristics with her sword and sorcery stablemate, but her stories are nothing like Conan’s. In each adventure, having been set up as a dynamic “female warrior queen and spitfire of the fifteenth century” (as Sam Moskowitz puts it), Jirel is usually plunged straight into the sort of situation where her physical prowess and combat skills count for nothing. The classic Jirel of Joiry tale, after a brief and deftly sketched actionful introduction, has her being transported to another realm, usually a highly surreal one, where magic and dream-logic replace the straightforward adventure-style jinx you expect from sword & sorcery. This makes Jirel something of a puzzle. Whereas Conan cuts through the pretensions (and the major arteries) of sorcerers, priests and eldritch things with brute force and barbaric common sense, the situations Jirel finds herself in can usually only be solved by fighting fire with fire — by finding some ally, or some weapon, as magically powerful and dangerous as the opponent she’s facing. This means her adventures can feel somewhat arbitrary, bookended as they are by magics that both get her into a fix and out of it. But it’s between these points Jirel’s real heroism comes to the fore, and it’s heroism of a strange sort, though one she shares with most 20th century pulp-style heroes from Conan to James Bond. Although, when you think of, say, Conan or Bond as heroes, you think of their way with a sword, a gun, or a fist, or their general ability at taking down a villain, the point at which these pulpsters really prove their heroism is usually a moment in which they’re being helplessly tortured or tormented — think of Conan nailed to that cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, or Bond making his way through Dr No’s torturous and tortuous obstacle course on his way to a date with a giant squid (or the line everyone remembers from Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”). Moore seems to have refined this moment to make it the centrepiece — almost the entire tale, in fact — of her Jirel stories. As Moorcock & Cawthorn put it in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books:

“C. L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil. This is achieved to a great degree by her descriptions of the distress and degradation evinced by its victims…”

Jirel of Joiry“Black God’s Kiss” starts breathlessly, with Jirel of Joiry already captured and being brought before her gloating conqueror Guillaume, who has just seized control of Castle Joiry. Delighted to find Joiry’s commander is a woman, he forces a kiss, then has her sent to a dungeon. Jirel, fired up with the need for revenge, travels to another dimension to find a means of getting her own back. Fortunately, Castle Joiry has a House on the Borderland-style trapdoor in its lowest cellar, a strange corkscrew helter-skelter passage to a black-lit world of nightmare visions. The bulk of the story is Jirel’s combined horror and awe as she crosses this land in search of a weapon to revenge herself on Guillaume. She witnesses a stream of weird and frightening sights, but at no point is she required to do anything but witness them:

“Half-way across, she saw one of the white blotches approaching her with slow, erratic movements. It bumped along unevenly, and at first she thought it might be inanimate, its approach was so indirect and purposeless. Then it blundered nearer, with that queer bumpy gait, making sucking noises in the ooze and splashing as it came. In the starlight she saw suddenly what it was, and for an instant her heart paused and sickness rose overwhelmingly in her throat. It was a woman — a beautiful woman whose white bare body had the curves and loveliness of some marble statue. She was crouching like a frog, and as Jirel watched in stupefaction she straightened her legs abruptly and leaped as a frog leaps, only more clumsily, falling forward into the ooze a little distance beyond the watching woman. She did not seem to see Jirel. The mud-spattered face was blank. She blundered on through the mud in awkward leaps…”

This realm Jirel has slipped into seems rather Freudian — that degraded woman hopping frog-like through a swamp could be an image of Jirel’s shame at Guillaume’s treatment, but also a sort of reversed fairy tale transformation, with the dark anti-prince kissing our human heroine and turning her into a frog.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel travels to the centre of this weird realm, and finds a one-eyed statue of the Black God. Kissing it (as she feels compelled to do), she feels “something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words” enter her. Returning to her own world, she repays her degradation by passing Guillaume the “dreadful, cold bleakness” of the Black God’s kiss — and then, in a very un-Conan-like twist, realises too late that beneath the humiliation and anger she felt attracted to this powerful man. The second tale, “Black God’s Shadow”, sees her trying to right this wrong, and returning to that weirdly black-lit world to free the dead Guillaume.

My main reaction to the Jirel stories is to find them, on the one hand, genuinely weird and wildly imaginative, and on the other, turgid with so many internalised battles with fiercely-felt but abstract emotional tussles, that they were a combination of fantastic thrills and solid drudgery to read. It’s perhaps unfair to quote a sample passage out of context, but this is the sort of thing I mean, when Jirel finds the statue of the Black God:

“Gradually the universal focusing of lines began to exert its influence upon her. She took a hesitant step forward without realising the motion. But that step was all the dormant urge within her needed. With her one motion forward the compulsion closed down upon her with whirlwind impetuosity. Helplessly she felt herself advancing, helplessly with one small, sane portion of her mind she realised the madness that was gripping her, the blind, irresistible urge to do what every visible line in the temple’s construction was made to compel…”

The passion behind even these abstract passages is undoubtable, but it can also feel so much like wading through mud, at times, having to read through so much deeply felt but abstract prose. Sam Moskowitz puts it best, I think, in his chapter on Moore in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“The climax of each story found Northwest Smith [Moore’s other series hero] or Jirel of Joiry in the formless haze of spiritual battle with the unknown. The plot situations were rarely solved by a logical sequence of events, but instead by a burst of rhetorical hypnotism.”

A young C L Moore, from the Teller of Weird Tales blog

A young C L Moore, from the Tellers of Weird Tales blog

Jirel’s adventures feel shamanic. She passes from this world to another, to face some magical evil in a world where none of the logic of this one applies — and so none of the usual action-story resolutions can be applied, either. Perhaps it’s wrong-footing to think of them as sword & sorcery because, although the Jirel of Joiry tales do include swords and sorcery, the swords and the sorcery almost never meet. In fact, the thing the Jirel stories remind me of most are fever dreams — something I thought of only when I read that, when she was young, Moore suffered from ill-health and had to spend a lot of time bed-bound, which is where she developed her love of imaginative stories.

It’s the flashes of (often horrific) imagination for which I’ll remember these tales — as at the beginning of perhaps the best of them, “Hellsgarde”, where Jirel approaches a mist-shrouded castle, expecting it to be abandoned, and finds herself confronted with a small troop of motionless soldiers. Then she realises: the guards are dead, propped into a standing position by having their own spears driven through their throats. She rides gently between them, then:

“Was that motion among the ghastly guard? Her heart leaped to her throat and she gripped the saddle between nervous knees with a sudden reflex action that made the horse shudder. For one of the men in the row before her was slipping silently toward the flagstones. Had the spear-butt slid on the bloody tiles? Had a breeze dislodged his precarious balance? There was no breeze. But with a curious little sigh from collapsing lungs he folded gently downward to his knees, to his side, to a flattened proneness on the stones. And a dark stream of blood trickled from his mouth to snake across the pavement as he lay there… Only in a nightmare could such things happen.”

Only in a nightmare, or in the stories of C L Moore.


Unknown Magazine

Cover to the first issue of Unknown Magazine (March 1939), art by H W Scott

The fantasy, SF and horror pulps remembered most fondly are those that made a name for publishing a particular type of story — often a specific sub-genre, rather than a broad genre. Weird Tales, for instance, is most remembered for Lovecraftian-style “weird” horror, even though it published a lot more besides, including the more traditional type of ghost story, and sword & sorcery. Unknown, which was for a brief time Weird Tales’ only serious rival in the world of fantasy pulps, was better known for a much lighter type of tale, one so characteristic to the magazine that it became known as the “Unknown school” (though it had had its precedents in the likes of humorous fantasists F Anstey, Thorne Smith, and Richard Garnett). As Weird Tales came first, Unknown defined itself against the older pulp: “No more houses of dripping blood, grinning harridans with butcher knives, bodies dangling from razor-bladed rafters”, as Ray Bradbury wrote in a letter to Unknown. Isaac Asimov characterised WT as “grim” as opposed to Unknown’s “impudent” — “with the accent on the imp”.

There are a few factors which gave Unknown its specific character, but chief among them was its editor, John W Campbell Jr, who supposedly started the magazine as a means to publish stories which had been submitted to Astounding, but which didn’t fit that magazine’s hard-SF style. As a result, a lot of the writers published in Unknown were SF writers with ideas for fantasy stories, and they approached fantasy in a more science-fictional manner. For them, fantasy was something to be confronted with a modern, logical and analytical approach. The most characteristic tales of the “Unknown school” feature an Average Joe confronted by a single instance of the supernatural or magical (rather than being transported to an entire other world, for instance), usually with humorous results.

The Unknown, edited by D R Bensen, Pyramid Books 1963

There are a good few examples in The Unknown, a 1963 anthology of stories that appeared in the magazine during its brief life (39 issues in total, from March 1939 to October 1943, when the company’s limited wartime paper allocation was given over entirely to Astounding). Henry Kuttner’s “The Misguided Halo”, for instance, has a young advertising executive mistakenly given a halo by a novice angel, because of a confusion between him (Kenneth Young of Tibbett, North America), and a momentarily-lapsed holy man (Kai Yung of Tibet). Comic shenanigans ensue as Young tries to maintain a normal life despite this holy glow. Similarly, in H L Gold’s “Trouble With Water”, the Average Joe is Herman Greenberg, proprietor of a beachside hotdog & drinks stand, who insults a Water Gnome and is cursed so that “water and those who live in it will keep away from you” — with the result that he cannot wash, or shave, or drink anything but beer, and also (in a momentary boost for his business) cannot be rained upon.

A theme begins to develop, as these average Kenneths and Hermans inevitably go to doctors and psychiatrists for an answer to their problems, only to be dismissed with sedatives, or looked upon as an interesting case for further study, but never actually helped. (The one psychiatrist to star in his own story in The Unknown, in Nelson S Bond’s “Prescience”, actually pursues such an odd case, despite his disinterest, but with disastrous results.) But there is always a solution to be found, and usually it’s by the hero accepting the fantastic situation and working with its own peculiar logic, rather than by trying to attempt any kind of rationalisation. In fact, there are whole subgenres of fantasy which deal with this sort of approach — deal-with-the-devil stories, for instance, one example of which is here, Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”, in which the devil dealt with is a very minor imp with limited powers. Boucher’s hero, Bill Hitchens, is notable for not being an Average Joe, but a scientist, who summons the imp Snulbug to try and make some money to fund his research. Bill’s idea — for the devil to bring him a newspaper from tomorrow, so he can make a profit from its information — has, the imp points out, been tried before, and is limited in its usefulness, but Bill pursues his own (logical) approach to the magical situation, and comes through in the end.

Edd Cartier illustration for Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”

Unknown featured other types of story, of course. Some — such straight horror tales as Manly Wade Wellman’s Poe-versues-Vampire tale “When It Was Moonlight” — are no doubt here because Unknown paid better rates than Weird Tales, and so got the chance to accept or reject them first. Another far more WT-style writer, who got his first professional sale in Unknown, was Fritz Leiber. Unknown published the first five Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, as well as some of Leiber’s Lovecraftian/M R James-inspired ghost and horror stories, including “Smoke Ghost”, which Ramsey Campbell cites as being important for making its ghost a thoroughly integrated part of a modern urban environment. (It’s his Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tale, “The Bleak Shore”, that gets included in The Unknown.)

Even when Unknown folded, the effect of its take on the fantastic lingered. Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (first published in 1953, in F&SF), for instance, has its hero (from our world) defeating giants and dragons by working out the scientific rationale behind their fantastic nature, and his contribution to the first Thieves’ World anthology, “The Gate of the Flying Knives” (in 1979) is resolved by the hero’s use of an abstruse snippet of mathematical knowledge, which Anderson can’t quite hold back from naming, entirely anachronistically. A piece of parchment holds a gateway to another dimension, and to prevent its denizens from chasing through to our world after a heroic escape, the hero gives the parchment a “half twist and brought the edges back together”, meaning it now has only one side:

Air rushed in where the gate had been, crack and hiss. Cappen heard that sound as it were an alien word of incantation: “Möbius-s-s.”


Why I like… Clark Ashton Smith


The first Clark Ashton Smith story I read was “The Empire of the Necromancers“. A friend, not wanting to actually lend me his precious copy of Lost Worlds Volume 1 (the Panther paperback edition with the Bruce Pennington cover), let me read it for the half hour it took him to take a quick trip up to town. I chose to read “The Empire of the Necromancers” because, besides being the first story in the book, it was short enough that I was likely to finish it before he returned and took the book back.

I was instantly — not hooked, but bewildered. I had never read anything like it. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and I think I only managed to retain my readerly equilibrium by telling myself the story’s strangeness must be due to its being written in the 1930s. Having since read a good deal of old & classic fantasy, I still find Clark Ashton Smith’s writing irredeemably strange, and now know it’s not because he belonged to another age, but because he was that timeless, ageless thing, an individual with a genuinely unique imagination — a rare thing, even among what should be the most imaginative group of writers, fantasists. It’s only among the likes of Mervyn Peake and E R Eddison that Clark Ashton Smith really meets his match.

CAS_LW1_frontThe strangeness is all there in “The Empire of the Necromancers”. The story opens in the desert, as we follow two sorcerers, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, as they are exiled from the city of Tinarath for the practice of necromancy. Used to reading sword and sorcery tales in which the sorcerers are the villains, it was strange enough to follow this peculiar pair as if they were the tale’s heroes, but this was merely the first of many strangenesses in Smith’s story. Heading south, the necromancers encounter the skeleton of a horse and its rider, and set about reviving the dead mount to carry one of them. (Such practical use of nefarious power!) Then they continue to Yethlyreom, a vast, dead city, in which centuries of mummified nobility are waiting to be brought back to life to serve Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and to people their undead empire.

(Such names as Tinarath and Yethlyreom, I’d soon learn, were due to the influence of Lord Dunsany, not just on Clark Ashton Smith, but on the entire fantasy field, and only absent from my then-current fantasy reading because it had already become passé to imitate Dunsany’s long, poetic-sounding names. Dunsany, like Poe, was obviously an influence on Smith, but even Dunsany would never have created a necromancer called Sodosma.)

CAS_TalesofZothiqueOnce the two necromancers have their empire up and running, Smith’s story takes an abrupt turn. So far, the necromancers have been the protagonists. Now, we are introduced to a far more Smithian hero, in the shape of Illerio, the last Emperor of Cincor (of which Yethlyreom was the capital). Illerio is an even more surprising hero than the necromancers, because he is dead. Undead, in fact. Raised from oblivion by Mmatmuor and Sodosma, he is just beginning to resent the fact, in his slow-minded way. In snatches, Illerio plots with Hestaiyon, his eldest ancestor among the throngs of reanimatees. A formidable sorcerer in his own day, Hestaiyon remembers a dark secret in the depths of the palace, a door that opens upon a set of steps that descend into an ever deeper darkness. It is through this doorway that the undead emperors of Cincor descend to their second, final, irrevocable death from which no necromancer can recall them — but not before slicing up Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and enchanting their sundered body parts with a magical immortality to ensure they suffer properly for the indignity to which they put the emperors of Cincor.

Normally, I wouldn’t recount the full plot of a story I like so much, as I wouldn’t want to take the pleasure of discovering it from a new reader. But this doesn’t apply to Clark Ashton Smith stories. Once you get to know Smith, you realise that almost all his tales end in the same way: everyone meets their doom. The dead, if resurrected, long to return to death; the living, meanwhile, achieve a frequently arcane, and generally ironic demise. In a sense, there is no story. A Clark Ashton Smith tale starts with a note of doom and continues ever downwards.

Again and again, in story after story, the dead and the living mix, briefly, in their macabre way, then join one another in oblivion. The poetry of his tales — and it is as poetry they are best appreciated — most often lies, macabrely enough, in the manner of that final death. A willing descent into the abyss for Illerio and his ancestors; a drowning in jewels for the greedy Avoosl Wuthoqquan; Christophe Morand returning to the embrace of a life-draining lamia from whom he has just been saved. (Love and death, in Clark Ashton Smith’s world, are frequently inseparable.) There are exceptions — for instance, the alienated human poet Theophilus Alvor finding love in the (five) arms of an equally alienated princess from another planet in “The Monster of the Prophecy” — but most often it is as Fritz Leiber puts it: “I can hardly think of a Smith story, the principal theme of which is not death.”

young_CASEvery writer needs a defining anecdote that sums up their uniqueness. With Smith, it is the fact that he withdrew himself from school and set about educating himself, primarily by reading an unabdridged dictionary all the way through several times, paying particular attention to the etymologies of the words.

Somehow, he remembered it all. Smith’s primary aim was to be a poet. Wilfully anachronistic, he not only set about making a name for himself as a lyric poet in an age that was about to embrace the modernism of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound — and doing so at the boy-genius age of 19 — but also set about making himself a Decadent poet, remotely tagging himself onto the already dying Decadent scene in San Francisco, when European Decadence, as a literary movement, had ceased to be fashionable about twenty years before.

WT_Apr1938And as if being a Decadent poet wasn’t showing enough disdain for the Modern Age, when Smith wrote for the pulps (which he did, prolifically, for about a decade) he wrote what must surely be some of the most uncommercial fiction in the most uncommercial, archaic style, but still managed to become one of Weird Tales‘s most popular regulars, through, I can only conclude, the sheer strangeness of his imagination.

And then, at the height of his success, finding that he didn’t need the money from pulp-writing anymore (he’d had to support his ageing parents, and now both of them were dead), he stopped writing fiction and turned to his new love of rock-carving, producing weird little primitive-looking statuettes with names like “Antehuman Grotesque”, “Lemurian Ghost”, and “Sorcerer Undergoing a Bestial Change”.

And, of course, he returned to poetry.

CAS_LOSmith wrote what is, for me, the greatest of all fantasy poems, the stupendous blank-verse “The Hashish Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil”, with its torrent of dream-visions building to a crescendo of horror, and an ending borrowed from Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There’s also “Nero“, a monologue in which the insane pyromaniac Roman Emperor, watching his city burn, regrets he can’t do the same to the universe itself. Among his shorter lyrics, “Lunar Mystery” has a particularly beautiful word-music, and “Nyctalops” is a good example of Smith’s use of fantasy/horror imagery to achieve an effect of enchanting, unsettling strangeness.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I think it is strangeness that is the key to Clark Ashton Smith. He felt a kinship with his fellow pulp-writer H P Lovecraft (with whom he corresponded from 1922 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937) in the need to capture, whether in fiction, poetry, sculpture or painting (Smith painted weird little scenes of alien plant-life) a glimpse of something utterly otherworldly. But, although he wrote a few Lovecraftian horror tales, and did desire at times to unsettle his readers, Smith was never as bleak in his outlook as the Gent from Providence. For Lovecraft, the otherworldly was terrifying, because it proved the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence. Smith may have been disdainful of the petty endeavours of his own age, but found great beauty and meaning in the strangeness of the otherworldly, in the freedom of his imagination from the merely mundane. He felt:

“…a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra-terrestial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings and stories.” [Letter to HPL, 24th Oct 1930]

Smith’s beloved death, and the world of the dead, was just another realm of the imagination, another otherworldly place in which to achieve the ultimate “escape from the human equation”. [Letter to HPL, 16 Nov 1930]

Ambrose Bierce (who disappeared shortly before Smith entered the San Francisco literary scene) once said, “A jest in the death-chamber conquers by surprise.” Smith, who had a very dry, very dark sense of humour, might well have replied, “But of course it is death itself that is the jest.”

If it is, then only the dead are really in on the joke — the dead, and their fantasist-laureate, Clark Ashton Smith.

(The best place to find out more about Clark Ashton Smith is The Eldritch Dark, including a gallery of his paintings and rock-carvings.)