Recent conversation with a good friend have made it clear to me that I really don't have a good appreciation of the pulp stories of the 30s. Mark is a decade older than me, and it seems to have made a great deal of difference in the reading choices, beyond the most obvious. He recounts the ability to find collections of the great pulp writers, while I have never been exposed to them. Fortunately, Planet Stories, a relatively new publishing house, is seeking to rectify the dearth of attainable collections of some of the great old stories. The first book from Planet Stories that I have read is Black God's Kiss, a collection of the "Jirel of Joiry" stories that Moore published in Weird Tales between 1934 and 1939.
Now, again, in the interest of full discovery, I have to admit that I read most of this book while in vacation in Asheville, at the tremendous Grove Park Inn. For parts of two days I found myself sitting in the lobby of a great old inn, looking out over the mountains of North Carolina as the sun set over them, sitting in a craftsman style leather and wood chair and drinking some beer. The inn was built in 1904, and I realized as I read that it was quite possible that someone could have been sitting exactly where I was in 1934, reading the same story in its original publication in Weird Tales. There was a tremendous sense of appropriateness in my location and occupation as I read. That sense of near time travel was heightened by the tremendous writing I discovered as I read.
The book jacket describes the stories within as fantasy, but they are not the fantasy someone of my post-Tolkien tradition might immediately recognize. It seems to me that after Tolkien was published in paperback in the US, say the mid-60s, the pattern of a band of unlikely heroes questing for a magnificent artifact became the trope for a great deal of the fantasy stories that followed, good or bad. But prior to that, fantasy was more influenced by the stories in Weird Tales, a mix of supernatural and horror along with the traditional fantasy elements. The most readily recognizable example of this kind of writing would be Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, in which sometimes the heroes are lucky to survive and may do so despite their own best efforts. I think one could trace the evolution of this kind of story to a sort of mish-mash between the horror of Lovecraft and the planetary romances of Burroughs transposed to fantasy settings. The result is a usually dense style of writing with descriptions as important if not More so than action.
C.L. Moore typifies this style brilliantly in the stories contained in Black God's Kiss. At first, as I read, I was disappointed that the heroine does very little but survive in the first two stories. Jirel is described as the archetype of martial women, in some ways a shadow of Howard's Red Sonja and perhaps more a model of Sonja's likeness in movies and comics than Sonja herself. But as her career starts out, she is more reactive than the more active heroes modern fantasy generally uses. She is swept about by forces far more powerful than she can imagine, and her visits to another dimension become tours de force, not of swordplay, but of the descriptive power of Moore herself.
Moore uses sometimes florid prose to tell her stories, and it works to tremendous effect. There are a few clunkers in the descriptive passages (I about laughed myself silly when Moore describes Jirel as suffering "the desperation of despair"), but far more often, the passages work tremendously. As I read a few of the best passages to Mrs. Speculator, I discovered that Moore uses a near-poetic language and style in her prose, all at one evocative and descriptive, in the style of old world skalds. It nearly begs to be read aloud.
And over the course of the stories, Jirel herself evolves, becoming more an actor in her own life than just reactionary. By the end of the stories she remains a little flat, but we have seen her in all of her moods, at her best and at her worst. She is a remarkable character, angry and weak all at once, and no man's fool. It's no wonder she may have been one of the most popular characters from Weird Tales (if the cover blurbs are accurate).
Ironically, the only story that doesn't really work is a cross-over between Jirel and one of Moore's other famous characters, Northwest Smith. The set-up for a Middle Ages sword fighter and far-future spaceman coming together in the same story turns out to be far too clunky, and then Smith takes over what ostensibly is a Jirel story, causing Jirel to act remarkably out of the character that the rest of the book takes great pains to illustrate. Given that Planet Stories is putting together a collection of Northwest Stories, it seems obvious to me that this story should have gone in that upcoming book.
Black God's Kiss is a wonderful read, symbolic and archetypal of the best work coming out of Weird Tales. Sadly, however, it merely whets my appetite for writing of this period instead of sating it. I've already ordered the aforementioned Northwest Smith stories, but it just raises the question in my mind....isn't it time someone started reprinting copies of Weird Tales somehow?