Thursday, November 11, 2010


 Shambleau is very likely C. L. Moore's most famous story.  It concerns her hero Northwest Smith encountering a weird, un-woman-being called a 'Shambleau' on Mars.  The locals are gathered together in a lynch mob to kill the thing and Smith, being the macho adventurer-dude who thinks with his gun, jumps into the fray to defend what he sees as a fairly defenseless and very feminine victim. 

All het up and ready for a fight, Smith stands up to the mob and instead of having to crack a few heads like he expected, he finds they instead are revulsed, disgusted and incredulous that he's not only come to the shambleau's defense, but that he claims it as his--the shambleau (obviously female) is claimed as some thing--if not exactly someone--that he fully intends to defend personally against the angry mob.  There's something about his taking possession of the shambleau that somehow almost feels like it is bordering on quasi-bestiality more than any trace of atavistic chivalry.  The mob reacts to his declaring that the shambleau is his with confusion, displeasure and outright incredulous disgust.  This scene is important to the overall piece as it allows Moore to evoke a miasmic whiff of potential bestiality and the spectre of miscegenation both and she does it skillfully, making your skin crawl slightly without overtly hammering the point home like HPL might have (Like the Anti-Tarzan Arthur Jermyn or the immigrant riff-raff in Horror at Red Hook or the Call of Cthulhu...just to pick three quick/easy/obvious examples).  In 1933 in the USA it was illegal for mixed-race couples to get married in most, if not all of the states.  The civil rights movement was more than thirty years ahead in the future when Moore wrote this story.  The whole sordid business of race purity doctrines, politics rooted in eugenics and the scientific ethnic cleansing of the populations of Europe and Russia were just getting going.  Sweden, for example maintained race hygiene policies up until the Seventies.  It wasn't just Nazis who were interested in human biology and applying modern agricultural techniques to human beings.  But that's a very loaded and very tangential area, so we'll just skirt by it this time out.  For our purposes, it's enough, for now, to simply keep in mind that racism was very much part and parcel of nearly everything back in the Thirties and the notion of half-human races of semi-aboriginal/quasi-mulatto (pseudo-quadroon?) hybrids and half-breeds out amongst the periphery of civilization was fairly commonplace throughout early science fiction.  It wasn't just Edgar Rice Burroughs who had the local humanoid egg-laying aliens turn out to be physically (and reproductively) compatible with the good, hearty stock of terran humanity.  It also didn't start with Roddenberry's ultra-famous space-satyr Captain Kirk who left a trail of his seed across dozens of worlds either.

Back to C. L. Moore and Shambleau.  After Smith rescues the shambleau from the angry mob he leads the thing back to his rooms.  He acts in the heat of the moment and doesn't really think about what he's doing, he just spontaneously comes to the defense of a frightened female in distress.  He's a slave of his glands, and his upbringing, which is very clearly an idealized form of noble chauvanism.  He saw a pseudo-woman in trouble and leaped into the fray to protect her.  Standard operating procedure.  She might have been an axe-murderer for all he knew, but that doesn't stop Smith.  It's not until they get a moment away from the threat of mob violence that it finally occurs to Smith what he has done.  Maybe, just maybe the creature exerted some influence upon his mind or his nervous system to get him to come to her aid, but Moore is cagey and never reveals that detail.  We're left with the impression that Smith is impulsive and rash and that he tends to leap without looking, a real daredevil, devil-may-care sort of vagabond adventurer.  The kind of guy who gets himself into sticky situations that are fun to read about.  He's definitely not an accountant who lives at home with his mother, six cats and a host of neuroses and allergies.

He examines the shambleau and it's not what he was expecting at all, not that he was really expecting anything at all...though he did realize that the thing is female and that triggered his chivalric impulse...or was it something a bit more carnal in nature?  The subtle allure of the shambleau seems to co-mingle both an almost pheromonal aspect with a vaguely mesmeric come-hither gaze, making it a truly effective femme fatale.  Moore describes the shambleau's eyes as:
"They were frankly green as young grass, with slit-like, feline pupils that pulsed unceasingly, and there was a look of dark, animal wisdom in their depths -- that look of the beast which sees more than man."
Then it gets slightly more racy as Smith looks at the thing that he has rescued and thinks to himself:
"After all, she was no more than a pretty brown girl-creature from one of the many half-human races peopling the planets."
Yep.  A pretty brown girl-creature.  A grateful female from one of the obscure half-human races that were to be found all over the backwater regions of various other planets, the vaguely humanoid minority underclass beings who didn't have any real, formal place in society.  And hey, she was already partly human, so someone else already committed the really unpardonable crime of mixing the blood, of miscegenation, previously, thus it wasn't anywhere near as bad as that were Smith to consider relations with this fragile-seeming, obviously persecuted and oh so vulnerable female with the smooth, sweet brown skin...if Moore missed any opportunity to pile on the racial/sexual innuendo and erotic implications in this encounter, it wasn't for lack of trying.

Moore deftly and skillfully evokes eroticism without stooping to blatant Romance Novel language nor by hitting the reader over the head with it, she's very sly and stealthy and subtle--just like a shambleau would be--and she builds up the hints and clues and implications like a net of incense smoke in moonlight, never quite coming out and saying it, but then lingering long enough to let the idea of what she's intimating sink in almost osmotically, like a text-borne drug or the luminous malevolence of the unforgettable eyes of Florence Marley in the classic 1966 space-vampire movie Queen of Blood--featuring one of the most shambleau-like movie monsters so far.  But of course the vampiric-Queen is green rather than brown...and she's a blood-drinker not a vitality draining addictive co-dependent...but you can't have everything.  The trailer is right below:

If you're interested, you can watch the entire movie (cut up into parts) of Queen of Blood at YouTube.  It's a bit dated, but still one of the better space-vampire movies, and like I said, the vampiric Queen comes pretty close to being a shambleau.  At least as close as I've seen so far.

"She had risen soundlessly. He turned to face her, sheathing his gun and stared at first with curiosity and then in the entirely frank openness with which men regard that which is not wholly human. For she was not. He knew it at a glance, though the brown, sweet body was shaped like a woman's and she wore the garment of scarlet—he saw it was leather—with an ease that few unhuman beings achieve toward clothing. He knew it from the moment he looked into her eyes, and a shiver of unrest went over him as he met them. They were frankly green as young grass, with slit-like, feline pupils that pulsed unceasingly, and there was a look of dark, animal wisdom in their depths—that look of the beast which sees more than man."
Frank openess.  Brown, sweet body.  She has a body that is blatantly shaped like a woman's.  Clingy red leather.  You can almost hear a porn movie guitar in the background. That there 'shiver of unrest' is a nice touch.  Does anyone doubt that Mister Smith has wood at this point?  But alas, Moore is too refined to refer to her male protagonist experiencing a boner.  It was a simpler, less vulgar time that she was writing for, not like today where we'd get way too much in the way of graphic description with nothing left to the imagination.

And it is in the imagination that Moore's shambleau works her feral-erotic black magic best.
"There was no hair upon her face—neither brows nor lashes, and he would have sworn that the tight scarlet turban bound around her head covered baldness. She had three fingers and a thumb, and her feet had four digits apiece too, and all sixteen of them were tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat's. She ran her tongue over her lips—a thin, pink, flat tongue as feline as her eyes—and spoke with difficulty. He felt that that throat and tongue had never been shaped for human speech."
She ain't from around here.  She's a stranger in these parts, much like Smith himself.  The pseudo-cat's claws make her oh so slightly more dangerous, yet they also hint at a cat-in-heat, perhaps...the thin, pink tongue likewise reinforces the symbolism and is another very sensual cue or hint.  The creature might be not-quite-human, but she's not shy and very possibly aroused and you know that Smith is thinking impure, immodest thoughts.
"Not—afraid now," she said softly, and her little teeth were white and polished as a kitten's.
"What did they want you for?" he asked her curiously. "What have you done? Shambleau . . . is that your name?"
"I—not talk your—speech," she demurred hesitantly.
"Well, try to—I want to know. Why were they chasing you? Will you be safe on the street now, or hadn't you better get indoors somewhere? They looked dangerous."
"I—go with you." She brought it out with difficulty.
"Say you!" Smith grinned. "What are you, anyhow? You look like a kitten to me."
"Shambleau." She said it somberly.
"Where d'you live? Are you a Martian?"
"I come from—from far—from long ago—far country—"
"Wait!" laughed Smith. "You're getting your wires crossed. You're not a Martian?"
She drew herself up very straight beside him, lifting the turbaned head, and there was something queenly in the pose of her.
"Martian?" she said scornfully. "My people—are—are—you have no word. Your speech—hard for me."
"What's yours? I might know it—try me."
She lifted her head and met his eyes squarely, and there was in hers a subtle amusement—he could have sworn it.
"Some day I—speak to you in—my own language," she promised, and the pink tongue flicked out over her lips, swiftly, hungrily.
One thing leads to another and before you can say 'I told you so' in ancient Venusian, Smith becomes the shambleau's victim/lover/addict.  She's some sort of worm-haired medusa/vampire/lamia creature, one of a species that is very, very old and exceptionally well-traveled, and very well acquainted with humanity.  She also feeds on human souls in a highly erotically-charged manner that leaves her victims feeling all sorts of guilt, shame.  It affects them very deeply and makes them feel very, very dirty...and quite desperate to do it all over again, despite it being (eventually/ultimately) lethal. In fact, if Smith's partner Yarol hadn't come looking for him when he did, Smith would have wound up completely drained and left behind like some sort of dessicated junkie-husk that the shambleau shamelessly cast off like the once-shiny wrapper of a yummy soul candy bar. 

Yarol is familiar with shambleau, or at least recognizes the thing and the danger it poses, and he kills her without any remorse or hesitation.  To him the shambleau is poisonous vermin, not any sort of half-human paramour.  Smith doesn't really recover from his addiction to the shambleau.  Instead he's left wondering where he might find another shambleau, despite (eventually) promising to try to kill any other shambleaus he might encounter on the spot.  Ha. What's more horrifying, a soul-sucking medusa-vampire woman-thing loose on Mars, or a man who admits his vulnerability, sexual addiction and feelings of violation after having been fed upon by said medusa-vampire on Mars in a story penned in 1933?  Ouch.  The horror.

Shambleau is a fascinating story, not just for the cowboy style space opera aspects, or the deftly merged atmospheric horror and space fantasy tropes, but for the way that Moore takes a seemingly simplistic space western into the dark heart of mythology and human sexuality in a way that's still a bit shocking and thought provoking today and she manages it without being really blatant about it.

That's some damn fine writing.

H. P. Lovecraft cobbled together his Yog Sothery / Cthuluhu Mythos out of his perceived need to come up with new forms with which to convey horror as the old stand-bys such as vampires, werewolves, etc. were ridiculous, ineffective and just too old fashioned to be of much use any more.  He discusses this in his voluminous correspondence and in his essays.  The old critters of the night just aren't scary to modern people in the way that they once were.  Look at Twilight etc. and you can see the apotheosis of vampires and werewolves who've fallen from being terrifying figures of dread and horror to being cartoonish parodies of their former selves suited for being soap opera sex objects, teen angst magnets, goth superheroes or literary devices for tackling the very meaningful issues of contemporary whatever. Lovecraft substituted gelatinous alien gods, bizarre geometries, hackneyed poetry and gurgling inbreeders, not to mention buzzing interplanetary fungi or hillbilly cannibals (amongst a few dozen other innovations) for the tired old lycanthropes and stylishly groomed undead.

But wait a minute.

The vampire, lamia, medusa thing is old stuff.  It goes way back.  By transposing it to Mars, Moore managed to revitalize a synthesis of various aspects of the old myths and accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making it work here-and-now.  In her skillful hands, Moore makes the vampiric-medusa-lamia-werewoman thing relevant, creepy and horrifically effective all over again...which kind of flies in the face of HPL's whole argument.


But is the horror inherent in Shambleau more in regards to the creature, or to Smith's psychological violation and his shame over his total surrender to its foul, lurid, and very much erotic feeding upon his soul?  Or in his realization that given half a chance he would very likely succumb to another shambleau voluntarily, eagerly, like an addict?  Wow. That's a very intimate kind of horror, even if it partakes of certain HPL-ish 'cosmic' aspects and takes place both in the future and on another planet. 

It really would have been something to have had the final Northwest Smith story dealing with him facing off against another shambleau.  How would he have reacted/responded?  That one interaction would have summed the guy up better than just about anything else he could ever have done or said.

As it is, we're lucky that Smith's stories aren't all about his obsessive and unrelenting search for another shambleau.  But it could easily have become a very real sub-plot through all the Northwest Smith stories.  Now that would have been weird, horrific and downright creepy.

Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith (Planet Stories Library)
Shambleau is included in the Paizo/Planet Stories collection Northwest of Earth, which is definitely one of their best offerings to date.  Like Gemma Files of Fearzone.com said in her review/blurb for the book; it's a lot like crossbreeding Clark Ashton Smith with Star Wars, only Moore did it originally back in 1933 and it was her first professional sale at that.
The above illustration is from a version of C. L. Moore's Shambleau as illustrated by the one and only Jean-Claude Forest, the creator of Barbarella.  It's available over at the Cool French Comics site.  You can find it here.  Of course the text is in French, but you can always read along in English and look at the pictures as you go.  It's classic stuff.

If you're unclear just who C. L. Moore was, then check out the article on The Women of Space Westerns by N. E. Lilly.  The Wikipedia entry for C. L. Moore is an okay place to get started, the ISFDB site has a bunch of Moore links, and there is a nice profile of her at the Science Fiction Hall of Fame

You can find out more about Jean-Claude Forest's most famous character here, here and here.  Oh, and those rumors about a re-make of the 1968 cult-movie?  Don't hold your breath.  But then again, stranger things have happened...


  1. Every sci-fi movie should have "strange ovum."

    And Dennis Hopper.

  2. Somebody ought to do a supplement for Planet Algol, Labyrinth Lord or maybe Mutant Future (Terminal Space???) called "Strange Ovum," that'd be fun...maybe I'll have to draft-up a random table...

  3. Good review. CL Moore is one of my favorites, and Shambleau is one of her best stories.

  4. @Trey: Thanks! C. L. Moore is/was a great writer. She kicked a** in her day and it's fun to re-read a story from 1933 that's so sneaky and underhanded in it's delivery of real horror without the bombast, gross-out or crudity that is so common now. Northwest Smith is a great character, and I honestly wish that Moore had done the story where Smith runs across one more shambleau and must conquer himself or die an ecstatic, if guilty/shameful death as an addict to the creature's lurid feeding habits...

    Not all monsters are squamous, shaggy or dripping slime...

    And some of the most difficult challenges aren't things most RPGs have tables to roll on...


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