Retro Review: “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing

Weird Tales October 1934As I said a few posts ago, I will be reviewing vintage SFF stories beyond the confines of the Retro Hugos as well, beginning with “Black God’s Kiss”, a sword and sorcery novelette by C.L. Moore that was the cover story of the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and also introduced the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry to the world. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Also trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

“Black God’s Kiss” starts with an iconic and oft imitated scene. The castle of Joiry in a vaguely defined medieval France has just been conquered by a knight called Guillaume. The floor is still covered in blood and bodies, when the master of the castle is brought before Guillaume, still in armour, but with bound hands. Guillaume orders his men to remove the helmet of his defeated foe, only to get the surprise of his life, when his captive is revealed to be an attractive, red-haired woman, Jirel of Joiry. Guillaume is quite delighted by this turn of events and forces a kiss on Jirel. Jirel is considerably less delighted and tries to bite his throat out. The confrontation ends with Guillaume knocking her out.

This opening scene is so iconic that variations of it still show up all across SFF and beyond. Whenever a seemingly male or genderless figure in armour, a spacesuit or motorcycle gear takes off the helmet to reveal an attractive woman shaking long, often red hair (though it must be pointed out that Jirel actually wears her hair short) it’s a callback to this scene.

One of the best known variations on the opening scene of “Black God’s Kiss” may be found in Leigh Brackett’s 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars”. In this story, Eric John Stark finds himself tangling with an axe-wielding Martian warlord named Ciaran, whose face is hidden behind a black helmet Ciaran never takes off. Here, the reveal occurs in the middle of the story when Stark is fighting Ciaran, fully intending to kill his opponent (and with good reason, too, because Ciaran had Stark whipped almost to death). However, Stark wants to see Ciaran’s face first, before he kills his opponent and so he rips off the helmet to reveal a beautiful woman with long red hair. Sadly, the reveal was once again spoiled by Planet Stories cover artist George Rozen. But while Guillaume decks Jirel, after she bites him, this confrontation ends with Ciaran knocking out Stark, when he stands there staring at her dumbfounded. The ending is more optimistic as well, when Stark and Ciaran go off together in what is surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship, even though neither of them is the type for a committed relationship. Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton were friends with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, so I strongly suspect that “Black Amazon of Mars” was a direct response to “Black God’s Kiss”. I reviewed the 1964 expansion of the novella last year for Galactic Journey, but I’ve never reviewed the original. I guess that’s what I’ll be doing next.

Rereading “Black God’s Kiss” for the first time in years, I was struck with how masterfully the opening scene is written. Up to the reveal, Moore uses not a single pronoun and only refers to Jirel as “Joiry’s tall commander”. Pronouns only appear once the helmet comes off. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to read this story in 1934, with no foreknowledge of what was to come. Though unfortunately, interior artist H.R. Hammond spoils the surprise and also manages to put even fewer clothes on Jirel than Margaret Brundage did on the cover. For while Jirel wears a chain mail tunic and greaves in the story itself, Margaret Brundage draws her in lingerie and H.R. Hammond draws her naked altogether, though at least he does get Guillaume’s beard right.

Black God's Kiss interior art

H.R. Hammond’s original interior art for “Black God’s Kiss”

When Jirel comes to again, she finds herself locked up in her own dungeon. However, she doesn’t stay there for long, but knocks out a guard and escapes. Guillaume and his men have passed out in a drunken stupor, so Jirel sneaks back to her private quarters and changes her heavy armour for a lighter chain mail tunic. Then she heads for the castle chapel to see the resident priest Father Gervase.

Gervase is happy to see Jirel alive and free and offers to help her escape the castle. However, Jirel has other ideas. She wants to take revenge on Guillaume and she knows just where to find the weapon that will defeat him, namely beyond the handy portal to the underworld that may be found in the dungeon of Castle Joiry.

Gervase is horrified that Jirel as much as entertains the thought of venturing through the portal. He even threatens to wake Guillaume to stop her, for surely the fate Guillaume has in store for Jirel is kinder than what awaits her beyond the portal. Jirel tells Gervase that she knows exactly what Guillaume is going to do to her. First, he’ll rape her and then he’ll either kill her or sell her into slavery. We also learn that Jirel is no blushing virgin, she’s “not innocent in the ways of light loving”, as she puts it. However, Jirel insists on consent and she won’t let Guillaume force himself upon her. She’d rather destroy him, whatever it takes.

Father Gervase agrees that it would be a shame if Jirel were to be raped, killed or sold into slavery, but there is always absolution and atonement for sex and shame (though why would a rape victim need absolution?) and if she were to be killed, well, there’s always heaven. But if Jirel ventures into the underworld, Father Gervase warns her, that she will forfeit her immortal soul. Jirel, however, values bodily autonomy higher than the integrity of her soul and is determined to put her plan into action. Reluctantly, Father Gervase gives her his blessing.

Contrary to what certain quarters claim, religion, particularly Christian religion, doesn’t play much of a role in golden age pulp SFF, probably because most of the writers were secular Jews or equally secular Christians. During the course of Retro Reviews project, I have only come across two stories, “The Veil of Astellar” by Leigh Brackett and  “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne, where Christianity plays a role. However, the few explicitly Christian works of the era, such as the Space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, usually come from outside the pulp SFF scene. But in American SFF magazines of the golden age, religion – if it is mentioned at all – is either a) a sham, b) for aliens, foreigners or prehistoric people or c) both. Even Weird Tales with its focus on the supernatural contains surprisingly little religious content and you are far more likely to find a reference to Cthulhu than to the Judeo-Christian God in its pages.

Therefore, I was quite surprised to find what is in essence a theological argument in the middle of an early sword and sorcery story. And yes, one can argue that it is nigh impossible to write about Medieval Europe without mentioning religion, but then Jirel’s world is clearly not our version of Medieval Europe and not just because in our world, castles don’t normally come with portals to the underworld in their cellars. It’s also interesting that Gervase thoroughly loses the theological argument he has with Jirel. And considering how frankly misogynist Gervase’s point is – “Never mind bodily autonomy, you’ll be given absolution, if you’re raped, and you’ll go to heaven, if you’re killed.” – I wonder whether this scene wasn’t a sly commentary on the misogyny of the Catholic church.

After her argument with Father Gervase, Jirel does venture into the underworld. We learn that she and Gervase found the secret passage that leads there years before and that Gervase ventured in further than Jirel and apparently saw something terrible there, but won’t say what. But when Jirel first goes down a strange corkscrew slide that seems to be made for giant worms or serpents rather than humans (which begets the question what became of those serpents and do they still live in the cellar of castle Joiry?) and then creeps through a pitch-dark passage, she initially sees nothing, but finds that she cannot go any further, because something is holding her back. Jirel realises that what’s holding her back is the crucifix around her neck, so she takes it off (more religious symbolism) and suddenly finds herself standing in a dreamlike world under strange stars.

Jirel’s journey through the strange world in which she finds herself makes up the bulk of the novelette. The things she encounters there include brooks that murmur to themselves in what almost sounds like a language, “small, blind, slavering things with clashing teeth” that assault Jirel, faceless misty women who hop like frogs through the swamp, a herd of blind white stallions that race across the land, while calling out women’s names, a tower made of light, inside of which Jirel encounters a mirror image of herself, a lake full of fallen stars, an invisible bridge and finally a temple on an island where the titular black god resides.

After the theological argument outlined above and the medieval trappings, I at least would have expected a more traditional version of the Christian idea of hell. And indeed, Jirel remarks at one point that this is what she expected as well. But instead, the world Jirel must transverse to gain her weapon against Guillaume bears more resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands than to any Christian depiction of hell.

Now Lovecraft’s influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre is well documented, but often considered to be limited mainly to the cosmic horror aspect. However, Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle was just as much of an influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre as the Cthulhu Mythos. Because sword and sorcery is chock full of journeys through strange and perilous dreamworlds. Pretty much every single Jirel of Joiry story features Jirel travelling through strange dimensions, much to the frustration of those who prefer their sword and sorcery with more swordfighting and fewer magical worlds. But it’s not just Jirel either. Robert E. Howard’s heroes, most notably Kull, occasionally found themselves in strange dreamlike worlds as well. So did Elak of Atlantis, a sword and sorcery hero created by C.L. Moore’s husband-to-be Henry Kuttner. And Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have several adventures in the Shadowlands, where Death resides (and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet their murdered first loves Vlana and Ivrian), as well as under the sea and in other strange realms. They also travel into the parallel worlds accessed through the cave of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes (one of which is our world) and battle the interdimensional Mad Men known as the Devourers in “Bazaar of the Bizarre”. So travel to strange realms is as much an integral part of the sword and sorcery genre as swordfights and physical action, barbarians and scantily clad women, evil sorcerers and various cosmic horrors.

Jirel’s journey into the hellish dreamworld culminates in a temple on an island in a lake full of fallen stars, wherein the titular black god resides. This god is not a tentacled monstrosity like Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep, but a one-eyed sexless statue of black stone whose lips are pursed for a kiss. Much as I love the work of Margaret Brundage, her cover illustrations for Weird Tales are usually vague interpretations of the stories they’re meant to illustrate. But the cover for “Black God’s Kiss” is a very accurate representation of the statue of the black god, even if Jirel does not wear lingerie in the story and her sword is nowhere to be seen.

Once Jirel finally reaches the temple, she kisses the statue, driven by a strange compulsion. After the kiss, she feels a cold, heavy weight on her soul. She also experiences a bout of panic and runs back the way she came. Up the this point, Jirel has experienced the strange dreamworld wherein she finds herself only in the dark, but now the sky is lightening. Jirel runs faster in the belief that if she sees the strange land by daylight, she will go mad. It a race against the sun, but Jirel makes it back to the passage that leads to the castle of Joiry just in time, retrieves her crucifix and climbs up the spiralling passage that leads to the dungeons of Joiry.

Jirel notices that there is light at the end of the passage, where it was dark before, but is too weary and too depressed by the heavy weight on her soul that the kiss implanted in her to be particularly bothered about that. She thinks it’s Father Gervase waiting for her, for he is the only other person who knows that the portal exists and where Jirel was planning to go.

But when Jirel staggers out of the passage, visibly ill and weakened from the effects of the black god’s kiss, she finds herself faced not just with Father Gervase, but also with Guillaume and his torch-bearing men-at-arms, which begets the question just how did Guillaume know where to find Jirel, when the only two people who know about the portal to the underworld in the dungeon of the castle of Joiry are Gervase and Jirel herself? Did Guillaume torture the truth out of Gervase? Or did Gervase wake Guillaume, as he threatened to do during his theological argument with Jirel, and tell him where Jirel has gone?

The story itself never answers this question and Jirel herself never asks it, probably because she is too far gone by the time she emerges from the passage. As a matter of fact, Jirel is actually glad to see Guillaume, because that will make her vengeance so much easier. And so she staggers towards him, flings her arms around him and kisses him.

Guillaume is triumphant, because he thinks he’ll finally get what he wants. But no one in this story gets what they want except maybe the black god of the underworld. And so Jirel passes on the black god’s deadly gift to Guillaume via the kiss. Jirel revives, while Guillaume turns stiff and grey and finally dies, but not without first realising  exactly what is happening to him.

Now it should be Jirel’s turn to be triumphant. Except that she isn’t, for the moment that Guillaume collapses dead on the floor of the dungeon, she realises that she didn’t hate him after all, like she thought, but was attracted to him and that the emotions she experienced were lust, not hate. By the sequel “Black God’s Shadow”, Jirel has convinced herself that she was in love with Guillaume and that he is the only man she’ll ever love, but Jirel, no matter how much I like her, has no idea what love is.

And so Jirel kneels by Guillaume’s side, crying, until Father Gervase takes her away. Amazingly, Guillaume’s men-at-arms do nothing, even though Jirel just slew their commander with a sorcerous kiss.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore“Black God’s Kiss” is a classic sword and sorcery story, but it’s also a highly disturbing story and it becomes even more disturbing, the more you think about it. When I first read the story many years ago, I had the same reaction that many people have to the story. Yes, Guillaume is a jerk with zero respect for consent, but isn’t murdering him by magic a little extreme? Wouldn’t just decking him and throwing him and his followers into the castle moat be a more appropriate response to an unwanted kiss?

However, let’s not forget that the pulp magazines, even the more risqué ones like the Spicy line, still had to play coy with the subject of sex, lest they be subject to censorship and outright bans. Quite often, this dancing around the subject of sex led to some truly disturbing moments such as a woman getting raped to death by orang-utans – thankfully off-page – in an issue of The Spider or a scene from a story in a 1937 issue of Spicy Mystery, in which the narrator lovingly describes the orgasmic twitching and squirming of an attractive woman – as she is executed in the electric chair. And as if that wasn’t disturbing enough, that scene is also illustrated in the interior art by Joseph Szokoli.

In spite of Margaret Brundage’s erotic covers, Weird Tales was a lot tamer than the Spicy pulps, though positively risqué by the standards of pulp SFF. Astounding/Analog was so prudish that Anne McCaffrey was thrilled to have snuck a sex scene past John W. Campbell in her 1969 story “A Womanly Talent” – a sex scene that was so tame that it barely registered when I first read the story in question as a teenager some twenty years later. Though Anne McCaffrey wasn’t the first to have snuck a sex scenes past Campbell. Other authors did it as well, including C.L. Moore herself in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner. And even though the covers of Planet Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories are full of bug-eyed monsters threatening to do interesting things to scantily clad women, the most erotic thing found behind those lurid covers are euphemistic descriptions of the female form.

Weird Tales is unique among the SFF pulps, because sex does happen in its pages on occasion and not just in the missionary position and between married couples either. And so Jirel is no blushing virgin and “not innocent in the ways of light loving”, as she admits to Father Gervase who must have heard some very interesting confessions from her. Jirel also has no illusions what Guillaume will do to her, namely rape her and then either kill her or sell her into (sexual) slavery. Not to mention that Guillaume did slay her men-at-arms – in the famous opening scene, Moore explicitly describes the dead bodies and blood on the floor of the throne room. So from Jirel’s point-of-view, killing Guillaume before he can rape and/or kill her is perfectly justifiable self-defence.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreHowever, I’d also argue that the forced kiss at the beginning of the story is not just sexual assault, but a stand-in for an actual rape that Moore could not describe in the confines of a 1930s pulp magazine, even a fairly liberal one like Weird Tales. Because Jirel’s reaction to the forced kiss is very much that of a rape survivor. Throughout “Black God’s Kiss” and its sequel “Black God’s Shadow”, Jirel keeps having flashbacks, keeps feeling Guillaume’s arms around her and his mouth pressing down on hers.

The description of the second kiss is also remarkably orgasmic, considering that Jirel is kissing a statue. As for the fatal final kiss, with which Jirel takes out Guillaume, one could read that as a vagina dentata fantasy or an analogue for sexually transmitted diseases, for even though arsphenamine a.k.a. Salvarsan was available since 1909, syphilis was still a dangerous and often deadly disease in the 1930s. And Guillaume’s fate does overlap with some of the symptoms of syphilis.

So “Black God’s Shadow” is an early example of a rape-revenge story. However, the ending isn’t just disturbing because Jirel kills Guillaume. What makes it even more disturbing is that Jirel realises that she has fallen in lust with the man who assaulted her almost as soon as Guillaume lies dead at her feet. And indeed, Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth explain how much they hate the ending of “Black God’s Kiss” in their review of the story. I hated the ending upon first reading as well, not just because Guillaume was obviously a jerk, but also because Jirel’s attraction to him comes out of nowhere. However, upon rereading the story, I noticed that the hints are there. Guillaume is repeatedly described as magnificent and attractive in scenes which are clearly told from Jirel’s point-of-view.

Besides, Jirel and Guillaume would actually make a pretty good couple, if not for Guillaume’s massive consent issues. Cause they are very similar, both warriors and fighters who love life and intend to live it to the fullest. In fact, I strongly suspect that Leigh Brackett’s “Black Amazon of Mars” is a rewrite of “Black God’s Kiss” with a happy ending, cause Eric John Stark and Ciaran wander off into the Martian sunset together at the end. Interestingly, it is also the only Eric John Stark story that has a “happy for now” ending, cause normally Stark is just as unlucky in love as Moore’s Northwest Smith. And since Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore were friends, it makes sense that they influenced each other.

Jirel de Joiry by C.L. MooreWomen falling in love with their rapists is a very common plot in the romance novels of the so-called “bodiceripper” era (which began with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss almost forty years after “Black God’s Kiss”) and still crops up on occasion, though thankfully much less than it used to. Now rape fantasies are common, but there was also another reason behind the popularity of those “raped into love” stories. For they allowed their authors to write about sex and allowed their heroines to enjoy sex, while still remaining good virtuous women. After all, it wasn’t as if the heroine initiated the sex or even consented, they were forced into having mindblowing, multi-orgasmic sex. The “raped into love” romances of the bodiceripper era eventually faded away as American society became more comfortable with the idea that yes, women do enjoy sex and that this doesn’t make them sluts.

However, unlike the rape-happy bodicerippers of the 1970s, there is no happy ending for anybody in “Black God’s Kiss”. Jirel is heartbroken and Guillaume dies and winds up as a wandering spirit in the hell dimension Jirel visited earlier, as revealed in the sequel “Black God’s Shadow”. And indeed, there are very few happy romantic endings in C.L. Moore’s fiction. Northwest Smith keeps getting entangled with beautiful women, who will inevitably be dead by the end of the story. Jirel usually winds up entangled with men who won’t take “no” for an answer, until Jirel shows them the error of their ways, usually with permanent results. By the end of “The Children’s Hour”, James Lessing cannot even remember his beloved Clarissa. Juille from Moore’s 1943 space opera Judgment Night gets into a relationship with an enemy assassin named Egide. They are both still alive at the end of the novel, which is at least something, though the war that Juille’s and Egide’s people have been waging on each other has destroyed much of the galactic empire that is their home, which is not exactly an optimistic ending either. And indeed, I recall reading somewhere (only I can’t find it now) that C.L. Moore said in one of the few interviews she gave that “love will destroy you in the end” was a core theme of her writing. Her stories, both her solo stories and those she wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner, certainly confirm this.

Jirel of JoiryI have to confess that I’ve always been a bit baffled by C.L. Moore’s tendency to write love stories with disastrous endings, since her own romantic life doesn’t seem to have been unhappy. Her marriage with Henry Kuttner was happy according to all accounts, even if it was cut short by Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958. And even though SFF fandom has nothing nice to say about C.L. Moore’s second husband, largely because Moore stopped writing as soon as she married him and he later declined the SFWA Grand Master honour on her behalf, because C.L. Moore was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, there is no indication that the actual marriage was unhappy.

I recently learned from this blogpost by Bobby Derie quoting from letters that C.L. Moore exchanged with H.P. Lovecraft (as well as from C.L. Moore’s letter of condolence to Robert E. Howard’s father after Howard’s suicide) that C.L. Moore was engaged to a fellow employee at the bank where she worked, when she penned her first stories. In 1936, her fiancé died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in an incident which might have either suicide or an accident while cleaning his gun. This tragedy must certainly have been a blow to C.L. Moore and might well have permanently influenced her views on romantic relationships, except that the stories she wrote before the death of her first fiancé, stories like “Shambleau” or “Black God’s Kiss”, also have a bleak view of romantic relationships. Maybe C.L. Moore was simply a pessimist.

Jirel of JoiryAnother thing which struck me upon rereading “Black God’s Kiss” is how frankly the story talks about sex in an era when that was not at all common. Now most pulp magazines were not as downright prudish as Astounding and its fantasy-focussed sister magazine Unknown, but while romance quite frequently happened in the pages of Planet Stories or Startling Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, those romances were usually chaste. A one paragraph extremely euphemistically described memory of a sex scene in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury earned Planet Stories outraged letters accusing them of publishing pornography.

Compared to this, “Black God’s Kiss” is very direct. Jirel makes it clear that she is not a virgin, that she know what Guillaume wants from her and that she might not even mind, if Guillaume had grasped the concept of consent and that conquering her castle and slaughtering her men doesn’t exactly make Jirel predisposed to like him. Moore’s earlier story “Shambleau” is even more direct, since there is a two page long nigh psychedelic scene of Northwest Smith essentially having tentacle sex with Shambleau. It’s not just those two stories, too, but all of C.L. Moore’s early stories for Weird Tales are suffused with eroticism. For example, the 1935 story “Julhi” begins with Moore lovingly describing every single scar on Northwest Smith’s naked body and he sure has a lot of them. Compare that to the chaste romance described in “The Children’s Hour” ten years later, where the relationship between James Lessing and Clarissa does not seem to go beyond holding hands and taking long walks – which is for the better, lest Lessing accidentally commit paedophilia, considering Clarissa is much younger than she looks.

Now no one will be surprised to find sex in the pages of Weird Tales – just look at those covers. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I was surprised to find so much eroticism in stories written by a woman in her early twenties. Of course, C.L. Moore was in a committed relationship at the time she was writing the Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith stories and people did have premarital sex in the 1930s (my maternal grandmother who was a few years younger than Moore, admitted to having had premarital sex with my grandfather sometime in the late 1930s and she was the most prudish woman imaginable), so she was not necessarily inexperienced. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if the subject matter she wrote about, in a magazine with scantily clad women on the cover at that, was a factor in Moore’s decision to publish her stories under her initials rather than her full name, so she wouldn’t lose her job at the bank.

Jirel of JoiryThe Jirel of Joiry stories are among the foundational texts of the genre now known as sword and sorcery, making C.L. Moore one of the pioneers of the genre, along with Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber with H.P. Lovecraft as a kind of honorary grandfather (sorry). Nonetheless, the Jirel stories tend to get less attention than those of the male founding fathers of the genre. Even the Conan-wannabe stories by Clifford Ball, Norvell Page’s Prester John stories (Steve J. Wright reviewed one of them recently) and the Elak of Atlantis stories by C.L. Moore’s husband-to-be Henry Kuttner sometimes get more attention than Jirel of Joiry, even though neither are what anybody would consider top-tier sword and sorcery.

And what might the reason for that be? Well, that’s not difficult to determine. A woman writing stories featuring a swordswoman that don’t fit easily into any mould is simply too much for some folks. And indeed, last year a debate broke out whether sword and sorcery was an inherently masculine genre that women cannot write nor want to read. Examples of that debate may be found here, here and here, with counter arguments here and here (some links go to archive.is).

These claims are complete and utter nonsense and easily refuted by looking at the number of women who wrote, provided art for and edited Weird Tales as well as at the number of women who read Weird Tales and wrote letters to the magazine. Angeline B. Adams provides some samples of these letters here and here. And the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s was largely due to the efforts of a woman, Cele Goldsmith-Lalli, editor of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, who gave Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser a new home, introduced John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian and also published the occasional sword and sorcery yarn by Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny and others.

However, the existence of C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry throws a wrench into those claims that’s too big to ignore, because here is a woman who was part of the sword and sorcery genre right from the beginning, a woman who was highly respected by her fellow sword and sorcery writers, a woman who corresponded with Howard and Lovecraft and wound up marrying Henry Kuttner.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreAnd so those who claim that sword and sorcery is an inherently masculine genre throw the whole spectrum of the strategies outlined by Joanna Russ (another woman who wrote sword and sorcery, though she is better remembered for her other work these days) in How to Suppress Women’s Writing at C.L. Moore. “She wrote it, but look what she wrote about” a.k.a. the double standard of content features heavily as does “She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it’s not really art” a.k.a. false categorisation with a dose of “She wrote it, but she had help” (less useful for the Jirel stories, but often deployed to credit the later Kuttner/Moore collaborations solely to Kuttner). And so, the critics in question claim that the Jirel of Joiry stories aren’t really sword and sorcery, because there are too many descriptions of otherworldly realms and not enough swordfighting. Furthermore, Jirel has – gasp – romantic feelings and icky emotions and mourns the man she believes she was in love with. Never mind that Conan mourns Belit and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser mourn Vlana and Ivrian.

Now it seems to me that there is a significant number of sword and sorcery fans who are primarily Conan fans and ignore all other branches of the subgenre, whether it’s the more humorous and more human Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, the Jirel of Joiry stories with their strong emphasis on otherworldly realms, Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories with their not very likeable anti-hero or even Robert E. Howard’s non-Conan stories such as the more philosophical adventures of Kull. But while those sword and sorcery fans who exclusively enjoy Conan just tend to ignore the existence of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser or Elric, they feel the need to actively deny Jirel due to the character’s and author’s sex.

Another strategy Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is creating a lack of models by downplaying the contributions of female writers and artists. We can very clearly see this strategy at play here, for ignoring and denying C.L. Moore as a founding mother of the sword and sorcery genre makes it easier for certain reactionary forces to claim that women just don’t write sword and sorcery and that there are no sword and sorcery heroines except maybe Red Sonja, a character often credited to Robert E. Howard, but actually created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for the Conan comics, even though Howard did write several female sword and sorcery heroines. But the problem of erasing C.L. Moore’s contributions to speculative fiction goes even deeper, because Moore also created the archetype of the space rogue with her other famous character Northwest Smith. All latter day space rogues, from Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark via Han Solo to Malcolm Reynolds owe their existence to Northwest Smith. And even today, the space rogue is a character more likely to be written and championed by women SFF writers. Even Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, though both created by men, were written by women (one of them Leigh Brackett) in some of their most memorable appearances.

Black Gods and Scarlett Dreams by C.L. MooreThese discussions are not new, either, but were already going on in The Eyrie, the letter column of Weird Tales, in the 1930s. In the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, one Bert Felsburg from the unfortunately named Frackville, Pennsylvania, complains about a perceived lack of action in “Black God’s Kiss” and hopes that C.L. Moore will kill off Jirel soon. However, Bert Felsburg also has nothing but praise for Moore’s other character, Northwest Smith, as well as for Robert E. Howard’s Conan and declares that in all the pulp magazines he reads, no other characters appeal to him as much as Northwest Smith and Conan. I tried to find out more about Bert Felsburg, but all that remains of him is that one frequently quoted letter to Weird Tales, a classified ad in an amateur radio magazine and an entry in a genealogy site, which suggests that he was born in 1920, i.e. he was fourteen years old when he wrote that letter, which very much puts his views into perspective.

One Fred Anger from Berkeley, California, was also not a fan of “Black God’s Kiss”, which he called the poorest C.L. Moore story yet. One Alvin Earl Perry from Rockdale, Texas, was not wowed by “Black God’s Kiss” either, but does like Jirel and would love to see more of her. Ernest H. Ormsbee from Albany, New York, not only misgenders C.L. Moore (but then, it was not yet widely known that Moore was female and her future husband Henry Kuttner would address her as Mr. Moore as late as 1936), but also declares that “Shambleau” was the only story by her that he loved (to be fair, it is a good one) and that her other stories were just a little too weird for him, “like the dreams of an opium eater”.

However, “Black God’s Kiss” was also voted the most popular story in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and attracted its share of fans such as Jack Darrow from Chicago as well as such famous names as Manly Wade Wellman and Robert Bloch, who briefly commented “Conan vile, C.L. Moore splendid”. The “vile” Conan story was “People of the Black Circle”, by the way, the second part of which appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as “Black God’s Kiss”. One M.A. Reynolds of Glendale, California (not Mack Reynolds, the science fiction author and Astounding regular – the details don’t fit) declares themself a C.L. Moore fan and also heaps praise upon “The Three Marked Pennies” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, which appeared in the August 1934 issue and must have been very popular indeed judging by the amount of praise it received several months later, which means I should probably review it sometime. Reynolds also declares that he wouldn’t mind if Weird Tales published nothing but stories by Mary Elizabeth Counselman and C.L. Moore. So much for “Weird Tales readers didn’t like stories by women.”

Another famous name, Virginia Kidd, then thirteen years old, was also enthusiastic about “Black God’s Kiss” and demands to know how Jirel and Guillaume would get back together (I’m afraid she was disappointed on that account). Young Virginia Kidd also had nothing but praise for Margaret Brundage’s covers. Nor was she the only female Margaret Brundage fan writing to The Eyrie that month. One Mary A. Conklin of Coldwater, Michigan, also praises the beautiful ladies in Margaret Brundage’s cover (though interestingly she was unaware that Brundage was a woman) and admits a particular liking for red-headed and brunette models. Indeed, the only people who had issues with Margaret Brundage’s covers being too sexy were male readers.

Mary A. Conklin also praises “Black God’s Kiss” and declares that Jirel is the kind of woman she’d like to be herself. And just to prove that Conan and Jirel were not rivals and that female readers of Weird Tales did like the Cimmerian barbarian, too, Mary A. Conklin calls Conan one of her favourites and hopes that Robert E. Howard won’t have Conan settle down and marry, because she enjoys Conan’s adventures with the lovely ladies. Maybe it’s just me, but I do get the impression that Ms. Conklin was not entirely straight. I did try to find out more about this Mary A. Conklin, but none of the women with that name I found online could have been the reader from Coldwater, Michigan, who wrote several letters to Weird Tales in the 1930s.

Many of the stories I enjoyed as a teenager and revisited for the Retro Reviews project have suffered a visit from the suck fairy in the meantime. “Black God’s Kiss” is the opposite, because I actually enjoyed the story more the second time around. It’s still a disturbing story and less beloved than it should be, because both the story and its heroine don’t fit into any mould. For better or for worse, Jirel is unique among her peers.

I guess I should review the sequel “Black God’s Shadow” next or maybe “Black Amazon of Mars”, Leigh Brackett’s take on the same material. I’ll also revisit Northwest Smith in the near future.

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2 Responses to Retro Review: “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing

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