The Black Thirst

Thursday , 18, January 2018 9 Comments

‘There are girls here now, in this building, so much lovelier than I that I am humbled to think of them. No mortal man has ever seen them, except the Alendar, and he— is not wholly mortal. No mortal man will ever see them. They are not for sale. Eventually they will disappear. 

‘But the world never knows of these mysteries. No monarch on any planet known is rich enough to buy the loveliness hidden in the Minga’s innermost rooms. It is not for sale. For countless centuries the Alendars of the Minga have been breeding beauty, in higher and higher degrees, at infinite labour and cost— beauty to be locked in secret chambers, guarded most terribly, so that not even a whisper of it passes the outer walls, beauty that vanishes, suddenly, in a breath— like that! Where? Why? How? No one knows. 

‘And it is that I fear. I have not a fraction of the beauty I speak of, yet a fate like that is written for me— somehow I know. I have looked into the eyes of the Alendar, and— I know. And I am sure that I must look again into those blank black eyes, more deeply, more dreadfully…

–“The Black Thirst”, C. L. Moore

In C. L. Moore’s “The Black Thirst”, Northwest Smith is approached in secret by one of the fabled Minga women, a sheltered odalisque from a line of legendary beauties. Vaudir wishes to secure Smith’s services, an unheard of request from a secretive woman of beauty and virtue. Drawn by curiosity, Smith agrees, and meets Vaudir by the Minga castle’s back entrance, risking the wrath of its lord, the Alendar. The lovely Vaudir asks Northwest Smith to help her escape, for, by accident, Vaudir had met her lord’s eyes, and saw something utterly inhuman within his gaze. Now she fears that she will vanish like so many other Minga girls. But by telling him about the knowledge that has damned her, Vaudir recognizes that she has likely killed Smith as well. 

Despite Vaudir’s beauty, it is not her pretty face that suckers Northwest Smith into this caper. He demonstrates his resistance to her charms. Instead, it is mystery that lures him in. Minga girls don’t normally act like Vaudir–with reason, for spirit has been bred out of them. There is a vacancy in the Minga beauty that allows Northwest to resist, a beauty of form lacking spirit. As Northwest Smith’s encounter with Shambleau showed, it was her spirit and mystery that hooked him–and not the redhead’s Gorgon hair.

“Black Thirst” was written prior to World War Two, when science fiction and politics still had a fascination with eugenics not yet extinguished by the horrors of the Final Solution. Unlike contemporary science fiction stories like the Lensman series, “Black Thirst” delves into the potential horrors of eugenics, as the idea of humans bred like livestock is considered. But to what end? Where many of her contemporaries portrayed the guiding hand breeding generations of humanity as essentially benevolent, with the aim of improving the species, C. L. Moore instead worries that the breeder has a more sinister end in mind. A prized cow, no matter how exquisite a bloodline, may still end up on the dinner plate. And it is that fate that Vaudir seeks to escape–if she can.

C. L. Moore loves the Poisoned Garden trope. “Black God’s Shadow,” “The Black Thirst,” “Tree of Life,” and “Scarlet Dream” each feature their own dangerous garden, complete with hidden perils, heart-rending beauties, and doomed romances. This trope has a long history in weird fiction, tracing back to at least 1844 when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In it, a young woman, Beatrice, lives among a poisoned garden, guarded by her father and the poisonous plants. Giovanni falls in love with  her, but succumbs to the plants that have made Beatrice poisonous herself. The antidote he made to free her from the poisons of the garden instead kill her. (The text can be found here.) While “Black Thirst” is the purest example of Hawthorne’s influence on Moore’s storytelling, as it follows many of the same beats, the influence of the poisoned garden pervades her settings as a key element to the eeriness of her works.

Hawthorne is not the only Gothic influence upon C. L. Moore. In her “Afterward: On ‘Shambleau’ and Others,” found in The Best of C. L. Moore, she recalls the genesis of her first short story, “Shambleau”:

Midway down that yellow page I began fragments remembered from sophomore English at the university. All the choices were made at random. KeatsBrowningByron— you name it. In the middle of this exercise a line from a poem (by William Morris?) worked itself to the front and I discovered myself typing something about a “red, running figure.” I looked at it a while, my mind a perfect blank, and then shifted mental gears without even adding punctuation to mark the spot, swinging with idiot confidence into the first lines of the story which ended up as “Shambleau.” 

For those who slept through English classes in college like me, Keats and Byron were second generation Romanticists, part of a movement of poets and authors that created, among other works, Gothic fantasies such as The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein. Browning and Morris were Victorian poets (contemporary with the American romanticists Poe and Hawthorne) that adapted the lyrical and fantasy traditions of the second generation Romanticists into Victorian sensibilities. The distinction between the two periods is minor, as “One has difficulty determining with any accuracy where the Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century leaves off and the Victorian Period begins because these traditions have so many aspects in common.” By her own admission, C. L. Moore had immersed herself in the classics from these men, and was familiar with the melancholy, mystery, individualism, and darkness that embodied their works and would soon be hallmarks of her own pre-Campbelline stories. In her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry tales, Moore would become one of the last flowers of the Gothic tradition in science fiction, writing before Campbell’s twin revolutions in science fiction and fantasy removed these Romantic elements from American weird fiction.

  • Constantin says:

    Huh, what a coincidence. I had ordered a few days ago a copy of The Castle of Otranto and it just arrived today. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have left me thirsting for more classic Gothic.

  • deuce says:

    Moore certainly had a taste for the Gothic, but her Northwest Smith tales also strike me as quite Merrittesque–we know she was a fan–despite their off-planet nature.

    BTW, as I recall, the Minga women are all alabaster-skinned redheads. Northwest Smith is blonde with pale grey eyes.

    • Nathan says:

      I should have known about the redheads. Moore’s heroines really do tend to run that way.

      As for Merritt, I really need to make him a priority. I’ll be revisiting Rappaccini’s Daughter next. Might be worth taking a detour into the Moon Pool afterward.

    • deuce says:

      Moore was a redhead.

      When it comes to Merritt’s influence on Moore, I would recommend THE SHIP OF ISHTAR and DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE. They’re also shorter reads and better novels, IMO. Coincidentally, they both feature feisty redheads.

      • Nathan says:

        I knew there was a touch of the wish-fulfillment to Jirel and Shambleau. I just didn’t take that idea into the rest of her pre-Kuttner stories, even though C. L. Moore herself suggested it.

        “If you have read past Shambleau to Jirel, you will probably have noticed what a close relationship the two women bear to one another. They set the keynote for a lot of my own (incessant) writing until I met and married Henry Kuttner. I realize now that, unconsciously, no doubt, both were versions of the self I’d like to have been. I’d never noticed this before. The unconscious works in a mysterious way, doesn’t it?”

        Moore, C.L.. The Best of C.L. Moore (Kindle Locations 5372-5375). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.

        • deuce says:

          Yeah the original short and the novel are two different beasts, really. Altus Press has the original short and the follow-up novella–which were later combined–in print. Worth the money.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        I second deuce’s recommendation of The Ship of Ishtar and Dwellers in the Mirage, two of Merritt’s best, which is very good indeed. Not that the Moon Pool is bad (all of his work is worth reading IMO), but those two books have been the favorites of Merritt fans for more than 70 years.

        • Andy says:

          I agree with Lovecraft that the original version of The Moon Pool is great as a creepy, unexplained horror story. It’s the sequel/expanded version that’s rickety compared to stuff like Ship of Ishtar.

  • JD Cowan says:

    This is a great story and one of my favorites of hers. The Gothic feel is almost overwhelming to the senses.

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