Atop the pole of Mars, Northwest Smith runs into an old flame, a Lady in Red named Judai. Meanwhile, the Martians worship a god whose name is never spoken out of secret. How these two facts are related is yet to be seen, but the path to understanding begins with a simple request to retrieve a box of artifacts.
C. L. Moore unleashes another disaster on the spaceman smuggler Northwest Smith in “The Cold Gray God”. And, like the many before this, Smith’s downfall starts with a pretty face. This time, the face is known to him, from one unforgettable night in New York. For once, Smith senses the danger in Judai, as though something not-her is occupying her body, and it is this mystery that compels him to fulfil her request.
In earlier reviews, I have wondered if C. L. Moore is exploring various feminine roles in her heroines, and, in Judai, it is hard to shake that impression. Judai is a standard noir Lady in Red, an old flame, and a glamorous idol singer once thought to be missing. And, like all of Smith’s sudden flames, she is hopelessly doomed. By the time she returns to Northwest’s life, she is little more than a skinsuit for something unseen. All the little familiarities known between old partners are now wrong, enough to tip off the usually obtuse Smith. But the sheer memory of the beauty of the woman who was Judai causes Smith to investigate. Previous stories played with various roles that might turn a man’s head: women on the run, doomed beauties, seductive predators. But what kind of woman could keep a head turned, even for years after she has departed? Moore does not answer this question, but auditions for the role for a time before delivering Smith to the other constant in his life: cosmic horror.
For the being occupying Judai has its eye on Northwest Smith as its next skinsuit, and the artifact Smith recovers is key to let it jump from one body to the next. Smith spends the last half of the tale fighting to keep control of his body and his mind from something more ancient and deadly than the Shambleau who almost devoured him. That something wants to use him to unlock the door for an even greater evil. For a time, Smith prevails, and then..
…well, it’s a good thing Smith has such reliable and loyal friends. Friends who know their way around a heat-ray and a flame gun.
It is a simple plot, to be sure, but Moore excels at the mood. Judai is seductive yet misguided from her introduction, leavened with the telltale wariness from Smith. The later stalemate between the mortal and the immortal is flooded with emotion and mystery, filling out a tense encounter where little conventional action is appropriate. And the weariness at the end almost collapses off the page. Other science fiction writers may be prone to bloodless explorations of concepts, but C. L. Moore instead explores the moment with all its sensations and emotional gravitas.
At the end, Smith survives another close-run encounter, where a shot of whiskey steadies him before he heads out on his next adventure, no doubt with another doomed beauty in red sirening him towards another cosmic monster.
But that one will be a review for another time.