Short Story Review: “Daemon” by C. L. Moore

(Cover by Lawrence. Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1946.)

Who Goes There?

When I reviewed Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci” some days ago, I said that Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard were the defining authors during the “classic” period of Weird Tales, in the ’30s. This is not entirely true. I omitted a fourth name because I knew I was gonna get to her very soon, and now she’s getting her own introduction. C. L. Moore was one of the great practicioners of SFF in the ’30s and ’40s, and her rise to prominence was swift in a way that most authors’ are not. Her first professional sale, “Shambleau,” was published in Weird Tales in 1933, and it instantly made her a big deal to that magazine’s readership. During this early period, Moore created two series, both set in the same continuity (though this was not immediately known), named after their protagonists: Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry. The former leans toward planetary romance while the latter leans toward heroic fantasy, and this duality was a line Moore would walk for the rest of her career.

Things get complicated when Moore marries a fellow author, Henry Kuttner, in 1940, after the two had already collaborated on a story or two. Kuttner was a few years younger than Moore, and was a big fan of her work, soon exhanging letters with her and assuming (erroneously) at first that she was a man. Once misunderstandings were out of the way, they formed inarguably the biggest power couple in old-timey SFF, collaborating prolifically throughout the ’40s and writing together so seamlessly that they could not tell apart each other’s writing, and neither can anyone else. To this day there’s no agreement as to who wrote what or how much one contributed to the other’s writing, even when a story is credited to only one of them. “Daemon” is credited to Moore solo, and for reasons I’ll get into I believe firmly enough that Kuttner had basically nothing to do with its creation.

Placing Coordinates

First printed in the October 1946 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which is on the Archive. FFM was primarily a reprint magazine without zeroing in on a specific genre, covering science fiction, fantasy, and even non-supernatural horror. In the October 1946 issue alone we have reprinted stories by H. G. Wells (a presumably abridged version of The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Bram Stoker, but “Daemon” was an original story. One need not look far to see why Moore would submit her fantasy-horror story to a reprint magazine: the magazine market for fantasy was quite small in the ’40s, with the only other notable outlet being a now past-its-prime Weird Tales. Now, why, when reading these stories for review, do I always try to read the original magazine version? Partly this is because sometimes there are revisions made between the magazine publication and the book publication, but also, there’s flavor when reading anything within the confines of a magazine issue. Take, for instance, Virgil Finlay’s interior illustration for “Daemon,” which as usual is stunning, and which we would not have gotten in a book reprint.

When it comes to reprints of “Daemon” we’re talking quality over quantity; none of the reprints seem to be, well, in print, but these volumes are both good collector’s items and easy enough to find. First we have The Best of C. L. Moore, part of a best-of series by Ballantine Books (Henry Kuttner also got one), and boy do I wanna get these two together. Then we have A Treasury of Modern Fantasy, edited by Terry Carr and Martin H. Greenberg, which might be the same book as Masters of Fantasy; it’s edited by the same people, and unless I’m missing something the contents are also the same. If you’re fond of Moore and Kuttner, at some point you have to get your hands on Two-Handed Engine: The Selected Stories of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, a mammoth tome that collects all the essential short fiction by both authors, solo as well as in collaboration.

Enhancing Image

“Daemon” is a deathbed confession (not a spoiler, our narrator is upfront about this) told by Luiz o Bobo, his title apparently coming from his simplemindedness. Luiz, despite his own admitted lack of intelligence, has a special gift that may well be more of a curse: he sees these things that accompany other people, calling them daemons when they could just as easily be called ghosts. According to Luiz, everyone has a daemon on his shoulder—everyone except him. At the outset of the story we’re far more planted on the horror end of the horror-fantasy spectrum which “Daemon” plays with, and there’s some delicious eeriness at work here. “Do you know who stands beside you, padre, listening while I talk?” says Luiz at one point. The daemons themselves don’t seem to do anything exactly; they don’t have voices, they don’t talk, they can’t interact with the material world—at least not directly. As we’re to find out later, though, it’s maybe possible for a daemon to take possession of its host.

Luiz recalls the death of his grandmother, for a long time the only earthly person who treated with decency, and how her daemon changed as she was dying; it was an unusual event, as the daemon grew brighter, radiating a brightness that threatened to blind Luiz, before finally disappearing once his grandmother’s spirit has moved to—somewhere else. What this could signify, the daemon changing colors as its host nears the end of their life, we’re not given a clear answer on, but then Luiz is no rocket scientist. Actually, let me take a moment to talk about Luiz’s characterization, because this is easily the most interesting part of the story for me: Luiz is obviously neurodivergent. While “Daemon” is on its face a dark fantasy yarn about a man who gets shanghaied and then stranded on an island with a bunch of magical creatures, it’s more potently a tale of alienation, about a man who is unable to relate to other people in the conventional sense, who quite literally sees something “normal” people have that he lacks. Make sure to put a pin in this one.

Oh right, getting shanghaied. Luiz has a bad night at a saloon and finds himself an unwilling passenger on a trading vessel. As you do. The fact that Luiz is not very smart, and can’t even read, makes him an easy target. It’s here that we come across the closest the story has to a villain: the captain of the ship. The captain, who normally would not be the happiest or kindest of men, seems to have his violent urges heightened by a suitably evil-looking daemon which follows him around. The causal relationship between host and daemon is not clear, but it’s quite possible that a daemon’s disposition influences its host, with the captain’s daemon being a particularly nasty example. The captain’s daemon’s uncanniness is not helped by the fact that not only is it blood-red, it doesn’t seem to have eyes.

Now, most men have shapes that walk behind them, padre. Perhaps you know that, too. Some of them are dark, like the shapes I saw in the saloon. Some of them are bright, like that which followed my grandmother. Some of them are colored, pale colors like ashes or rainbows. But this man had a scarlet daemon. And it was a scarlet beside which blood itself is ashen. The color blinded me. And yet it drew me, too. I could not take my eyes away, nor could I look at it long without pain. I never saw a color more beautiful, nor more frightening. It made my heart shrink within me, and quiver like a dog that fears the whip. If I have a soul, perhaps it was my soul that quivered. And I feared the beauty of the color as much as I feared the terror it awoke in me. It is not good to see beauty in that which is evil.

Luiz does find one ally on the ship, called the Shaughnessy (we don’t get his actual name), a dying man from “a foreign land called Ireland” who apparently also comes from a very well-to-do family, and who stands as the only thing between Luiz and oblivion. The captain hates his guts and there will come a point when the Shaugnessy will not be around to protect him. This early-middle section of the narrative, with Luiz on the ship, is probably my favorite part; it’s atmospheric, exceptionally brutal, it’s set on the high seas (which I have a fondness for), and it elaborates on the disconnect Luiz feels with other people. It’s not so much that Luiz befriends the Shaughnessy as he sees the Shaughnessy as a guardian figure, since the most Luiz can hope for, realistically, is not be treated like garbage by others. This is not to say Luiz is a blank slate or a totally passive protagonist; nay, he’s quite active, even if he doesn’t articulate his internal anxieties vocally.

It’s here that Moore does something seemingly clever and really plants the seeds of doubt for us, as to whether Luiz is right or if he’s just delirious. The ship’s water gets tainted, which is pretty bad. “A man can pick the maggots out of his salt pork if he must, but bad water is a thing he cannot mend.” Not helping things is that a particularly brutal encounter with the captain results in Luiz getting what is probably a skull fracture (saying he heard his skull crack, which sounds horrific), and it’s amazing he doesn’t simply die on the ship. Hell, dying at this point might not be so bad. Luiz contemplates suicide, which in his predominantly Catholic homeland of Brazil would be deemed a mortal sin, but Luiz rationalizes that he can’t go to Hell if he doesn’t have a soul, but virtue of not having a daemon. Checkmate, Christians! But no, he does not kill himself, and it’s about here that things get very weird indeed.

Before we get to the spoilers section, I wanna return to something I said earlier, which is that “Daemon” is pretty discernibly a solo Moore effort and not a collaboration. Not that I want to downplay Kuttner’s talent (which happens too often, such as on ISFDB where works under just Kuttner’s name are far more likely to be listed as collaborations than with Moore), but I can’t find any Kuttner-esque elements here. More tellingly, this has the tone and polish of a Moore tale, in the sense that it’s deeply melancholy, even humorless, yet there is a real humanity to Luiz’s character that makes him relatable. I’m not sure why, but Moore tends to sympathize with the underdog, not in a self-congratulatory way, but in a genuinely empathetic way, where she manages to convey a character’s fears and aspirations. Kuttner was an excellent humorist, but Moore was almost like a poet, and “Daemon” reads in parts almost like a poem. Moore wears her emotions on her sleeves, which feels prescient given how often old-timey SFF authors are demeaned (sometimes rightly) as emotionally inept Tough Guys™.

There Be Spoilers Here

You may be thinking, what does that Virgil Finlay illustration have to do with the story? Well…

Luiz and the Shaughnessy get stranded on an island and it’s not some ordinary Robinson Crusoe island: it’s a magical island. The Shaughnessy kicks the bucket, but not before giving Luiz some instruction that he doesn’t do a good job explaining. That’s fine, since, probably unbeknownst to the Shaughnessy, Luiz is not left all lonesome after the fact; he quickly finds some friends. Luiz had aludded to nymphs, or as he called them, “ninfas” (I’m not joking when I say I had first misread it as ninjas), at the start of his confession, but now we’re actually getting to those. Finlay’s illustration shows one of these nymphs, called the orlead (who actually talks with Luiz), and a unicorn. Yeah, there’s a unicorn. This place fucking RULES. Admittedly, I don’t buy into the Eden-like nature of the island, as this pure place where there’s no pain (the Shaughnessy is pretty chill about dying), as it feels too idyllic, not to mention it casts doubt on Luiz’s story despite the fact that he’s telling the truth.

But soon there’s trouble in paradise, and the captain has landed in search of his castaways, most likely to do away with them. With the Shaughnessy already dead he need only worry about one now, but Luiz has the fantasy creatures of the island on his side. Okay, I should be a bit more specific here: these are, at least in part, Greek mythological creatures, hence the appearance of the humanoid goat-footed god Pan who comes in as a sort of deus ex machina. I have to admit the image of Pan chasing the captain (who can now see him, apparently) literally around the island until the captain, thoroughly exhausted, runs back to the place he started at, is funnier than it’s supposed to be. It’s weird, sure, and it’s not boring, but it’s a touch goofy.

I said before that a person’s daemon grows brighters as that person’s death nears, and while I’m not a fan of the turn towards action in the climax, I have to respect just how creepy the captain’s final moments are. We’re not totally sure what happens, because Luiz averts his eyes, but it’s clear that the captain, in the last moments of his life, becomes aware of the red-hot daemon that had been stalking him the whole time, and the way Moore writes his death is the closest the story comes to being genuinely scary, as opposed to just eerie.

Some knowledge deeper than any wisdom warned me to cover my eyes. For I saw its lids flicker, and I knew it would not be good to watch when that terrible gaze looked out at last upon a world it had never seen except through the captain’s eyes.

I fell to my knees and covered my face. And the captain, seeing that, must have known at long last what it was I saw behind him. I think now that in the hour of a man’s death, he knows. I think in that last moment he knows, and turns, and for the first time and the last, looks his daemon in the face.

I did not see him do it. I did not see anything. But I heard a great, resonant cry, like the mighty music that beats through paradise, a cry full of triumph and thanksgiving, and joy at the end of a long, long, weary road. There was mirth in it, and beauty, and all the evil the mind can compass.

After a detour into fantasy we’ve swung back around into horror, almost of the cosmic variety. There are things people are not supposed to see—like their own daemons. Weirdly, I find this aspect to be the least involving, as the scope of the story has by now thoroughly gone beyond Luiz’s psychology and grappled onto something that’s quite “spooky” by not very scary. For me “Daemon” works better as a horror-tinged character study than a straight horror yarn, and likewise I don’t find the stuff with Pan and the nymphs to be totally convincing, although Moore’s lyrical hand stays steady, and I have to admit there’s a bit of a sense of wonder with the island and its fantastical secrets. This isn’t pulp horror but rather something in the Unknown tradiction, and hell, “Daemon” could’ve been published there had it not gone bust in 1943. My point is that Moore can sure as hell write, even when she does something that conceptually I don’t think is the most interesting thing ever.

A Step Farther Out

After I finished “Daemon” I did something I’ve not done before for these reviews, and it’s really something I ought to do again: I looked up readers’ reactions. Not modern reviews of the story (I haven’t even checked if there are any), but FFM‘s letter column, which, as it turns out, was fairly active. Not on the same level as Planet Stories, mind you, but still, we’ve got some yays and nays from the peanut gallery! As far as I can tell reception to “Daemon” was pretty damn positive, although there is one comment that I found interesting, made by some bloke named R. I. Martini, in the February 1947 issue:

Miss Moore’s name is all too seldom in your table of contents, but when listed she inevitably brings forth a new and unique situation. “Daemon,” in that respect, held to standard, though somehow it didn’t have the scope or pimch anticipated. It was when she came to the “ninfas” that disillusionment as to its cIassic qualifications set in. Albeit the atmosphere was there, so saving whatever was left of the day.

I really loved the first half or so, when Luiz is on the ship, whereas I merely liked the second half, when he’s on the island. I think I get where Martini is coming from, because I can’t help but feel like something is lost once the nymphs come into play, and it’s basically spelled out that what happened to Luiz had to be fantastical and not a big hallucination as the result of, say, the brain damage he had undoubtedly suffered. Which is not to say my earlier evaluation of Luiz was rendered invalid by the second half, because I think his character still very much works on an allegorical level; I just wish the literal level was a bit more satisfying. Moore is still a strong writer on a sentence-by-sentence level, her penmanship bordering on the poetic—indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if her lyricism influenced George R. R. Martin’s early work. “Daemon” doesn’t feel like it comes from the ’40s, but rather feels a bit more timeless than that, like Moore is tapping into a study of human loneliness that remains relevant, and for that I admire it.

See you next time.


3 responses to “Short Story Review: “Daemon” by C. L. Moore”

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