Who Goes There?
C. L. Moore is remembered by certain readers as one half of an immensely talented writing duo, the other half being her first husband, Henry Kuttner. Moore and Kuttner, from about 1940 to Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958, wrote seamlessly and prolifically together in just about every corner of SFF that was conceivable at the time. The two were actually unsure as to who wrote exactly what in their collaborations, and to this day speculations on who did what largely remain just that: speculations. Before their coming together, though, Moore was one of the most respected authors to contribute regularly to the peak era of Weird Tales, and unlike most authors her success started with her first story. “Shambleau,” Moore’s first professional sale and the first to feature spacefaring himbo Northwest Smith, made a splash when it came out in late 1933, with Farnsworth Wright being pretty open about wanting to buy whatever Moore was selling.
In the ’30s, most of Moore’s output was comprised of two series: the aforementioned Northwest Smith adventures, and also Jirel of Joiry, sword and sorcery’s first heroine. The first entry in the latter series, “The Black God’s Kiss” (definite article removed for most reprints), is a reread for me, but I now like it much more since I’ve gotten to a) read it more carefully, and b) read it in what I consider the proper context. I had first read it as part of The Future Is Female! (ed. Lisa Yaszek), which collects science fiction stories by women published prior to 1970, and with all due respect to Yaszek and a few people I know, it’s a fatal error to classify “The Black God’s Kiss” as SF. The logic seems to be that because Jirel of Joiry shares continuity with Northwest Smith, thanks to some time travel fuckery in a later entry, that means Jirel of Joiry must be, at least retroactively, considered SF as well.
The problem is that, at least in “The Black God’s Kiss,” there’s virtually nothing to support this argument in the text itself. At best the argument is misleading: when I first read “The Black God’s Kiss” I was distracted by this sword-and-sorcery story being erroneously included in an SF anthology and thus struggled to enjoy it for what it actually was. Now I’ve rectified the issue by reading this story as it was originally published, wherein it’s clearly framed as fantasy—albeit with a remarkably dark tinge, being a mix of heroic fantasy, cosmic horror, and psycho-sexual mania.
Before I enter plot synopsis mode I wanna issue a sort of content warning. Despite its vintage “The Black God’s Kiss” overflows with eroticism and sexual angst, especially in its subtext. Sexual assault is what kicks off the plot and things only get murkier from there, just so you know.
First published in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Didn’t I cover something from this issue just last month? Why yes; and eventually I’ll be sure to cover Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases.” Anyway, “The Black God’s Kiss” has been collected and anthologized quite a few times over the years. On top of the aforementioned The Future Is Female! we have The Best of C. L. Moore, part of the fabulous Ballantine best-of series, and also Black God’s Kiss, which collects all of the Jirel of Joiry stories—not that there are too many of them. One place where you won’t find this story is Two-Handed Engine, which is irritating because it’s one of the few actually essential Moore/Kuttner stories not in that collection; meanwhile there are a couple more minor stories that could’ve been replaced with “The Black God’s Kiss,” if space was a concern. Point being, you won’t have a hard time finding this one.
Moore is not fucking around, because we start in media res with a battle at the castle of Joiry having already taken place, Joiry having been invaded and with the outcome being disastrous—for the castle. Guillaume is a haughty Frenchman (as if there’s any other kind) and leader of marauders who demands the commander of the fallen troops of Joiry be brought to him, presumably for a flashy execution. However, when the commander is brought forth, Guillaume demands the commander’s helmet be removed, and this is where we get what has to be one of the first instances of the “Samus is a girl” trope—if not the first. Admittedly this tiny twist is spoiled if you know literally anything about Jirel of Joiry in advance, and also are reading a copy without any illustrations, but it’s the thought that counts. Because he is a hetereosexual man with functioning eyeballs, Guillaume’s intent with Jirel makes a 180 and turns from murder to lust.
It’s here that we get a forced kiss, the first of three kisses in the story actually, and a very pissed-off redhead. Guillaume forces a kiss on Jirel, which doesn’t go well for either of them: for Jirel for the obvious reason, and for Guillaume became he damn near gets his throat torn out when Jirel maneuvers to bite his neck. “She missed the jugular by a fraction of an inch.” Like anyone upset that his would-be rape victim would dare fight back, Guillaume knocks Jirel out, but rather than kill her he locks her up in the dungeon of her own castle—a show of mercy he’ll ultimately regret. Because this world apparently operates on Metal Gear Solid logic, Jirel knocks out the guard for her cell pretty easily and has the opportunity to sneak out of the castle, only she doesn’t do that; for one, in her defense, it’d be cowardly, but also there’s clearly something to be done about the guy who thinks he can have his way with her. The result is a rape-revenge plot with a few twists contained therein, and that’s what we’re here for.
“The Black God’s Kiss” is a novelette that very easily could’ve been a novella, had Moore wanted to flesh out the setting and background behind Joiry—only she deprives us of that backstory because really it’s not necessary to us understanding Jirel’s character. Jirel is an impressive creation, partly because she’s a Woman™, but also because this was still pretty early in the formation of sword and sorcery as a subgenre; hell, Conan had only debuted two years prior to this. Even in this first entry in the series we see multiple facets of Jirel’s character, her virtues and flaws, and there’s ambiguity about her that, at least in this story, does not sharpen into clarity. Being the heroine of a heroic fantasy plot would be enough, but Jirel is also in several ways a subversion of what was expected of female characters in pulp fiction at the time. After having escaped, she meets up with
Ricky Father Gervase, the castle chaplain, who I guess was not fed to pigs when Guillaume took over, and it’s here we find out a few things of interest…
For one, it’s implied that we’re in an alternate medieval France—a world where ancient Rome was still a thing, but also the fantastic has intruded upon the normal human world. Jirel is shown to be a practicing Catholic, but she sure is not a pious one; she is French, after all. She makes it clear that Guillaume’s forced kiss was not her first; she is not the waifish virgin of most pulp fiction women, being neither waifish nor virginal. Sex and religion are not uncommon sights in the pages of Weird Tales, in that their imagery makes it in for the sake of titilation and shock value, but they’re rarely discussed by characters within those stories. “The Black God’s Kiss” is unusual for several reasons, but what struck me the most is its willingness to tackle the complex web of emotions involved in sex—and this is way before we even get to the ending! Anyway, Jirel is looking for a specific weapon she might use to wreak her vengeance on Guillaume; she doesn’t know what the weapon is, but she knows where it is.
There’s a level of the castle beneath it that goes down—far further below ground than the dungeon, a place so horrid that Jirel’s only gone there once before, and she got too spooked before she could venture that far. Gervase was with Jirel during that earlier venture to the realm below, and perhaps wisely he tries to convince Jirel to not go (for the sake of her immortal soul more than anything), only Jirel will not be convinced. As the following dialogue shows, Jirel is thinking about her immortal soul, but she’s thinking about doing terrible things to Guillaume way more:
“To wreak my vengeance upon Guillaume I would go if I knew I should burn in hell for ever.”
“But Jirel, I do not think you understand. This is a worse fate than the deepest depths of hell-fire. This is—this is beyond all the bounds of the hells we know. And I think Satan’s hottest flames were the breath of paradise, compared to what may befall there.”
“I know. Do you think I’d venture down if I could not be sure? Where else would I find such a weapon as I need, save outside God’s dominion?”
“Jirel, you shall not!”
“Gervase, I go! Will you shrive me?” The hot yellow eyes blazed into his, lambent in the starlight.
After a moment he dropped his head. “You are my lady. I will give you God’s blessing, but it will not avail you—there.”
Savor this, because with one exception this is the last bit of dialogue we get in the whole story and we’re only about five pages into it. Something I realized is that once Jirel starts making her way to the lower depths the writing becomes entirely either action or the narrator trying to capture Jirel’s mindset. Anyway, Gervae reluctantly gives Jirel his blessing and she heads off on her own to make her way to the lower depths. There’s a bit of subtle fanservice with Jirel’s getup for the journey: at the beginning of the story she wore armor bulky enough that Guillaume at first assumed she was a man, but now her attire is more flexible and revealing, wearing “a fresh shirt of doeskin” and “a brief tunic of link-mail.” She’s able to carry a sword and a dagger in her belt, but can’t bring a torch—a hindrance that may ultimately prove to be an asset.
As she finds the trap door leading to the lower depths and begins her descent, Jirel is reminded, to her horror, that the spiraling staircase going down was almost certainly not built by humans—rather the architecture seems more fit for a giant snake. I have a couple questions such as, “Who built this castle anyway?” and “If the lower depths were built by something non-human, would it have preceded the castle’s construction? How much did the builders know about this place?” Questions which go unanswered, but really we need not worry about those things. The castle of Joiry, much like an onion or an ogre, has layers, which are peeled back once the revenge plot kicks into gear. Because she doesn’t have a torch Jirel is unable to see SHIT, but it turns out there could be another reason for the unfathomable darkness of these depths—a reason that can only be deemed supernatural rather than super-scientific, at least without serious retconning.
We get what might be called a demented sense-of-wonder bit when Jirel realizes what has been causing her to be unable to see anything in the depths, and it’s here that the story switches gears from medieval fantasy to something much harder to classify, though I think “heroic Lovecraftian fantasy” might do the trick. Jirel came to this unholy place with a crucifix, a holy object, round her neck, which she finds may be preventing her from taking in her surroundings. Get this:
She lifted her hand and found the chain of her crucifix taut and vibrant around her neck. At that she smiled a little grimly, for she began to understand. The crucifix. She found her hand shaking despite herself, but she unfastened the chain and dropped the cross to the ground. Then she gasped.
All about her, as suddenly as the awakening from a dream, the nothingness had opened out into undreamed-of distances. She stood high on a hilltop under a sky spangled with strange stars. Below she caught glimpses of misty plains and valleys with mountain peaks rising far away. And at her feet a ravening circle of small, slavering, blind things leaped with clashing teeth.
They were obscene and hard to distinguish against the darkness of the hillside, and the noise they made was revolting. Her sword swung up of itself, almost, and slashed furiously at the little dark horrors leaping up around her legs. They died squashily, splattering her bare thighs with unpleasantness, and after a few had gone silent under the blade the rest fled into the dark with quick, frightened pantings, their feet making a queer splashing noise on the stones.
From here on, Jirel is on her own in her surreal nightmare adventures, the last conversation in the whole story happening between her and a ghoulish doppelganger, which tries to trick her at first but then points her towards what she wants: a temple on an small island, in the middle of a lake of stars. Here the plot gets rather hard to summarize, since it’s basically an episodic adventure wherein Jirel sees or fights off some weird thing in the midst of this vast underground realm—a realm which, given the appearance of a sky, cannot possibly be underground unless it’s an elaborate optical illusion. I’ll discuss one or two of these highlights, plus the ending in the spoilers section, but I’ll say for now that if this episodic style of fantasy storytelling is up your alley then you’ll have a lot of fun with this. The loose narrative might’ve turned me off on my initial reading, but now I can see more clearly what Moore is going for, and it must be said she’s quite good at it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The temple on the island, connected to the rest of the realm via an invisible bridge, houses a black Buddha-esque statue with one eye, “and its mouth was pursed for a kiss.” Jirel is unable to explain in words how she feels about this statue, something perhaps beyond human comprehension compels her to kiss the statue, hence the title and Margaret Brundage’s cover for the issue. After having fought off indescribable little horrors and seen some rather disconcerting stuff (the most evocative of these being a herd of blind and insane white horses, galloping through the dark fields), there’s a peculiar sense of relief—almost ecstacy—when Jirel kisses the black statue and gains what she deduces to be a poison kiss—a kiss she’ll then pass on Guillaume. Very strange, that of all the weapons she could be given a kiss of deah is what will satisfy her bloodlust.
Firstly, the kiss is clearly meant to be a stand-in for sex, as a kind of very thin metaphor; and not just one of the three kisses but all of them. Guillaume forces a kiss on Jirel, but we’re to understand that, at least subtextual, this was more than “just” a kiss; and Jirel kissing the black statue strikes me as a variation on the deal-with-the-devil plot turn (I’m thinking specifically of the film Belladonna of Sadness wherein the heroine has sex with the devil and becomes a powerful witch), even though the statue is inanimate. The black god’s kiss itself is mystifying, but it’s also a sexual experience. It may seem assbackwards that the weapon Jirel has sought requires such close content with her would-be victim, but the intimacy is deliberate since Jirel wants not only vengeance on Guillaume but also to dominate him—to have that kiss again, but on her terms this time.
This brings us to the ending, which is divisive and rather hard to explain since it’s here that the psycho-sexual angle kicks into high gear, and indeed it’s hard to rationalize what happens at the end without psychoanalysis. When Jirel hurries back to the surface (being made suddenly afraid to see the horrors of the depths with full clarity), she finds Guillaume with his men, and also Gervase, who may or may not have ratted on Jirel. The confrontation here is made all the more bewildering because there’s not even a word of dialogue in this scene, and while the narrator does a little explaining we do not get a play-by-play of Jirel’s mind. Rather than have Jirel killed on the spot, Guillaume does the heterosexual male thing and seems pretty happy to see her again, for some reason expecting a consensual kiss from her this time—which in a way he does get.
It’s not hard to imagine an alternate version of this story where Jirel and Guillaume have sex and it’s her lips down there that deliver the poison, and the strangest thing of all is that the outcome would basically be the same; more importantly, despite sex being far more overtly erotic than a kiss, the erotic power of the kiss is still perfectly intact and comprehensive. The moment of the kill is almost orgasmic for Jirel, but this is immediately followed by the lowest of lows—the realization, too late, that Guillaume living rent free in Jirel’s head this whole time was not simple due to hatred: it was also all-consuming lust which manifested as murderous obsession. Maybe not love, as the text hints at, but certainly there’s an attraction between the warrior maid and the conqueror that, under different circumstances, could have led to a wonderful partnership.
They knew he was dead. That was unmistakable in the way he lay. Jirel stood very still, looking down upon him, and strangely it seemed to her that all the lights in the world had gone out. A moment before he had been so big and vital, so magnificent in the torchlight—she could still feel his kiss upon her mouth, and the hard warmth of his arms…
Suddenly and blindingly it came upon her what she had done. She knew now why such heady violence had flooded her whenever she thought of him—knew why the light-devil in her own form had laughed so derisively—knew the price she must pay for taking a gift from a demon. She knew that there was no light anywhere in the world, now that Guillaume was gone.
Jirel regretting killing Guillaume is a character choice that some will find hard to swallow: this is, after all, akin to a rape victim falling in love with her rapist after the fact. Another way of looking at it is that Jirel, having been obsessed with Guillaume, suddenly finds her existence devoid of meaning once she’s gotten rid of the object of her obsession. Another way of looking at all this is that Moore may be suggesting that the relationship between Jirel and Guillaume is tragic, as they are (in some ways anyway) kindred spirits who have the misfortune of being on opposite sides of the battlefield. Certainly Moore did not understand consent in 1934 as we understand it now, but I can’t help but feel like she’s trying to say something about the occasional blurriness of consent, and how sexual desire may manifest in ways people can’t predict. I can speculate all I want, but it’s still impressive that the actual meaning behind “The Black God’s Kiss” remains, after nearly a century, elusive.
Oh, and to complicate thing further, we get notice at the very end of a direct sequel in the wings, “Black God’s Shadow,” which will be available in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Well, I guess I know what the next Moore story I cover will be!
A Step Farther Out
I’ll be honest, when I read “Shambleau” I enjoyed it enough but didn’t think it was all that special—though it was certainly well-written considering Moore was barely out of her teens at the time. However, on a deeper reading, “The Black God’s Kiss” strikes me as easily the more impressive venture, and it’s a shame that she basically gave up sword and sorcery once she started teaming up regularly with Kuttner given her obvious knack for it. The premise is simple, with as little context for the conflict being given as possible, and there are a few logical questions left unanswered, but this is a disturbed and deeply evocative piece that showed Moore (who, mind you, was still very early in her career) as a force to be reckoned with. The ending is not for everyone, but I’m convinced Moore knew what she was doing, especially considering she seems to have written “Black God’s Shadow” before the first story was even published. Speaking of which, there’s only a two-month gap in publication between these stories…
See you next time.
3 responses to “Short Story Review: “The Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore”
You did a great job and by the way I love your blog.
Why thank you! Sometimes I review something I’ve read before so I can really dig into it, and this was a story that benefited from that.
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It’s sometimes good to read a book more than once! That way you see things you may have missed the first time. And some are just so good they deserve a second round.