Who Goes There?
Given that her career as an a genre writer was cut short, on account of the premature death of her first husband Heny Kuttner, C. L. Moore’s time in the field was wide-spanning and much lauded. Nowadays (unless you’re a Weird Tales fan) she’s most recognized for her collaborations with Kuttner and the occasional solo story written during their marriage, but Moore gained cred as one of Weird Tales‘s most gifted writers within a year of her professional debut. Her planetary vampire story “Shambleau” was an instant hit and editor Farnsworth Wright cheerleaded her as a force to be reckoned with; within a year she established the two series that would define the first stage of her career, contributing to the planetary romance with Northwest Smith and the fast-growing sword-and-sorcery tradition with Jirel of Joiry. I recommend reading my review of the first Jirel story, “The Black God’s Kiss,” before continuing with this review, since today’s story very much assumes you’ve read what came before it.
First published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Because this is a direct sequel to “The Black God’s Kiss” and thus does not stand on its own, it’s be reprinted considerably fewer times than its predecessor. The good news is that you can still find it readily in Jirel of Joiry and Black God’s Kiss, collections which as far as I can tell are mostly identical and which collect the whole (rather short) series. If you’re British and/or you suck eggs then there’s the SF Gateway omnibus collecting Jirel of Joiry, Northwest Smith, and the short novel Judgment Night.
It hasn’t been long since the end of “The Black God’s Kiss,” and yet despite having had her vengeance on the rogue invader Guillaume, Jirel has been tormented by guilt. She had ventured into the dark underworld beneath the castle of Joiry and received the most cursed of weapons: a kiss from a black Buddha-like statue in a temple. Not only did the kiss kill Guillaume but it seemed to send his soul to the underworld, which is the part that’s been troubling Jirel so much. You may recall the ending of “The Black God’s Kiss” was a bit odd, maybe problematic, due to Jirel realizing—too late—that her immense hatred for Guillaume was actually lust (or “love,” but let’s be real with ourselves, what Jirel feels is not love) in disguise.
The first story was almost a subversion on the sword-and-sorcery formula with how it de-emphasized action in favor of describing, in a great detail, an environment totally alien to human experience; call it a Lovecraftian heroic fantasy. Jirel herself is heroic in that she’s quite brave, true, but she’s really an anti-heroine, having no problem with chopping dudes’ heads off if they come into her castle without her consent (this both does and does not feel like a euphemism), and it’s not like she has any virtuous plans for the world in mind. She’s also not a virginal waif who has never seen a man’s drill before, as it’s made clear to us that she’s taken on several lovers before. I’m just gonna say it: she’s a top. The sexual undertones of “The Black God’s Kiss” are more or less absent in “Black God’s Shadow,” though, as Jirel is less concerned now with satisfaction than she is with finding inner peace.
The opening scene focuses on Jirel trying and failing to sleep at night, her castle restored but her faith in herself wrecked. She considers the possibility of Guillaume, in some spirit form, wandering the underworld beneath the castle, calling her out for her act of strange cruelty.
By the power of that infernal kiss which she had braved the strange dark place underground to get as a weapon against him—by the utter strangeness of it, and the unhuman death he died, it must be that now his naked soul wandered, lost and lonely, through that nameless hell lit by strange stars, where ghosts moved in curious forms through the dark. And he asked her mercy—Guillaume, who in life had asked mercy of no living creature.
Jirel knows what she must do: return to the underworld and find some way to put Guillaume’s soul to rest. Pretty simple goal, right? And it is! This is even more straightforward on a plot level than the first story, to the point where it actually becomes a bit hard to talk about. It’s a bit shorter than “The Black God’s Kiss” but feels about the same length because of the density of Moore’s descriptions, compounded by the fact that there’s virtually no dialogue this time around. We have three characters, but without being too specific for fear of spoiling only one of them is both human and alive; therefore don’t expect to read conversations here.
Another thing to take into account is that there’s even less action here than in “The Black God’s Kiss,” with Jirel fighting off strange creatures so much here as battling the strangeness of the underworld and her own psyche, which has taken a hit since the end of the first story. The most we get prior to the (rather prolonged) climax is an encounter with an unseen venomous creature that goes after Jirel’s legs during the underworld’s starlit nighttime—a bit of horrific ambiguity that shows once again that Moore could’ve become a horror maestro on par with Lovecraft and Howard had she kept going down this path. Indeed it’s here in her early fiction that Moore is the most poetic, being preoccupied with capturing places and emotions to an extent that may read to some people as trying too hard but which nevertheless gives the Jirel of Joiry stories a unique weird-adventure atmosphere.
With that said, some of the things I found memorable from “The Black God’s Kiss,” such as Jirel’s encounter with her evil mirror image and the herd of blind white horses, are gone here, replaced with things which do not strike me as eerie or memorable. The temple where the black god dwelled in the first story is no longer on an issland connected to the rest of the underworld by an invisible bridge but is instead at the head of a river. Stuff has changed around without explanation, which I suppose makes sense given the unhuman and eldritch nature of the underworld, but there are still certain rules it abides; for example, Jirel still has to ditch her crucifix in order to see the vast underground realm for what it is.
As far as Jirel’s wandering the landscape goes there’s a bit of “second verse, same as the first” at work, but what makes this one distinct is how it refuses to turn into an action fantasy. Actually I’d go so far as to say “Black God’s Shadow” is considerably more obscure than its predecessor because it almost doesn’t work as a short story—nay, it reads almost more like a prose poem, written by someone who may or may not have survivor’s guilt. I don’t know enough about Moore’s life to speculate, but I do have to wonder what could’ve prompted her to zero in on trauma and overcoming said trauma like she does in the first two Jirel of Joiry stories. There’s a darkness lurking at the core of these stories that makes them hard to grapple with, even from a modern reader’s perspective—a meditation on guilt and the dark side of lust that rings somehow as more personal than is to be expected from a 1930s fantasy series starring a bad bitch with red hair.
I don’t like “Black God’s Shadow” as much as what came before it, but when taking the two stories as two halves of one whole I do think they work better together than each on its own. “Black God’s Shadow” is gloomier and more contemplative than its predecessor, but as I’ll explain it’s also the more uplifting of the two at the end of it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The climax is basically a standoff between Jirel and the black god, the living and demonic statue she made a deal with before, now her adversary. Guillaume’s soul is kept prisoner by the black god and Jirel has to free it while also not being taken prisoner herself. A lot happens… and yet not a whole lot if you think about it. This is a spiritual battle, but it’s more so a psychological one. Jirel has to forgive both Guillaume and herself; in other words, she has two souls to save. While Jirel is unable to resurrect the man she had killed (thankfully Moore does not pull such a deus ex machina), she is ultimately able to free his soul from the black god’s clutches. While Jirel is unsure as to where Guillaume’s soul went, his voice no longer haunts her in her mind and dreams, which means we’ve gotten about as happy an ending as we can expect. Jirel’s victory is hard-won, but she has learned to love herself again, and thus this chapter in her life has now ended.
(I have to wonder how the next story, “Jirel Meets Magic,” follows up on the sheer darkness here, but my assumption is that it won’t, which is fair. A direct acknowledgment of Jirel’s suffering henceforth is unneeded.)
A Step Farther Out
I pulled up the letters column in the February 1935 issue of Weird Tales, which has responses to the December 1934 issue, and was dismayed by how unconstructive responses to “Black God’s Shadow” were. There’s the usual “I really like this and all hail C. L. Moore” stuff, but nothing I could find about how radically different “Black God’s Shadow” is from its predecessor, despite the two very much forming a duology—even more so when we consider that Moore very likely wrote the two back-to-back and had already sold “Black God’s Shadow” to Wright before “The Black God’s Kiss” saw print. The two were printed as separate stories and not part of a serial because, I reckon, there’s a clear divide between them such that they sort of mirror each other, and would not cohere as part of a single narrative. Still, with Jirel having resolved the internal conflict that plagued her since the end of “The Black God’s Kiss,” she was free to go on other adventures, and Moore was free to not return to Jirel of Joiry for several months.
See you next time.