Monday, June 12, 2017

Black God's Kiss

C.L. Moore was one of the greats of the pulp era, all the more remarkably because while the pen name was a bit deceptive, it was not long before it became well-known that “C. L.” stood for Catherine Lucille. By the time the secret was out, her reputation was already made, and no one seemed to mind much. She wrote all kinds of stories, but she is important to the history of Sword & Sorcery primarily because not only was she the first female writer in the genre, but she penned the first female S&S hero: Jirel of Joiry.

The first Jirel story appeared in 1934 under the title “Black God’s Kiss”, and it remains the best-known of the six tales Moore wrote about her medieval heroine. There is some speculation that she was inspired by Howard’s stories featuring his own female character, Black Agnes of Chastillion. It’s hard to say, since the Black Agnes stories did not see print until long after Howard’s death. Moore was one of his correspondents, and apparently saw at least one of the tales in manuscript form – perhaps Howard solicited her opinion on how he was doing with a female hero, as that was unusual for him. Regardless, we know she thought Black Agnes was awesome, and it is obvious Howard was an influence on the style and feel of her first foray into genuine Sword & Sorcery.

Rather than a fantastical world, Jirel inhabited a kind of fictionalized medieval France, similar to the made-up province of Averoigne used by Clark Ashton Smith. A lady ruler of an undefined fiefdom, she begins her tale as her lands have been conquered by a guy named Guillaume – no other info is given about him, save that he has a beard and laughs. He kisses Jirel, likens it to “kissing a sword blade”, and has her locked away in anticipation of more lascivious attentions later. Jirel escapes and hatches a plan for revenge. Knowing she can’t defeat him with all his men, she sets out on another course.

This is where the story becomes very Lovecraftian. Jirel opens a hidden trap door in her castle’s basement and descends into a hole said to be inhabited by something inhuman. Eventually she comes out in a seeming parallel dimension with weird creatures, strange stars, and an air of foreboding and horror. All of this is quite reminiscent of the kind of thing Lovecraft did in stories like “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Mound”, as well as shades of Howard’s “The Worms of the Earth”. Moore uses a highly poetic prose style, though she trades in surprisingly little violence.

Eventually she is directed to a lost temple, where a statue (the Black God of the title) sits with lips pursed as if awaiting a kiss, and Jirel kisses it, feeling it thus impart to her a terrible power she knows will destroy Guillaume. Then she has to escape this nightmare world and confront her nemesis. When she is face to face with her enemy again, she kisses him, and the power she took from the idol destroys him.

And unfortunately, here is where the story veers off for a modern reader, because the very end is Jirel throwing a fit because she realizes, now, that she was totally in love with Guillaume and that now there is “. . . no light, anywhere in the world, now that Guillaume was gone.”

It really comes out of nowhere, as her only interaction with him has been at the very beginning, where he laughs at her, kisses her, and essentially says he’s going to keep her as a concubine. Throughout the tale Moore keeps him in mind with Jirel thinking about how mad she is at him and how she wants him to be dead. She goes through all this trouble and danger to kill him, and then she immediately dissolves in tears and claims she was somehow in love with him.

It doesn’t work, since there is not enough of Guillaume as a character or interactions between them to sell this idea. I can see how it could have worked, if we knew who he was, or what their relationship was like and how they knew one another. It there was something there to make this work at all, but there isn’t. As it is, it just comes across as a silly contrivance, and it almost manages to derail the atmosphere and character Moore has built up to this point. Some people may feel it does ruin it. I myself just see it as a disappointing relic of an earlier, more sexist era.

Still, flaws and all, “Black God’s Kiss” is one of the earliest stories to show the influence Howard was having on the fantasy genre with his work, and it is the first definitive Sword & Sorcery story with a female protagonist. Long before Red Sonja sallied forth in her armored bikini, there was Jirel of Joiry.

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