Fantastic Transmissions E002: Quest of the Starstone by C. L. Moore

Episode 2 of Fantastic Transmissions is about Quest of the Starstone by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Quest is the first collaborative work between queen of sword-and-sorcery C.L. Moore and her eventual husband, Kuttner. We talk about the stylistic quirks of the early days of pulp fiction, examine the collaborative prowess of Moore and Kuttner, and lament for Moore’s slip into obscurity.

Podbean: https://bookshelfstudios.podbean.com/e/episode-002-quest-of-the-starstone/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-002-quest-of-the-starstone/id1341102133?i=1000402176576&mt=2

Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/m/D3vohqxn3j37k5gbamma2w7pduy?t=Episode_002_-_Quest_Of_The_Starstone-Fantastic_Transmissions

The intro music is sampled from Clyde Borly and His Percussions, off the album “Music in Five Dimensions.” The rest of the musc in the podcast was created by Blue Dot Sessions. Their work can be found on the Free Music Archive under a Non-Commercial Attribution License. You can also find all their tracks at www.sessions.blue. The clip of Green Hills of Earth is from episode 10 of the radio program Dimension X, first broadcasted by NBC on June 10, 1950, and now available from the Smithsonian Institution’s Radio Spirits series.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project.

Script:

Tonights Transmission:

Welcome to Fantastic Transmissions, the podcast about the greatest and weirdest sci-fi and fantasy stories ever told.

Tonight’s transmission: Quest of the Star Stone by C L Moore

Introduction:

Dial your chronometers back to 1937. We are in the heart of the pulp era. The magazine “Weird Tales” reigns supreme. One writer in particular is never far from the pages of Weird Tales. Her name is Catherine Lucille Moore, known professionally as C L Moore.

C L Moore, born 1911, grew up sickly. She immersed herself in tales of the fantastic. In her words:

“They found me under a cabbage plant on the 24th of January 1911 and I was reared on a diet of  Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so you can see I never had a chance.”

Like so many of us, she tried her hand at writing a few fantastic tales of her own. In 1933, she published her first story in Weird Tales; she sold it for $100, equivalent to a month’s salary at her day job. Good time to be a writer. That story was called “Shambleau;” it was a gripping yarn about veteran space scoundrel Northwest Smith and his fateful encounter with a horrific medusa.

Northwest Smith is a prototype for Han Solo. Rough-and-tumble, ready for action; a smuggler and a scoundrel who flirts with danger and beauty alike. C L Moore created Northwest intending him to be a Western hero; when she changed the setting to space, she kept the name because she liked the absurdity of a compass-based name in space.

About a year after the sale of Shambleau, Moore published another story in Weird Tales – Black God’s Kiss. This story starred a new type of hero: Jirel of Joiry, a french warrior woman from the middle ages. Jirel’s adventures were classic sword-and-sorcery fare; C L Moore was, after all, a contemporary of Robert E Howard, creator of Conan. In fact, he sold his first Conan story around the time C L Moore sold her first Northwest Story.

Over the following years, C L Moore published a series of stories in Weird Tales about each character. Northwest Smith had his deeds of strange derring-do in the far-flung corners of space, and Jirel of Joiry did battle with weird wizards and warlocks in medieval France.

In 1936, a fan of these stories, one Mister Henry Kuttner, wrote a letter of admiration. He addressed it to MISTER C L Moore. Catherine must have disabused him of this notion quickly. But a relationship was struck. Together, through the mail, they concocted a story together, a bold crossover between the sci-fi opera of Northwest Smith and the sword-and-sorcery of Jirel of Joiry. QUEST OF THE STARSTONE was born.

The story was published in Weird Tales in 1937, a collaborative effort with a dual byline. Moore and Kuttner went on to get married in 1940, and continued writing collaboratively for the rest of their lives. They published over 70 pieces together up until Kuttner’s death in 1958. Moore wrote with a lush, descriptive voice; Kuttner tended to be more cerebral and structured. Together, they created an impressive library of tales under a variety of pseudonyms.

Tonight’s transmission is their first collaborative effort, a lost classic of the sci-fi pulps. Let’s talk about QUEST OF THE STARSTONE.

Summary:

Our story begins as Jirel of Joiry bursts into the chambers of the evil warlock Franga. She seeks to take his legendary artifact, the Starstone, for herself. Franga flees through a portal conjured by black magic, and Jirel retrieves the Starstone, her quest complete. But Franga vows to hunt through time and space for a champion to retrieve the stone from Jirel by force of arms.

We then jump headlong to a Martian tavern, where Northwest Smith and his trusty Venusian pal “Yarol” sit drinking morosely. Northwest, long exiled from earth, yearns to return to the green hills of home. No sooner does he say so than a strange door opens in the wall, where there was no door before. A crooked man in black robes speaking medieval French offers Northwest a job – in France, in the year 1500. Northwest seizes the opportunity – and poor Venusial Yarol gets dragged along too.

Franga teaches Northwest a magic incantation that will let him abscond with Jirel and the Starstone to a pocket dimension of Franga’s choosing. Northwest and Yarol head for the castle of Joiry. They find Jirel feasting in the high hall. Northwest flashes his steely grey eyes and convinces Jirel to meet with them in private. There, once the Starstone is revealed, he whisks them away to Franga’s pocket dimension.

In the pocket dimension, Northwest realizes Franga is an evil warlock, and turns the tables, refusing to serve the dark magician. Franga abandons the trio in the pocket dimension. Now cautious allies, Northwest and Jirel set off to find means of survival. It’s not long, however, before they have to fight their way through a horde of mummy-zombie-monsters.

Just as they escape the clutches of the monster horde, Franga ambushes them and strips them of their weapons. He then tortures Northwest and Yarol to convince Jirel to hand over the Starstone. Shaken by the brutal torture of her new pals, Jirel goes to give Franga the stone. But Northwest, savvy as ever, leaps forward and kicks the stone away. It shatters against a rock wall.

It is revealed that the stone was a prison for some sort of eldritch alien god, a being of pure light. It offers to grant them one favor; Jirel asks that they all be sent home. And so Jirel and Northwest are torn apart again. Franga, presumably, is also torn apart, in a more physical sense. We end on Northwest, back in the Martian tavern, ruminating on the face of a girl who has been dead two thousand years.

Analysis:

Characters and Writing:

Like most pulp adventure stories, there is very little time wasted at the beginning with setup. The very first line is:

“The rivet-studded oaken door crashed open, splintering from the assault of pike-butts whose thunderous echoes still rolled around the walls of the tiny stone room revealed beyond the wreck of the shattered door.”

These kind of pulp stories were understood as brief glimpses into the lives of extraordinary heroes. Each Jirel story – or Conan story, or Solomon Kane, or Jules de Grandin – is written as if it is an excerpt from a neverending series of deeds of derring-do. Of course the story opens with Jirel bursting into an evil warlock’s chamber to steal his precious starstone. Why she’s hunting the starstone, how she found Franga, what their existing relationship is – none of that necessarily matters. She wanted the starstone because it was there.

Catherine Moore herself would agree with this. In her own words, she described her writing process thusly:

“I really have very little to do with the stories I write. All i do is start them off, and then urge them along until everything is tangled into knots of insolvable dilemma, and then bang! the plot gets the bit in its teeth and gallops off at a furious pace with me hanging on behind trying to keep up with it. No one is more surprised than I when the whole thing ends.”

Jirel is a fascinating character. She is the lady of her own castle, she has an army of faithful soldiers at her back. She is an adventurer by trade; she is hot-blooded and lives large. Her adventures are prototypes of the warrior amazon story. Her grandchildren are Xena, Warrior Princess, and Asha Greyjoy from A Song of Ice and Fire. When frustrated by her cowering soldiers, she berates them by weaponizing her gender:

“You womanish knaves! Womanish, did I say? Ha! You don’t deserve the flattery!”

You might notice from these quotes that the writing is just as overwrought as all other pulp adventures of the day. There is a great deal of telling; less showing. Adverbs litter the page; characters sob and scream and howl at the slightest provocation. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, though. Speculative fiction stories need to rely more on telling. When you’re writing a story about wizards disappearing into the walls, you don’t want to waste time and space puzzling over how to tell the reader that Jirel is angry at this development.

When we meet Northwest Smith, it is in a rare quiet moment in his life. He sits in a Martian tavern, brooding over his exile from earth. He even sings a few bars of a ballad, the Green Hills of Earth. C. L. Moore made this ballad up out of whole cloth for Northwest Smith in her first story; here, Mooore and Kuttner expand on the song, penning a few mournful lines. Ten years later, Robert Heinlein wrote a whole short story based on this song; a later anthology of Heinlein’s fiction shared the title “The Green Hills of Earth,” and it’s since become a running theme for space-faring adventurers.

Moore’s writing is at its best when it slows down. Her stories and style differed greatly from those of her contemporaries; she was known for her focus on senses and the emotions, as opposed to the raw plot-driven adventure that dominated the field. Her first Jirel of Joiry story, for instance, titled “Black God’s Kiss,” is mostly a near-hallucinogenic journey into a strange and eldritch land made of light and shadow. Despite Jirel’s swashbuckling skills, the story focused mostly on her feelings toward her nemesis slash possible lover Guillame.

That emphasis on the internal is evident with embittered Northwest Smith. Moore goes to the trouble, with the green hills of earth scene, to establish that Northwest longs for the fields of home. When evil wizard Franga shows up to offer him a way back, the audience is along for the ride – we know how badly Northwest wanted to go home. And sure enough, after passing through Franga’s portal, Northwest:

“Stood on a green hilltop whose gentle slope rolled downward to a meadow whre a brook wound with a sound of rippling water.”

Moore does a tremendous job making us believe that Northwest would do the bidding of a transparently evil demon-warlock, all for the sake of those green hills of home.

Relationships and Love:

Northwest and Jirel, from the get-go, have fascinating chemistry. Jirel is never one to live subtly. From the moment she sees Northwest – whom she calls, in her French accent, “Smeet,” she can’t help but be attracted to this dangerous devil. A flush runs up her cheeks; we are told that “emotions she would not acknowledge” were stirring in her. Northwest, too, begins to fall for Jirel. When they abscond to Franga’s pocket dimension, Jirel meets the warlock “snarling with invincible savagery that went to [Northwest’s] heart as no helplessness could have done.” These two bloody-minded adventurers recognize kindred spirits – game recognize game.

A good number of the Northwest and Jirel stories explore relationships and love. Almost none of them turn out well. In her first two stories – “Black God’s Kiss” and “Black God’s Shadow” – Jirel deals with her relationship with the villianous and yet oh-so-attractive Guillaume. Spoiler alert: the first story ends with Jirel cursing Guillaume to an eternity of suffering in the black god’s pits; the second story ends with Jirel setting Guillaume’s soul free to die in peace. The story “Jirel Meets Magic” deals with Jirel fighting a dynamic duo: a wicked sorceress and her sniveling romantic partner, a weak-willed warlock. In Jirel’s “The Dark Land,” Jirel is abducted by an elfin lord from a magic kingdom; he intends to make her his queen, and she must escape his clutches.

Northwest Smith doesn’t escape romance easily, either. C. L. Moore’s first published story, Shambleau, is a tale about Northwest rescuing a strange alien woman from a lynch mob…only to find out that she deserved to be lynched after all. There’s too many Northwest stories to go through them all, but strange women drawing Northwest into deadly peril is a common theme.

So Jirel and Northwest both come from backgrounds where their lives are put at risk by their attractions to – or repulsion from – another person. In this story, Jirel’s life is put in danger by Northwest, and Northwest puts himself in danger for Jirel. It’s a clever way to blend their stories; Henry Kuttner and Catherine Moore certainly knew what they were doing.

In the end, of course, Jirel and Northwest are ripped apart by the magic of the god imprisoned in the starstone. In their last moments together, Jirel meet’s Northwest’s eyes with a “sudden desperate message;” when Northwest reflects on her, he thinks of a “keen pale face whose eyes blazed with some sudden violence of emotion, some message he would never know.”

We end the story with the feeling that Jirel and Northwest could, under the right circumstances, have been the greatest pulp power-couple of all time.

Of course, one has to wonder a little about how Kuttner and Moore wrote themselves into this story. It’s arguably the most positive romantic experience that Jirel and Northwest ever have through their respective adventures. Kuttner and Moore, you may recall, were married only three years after they co-wrote this story.

The collaborative works of Kuttner and Moore became the stuff of legend. L Sprauge de Camp, a legendary sci-fi writer in his own right, has described their collaboration as so seamless that, after a story was completed, it was impossible for either Kuttner or Moore to recall who wrote what. Anthologist and writer Karl Edward Wagner described their relationship as a “total fusion of their dissimilar talents into a sort of symbiotic artistic entity.”

C. L. Moore’s name disappears from bylines almost entirely after her marriage to Kuttner. They wrote either under his name or under male pseudonyms – they were, some sources, say, more likely to get a higher page rate on stories under male names. After Kuttner died of a heart attack in 1958, Catherine essentially disappeared from the field of science fiction. She wrote a few television scripts here and there, and taught for a while at USC. Eventually she remarried, and stopped writing altogether. When she eventually died in 1987 – following a long, slow decline into alzheimer’s – close friends from her writing days didn’t find out she had died until almost a year later.

Catherine Moore left an indelible mark on sci-fi and fantasy, and together she and Henry Kuttner wrote a treasure trove of classic stories, perfectly fusing their disparate styles. It’s a damn shame that her name isn’t remembered alongside Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft; she, too, was one of those masters of the pulp genre. The grandchildren of Northwest and Jirel still populate our favorite stories to this day.

I’d like to close with some of Miss Moore’s own words, from an “autobiographical sketch” she wrote in 1936.

“About me, aside from my stories, there’s very little to say, and much as I’d like to talk about myself all I can think of to offer is the information that I love chow mein, formal dances, the heavenly taste of peach brandy and the writings of Messrs. Lovecraft and Howard, and despise spinach, Al Jolson, and codliver oil. And that seems to cover the subject pretty thoroughly. Thanks for listenin.’”

Outro:

Thank you for listening. Fantastic Transmissions is the work of me, Michael. You can find a transcript of this episode, the links i’ve mentioned, and with further episodes, at my website, www dot off michaels bookshelf dot wordpress dot com. There, you’ll find blog posts I’ve written and links to other podcasts and projects i’m involved with. Those include Bookshelf Studios, my YouTube channel, and Maester Monthly, a song of ice and fire podcast of which I am one of the hosts. Fantastic Transmissions can be found on twitter at fan transmissions; so far, the podcast is on podbean, iTunes, and google play. If you enjoyed Fantastic Transmissions, let me know – via itunes review, direct message on twitter, or by beaming your signal directly to my extra-dimensional receiver.

Fantastic Transmissions is a non-commercial project; I do not plan on ever having ads on the podcast. If you would like to support my other creative projects, however, you can find me on Patreon at patreon dot com slash bookshelf studios.

The music you heard in the intro was sampled from Clyde Borly and his percussions, off the album “music in 5 dimensions.” The running music during the cast was all from Blue Dot Sessions; their material can be found on the free music archive, as well as at www dot sessions dot blue. The clip of Green Hills of Earth is from episode 10 of the radio program Dimension X, first broadcasted by NBC on June 10, 1950, and now available from the Smithsonian Institution’s Radio Spirits series.

Transmission ending. Michael out.

Links:

C.L. Moore on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._L._Moore

Henry Kuttner on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Kuttner

Review at Grognardia: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2012/08/pulp-fantasy-library-quest-of-starstone.html

Green Hills of Earth radio drama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4NYpnx9xoM

Source for the story:

Wagner, Karl Edward. Echoes of Valor II. 1st ed., T. Doherty Associates, 1991.

 

 

 

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