This is a collection that brings together most of CL Moore's most famous characters, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.
Jirel of Joiry is a female warrior in Medieval France. However this is just a stepping point for her adventures in other worlds and dimensions touching on our own. Often credited with being the inspiration behind Robert E Howard's Red Sonya character, these stories are mainly about the darkness that is separated from our own world by a thin membrane. Most of these stories involve her being seduced by some otherworldly creature or god, but she recovers enough of herself to fight back and escape in time. My favourite of the Jirel stories was 'Hellgarde', which broke this mold and featured an intriguing band of a lord an his retinue held up in an abandoned, haunted castle, and the real reason why they were there.
The Northwest Smith books are similar to Leigh Brackett's 'Mars' stories, and roughly fall into the Sword and Planet category. Also set on Mars, they delve into weird fiction, however they are more Clark Ashton Smith than HP Lovecraft. Again, they do tend to be formulaic, in that Northwest Smith comes across a seductive woman, who is not all she seems, and who leads him into some perilous confrontation. Rather than being high on action, the Northwest Smith stories are more about invoking the feeling of weirdness or dread, and the interior struggle Northwest Smith undergoes to live another day.
Individually I think these stories in this collection are great, and they do highlight the career of one of the early pioneers of SF and Fantasy who is all but forgotten now. However tthey do get samey samey, particularly if you read one right after the other.
I would recommend you read a story, put it down, and then come back to the book a day or so later and you will appreciate them more.
This is a collection of short stories written for the Weird Tales magazine which Robert E. Howard inventor of Conan and Soloman Kane also wrote for, although they are different in style from those tales, less fantastic adventure tale and more like the cosmic horror genre of HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (although not as good as Smith, at least not consistently so).
The book is divided into two parts, the first part is the smaller and features Jirel of Joiry, a kind of medieval warrior princess who made me think of a cross between Bodica and Joan of Arc and the second part, the greater part of the book, feature Northwest Smith, a space adventurer/smuggler who reminded me of some kind of a cross between Indiana Jones and Han Solo (of the early unscrupulous space pirate Greedo shooting variety).
In many of the stories, both the Jirel and Smith ones, the theme is one of the protagonists stumbling upon or having to enter alternative worlds and this is where the cosmic horror angle plays out. Jirel crosses through a wizard's magical doorway into a world dominated by a sorceress and in two other adventures uses a strange passage (which made me think of tunnel made by a giant worm or something like it) to venture into a demonic otherworld which is described as hell. Northwest Smith while hiding from the authorities stumbles upon an alternative world dominated by a carnivorous tree when chasing someone through a shadow, in another tale he falls asleep and is drawn into a similarly weird landscape in which anyone can be prey to an unseen predator and death at any time by a shawl or blanket he bought which was a relic, in still another by being party to hearing a story related in magical language he is transported through time and space and confronts God like entities.
Additional to the recurrent theme of alternative or other worlds which the protagonists have to quest into or accidentially stumble upon there are themes of struggle, endevour or endurance and will, Jirel has to match her human will with that of demons, a malevolent darkness which could be the devil itself and a sorceress, while Northwest Smith tangles with alien life forms, quasi-deified monsters and forgotten Gods. More than once the adversaries are vampiric, seeking to drain away life force and those that dont want to surmount the protagonists will and dominate them, in both Jirel and Smith's tales what makes for a hero is an insurmountable will and unconquerable character (although in at least two of Smith's tale's he is overwhelmed and lucky to have others come to his aid).
Some of the stories are much, much weaker than others, ramble a bit or are uninteresting for the most part but almost all of them have some excellent pages or passages which make reading worthwhile.
I'd heard of C. L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry for a long time. Jirel was one of the early Sword and Sorcery characters and the first to be a woman, barring one-offs like Howard's red Sonja. So I expected something along the lines of "Conan in a Skirt" or similar, the standard fantasy heroine.
But it's not like that at all. The Jirel of Joiry stories (which make up the first half of the book) are more thoughtful and disturbing than Conan. Jirel is the Castellan of a fortress in a French seeming country and not a barbarian at all, though she has a temper. And the stories contain far more elements of Horror, almost Lovecraftian Horror (though better written) than Howard's Conan. I was impressed, and I hadn't expected to be.
The Northwest Smith stories, which make up the second part, are varied in quality, "Shambleau", the first one, being the best IMHO. They can drag on a bit at times but overall are also a good read. They, too, are mainly concerned with Horror, Lovecraftian style at times and this is interesting given the SF background (didn't I mention they're set in the future after Man's colonisation of the Solar System? Well they are.) SF and Horror rarely mix and it is to Moore's credit that she pulls this off pretty well.
In summary, a very good book. Read it.
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Volume 31 in the Fantasy Masterworks series is another collection of stories culled from the pages of the 1930s magazine 'Weird Tales'. Catherine Moore wasn't quite as prolific in the field as some of her better-known contemporaries, but managed to more than hold her own in providing the requisite bizarre creatures and strange worlds demanded of this type of pulp fantasy fiction. Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams is, in fact, two story collections. The first follows the adventures of Jirel of Joiry, Moore's warrior heroine, through five stories, the best of which is probably the last -'Hellsgarde', which is a bit like a cross between 'Xena - Warrior Princess', and one of Clark Ashton Smith's stories about rotting castles full of the living dead and gateways to other dimensions. We only get 160 pages' worth of Jirel and one is left with the feeling that a whole volume could easily be devoted to this character, although I have no idea whether Moore wrote any further stories about her. On to part 2 and the adventures of Northwest Smith, laser gunslinger of the spaceways. Anyone concerned that the book is about to degenerate into cheap Western plots rehashed with a space setting will be pleased to learn that the first story contains a weird vampire-gorgon creature that must have provided the inspiration for using Caravaggio's Medusa as the book's cover art. Moore's prose style, particularly her descriptions of the various lurid landscapes in which Smith tends to find himself, is eminently readable. Unfortunately, plot wise these stories are often very similar, with our hero being threatened by a voluptuous lady alien who requires an essential part of him for some nefarious scheme. He usually escapes through the power of his will, sometimes helped along with a few bursts from his laser/ray/blaster gun (it changes from story to story). A book to be read more as a period piece, as well as a shining example of how a woman managed to succeed in the male-dominated arena of thirties pulp SF. Nevertheless, if you've been enjoying the books by Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith in this series, then you could do worse than to while away a few pleasant hours with this volume as well.
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Not one for Collections of short stories myself, but I simply adored this book!
This is a Collection of individual Fantasy stories that were written way ahead of their time, and therefore must mark the true beginning of Sci-Fi and the Fantasy Fiction genres. Very readable and easy to follow with some great atmosphere and thought-provoking scenarios for its heroine.
Written by a woman, one would perhaps be forgiven for expecting a little too much sentimentality, but although there is much sensitivity with regards to the traits and leanings of its main characters, these stories are by no means 'weaker' than would be written by any man.
I particularly enjoyed the atmospherics that seemed to 'emanate' from the pages like ectoplasm, and in a way that is hard to define. I also enjoyed the story that was set on Mars, and when one thinks that these notions were created long before we'd achieved any form of space travel at all - it's quite remarkable!
Whenever I feel the need to escape, I think of picking up this book of short stories and it works every time!
A thoroughly enjoyable Collection of works that you will definitely be reading again!