Reading as a Writer: C. L. Moore

Once in a while, I succumb to someone pressing an author and a book on me, urging me to read them because that someone thinks I’d love them as much as he or she does.  Like set-up dates, these rarely end the way the well-intentioned someone imagined.  You’d think I would have learned to graciously decline the proffered book and leave it at that.  But then someone comes along and insists, as the acquaintance did who loaned me Northwest Smith by C. L. Moore.


C. L. Moore (Wikipedia)

C. L. Moore has the distinction of being one of the first women to write and publish science fiction and fantasy fiction.  She is especially renowned for her Northwest Smith short stories that she wrote in the 1930’s.  She also wrote a series of fantasy fiction.  The book my acquaintance loaned me was a collection of Northwest Smith stories.

I would give Moore high marks for imagination in describing an alien world, alien beings and creating a strange, foreign situation and place.  She remains in our solar system.  For locations close to her characters, however, she skimps on description, making me long for more.  I wanted to see the inside of the boarding house or hotel or whatever it was where Smith stayed.  I wanted to see more clearly what the “Earthmen camp town” looked like — the buildings, streets, stores, etc.

Northwest Smith has few thoughts and fewer words, and remains two-dimensional despite any challenges he faces.  What really bugged me was Moore’s description of him, especially his “colorless” eyes.  This highlighted her absolutely terrible prose style and writing.  Her descriptions tend to be vague for the most part when a few specific details could reveal character and bring him into focus in a reader’s mind.  For example, rather than colorless, something like “slate-gray eyes so pale they appeared to have no color at all” would have added a fragile stone that could suggest Smith’s weakness for females from any planet but his stoniness emotionally.  As it is, Smith is as colorless a character as his eyes.

In Shambleau, probably Moore’s most famous short story and science fiction horror, she does an excellent job of describing the title character, giving her an eerie creepiness that remains constant through the story.  Why Smith couldn’t see this creepiness makes him implausible to me.  By the end, I would not have been disappointed if the Shambleau had prevailed instead of Smith and his Venusian buddy who barely misses being a deus ex machina.

Moore seemed to think that the mere repetition of something creates suspense, rather than the repetition of something suspenseful.  The needless repetition slowed the pace and annoyed me as a reader.  It also made for melodramatic prose.  This may have worked in the 1930’s, when these stories were first published, but now, they look like padding and the work of an amateur.  For example:

“From deeps of sound sleep he awoke much later.  He awoke suddenly and completely, and with that inner excitement that presages something momentous.  He awoke to brilliant moonlight, turning the room so bright that he could see the scarlet of the girl’s rags…..

Another example of Moore’s prose:

“Lakkdarol roars by night, as Earthmen’s camp-towns have a way of doing on every planet where Earth’s outposts are, and it was beginning lustily as Smith went down among the awakening lights toward the center of town.  His business there does not concern us.”

Well, why not?  Moore mentions he has business there so why not give the reader an idea of what exactly he does to earn his money?  I also wanted to see more about how Lakkdarol roars by night, where Earth’s outposts are or don’t mention it, and cut “lustily” which says little.  Granted, prose styles change over the years, but other writers of that time and earlier were able to focus their prose more expertly.

Needless to say, I stopped reading halfway through the second story in the collection, wondering why my acquaintance believed I would be as in love with this writer as he was.  As a homage to the Medusa story, Shambleau was interesting and I thought Moore’s description of the Shambleau quite good.  So why did she skimp on everything else in this story?  Clearly C. L. Moore’s writing is not my cup of tea.  I’m afraid I can not recommend it, either.



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