C. L. Moore is one of the pen names of Catherine Lucille Moore, one of the early female speculative fiction and fantasy writers. “Shambleau” was her first published story and her most popular. The impact of this story at the time of its publication was quite profound, but Lester Del Rey manages to neatly sum it up: “The influences of that story were and are tremendous. Here, for the first time in the field, we find mood, feeling, and colour. In ‘Shambleau’ we also experience as never before both the horror at what we may find in space and the romance of space itself” (p. 2).
There have been attempts to compare C. L. Moore with the Shambleau, notably by Lester Del Rey, who attempts to bring the two together by looking at the response to “Shambleau” the story and Shambleau the creature. The quote from Del Rey I mentioned earlier said that with “Shambleau” there was an introduction of “mood, feeling, and colour” into the science fiction scene that had not been prevalent before. Thomas A. Bredehoft writes “the publication of ‘Shambleau’ is [ . . . ] a sort of ‘original sin:’ the introduction of sex, feeling, and emotion into the ‘mechanistic and unemotional’ masculinist Eden of pre-’Shambleau’ science fiction.” “Shambleau” had a strong draw for readers who had never come across science fiction quite like this before – much like how the Shambleau captures Northwest Smith’s interest. Just as Smith is drawn to and repulsed by the Shambleau, we as readers are attracted to and disgusted by the content of this story.
Firstly, I’d like to take a step back and consider aliens in general as a literary device, and how that works in “Shambleau.” To put it simply, aliens in literature often signify elements of society that are foreign, ignored, repressed, or marginalized. They allow us to take issues or sometimes-unpleasant elements of society and effectively ‘other’ them to examine them in a more removed way. One of the two main themes of “Shambleau” is presented to us in this way, as a repressed element: Sexuality. The Shambleau personifies sex and sexuality, and the fact that C. L. Moore has chosen this to be the Shambleau’s representative element and the way the other people in Lakkdarol, who have full knowledge of what she really is, react to her, gives us a sense of attitudes toward sex at the time the story was written. We don’t have any other women in the story for comparison, but the fact that we have to remove ourselves from the human sphere completely to openly depict a blatantly sexual female being is very telling. “Shambleau” also disrupts any kind of expected gender hierarchy: the idea of men being more the active pursuers and women being the passive pursued ones is dispelled, Northwest Smith is in “a blind abyss of submission” (p. 126) while the Shambleau is enclosing him in her tentacles. It’s not just the gender hierarchy that is flipped on its head, heterosexuality is as well if we consider “the root-deep ecstasy” (p. 127) that Smith takes from the Shambleau’s (fairly phallic) tentacles. Essentially, C. L. Moore uses aliens as a literary device to investigate attitudes toward sex and alter gender hierarchies.
Moore’s description of addiction in “Shambleau” is presented in a familiar way –vampirism is a common metaphor for addiction, and the vampire’s addiction is usually passed on to the victim. C. L. Moore makes this very clear in how she portrays Smith, the victim of this vampire: Smith, when Yarol first sees him clearly, is an addict: “his face was that of some creature beyond humanity – dead-alive, fixed in a grey stare, and the look of terrible ecstasy that overspread it seemed to come from somewhere far within” (p. 129). He’s not just affected physically, however – he can’t quite promise Yarol that he will kill any Shambleau he comes across, and his speech has changed too, the Shambleau has left its mark on him: his speech is disjointed, with plenty of awkward pauses, just like how the Shambleau spoke. The power of Shambleau is made evident toward the end of the story, where the narrative viewpoint shifts away from Smith when he succumbs to the Shambleau to Yarol, then equally to both in about the last page and a half as they both try to process what just happened to them. This leaves it up to the reader to decide which viewpoint to adopt, Smith’s or Yarol’s – but we tend to slide toward Smith, because we can more easily understand his uncertain rejection of the Shambleau, because we know all too well how compelling it can be.
We’re kind of hit over the head repeatedly with the Medusa motif in this story, C. L. Moore is not at all subtle about making sure we notice it. It’s brought up in the prologue: “The myth of the Medusa, for instance can never have had its roots in the soil of Earth. That tale of the snake-haired Gorgon whose gaze turned the gazer to stone never originated about any creature that Earth nourished. And those ancient Greeks who told the story must have remembered, dimly and half-believing, a tale of antiquity about some strange being from one of the outlying planets their remotest ancestors once trod” (p. 111). Having this image of Medusa already in our minds from the very outset of the story puts us on high alert and as a result, we pick up on the very first hint of the Shambleau’s nature before Northwest Smith does, when “the thick lock of crimson moved, squirmed itself against her cheek” (p. 119). When Smith does realize though, Medusa is brought up again. “… in starting waves back from her forehead and down about her in a hideous background writhed the snaky wetness of her living tresses. And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa” (p. 126). And just in case any of this was slipping by us, Moore really hammers it home at the end of the story, where Yarol kills the Shambleau the same way Perseus killed Medusa, and then explicitly links the two, saying that the Shambleau must have been in Greece three thousand years ago, or humans must have encountered one around that time.
But so what? Yes, there is this recurring Medusa motif, but what purpose does it serve? In relation to “Shambleau,” Thomas A. Bredehoft wrote, “Medusa’s head is very much a representation of the terrifying ‘Other.’” Moore suggesting that an alien is the inspiration behind the Medusa myth makes the “other” element very literal, as the Shambleau is about as ‘other’ as you can get: not from this planet, with a distinctly non-human appearance and style of predatory behaviour. On top of that, Moore’s physical description of the Shambleau alters the traditional image of Medusa. Typically Medusa was very ugly and had snakes for hair, and sometimes, green skin, but other than that, was generally humanoid. The Shambleau, however, is distinctly non-human even before we know about the tentacles on her head: she looks even less human than Medusa – four fingers on each hand, all clawed, a cat-like tongue, and feline eyes. All of this adds up to the image of something that is even more terrifyingly ‘other’ than Medusa. As Yarol makes clear, the Shambleau certainly explains why Medusa was considered such a terrifying monster to the Greeks.
And why does Moore phrase this retelling of Medusa’s story as she does? Why doesn’t the Shambleau have actual snakes growing from her head, why doesn’t she turn people to stone, why, WHY, is it set on Mars? At this point in time, after thousands of years of retelling, Medusa’s story doesn’t immediately provoke terror in readers. We accept the description of Medusa as monstrous, but it is such a familiar, pervasive image that it doesn’t immediately terrify us – kind of like how Twilight thoroughly toned down the scare factor of vampires. Common cultural tropes lose their effectiveness over time and through overexposure, so Moore manages to reinvigorate Medusa’s story by synthesizing a new sort of Medusa from elements of the traditional story and vampiric behaviours to bring the unfamiliar and therefore more effective visions of Shambleau to mind. Moore setting the story in a city on Mars is another way for her to introduce this sort of novelty and to highlight the alien aspects of this story. I think it’s a fairly effective way to make these sorts of creatures scary again.
C. L. Moore shaped the Shambleau to be as other as possible: alien, addict, animalistic, and disruptive of gender hierarchies: she may look human at first glance but she is anything but. Moore not only introduced readers to a colourful, emotional version of science fiction, she also made them face familiar but ignored concepts like sexuality and addiction.
Thomas A. Bredehoft’s article
Lester Del Rey’s introduction to The Best of C. L. Moore
Some helpful background information about Medusa and the Medusa myth
And beside that, some fun tidbits that I couldn’t fit into my presentation:
- It’s fairly commonly accepted that Northwest Smith had some influence over the construction of Han Solo as a character, or at the very least had a strong contribution to the Space Cowboy trope.
- “Shambleau” also influenced “Queen of Blood,” a 1966 film that tells the story of another female vampiric alien.
- The song Northwest Smith is whistling, “The Green Hills of Earth,” inspired the title of Robert Heinlein’s story of the same name: listen to it here, if you wish!
Just a thought to consider: between the description of the Shambleau and the nature of Northwest Smith’s addiction, which do you think is more frightening, and why?
And lastly, some images of the Shambleau, which are useful so you can actually see the visual similarities between the Shambleau and Medusa: