Planet Stories, $12.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-081-0
Sci-fi, 2008 (Reissue)
This Northwest of Earth is not the collection published by Gnome Press back in 1954. Sure, they both have the same title and they both are collections of short stories by the late CL Moore, but this collection in the Planet Stories imprint has 13 stories to the 8 present in the 1954 collection.
CL Moore is one of the handful of female authors who made a name for themselves in the male-dominated pulp fiction era of the 1930s. The stories here, published initially in Weird Tales, introduce Northwest Smith, an outlaw from Earth who currently alternates his time between Mars and Venus. He has his trusty gun, and he is often accompanied by his Venusian buddy, Yarol.
Now, the marketing of this particular collection does the short stories a great deal of disservice. In the introduction, CJ Cherryh describes Northwest as an “archetype of Indiana Jones”. All the glowing blurbs lead to Northwest being a “daring outlaw” and the “ur-hero of the twentieth century”. So, it is understandable that the reader may expect 13 stories of utter mayhem, chaos, comedy, adventure, and what not. And these are everything the stories here are not. It is as if the publisher is setting up the collection to fail and the readers’ raised expectations to shatter.
From the first story Shambleau to the closing story Werewoman, these stories are very heavy in atmosphere, drenched in detailed evocative descriptions of dark shadows and stuff, and no, there are no chases, showdowns, or anything typically associated with a “daring outlaw”.
In fact, these stories all follow the same pattern. Northwest inadvertently stumbles into trouble and meets a female character will either turn out to be a seductive femme fatale or a selfless thrall of an ancient evil who will sacrifice herself out of love for Northwest. Some kind of struggle ensues, and the Northwest will black out, only to come to later to realize that, somehow, things are back to normal again. And like all heroes of that era, he is a death magnet for selfless women who would cheerfully die to make sure that he, whom they have fallen in love with despite having known him only for a while, survives but he is so manly that these women never register on his thoughts once the story is over.
Instead of delivering action scenes, Ms Moore is more interested in pitting her hero against the forces of Cthulhu’s unwanted family members. The pace is often very slow, and the hero is often an observer who reacts to things instead of someone who takes charge of a situation. I guess one could make a case about how all those dark shadows and other woo-woo are thinly-veiled and highly-charged stand-ins for sexy stuff, but I won’t go there since tentacles or other slimy slithering equivalents are invariably involved in the woo-woo.
I have to admit, the plots of these stories are always fascinating, but the sameness of the formula in these stories eventually make my reading experience a most monotonous one. It’s a shame that the author had injected each story with tranquilizers where pacing is concerned, and the hero often stumbling into the plot only adds to the slow, aimless feel of these stories. When things do happen, it’s all darkness, shadows, and more darkness as some unfathomably ancient entities threaten to destroy everything… at least until Northwest comes to and everyone marvels at how these entities thoughtfully packed their bags and cleaned up their base of operations in the time when Northwest was out cold, because, look, everything is back to normal again. And then Northwest would shrug and life goes on, with no questions answered.
Read this collection to experience HP Lovecraft in slow motion, perhaps, but don’t read this hoping to find Han Solo kicking rear ends. Pretty words that end up explaining nothing can only do so much to make up for dashed expectations.