In which a medieval warrior princess will stop at nothing — not even the gates of Hell itself — in order to prevent the conquest of her lands.
By C. L. Moore
First published in 1934
Anthologized in Black God’s Kiss
Catherine Lucille Moore had no respect for the standard boundaries drawn around literary genres by writers, editors, and readers. She happily upended the expectations of her audience, and they loved it.
For example, her Northwest Smith stories were a mashup of space opera and the Gothic, set in a colonized solar system that seems like something cooked up by Edgar Rice Burroughs working in collaboration with H. P. Lovecraft. And her Jirel of Joiry series — of which “Black God’s Kiss” is the first installment — presents us with a ferocious and intelligent warrior princess who’s the opposite of Conan the barbarian in all ways.
Tall as a man, red-haired, possessed of a pair of “lion-yellow” eyes, and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, Jirel comes across as a combination of Christina Hendricks during her Firefly period and Milla Jovovich in any of those two hundred (or so) Resident Evil movies, with armor added.
Set in a French principality during an unspecified part of the Middle Ages, “Black God’s Kiss” begins with our heroine in a tight spot. Her territory has just fallen to an arrogant conqueror referred to only as “Guillaume,” perhaps as a reference to “Guillaume le Conquérant.” It’s clear — as clear as it can be in a Weird Tales story from the 1930s –that his intentions toward her are less than honorable. In no time flat, Jirel is imprisoned, and Guillaume is off getting snookered with his buddies, looking forward to having his unpleasant way with her.
This might get a conventional heroine down, but not Jirel. Escaping from her dungeon room with a bit of well-timed blunt force trauma, she enlists the aid of the family’s priest, Father Gervase, from whom she needs a benediction. That blessing is prophylactic, because Jirel’s plan involves (a) traveling to Hell via a secret portal within the castle, and (b) returning with an infernal weapon with which she can destroy Guillaume.
For a scheme cooked up under duress, you have to admit that this shows real originality.
The section of “Black God’s Kiss” in which Moore describes the process of going to Hell is outstanding. It’s an example of Moore’s blender approach to fantastic fiction, because its effect is very much science-fictional — the journey to the underworld conceived as travel between parallel universes:
“It was a long way down. Before she had gone very far the curious dizziness she had known before came over her again, a dizziness not entirely induced by the spirals she whirled around, but a deeper, atomic unsteadiness as if not only she but also the substances around her were shifting. There was something queer about the angles of those curves. She was no scholar in geometry or aught else, but she felt intuitively that the bend and slant of the way she went were somehow outside any other angles or bends she had ever known. They led into the unknown and the dark, but it seemed to her obscurely that they led into deeper darkness and mystery than the merely physical, as if, though she could not put it clearly even into thoughts, the peculiar and exact lines of the tunnel had been carefully angled to lead through poly-dimensional space as well as through the underground — perhaps through time, too.”
Only the TARDIS is missing.
Once Jirel arrives, she finds herself in a realm obviously based upon Dante and Bosch, but also containing huge dollops of planetary romance. Hell’s landscape is like that of an exotic world far away in space, hostile and unknown, but oddly familiar, despite its sky full of strange stars and garish unknown planets. The gravity is less in Hell than it is on Earth, allowing Jirel to skim across its unkempt meadows, their tall grasses home to “obscene” little animals who make noises that Jirel finds revolting, and which she kills in great numbers.** The imagery is a perfect blending of medieval high culture and pulp.
The most disturbing — and affecting — sequences in “Black God’s Kiss” concern the lost souls that Jirel encounters. They’re trapped in a number of quasi- or non-human forms, and their behavior is catatonic. As tough as she is, Jirel is as moved by these beings as she is repulsed.
In time, Jirel encounters a demon, under conditions that the producers of any 1930s Technicolor musical would have appreciated. This demon grants Jirel a gift, the weapon she’ll use against Guillaume. As with all such gifts, however, there’s a price attached, one that Jirel could not forsee.
Some critics have described C. L. Moore as a proto-feminist, and there’s truth to that assertion. The ending to “Black God’s Kiss” is certainly not feminist, however, at least not feminist in Second Wave terms.
Be that as it may, “Black God’s Kiss” is a vivid story that will stay with you, as it has with me. And C. L. Moore is, in terms of literary ability, the finest author to appear in Weird Tales during its classic period. I hope that Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard were paying close attention. I think they were.
*I know that we usually spell it “Mephistopheles,” nowadays. Marlow spelled it “Mephistophilis,” and I’m not about to argue with him, OK?
** “They died squashily,” Moore informs us, coining a word that in a fair world would now be in widespread use.