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Literature / Northwest Smith

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Cover art of a recent omnibus edition, by Andrew Hou
"Man has conquered space before, you may be sure of that."

A series of science fiction stories written by C. L. Moore. Published mainly in the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales between 1933 and 1940, the series consists of 12 novellas and one vignette. The series is notable for its rich style and emotional descriptions, something highly unusual in pulps at the time. The stories sit somewhere between classic pulp adventure, ambiguous fantasy elements, and a strong dose of Lovecraftian horror. Northwest Smith is a known smuggler and criminal in the spaceways of the solar system. He is most often broke throughout and will work for just about anyone provided they pay well. This is all just the background of the series however, as most of the stories detail NW's encounters with the strange creatures that remain from the solar system's ancient times. Which as it turns out, are quite a lot more numerous than you might think. He is often accompanied by his sinister Venusian partner, Yarol.

    The stories 
  • "Shambleau"
  • "Black Thirst"
  • "Scarlet Dream"
  • "Dust of Gods"
  • "Julhi"
  • "The Cold Gray God"
  • "Nymph of Darkness" — co-written with Forrest J Ackerman
  • "Yvala"
  • "Lost Paradise"
  • "The Tree of Life"
  • "Quest of the Starstone" — A Crossover story with her other famous character Jirel of Joiry, co-written with her husband Henry Kuttner.note 
  • "Werewoman"
  • "Song in a Minor Key"

Tropes featured:

  • All Just a Dream: "Song in a Minor Key" seems to be this as Smith dreams about his past, though it's never quite made clear how much was real.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike:
    • Most of the planets in the solar system are shown to have breathable air.
    • The Moon originally had an atmosphere artificially generated by Eldritch Abominations who threaten to remove it if the Lunarians stop obeying them.
  • Ancient Astronauts:
    • A variation. It is implied that a prehistoric human civilization mastered spaceflight and brought back tales of the creatures they encountered on other worlds, inspiring later legends. In particular, Northwest speculates that the shambleaux were the source for the myth of Medusa, and Yvala for the myth of Circe.
    • In "Lost Paradise", it is revealed that a mysterious and insular fictional ethnic group living somewhere in the Himalayas are actually the descendents of the survivors of a long-destroyed civilisation from the Moon.
  • Bald Woman: Subverted in that Smith assumes Shambleau is bald underneath her turban but it turns out she has snakes for hair.
  • Cat Girl: The titular Shambleau is one of these crossed with a Medusa.
  • Crossover: With Moore's fantasy character Jirel of Joiry in "Quest of the Starstone". This is not as mad as it sounds - both characters often end up in strange realms facing powerful, mysterious creatures and the word "magic" even pops up a few times in the Northwest Smith stories.
  • Decoy Damsel:
    • The eponymous Shambleau from the first story is actually a Starfish Alien intending to eat Smith's psyche.
    • The unnamed girl in "The Tree of Life" is luring Smith into an alternate dimension to be eaten by her Eldritch Abomination Physical God.
  • Depraved Bisexual: The Big Bad of "Black Thirst" fed on the beauty of women and later tries to devour Smith as well, finding him beautiful in his own way.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The abomination Thag in "The Tree of Life" is banished back to its own reality with a single shot from Smith's ray-gun.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Nysa in "Nymph of Darkness" is the offspring of a human woman with an eldritch being composed of living darkness. From the way she talks about her parents, it appears to have been consensual and romantic.
  • Eldritch Abomination: They appear in almost all the stories. The most eldritch are the entity in "The Cold Gray God", the guardian entities in "Dust of Gods", the man-eating being in the dream dimension in "Scarlet Dream", the title character in "Yvala", and Thag in "The Tree of Life".
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Yarol is described as looking like a choirboy— until you really take a good look in his eyes. He also comes off as cheerfully amoral compared to Smith.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: In "Yvala", the title character simultaneously appears to Smith and Yarol as a beautiful woman of their own ethnicities, and speaking their own first languages. When Smith eventually sees her while her attention isn't directed towards him, he sees her true form as an Energy Being.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The titular character in "Nymph of Darkness." Smith initially assumes the Shambleau is this.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The unnamed girl who falls in love with Smith in the dream dimension in "Scarlet Dream" sacrifices her own life to send him back to his body in the waking world.
  • Heroic Willpower: Smith frequently survives encounters with telepathic beings that would leave most people hopelessly mind-controlled, possessed, insane, or dead, thanks to the iron will at the core of his mind.
  • I Do Not Drink Wine: In "Shambleau", the Shambleau tells Smith that she does not eat the same kind of food as him and the makes a sinister-sounding comment that she will eat soon and something even better than the food he's offering her. Smith is Genre Savvy enough to ask if she feeds on blood and she replies that she's not a vampire. Unfortunately for Smith, the Shambleau is a vampire, just one that feeds on lifeforce rather than blood.
  • I Gave My Word: Yarol asks Smith for a promise in "Shambleau", because he knows that Smith's given word is inviolate.
  • Informed Ability: Smith is viewed as a highly dangerous man by everyone, but tends to barely survive the stories and even sometimes (eg in "Shambleau" and "The Cold Gray God") has to get rescued by another character. This is because in the stories that Moore writes he tends to get pitted against enemies who are well out of what is implied to be his normal league.
  • Interspecies Romance: For a sufficiently inclusive definition of "romance."
  • Invisible Streaker: Nysa in "Nymph of Darkness" is invisible and stark naked throughout the story.
  • A Kind of One: Smith is surprised to learn that Shambleau is the name of their race rather than just the one that he met.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: "Quest of the Starstone" anticipates the traditional plot of later superhero comic crossovers, by having Smith initially fighting against Jirel as an employee of the villain, before teaming up with her against him.
  • Mars Needs Women: Sometimes Mars needs women, sometimes Smith needs Venusians, and sometimes Mars or Venus needs Smith.
  • Mysterious Past: For a never explained reason, Smith was exiled from Earth. All we know was there was a girl, a fight with the authorities, and a burnt down house.
  • No Man Should Have This Power: After managing to find their way to a Physical God's physical remains in "Dust of the Gods", Smith and Yarol decide to destroy it (with this explicit justification) rather than actually deliver it to their client. The fact that the client seemed somewhat unstable and untrustworthy was just the icing on the cake.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Both "Shambleau" and "Black Thirst" have Abstract Eaters who inflict Mind Rape or soul pain on their victims, and the former story also plays with the myth of Medusa.
  • Possession Burnout: The "smoke" entity in "The Cold Gray God" possesses humanoids, who don't survive the experience.
  • Ray Gun: Smith carries a heat-gun in a low-slung holster on his hip.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The Jirel of Joiry crossover ends with Smith being transported back to future Mars which is said to be light-years away. In reality, it only takes light minutes to go from Mars to Earth.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Smith and Yarol the Venusian provide an interesting variation on the trope. While Smith is a rugged, muscular space cowboy and Yarol is a delicate-looking young man who resembles a choirboy, the former occasionally displays flashes of sensitivity whereas the latter doesn't possess a shred of kindness or decency.
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Northwest Smith.
  • Sexy Slit Dress: Formal attire for Venusian women traditionally consists of a dress that has a slit up one side, and also bares one shoulder.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Averted, unusually. In "Yvala", Smith and Yarol join up in an expedition to capture alien woman as sex slaves, with Smith only having a few initial qualms, and they only don't engage in slavery because the rumors of beautiful alien women turn out to be a trap by a man-eating Eldritch Abomination.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: A disturbing take on the idea in "Black Thirst", and not just because the beautiful women are essentially bred like cattle to make their beauty more nourishing to the Big Bad:
    You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women—the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else.
  • Space Western: The character was actually created for a Western, and C.L. Moore just transferred him over. She kept the name 'Northwest' because it amused her to have a character with that name when there are no directions in space.
  • Stable Time Loop: In "Lost Paradise", Smith is sent back to the ancient and inhabited Moon via mental time-travel. It turns out that his actions there caused the collapse of its civilisation.
  • Starfish Alien: In "Shambleau" the "cat girl" form is shown to be how the creature interacts with others, when it feeds it reverts to its true form of a tentacled mass.
  • "Uh-Oh" Eyes: People possessed by the entity in "The Cold Grey God" have their eyes replaced with gray clouds of smoke.
  • Venus Is Wet: Venus is depicted as dark and swampy.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Here the word "human" refers to any of the near-human aliens. With Eldritch Abominations and Starfish Aliens not qualifying.