Monday, December 14, 2009

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Nymph of Darkness"

"Nymph of Darkness" is the first of the Northwest Smith stories to be written in collaboration with another author. C L Moore's collaborator on this piece was none other than an 18 year-old science fiction fan named Forrest Ackerman. Forry, as his friends called him, died on 12/4/2008 at the age of 92. I had hoped to have this entry posted on the anniversary of his death, and to spend some time praising Forry's contributions to Sci-Fi. Not the least of these contributions is the creation of the term "Sci-Fi," a term unabashedly used by those fans who care more about entertainment than present day literary acknowledgement. Make no mistake, I enjoy literary Science Fiction. I just happen to enjoy my Sci-Fi as well, and make no bones about it.

I apologize for the delay, but it comes with a fairly good reason. I had remembered reading a version of "Nymph of Darkness" in Forrest Ackerman's Ackermanthology Millennium Edition compilation. I also remembered that Forry had pointed out that there were two version of the story. A "spicier" version of the story was printed in the April 1935 issue of the fan magazine Fantasy Magazine, while a much "expurgated" version of the story was published in the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales. I needed to hunt down my copy of Ackermanthology! in order to look at some of the notes Forry provided regarding the collaboration. I had also hoped to compare the Weird Tales version to the Fantasy Magazine version, but Paizo has thankfully provided us with the "real thing" and not the "expurgated" story. An examination of the Weird Tales version will have to wait.

"Nymph of Darkness" begins very similarly to "Black Thirst." In both tales, Northwest Smith is wandering the waterfront of the Venusian city of Ednes. The danger of the waterfront is emphasized in both stories, as is the darkness of the Venusian sky -- a fact that is even more important in this story than in "Black Thirst." In "Nymph of Darkness," Smith once again finds himself in the path of a woman who may be in need of his aide, but something is different this time. In the end, a couple of things end up being different, but the initial difference is a difference in Smith himself. In earlier Smith stories, Northwest has almost leapt to the aide of damsels in distress. In this story, he is far more cautious. Given Smith's caution, this is definitely a Smith story that takes place after the events of "Shambleau." Moore describes Smith as follows, "He wanted no sound to indicate his own presence to the terror from which the woman fled. Ten years before he might have dashed out to her -- but ten years along the spaceways teaches a man prudence. Gallantry can be foolhardy sometimes, particularly along the waterfront, where any score of things might be in close pursuit."

Before we continue, I'd like to state that of the Moore stories in the Smith series, this tale starts the most awkwardly. I don't credit this to the collaboration, so much as it seems that the opening paragraphs lack the strong hand of an editor. Where prior Smith tales set the tone effectively without repetitive paragraphs, this tale wanders a little before it gets going. In the first paragraph we are told twice that the Patrol is too afraid of the waterfront to police it effectively, an unnecessary redundancy. The second paragraph of the story begins with this clumsy sentence, "Through the breathless blackness, along a street beneath which the breathing waters whispered, Northwest Smith strolled slowly."

The use of alliteration here might be appreciated, "breathless blackness," "waters whispered," and "strolled slowly" if not for the repetition of the use of "breath." One likes "breathless blackness," but is pulled out of the narrative by "breathing waters" so close after the other construction. I like what Moore is attempting here, but I would have liked another editorial pass through these paragraphs. That said, the rest of the story moves a quite a clip and the awkwardness of the first two paragraphs hints more at Moore's mind groping for some construction that will get the story moving. Eventually she does, and later examples of alliteration pull the reader in effectively.

Ackerman supplied the original outline for the story, and invented the name of the nymph of the tale -- Nyusa. In Ackermanthology!, Forry assures us that Nyusa was the result of experimenting with sounds rather than being made up from the initials of the major metropolis N.Y., U.S.A. One thinks Forry might be protesting too much here and, given Moore's later honesty in her creation of names, one wishes he would admit the play on words if it is really there. Moore admits in the collaborative that Ednes comes from the middle of the word Wednesday.

Despite Smith's caution, he still ends up running into the girl and aiding her against her pursuer. This pursuer is a shambling humanoid creature named Dolf, who pursues Nyusa wielding some sort of greenish light. The purpose of this light is revealed shortly. Smith has run into the nymph, but neither he nor the girl have seen each other. They have been relying on sound and touch due to the deep darkness of the Venusian night. Nyusa eventually guides Smith into a building and she asks him to lift her to turn on a light. When he does, he notices that while he is holding the weight of a woman in his arms -- he cannot see the body. Nyusa is completely invisible, except when certain wavelengths of light interact with her own natural skin color. At these times she becomes a semi-translucent and mist-like figure. Moore's inspiration for the cause of invisibility, as she makes clear in her letters to Forry, is Ambrose Bierce's tale "That Damned Thing." Bierce's tale was the inspiration for a couple of H P Lovecraft stories as well ("The Colour Out of Space" and "Dunwich Horror"). The shambling Dolf's greenish light is constructed to reveal Nyusa's presence.

The source of Nyusa's invisibility is also the source of both sides of the narrative tension in the story. Nyusa is the daughter of some god of Darkness, echoes of "Dunwich Horror" here, and that god's worshipers use Nyusa by having her dance under the eerie green illumination as a part of their prayer rituals -- rituals devoted to her father. She is portrayed as an unwilling participant in the rituals of these creatures, known as the Nov, the reader (and Smith) likely assume that her resistance to participating in the rituals stems from some rejection of Darkness. We are, after all, used to our damsels in distress tales.

But Moore will have none of this. The Nov, who are white amorphous slug like creatures, may have a mystical hold on Nyusa forcing her to perform rituals praising her father, but her desire to leave has nothing to do with revulsion of things man is better for not knowing. No, her desire to be free stems from a desire to fully explore the Darkness within herself. She wants to be free and to have the power of her Darkness grow, not to have it restrained by the ceremonies of the wretched Nov -- who use her, but do not praise her properly.

Smith doesn't know this as he watches the dance ritual. He only sees the revolting visages of the Nov, and hears the approach of Dolf. Smith slays Dolf, and one of the high priests of the Nov. This frees Nyusa from the hold the Nov had upon her and Smith witnesses her partial apotheosis into a being of Darkness. For his "gallantry," Smith is rewarded with a kiss. The kiss is both cold and filled with love, a combination of human warmth and unimaginable Darkness.

Once more, Moore has played with the damsel in distress story and added her typical spin. Nyusa's sensuality is a thing of danger, where non-sexual love would have been something safe. Smith begins the tale wary of attempting to rescue a girl because he is afraid of what her pursuers might be capable of. He finishes the tale wary of that which he has helped to liberate. To be fair, Nyusa would likely have been free soon enough without Smith's aid, but Smith was there to witness her apotheosis and helped to hasten it.

One thinks that maybe Smith should have trusted his cautious instincts a little bit more than he did.

Who knows what long term ramifications this will have upon the fate of the universe?

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

6)[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Nymph of Darkness"
5)[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Julhi"
4)[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Dust of the Gods"
3)Blogging Northwest Smith: "Scarlet Dream"
2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

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