Wednesday, January 06, 2010

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "The Cold Gray God"

Catherine Lucille Moore's seventh Northwest Smith tale, "The Cold Gray God," takes place in a city named Righa -- "pole city of Mars." One imagines that the location of Righa isn't too distant from the polar mountains where Smith and his trusty companion Yarol explored an ancient temple to a forgotten deity in "Dust of the Gods."

The "Dust" and "Cold" stories share many qualities, both take place in polar environments -- highlighting Moore's frequently used theme equating cold with evil. Both of the stories deal with forgotten Martian gods -- one can imagine the possibility that the forgotten Martian god is the same entity in both versions. The primary motivation for Northwest Smith to become involved in the narrative is the same in these stories...his overwhelming sense of curiosity. To be fair, most of the Smith adventures are triggered, in one way or another, by his curiosity.

"Dust" began with Smith and Yarol drinking segir whiskey and commiserating about their lack of finances. "The Cold Gray God" begins with an enigmatic female strolling down the streets of Righa, a city filled with the desperate and sinister, completely indifferent to any danger that might lurk around the next corner. The woman notices Smith, approaches him, and lays her hand upon his arm. Her touch gives Smith, "a queer little start, involuntar[y], like a shiver quickly suppressed." We know from earlier descriptions that the woman is beautiful, so the fact that her slightest touch causes shiver-like starts in a character as jaded as Smith gives us our first hint that something is deeply amiss with the woman.

Smith accompanies the woman back to her home, a traditional Martian home. For the first time in the Northwest Smith stories Moore gives us a glimpse into the Martian architecture in a way that sets it apart from the architecture of the American West. Moore takes a wonderful leap into making the Mars of the Smith tales truly alien, or at least fantastic.

The room they entered was immemorially ancient, changelessly Martian. Upon the dark stone floor, polished by the feet of countless generations, lay the furs of saltland beasts and the thick-pelted animals of the pole. The stone walls were incised with those inevitable, mysterious symbols which have become nothing more than queer designs now, though a million years ago they bore deep significance. No Martian house, old or new, lacks them, and no living Martian knows their meaning.

These three sentences can be unpacked to create encyclopedias of information about Mars and its history. The way that they trigger the imagination is a wonder. Read them, let the significance of what they mean sink in, and imagine the potential consequences. Moore's Mars is a world that has architecturally stagnated. It's buildings tell stories of forgotten empires; stories that are no longer understood. What are those mysterious symbols? What do they mean? What do they say about ancient Martian society? The lack of immediate answers to these questions hints that the story will portray the folly of forgetting the past, a hint transferred to full foreshadowing with the next paragraph.

Remotely they must be bound up with the queer, cold darkness of that strange religion which once ruled Mars and which dwells still in the heart of every true Martian, though its shines are secret now and its priests discredited. Perhaps if one could read those symbols they would tell the name of the cold god whom Mars worships still, in its heart of hearts, yet whose name is never spoken.

These words are ominous enough, but having read "Dust of the Gods" these words were more frightful than they would otherwise be. For in "Dust," Smith had encountered what may be the very remnants of this forgotten, discredited, yet still worshiped entity. The cosmic horror of a people who have "rejected" and forgotten a deity, yet still worship the deity in their heart of hearts, is wonderfully chilling. It's a sentiment that even Lovecraft never touched upon. Imagine a society that has left behind and rejected horrible evil, even forgotten it, but still echoes that evil by the very fact of that society's existence. Evil, even abandoned and forgotten evil, lingers forever on Mars.

Having informed us of the lingering evil that threatens Mars, Moore returns us to the "simple" story she began -- a tale of someone hiring a rogue to do some less than legal activity. Throughout the hiring/negotiation scene Moore re-emphasizes the discomfort that Smith feels in the presence of the woman, who we now know is named Judai. Under normal circumstances Smith shouldn't feel disdain for her. "He wondered briefly why he disliked even to look at her, for she seemed lovelier each time his gaze rested upon that exquisitely tinted face." Judai had once been a famous singer whose beauty and songs had captured the hearts of the solar system. Smith should feel elated that he has rediscovered this lost celebrity, yet his intuition makes him feel uncomfortable in her presence.

The mission Judai wants to hire Smith for is a simple one. A man has a box that Judai values and Smith is to acquire the box. For his efforts, Smith will be rewarded richly. Given that Smith's intuition is virtually screaming at him to leave the presence of this woman, and that Smith soon receives formal warning from someone he trusts that Judai isn't to be trusted, he should decline the job. As usual though, Smith's sense of adventure overcomes his intuition and good sense and he agrees to take up the job and acquire the box.

What follows is immensely entertaining, and not worth spoiling. Throughout the tale, the connections between this story and "Dust" continually echoed in the back of my mind. So did Moore's pattern of equating sexual attraction -- pure sexual attraction and not a higher "marriage of true minds" attraction -- with danger and death. Judai is a beautiful Venusian woman, as so many of the women who have put Smith in danger seem to be, but she exudes evil and danger from her very pores.

This story also highlights another of Moore's narrative devices, that of the importance of friends in surviving danger. Smith rarely saves his own hide in his adventures. Were it not for his trusty companion Yarol, Smith would not have survived his encounter with "Shambleau." Yarol is absent in this tale, otherwise one would guess that Smith would not have stepped as far into danger as he eventually does in this story. Yarol had accompanied Smith on his journey into the hidden arctic temple of a forgotten Martian god after all, and may have been sensitive to what was about to occur in this story.

Like many of the Smith tales, this one demonstrates how mundane actions can have monumental consequences. One can only imagine the damage that would have been wrought had Smith delivered the "Dust" in "Dust of the Gods." One gets to see what is released when Smith delivers the box in this story.

Cosmic Horrors are not to be trifled with. Thankfully Smith is made of sterner psychic stuff than your typical Lovecraftian protagonist. His psyche's ability to endure the horrific and bizarre is only matched by his curiosity to encounter the unknown.

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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