Wednesday, August 18, 2010

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Yvala"

In C.L. Moore's tale "Yvala," readers are quickly immersed in the traditional themes of a Northwest Smith tale. Beauty is dangerous, nature can be deadly, mythological creatures are re-imagined, and there are vampiric creatures that feed on more than blood.

As the story begins, Smith and his companion Yarol are in desperate circumstances. (Are they ever not in desperate circumstance?) The severity of their desperation is conveyed to the reader in a few wonderfully evocative sentences.

Moore first signal's the pair's plight by describing Smith's appearance.

It was evident at a glance that Smith had fallen upon evil days. One might have guessed by the shabbiness of his clothing that his pockets were empty, the charge in his ray-gun low.

She follows this up with a brilliant first line of dialogue from Smith's companion Yarol.

"Another half-hour and we eat."

If delivered in normal circumstances the above quotation might be a throw away line. But when a character has "fallen upon evil days," a comment regarding the close proximity of the next meal makes the reader wonder just how many half-hours have passed since the pair last shared a good meal.

Moore isn't understating things when she writes that Smith had fallen upon evil days. Things have become so bad that he and Yarol are considering taking a job with the sinister Willard slaving operation. The fact that Smith is about to take employment with slavers is "evil" enough, but Moore makes it readily apparent that the Willards are the vilest of the vile when it comes to the slave trade. During the conversation of the pending job Moore makes passing references to "Black Thirst" and the Minga maids that once brought a high price on the slave market.

To state that "Yvala" is a counter story to "Black Thirst" would be an understatement, the two stories deal with beauty and hunger from directly opposite ends of the narrative spectrum. In "Black Thirst," we were introduced to the Alendar -- a creature that sustained its life by "feeding" on beauty as if it were a tangible thing. The essence of beauty was the Alendar's food and the Alendar's buffet/harem held women so beautiful that they could drive a man mad.

And a tale of beauty that had driven men mad is what has prompted the Willards to seek a man of Smith's talents. The Willards have come across two stories of men crashing onto a jungle moon of Jupiter. In both of these stories the men escaped the planet, but were driven mad during their time as a castaway. According to the tales, they were driven mad by women so beautiful that looking upon them could shatter a man's sanity. The Willards think that such a prize would provide a grand price on the slave market and wish to "acquire" a specimen, but they don't want to risk their own pirates in the process. So they approach Smith and Yarol.

As the tale progresses, Moore reminds us of the mythological tales of the Siren and the Lorelei who had songs that could drive sailors mad. She also takes time to remind readers of the great beauties of antiquity Helen, Circe, and Helen -- and of the price paid by those who found them beautiful. In these reminders, Moore is giving hints about the particular mythical re-imagining she will be offering to readers. Shambleau presented us with Moore's version of the Gorgon Medusa. Black Thirst gave us a version of Dracula, that most famous of vampires. What was it that drove the space-farers mad? Was it Siren or Witch? We will only discover the answer to that on the journey.

The fact that Smith and Yarol have no ship of their own with which to explore the jungle moon of Jupiter is another sign of how desperate their circumstances are. Smith is often quoted as being the template for Han Solo, but here he lacks even the simplest of transportation. I have found that Smith is more akin to Indiana Jones myself, and not merely due to the similarity of name. Both Smith and Jones have an insatiable curiosity, and both constantly find themselves in horrible situations in ancient ruins with only their trusty side-arm and their wits to aid them.

When the Willard ship lands on the jungle moon, we are informed that this is a particular kind of jungle moon -- one that bears a carnivorous jungle. Before the rocket ship's doors open, numerous plants snap at the ship in search of a fleshy meal. One is reminded of the Warhammer 40k Death World Catachan. Like in "Scarlet Dream," the planet itself -- or at least the plant life -- feeds on the blood of animals. The danger of the wild jungle is vast, and the danger of the unbridled natural world is once more expressed. For modern man, the natural world is something to be tamed. For early man, and for the explorer, the natural world is rife with danger. Moore conveys that danger in entertaining detail:

They were submerged in jungle. Great serpentine branches and vines like cables looped downward in broken lengths from the shattered trees which had given way at their entrance. It was an animate jungle, full of hungry, reaching things that sprang in one wild, prolific tangle from the rich mud. Raw-colored flowers, yards across, turned sucking mouths blindly against the glass here and there, trickles of green juice slavering down the clear surface from their insensate hunger.

"Raw-colored flowers..." What an evocative description. It conveys both the deep red color of the plant and its carnivorous nature.

One quickly wonders how our intrepid heroes will be able to venture into the jungle in pursuit of the madness inducing beauties the tales promised the moon was home to, but then Yarol sees an ancient road -- paved and unmolested by the living jungle. If the reader's "this is creepy" instincts weren't set off by the carnivorous jungle, they certainly are by the road that denies and defies that same jungle. What force or technology could provide a road that is unassailable by the deep growth? This is especially disconcerting as there is no apparent reason for the lack of encroachment. The road bears no "defenses" against the wild, it is merely a road.

It is upon this road that Smith and Yarol first meet Yvala, or rather reflections of Yvala. Each sees their personal vision of what they believe constitutes absolute beauty, and each is addressed in their native tongue by these beautiful reflections. These reflections lead Smith to their original, the true Yvala -- a creature mind-shatteringly beautiful that feeds on the very adoration that its beauty engenders. Yvala is a vampire of adoration and she feeds on the humanity within the souls of those who admire her.

One wonders how Yvala "the Destroyer" and the Alendar would compliment one another, but that is a tale never told.

Typical of a Moore tale, there is an underlying criticism of the praise of "mere" physical beauty. In prior tales, love based on physical beauty alone was depicted as less than actual love. Here pure physical beauty is shown to be a vampiric thing in itself. Where "Black Thirst" could be described as a tale that demonstrates the parasitic and predatory quality of lust directed at beautiful women, this tale demonstrates that beautiful women who use their beauty as a weapon can also victimize others. The adoration of mere beauty is something that destroys our humanity and makes us into mere animals. It's a powerful allegory, and one that fits well in the mythological cycle that Moore is creating for her readers.

I am so tempted to tell you what legendary creature Moore has re-imagined for this tale, and how/whether Smith and Yarol escape the clutches of Yvala, but that would spoil the fun.

What I will say is that I think that Homer would approve and that the re-imagining is my favorite to date. The image of a creature that destroys the souls of those who adore it lingers with me still.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

7) [Blogging Northwest Smith] "Cold Gray God"
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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