C L Moore, Jirel of Joiry (©1934, 1935, 1936, 1939; Ace Fantasy Books 1982)
This book reminded me of something the late poet Martin Johnston said about H P Lovecraft: ‘The writing is terrible but it gives you great nightmares.’ In this tremendously inventive fantasy the main character, the fierce but beautiful warrior lady Jirel, takes five separate journeys into four different demonic worlds. Think Dante’s Hell without the theology, the politics or the poetic vision, but plenty of gusto, gore and unspeakable horrors.
Jirel of Joiry has been on my list of recommended science fiction/fantasy books for a long time, probably because its protagonist was among the first women to star in heroic fantasy genre fiction. I began reading it now for reactive reasons: I was irritated by a recent egregious bit of click-bait that dumped on adults who find some YA and children’s literature and by extension fantasy seriously interesting (no argued rebuttal needed beyond invoking Sturgeon’s Law); and a ham-fisted, over-analysed fantasy episode in a mainstream novel made me yearn for some unabashed genre writing.
The book’s five related short stories were first published in the 1930s. The first, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’, inspired the cover illustration of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared (see left). You don’t get much more unabashed than that.
The Weird Tales cover actually owes more to its assumed readers’ tastes than to the story itself: in the scene it purports to illustrate, Jirel is clad in armour and holding an unsheathed sword, and the black god, encountered in a black building on a dark, dark night, is described as follows (on page 29):
The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away.
This goes easier on the emotive adjectives and adverbs than most of the writing, but it’s fairly representative. I particularly like the way, having used nameless a little too often in recent pages, the writer reaches for an alternative and finds innominate, for this is a book in which there are many things that the narrator tells us are beyond the power of words to name or describe. Do I need to tell you that within an overwrought page Jirel is compelled by mysterious global forces to kiss those pursed lips, with chilling consequences?
The stories are all fast moving, violent and dazzlingly inventive, easy to mock when paraphrased, but told with a gleeful lack of irony. The sexual politics are fascinating: Jirel is a formidable warrior who is violently ambivalent about the idea of being dominated by a male, whether human or demonic, and who has deeply antagonistic relationships with the only other significant female characters. But even more fascinating is the play of black and white. Jirel herself is identified as red, because of her hair; the attractive/deadly male figures are all at the darker end of the swarthy-to-black spectrum; and an emphatic white is reserved for lost, spectral figures such as the blind, galloping horses in the cover illustration of my edition of the book, or the fabulously evil characters such as the witch in the fourth story, ‘The Dark Land’:
It was a woman – or could it be? White as leprosy against the blackness of the trees, with a whiteness that no shadows touched, so that she seemed like some creature out of another world reflecting in dazzling pallor upon the background of the dark, she paced slowly forward. She was thin – deathly thin, and wrapped in a white robe like a winding sheet …
But it was her face that caught Jirel’s eyes and sent a chill of terror down her back. It was the face of Death itself, a skull across which the white, white flesh was tightly drawn. And yet it was not without a certain stark beauty of its own, the beauty of bone so finely formed that even in its death’s-head nakedness it was lovely.
And it goes on – the word ‘white’ occurs four more times in the next paragraph, which also mentions the absence of colour and shadows, twice each.
It was impossible not to think of Toni Morrison’s 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison describes a mythologised blackness ‘pulled from fields of desire and need’, and ‘the silence of an impenetrable inarticulate whiteness’ that occurs again and again in fiction by white US authors. I don’t know if she has a taste for genre or may even have read Jirel of Joiry, but I hope she would enjoy the way it allows images and motifs from white US’s Africanist imagination to thrum with innominate energy.