Published in the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, “Hellsgarde” is in many ways the last of the Jirel stories, at least her solo adventures. She will meet up with Northwest Smith in “Quest of the Starstone”. That’s another post for another day. “Starstone” was actually published first, in 1937, but all collections I’ve seen place it last in the book.
I found this story to have a bit more depth than “The Dark Land”, which we looked at yesterday. YMMV. There will be spoilers in this post. You have been warned.
It opens with Jirel riding to the castle of Hellsgarde,which sits in a vast swamp of quicksand and only appears at sunset. Two hundred years ago, Andred, master of Hellsgarde had found a great treasure which he kept in a small box. No one knew the exact nature of the treasure, but many coveted it. Andred died defending his treasure, but his killers never found it. Since then many have died trying to find it, and Hellsgarde has gained an evil reputation.
Now Guy of Garlot has taken some of Jirel’s men prisoner. He’s told Jirel that he will kill them unless she brings him Andred’s box from Hellsgarde. Guy’s fortress sits atop an unassailable cliff. Jirel has no choice but to go for the treasure. Guy is too cowardly to attempt finding it himself. Although it’s never stated, I suspect Guy hopes to take control of Jirel’s lands if she fails.
Jirel arrives to find an army of newly dead soldiers propped up on spears waiting for her at the gate. The blood is still fresh. Much to her surprise, the castle is now occupied. A man she insists on thinking of as a hunchback even though there is no deformity of his spine steps through the gate and greets her. It turns out almost all the people Jirel meets will give the impression of some deformity even though no physical deformity exists. What she is picking up on is a deformity of spirit. This is mentioned several times.
A day after rereading “Hellsgarde” I came across this essay by PC Bushi, in which he discusses how fantasy from an earlier era often had overt Christian themes. Here’s another example. While I have no knowledge of Moore’s religious beliefs, if any, she establishes in the first story that Jirel is Christian, and given the time period of the stories, that means Catholic. The man Jirel thinks of as a hunchback takes her into the castle where she is introduced to a family led by a middle aged man named Alaric. Jirel thinks of him as having a deformity as well, even though he also has no visible deformity. Among the group is a jester who is a true hunchback. Here’s Jirel’s thoughts:
And there was something oddly wrong about his features, a queer cast upon them that made him seem akin to the purple-clad courtier hovering at Jirel’s elbow, to the grinning jester who peered across the chair-back. With a little twist of the heart, she saw what it was. There was no physical likeness between master and men in any feature, but the shadow of deformity lay upon all three faces, though only the hunchback wore it honestly. Looking at those faces, one would have sworn that each of the trio went limping through life under the burden of a crooked spine. Perhaps, Jirel thought involuntarily, with a small shudder, the master and the courtier as well as the fool did indeed carry a burden, and if they did she thought she would prefer the jester’s to theirs. His at least was honest and of the flesh. But theirs must be of the spirit, she thought again, God in his wisdom does not mark a whole and healthy man with a cripple’s face. It was a deformity of the soul that looked out of the eyes meeting hers.
Not exactly the sort of thing you see in most of today’s fantasy. I’m sure the above quote would be described as problematic for any number of “-ist” reasons as well as for mentioning God. Alaric, the jester, a small number of women, two boys, and a pair of hounds are all described as being deformed, sinister, and in the case of the children, evil. And all right thinking people know there’s no evil (unless you’re speaking of the opposing political party).
Jirel is invited to dine with the family, whom Alaric informs Jirel are kin to Andred. Jirel finds the food to be inedible, having a taste of decay. Later Alaric is showing Jirel around the great hall. They come to the spot where Andred was murdered, the bloodstain still visible on the stone. That’s when the lights go out. A disembodied arm grasps Jirel, and a large mouth presses against hers. Moore gives us plenty of detail here. Jirel being kissed against her will by men seeking to dominate her seems to be a theme throughout these tales. We’ve discussed before the use of a kiss as symbolism for rape in the Jirel stories, so I won’t get into that here. I doubt that’s the case in this particular story, although it could be. Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss.
It’s not Alaric who’s kissing Jirel. It’s Andred. He’s alsodrug her halfway across the room before someone stirs the fire and gets some light. This gets the family excited. They put the lights out and force Jirel to sit alone for hours in the dark (which they can see in) as bait to lure Andred back. The attempt is unsuccessful, so they lock Jirel in a cell for the rest of the night.
She escapes and returns to the hall. Getting the box is her only hope of rescuing her men. Summoning Andred is her only hope of getting the box. Once she has the box, she can worry about escaping. After much searching, she finds the bloodstain and calls Andred to her. The kissing stuff starts again, which Jirel has been dreading but is prepared to suffer through. So does the dragging someplace else. Jirel finds herself standing on bones in a narrow chamber, and buried in the bones is the box. Not long after she has the box, she realizes that Andred’s hold on her is weakening. Alaric and his family are dancing around them. There’s some type of psychic battle going on, and she’s caught in the middle.
Jirel loses consciousness. When she wakes up in the morning the family are all passed out around her with expressions on their faces that look as though they had gorged themselves. Alaric wakes up. He informs Jirel she is free to go and can take the box with her. They weren’t after the treasure. They feed on the ghosts of those who die violently. They will be moving on to their next victim. Alaric’s final words to Jirel are not to open the box. Apparently the treasure it contains isn’t the Hope Diamond.
Jirel decides as she leaves that she will give it to Guy in exchange for her men and let him open it.
There were several things about this story I really liked. The sorcery was much more sinister than in “The Dark World”. Moore ratcheted up the creepiness factor.The dead soldiers guarding the gate, the chamber of bones to which Aldred drags Jirel, Alaric’s unusual family, all were nice touches. Jirel doesn’t engage in much combat in this one, either, but then she’s not a female Conan. All in all, “Hellsgarde” is a solid sword and sorcery tale.