“The Cold Gray God” adds a slight Lovecraftian element to the Northwest Smith saga. First published in the October 1935 issue of Weird Tales, the story opens with Smith being accosted on the street of Righa, a city in the polar regions of Mars, by a fur clad woman. Smith thinks she’s a Venusian, but she behaves in a way a Venusian woman wouldn’t. Fro one thing, she touches him. I couldn’t help but think of women in Islamic countries from the way she is describes.
Although he’s somewhat repulsed by her, there’s something familiar about her, too. At her request, Smith accompanies her back to her house. There he discovers she’s a famous singer who simply vanished a few years earlier. She asks him to help her retrieve a box from a man who is frequently a notorious bar. She tells Smith he can name his own price, hinting that he can have her it that’s what he wants. Leery, Smith still accepts her offer, asking for ten thousand dollars.
The owner of the bar is a friend of Smith’s and knows exactly the man Smith is looking for. He actually steals the box from him. When Smith returns to the house to deliver the box, he discovers that it’s no ordinary box, but rather a key to summon an ancient Martian god from Outside the universe we know.
I’ll not spoil all the details for you. It’s not the best Northwest Smith story, but it’s still a solid piece of work. In addition to the Lovecraftian overtones of summoning a dark god from Outside, there were a couple of other things that caught my attention.
First, the song “The Green Hills of Earth” was mentioned again. It was also mentioned in “Shambleau“, and Robert Heinlein acknowledged that Moore’s use of the fictional song inspired him to write the classic short story by the same title.
The other thing was that Righa’s central street was called the Lakklan. That’s a name that sounds like it came from one of Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories. Brackett’s first stories were still a few years off, though, so I doubt Moore was cribbing from Brackett or had even been influenced by her.
In “The Cold Gray God”, Moore pretty much avoids the strong sexual imagery that the first few Northwest Smith stories contained. Other than some mentions of the woman’s beauty and the implication that Smith could claim her as his reward, there was nothing of a sexual nature in the story.
One thing we get to see more of than in some of the other installments in the series is Smith’s interactions with the Martian underworld. His usual partner and sidekick, Yarol the Venusian, is absent. Here the bartender, Mhici, is Smith’s partner, and he fulfills a role that Yarol would not have been able to and still be consistent with the character Moore had established. There’s a strong friendship between Smith and Mhici that makes the story work.
One final thing. You hear a lot about how racist the pulps were. You couldn’t prove it from Moore’s Northwest Smith stories. Smith is frequently described as being brown, although that could be in part to sunburn. But if you look at the cultures and races she describes, they are all some variation of human, even if they are from another world. But they work together as equals in a variety of partnerships. Although, in the Smith stories, those partnerships usually involve something crooked. And while you may object that what Moore shows aren’t real races, the fact that her characters are clearly of different races and treat each other in an egalitarian manner speaks volumes.