C. L. Moore
This post contains content of an adult nature and is not suitable for younger readers. You have been warned.
“Scarlet Dream” is the third Northwest Smith story. In terms of sexually charged imagery, it’s the most explicit of the ones so far, hence the warning above. (My discussions of “Shambleau” and “Black Thirst” can be found here andhere.) There will be spoilers, as well. You’ve been doubly warned.
When the story opens, Smith is wandering through the Lakkmanda Market on Mars. The name has a decidedly Leigh Brackett feel to it. “Scarlet Dream” was published in 1934, predating Brackett’s Mars by a few years, but still I can’t help wondering if Brackett was influenced a bit by the name.
Smith spies a shawl with an intricate pattern consisting of a scarlet thread woven in a blue and green background. The Martian vendor displaying tells Smith the thing gives him a headache, and he sells it to Smith for a good price.
After he returns to his quarters, Smith tries to trace the pattern on the shawl, gives up, covers himself with it, and goes to sleep. Sometime in the night he begins dreaming that he’s walking up a mist enshrouded stair. He soon loses sight of the bottom.
Eventually he is nearly run over by a young girl with long orange hair, wearing a short shift, and covered in blood. She babbles something about some type of monster killing her sister. Smith manages to calm her enough to carry her to the top of the stairs. Once there he takes her into a side room, sets her on a stone bench, and gets a little more explanation from her.
The girl, who is never named, tells Smith that he’s dreaming but that he’s entered a dream world that can only be exited by death or by a fate worse than dying. Most of Smith’s questions are answered along the lines of “We find it best not to think/ask/do that.” This includes trying to leave or learn new things. Indeed, it’s only when Smith eventually decides to leave that the monster shows up and attacks him. But that comes later.
One of the things she tells him is that no one has ever gone down the stairs he came up. She only went down the stairs in a panic. Why Smith doesn’t at some point try to retrace his steps is never explained. But if he did, then there would be no story.
Smith and the girl are in giant temple, and she leads him outside to a lake and a small shrine containing two cots, two blankets, and a few clothes. It’s completely open to the air, but since the temperature never changes, that’s not a problem.
The trees seem to bend towards them, and the grass certainly does. Smith eventually learns that if a person stands barefoot in the grass for long, it will begin sucking blood through the feet. The trees are implied to be flesh eating.
Smith sits with the girl beside the lake, drifts off, and comes to as night is falling. Moore implies that at this point Smith engages the girl in sex. Regular sex between them is implied, with the word “kiss” and its variations being a euphemism for more than a kiss. In spite of the raciness of the covers Farnsworth Wright selected for Weird Tales, the contents tended to be squeaky clean. One of Robert E. Howard’s early Conan stories was rejected because Wright felt Conan took too many liberties with a young lady. (My opinion of that can be found here.)
Where Moore engages in some serious sexual imagery is when the girl shows Smith the only source of food. She takes him to a hall in the temple in which there are people “eating”. That there are other people present is mentioned more than once, but this is the only time we see them. Smith has no interaction with them. In fact, they’re only mentioned in a few sentences, basically as backdrop.
The way people eat is they kneel before spigots in the wall, spigots that curve upwards. What they drink from the spigots is blood, with the hint that it contains some addictive substance. Once Smith realizes what he’s drinking, he’s repulsed but finds himself returning the next day. Moore goes into details describing how pleasant and yet repulsive feeding is, dwelling on the taste.
Now I don’t know what mental picture you get, but what comes to my mind now is the same thing that came to mind when I was 15. Fellatio, although I had not encountered that word at the time. It’s hard to escape that image. The posture of kneeling, along with Moore deliberately stating that the spigots curve upward from the wall, leave little room for any other conclusion. What I have to wonder is what Wright thought about this imagery, or if he even noticed it. I doubt we’ll ever know. Smith comes to enjoy the feeding more than the girl, although he never completely overcomes his revulsion of it.
Smith eventually spies mountains through the surrounding mist, attempts to leave, is attacked by the monster, and drives it off with his blaster. It’s at this point that the girl tells Smith she would rather lose him to the fate worse than death than through death at the hand of the monster. She helps him get home, although he doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Smith awakens to find his partner Yarol and a doctor leaning over him. Smith has been in a coma for a week. Seems Smith can’t be left alone to wander about on Mars without getting into trouble. Yarol gave the shawl away while Smith was out. The pattern was giving him a headache.
This is the third Northwest Smith story, and other than “Shambleau”, it’s the one that has stuck out the most in my mind since I first read the series nearly 30 years ago. Again, I’m struck by how graphic the sexual imagery is in these stories. If my parents had known what I was reading….
Moore seems to have a theme of vampirism going as well. In the first story, the vampire fed on life essence, in the second beauty, and now the grass actually drinks blood.
I’m going to continue this series. The post on “Black Thirst” is in the top 10 most viewed posts I’ve done. Stay tuned. There’s more to come. Or should that be Moore to come?