Kuttner’s Death, Moore’s Silence

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Deuce Richardson pointed out to me in an email that today is the 60th anniversary of Henry Kuttner’s death. Since I don’t think I’ll be able to finish what I had intended to review today, this is a good topic to talk about.  (Thanks, Deuce.)

I’ve done a few posts on the anniversary of a person’s death  before, but I prefer to acknowledge birthdays. However, a 60th anniversary is a milestone. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a few somewhat random thoughts.

Kuttner had been teaching a course on writing at USC when he died, and Moore took over. I’m not sure how long she continued teaching, if it was only to finish out the semester or if she taught beyond that semester.

She remarried in 1963. Her husband Thomas Reggie didn’t want her writing anymore. At least that’s the legend, and I’m inclined to believe it. C. L. Moore’s voice fell silent. She never wrote fiction again.

Her husband supposedly (according to Wikipedia) asked the Science Fiction Writers of America not to honor her with a Grand Master Award because by that time Catherine was suffering from Alzheimer’s by then. Her husband thought the ceremony would be too stressful and confusing.

Let that sink in for a moment. This had to have been sometime in the early to mid-1980s. Moore died in 1987.* Andre Norton was the Grand Master for 1984. There wouldn’t be another woman to receive the honor until Ursula K. LeGuin in 2003, nearly 20 years later. I don’t know why Moore couldn’t have been presented with the award and it simply be announced that she was unable to attend for unspecified health reasons.  Essentially, her husband denied her recognition that was well deserved.**

I have to wonder how differently things would have turned out if Kuttner hadn’t died when he did. Would he and Moore have continued to write? I know Kuttner was pursuing an advanced education, and supposedly he was burned out at writing for the pulps. Would they have gone on to other forms of writing, such as screenplays, such as Brackett? Moore wrote for television after Kuttner died, at least until she remarried. Of course this type of thought is no more productive and just as frustrating as wondering what Robert E. Howard would have written had he not died at the age of 30.

Kuttner’s death had a profound impact on Moore (personally and professionally) and the field. But his life had an impact that is often overlooked.

It’s that impact I want to focus on for the rest of this post.

Kuttner worked at his uncle’s literary agency before becoming a writer himself. It was there he discovered the early works of Leigh Brackett in the slush pile. He mentored Brackett and helped her break into Astounding, the top science fiction pulp of the day. Together they mentored a young man named Ray Bradbury.

Kuttner knew many of the major figures in the science fiction and fantasy fields in the 1940s and early 1950s. Both Bradbury and Richard Matheson dedicated their now-classic first books to him (Dark Carnival and I am Legend, respectively). Robert Silverberg has said that Kuttner and Moore were the two writers he studied most when he was trying to break into print. Roger Zelazny says Kuttner’s The Dark World influenced his Amber books.  That’s a legacy to be proud of.

So why isn’t Kuttner better known today? That’s not an easy question, and I suspect there are multiple contributing reasons. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to The Best of Henry Kuttner (the Ballantine edition, not the two volume British collection of the same name), considers this question and concludes in part that Kuttner wasn’t too political.  Bradbury firmly states this was a good thing. (I completely agree.)

Weird Tales writer Mary Elizabeth Counselman says both she and Seabury Quinn thought it was because he used too many pen names. She has a point, although when you have two or more stories in the same issue of a magazine, pen names are a must. Kuttner pulled off this trick more than once.

However, I think another reason, perhaps the main reason, is that there is no single Kuttner style. It doesn’t help that when he married C. L. Moore, nearly everything was a collaboration, and their styles blended so well. (That statement is NOT a slam on Moore. Don’t send me hate mail.) Kuttner was more cerebral than Moore, while she dealt with emotions and mood better. But Kuttner could write pretty much anything: serious science fiction, serious adventure fantasy and sword and sorcery, Lovecraftian horror, general horror, mysteries, weird menace, comics, humor (both science fiction and fantasy), and more philosophical stories, such as the Baldy stories. (Yeah, I know, I haven’t finished the posts on that series I started last year.)

Think about most famous authors who have died and many who haven’t. What are they remembered for? A certain style. A long running series, such as John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. Asimov had the Robot stories and Foundation. E. E. “Doc” Smith is remembered for Lensman. All of these authors, and many more you could name,

Kuttner was all over the place. He could imitate pretty much anyone working in the field at the time. Granted, he was better in some subgenres than others, but he wasn’t limited to a single type of story or style. That put him all over the map. And at the time he was writing that was a good short term survival strategy because he would never lack for markets. It doesn’t make for a cohesive body of work that will be remembered after you’re gone.

And that’s a tragedy. Kuttner was one of the most innovative writers of his generation, a man who wasn’t afraid to try new things and fail. He seemed to understand Thomas Edison’s quote that to increase your rate of learning, you need to increase your rate of failure.

For that reason, Kuttner will always have a place of honor on my shelf and will be a writer I return to time and again. Kuttner didn’t live to see his utopia. But he did lay the foundation stones through his writing. As long as he is still read, that desire of his will live on.

*I was in college at the time, and someone (I no longer remember who) had an autograph book for science fiction writers in which each author’s photo was included on the page for their signature. IIRC, Moore’s page showed her sitting on some back steps at a house. It was the first photo I had ever seen of Moore.  (Remember, kiddies, this was years before the internet.) I’ve never seen it since. If anyone has a copy of that photo, please send it to me.

**Why she married this guy, I’ll never understand. If I meet him in the afterlife, he and I are going to Have Words.

12 thoughts on “Kuttner’s Death, Moore’s Silence

  1. Manly Reading

    Losing Kuttner so young was a double tragedy for pulp literature – as you say, we also lost C L Moore. I wonder what they would have written through the 60’s and 70’s – and perhaps into the 80’s – had we not lost Kuttner so young.

  2. Woelf Dietrich

    Maybe she was persuaded to stop writing because of the tremendous loss she felt for Kuttner’s passing and because they were essentially a writing team, continuing to write without him hurt her maybe more than we think. Or, maybe her new husband was a jealous ass who thought her writing would keep the ghost of Kuttner trapped in the house. We won’t know but it is a sad thing, nonetheless.

    When we meet this husband in the afterlife I’ll hold him while you beat the living donuts out of him, Keith.

    1. Keith West Post author

      From what I’ve read elsewhere, the new husband didn’t want her writing. After I get tired of beating him, I’ll hold him and you can take over.

  3. Matthew

    It seems incredibly abhorrent that her husband stopped her from writing, if true.

    I need to read more Kuttner. Any suggestions?

    1. Keith West Post author

      According to everything I’ve seen about her second husband, it’s true.

      I’d suggest starting with Two Handed Engine. It’s an extensive collection of Kuttner and Moore’s work, mostly collaborative with a few solo pieces. There are some gems that weren’t included, but it’s a good overview of some of their best work. Look for the SFBC reprint, not the original edition from Centipede Press. There are some inexpensive copies floating around. Haffner Press has published some good collections in nice hardcover editions, but they’re OOP and probably more than the original $40. There are the Elak of Atlantis and Prince Raynor stories, two early sword and sorcery series. (I looked at the individual stories here a number of years ago, so you might check my reviews to see if they’re something you would be interested in.) The Kuttners mostly wrote short fiction, since there really wasn’t a market for novels in those days.

  4. Manly Reading

    The Best of Henry Kuttner is still in print as The Last Mimzy – it should even have Bradbury’s introduction. The Dark World is good, as are the various Elak stories (reprinted by Paizo, out of print now I think). There are a lot of e-collections of the short work with which you cant go wrong.

    The Fairy Chessmen is a collaboration (most likely) but worth a read to show the sort of stuff Kuttner could do.

    Of course, the various Haffner volumes on Kuttner are the gold standard, but they are not cheap. They are, however, worth it.

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  6. Mario Lebel

    This is a really nice post, Keith.

    I recently found of copy of Moore’s Jirel of Joiry collection at my local used bookstore. I was looking for it in no small part because of how well you seem to regard Moore. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

    I’ve read about her second husband’s response to her award before and I had a similar response to yours. It makes absolutely no sense that she couldn’t have accepted the award and not be present due to health concerns. I get the sense he didn’t understand or care about that part of her life. What an ass!

    I guess now i’ll have to start looking for some works by Kuttner. Likely the Ballantine’s Best of book. My local story usually has some of those lying around.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thank you, Mario.

      Let us know what you think of Jirel.

      Yeah, her second husband seems to have been a real jerk as far as her writing career was concerned. I don’t understand why she married him.

      If your local used bookstore has some of the Ballantine Best of series in stock, you’re fortunate. They are getting harder to find.


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