C. L. Moore
SPOILER ALERT - You've been warned.
"Black Thirst" is the second Northwest Smith story, published in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales shortly after "Shambleau". Upon rereading, I found this story lacked the power of its predecessor. It may have been that I wasn't able to get to the story until late at night, and therefore was fighting fatigue.
The story begins with Smith casing a warehouse along the waterfront of the Venusian city of Ednes one night when a woman walks by and asks him if he'd like to make a gold coin. This isn't any ordinary woman, but a Minga woman.
When the first settlers landed on the shore, they found a giant castle ruled by a being, apparently a man, called the Alendar. He had a small entourage of the most beautiful women, which he began selling to the traders and settlers.
Over time, the Minga women, renowned for their exquisite beauty and chaste bodies, have been the prizes of kings, sultans, and chieftains throughout the solar system. They are never allowed to walk the streets at night alone and unescorted. But this one is.
She recognizes Smith, although they've never met, and raises her offer to one hundred gold coins. To receive it, all he has to do is come to a particular gate at the Minga castle in one hour, give her name, and enter.
Other men have died for lesser offenses against the Alendar.
Smith decides to take her up on the offer.
This part of the story was as clear in my mind as the day I first read it. What had faded were the events that followed. I had a vague memory of what happened but could recall no details.
Upon entering the Minga castle, Smith enters a dark world where beauty is the most prized and carefully nurtured commodity. And by nurtured, I mean bred. Although the woman Vaudir, who entices him into the castle, is one of the most beautiful women Smith has ever seen, she pales in comparison to the others he sees. Next to them she is plain and homely.
Smith also meets the Alendar, who isn't a man even though he wears a man's form. The Alendar can control people with his thoughts, and he takes Smith captive. He shows Smith women of such great beauty that it nearly drives Smith insane.
The Alendar is a type of psychic vampire that feeds on beauty, and he's centuries old. The women in his stable have been bred for one purpose, and one purpose only. Food. The Alendar drains them of their beauty and their life essence. Only the least beautiful are sold as concubines and queens.
For most of those centuries, especially the most recent, the Alendar had fed on female beauty. But now he wants a taste of something a little different, male beauty. And Smith is intended to be the main course. It's only with the assistance of Vaudir, and the sacrifice of her life, that Smith manages to escape.
While to my mind not as powerful as "Shambleau", there are still some dark and disturbing implications in "Black Thirst". First there's the there's the whole aspect of selling women. While Moore downplays it and makes it seem like an accepted practice, it's really nothing more than slavery, and sexual slavery at that. At least that's what's implied when powerful men buy the most beautiful women in the solar system. Now I'm not saying Moore condones the practice. She never goes that far. Instead she states it for what it is, the selling of women by men for their beauty. Such things have been done for centuries, and in an exotic setting such as this, it's really more of window dressing than anything else.
Where Moore appears be placing her emphasis is on the destruction of beauty. The Alendar, and by extension the men who buy women from him, are using women for the purpose of consuming and destroying their beauty. The women are used to feed, the Alendar's life force and the men's egos.
Is Moore saying that men destroy women for their beauty, that beauty is another commodity bought, sold, and consumed in a man's world? I don't know for sure, and like I said in the previous installment of this series, I don't want to read too much amateur psycho-babble into the fiction. It's an interesting thought, though. She certainly seems to be.
In her introduction to the Lancer edition of Fury, a novel she wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner, she talks about the themes that appear in an author's work that the author isn't consciously aware of at the time of writing. Hers, she writes, is "The most treacherous thing in life is love." That's another interesting thought.
In the two stories we've examined so far, love (or something associated with the sexual and/or romantic aspect of it) is presented as destructive and dark, twisted rather nurturing, and incredibly trecherous. Keep in mind, at this time Moore was unmarried. I know nothing about her personal life during this period, but I have to wonder. Had this attractive young woman been burned in a relationship? Had she witnessed friends or family members have their beauty consumed by a relationship? I don't expect to ever find out. Such a thing would seem to be consistent with the Northwest Smith stories so far. But whether this interpretation is a sound one is a question I'll leave to the professional literary scholars.