Monday, June 14, 2021

Shambleau

"Shambleau" (1933), the first story professionally published by classic science-fiction author C. L. Moore, also marked the debut of her interplanetary adventurer Northwest Smith. (Does that name remind you of anybody?) This horror tale takes place in a Terran colony on Mars, inhabited by a motley horde of humans and humanoids from Earth, Mars, Venus, and miscellaneous other planets. Smith meets the title character while she's being pursued by a multi-species lynch mob. Identifying her as a "Shambleau," a word unfamiliar to him, they demand that he turn her over because they "never let those things live!" Smith responds to their inexplicable murderous rage by drawing his heat-ray gun and claiming the girl as his property. The leader of the crowd agrees on condition that Smith keep her confined. He takes her back to his lodging. At first he sees her as "a girl, and sweetly made and in danger," then as merely "a pretty brown girl-creature from one of the many half-human races peopling the planets," no more than an animal in humanoid shape. When he starts to desire her, along with the lust an instinctive revulsion grows. Yet he yields to her predatory embrace, escaping only because Yarol, his Venusian comrade, intervenes.

"Shambleau," in her quasi-human form, is capable of enticing and seducing her prey and even of arousing sympathy. Ultimately, though, Northwest Smith rejects her pathos and sexual allure as a snare. His perception of her undergoes several shifts. When he rescues her from the mob, he sees her in conventional terms as a victimized innocent. A closer look at the girl reveals animal traits, eyes with "slit-like, feline pupils" and fingers "tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat's." Later she preys upon him first in a dream, then in conscious paralysis, serpentine tendrils on her head inducing a "warm softness...caressing the very roots of his soul with a terrible intimacy" and evoking a "rapture of revulsion, hateful, horrible--but still most foully sweet," one example of the queasy blend of eroticism and loathing that pervades this scene. Her true form sprouts a "nest of blind, restless red worms...like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness" in place of hair To Yarol, who catches her in the midst of preying on his friend, Smith looks "dead-alive" like a vampire's victim in the process of being transformed. Like the victim of a traditional vampire, Smith can be restored to himself only by the slaying of the monster, which Yarol accomplishes with a trick from the Medusa legend. Her serpentine appendages link her with the Gorgon and the Lamia; probably "an older race than man, spawned from ancient seed in times before ours, perhaps on planets that have gone to dust," her kind have generated ancient myths on innumerable worlds. Yarol, who knows something of the legends of Shambleau, explains that the creature's draining of life-force acts like a drug upon victims who survive the first embrace and thereafter "keep the thing with them all their lives--which isn't long--feeding it for that ghastly satisfaction."

By the end of the story, the creature is reduced in the heroes' eyes to a "thing," an "it" rather than "she," her true shape described as "a mound like a mass of entrails." During his ecstatic union with Shambleau, Smith experiences transcendent visions, but he rejects that memory, too, as a deadly temptation. He attributes the allure she holds for him to "some nucleus of utter evil" within himself. In a defensive reaction, he convinces himself her species acts only from instinct, like a predatory animal or even a carnivorous plant, their hypnotic power being a natural weapon that's no more a sign of intelligence than the flower's aroma.

This frequently anthologized work appears with many other vintage horror stories of vampirism in WEIRD VAMPIRE TALES (1992), edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, which is available on Amazon.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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