[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]
Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility. Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time. This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.
I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.” The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations. Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply. There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism. Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.
Much the same could be said of the Twentieth Century, technically sophisticated but spiritually and often culturally atavistic: science becomes a caricature of itself in scientism and masses of non-believers embrace a baroque folklore little distinguishable from that of a previous age. “The fusion of fictional imagination and phenomenal obsession,” writes Eric Voegelin of this aspect of modernity in New Order and Last Orientation (circa 1950), “was finally achieved on the occasion of Orson Welles’s broadcast of the invasion from Mars.” Voegelin continues: “A panic broke out among the listeners because they believed the fictional invasion to be real, and they could believe it because they lived in a phenomenal world in which invasions from Mars are something to be expected in the same manner as the appearance of a demon with claws and a tail was something to be expected in the world of a medieval demonologist.” The banishment of gods by a view of the world that denies the supernatural nevertheless shades over into an expectation of demons. The world might have become all phenomenon with no supernatural exterior, neither heaven nor hell, but the demons, in the form of naturalistic entities, remain rampant even so. In The Ecumenic Age (1965), Voegelin argues again for the homology of antique demonism and modern scientific fantasy: “In fairness to the ancients one must say that they were not more indulgent in this respect than the moderns are in their comparably structured state of existential disorientation, for, ever since the plurality of worlds has been introduced again to the general public through Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1688), Western society has descended to the vulgarian grotesque of flying saucers, an invasion from Mars, investment of public funds in listening to signals from other worlds, a wave of excitement that pulsar emissions could be such signals, and the industry of science fiction that is based on this conceit.” In respect to science fiction, then, the ancient precursors can help to illuminate the modern practitioners of the genre; they can help us to see science fiction as something other than narratives of phenomenalism. Allow me to speak, then, of that Latin-speaking Epicurean Lucretius and of another writer of Late Antiquity, Lucian of Samosata, as the true originators of science fiction.
Lucretius’ explanation of the universe constitutes, as is well known, a rigorous materialism. Taking the doctrine of the atoms from his philosophical precursor Epicurus, Lucretius describes a world fully explicable in terms of primary physical causation. According to ancient sources, Epicurus’ own poem concluded with a fully worked out theology, but that poem has not survived. Lucretius’ theology very probably falls short of Epicurus’ in its scope, but what Lucretius does tell us, primarily in De rerum natura, Book V, but also in Books I and VI, merits attention. The term superstitio, in its modern usage, derives from Lucretius, who intended by it a kind of false consciousness centered on erroneous ideas about “the gods.” Lucretius’ materialism leads him not to an atheism, in which one no longer thinks the concept of the divine, but rather to a cosmology that subordinates both humanity and divinity to a purely natural scheme, while significantly retaining the gods under a modified notion. Thus, according to Lucretius, while one “must not suppose that the holy dwelling-places of the gods are anywhere within the limits of the [familiar, human] world,” one must still grant their existence in one of the other, plural worlds. The gods consist of matter, just like human beings, but constituted of rarer atoms than those of the earthly realm and therefore “elusive to the touch and pressure of our hands” and having “no contact with anything tangible to us.” Lucretius consigns divinity to remote interstices among the plural worlds that constitute the inexhaustible universe in toto; he places them, that is to say, safely distant from terrestrial humanity. But under what philosophical (or other) motive must the gods be thus banished, held distant from humanity so that humanity is made safe from them?
In ancient times, Lucretius writes, false beliefs concerning the gods led to the institution of human sacrifice, instantiated most famously and terribly by the immolation of Iphigenia at Aulis. Lucretius significantly describes Epicurus in Promethean terms as the one whose scientific vision liberated humanity from superstition: “When human life lay groveling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features glowered menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was the first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky.” Lucretius thereby directly links the insights of science to the refinement of religion through the illumination and overthrow of gross and epistemologically inadequate beliefs and practices. Jonas cites the importance of the Prometheus-figure to the Late Antique, specifically to the Gnostic, theological vision. As in Lucretius’ Epicureanism, Prometheus becomes the “challenger” of a malign, this-worldly god, and acts on behalf of a humanity oppressed by that god, or by the concept thereof; thus “the victim of the older mythology becomes the bearer of the Gospel in the new.” Human obtuseness might yet neutralize the attempted assistance by such a liberator. Thus, in Book V, Lucretius worries that the Epicurean noetic liberation might grow weak or even dissolve, leading precisely to a religious atavism in which the newly benighted would saddle themselves again with “cruel masters whom they believe to be all-powerful” and revive obscene practices like human sacrifice.
Even though these horrors are not physically present, yet the conscience-ridden mind, in terrified anticipation of punishment, torments itself with its own goads and whips. It does not see what term there can be to its suffering. It is afraid that death may serve merely to intensify pain. So at length the life of misguided mortals becomes a Hell on earth. In Book V, finally, Lucretius describes how “mankind is perpetually the victim of a pointless and futile martyrdom” and how the failure to see reality clearly has inveterately “stirred up from the depths the surging tumultuous tides of war.” Error and violence go in tandem in Lucretius’ thought. Superstition is thus false, in Lucretius’ view, but it is effective. Under the delusion of the divinity as a “cruel master,” fathers will surely let the blood of their daughters in macabre offerings. Lucretius’ theology amounts, then, to a secularism which admits the gods but banishes them to a safe distance and then emphatically denies that they place any sacrificial requirement on the human race. A rational order will prevail as long as the displacement and the denial remain in force. Yet seductions exist that tempt people back into the embrace of outmoded and, objectively speaking, disgusting customs and forms. Reason can fall prey to its opposite and nothing guarantees that the distorted practices of earlier times will not enjoy a revival.
II. The Paracletic Hero in the Weird Fiction of C. L. Moore. Insight into the casual philosophical origins of C. L. Moore’s fiction can be gleaned from a reading of the letters that H. P. Lovecraft sent to her in the late 1930s. As Lovecraft responds systematically to Moore’s own arguments, it is possible to understand Moore’s thinking even in the absence of her side of the exchange. Lovecraft takes issue, for example, with Moore’s left-leaning politics of the time, arguing that doctrinaire Marxism was little more than a secular substitute for religion and myth. Marxism, in other words, lacks an understanding of religion and can offer no genuine advance upon it; as a type of pseudo-scientific mystique, Marxism indeed amounts to no more than a cult decked out in political rhetoric. More important to human beings than the idea of God, Lovecraft argues, are the ideas of order and ethics. (Lovecraft was an atheist – who admired and invoked Lucretius; he endorsed social-welfare schemes but opposed the crudity of Marxist social analysis.) Humanity discovers order in the cosmos and applies the pattern of order in its social existence, which becomes more orderly as the system of ethics is rationalized through observation of the human character. In the Lucretian scheme, men attribute their dependence on blood-rites to a demand made by the gods, but once they discover that the gods are not the bloodthirsty creatures of myth and that the demand for violent propitiation originates with a human proclivity; then men can consciously alter their behavior and reorganize society in reasoned and non-violent, or non-sacrificial, ways. The new order might also be attributed to divinity, but in this case the divinity will be an emblem for something conscious and elevated rather than the reflection of superstitious fear
For Lovecraft, godhead reflects the ethical level of a community, and ethics of the highest type “is simply a condition – like the existence of the atmosphere,” as he put it to a mutual acquaintance of his and Moore’s. Whether Lovecraft succeeded in persuading Moore or not – the evidence suggests that he indeed made an impression – Moore’s own considerable body of fiction shows an obsession with the remote origins of the God-concept and of religion, so much so that she becomes a kind of speculator who investigates how the present managed to become what it is by transforming itself from its primordial opposite. What is striking about Moore’s stories is their conviction that this origin, this primordial ethical opposite of the present, is sacrificial, such that the niceties of myth and metaphysics conceal the requirement of immolation. In Moore’s stories, moreover, the sacrificial cult always stands opposed by an explicitly anti-sacrificial ethos that corresponds both to Lovecraft’s Epicurean idea of a universal enlightened condition and to a secularization of the basic Christian ethics. There is no explicit mention of Christianity, however, which, in Moore’s speculative future, has receded entirely into the background. Of course, the thrill of Lovecraft’s own stories, equally non-Christian, lies in their revelation that the very complacency of post-religious society courts catastrophe; that the tenuous human happiness might be shattered at any time by an eruption of primitive forces.
Moore’s most famous character, Northwest Smith, is a semi-criminal, semi-heroic denizen of low establishments on Mars and Venus, who in the course of his many adventures among the plurality of worlds encounters a series of power-drunk beings who, having set themselves up as gods in one circumstance or another, demand sacrifice and terrorize their captives. There is the vampiric Manga, on Venus, in “Black Thirst” (1934); the psychic parasite in “The Cold Gray God” (1935); and the sapient but altogether mad plant-carnivore in “The Tree of Life” (1936). In each case, Smith confronts the being, reveals its non-supernatural character, engages in a struggle of wills which is also a fight against temptation, and defeats the thing. In doing so, he invariably saves humanity from the depredations of an insatiable and corrupting force. He preserves, in other words, the existing condition of normative, non-sacrificial social organization against resurgent sacrifice. Notice how, even in the simplified context of a popular narrative, the epistemological gesture accompanies the physical casting-out of the obnoxious agency. The intellectual demonstration (it is not divine or supernatural, it is just a creature) does not spring from any necessity intrinsic to the narrative; Smith could simply defeat the evil being and deliver the oppressed. But it is important, as Moore sees it, to establish that the “gods” are simply monsters and that the victims have been deluded as well as oppressed. In “The Tree of Life” (1936), the entity’s victims, including Smith, experience a “calling” that plunges them into a “hypnotized” state full of “unreasoning terror” which then overwhelms the “sane part” of the mind. Moore thus opposes the unreason of the cult against the sanity of the normative mind. In their deluded state, people offer themselves to the entity as “dusky sacrifices.”
“The Dust of the Gods.” The paradigm of Moore’s anti-sacrificial narrative occurs in the fifth of her Northwest Smith stories, “The Dust of the Gods” (1934). In “The Dust of the Gods,” a stranger bargains with Smith and Yarol to recover a certain substance from a remote polar location on Mars. The buyer of Smith’s services proves to be an aficionado of an ancient sacrificial order wishing to revive its thoroughly nasty god, “Black Pharol,” as he is called. In Moore’s tale: “Pharol, today, means unmentionable rites to an ancient no-god of utter darkness,” the stranger says, but it once had a more specific significance. The stranger then offers this précis of Martian – or rather cosmic – theological history: “There were gods who were old when Mars was a green planet, and a verdant moon circled an Earth blue with steaming seas… Another world circled in space then, between Mars and Jupiter where its fragments, the planetoids, are now… It was a mighty world, rich and beautiful, peopled by the ancestors of mankind. And on that world dwelt a mighty Three in a temple of crystal, served by strange slaves and worshipped by a world. They were not wholly abstract, as most modern gods have become.” The invocation of an ancient paganism and its appurtenances rings true. The declaration that the cultic deities “were not abstract” suggests the non-understanding of modern people when confronting a prehistoric cult.
The Three, as Moore calls them, antedate all other gods, who are, therefore, mere “echoes of them.” The Christian idea of the Trinity would be one such distant echo, but thoroughly transformed from the original, and one which, through the agency of Smith, will soon oppose and neutralize its ancient and intolerable prototype. Two of the primordial gods eventually died – the story-teller does not say how – while the third and mightiest lived, his name now a curse referring vaguely to “fearful things.” Pharol could apparently “incarnate [himself] in a material body” so as to “touch” his worshippers, and of course consume the offerings made to him. According to Smith’s commissioner, the dust of Pharol still exists – in the ruins of an immemorial temple – and he will pay handsomely for its recovery. Moore, like Lucretius, reduces the divine to a substance (“dust”) that has different properties from terrestrial substance but still belongs to a universe in which all phenomena are compounded of atoms. In “The Black God,” the “dust” of the divinity can be reactivated, and it therefore constitutes a persistent threat to the more or less peaceful and rational order of the established nomos. The antique “god” would pose a danger not only because he is powerful and voracious, but because people are willing to yield to antique notions, embrace the godhead of false gods, and take up hoary practices once again.
The descriptive detail that says that Pharol could “touch” his worshippers also deserves attention: A being who can “touch” other beings is (again) necessarily a material, that is to say a natural rather than a supernatural being. Pharol’s predatory nature threatens a more or less settled world. Smith, although an outlaw, implicitly values the settled nature of the existing, civilized, universe. One of the defining characteristics of the civic cosmos is that it has freed itself from the brutal practices of benighted antiquity. In the very first of the Northwest Smith stories, “Shambleau” (1934), Moore’s protagonist gets into trouble by rescuing what appears to be a young woman from a Martian lynch-mob: his sense of the dignity of the persecuted victim leads him to put himself in danger by opposing the witch-hunters. (Later, ironically, Smith has to be rescued from the young woman, who turns out to be a monster in disguise; victimhood can be a disguise.) In the final Northwest Smith story, “Song in a Minor Key” (1957), this idea–of the normative as the empirically optimal condition of existence–takes the specific form of “familiar voices indoors… a girl with hair like poured honey hesitating just inside the door, lifting her eyes to him.” This adds up, in a few words, to marriage and society. Smith indeed deplores the flaw his own propensity for violence–the very propensity that catapulted him away from the idyll while he was still young. Yet even in criminal exile, he has striven to defend what he has forfeited. Smith’s actions in “The Dust of the Gods” typify such a defense.
With his Venusian friend Yarol, Smith travels to the Martian North Polar region where lies, as legend says, the ruined city where the gods of the Lost Planet “had been saved from the wreckage [of their world] and spirited across the void to a dwelling-place… that is not even a memory today.” The adjective megalithic, with its archaic and sacrificial connotations, perhaps best describes the city when, after traversing a subterranean labyrinth, the explorers at length come upon it: “Here and there, buried in the debris of ages, lay huge six-foot blocks of hewn stone, the only reminder that here had stood Mars’ holiest city, once, very long ago.” They open a way into another subterranean passage decorated with “unheard-of frescoes limned in dim colors under the glaze,” reminiscent, as so often in the science fiction text, of some ancient hieratic style. They locate a sealed chamber whose door boasts the archaic insignia of Black Pharol. Smith’s Venusian companion recalls that he “saw it once carved in the rock of an asteroid… just a bare little fragment of dead stone whirling around and around through space,” from which he concludes that “the Lost Planet must really have existed… and [the asteroid] must have been a part of it, with the god’s name cut so deep that even the explosion of a world couldn’t wipe it out.” When they break the seal, a preternatural light dazzles them which is, as Moore writes, “like no light they had ever known before,” for “tangibly it poured past them down the corridor in hurrying waves that lapped one another and piled up and flowed as a gas might have done.”
This is the pent-up atmosphere of the god, a kind of ether. Yarol deduces that the chamber of light is actually the interior of an asteroid: “A fragment of [the shattered] planet, enclosing a room, possibly where the gods’ images stood, [which] was somehow detached from the Lost planet and hurled across space to Mars. It must have buried itself in the ground here, and the people of this city tunneled in to it and built a temple over the spot.” Plunging deeper into the mountain-embedded asteroid, which is the chamber of “The Three,” Smith and Yarol penetrate to the inner sanctum, “a vast crystal room” at whose center rises “a crystal throne [that] had been fashioned for no human occupant. On this the elder deities once sat, to be propitiated by those whom they enslaved. Smith and Yarol judge from the contours of the throne that the Three must have possessed a material shape entirely “outside modern comprehension”; but they were nevertheless quite material. Although the flanking pedestals remain empty, the middle one, belonging to Pharol, contains a pile of mysterious dust – “all that was left of a god” who had been “the greatest of antiquity’s deities.” With a mounting sense of alarm, they decide not to recover the dust for their commissioner, for “what man, with a god to do his bidding, would stop short of dominion over the worlds of space?” Or what ravenous “god” would be content to do the bidding of a mere man, once revived? It is thus determinedly to prevent a lapsus in antiquas religiones, with its cultic and sacrificial implications, that Smith and Yarol now act. But how to dispose of a god’s deactivated remains?
Moore finds a marvelously ironic method whose metaphoric value is high. Making use of that SF cliché the blaster, Smith sets the dust afire. Smith’s eyes, as Moore writes, “were riveted on the clear, burning flame that was once a god. It burned with a fierce, pale light flickering with nameless evanescent colors–the dust that had been Pharol of the utter darkness burning slowly away in a flame of utter light.” Notice how Smith fills the Epicurean role as defined by Lucretius: In purifying the world of superstition he opens the way for a secular existence free from the perversions that inevitably accompany the false belief in predatory contractual gods. Such beliefs are “false,” not because the entities towards which the worshippers direct their devotion do not exist but because the contract is invariably one-sided and fraudulent and entails the humiliation of the cultists and everyone else. The verb “to purify” comes from the same root as the Greek pur, or “fire.” In the opening passages of De rerum natura, it will be recalled, Lucretius represents Epicurus as a kind of secular Prometheus delivering the world from benightedness by bringing back from the heavens the flame of knowledge (scientia as opposed to superstitio). As the ancient gods had demanded propitiation through burnt offerings on their altar (or at any rate as men had imagined that they did), so does science demand the immolation of the gods themselves in a final catharsis that will put an end to sacrificial terror. Smith, too, like Epicurus in the Lucretian text, takes on the Promethean aspect when he carries out his exorcism of the demons.
By the period of Late Antiquity, the idea of hungry gods waiting in heaven for the smoke of the hecatomb to provide their dinner had become absurd enough that Lucian could satirize it in his short treatise On Sacrifice. And yet beneath the satire a certain unease makes itself felt: one ridicules the thing to keep it at bay. Moreover, Lucian’s satire is contemporaneous with many a demonology and Gnostic tract. Lucian could smile (or maybe grimace), but many were afraid. Like the hungry gods that crowd around the smoking pyre in Lucian’s sketch, Smith (although inadvertently) inhales the miasma: he suddenly has a reeling vision of “the history of a dead and forgotten world [which] flared by him in the dark”; Smith sees “man-formed beings [that] lay face down in worshiping wind-rows around a great triple pedestal,” the very image of degradation. This is the same “groveling” deplored by Lucretius and from which, according to him, Epicurus in his Promethean role delivered humanity. Modern people in North America could all at once ridicule outmoded ideas like ghosts and witches and desert their churches for the affable doctrine of how to make friends and influence people and be galvanized by their certainty that Martians had invaded New Jersey. Millions of people in the year 2000 believe that they or their fellow human beings are regularly kidnapped and tortured by aliens, after all. Recoiling from the violence and disgust of their experience, Smith and Yarol find their way out of the cavern. In a Nietzschean “Twilight of the Idols,” Moore offers as the final image “the pale Martian day… darkening over the mountains” where a man has just, by premeditation, killed a god.
“The Scarlet Dream.” In the fourth Northwest Smith story, “The Scarlet Dream” (1934), Moore’s hero operates in a less active mode, which is why it made sense to examine “The Dust of the Gods” first. The action in “The Scarlet Dream” begins with the discovery of a magical talisman in the form of a blood-red shawl, rescued from a derelict spaceship in the asteroid belt and quickly discarded by a series of alarmed owners. As Smith shoulders his way through the bazaar in the Lakkmanda Markets of Mars, “a flash of that peculiar geranium scarlet that seemed to lift itself bodily from its background and smite the eye with an all but physical violence” abruptly compels his attention: “Smith felt sure that it was woven from the hair of some beast rather than from vegetable fiber, for the electrical clinging of it sparkled with life. And the crazy pattern of it dazzled him with its strangeness. Unlike any pattern he had seen in all the years of his far wanderings, the wild, leaping scarlet threaded its nameless design in one continuous, tangled line through the twilight blue of the background.” The shawl exercises a fascinating quality; like the act of sacrifice, it fixes the attention, as it were, involuntarily. That attention, moreover, has a collective quality – it is the fascination of the group for the cultic center where the hungry god appears.
The shawl has a metonymic, a sparagmatic, relation to its origin, for it is the hair of an animal perhaps long dead (a part abstracted from the whole); it even preserves some of the animation of its source, “sparkl[ing] with life” and constitutes a remnant of antique violence. Such violence generates an allure. The shawl’s sanguinary coloration indeed dazzles the onlooker. But the shawl’s origin belongs to the unknown. According to the man who sells it to Smith, the previous owner “found it in a derelict ship floating around in the asteroids . . . a very early model… probably one of the first space-ships, made before the identification symbols were adopted.” This links the shawl to the predatory outer-world where Black Pharol originates in “The Black God.” Smith’s Venusian friend had once seen Pharol’s seal on a remote asteroid. Smith can have the shawl for a single cris; the seller, moreover, anxiously wants to rid himself of it since it “gives [him] a headache to look at the thing.” Though large, the shawl easily fits into Smith’s palm when he folds it up; it can be carried like a talisman. Antique, mysterious, fascinating, the shawl nags at Smith’s consciousness. In his quarters he takes it from his pocket and shakes it open producing “a sudden wild writhing of scarlet patterns over walls and floor and ceiling.” Spreading it out on his table, Smith traces the intricate pattern with his finger: “The more he stared the more irritatingly clear it became to him that there must be a purpose in that whirl of color.” As Smith falls into dream, the threaded design becomes “a labyrinthine path down which he stumbled blindly.”
The shawl’s dazzling exterior thus beckons both eye and mind to enter a complex interior in which the explorer runs the risk of losing himself fatally; it is a kind of temptation which would not have been unfamiliar, say, to Theban Anthony, fighting off demonic temptations in the Egyptian desert. Power and beauty alluringly combine. The shawl’s magical interior corresponds to a violence partly concealed by the exterior. The Lovecraft connection is obviously important. The Moore universe shares a great deal, in fact, with the Lovecraft universe. Both are chock-full of ancient, bloodthirsty gods who wait for the moment when they can emerge from hiding to reestablish themselves at the center of a sacrificial cult. Beauty turns out to be one of the attributes of violence, to result, indeed, from an ancient type of ritual violence that humanity has long since suppressed and which, therefore, it has all but forgotten, like some Minotaur in an ages-untried maze. Passing through sleep, Smith awakens in a sinister dream world where “the sky [is] a great shawl threaded with scarlet lightning” and finds himself “mounting a long flight of steps” under what is now a “lovely twilight [where] the air was suffused with colored mists, and no wind blew.” Smith slowly becomes cognizant of “a stirring in the dimness,” in the midst of which “and a girl came flying down the stairs in headlong, stumbling terror.” Moore writes that “he could see the shadow of it on her face, and her long, bright-colored hair streamed out behind her, and from head to foot she was dabbed with blood.”
This incident confirms the natural inferences one wants to make about the shawl on the basis of Moore’s initial description, particularly with respect to its scarlet hue, for the color red is inevitably associated with blood, and even more so with violent blood-letting. The architecture “contained” within the shawl must be a sacred architecture, so that meeting a blood-bedaubed victim is perhaps not all that surprising, but entirely to be expected; nor does it particularly astonish the reader that the girl is in flight from something that she finds difficult to name. “It – it has her! Let me go! . . . It has her – oh, my sister,” she cries. The repeated “it” functions here as does the substitute for the holy name in many an ancient cult: The pronoun refers, blankly, to something protected by a strong taboo. “My sister… It caught her in the hall – caught her before my eyes and spattered me with her blood.” It – the thing is the god of the twilight world into which Smith has unluckily fallen. He finds himself marooned there, having blundered through the “gate” constituted by the pattern woven into the shawl. The girl explains that the pattern represents a “Word” that opens the gate, but that the gate opens only one way. The architectural space where Smith encounters the girl is, of course, a “Temple.” She says: “It is better not to look out the windows of this place… For from outside the Temple looks strange enough, but from the inside, looking out, one is liable to see things it is better not to see… What that blue space is, on which this gallery opens, I do not know – I have no wish to know. There are windows here opening on stranger things than this–but we turn our eyes away when we pass them. You will learn…”
Outside the Temple, Smith discovers a somber idyll, a world of gentle rolling hills covered with grass and sparsely populated by those unfortunates who have been sucked into it through the aesthetic seduction of the “gate.” The girl lives in a “tiny, shrine-like building of creamy stone, its walls no more than a series of arches open to the blue, translucent day,” situated on the shores of a lake. In the distance, mountains loom in a thickening mist. “Rather tiresome,” Smith thinks, when the girl describes her life: “[I] swim in the lake, sleep and rest and wander through the woods.” The people live in isolation from one another because “it is best not to collect in crowds” which “seem to draw – it.” This life is not only physically indolent; it also qualifies as intellectually hampered. The girl explains it this way to Smith: “Those who wonder – those who investigate – die… Life is bearable only if we do not look too closely.” Smith’s response is, “Damn your beliefs!” Here again Moore opposes investigation, a trait associated with reason, against belief, which passively accepts the cultic reality and interdicts intellectual curiosity.
All of this occurs, fantastically enough, inside the woven texture of the shawl. Thus the hideous events that take place while Smith dwells in the sacrificial tableau constitute the inward principle of the shawl’s outward form; the shawl as work of art emerges from the propitiatory rites associated with a deity whose existence springs from the crowd. “Crowds . . . seem to draw it.” The shawl incorporates its own origin in a demand for blood-offerings and recreates that origin in an endless cycle of ritual closure. Moore’s labyrinthine encosmos neatly if rather ominously articulates itself around a structuring principle, the “Word” referred to by the girl, which designates the founding murder. This verbum, when spoken aloud, reproduces the violence wreaked by the thing: “It is death to pronounce the Word. Literally. I do not know it now, could not speak it if I would. But in the Temple there is one room where the Word is graven in scarlet on the wall, and its power is so great that the echoes of it ring ever round and round that room . . . It is a word from some tongue so alien . . . that the spoken sound of it, echoing in the throat of a living man, is disrupting enough to rip the very fibers of the human body apart . . . to destroy body and mind as utterly as if they had never been.”
This magical prohibition against the pronunciation of the “Word” reproduces the sacrificial taboo against investigating the state of things and therefore against understanding the situation in which one is caught. It is also the case that the “Word” offers the one exit from the sacrificial encosmos where Smith finds himself caught. Smith thus confronts a non-negotiable ethical cul-de-sac: if he goes to the room of the “Word” and pronounces the phonemes, it will kill him; and while standing near someone else who pronounces them – as the girl suggests – might enable him to escape, to ask her to help in this way would mean asking her to commit suicide. The escapee would be complicit in a homicide. It is in the very nature of the “Word” to keep everything within the scarlet dreamland in stasis, with those on whom the thing preys, like the girl’s sister, being replaced by inadvertent newcomers such as Smith. Smith substitutes for the dead sibling, arriving in the moment when she dies and filling her niche by becoming the survivor’s companion. The speech that Moore gives to the girl echoes the ancient idea of word-magic, by which language, itself, is thought to have the power to affect the world directly. The notion that the name of God is too powerful or dangerous to invoke audibly is familiar from the Hebrews, among whom historically the public terms Elohim and Adonai substituted for the sacrosanct Yahweh. The onomastic ban points to a primitive phase indeed in the development of the Biblical God: precisely the pre-Biblical, or sacrificial, phase. The ban upholds the nescience requisite to sacrificial closure.
Smith escapes from the Scarlet Dream in which he is stranded when the girl decides to sacrifice herself for him: she agrees to go with Smith to the particular room in the temple where the “Word” echoes and to pronounce it, opening an egress by which he can return to his world even while she dies. Smith does not know of the self-immolating part of her plan. He merely thinks that she is going to make sure that he does not get lost in the labyrinth. In “the Scarlet Dream,” then, Smith himself submits to salvation from an otherwise fatal cycle. In this sense, “The Scarlet Dream” and “The Dust of the Gods” form an intelligible sequence, in which Smith first experiences the arbitrariness and brutality of a sacrificial order and then aligns himself actively against such an order. The salvational overtones of the girl’s self-immolating act support the claim that the protagonist’s role in Moore’s stories is, essentially, that of a Christian hero, sometimes a martyr. In “The Scarlet Dream,” Smith benefits from the selflessness of the girl; elsewhere he is more active in suppressing the old ways. He thus resembles the demon-expelling saint, but in the secular guise, increasingly demanded by the twentieth century, of an existential loner at odds with the bourgeois society that expels him. In another of Moore’s short-story cycles, the one devoted to the medieval heroine Jirel of Joiry, we find many of the same motifs and themes as in the Northwest Smith cycle. Jirel, like Smith, blunders into sacrificial precincts and does battle with the demons. Not quite a member of Christendom, she nevertheless defends its mores against those of the atavistic and bloodthirsty cults.