By Bud Webster
A Kuttner Above the Rest (But Wait, There's Moore!)
I set out this time around to complain about how doing this was both a pleasure and a pain for me; the former because I enjoy doing it and the latter because I shouldn't have to. I was pretty clever about it, too. However, it all seemed a bit too familiar, so I went back to last issue's installment and realized that I'd already said all that in the first few paragraphs.
Oh, bother. Much as I might have wanted to reiterate my earlier thoughts (not to mention that cleverness again), I figure if I do that you'll all do what people at conventions do when I get to yakking about The Good Old Days: smile desperately, make encouraging noises, look at your watches and start edging out of the room.
So I'll simply point you back to the first page or so of "Cyril with an M" from last ish and we'll take it as written (again), shall we? Thank you.
This time around, I want to talk about a pair of writers, collaborators on the most basic level. So basic, in fact, that it's impossible to see where one ends and the other picks up, two writers who honestly and inarguably write as One. They had a profound impact on the field Back in the Day, not only on their readers but on other writers as well. They didn't always sign both their names to a particular story or novel, but nevertheless they insisted until the last that it was the way they'd always worked.
Over the years, there have only been a bare handful of husband-and-wife writing partners: Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton for example, and I suspect that Knight and Wilhelm, or perhaps the original del Reys, at least tossed around story ideas and bounced ideas off each other. Closer to home (literally), although Mary and I aren't married, she is my harshest critic and vets every single thing I write, and I am a far better writer for it.
In the case of our subjects, though, it was well and truly collaboration, not just critiquing sessions around the dinner table.
Henry Kuttner (1914-58) started out as one of H. P. Lovecraft's fans and correspondents, selling first a poem ("Ballad of the Gods") to Weird Tales at the age of 22, and following it up the next month with his first story, "The Graveyard Rats." He didn't stay there long, though, finding eeriness and unnamable horrors less to his liking than drunken inventors, mutant hillbillies and other, less arcane and eldritch personalities.
Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987) was three years older than her Other Half, and beat him into print accordingly, with her signature tale of sf horror, "Shambleau," appearing in the November 1933 Weird Tales. This justly famous and still well-regarded yarn of interplanetary adventure features her most enduring character, Northwest Smith, and was the first in a series eventually published as Shambleau and Others (Gnome Press 1953) and Northwest of Earth (Gnome Press 1954); in her afterword to her final collection, The Best of C. L. Moore (ed. Lester del Rey, del Rey 1975), she dispelled a myth about its initial appearance:
This story was not rejected by every magazine in the field before it crept humbly to the doorstep of Weird Tales. My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and a check for the (then) fabulous amount of $100 arrived almost by return mail.
The story was an immediate sensation, and not just with the readership. In a letter to editor Farnsworth Wright, some guy named Lovecraft said:
"Shambleau" is great stuff. It begins magnificently, on just the right note of terror, and with black intimations of the unknown. The subtle evil of the Entity, as suggested by the unexplained horror of the people is extremely powerful—and the description of the Thing itself when unmasked is no letdown.
And who should know better about black intimations and subtle evil than the Gentleman from Providence, am I right? His one complaint was "the conventional interplanetary setting;" frankly, given his somewhat Puritanical perspective, I'd have thought he would have objected to the title character's overt sexuality, but perhaps he'd become inured by all those Margaret Brundage covers. [i]
Both Gnome collections also included stories featuring Jirel of Joiry, one of the few successful female sword'n'sorcery characters in the field aside from Howard's Red Sonja. Interestingly enough, Moore saw a clear similarity between the Shambleau and Jirel, remarking on:
. . . [T]he close relationship the two women bear to one another. They set the keynote for a lot of my own (incessant) writing until I met and married Henry Kuttner. I realize now [in 1975] that, unconsciously, no doubt, both were versions of the self I'd like to have been.
Hey, nice work if you can get it, right? Even today, some 75 years later, those two debut tales are effective, readable, and memorable. How many other pulp yarns can you say that about? I'm amazed that the Moore story has never been filmed, especially in these days of readily-available CGI software. It would have been a natural for, say, the recent "Masters of Science Fiction" series, and would have been equally at home in either incarnation of The Twilight Zone.
The two writers met in 1938 and married in 1940; the only guests at their civil wedding were Kuttner's mother and artist Virgil Finlay and his wife. According to Sam Moskowitz in his essay on Kuttner in Seekers of Tomorrow (World 1967):
Virgil paid the Justice of the Peace $10, bought the bride a dubonnet and soda, and the career of the most famous writing team in science-fiction was launched.
From then on, the pair collaborated on practically everything they published, even if only to say, "Nah, it's not your best work. Let's try it this way."
The same year they were married, something in the way of a Major Conflict was taking place in many places around the globe, and this led to a reader's catastrophe: a lot of John W. Campbell's regular writers headed into the fray. Kuttner and Moore, under their own names as well as a bunch of pseudonyms, tried their best to fill the gap, selling almost five dozen stories to Astounding during that period, some under their own names, but most under the pseudonym of Lewis Padgett.
Padgett was responsible for what is probably their best-known character series, the five "Galloway Gallagher" stories, later collected as Robots Have No Tails (Gnome Press 1952). The stories concern an eccentric inventor, a vino savant if you will, who is unable to work unless he's blind drunk; this frees up his subconscious, and the crazed Goldbergian devices begin piling up while he sings duets with himself. The stories are almost perfect Campbellian sf, lacking only stupid aliens to fill out the requirements. They date a little today, and some will find the humor rather heavy-handed, but they're still fun and worth reading. (I should note here that later in her life, Moore blamed these yarns solely on Kuttner; make of that what you will, I certainly have no trouble believing it.)
The same penname was used for another successful series for Campbell's Astounding, the five Baldy stories, collected as Mutant (Gnome Press 1953) [ii]. In these stories, our Interwoven Pair explored the idea of sympathetic mutants undergoing persecution by normals, much as van Vogt did in his Jommy Cross novel, Slan (Arkham House 1951); the Kuttner/Moore stories are quite a bit more contemplative, however, far from the usual run of such things in both the literature and films.
Not content with taking mutants seriously, they threw caution to the winds and wrote the popular Hogben stories for Thrilling Wonder. Many writers have worked with the concept of mutated humans and their struggles to be accepted by normal humans (or their struggles to totally and utterly subjugate said normal humans), but only these two could—or would—cast them as hillbillies. And make it work.
There were other series as well, both by Kuttner alone and in collaboration with others, most notably Arthur K. Barnes; not all of these were sf/fantasy, as befit writers who were trying hard to make a living by writing whatever there was a market for. On in particular fascinates me, considering the time in which it was written: the Hollywood on the Moon stories, eight of them, written for Thrilling Wonder between 1939 and '41. To my knowledge, these stories have never been reprinted together under cover; perhaps that will change before mid-century.
I could go on about the stories—and I will, given any opportunity, don't you doubt it for a minute—but my time here is better spent talking about the authors. The bibliography at the end will give you the chance to decide for yourself about the individual yarns they spun (assuming you take the time and effort to track them down, as precious little remains in print), and I hope you'll take advantage of it.
There have been, as I said, any number of collaborators in the field down through the years; Ray Bradbury's first story, for example, was a collab with fellow faan Henry Hasse, and Baen Books has created a collaborative cottage industry by teaming their established writers with younger ones. Any number of writers have cooperated to produce successful novels, both stand-alone and series (with, in many cases, a varying degree of activity from the more senior colleague), but not every literary partnership is Niven and Pournelle, not by a long chalk.
In the case of Kuttner and Moore, though, we have something unique, something splendid, something that transcends the mere trading back-and-forth of pages. Like a Transformer, K&M became greater than the sum of their particular parts when they joined forces, complete with chest-cannons and arm-lasers. No less a critic than Damon Knight commented that when they began writing together:
. . . two seemingly discordant talents merged. Kuttner's previous stories had been superficial and clever, well constructed but without much content or conviction; Moore had written moody fantasies, meaningful but a little thin . . . working together, they began to turn out stories in which the practical solidity of Kuttner's plots seemed to provide a vessel for Moore's poetic imagination.
Nor is he alone in this assessment. Fellow author and critic Barry Malzberg says:
Their styles meshed totally . . . they were the greatest collaborative writers in the history of collaboration. Like Gilbert & Sullivan, Frazier & Ali, the 1978 Red Sox and Yankees they brought out the best in one another.
Taken individually, Kuttner was by far the more versatile of the pair. Nothing odd about that, of course, as most of the hard-core pulpsters wrote whatever they could get paid to: it's hard to imagine Murray Leinster writing westerns, but he did, just as Judith Merril wrote sports yarns. Neither of these remarkable writers placed work under as long a list of pseudonyms as Kuttner, though, which led to such faanish nonsense as the belief—still encountered today in the writings of past sf "historians" less inclined to, y'know, actually do research—that Jack Vance (Jack Vance!) was a Kuttner penname.
There was more to Kuttner than mere prolificacy, however. Along with Kornbluth, Bester, and a bare handful of others at that time in stfnal history, Henry Kuttner was capable of transcending the limitations of pulpery and creating something akin to art. There is a refinement to his prose, an elegance, that although missing in such toss-offs as the Gallagher stories, is present in practically all of his later work. Compare, if you will, "Graveyard Rats" to "Two-Handed Engine," and you'll see what I mean. The former is pure pulp fiction, a direct schmooze from Lovecraft (and intended to be nothing more than that, to be fair); the latter, a carefully constructed and beautifully written story by a master craftsman concerned with getting every word exactly right.
Moore, on the other hand, stayed mainly on the plain—by which I mean she stuck with what she did well; dark, moody adventure, rather the direct antithesis of Leigh Brackett's swashbuckling yarns. Moore's characters buckled few swashes, but held their own anyway, dragging themselves (or being dragged by more sober companions) grimly and broodingly away from Medusoid vampires and other CASmithian menaces.
This is not to say that she was any less a writer than her husband. Moore's solo work might not have had Kuttner's brilliance and immediate impact, but the panache with which she wove her stories leaves them sitting in the back of your mind, ready to ooze back into your forebrain yet again, immaculate and unforgettable.
Something happened, though, in the mid-50s: their output dropped to almost nothing. "Two-Handed Engine" appeared in the August 1955 F&SF, nine months later "Rite of Passage" ran in the same magazine, and Moore had a solo performance with "Song in a Minor Key" in Fantastic Universe for January of '57, but that was pretty much it.
This may not seem like much of a much, but bear in mind how productive they'd been in earlier years. Understand also that Henry Kuttner was a major influence on many other writers, not the least of whom was (wait for it)—Ray Bradbury. In fact, Malzberg makes the case (and makes it well) that Bradbury, who was a member of the LA chapter of the Science Fiction League (which later mutated into the LA SF Society, or LASFS, still going strong today) with Kuttner, aimed high and actually failed into his remarkable career:
What he wanted desperately in the early l940's was to sell to Campbell, become an ASF and UNKNOWN mainstay, etc. He didn't make it. . . . If Bradbury had succeeded in his [goal], if he had had what he wanted . . . he would have been Henry Kuttner.
I've addressed this before, in another time and place, and as then I will point to Bradbury's introduction to The Best of Henry Kuttner (Ballantine 1975), as evidence that Malzberg is correct in his assertion, presumptuous as it may seem to some at this point in time when Bradbury has been canonized by practically everybody and Kuttner forgotten by all. Bradbury himself says in that intro:
It would be hard to guess the impact of these two stories ["The Twonky" and "Mimsy Were the Borogoves"] on other writers in the genre. But in all probability hundreds of imitations were written by struggling as well as by published authors. I count myself among them.
So what happened? Well, as has been the case with any number of other pulpsters who were unwilling to limit themselves to cheap paper and garish covers, Kuttner wanted more than the recognition of sf fandom, no matter how vociferous and adoring it might have been. When he couldn't get it, he simply dropped writing as a career and went back to school to obtain an advanced degree, which should surprise nobody familiar with his stories. Again, Malzberg:
Kuttner's career was, I think, over . . . he was in the process of getting an MA in psychology at USC, he wanted to become (unsurprisingly) a shrink. His production had . . . shrunk to virtually nil, he had contracts with Harper's for mysteries but got someone else to write them. . . . He had done his work.
And what of C. L. Moore? Why did she stop? Here, Malzberg admits to speculation, albeit based on his own knowledge and experience:
She was also in school and her production was nil but I always suspected that this was more in deference to Henry and joint plans than to the issue of being burnt out. As we know, her second husband, a physician, loathed sf and its denizens and wanted her to have nothing to do with it or writing.
(This last fact also prevented Moore from being honored by SFWA as their Grand Master before she died; how anyone could have objected to this is, frankly, beyond me. An honor is an honor, and even if one believes the source of said honor to be beneath them, simple civility and politeness would seem to demand that it be acknowledged. She did, however, serve as Guest of Honor at the 1981 WorldCon in Denver, so she hadn't been completely muted. But I digress.)
Henry Kuttner died in his sleep on the 3rd of February, 1958, most likely of a stroke. He never achieved his goal of becoming a clinical psychologist, and if he was disappointed in his body of work, few others were. He left behind an indelible mark, and even if he has been mostly forgotten now by readers [iii], he continues to influence writers who aspire to his elegance and grace of style. Moskowitz said:
Who was the real Henry Kuttner? We will never know. The man had discipline, technical brilliance, immense versatility, and ingenuity, and these betrayed him. Lured by opportunism, suffering from an acute sense of inadequacy, he refused to stand alone, but leaned on others for support: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Stanley G. Weinbaum . . . and, of course, C. L. Moore.
Catherine Lucille Moore survived her first husband by almost three decades, although she wrote nothing besides the afterword to The Best of C. L. Moore (Ballantine 1975) in that time. She, too, left her signature on the stfnal broadside, and her stories and novels read as well today as they did when the ink was still damp.
Together and separately, they climbed from the slimes and ooze of Weird Tales to the heights of fantastic literature. There has never been their equal, and no one will come to make them obsolete.
(I would like to thank William Contento for supplying me with his invaluable database, the Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Weird Fiction Magazine Index: 1890-2007, compiled by him and Stephen T. Miller. This remarkable index belongs in the reference library of anyone seriously interested in the history of fantastic literature.)
[i] Look her up at Wikipedia if you don't know the name. She was a revolutionary artist.
[ii] If you're not familiar with Gnome Press, there are plenty of online resources to educate you. Let me just say that Gnome, along with Fantasy Press, Arkham House and a few others, had an enormous effect on sf and fantasy, putting otherwise ephemeral magazine stories into permanent hardcover format long before the major houses even gave it a thought. Believe me, that's important.
[iii] Due, at least in part, to the reluctance of his agent to allow reprints for anything less than Hollywood money; if you think this is a joke, ask any of the dozen or more anthologists who have been frustrated by the agency's unwillingness to accept what everybody else's stories are going for and who demand thousands of dollars for a single short story.
(As is always the case with these bibliographies, especially when the author(s) are as prolific as Kuttner and Moore, I have been as complete as I can humanly be and still keep all my hair and fingernails. Also as always, I welcome any and all additions and corrections; just e-mail me care of this magazine. Please note that I have placed Kuttner ahead of Moore; nothing in the way of "value judgment" should be read into this, it's just the way the names fall alphabetically.)
Henry Kuttner Bibliography
Edward J. Bellin (house)
Will Garth (house)
James Hall (house)
Peter Horn (house)
Robert O. Kenyon (house)
C. H. Liddell
K. H. Maepenn
Scott Morgan (house)
C. K. M. Scanlon (house)
Woodrow Wilson Smith
NovelsThe Day He Died (Bantam 306, 1948, with C. L. Moore as by Lewis Padgett)
CollectionsA Gnome There Was (Simon & Schuster 1950, as by Lewis Padgett)
OmnibusThe Startling Worlds of Henry Kuttner (Popular Library/Questar 0445203285, 1986, with C. L. Moore. Includes "The Portal in the Picture", Valley of the Flame", and "The Dark World.")
Non-genreThe Brass Ring (Duell, Sloane and Pearce 1946, with C. L. Moore)
Short fictionThe Graveyard Rats (March 1936 Weird Tales)
PoetryH.P.L. (September 1937 Weird Tales)
C. L. Moore Bibliography
(See above for collaborative work with Kuttner)
NovelsDoomsday Morning (Doubleday 1957)
CollectionsJudgment Night (Gnome Press 1952; Dell 1979; Red Jacket Press 2004)
Short FictionShambleau (November 1933 Weird Tales)
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