Mob Scene: “Shambleau”

Catherine L. Moore’s classic 1933 tale of alien parasitism, “Shambleau” (one of the most popular pieces ever to be published in Weird Tales), opens with a scene of angry villagers on the hunt. “The wild hysteria of the mob” rings in the streets of Lakkdarol, a Wild-West-type Martian settlement–“a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did.” A “motley crowd” has gathered: “Earthmen and Martians and a sprinkling of Venusian swampmen and strange, nameless denizens of unnamed planets–a typical Lakkdarol mob.” But there is nothing typical about the mob scene that unfolds. The pursuers gripped by “the savage exultation of the chase” strangely slip between referring to their quarry as a “girl” and a “thing.” The observation that “They desired the girl with an explicable bloodthirstiness” also intrigues with its ambiguity, its blurring of the line between attacking and attraction. When the protagonist Northwest Smith, in a burst of chivalry, intervenes and claims that the girl is with him, the mob’s “animosity” instantly transforms into “horror” and “disgust.” The scornful crowd abandons Smith “as swiftly as if whatever unknowing sin he had committed were contagious.”

The furious pursuit of the “berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment” might be construed as the tracking of a runaway slave (Moore also invokes the context of witch-hunting), but what Smith fails to realize is that the townspeople’s repeated chant of the foreign word “Shambleau” is the equivalent of Eastern European peasants crying vampire. It’s not until after Smith invites the girl home that he (slowly) discovers the predatorial threat underlying her exotic, feline femininity. The red turban worn on the head of the creature (who is posited as the potential origin of the Earthly myth of the Medusa) conceals a nest of writhing tentacles that surreptitiously attach themselves to Smith and suck his life-force. What’s worse, this awful mode of feeding creates an erotic feeling–an addictive thrill–in the victim. By story’s end, the curious behavior of the mob in the opening scene is clarified (and the desperate urge to exterminate perhaps justified). The Shambleau was chased after so impassionedly not simply because she was some swarthy, criminal Other, but because she was recognized as the source of the guiltiest of pleasures.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.