Oh, my. I read this story with one eye closed, and my face turned as far away from it as I possibly could. I was still compelled to finish. Ick and yuck and oh, wow, is this story well done.
The first published story of C.L. Moore, in 1933, apparently turned the sf world on its head—at least, according to the introduction Lester del Rey wrote for The Best of C.L. Moore, published by Ballantine in 1976 (well, in a book club edition in 1973. I read the Ballantine edition). He mentions in his introduction how the story’s emotions and sexual content changed sf forever—that fans who had read the pulps remember this story for its vibrancy and life. Since I’ve read some of the older sf, and found most of it turgid at best, I can see what Lester meant.
This story is an sf horror story of the Alien variety, with an alien creature that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, a hero who can’t save himself, and a world that’s not our own. One of Moore’s most well known characters, Northwest Smith (who shows up on other stories), rescues a woman from a mob. The mob calls her Shambleau, and turns away when he claims she’s “his.”
He doesn’t speak to anyone after that, but goes about his business, protecting the girl (as he calls her—”girl” is 1933 for any female, young or old), and half expecting her to leave before he gets back from whatever he’s doing.
She doesn’t leave and then, in a time-honored fiction tradition, things get worse. Very creepy story, which will probably give me nightmares. And I mean that as a compliment…