From the October 1934 issue of WEIRD TALES, this was the first of the five Jirel stories by C.L. Moore to appear there*. It's pretty intense and harrowing stuff to read. Like the other stories in the series, its heroine is forced to deal with black magic in order to fight her real world enemies and, although she sorta wins in the end, the price demanded is always steep.
Jirel is in a slightly hopeless situation in life to begin with. At some point not long after after the Romans had left but before medieval France coalesced into a nation, she is commander of the fortress of Joiry and as much of the surrounding countryside as her army can defend. It's a time of pocket kingdoms trying to swallow each other up in continual skirmishing. Jirel is ferociously proud of her little piece of turf and defends it in one battle after another. As "Black God's Kiss" opens, though, a conqueror named Guillame has won the latest massacre and is occupying the castle of Joiry, still piled with fresh corpses of the soldiers of both sides.
Guillame has the captured commander of Joiry brought before him, struggling and cursing, and (when the prisoner's helmet is removed) is understandably startled to find he is not confronting another scarred hooligan like himself. "He was still staring, as most men stared when they first set eyes upon Jirel of Joiry. She was tall as most men, and the fall of Joiry was bitter enough to break her heart as she stood snarling curses up at her tall conqueror. The face above her mail might not have been fair in a woman's head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades. The red hair was short upon her high, defiant head, and the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire."
Pleasantly surprised, Guillame takes a hot kiss from Jirel (her response is to bite him in the throat as close to the jugular as she can manage), then smacks her down with a backhand and orders her taken away for later. Jirel is enraged enough that she's ready to spray blood from her ears. She is so strongly offended by Guillame's presumption and the descriptions of the man are so grudgingly admiring (we get a lot of the ".... she saw Guillame's scornful, laughing face again, the little beard dark along the line of his jaw, the strong teeth white with his laughter...") that a perceptive reader might think at first this is going to be one of those overheated historical romance novels like LOVE'S SAVAGE ITCH or BRIDE OF THE BUCCANEER.
With a bit too much ease, Jirel breaks loose, arms herself and seeks out her confessor, Father Gervaise. She has decided not to try to flee the castle and raise an army outside, but to seek revenge by unholy means. As it happens, the fortress is built over a trapdoor leading down a long smooth tunnel to a strange version of Hell. (You know, this could be why Joiry has so many disasters, having its capital built over a Hellmouth.) Jirel knows she's guaranteeing her eternal damnation by doing this, but she nevertheless dares to go down that that chute and enter the underworld in search of a weapon she might bring back to use against Guillame... the weapon which turns out to be "the Black God's Kiss" of the title. But as folkore wisdom tells us, deals with Hell always go sour somehow. Even when you get what you asked for, there's a bitter twist in the outcome somewhere.
"Black God's Kiss" is an outstanding story, with no real missteps or weak points. Jirel, of course, makes quite an impression. Strong female characters in pulps were never as rare as some modern commentators seem to think, but Joiry's commander with her amber eyes and bloody sword must have been a sensation in 1934. For the past twenty years, we've had an ongoing barrage of aggressive heroines smashing opponents down, everyone from Xena to Buffy to Lara Croft, and I think audiences have come to take it for granted that a woman can be just as violent as any male hero. But Jirel has a bit more to her than being just a fighting machine in a female body. She makes hard decisions and accepts the consequences, never getting off as lightly as most sword and sorcery heroes. And she never realizes until it's too late what those consequences are (kind of like my own life, come to think of it).
Moore's concept of the netherworld is nicely unsettling. For one thing, it's completely dark until Jirel tugs off the small crucifix she wears and a nightime landscape under strange constellations is revealed, "this land so unholy that one who bore a cross might not even see it." Small grotesque goblins swarm up that she has to slaughter, but there are more disturbing things in Hell - like a herd of blind horses galloping in panic, foaming at the mouth and stumbling in exhaustion; one cries out "Julienne!" That image of the damned will haunt me for some time.
Jirel also encounters a spirit or demon in her own exact likeness, who first tries to lure her to destruction and then gives her directions to what she seeks. The image of Jirel mocks our heroine's oath that she seeks revenge against a man she hates with all her heart. Its voice has "an undernote of laughter in it that she did not understand... Jirel felt her cheeks burn against some implication in the derision which she could not put a name to." But the Lady of Joiry presses on to confront the cold stone statue of the Black God, its one eye closed and its mouth pursed for a kiss....
At this early point, C.L. Moore was writing on her own; after her partnership and marriage with Henry Kuttner began, it's pretty much guesswork as to which author contributed what in their stories, even when the byline went to one of them. Moore's Jirel and Northwest Smith stories (like "Shambleau" -*ack!*) are disturbing partly because they have such potent sexual tension just under the surface. This wasn't unusual for pulp adventures. (Remember Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn story where his Pictish king was compelled to have sex with a hideous witch and then had to crawl down a long tight slimy tunnel to reach an underground lake.... geez, Bob, it can't be THAT bad.) Moore handles the undertones with more deftness and discernment, but there's still a powerful mixture of attraction and repulsion in her early writing. Seventy years later, when I thought I'd be utterly jaded from the avalanche of internet porn, the Jirel stories still have an quirky erotic punch that makes me sit up and take notice.
*"Quest of the Star Stone" was a later story in November 1937 where Jirel and Northwest Smith actually met through magical time travel. Reportedly, it doesn't show Moore and Kuttner's new collaboration or her characters at their best. Although it's not in the collections I have, I still think I need to track this yarn down someday just because I'm a sucker for crossovers.