Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Secret Of Sinharat and Queen Of The Martian Catacombs

The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (November, 1971)  Ace Books
(Original Ace Double edition, 1964)
(Also published as Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars, by Ballantine Books, September 1982)

Where the hell has Leigh Brackett been all my life?? I grew up reading the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, but never really got into Edgar Rice Burroughs, though I was aware of his Martian tales and wanted to read them. (Something I still intend to do someday.) 

But I knew a sort of subgenre of “sword and planets” (aka “planetary romances”) existed which sort of took the sword and sorcery of Howard and mixed it with the alien worlds of Burroughs; after a recent hardboiled pulp binge abruptly petered out with no warning, I found myself suddenly interested in this subgenre, discovering a whole slew of books and series that were new to me.

Leigh Brackett’s material jumped out at me more than any other, and I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without reading her. Brackett still has a sizeable following, with info about her all over the web as well as many reviews of her various novels and scripts, so I’ll keep the preamble short. She may be new to me but I’m sure many of you have known about her for years. Sadly it would appear she is most remembered these days either for her Hollywood scripts or for the fact that she wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, so her name is prominently displayed on posters for that film. She got her start in sci-fi, though, specifically for the pulps, and she was herself a big fan of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her writing I feel comes very close to REH – certainly more close than any of the Conan pastiche authors I’ve ever read. One gets the impression that L. Sprauge de Camp should’ve hired Brackett instead of Lin Carter when he began anthologizing the Conan books.

Brackett wrote a variety of pulp sci-fi, but her main series character was Earthman Eric John Stark, who is basically a combo of Tarzan and Conan – a big, brawny dude who was raised in the wilds of Mercury, where he was known by the natives as N’Chaka. Now Stark serves as a mercenary around the solar system, violently sworn to protecting the rights of his fellow “barbarians.” The Stark stories are very much in a “Conan the Barbarian of Mars” sort of vein, ie as if Conan had starred in those Burroughsian Martian tales. Brackett’s Mars (and other planets in the solar system) are basically Howard’s Hyperborea, with only occasional mentions of laser pistols or space ships (or even cigarettes!). Otherwise they are very much in the sword and sorcery realm, with combat handled mostly with bladed weaponry, warriors in chain mail, and people speaking in the formal, almost stilted tones of Howard’s Conan work.

Stark appeared in three pulp novellas: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” from 1949 (reviewed below); “Enchantress of Venus,” also from 1949; and “Black Amazon of Mars,” from 1951. There was also a novella titled “Stark and the Star Kings,” which Brackett wrote with her husband Edmond Hamilton in 1973; it wasn’t published until 2005, though was originally slated to appear in Harlan Ellison’s never-published Last Dangerous Visions in the mid ‘70s (it is mistakenly copyrighted 1949 in the Baen eBook Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories; I will be reading/reviewing it soon). In 1964 Brackett expanded two of the Stark novellas into the paperback I’m reviewing: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” became The Secret Of Sinharat, and “Black Amazon of Mars” became People Of The Talisman, which is the flipside of this Ace Double. “Enchantress Of Venus” was never expanded, but was included in the 1977 anthology The Best of Leigh Brackett; it apparently takes place after the other two Stark novellas Brackett published, but before “Stark and the Star Kings.” Stark would later appear in a trilogy Brackett published in the mid-‘70s (The Book Of Skaith).

Folks with a lot more background on the subject than I claim that Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton actually expanded these two novellas in 1964. Having read both the originals and the expansions, I myself am undecided on this. I tend to think this myth is untrue, mainly due to the foreward Brackett and Hamilton wrote for “Stark and the Star Kings,” presumably for Ellison’s anthology, but included with the 2005 publication of the novella. In this foreward, the authors claim that “Stark and the Star Kings” was their first and only collaboration; during the writing of it they found that their styles did not jibe. My argument is that, if Hamilton had done the expansion on these two novellas, why wouldn’t they have mentioned it in the “Stark and the Star Kings” foreward, which was written several years after the Ace Double was published?

Anyway, all that is moot, and is likely a mystery that will never be solved anyway. What matters is the work itself, and folks, it’s pretty damn cool. I mean, I’m 42 now, but reading Brackett’s work made me feel like I was 12 again. Who cares that science has buzzkilled the possibility of her inhabited solar system? This to me is pure sci-fi as it should be, not bogged down with technical jargon or attempts at “realism.” It’s just straight-up fun, featuring a grim but likable protagonist and his colorful adventures on various planets. If you are looking for escapist sci-fantasy that is written with incredible polish, look no further.

Speaking of colorful, let’s get to Eric John Stark himself. His history is only sprinkled here and there throughout The Secret Of Sinharat; interestingly, Brackett doesn’t add anything more to what she’d already hinted at about Stark’s history in the original 1949 novella. Raised by “half human aborigines” in the wilds of Mercury, Stark’s skin was burned so black by the relentless sun that it is almost as black as his hair (dude, it’s called sunscreen!!). This black skin contrasts eerily with his light eyes. Otherwise he is a total Conan/Tarzan type – tall, brawny, but lean, able to move faster than normal men and given to red rages of violence. Sadly, some of this violence is toned down in the 1964 expansion, most notably in the glutting of Stark’s vengeance in one central part of the story; in the original pulp novella, Stark strangles an enemy, but in the ’64 expansion someone takes the kill from him. But more of that anon.

Brackett wastes no time on world-building or scene-setting; another wonderful element of vintage pulp sci-fi, unlike the reams of exposition you’ll encounter in the genre today. The cover painting (on this edition above and the original ’64 edition, below) captures it nicely; Stark, riding a lizardlike beast across the desert wastes of Mars, is vainly trying to escape an Earth Police Control squad. But one of them calls out for “N’Chaka,” which was Stark’s native Mercurian name, and one known only to a few. It is Simon Ashton, of the EPC, Stark’s foster father – apparently Stark’s tribe was killed when he was a child, and Ashton found the boy in a cage and raised him. There is absolutely no maudlin glurge here; the two have not seen one another in sixteen years, and Ashton conscribes Stark’s service in exchange for tossing out Stark’s imprisonment sentence – Stark’s up for life on the prisons of the moon for various illegal activities.

The expansion features one bit of explanation I appreciated; I read the original pulp novella first, and had a hard time understanding what these various “aliens” looked like; they all seemed to be humans. The ’64 expansion explains why this is: “Earth’s sister worlds…[populated by] descendants of some parent human stock that long ago had seeded the whole System.” In Brackett’s solar system, all the planets are habitable, and all apparently have oxygen and native life, as well as human inhabitants, though there are various differences – usually in body size, eye color, and the like. So it would appear there’s no “hatching from eggs” as in the Barsoom novels of Burroughs.

Despite this “parent human stock” which seeded the planets, Stark is still often referred to as “the Earthman,” which again gives the book a Burroughsian (or Flash Gordon) feel – that is, when he isn’t being called a “barbarian” or “wild man” or even “animal.” As mentioned he is drawn to barbarian causes, and was already on his way to ancient Martian city of Valkis to serve as a mercenary for barbarian tribe leader Delgaun. Word has it that all the various tribes are gathering for a war on the “Drylands” of Mars. Simon Ashton says that there may be more to it than that, and the EPC is worried, particularly over rumors of the ancient Ramas cult – basically the ancient Egypt of Brackett’s Mars.

Stark takes the mission, not only so as to get rid of his prison sentence but also out of respect to his father foster – and also so as to prevent the shedding of “barbarian blood” in whatever vain pursuit Delgaun and his colleague, fellow barbarian leader Kynon, have in mind. This brings us to the city of Valkis, which is now a “beautiful corpse” of the glorious city that once was – again, the parallels to ancient Egypt are hard to miss. Stark meets Delgaun, who is “lean and catlike, after the fashion of his race,” and has yellow eyes like “hot gold.” He meets the other mercenaries called in for the war, among them Luhar of Venus, who sold Stark out on a previous job; the two men are determined to kill one another.

Soon fellow barbarian leader Kynon makes his appearance; riding in from the desert amid great pomp, Kynon is younger and brawnier than Stark expected. His is filled with the wonder of the ancient art of the Ramas, which he claims to have rediscovered after many years searching in the endless desert; this art is displayed for the agog masses. The Ramas were known for transferring minds from one body to another, thus granting themselves immortality, their minds living on and on in an endless tide of young bodies. Kynon puts on a show, with an old man and a young boy, using a glowing scepter to transfer the mind from the former into the latter. The barbarian crowd is duly impressed, but Stark sees the con, and calls Kynon on it later. Kynon admits to the deceit, but claims it is all for the good of the rabble, something for the various tribes to gather together under.

With Kynon is a hotstuff babe with red hair named Berild; she seems intrigued by Stark’s impertinence. Serving Berild is the equally pretty – but more young and naïve-seeming – Fianna. Stark notices a strange struggle going on between Delgaun, Berild, and Fianna, but takes care of more pressing issues when he’s ordered that night to go pull a fellow mercenary, Freka, out of a Shanga den on the outskirts of Valkis. One of Brackett’s more novel creations, Shanga is an illegal drug, known also as “the going back.” People sit under quartz lights and regress back to various stages of bestialism, with their faces changing accordingly – the real hardcore users changing almost entirely in form. Interestingly, the original ’49 edition contains a line that was edited out of the ’64 expansion: “[Shanga] was supposed to have been stamped out when the Lady Fand’s dark Shanga ring had been destroyed.” This is a reference to Brackett’s 1948 novella “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” which was included in the early Brackett anthology The Coming Of The Terrans (Ace Books, 1967).

Fianna has warned Stark that this is going to be a trap, and it is – there follows a cool, Island Of Lost Souls-like scene where Stark is attacked by several bestial-faced Shanga users. Luhar is also there, with a knife ready for Stark; the entire thing has been an assassination attempt, courtesy Luhar and Delgaun, the latter presumably wanting to take out Stark due to his jealousy over how Berild’s been checking out “the wild man.” Stark acquits himself well in the fight, though there’s no Conan-esque moment, as I’d hoped, where he starts to hack and slash. He also doesn’t kill Luhar – who promptly begins plotting, almost in the open, with Freka. Brackett appears to imply that Luhar and Freka are an item, something which is slightly more apparent in this expansion than in the original novella.

The midpoint sees the two hatch their revenge; as the barbarian troop is making its way across the vast desert to Sinharat, ancient “island city” of the Ramas which Kynon has taken as his own base of operations, a sand storm strikes. Freka and Luhar manage to knock Stark from his mount in the vicious pounding waves of sand and leave him for dead. However, Berild is stranded with him, and there follows a harrowing trek across the red wastes of the desert. The two have only one skin of “stinking water,” and they struggle inhumanly as they march for days and days – Sinharat is a seven-day journey, and they don’t have nearly enough water to survive the walk. It becomes even more grueling when the enter “the Belly of Stones,” which is like the Saharra of Mars.

Days later, passed out from dehydration and the heat, Stark wakes to find Berild walking around an ancient well, and it looks as if she is remembering something. After much digging she points out a hidden, ancient well. Two days pass, during which the two apparently have lots of off-page interspecies sex – something Stark practically confirms to Fianna later on. When they arrive in Sinharat, ancient fallen city of the Ramas built on a mountain of coral, no one believes that they were able to survive the trek. Stark makes for Luhar, to sate his vengeance, but Berild denies him this, courtesy a dagger she’s hidden in her dress. I found this unsatisfactory. Berild argues with a raging Delgaun that Luhar and Freka’s treachery almost “ended” her, a strangely-chosen word which she stresses strongly, much to Stark’s suspicion. 

Sinharat is more captured here than in the novella. Millennia ago it was surrounded by an ocean, but now it’s just desert, and when the wind blows through the honeycombs of coral beneath it, strange cries fill the air, freaking out the superstitious barbarians (and Stark himself). The temples and palaces are fallen down, some roofless, with ancient statues all over the place – again, pretty much ancient Egypt. This part is a bit padded, compared to the original version, more so focused on Stark figuring out the truth about Berild. There is a nice part though where he’s attacked one night by Freka, hopped up again on Shanga and in pure beast mode. Stark deals with him with his hands, for which he’s arrested – Delgaun has demanded absolutely no fighting or killing, and Stark has increasingly made himself a nuissance.

The finale is almost like Zardoz – Stark has already figured out that Berild is more than she seems, something Fianna confirms. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. But Fianna reveals that she, Berild, and Delgaun are all Ramas, impossibly ancient, only in new bodies. Berild, tired of her ancient consort Delgaun, secretly plots for power; she is the one who duped Kynon into assembling the barbarian rabble, and she will replace Delgaun with someone else who can rule beside her into eternity – she offers this to Stark, but instead he arms himself with a sword and goes to deliver death. This is where the Zardoz vibe occurred to me.

Brackett isn’t much for gore or overdone violence; when people are hit by swords they just fall down. So in (what little) of her work I’ve read, there’s none of the hacking and slashing Howard did so well. And truth be told, the climax of The Secret Of Sinharat is a bit harried, at least to me – Berild is dispensed with almost casually by Kynon, who has been fatally stabbed by her…and then he goes to the ramparts and informs the throngs that it’s all been a lie, while Stark just stands there. In the end Fianna decides not to smash the globes of mind-transference, saying that she might change her mind and want a new body, after all. She invites Stark back in “thirty years” if he changes his mind and wants to be immortal with her! Stark says no thanks. The end.

Shown above is the cover of the edition I read – this reprint features no publication info, other than the original copyright date of 1964. It does however carry the inscription “cover by Enrich.” This refers to artist Enrique “Enrich” Torres, and according to a listing of Ace Double publication dates, this The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman reprint is from November, 1971. I actually prefer this cover to the original 1964 edition (which itself is nice), mostly because I think it more faithfully captures the vibe of the novel – and also I enjoy Enrich’s sub-Frazetta/Vallejo art. But anyway, here is the cover of that 1964 edition:

Just for the sake of completeness, here’s the cover for the 1982 Ballantine reprint of The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, which was retitled Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars. It retains the Ace text, though it’s not a flipover as that earlier Double was; it is however missing the “cast of characters” which was provided for Sinharat in the Ace edition. This is my least favorite cover of them all:

Now, on to the original pulp edition, which appeared as “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” in the Summer, 1949 issue of Planet Stories. You can find this novella at The Internet Archive for free download; be sure to select the PDF option, as it’s a scan of the original issue, complete with illustration and breathless editorial blurb. All I can say is, the original version is better – like, much better. It’s leaner and more brutal at times, and features a bit more action. It also, unsurprisingly, moves a lot more quickly than the expansion.  Here is the cover:

I’m mostly going to go over the differences here, so spoilers will be heavy – if you want to avoid all this, just skip the next couple paragraphs. The novella is mostly the same as the expansion, for the first half, at least. Only a few changes here and there, as mentioned above. But once Stark and Berild are lost in the Belly of Stones, the novella is much different. Here there is none of Stark spying on Berild as she seeks out the ancient well; she doesn’t bother to hide the fact that she’s apparently recalling her own ancient memory to remember where it is. And also, after their few days of humpin’ and bumpin’ here in the oasis by the well, Stark in the novella promptly accuses Berild of being a Rama – in the expansion this is drawn out much longer. Berild fiercely denies the accusation, even up to the point of threatening Stark’s life.

Once the two get to Sinharat, the novella differs even more greatly. Here occurs the vengeance-glutting I mentioned above, which Brackett denied Stark in the ’64 version; as soon as he sees Luhar, Stark strangles him to death. For this he’s tossed into a dungeon, chained, and it is Freka who wields an axe, waiting for him to waken. Hence the bit from the expansion, with Stark fighting a Shanga-drugged Freka, doesn’t happen here. Fianna appears, as in the novella, and guns down Freka, though her gun apparently shoots flame or something – the expansion makes it seem like a regular gun, but here it’s more of your typical pulp sci-fi raygun deal, which I think is cooler. After this Fianna explains the truth of it all – that she, Berild, and Kynon are all really Ramas. In the expansion, Brackett made Delgaun the Rama, and Kynon the dupe; it’s the other way around in the original.

The climax is much imrpoved in the novella, and one wonders why it was even changed for the expanded version. Here Berild reveals to Stark that she wants him to rule beside her, in Kynon’s body – and Stark accepts. There follows a cool scene in which the “Sending-On of Minds” of the ancient Ramas is employed, and Stark’s mind is placed in another body; he can barely stand to look at his old body, filled with barbarian dread at the sorcery. Turns out though it’s just a con – he declares to the assembled throngs that Berild has tricked them and that he is not really Kynon and etc. This is so much better than in the expansion, where a dying Kynon exposited all this. Now chaos breaks out, and in it Delgaun kills Berild off-page, then comes after Stark (still in Kynon’s body), and fatally stabs him before Stark kills him. The novella ends with Fianna getting Stark’s mind out of Kynon’s body just in time, returning it to his own. She also smashes the globes of mind transference, unlike in the expansion, and tells Stark she needs time to think about her new life. The end. 

End spoilers. Folks, the novella is super cool and I’d recommend it in a hot second over The Secret Of Sinharat. If you’re at all interested in checking out Brackett, I’d recommend going to the link above and downloading the PDF of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs.” It’s a ton of fun, and when I read it I couldn’t wait to read more of Brackett’s work. I’ll be doing a review of People Of The Talisman and its original version, “Black Amazon Of Mars,” next.


Matthew said...

Brackett is a greatly underrated writer. Her Mars stories, frankly, are superior to Burroughs. Howard Hawks famously read a hard-boiled detective novel by Brackett and told his assistant to get "that guy Brackett" to co-write The BIg Sleep. He was shocked to find Brackett was a twenty something woman. She became Hawks preferred screen writer. He never worked with that Faulkner guy again. To be fair, Brackett's writing is a lot more macho than a lot of men's.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, FreeLiveFree -- and also thanks for attempting to tell me about the Stark stories before, in the comment you left a few years ago for my review of Balzan of the Cat People #1. You were correct, the Balzan character definitely seems like a watered-down version of Stark. (Speaking of which, I'm actually reading the second Balzan now...) Since writing this review I've read more Brackett and I've loved it -- People of the Talisman/Black Amazon of Mars (I'll have a review up next week), as well as the Enchantress of Venus novella, which by far was my favorite of them all. Also the "Stark and the Star Kings" novella she did with her husband, which I didn't like as much. I think next I'll read The Sword of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings of Mars before I move onto the Book of Skaith trilogy.

And that's a great story about Howard Hawks. Boy, if he was around today and said something like that, Hollywood would probably blackball him for his sexist assumptions...

Matthew said...

Sword of Rhiannon is probably her best novel and one of my favorites. It involves another protagonist than Stark but it's worth reading. Skaith starts well but the third book isn't quite up to the first. I've never read Stark and the Sea Kings but most people don't consider it one of her best.

Hawks would probably be blackballed by someone who support dropping charges on Roman Polanski. Hawk was actually the only director to hire her in the fifties and she wrote Rio Bravo, Hatari, and El Dorado for him.

Isaac Asimov was fond of saying that in the thirties Brackett and fellow female writer C.L. Moore had to hide their gender. In interviews, both Brackett and Moore denied that. Their genders were well known. (Henry Kuttner famously visited Moore think Moore was a man, but he ended up marrying her so I don't think he had a problem with it.) The only letter of complaint about their genders was a young...Isaac Asimov.

Howard Andrew Jones said...

I second the motion for "Sword of Rhiannon." It's one of my very favorites by her. But there's so much of her planetary fiction to love. "The Sea-Kings of Mars" from Millenium is a pretty good "best of" anthology although it leaves out a handful of great ones to leave room for some that aren't as good. I suppose that all comes down to taste. I'm mightily pleased to have those hardback Haffner volumes.

I always loved the Stark story "Enchantress of Venus" and another Venus tale, "The Moon that Vanished." My friend Bill Ward and I celebrated that one on my blog in late 2015.

I used to love the Stark novels as well, and while I still enjoy them, I find I haven't revisited them nearly as often as I have her short fiction... or "The Sword of Rhiannon."

Matthew said...

Yes, "Enchantress of Venus" is great and so is "The Moon that Vanished." I believe they are both in the Best of Leigh Brackett which was the first book by Brackett I read. It had a forward by her husband, Edmond Hamilton, and afterword by Brackett.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Howard -- thanks for the review you linked to, will definitely check it out. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed Enchantress of Venus. Pretty soon I intend to read Brackett's "Lorelei of the Red Mist," which I understand also takes place in that psychedelic Venusian Red Sea -- plus has a barbarian named Conan! I want to read that Skaith trilogy, but will be checking out Sword of Rhiannon first.

Oh and FreeLiveFree, I hope you know I was just being facetious about Howard Hawks and if his comment were made in the Hollywood of today! Funny you should bring up CL Moore, as I also just discovered her work.

halojones-fan said...

And there's another connection to David Drake---Moore (and husband Kuttner) did a short story set in a world where Earth had been destroyed by atomic war and Venus terraformed, a sea-world where mercenary navies fought endless war. Drake, wanting to do homage to that particular pulp paid from his childhood reading, set a couple of novels in that world (albeit in his own Hammer's Slammers style.)

Steve Carroll said...

I'm so grateful for this blog! I actually own a few of these titles and have never read any of them until reading your review. Wow, I was missing some awesome fiction! This is much more hard-edged than I ever would have expected and vividly written. I love how streamlined and lean it is while maintaining a constant forward motion. And Stark is quite simply a genuine bad-ass! Great stuff! Thanks for turning me on to Stark!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comment, Steve! I really appreciate it. Also, that is a perfect description of how Brackett writes the Stark stories. I'll have a review up tomorrow for People of the Talisman/Black Amazon of Mars.