Thursday, October 5, 2017

Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories

Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories, by Leigh Brackett
February, 2008  Baen eBooks

I rarely read eBooks, but I had to get this one, as currently it’s the only sensibly-priced location in which you can read the never-published Eric John Stark novella “Stark And The Star Kings.” Otherwise you have to plunk down a couple hundred bucks for the ridiculously-overpriced hardcover of the same title which Hafner Press published several years ago.

This eBook features that title novella, as well as “Enchantress Of Venus,” the other Stark novella Leigh Brackett published back in the ’49-’51 period in which she was focused on the character. While it was never expanded into novel-length like “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and  “Black Amazon Of Mars” were, “Enchantress Of Venus” was included in several Brackett anthologies, like The Best Of Leigh Brackett (1977) and The Halfling And Other Stories (1973), as well as omnibus anthologies like The Space Opera Renaissance (2006). One can see why it has appeared in so many collections, as the story is damn good – without question my favorite Stark novella. In fact I’m glad Brackett didn’t expand it in ’64, like she did the other two; I think those two expansions came out inferior to their original versions, and I would’ve hated to see this wonderful story suffer the same fate.

Even though “Enchantress Of Venus” is the second story collected in this eBook, I read it first, given that it takes place before “Stark And The Star Kings.” Originally appearing in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, which you can download a free scan of at The Internet Archive, “Enchantress Of Venus” takes place after “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” the events of which are briefly mentioned. Thus it also takes place after “Black Amazon Of Mars.” It opens with Eric John Stark on Venus, which in Brackett’s solar system is a fetid hothouse with some incredible psychedelic touches.   

Stark has come to Venus to find Helvi, a barbarian comrade who went to the Venusian city Shunruun to find his missing brother, and who himself disappeared. The novella – which is more absorbing than most actual novels – opens with one of those patented Brackett scenes so heavy on atmosphere. Stark’s on a ship on the Venusian Red Sea, which is made up of crimson gas – not water. (The Red Sea earlier appeared in Brackett’s 1946 novella Lorelei Of The Red Mist, which she co-wrote with Ray Bradbury…a story that also features a barbarian named Conan!) Malthor, captain of the ship, keeps pimping his place as a great spot for Stark to spend the night in Shunruun. When Stark makes his “no” final, Malthor attacks him, and we see Stark’s Tarzan-esque qualities posthaste, as he bites Malthor, jumps off the ship, and “swims” in the psychedelic expanse of the Red Sea. You can breathe down here, yet still float on the red mist…the visuals throughout the story are great.

Shunrun isn’t the most welcoming of places; there is talk of the Lhari, who rule the city, and the Lost Ones, who are their slaves, and whose wailing voices carry over the Red Sea. Stark encounters a fellow Earthman who runs a tavern, who has heard of Stark, and tells him to leave. Stark then runs into a waiflike (and topless) teen named Zareth, who is Malthor’s daughter; she tells Stark Malthor is hunting for him. Stark storms the gates of the Lhari, the Cloud-Folk who have come down to the surface to rule…albino-like beings with silver hair. Only a few are left, a squabbling family. One of them is the titular enchantress: Varra, a regal beauty who carries a terran bird of prey which she siccs on would-be suitor (and cousin) Egin. Stark kisses Varra, which enrages Egin, who shoots Stark with a stubby weapon that paralyzes him.

Stark wakes in a prison beneath the Red Sea; crimson mist is everywhere. Zareth is here, as is Helvi – his brother is dead, as you go insane and then die if too long “underwater.” Malthor is also there, imprisoned by a wrathful Egin because Malthor noted the wounds Egin received from Stark. All the slaves wear collars like in the movie The Running Man; their heads don’t exactly explode if they go too far out of bounds, but they’ll die nonetheless. The slaves toil at the rubble of a destroyed ancient temple on the bottom of the sea floor; the Lhari want a weapon which was buried there millennia ago by the non-humans who once ruled Venus.

Varra visits Stark one day and asks him to kill Egin and some of her other cousins – they want to rule Venus as gods with this ancient tech – and in turn she will free Stark, Helvi, and Zareth. Stark considers, and then is called to an ancient temple by Zareth…she warns him that it is a trap by Malthor. This moment is faithfully (and awesomely) captured by Boris Vallejo in his painting “The Stone Idol,” which he did for the cover of the paperback edition of The Best Of Leigh Brackett (Del Rey, 1978). Vallejo clearly read the story for his painting, as he gets everything right, from the swirling crimson mists of the Red Sea to the “reptillian” statue of an ancient Venusian god. Sure, Zareth comes off as a bit more sexy in the painting than she is in the story, and Stark’s skin isn’t as sun-blackened as it’s supposed to be, but it’s a great painting and a perfect evocation of the vibe Brackett maintains throughout the novella:

The novella proceeds into an action climax, with Stark killing not one but two enemies with his bare hands; one of them he tears to shreds and lets the corpse float off on the crimson mists. He and a Lhari who hates what his family has become mount an assault on the prison, freeing the slaves; Stark here uses one of those paralyzing weapons as well as his own gun, the first time he’s used it in any of the novellas – but no detail on if it’s just a regular gun or a pulp sci-fi type raygun. Next the two set off for the palace of the Lhari, to kill them all. The finale is pretty apocalyptic, with many characters ending up dead. Brackett manages to insert some comedy in the pathos, like when the tavern-owning Earthman half-heartedly rallies the people of Shunruun to Stark’s cause…and then slips out of the way when the fighting begins.

As the inordinate length of this review will attest, I really enjoyed “Enchantress Of Venus.” Like, really enjoyed it, to the point where I was still thinking about it long after I read it. Brackett’s writing is excellent throughout and all the characters have depth to them, not to mention their own story arcs. Stark finally comes off like the badass he’s supposed to be, not backing down from his tormentors and killing them with the ferocity of Conan or Tarzan. Like the other Stark novellas, I’d wager that re-readings of this one would be infinitely rewarding.

“Stark And The Star Kings” is the first novella in the anthology, but I read it after “Enchantress Of Venus.” It runs shorter than the three other Stark novellas, and it’s a collaboration between Brackett and her husband, Edmond Hamilton. An “Author’s Introduction” prefaces the story, in which Brackett and Hamilton state that, “twenty-six-and-a-half years ago, when we were first married, we thought collaborations would be an easy and delightful thing…we tried it. Once.” Brackett states that she was more interested in the opening, with no real concern where the story ultimately went, whereas Hamilton needed a full outline in order to work. But “over the years” each of them changed, so that they attempted collaboration again, to “see what happened, being in general agreement on basic concepts, and utilizing our own favorite characters.”

Baen has the story copyright 1949, which is a mistake. According to Wikipedia, Brackett and Hamilton were married in December 1946. Twenty-six-and-a-half years later would be mid-1973, which is exactly when Harlan Ellison was casting around for his Last Dangerous Visions anthology, which ended up never being published and thus attained mythical proportions. So long story short, “Stark And The Star Kings” was written in 1973, not 1949, and thus was twenty-two years after the last original Stark novella, “Black Amazon Of Mars,” and eight years after the Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman expansions. It also predates the Stark trilogy The Book Of Skaith, the first volume of which was published in 1974. So perhaps this story is what inspired Brackett to return to Stark.

At any rate, “Stark And The Star Kings” is, sadly, a bit underwhelming, and certainly the least of the Stark novellas. It has a pure Brackett opening, though. We meet Stark once again on Mars, where he’s been camping out in the Drylands; he has been telepathically summoned by the mythical Lord of the Third Bend, a reputedly-immortal Martian wizard. There’s no pickup from any earlier stories, though there’s a brief reference to the events of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs;” as ever, this tale is the only one that’s ever referred to in the other stories. The usual wonderful atmosphere Brackett brought to her earlier Stark tales is in full effect throughout, as Stark meets the Lord of the Third Bend, who appears much younger than his ancient age would imply.

The Lord, who tells Stark to refer to him as Aarl, which was his “man-name once, long ago,” asks for Stark’s help; a black void has been closing into the solar system, threatening all life. Officials have lied to the people that it is a “cosmic dust cloud” that is passing through, but in reality it means the beginning of the end. Aarl reveals that it is in reality a “vampire,” sucking out life through the void of space, and it has its origins two hundred thousand years into the future. Through some means the authors pass over, this ameoba-like thing is passing through the space-time continnuum. Aarl wants to send Stark bodily into the far future, where Stark is to meet up with a Star King named Shor Kan, who is having his own issues with the space-vampire cloud-thing. Aarl has called for Stark, whom he refers to by his “real” name of N’Chaka, because Stark has no loyalties to any particular world, or somesuch.

It’s pretty apparent when Hamilton takes over. Stark is thrust into the future and meets up with various people on the world of Shor Kan, including the man himself, and all the forward momentum is lost. Stark poses as an “Abassador from Sol,” which no one has ever heard of, and manages to gain an audience with Shor Kan. There’s lots of dialog here and for vast portions Stark disappears while the narrative focuses on Shor Kan and the much-less-interesting characters of Hamilton’s Star Kings universe. It just sort of goes on and on, until finally it climaxes with an armada of Star King ships launching an assault on the space-cloud.

Brackett’s hand is apparent here and there, and without question these parts are superior, like a psychedelic mind-trip Stark takes toward the end, venturing into the mind of the cloud, which is a new form of life that has no knowledge of humans nor of the damage it is doing to them. But ultimately the drama of those earlier Stark yarns – all of which, despite the wonderful writing, were really just action-pulps – is lost, as all Stark does is stand on the bridge of Shor Kan’s ship while the Star King vessels blast the shit out of the space-cloud vampire thing, ultimately killing it. And then Stark is zapped back to Mars, where he returns to the Dryland camp.

It’s a harried finale for a story that really has no dramatic thrust. Why Stark was chosen for this particular mission is a bit hard to buy, as is Shor Kan’s trusting of Stark in the far-flung future. For that matter, the entire threat posed by the space-vampire is hard to buy…why exactly is it spanning back two-hundred thousand years to Stark’s time? One wonders why Hamilton didn’t choose another of his many creations who would have better gelled with Stark – like Stuart Merrick, the John Carter-esque hero of Kaldar, planet of the star Antares, who appeared in a trio of novellas Hamilton published in the ‘30s. Or even his Star Wolf character, who appeared in a pair of mid-‘60s paperbacks. Either of these would’ve provided better team-up potentials for Stark.

That’s it for the Stark material in the eBook (as well as these inordinate-length reviews). Up next we have “The Lake Of The Gone Forever,” which appeared in the October 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. This novella has the same planetary romance vibe of the Stark stories, but much less action; it’s more of a long-simmer affair, as spaceman Rand Conway arrives on the planet Iskar, where his now-dead father once came across the titular “Lake of the Gone Forever,” with which he became obsessed – to the point of suicide. Along with Stark is the wealthy funder of the voyage, as well as the man’s lovely daughter, and her fiance, an anthropologist. None of these other characters matter. It’s all Rand Conway, dealing with the distrustful natives: human-like stock who live in icy expanses and who immediately tell the Earthlings to leave. They are a tribal society, their women kept under firm control – indeed, it’s hard not to see paralells to modern-day Islamic cultures (or even ancient Athens, where married women were also kept under lock and key, covered head to toe when they were allowed out in public). Particularly when the Earthling woman travels alone to the city and is stoned by the native women, who resent her for her freedoms.

Brackett’s writing is evocative as ever, and icy Iskar comes to life, as does the distrustful warrior society that lives there. But the reader knows exactly where it’s headed…there’s a woman who apparently guards the mysterious lake, and Rand’s earliest memories are of his father moaning about the lake and what happened there…and the natives are distrustful of the humans…and also disbelieve Rand when he lies to them that he is not related to Conway, whom the natives call “Conna.” One gradually understands who Rand really is. The lake itself is almost anticlimactically presented in the final pages – composed of a heavy form of uranium, with apparently all the ghosts of Iskarians residing in it or something. Here Rand has his revelation of who he is and what happened to his father here, as well as the lady of the lake. It’s an enjoyable tale, well written as expected, but one can see why it hasn’t been anthologized as much as other Brackett stories.

Next is “Child Of The Sun,” from the Spring 1942 Planet Stories, which you can download a full scan of for free at The Internet Archive. This is early Brackett, and while entertaining, isn’t as polished as the later stories of hers I’ve read. It takes place in a future in which people have been “Hiltonized,” brainwashed into vacant happiness. A “hero” of the rebellion – who comes off more as a sulky defeatist – escapes with a young woman and a new member of the resistance past the inferno of Mercury, being chased by Empire ships, and discovers there a hidden planet. The story comes off like a prefigure of Star Trek, as there they encounter a “sun-child,” being a living shard of the sun, created eons before when the solar system was new. It creates things for its own entertainment, and looks to the three humans as new sport. They try to hoodwink it into creating a new world that will act as a base for their resistance movement.

Another early Brackett follows: “Retreat To The Stars,” from Astonishing Stories November 1941. This one’s the shortest in the collection, and also I found it the most forgettable. It’s similar to the previous story, only this time the traitorous character is the protagonist. It also has to do wih a future in which a despotic government has taken over the solar system, with a small group of resistance fighters opposed to it. Only our “hero” gradually harbors doubt about the oppressive regime he has sworn himself to.

Finally we have “The Jewel Of Bas,” a novella from the Spring 1944 Planet Stories, also available at The Internet Archive, but be aware the copy scanned there has a tear on the first page of this novella, so some of the text is missing. This one takes place outside of Brackett’s usual stomping grounds of our solar system, on a planet that has “fireballs” in the sky. Our protagonists are a pair of thieves who happen to be married: Mouse, a young woman who has the brand of a thief between her eyes, and Ciaran, who likes to play a harp. Brackett would recycle this name in “Black Amazon Of Mars,” but here I realized it’s apparently pronounced “Kiaran,” as Mouse’s pet name for him is “Kiri.” Brackett was supposedly “obsessed” with Celtic stuff, so more than likely it’s a Celtic name, but I’m too lazy and/or disinterested to look it up.

This one is in the Robert E. Howard-esque mold of the Stark yarns, but I found that I didn’t connect with it as much as I did them. The protagonists have a playful banter throughout, but they both lack the memorable qualities of Stark. Also, Brackett hopscotches on her POV character; sometimes it’s Mouse, sometimes it’s Ciaran. The novella has them getting captured by a group of “Kalds,” creatures who serve the evil Bas. The couple are chained with a bunch of slaves, one of which is a hulking Conan-type, but with red hair (and bad body odor, we are often reminded). They’re force-marched to an area in which Bas-created androids oversee the construction of a vast mechanical object. Mouse is put in a trance but Ciaran breaks free, using his wits and his wiles to eventually figure out what is going on. As typical with Brackett, she goes a different route than expected, with Bas not a figure of demonic evil but a mere child who has been caught in a strange dream.

Overall this was a good eBook, even though you can get most of the stories elsewhere; as mentioned, “Enchantress Of Venus” is in several different anthologies. But as far as I know, this is the only place you can get the titular novella – unless you want to shell out lots of cash for that out of print Stark anthology by Hafner. That same publisher does have an upcoming collection in the pipeline, The Book Of Stark, which will contain all of the Stark material, including never-before-published notes Brackett wrote for a planned fourth Stark novel; according to the Hafner website, the book will be $45, but there’s no publication date yet.


Steve Carroll said...

Excellent review. I just recently finished Enchantress of Venus and agree that it is my favorite to date of the Eric John Stark novellas. It has such a wonderfully thick atmosphere and a sense of foreboding that hangs over all the proceedings from the very beginning. Stark deserved to be kept busy in a series of stories and books throughout the decades like Conan received. I'm getting ready to start on of the Skaith paperbacks (with an awesome Steranko cover to boot!).

Matthew said...

I also loved Enchantress of Venus. It was my favorite story in The Best of Leigh Brackett which did not have any bad stories in it. I remember liking "The Jewel of Bas" more than you did. I haven't read Stark and the Star Kings.