Thursday, December 14, 2017

Leigh Brackett Review Round-Up, Part 1

It appears I just can’t get enough of the sci-fi fantasy of Leigh Brackett; luckily, one thing our pathetic modern era provides is easy access to old pulp, so even though I don’t have any of the various anthologies that collects the below stories, I was able to find them on the Internet Archive for free download (most of them, anyway). As always, I’ll link to the archive so you can download each issue yourself; I couldn’t give the work of Leigh Brackett a higher recommendation than say you should just skip my reviews and read the stories. She’s become possibly my favorite writer ever.

The Summer, 1946 issue of Planet Stories features “Lorelei Of The Red Mist,” which was Brackett’s sole collaboration with a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who apparently looked up to Brackett in those days as a sort of mentor. In 1974 Brackett edited the Ballantine Books anthology The Best Of Planet Stories #1, and included “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in it. In the Introduction she states that she got her Hollywood gig while she was writing this story, and basically just dropped it so she could go write screenplays for Howard Hawks. She turned what she’d written over to Bradbury.

While “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is fantastic, I can only imagine how much better it would’ve been had Brackett completed it herself. In many ways it’s similar to the later “Enchantress Of Venus,” in that it too takes place on Venus, in the psychedelic Red Sea. The novella also has similarities to “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” in that the protagonist has his mind put into another body, the same thing that happened to Eric John Stark in the climax of that later story. In fact, the name of this story’s protagonist is even similar: Hugh Starke, who happens to be a criminal, one who just heisted a payroll-bearing spaceship.

Starke is chased over the unknown, almost impassable frontiers of Venus, which in Brackett’s solar system is mostly an uncharted no man’s land. He crashes into the jungle and when he wakes up knows he is dying, his body crushed. But there’s this mega-babe with white skin (ie true white, not caucasian) and “aquamarine” hair, lips and eyes (not to mention green nipples – as ever, Brackett’s babes are topless, my friends), and she tells Starke she’s going to save him.

The evil beauty’s name is Rann, it turns out, and she magically transplants Starke’s mind into a muscle-bound body that once belonged to a barbarian named Conan(!). (In the above-mentioned Introduction Brackett states this name might have been a mistake in hindsight, but in 1946 Robert E. Howard’s work was known to a small few.) Starke’s now in a besieged castle on the Red Sea, chained to the floor, a welded collar around his neck. A blind barbarian named Faolan and a small bard named Romma watch him. This is Crom Dhu, which is under attack by Rann’s forces and soon to be defeated. Gradually Starke will realize Rann has sent him here as an assassin.

Conan it develops was a co-leader of this group, in love with Faolan’s sister Beaudag. But then Rann caught Conan, had lots of sex with him, and turned him to her side. Conan then set up his former people, even blinding Faolan in the battle. But he was caught, tortured by Faolan and the others, until his mind broke, leaving an empty but brawny shell. Enter the mind of Hugh Starke, who now must prove to these people he is not really Conan but an Earthman who doesn’t even know the first thing about Venus. Then he gets a gander at Conan’s old flame, Beaudag. 

She’s a red-haired, sword-carrying beauty, who per Brackett tradition wears nothing but a leather kilt, showing off her spectacular nude bust – and I’ve noticed, because I tend to notice these sorts of things, that Venusian women must be bustier than their Martian counterparts. While Brackett consistently describes her Martian women as “small-breasted,” indeed almost “childlike” in their build, she states that both the Venusian women in this story are busty; Rann is even described as “insolently curved.” Speaking of which, “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is a bit more risque than the other Bracketts I’ve read; we’re often reminded how curvy and lusty these two topless women are. Usually Brackett just mentions such things once, then moves on, but this time there’s a bit more focus on the topic – and it’s only in Brackett’s portion of the novella, not Bradbury’s.

In fact it’s intimated that Starke and Beaudag get busy – she kisses him as a test, claiming afterwards it is indeed not Conan. Then she comes to him again that night, while he’s still chained to the floor, and Brackett ends the sequence with an ellipsis, which is ‘40s pulp magazine speak for “they have lots of sex.” But Rann can control Starke, using him as a “catspaw,” and turns him into her remote-control killing device despite his powers of self control. Eventually the action moves to Falga, Rann’s territory; Starke and a captive Beaudag are transported across the Red Sea, which is just as psychedelic here as in “Enchantress of Venus,” Brackett’s descriptive powers as ever concise but poetic.

Starke ends up swimming in the Red Sea, having escaped a group of Rann’s men who try to kill him, and he’s chased by these strange-sounding “hounds.” In the Best of Planet Stories Introduction, Brackett states that the switchover to Bradbury occurred here, with the sentence, “He saw the flock, herded by more of the golden hounds.” Strangely though, it appears that the switch occurs earlier, as prior to this sentence there’s already a different vibe to the narrative. Granted, this part is filtered through Starke’s thoughts, and he speaks in a different, more hardboiled style than Brackett’s typical protagonists. So maybe she did write this stuff, too – maybe this is when she got the call, and her mind was on Hollywood, hence the sudden hardboiled, more casual vibe to the narrative.

At any rate, Bradbury takes over and you can tell he strives to retain Brackett’s atmospheric style, and for the most part succeeds. But he moves away from the evocative nature of a true Brackett yarn and turns in this weird horror-action hybrid; Starke comes upon a city built by a “titan” beneath the Red Sea, and discovers there all the animated corpses of men killed in the recent Falga-Crom Dhu battle(!). Controlled by the sea-living “shepherds” who’d been chasing him with their “hounds,” these corpses are going to be sent to the surface to wipe out both kingdoms. But, using his mental contact with Rann as leverage, Starke saves Crom Dhu.

Bradbury is a bit more into the action scenes than Brackett herself; whereas such scenes are usually quick but effective in a sole Brackett joint, Bradbury gets into the blood and thunder of it with several scenes of Starke, in that hulking Conan body, braining dudes left and right with a chain and hacking and slashing with a sword. The horror stuff continues with those zombie warriors getting further hacked up but still advancing on the enemy, etc. But unfortunately it’s all on the action angle for the finale, lacking the more introspective or thoughtful climax Brackett might’ve given us (she claims in the Intro to that anthology she had no idea where the story was going when she turned it over to Bradbury). To the unfortunate point that Rann herself is almost perfunctorily dealt with.

But overall “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is very good – and by the way, there’s no “Lorelei” at all in the story! It has a great vibe and the Red Sea stuff is very cool, plus in this one we see all the strange life that lives in it. It also features two great female characters in Rann and Beaudag, though it must be mentioned the latter basically disappears in Bradbury’s section, spending the majority of the narrative bound to the masthead of Rann’s ship.

The February, 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories features “Dancing Girl of Ganymede,” which takes place on the titular moon of Jupiter; this is the first Brackett story I’ve read to be set in this quadrant of the solar system – the “Outer Worlds,” as they are referred to in Brackett’s work. Ganymede is a fetid jungle of a moon, filled with small “aboriginal” creatures that are like little Missing Link-type things. The protagonist, Tony Harrah, even has one as a loyal pet, named Tok. Harrah when we meet him is making his way through the steaming streets of Komar, Ganymede’s main city (I think), and sees the titular dancing girl performing on the streets for money. She has blonde hair, an incredible bod, and black eyes – with a look of total hatred in them when she looks at Harrah, who is instantly smitten with her.

I’ve yet to read C.L. Moore but I’m familiar with her first, and most famous, story, “Shambleau,” and it would appear Brackett was, too. In that story a rugged spaceman runs into a beauty on the streets who has like the entire town after her blood. This happens here, but on a lower-key note: after an attack by rabid dogs, which go wild for some unknown reason, Harrah saves the dancing girl (who for her part is slashing at the dogs with her own knife), throws her over his shoulder, and runs off with her. Then three dudes come after her – a Martian, an Earthman, and a Venusian. They want to kill her, for reasons they won’t divulge, and knock out Harrah.

When he comes to he’s confronted by the men who were with the dancing girl – black-eyed “gypsies” like her, with the same hard look. The leader is named Kehlin. The captured dancing girl is named Marith. They use Tok – who fears Kehlin and his comrades – to track Marith, to an abandoned warehouse where she’s surrounded by those three bounty hunters. Kehlin wades in and kills them all. Harrah is properly confused by it all; only until Kehlin employs telepathy to give Harrah a glimpse inside his mind does Harrah learn what’s going on.

Spolier alert – Kehlin, Marith, and the others are androids. And boy does it come on like Blade Runner here, even more so than Dick’s source novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Kehlin even gives a speech about how he has seen more in his 75 years than most humans could ever dream of – a speech eerily reminiscent of the one Rutger Hauer gives in that film (which I read somewhere Hauer supposedly came up with on his own…could he have been a Brackett fan??). But the androids, who are “more than human,” have gone rogue, thirsting for their freedom, and are being hunted down by the assembled governments of the “Inner Worlds.”

Kehlin also wants to kill Harrah, but Marith intercedes; our hero has melted her frosty exterior. No human has ever been in love with her before, and Harrah certainly is, despite the fact she isn’t human – and “human” in Brackett refers to Martians, Venusians, Mercurians, Terrans, and etc; all those descended from a “common human stock,” as helpfully explained in The Secret Of Sinharat. The climax occurs deep in the jungles of Ganymede, where the android survivors are planning to build an army or somesuch; Harrah, seeing the horror of it all, calls out to Tok to assemble the aborigines and burn everything down, fire being one of the few things that can destroy the androids. The finale seems to imply that Harrah and Marith do not escape the conflagration. Bummer!

Overall “Dancing Girl of Ganymede” is fast-moving and written with the usual Brackett panache. Man she excels at describing these exotic alien planets; even though it has nothing to do with the actual Ganymede, the moon of this story has a life of its own. Harrah is the usual cipher of a protagonist, with hardly any background about him at all, but you can still root for him, even if his sudden love for Marith is hard to buy – I mean, if it was lust, sure. Also the bond with Tok isn’t as exploited as I would’ve expected, but Brackett still makes it effective enough, with Tok so loyal to his master that he follows him into the jungle, despite his animal fear of the androids – the very thing, of course, which caused that dog attack early in the story.

“The Moon That Vanished” is one of the best Brackett stories I’ve read, on par with “Enchantress Of Venus.” It first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories October, 1948; unfortunately, it’s not available on the usually-reliable Internet Archive, which is a damn shame, as this is my favorite story here. It was collected in the 1964 Ace Books paperback Swordsmen In The Sky, edited by Donald Wollheim; I read it there. This one takes us back to Venus, and to tell the truth I’m preferring the stories set here to Brackett’s more-popular Martian tales. I find Brackett’s Venus more evocative than her Mars, which is really saying something.

I’d venture further to say that “The Moon That Vanished” is one of my favorite Brackett stories yet; it doesn’t have the action nature of her Eric John Stark stories, but it has a similar adventure sort of vibe. However the hero, David Heath, is an emaciated, drug-addled wreck, thanks to having ventured into the forbidden “Moonfire” three years before. Now he’s given free room and board – plus free drugs! – per the ancient Venusian custom granted to any who have returned from the fringes of the Moonfire. No one has ever returned from the heart of it, though. There is even a religious order that worships the Moonfire: The Children of the Moon.

Brackett parcels out the story of the Moonfire throughout the novella, but it goes like this: legend has it that there was once a moon of Venus, and upon it lived a god with a shining body that was more powerful than the other gods. But they ganged up on him and destroyed him and his moon; his shining corpse fell to this forbidden area of Venus (Brackett’s Venus is mostly an uncharted wildlands, with the sun never visible due to the constant cloud cover). A golden mist covers this mass of land, supposedly the god’s breath, and the glowing center of it is his shining corpse. Whoever ventures into the shining center becomes a god, per Venusian legend. Being a non-superstitious Earthman, Heath figures the Moonfire is really radiation – which, in Brackett’s world, has almost Stan Lee properties. A dose of it and you get superpowers.

To wit, Heath is able to form a “shadow” of his dead beloved Ethne from the mist in the humid Venusian air; Ethne appears to have died on the quest to the Moonfire three years ago, and Heath, a sailor, has named his ship in her honor. But even though he’s been “touched by the gods,” at least on a minor level, Heath due to his heartbreak is such a shell of his former self that when we meet him he’s hanging out at “Kalruna’s dingy Palace of all Possible Delights,” basically a Venusian opium den, and inhaling a mysterious “warm golden vapor” through a leather mask. He has a little dragon perched on his shoulder, one of Venus’s many exotic animals, but surprisingly Brackett doesn’t do much with this creature.

Heath is accosted by a hulking Venusian barbarian who accuses him of lying about seeing the Moonfire; to prove himself, Heath forms the shadow of Ethne. The barbarian is named Brocca, and he wants Heath to take him to the forbidden land of the Moonfire – Brocca, and a “temple wench” named Alor whom Brocca insists is his lover. Alor is the usual Brackett beauty, with the white skin of a Venusian and hair that is “bright, true silver with little peacock glints of color in it.” As if that weren’t enough, “her body was everthing a woman’s body ought to be.” We are informed of her nice curves and whatnot – again with the busty Venusian babes in Brackett’s solar system.

We don’t learn much of Alor’s previous life with the Children of the Moon, only that she bears a tattoo of the order between her breasts – this she naturally shows to Heath to prove Brocca’s story that they are both runaways from the temple. And she really does have to take off her top to do so, as Alor is one of the few Brackett heroines who isn’t topless all the time. Brocca apparently was a Guardian of the Moon, ie the band of warriors that protect the order…he wants to take Alor to the Moonfire so she can bathe in its heart and become a goddess, and he a god. Heath says what the hell and offers to take them there on his ship. Soon he learns they are being chased by Vakor, leader of the Children of the Moon; they follow behind the Ethne on their own ship, all of them big Venusian dudes in “black link mail” with silver moons blazing on their chests.

Heath navigates them through the dangerous sea lanes of Venus, at one point even encountering a massive sea monster. But the tension is mostly via the growing attraction between Alor and him; Brocca resents how Alor is always talking to Heath, asking him about the ship and whatnot. And Heath is noticing more and more how pretty Alor is, bringing him out of his heartbroken shell. As usual, it is all capably delivered by Brackett, with none of the maudlin sap you might expect. Then Alor kisses Heath one night and tells him she doesn’t love Brocca, who meanwhile has descended into a temporary fever and tries to strangle Heath one day. Alor knocks Brocca out, and Heath is angry “that he should have needed a woman’s help to save his life.”

Vakor and his crew pursue our heroes but will go no further once they finally enter the passageway into the Moonfire. Here the trio bathe in the “lovely hellish light” of the radiation – and Heath realizes why no one who has ventured to the heart of it has ever returned. In an interesting foreshadow of the later film Inception, the Moonfire allows a person to create entire worlds with the golden mist that spreads over the area. Heath, separated from the others, tries twice to create Ethne, but each time it is a shadow of Alor that comes to him. Another effective, understated moment – Heath realizes that he has recovered from his broken heart and not even realized it. He is no longer in love with Ethne but with Alor.

So he creates Alor, and a world for the two of them, and the power of creation is so overwhelming and addictive that Heath understands why no one would leave. But the power of his will is such that he knows it is all a lie and this shadow Alor is not the real Alor; thus, he overcomes the addiction and destroys everything. Again, just like Christopher Nolan’s film, but whereas this took up the final quarter of the movie, Brackett handles it in a few masterful paragraphs. Meanwhile the real Alor is prisoner in Brocca’s giant castle fashioned from red crystal, populated with countless loyal servants. Another great moment – when Alor sees Heath, she asks, “Are you really David or only the shadow of my mind?” The same question Heath had asked of the shadow Alor when it first appeared.

But Heath refuses to use the power of creation to fight Brocca, aware of its addictive nature – instead, he uses the power of destruction. It’s a cool, apocalyptic finale, but one without any of the blood and thunder of the Eric John Stark stories. Heath proves he is stronger than Brocca because he “threw away” the godhead offered by the Moonfire. Together he and Alor – herself more powerful than Brocca, for she too rejects the dreamworld of the Moonfire – leave Brocca to his imaginary kingdom. Even Vakor, back in the real world, realizes the new couple is outside the realm of his jurisdiction; they are the first people to ever return from the heart of the Moonfire, and they have done so due to their love for one another.

Brackett as ever brings her characters and exotic world fully to life. There is a wonderful part where Heath navigates his ship through the Sea of Morning Opals as dawn breaks, with dazzling lights upon the ocean and flocks of little dragons taking to the sky, and the word painting is beyond skillfull. In the afterward to his 1984 paperback Down To A Sunless Sea, which was part of a “sequence” of unrelated novels inspired by and dedicated to Brackett (reviews forthcoming), Lin Carter aptly described her style as “lean, sinewy prose.” This style is in full effect throughout “The Moon That Vanished,” and it’s as addictive as the Moonfire itself – to the point that I’ve already started in on more of Brackett’s work.


Steve Carroll said...

Thanks to your review, I've just downloaded the stories for which you provided links. I discovered Leigh Brackett through your reviews and am stoked to have been just as blown away by them as you have been. Her writing is addictive! Please keep the reviews coming.

Matthew said...

The Lorelei in the title means a temptress or femme fatale. It's from Germanic myth...

John said...

An excellent post about an excellent author. One of the masters of fantasy/science-fiction from any era.