randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Rio Bravo.jpgNovelizations of original screenplays don't get much respect in the literary world, do they? I'm trying to think of highly-regarded novelizations, and the only ones I can think of that get any regard at all are in the science fiction field. As far as I can tell, Leigh Brackett's novelization of the screenplay for Rio Bravo that she co-wrote with Jules Furthman, which was published in the year of the movie's release in 1959, has never been reprinted. I'm not saying it necessarily deserves to be reprinted, but it does seem like a strong enough work in its own right, with plenty of Brackett's trademark terse story-telling panache.

I believe novelizations are generally based on the screenplay and not on the final cut of the movie, because the idea is to get the book out at the same time the movie is released. I'm not so intimately familiar with the Howard Hawks film that I could spot all the differences, but I did watch the movie again a few days after I read the book and did spot a few differences. For instance, the book ends with Dude and Stumpy gleefully discussing Chance's prospects with Feathers, where in the film there's another scene between Chance and Feathers. The beginning is different too, with two chapters from the point of view of Pat Wheeler as his wagon train arrives in town and is momentarily halted by Burdette's men. (This is referred to in passing by Wheeler in the film.) The book includes a scene where Colorado shoots at some of Burdette's men as they ride by on horseback that isn't in the film, and I actually just spotted the scene in the book where Chance puts Feathers to bed that's not in the film. Instead of the scene in which Dude and Colorado sing songs (which I don't think I'd ever seen before, probably because it's edited out of most TV showings of the film as dead space), the book just briefly mentions Colorado singing to himself and Chance overhearing it.

In general, and as you'd expect, the book has more description of what the characters are feeling and thinking and what happened to them in the past, although there still isn't a lot of backstory. I think the book actually works somewhat better than the movie in terms of the characterization, because: a) Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson aren't all that great at putting their characters across, and b) John Wayne is always John Wayne. Not that John T. Chance is much more than a generic heroic sheriff in the book, but he doesn't come across as "the John Wayne character" the way John Wayne always does. In fact, another thing that has always mildly bugged me about the film is that Wayne seemed a little too old for the part, especially the romantic parts of it (which are also painfully generic).

The book includes one piece of dialogue that actually kind of shocked me and seems completely uncharacteristic of Brackett. In the conversation between Wheeler and Chance in the hotel saloon, where Chance tells Wheeler to stop trying to find help for him and Wheeler sneers at the alcoholic Dude, Chance explains to him what drove Dude to drink: "A green-eyed, yellow-haired, two-titted female." As I say, it seems unlikely to me that Brackett wrote this crude line, although I can't say for sure that she didn't. It's also at odds with the film's fairly shy, boyish attitude toward women, and there's absolutely no way it would have made it into a mainstream Hollywood movie of that era. Was it just thrown in to give the book readers something a little spicier to chew on? Very strange. Another slightly racier aspect of the book is that the fancy red see-through underwear that Carlos buys for his wife, Consuela, are later seen being worn by Consuela herself.

Well, I guess I'll say that the book was better than I thought it would be, and leave it at that. I think it would be interesting to scholars of the movie, but its rarity probably makes it hard for them to get their hands on it. Not that I've read a lot of scholarship on Rio Bravo, so what do I know. It's also definitely of interest to Leigh Brackett fans. It's not as good as her original Western, Follow the Free Wind, but it's not as far off as you might assume. A really solid piece of writing based on a superior if old-fashioned movie. (Watching the film again, perhaps the first time I've actually watched it all the way through, reminded me that Hawks borrowed some elements from Sternberg's 1927 gangster film, Underworld, for reasons that are still unclear to me. But that's a subject for another day.)
randy_byers: (brundage)
The story about "Lorelei of the Red Mist" is that Leigh Brackett had written half of it when she was hired by Howard Hawks to work on the screenplay for The Big Sleep in 1945. So she handed it over to a young Ray Bradbury, who hadn't made his name yet, and he wrote the second half. With this story in mind, my feeling the first time I read the novella was that I couldn't tell where one writer left off and the other took over. Now having read it a second time, I perhaps mistakenly feel I can.

Planet Stories Summer 1946.jpg"Lorelei of the Red Mist" is, like much of Brackett's output, an old-fashioned story. This is a planetary romance in the mode of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with a layer of A. Merritt's science fantasy blended in, and like so much of the work of both of these models it is a lost world story. It's set on Venus, but protagonist Hugh Starke, in an attempt to escape the cops after a heist, crashes in the Mountains of White Cloud: "The backbone of the planet, towering far into the stratosphere, magnetic trap, with God knew what beyond." Well, it turns out that what lies beyond is a sea of red gases that works just like water except humans (or humanoids) can breath while swimming under it. Here three different tribes of more or less (in one case quite a bit less) humans are locked in a battle for domination. Starke comes from Brackett's shared pulp solar system universe where spaceships flit everywhere from Mercury to the moons of Jupiter, but the lost world he discovers on Venus might as well be in a pocket universe in another dimension. There's no contact with outside civilizations, and that was a pretty old dream already by the time the Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories was published with this story in it.

One thing that's interesting about the novella, at least to a Brackett fan like myself, is how similar it is in many ways to The Sword of Rhiannon, which was first published as Sea-Kings of Mars in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Both are stories of desperate thieves thrown into the middle of a conflict between various savage enemies, swords versus magical super science, and two erotic beauties in the balance -- one a scheming sorceress and one a powerful princess. But this much is typical Burroughs/Merritt material, and the more striking similarity is the dual consciousness of the protagonists of both stories. Actually, Starke's situation is even more complicated than that of Matthew Carse in The Sword of Rhiannon. Carse has another mind inside his own, but that mind cannot control him in any direct way. Starke, on the other hand, is occasionally possessed by the inhuman sorceress Rann, who is able to direct his action up to a point. On top of that, Starke suffers a fatal accident in the opening scene, and Rann transfers his mind to that of another person (unfortunately named Conan) whose own mind had been lost due to torture. So, according to the logic of the story, our protagonist is really a kind of composite of three identities: Starke, Rann, and Conan. And the confusion of identities leads to a similar confusion of allegiances.

To my mind, this is the thing that, along with her incredible sense of mood and atmosphere, makes Brackett stand out from the other acolytes of Burroughs and Merritt. Her characters -- all of them spun from common pulp formulas -- are conflicted, and she often found ways to make the conflicted motives literally the result of multiple identities or wills. (To be honest, this may come from Merritt too. I've only read The Moon Pool.) In "Lorelei of the Red Mist," Starke's backstory is that he was born in a isolated mining colony in the asteroids, his body stunted from being starved for most of his first 21 years, before he turned to a life of crime and spent time in the Lunar cell blocks. Because of his deprived early life, his survival depended on pure grit and will power. Conan was a powerful warrior with a well-developed body, but he was unable to resist Rann's compulsion of his will. That's what Starke brings to the mix: will-power.

FrankKellyFreas_TopsInScienceFiction_Fall1953_100.jpgNeedless to say, if you have any knowledge at all of Ray Bradbury, none of this is even remotely like Bradbury's typical material. This is all pure Brackett. I think that was what was so remarkable to me the first time I read the novella: that Bradbury could write in this vein so convincingly. I'm not sure Bradbury ever wrote another action-adventure story in his life, let alone one involving sword fights. But once you get past the oddity of this, I think you can start to see his fingerprints on the half he wrote.

Going out on a limb here, my guess is that he took over around the point Starke/Conan leaves Crom Dhu with the intent to leave this lost world behind. Going even further out on that limb, since this is all speculation any way, I'd point to the word "abortion" used in Starke's meditation on his old body -- "the little stunted abortion that had clawed and scratched its way to survival through sheer force of mind" -- as my first sign that something had changed. This word struck me as an unusually aggressive description for Brackett. Very soon there were other signs of Bradbury at work.

Some of the signs are actually signs of an inexperienced writer at work, I think. There are several points at which the second person is used to describe what I think should be Stark/Conan's reaction to events. The example I noted was: "The very silence of their encirclement made your skin crawl and sweat break cold on your cheeks." The use of "you" breaks the narrative frame for no apparent reason, so I assume inexperience (and a bad or inattentive editor). There are also at least a couple of points at which otherwise fine images are muffled by waffle-words, e.g.: "Dead bodies under-sea are never in a hurry. They sort of bump and drift and bide their time." Get rid of the "sort of," and that's a nice macabre image.

And the story becomes a lot more macabre in the second half. Bradbury had apparently published a few stories in Weird Tales by this point, and the infusion of the weird into this story is noticeable. Some of it is gruesome, as when Starke hacks at a dead body animated by magic super science, eventually cutting off the head, which continues to talk to him, um, animatedly. I found that the horrific nature of some of this jarred against the earlier tone of the story, but I have to say that nevertheless young Bradbury came up with some powerfully weird imagery, such as this brief moment of panic: "He was afraid his head might fall off and whirl away like a big fish, using its ears as propellers."

In other passages Bradbury seems to be channeling Lovecraft channeling Dunsany:

Long ago some vast sea Titan had dreamed of avenues struck from black stone. Each stone the size of three men tall. There had been a dream of walls going up and up until they dissolved into scarlet mist. There had been another dream of sea-gardens in which fish hung like erotic flowers, on tendrils of sensitive film-tissue. Whole beds clung to garden base, like colonies of flowers aglow with sunlight. And on occasion a black amoebic presence filtered by, playing the gardener, weeding out an amber flower here, an amythystine bloom there.

I think the influence of Lovecraft in his Dream Cycle phase is obvious, but I'm not sure I have the critical chops to explain why it seems unlike something Brackett would have written. I would probably start with the word "amythystine," which is far more precious than Brackett even at her most exotic:

Her skin was white, with no hint of rose. Her shoulders, her forearms, the long flat curve of her thighs, the pale green tips of her breasts, were dusted with tiny particles that glistened like powdered diamond. She sparkled softly like a fairy thing against the snowy fur, a creature of foam and moonlight and clear shallow water. Her eyes never left his, and they were not human, but he knew they would have done things to him if he had had any feeling below the neck."

Rather than raise the rhetorical level with the poetically rare "amythystine" it's perhaps more typical of Brackett to bring things down to the demotic earth with the hard-boiled plainness of "would have done things to him." It also seems typical of her writing that metaphors in her descriptions are fairly simple: foam, moonlight, and clear shallow water. Referring to "erotic flowers" seems decadent (in the aesthetic, not moral, sense), where "the pale green tips of her breasts" seems actually erotic.

"Lorelei of the Red Mist" is a strange marriage of two very different sensibilities. I'd be curious to know how much of the plot had been worked out by Brackett, who said she often didn't know where her stories were going until she finished them. (Unlike her husband, Edmond Hamilton, who always plotted his stories out before he started writing them.) If Bradbury took over about where I think he did, he got the most interesting world-building material, as in the second half of the story we're introduced to the "under-sea" world inside the red mist. There's also more than a little bit of Pirates of the Caribbean in the way the dead are re-animated and used as an army. If that's where Brackett was headed with the story, I wonder if it would have still managed to be less macabre if she had written it. But would that have made it less unusual?



The same Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories that ran "Lorelei of the Red Mist" also included Bradbury's "The Million Year Picnic," which eventually became the capstone story in Bradbury's famous 1950 book, The Martian Chronicles. So you could say that 1946 was the year he started to make his name.

Artist credits for the three images above are Chester Martin for the cover of Planet Stories, and Kelly Freas for the two pieces of artwork from the Fall 1953 issue of Tops in Science Fiction, which is not a publication I was previously aware of. (Notice that Bradbury's name has been moved ahead in the byline, indicating that he was now the more famous writer.) Freas did two other interior illos for that reprint, both of which can be found at The Pictorial Arts, along with a a quote from Freas about his work on the project.

I originally read "Lorelei of the Red Mist" in the eponymous volume of Haffner Press' collection of the complete fantastic short fiction of Leigh Brackett. I read it again this week in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 8 (1946), edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Other notable stories in this volume include "A Logic Named Joe" by Will F. Jenkins (who usually published under the pen name Murray Leinster), which is renowned for anticipating some aspects of the internet; "The Million Year Picnic" by Bradbury, as described above; "Rescue Party" by Arthur C. Clarke, which packs remarkable scope and scale into a short story about an expedition from an advanced alien federation investigating Earth while the sun is in the process of going nova; "Vintage Season" by Lawrence O'Donnell (C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner), which is an absolutely terrific novella about sophisticated dilettantes who travel through time in search of thrills; and "Evidence" by Asimov, which is one of the stories in I, Robot. "Lorelei" stands out as old-fashioned in this bunch, although Nelson S. Bond's "Conqueror's Isle" is another lost world story of sorts and basically a sensationalistic short story version of Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 novel, The Coming Race.

There were still people writing pastiches of Burroughs, if not Merritt, as late as the 1970s. I'm thinking of Lin Carter, for instance, not to mention Brackett's own final three novels about Eric John Stark. I'm not aware of the Burroughsian style of planetary romance surviving beyond that era, however, although you can see elements of it in things like the movie Avatar.


Jun. 18th, 2013 06:58 am
randy_byers: (brundage)
'Except for contacts mentioned here including Weinberg, Everts, Kemp, Korshak, Ackerman, and letters from Weird Tales readers, Margaret [Brundage] had little interaction with fandom. Contrary to some reports, our research found no record of her ever attending any convention. She was a guest lecturer at multiple University of Chicago Science Fiction Club meetings including in Nov. of 1954. Margaret was the first professional to ever donate original art to benefit the World Science Fiction Convention (Seacon in Seattle WA., 1961), but she did not attend. The following year, she was advertised as tentative to judge the Masquerade Ball at the 1962 World Con in Chicago, aka Chicon, but did not attend. Noted author Leigh Brackett filled in for Margaret as judge.'

-- J. David Spurlock, "The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage" in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage
randy_byers: (brundage)
Anyone who has been following my series of posts about Leigh Brackett might be interested in my post at Dreamland Cafe about The Vampire's Ghost, her first film credit.

Vampire's Ghost-19
randy_byers: (wilmer)
I prefer Leigh Brackett's science fiction to her crime fiction, but she was no slouch at the latter and wrote quite a bit of it. Most famously, of course, she worked on the screenplay for The Big Sleep (1946), along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. The Tiger Among Us, published in 1957, was her fourth novel in the genre. (In my previous bout of Brackett, I wrote about the third, An Eye for an Eye.)

The Tiger Among Us is concerned with juvenile delinquency, which I believe was all the rage in 1957. It's the first person story of Walter Sherris -- an ordinary man who is attacked for no reason by a group of middle class boys led by a handscome psycho named Chuck. The cops are hamstrung in their ability to do anything about the assault, so Walter starts investigating on his own initiative.

This has been described as an early vigilante novel, but it really doesn't feel like one, especially in contrast to something like The Big Heat (novel in 1952, film in 1953). Walter is angry about what happened to him, but he's not obsessive. He's not out of control. His anger and desire for revenge runs hot and cold. One of the strange tangents of the novel is his wife's reaction to the crime, which is a much a test of her as it is of him. Walter also works pretty closely with the over-worked cop, Koleski. He buys a gun, but Brackett is realistic in her assessment of how difficult it is for the average person to kill cold-bloodedly.

The resolution of the story is fairly conventional, but it travels some interesting territory to get there. The suburban life of Walter and his wife is held up as normal and admirable, but whether consciously or not (she wrote some critical stories about suburban life in her science fiction), Brackett portrays it as a somewhat empty, sterile affair that is specifically something the delinquent boys are trying to escape. Brackett also takes Walter into the underbelly of the small Midwestern town where the story is set, delving delicately into the racism and poverty to be found there. Even with the conventional ending and accompanying moral lecture, there's a bracing (and sympathetic) depiction of middle class money at work to salvage the reputation of the criminal boys, and Walter is left with "a curious feeling of defeat" that feels curiously satisfying.

The novel was filmed in 1962 as 13 West Street, with Alan Ladd as Walter and Rod Steiger as Koleski, but it doesn't seem to have much of a reputation. I'd love to see it.

I've now read all but three of Brackett's novels -- the three rarest: Stranger at Home (a 1946 crime novel ghost-written for, of all people, the actor George Sanders); Rio Bravo (the novelization of the 1959 Western directed by Howard Hawks); and Silent Partner (her fifth and final crime novel, published in 1969 and never reprinted). The completist in my thinks I should track those down. We'll see how dedicated I actually am.
randy_byers: (Default)
Steranko Reavers of SkaithIn an interview conducted for the fanzine Tangent in April 1976, Leigh Brackett was asked what she had in the pipeline after The Reavers of Skaith, and she replied, "I'm working on the fourth Eric John Stark novel. We finish with Skaith with this third one. Both Eric John and I have had enough with that planet, and I think we're going to move on to something else. We're starting a whole new world." Instead she turned next to the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, which she completed before she died in March 1978. So The Reavers of Skaith ended up being the last book she wrote. It was published in 1976.

The first two volumes in the late-career Eric John Stark series, The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith, were published in 1974, so I assume they were written together and this one was written later. It has some stylistic differences from the first two books, most notably in the way it switches at times away from Stark's viewpoint to that of other characters. At first this seemed sloppy to me, but I think I understand why she did it. Maybe she had more than one reason, in fact, because it both allows her to paint a broader picture of the social convulsions on Skaith as things fall apart and it allows her to resolve the stories of the rather large cast of characters she created over the course of the trilogy without having to bring them all back into contact with Stark again. Nonetheless, I think it does tend to create a looser, less finely focused book, especially since I had a hard time remembering who half the point-of-view characters were.

Michael Moorcock, who has written perceptively about Brackett's talent and importance, says that these late Stark books are not worthy of her. I think part of the over all problem with the trilogy is that Stark is a less interesting character than he is in the original trilogy of novellas she wrote about him. He was conceived as a combination of Tarzan and Conan -- half man, half animal, all mercenary -- but in these books the savage, sadomasochistic side of his character rarely has any real impact. For that matter, the mercenary side of him gets lost in a rather more idealistic character who fights for the down-trodden of Skaith and falls in love with a witchy woman. The relationship with the seer, Gerrith, is problematic in other ways, because his feelings for her are apparently deep, and yet their interactions seem completely secondary to the plot. (That said, his feelings for her do lead in this book to one of the best lines in the trilogy: "And Stark's heart turned in him like a sword blade.") Another weakness of these books, to my mind, is the overt turn to supernatural magic, as in Gerrith's ability to see the future. The older stories were science fantasies in which science was more or less miraculous, but there was no overt magic.

And yet I ended up liking these books, despite their apparent flaws. I thought the depiction of Skaith got more interesting in the second volume, and it gets even better in the third, for all that Brackett herself was apparently tired of the place. What we get in the final episode is the apocalypse. Skaith is a planet orbiting a dying star, and the planet is slowly freezing from the poles inward. Human civilization has been convulsively migrating toward the last remaining fertile land in the temperate and equatorial zones. In The Reavers of Skaith there is a sudden climatic change that ruins crops and sends waves of starving migrants toward the fertile zones. The desperation of this migration is vividly portrayed, as is the resulting collapse of social stability. Brackett's pragmatic tough-mindedness keeps an eye on the logistics of civilization, with a bracing view of what it looks like when people have to live in their own offal and disease begins to spread.

Brackett also keeps an idealistic eye on the stars, which offer an avenue of escape that is traditional to old school American science fiction. The trilogy ends on a hopeful note, although it is counterpointed by the personal loss Stark has suffered. It's our loss that we didn't get any more fiction from the remarkable Leigh Brackett, who was only 63 when cancer took her.
randy_byers: (Default)
Follow the Free WindBrackett won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for this 1963 novel about the historical figure, Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia in 1798 but was freed by his slave-master father to become a mountain man and trapper in the West. In 1856 a writer named Tom Bonner published a book called The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth that was based on stories that Beckwourth had told him. Brackett's novel is partially based on this book, although she had other sources as well. In an author's note, Brackett says she invented a few of the characters, but many are based on real people as well.

The Beckwourth of the novel is a very Brackettian character: He is impulsive and violent, tormented by social constraints and inner demons. Brackett's 1957 novelette, "All the Colors of the Rainbow", dealt with racial bigotry in a science fictional setting, and she was clearly sympathetic to the cause of Civil Rights. However, the racial prejudice Beckwourth faced is not her main focus, even though she doesn't duck it either. She makes no bones about the fact that most white people hate Beckwourth for his race, and indeed shows him living amongst the Crow for many years by preference. But the freedom of the book's title is more a nostalgic freedom from civilization than anything. Brackett had strong libertarian tendencies, at least in her fiction, and this novel is a celebration of the free life in the the Wild West and a valedictory for the loss of that freedom when the settlers poured in. This is a traditional theme of American Westerns.

The Indians are depicted with great sympathy, although Beckwourth ultimately finds their way of life pointless, with its eternal inter-tribal warfare and coup-counting. But the defeat of the Indians as part of the settlement of the West is treated with the same sense of loss as Beckwourth's loss of his own way of life, which was inextricably wound up with the Indians. The mountain men knew how to coexist with the Indians, in this view, and it was only the encroachment of people who needed land to live on and to farm that created conflict and ultimately transformed the situation. This is treated as both inevitable and tragic, and again this resonates with Brackett's stories of the ancient civilizations of Mars losing their way of life to both time's decay and colonialist Earthmen.

Brackett was no stranger to the Western genre. She co-wrote the screenplay for Rio Bravo (1959) and apparently wrote a novelization of that as well. She went on to work on two more Western screenplays for Howard Hawks, El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) -- both of them essentially rewrites of Rio Bravo, much to her disgust. (Hawks and John Wayne insisted.) Follow the Free Wind, however, is the only Western I know of that she wrote on her own. Beckwourth is a fascinating character, and Brackett does a good job of exploring the conflicts and contradictions in the life of a freed slave who left his imprint on the nation, giving his name to Beckwourth Pass in California, which ironically paved the way for the settlers coming to California in the wake of the gold rush.
randy_byers: (brundage)
hounds of skaith by steranko Okay, so I guess I'd agree that this is a better novel than the first one in the series, The Ginger Star. They both came out in 1974, so I wonder if Brackett wrote them back-to-back. The third and final book of the series came out in 1976, but Brackett said in an interview that she was planning further adventures for Eric John Stark and was looking forward to getting him off Skaith and onto another planet. In any event, what makes The Hounds of Skaith more interesting than The Ginger Star is both that the world of Skaith is that much richer with increasing familiarity and that Stark is less passive and actually drives the story.

Skaith is a dying planet, like the Mars of the earlier Stark stories, but it's dying in a different way than Mars. Essentially the sun -- the ginger star -- is dying, and the planet is slowly cooling down from the poles toward the equator. As the population was pushed toward the equator, a despotic government formed to control the remaining fertile territory. In the frozen wastelands of the north (and presumably the south) people have evolved into mindless animals or lawless bands of thugs. In earlier days when the planet's civilization was at its height, some humans chose to be genetically modified into other forms. For example, in this second book we meet a race of genetically modified bird people, but the catch is that the modification failed to actually give them full flight ability. On the other hand, they have a mysterious ability to control the wind that is pure super science wizardry.

Stark is a mercenary, and his skill is war. The despots of Skaith want to prevent people from leaving the planet, because they live off the people. Stark's goal is to break the power of the despots so that people can choose to emigrate off-world if they want to. The Hounds of Skaith is about his efforts to organize the oppressed groups to rise up against the despots. The real attraction of these books, I think -- aside from the interesting parts of the world-building -- is Brackett's tough-mindedness. She doesn't dwell on battle, but her writing about strategy and fighting is very compelling. It's unsentimental, focused, and brutal.

That said, I still find these books lacking in depth. While Brackett does a good job -- better in the second book -- of describing the political stakes, I find it hard to care much. It's possible that it's just not my cup of tea. The stories of hers I prefer are the downbeat ones full of wild, inexpressible feelings and tragic loss. These Skaith novels don't feel as though anything is at stake, although at the same time Brackett displays an admirable ability to see all sides. Even the despots get a chance to argue their cause, which is stability. Even those who fight for freedom are also afraid of change.

Well, now that I've read the second book, I'm tempted to read the third just for completion's sake. Next up, however, is her award-winning Western, Follow the Free Wind, which is about James Beckwourth, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1798 but became a mountain man and trapper.
randy_byers: (Default)
The Ginger Star by Steranko I think this was the first Leigh Brackett novel that I read, when it was first published in 1974 or maybe shortly thereafter. I remember liking the Jim Steranko cover even then. In those days I was a huge fan of sword and sworcery stories, especially Conan, so I would have picked this up looking for more of that. My memory is that I didn't think much of it, and I'm not sure I read the second book in the series, The Hounds of Skaith, which came out that same year.

This is an Eric John Stark novel, but because the old pulp solar system of an inhabited Mars and Venus was no longer acceptable by 1974, Brackett transplants Stark to a planet called Skaith. Stark is looking for his mentor, Simon Ashton, who raised him after he was found as a boy living with the aborigines of Mercury. (This much of the old backstory is still there for the incredulous readers of 1974.) Skaith is a planet where an advanced civilization has fallen into a kind of dark age, ruled by a tyrannical group called the Lords Protector. The ruling elite is resistant to the space-faring culture that has now discovered the planet, and they've kidnapped Ashton in an attempt to stop the alien invasion. Stark lands in the one spaceport allowed, and then treks northward with various companions and companionable antagonists along the way.

This is a very well-written book that doesn't have much dramatic tension. Although Brackett peoples Skaith with a wide variety of people and gives it a fairly deep history, it doesn't have the pulp-mythic resonance of her Mars or Venus stories, which were in dialogue with earlier writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.L. Moore. Because Skaith is entirely Brackett's own invention, it feels paradoxically less original.

It also feels a lot less hard-boiled than her stories of the late '40s and early '50s, which were incredibly downbeat. Stark is just as much the passive vehicle of other people's traumas as he ever was, but he doesn't seem to have anything at stake at all. He wanders across the strange landscape stirring conflict between native groups, and after a while he feels like a device to advance the picaresque plot.

Brackett said in interviews that when she started her writing career she never knew where a story was going while she worked on it, unlike her husband, Edmond Hamilton, who worked his plots out before he sat down at the typewriter. Eventually she learned how to plot out her stories ahead of time as well, and The Ginger Star feels like it was carefully planned as a series of encounters with one culture after another, playing one off the next in an almost dialectical fashion. What the book lacks is the mood and atmosphere that made Brackett's greatest work sing. There seems to be a consensus that The Hounds of Skaith is better, so I'm going to read it too, but then again nobody really seems to hold up the Skaith series as the best of Brackett. The Ginger Star is amiable enough, and it remains in print, but that's probably as much because of its famous protagonist as anything.
randy_byers: (brundage)
Like The Secret of Sinharat, with which it is paired in the Ace Double edition in which I read both short novels, People of the Talisman is an expansion of a novella originally published in the magazine Planet Stories. Wikipedia has a comparison of the two versions, but it's incomplete. Rich Horton's review of this same Ace Double also compares versions.

I should also note that it is commonly alleged that Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, was responsible for the expansions of the two novellas, but I've never seen any documentary evidence for this claim, so I don't lend it much credence.

This is another Eric John Stark story set on Mars. Planetary romance is a form of science fiction, but in many ways it feels more like historical adventure or sword and sorcery fantasy. There isn't much interest in science or technology, but there's a gizmo (the titular talisman) and eventually there's a lost race of aliens. The Secret of Sinharat also had something of the feel of a lost race or lost world story, but this one definitely falls into that category.

As an adventure, this is rock solid stuff. Brackett sets up an intriguing situation in which Stark inherits a talisman that was stolen from a city named Kushat near the north pole of Mars. He travels there and is caught up in an attempt by a tribe led by a mysterious figure in black to conquer Kushat. The talisman is said to be the key to finding a powerful ally through the Gates of Death who has protected Kushat in the legendary past.

Somebody compared this to a spaghetti western, and there's something of the Man with No Name about Stark, who wanders into this struggle with ambiguous loyalties. As is frequently the case in Brackett's stories, including The Secret of Sinharat, there are two women who draw Stark's interest, one young and innocent, the other older and more hard-bitten. The more experienced woman in People of the Talisman is one of Brackett's most fascinating characters: Ciaran, the bastard daughter of a king who has taken up arms to exert power in a world that has always tried to keep her powerless. She is Stark's physical equal, and Stark is an extraordinarily powerful physical specimen. It is perhaps the one time that Brackett expressed any frustration with being a woman in what was primarily a male profession at the time, but the frustration is also intimately connected to the erotic power of a strong woman's body.

Her face had a white blaze to it, a strength and an iron pride. He studied her, sitting tall and straight on the old rock, with her long legs and her splendid shoulders, and the fine hands that seemed forlorn without the axe to fondle.

"I would like to know," he said, "what made you as you are?"

She said impatiently, "A man is free to be what he will without questions, but a woman is supposed to be a woman and nothing more. One gets tired of explaining." She leaned back against the boulders, and there was a certain triumph in her eyes. "I did not ask for my sex. I will not be bound by it. I did not ask to be a bastard, and I will not be bound by that, either. So much I have accomplished, if I die today."

Later there is remarkable, erotically charged scene in which she and Stark are stripped naked, their bodies nicked and sliced by sadistic tormentors, whom they fight back against side by side, dripping with blood. The sadomasochistic sublimation of desire and pleasure in this scene is pretty potent stuff, further proof that great sex scenes don't necessarily need a graphic representation of sex or even of the body.

The sadomasochism of the climax, which involves decadent aliens who amongst other things cut themselves and others for pleasure, is perhaps shocking if you haven't read much pulp fiction or, for that matter, much Brackett. The Stark stories always seem to involve a scene in which he's tortured nearly to death. The ability to withstand pain and to transform it into the will to live is a constant theme. Because sexual desire has to be covert in these stories, it pops out in these sadomasochistic arenas, creating a mood of dark, sensual perversity.

This perverse mood carries into political areas as well, where Brackett takes the side of the lower class thieves against the effete aristocracy. There is another utterly remarkable scene where Stark and a companion have to find their way through catacombs in which the royalty of Kushat have been buried for centuries. They discover that the royal tombs have been stripped bare by the thieves over the ages, and that the thieves have taken their revenge in other ways as well.

Of all that immeasurable splendor, the tunneling thieves of Kushat had taken every crumb. Even the metal sconces had been dug out of the walls. Nothing was left, except the thrones, which were stone and immovable, and the kings themselves, who were not worth the carrying. Stripped of their robes and armor and their jeweled insignia of office, the naked corpses shivered on their icy thrones, and the irreverent thieves had placed some of those that were still sturdy enough in antic poses. Others were broken in bits and scattered on the floor or heaped like kindling in the throne seats.

Pure pulp poetry. These short novels, and the novellas they were based on, represent Brackett at the peak of her prowess. She would end her career with three novels about Eric John Stark, trying to recapture past magic -- or at least the enthusiastic paying audience for past magic. Brackett's fiction was a creature of commerce, but she invested it with something more. From the common elements of planetary romance she fashioned folk tales of intense sexual heat and the chilly embrace of death.
randy_byers: (brundage)
I've been reading Leigh Brackett again lately, since I picked up Haffner Press' latest volume of her short SF works, Shannach - The Last: Farewell to Mars. (See the next issue of Chunga for my review of that.) There are still a number of her novels that I haven't read, and amongst those is the 1964 Ace Double comprised of The Secret of Sinharat and The People of the Talisman. Both of these are expansions of novellas about Eric John Stark that were originally published in the magazine Planet Stories.

The Secret of Sinharat is an expansion of "The Queen of the Martian Catacombs", first published in 1949. I've read the novella version, although I'd forgotten some of the plot details. I'm not really going to focus on the differences between the novella and (short) novel, although Wikipedia has a nice comparison. What stuck with me from the novella was a description of a kiss of two people whose lips are cracked and peeling from desert exposure. It's one of the most disturbingly erotic images Brackett ever came up with.

The Eric John Stark stories borrow heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stark is a sort of Tarzan character, and Brackett even uses the phrase "thin veneer of civilization" (directly borrowed from the Tarzan books) to describe Stark. He is prone to a beserk animalistic fury in which language gives way to inarticulate growling. Also, the catacombs in this story lie below a ruined Martian city, and the few scenes that take place in them feel very much like those in the passages below ruined cities in Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.

In fact, the tone and details of this story feel almost completely borrowed from elsewhere. Brackett's Mars isn't just borrowed from Burroughs but from Middle Eastern adventure stories with their desert setting. There's even a tribe of Martians called Shunni -- a name melding Shiite and Sunni -- and there's a city named Barrakesh, etc. It was pretty common in the pulp era (and probably still today) to base alien cultures on Islamic ones. (The Fremen in Dune are another obvious example.) One of the amusing second-order aspects of this in The Secret of Sinharat are the frequent references to eerie piping flutes and skirling flutes, which evoked for me the blasphemous flutes of H.P. Lovecraft, which I've always taken as a xenophobic description of Arabic instruments.

The science fictional crux of The Secret of Sinharat is an ancient Martian gizmo that allows the transfer of personalities between bodies. A modern Martian tribal leader is offering people immortality through this device if they will join him in a jihad to unite the various Martian factions by conquering them. Stark quickly discovers that the device is a fake, but then he more slowly discovers that a real version is being used by somebody else.

What's interesting about Brackett's treatment of the device and its implications is that it is shown to be something that old people use to take over the bodies of young people, and thus it's a way of achieving immortality by murdering (or severely truncating the life of) another person. This then becomes the moral crux of the story, which is also connected to the larger political question of what it means to unify by conquest. (The political aspect of this story could be read as a critique of the first three books of ERB's series, in which John Carter unites Martian factions through war.) Brackett shows the desire for immortality to be a kind of vampirism, but in the expanded version of the story, perhaps because she was now fifteen years older herself, she's less judgmental of the fear of death that drives it. The most addictive substance turns out to be life itself. As Wikipedia notes, characters who were villains in the earlier version become more tragic in the later version.

Stark himself doesn't appear to fear death, but he's enough of a primitive (in Brackett's concept) to appreciate that fear. This allows Brackett to embody her moral ambivalence to dramatic effect. Thus the story may be something borrowed, but it's also something blue -- the Mortality Blues. Lurking beneath this melancholy tune, as with much of the best science fiction since at least H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, is the great abyss of time, which oversees the death of even planets.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
'A port opened in the side of the ship. And as though that was the final symbolic trigger I needed, I got the full impact of what I was seeing. Suddenly the friendly, protecting sky seemed to have been torn open above me as the veiling cloud was torn, and through the rent the whole Outside poured in upon me, the black freezing spaces of the galaxy, the blaze and strangeness of a billion billion suns. I shrank beneath the vastness. I was nothing, nobody, an infinitesimal fleck in a cosmos too huge to be borne. The stars had come too close. I wanted to get down and howl and grovel like a dog.' (Leigh Brackett, "The Queer Ones", 1957)
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Before I start cleaning the house in preparation for tonight's party, I thought I'd whip off a quick review of this crime novel by Leigh Brackett, which was first published in 1957. It felt like an exploitation flick to me, sometimes reminiscent of Cape Fear. A married woman is kidnapped by a drunken lout, tied up and beaten senseless. Her husband is a lawyer who is handling the divorce case for the drunken lout's wife, who is in hiding from her abusive husband. The lout wants to trade one wife for the other.

The novel moves from one character point of view to another, chapter by chapter. The most interesting characters end up being the abusive husband, Al Guthrie, and his panic-stricken wife, Lorene. The insight into the controlling male psyche and crushed psyche of his no-longer-willing victim is quite vivid. The other characters are less interesting, although the lawyer apparently became the basis of a short-lived TV show called Markham (not the character's name in the book). The pursuit of the villain, especially once the cops get involved, feels very much like standard TV show fare. (Brackett may have been writing for TV by this time.)

It's hard-boiled, but in that sleazy way that I associate with the '50s and Mickey Spillane. It's short, too -- only 138 pages in the small-typeface setting of the 1961 Bantam paperback that I have. The constant point-of-view shifting leaves it feeling a little unfocused, but it's well-paced at the same time. Very efficient and compact.

I probably liked this better than the crime stories (and eponymous novel) collected in 1999 in No Good from a Corpse, but I'm still not feeling much love for her crime fiction. Not my cuppa, perhaps.

And now I've got to take a break from Brackett to prepare myself to write something about Homer Eon Flint. I do at least want to get back to Brackett's later science fiction, although I have one more crime novel by her and am interested in her Western, Follow the Free Wind, too.

Now, to the vacuum cleaner!
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
The Long Tomorrow (1955) is widely considered Brackett's best novel, and it's easy to see why. For one thing, it is a very Campbellian novel, so probably more palatable to hard SF fans than her planetary romances and space operas. It's also written in a down home, all-American venacular that's very different from the hard-boiled exoticism of her other science fiction and her crime fiction. On top of that, it's about Mennonites and mentions a character named Byers, which are sure signs of high quality. Oh yeah, and it's a damned good book.

It's a post-holocaust novel. Sometime in the past, humanity destroyed civilization in a nuclear war. In America, we learn, the Constitution has been changed to limit communities to two thousand people or two hundred buildings in an effort to stop this self-destructing civilization from ever developing again. The entire country has become agrarian, and cities and advanced technology have been abandoned. Our protagonist, Len Colter, is an adolescent farm boy living in a community of New Mennonites. His cousin, Esau, is a hellion who discovers a device that they gradually learn is a radio. They figure out how to use it by reading stolen books, and they surreptitiously listen for a signal. Then they hear a message from Bartorstown, the legendary town where scientists are said to still pursue the illegal dream of technology.

The novel is divided into three sections, like acts in a play. It's a coming of age story about Len, and an exploration of the American landscape, full of finely-observed details. (One book it reminded me of was Neal Barrett Jr's Through Darkest America, although that is a much darker and more nightmarish story.) It's an examination of religious fundamentalism, which always seems timely in this country. It's also an examination of the dangers of knowledge and individualism. In fact, it is a classic tale of the journey from ignorance to knowledge, with all the mixed blessings and responsibilities it brings. The ending is, perhaps typically for Brackett, strange, unexpected, and rushed. I've read that she never plotted her stories out ahead of writing them; she just started somewhere and made it up as she went along. Perhaps because of that, her denouements often feel haphazard.

When I say the novel is Campbellian, I'm really talking about the set-up and tone. The ending is more conflicted than you might expect in a paean to science, technology, and human ingenuity. Perhaps that explains why the book is not considered a true classic within the field, although come to think of it, the conflicted ending has a certain resemblance to another classic of post-holocaust SF, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Whatever the case, this is a very fine novel. I personally like her pulpier adventure stories more, but this one probably has a better claim to greatness. It's possible that even people who don't normally care for science fiction would like this one, because of the naturalistic surface.
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Len looked at Amity. She spoke to him, not meeting his eyes, and he said hello, and it was like speaking to a stranger. He thought, with an already fading pang, of the yellow-haired girl he had kissed in the rose arbor and wondered where she had gone so swiftly. This was a woman here, somebody else's woman, already marked by the cares and troubles of living, and he did not know her.

-- Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow (1955)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Darkness. The black silence of the tomb. He strained his ears, but even the supersonic torture of the drive was slipping away, receding beyond reach. Blue witch-lights flared from every metal surface in the ship, and then it began: the subtle slide and wrench and twist that took each separate atom in a man's body and moved it in a new direction with the most horrible effect of vertigo that ever had been devised. Comyn tried to scream, but whether he made it or not he never knew. For one timeless ghastly interval he thought he saw the fabric of the ship itself dissolving with him into a mist of discrete particles, and he knew that he wasn't human any more and that nothing was real. And then he plunged headlong into nothingness.

-- Leigh Brackett, The Big Jump (1953/1955)

The Big Jump is a slick, hard-boiled space opera that reminded me in tone of Budrys' Rogue Moon, particularly in the focus on hard-driven, almost maniacal characters in semi-realistic settings that feel very Fifties. The enormously rich family's domed garden enclave on the moon, on the other hand, reminded me of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. This perverse family and their interest in exploiting rare elements in distant stars are perhaps faintly echoed in Samuel R. Delany's Nova.

This is mostly a fairly middling novel -- a potboiler about humankind's first trip to another star and the frighteningly transformative phenomenon they find there.

Analysis of maguffin with BIG SPOILER )

Next up is Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, which is frequently cited as her best novel, along with The Sword of Rhiannon. I believe it is the only one of her science fiction novels that is Earthbound.
randy_byers: (Default)
So I'm working my way through Leigh Brackett's novels. I probably should have started with her first novel, a mystery called No Good from a Corpse (1944), but I read it not too long ago and didn't think enough of it to want to read it again. So far I've read Nemesis from Terra (aka The Shadow over Mars, 1944), The Starmen of Llyrdis (aka The Starmen, 1951), and Sea Kings of Mars (1949). Sea Kings of Mars was the magazine title of the novel published in book form as The Sword of Rhiannon, which I've read before. It is published under its original title in the Orion collection, Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, which is where I read it this time. I'm not sure if this is actually the magazine version, or if they just used the old title. I've e-mailed the editor of the collection, Stephen Jones, but haven't heard back from him yet. I couldn't tell any difference, but it's been a while since I read The Sword of Rhiannon.

Since I had the collection with me in Oregon and had finished the novel, I also reread the Eric John Stark novella, "Queen of the Martian Catacombs". This is, in fact, the magazine version of the story, which was later rewritten (allegedly by her husband, Edmond Hamilton) and slightly expanded as The Secret of Sinharat, which I'm now reading in the Ace Double form. This is Brackett at her best -- an exotic adventure story full of pungent details and powerful atmosphere and heightened-through-suppression eroticism. There's a one-sentence description of a kiss of broken, thirsty lips that beautifully captures a sadomasochistic sensuality. The first part of The Secret of Sinharat seems identical to "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," but I've reached the point where changes begin. I'm curious to see what was done to the ending, which I found very powerful in the original version -- a typical moment of renunciation and separation, the price of crimes committed.

Nemesis from Terra isn't very good, although it has some of the usual great sensual and sadomasochistic detail. The Starmen of Llyrdis is a bit rambling or episodic, but it successfully moves from a mundane Earth to a far-flung space opera. The central idea is a strain of humanity that has been bred to survive faster-than-light interstellar flight. This idea has been used over and over, including by Delany in "Ay, and Gomorrah" (IIRC) and "The Star Pit". I wonder what the earliest usage was? In any event, there's a terrific horror scene in The Starmen of Llyrdis involving a normal human who stows away aboard an FTL flight.

Sea Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon is one of Brackett's best-known books. The adventures (as often in Brackett) are largely formulaic, and what is remarkable about the novel is its vision of an ancient Mars with oceans and sea-going civilizations. The clash of pre-gunpowder cultures and super-science is straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Brackett layers on the torn loyalties, torn consciousness, and sadomasochism. It's a potent cocktail of pulp psychosexual histrionics. The mild telepathy of the Martian halflings perhaps represents our naked vulnerability, our inability to hide, though we desperately wish to, like prey trying to hide from predator, like a lover trying to hide his betrayal at the height of passion.
randy_byers: (Default)
Lorelei of the Red Mists: Planetary Romances is the latest Leigh Brackett collection from Haffner Press, following Martian Quest: The Early Brackett. I'm not familiar enough with Brackett's bibliography to know if these volumes collect all of her short science fiction and fantasy, but the stories included are arranged in order of original publication. The stories in this volume run from "The Blue Behemoth", published in the May 1943 issue of Planet Stories, through "The Dancing Girl of Ganymede", published in the February 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The subgenre of planetary romance consists of romances in the old sense of the word: heroic adventure stories in exotic settings. Think Arthurian romance. The planetary romance sets the adventure on an alien planet. Brackett wrote at the tail end of the period when these stories were set on planets in the solar system. Most of these stories are set on either Mars or Venus, but a Mars and Venus of the pulp imagination. Here Mars is a dying planet along the lines that Percival Lowell once speculated, with only canals remaining from the once vast Martian oceans, and inhabited by humanoid Martians from an ancient, now decadent and dying, civilization. Venus, below the clouds, is a savage, primitive planet covered with oceans and jungles and soaring mountains. The men whose adventures she writes about are Byronic figures. They are always lean and wolfish. They are always broken or torn inside. They have done bad things, suffered terrible losses, and they are trying to escape the nightmare of history. Sometimes they manage it, but often they don't. What's perhaps surprising about these stories -- what's different from earlier models such as the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his many imitators -- is how downbeat they are.

And I'm talking beat down here ... )
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Last night I reread Michael Levy's introduction to the Wesleyan edition of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool (1919). Amongst other things, Levy writes at length about the ideas Merritt borrowed from Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists. As I've written elsewhere, it appears that Edgar Rice Burroughs may also have borrowed a few ideas from Theosophy in the world-building of Barsoom. I was reminded again by Levy's essay how closely science fiction has been related to the occult and -- a somewhat different category -- the crackpot all along. In fact, you could say that science fiction has been a great refuge for the crank and the autodidact who has problems with one or another aspect of consensus reality, or who simply has very strong and eccentric ideas about the true nature of the world.

A few aimless observations ... )
randy_byers: (Default)
Is there anybody on my Flist (or who is lurking) who went to Readercon and would be willing to send me a photocopy of John Clute's article about Leigh Brackett from the program book? I'd be happy to reimburse you for the expenses. (I'm actually slightly unclear whether it was from this year's program book or last year's.)

EDIT: All praise [livejournal.com profile] gerisullivan! Mission accomplished.


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