In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the rich and rewarding planetary romances of a forgotten pulp writer
What happens if you cross the Martian adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs with the pulp fantasy of Robert E. Howard? You get the planetary fantasies of Leigh Brackett, the underrated writer of ‘science fantasy’ who penned a number of hugely entertaining short stories and novellas set on Venus and Mars.
Leigh Brackett hasn’t quite been forgotten, at least by those (including the fantasy and SF author Michael Moorcock) who have championed her work and, in the case of Moorcock among others, been inspired by her: Moorcock himself wrote a trilogy of Martian novels, Kane of Old Mars, which were influenced by Burroughs but also, I suspect, by Brackett. (Leigh Brackett also inspired, and later collaborated with, a young Ray Bradbury: one of their co-authored stories, ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’, is included in the edition I mention and review below.)
But nor has she ever quite got her due. Like another queen of the golden age of pulp fantasy, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett has been allowed to fall out of print. Much of Brackett’s best writing goes unacknowledged: she also worked with Jules Furthman and William Faulkner on the critically acclaimed screenplay for the 1946 film version of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, one of the classics of the noir genre.
In 2005, as part of their Fantasy Masterworks series of neglected classics in the genre, Gollancz reprinted a big fat anthology of some of Leigh Brackett’s best stories, Sea-Kings Of Mars And Other Worldly Stories (FANTASY MASTERWORKS), complete with one of the most enticing and beautiful pieces of cover art (by the illustrator Les Edwards: credit where it’s due, and it’s certainly due here) I’ve ever seen adorning the jacket of a fantasy book (I just realised that, typing at full speed, I’d mistyped ‘adorning’ as ‘adoring’ there: a Freudian slip perhaps?). When I was collecting the Fantasy Masterworks books in the early to mid-noughties I managed to miss this volume. Looking to redress this, I searched online for an affordable second-hand copy. I may as well, it appears, have requested a bag of dust from the surface of Mars itself. Copies have, in the past at least, usually set you back around £100, if not more.
Thankfully, I managed to pick up a copy for just over £13 in the end, having bided my time – and readers may be pleased to hear that copies have since turned up for even less, though they remain relatively scarce. I’ve now had a chance to bathe in the Martian and Venusian splendour of Leigh Brackett’s imagination.
And ‘imagination’ is quite the word: whatever Brackett learned from Edgar Rice Burroughs, she transformed, making the micro-genre of the planetary romance her own. These are stories packed with rich, sensuous imagery that, to borrow George R. R. Martin’s words about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, the reader could get drunk on. This is, in Moorcock’s words, exotic storytelling.
A Goodreads reviewer has described the title-story of Sea-Kings of Mars as a cross between Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a pretty good summary. (It’s worth mentioning here that, along with The Big Sleep, the most famous film Brackett co-wrote the screenplay for was The Empire Strikes Back, which she was working on when she died in 1978. Indeed, many people consider Brackett’s earlier version of the screenplay superior to the one that was eventually used.) I also agree with that reviewer that it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection. The early stories occasionally lack drama and tension, and it’s difficult to warm to the characters: the description and setting and action are all there in abundance, but it’s happening far away somehow.
All of this changes in ‘Sea Kings of Mars’, which is sometimes reprinted under the title The Sword of Rhiannon as a standalone novella. This long story focuses on the professional thief Matthew Carse, an ex-archaeologist (there’s the Indiana Jones link for you) who has lived on Mars for thirty of his thirty-five years although he is an Earthman by birth. Carse is gifted by one of his thief-friends with the powerful Sword of Rhiannon, whereupon he finds himself transported back to the days of ancient Mars, a world doubly unknown to him.
Sold into slavery aboard one of the king’s galleys as an oarsman, Carse stages a mutiny with the aid of the sword in his possession and rebellion ensues. He captures Ywain, a princess, who represents one of Brackett’s real assets as a writer: at a time when many male pulp writers struggled to conceive convincing strong female characters, Brackett showed them how it should be done. Ywain is strong because her father is weak and has no son: Ywain explains that she was forced to take up the sword and defend his empire. The story moves along at breakneck speed and is, I suppose, sword-and-sorcery of a sort, only taking place on Mars rather than in some wholly invented world.
The later stories in the collection vary in quality, but ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’, featuring Brackett’s most famous character, Eric John Stark, is hugely enjoyable stuff. I also loved ‘Enchantress of Venus’, in which Stark – a Mercurian by birth, and dark-skinned as you might expect of someone hailing from that rather hot planet – finds himself enslaved while voyaging on Venus in search of his friend, who has mysteriously vanished.
I’ve previously described George Griffith’s Victorian planetary adventure stories as ‘a Saturday matinee for the mind’, and I think the same is true of Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Kings of Mars, and of her other ‘otherworldly stories’. What a shame they remain out of print again, after an all-too-brief renascence.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.