Brackett Bold: Lorelei of the Red Mist

As a big Leigh Brackett fan I’ve naturally been snapping up the Haffner omnibuses that promise to collect all the “planetary romances” (i.e. space operas, not kissing-in-space, although there is some of that) by the greatest practitioner of that form. (The Haffner website may not inspire confidence, but they produce beautiful, carefully made, carefully edited books.) The first of these was the fascinating but somewhat uneven volume Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, collecting her first three years of sf-ish stories. The second book in the series was really a half-book, assembling Brackett’s stories about Eric John Stark along with her spouse Edmond Hamilton’s Star King novels. The reason for the joint collection was that they wrote a collaboration which put Brackett’s Stark into the future of Hamilton’s Star Kings (originally for Harlan Ellison’s legendary if not absolutely mythical anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions). The latest (but not the last) Haffner omnibus is Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances.

The first two Haffner collections are well worth owning, despite their hefty pricetag. (I’m sure the same will be true of LDV, should it ever see the light of day.) Martian Quest has some relatively weak stories in it–inevitable in any series that strives for completeness–but there are some real gems here, including the title story, and another early entry in her Martian mythos, “Sorcerer of Rhiannon.” (Both of these were published in Campbell’s Astounding, by the way, a fact which rather freaked me out. I think of Brackett as the antithesis of a Campbell writer, but he did publish her first. The young Theodore Sturgeon was also heavily supported by Campbell. He really was a great editor, before his obsessions got the upper hand of him.) But even in her least stories Brackett is intent on telling a tale, and perfecting that radiant pulpy style of hers. Here’s a spaceship taking off from Venus in her minor tale, “Interplanetary Reporter”: “it shot up through the rain, past the miles-thick layers of steaming clouds, out into the star-shot black of space.” The sentence is as luminous, swift and vivid as the event it describes.

Stark and the Star Kings I bought primarily for the eponymous tale, but also to have all the Stark stories in a single volume. Three surprises awaited me. The first, an unpleasant one, was that the title story was a dud–one of these talky outlines rather than a realstory. Hamilton/Brackett, unlike Kuttner/Moore, do not seem to have collaborated well together.

The second surprise, more pleasant, was that the Hamilton stuff was not mere filler. The first Star Kings novel is a space opera in Hamilton’s dopiest vein, making the Captain Future books look in comparison like something by Le Guin. We have the displaced American hero in a far-future democratic star-empire with a hereditary ruling class and secret prisons (these are the good guys, by the way); check. We have ostensibly cunning intrigues as transparent as a child’s first lie; check. We have a set of stalwart heroes as dumb as ever darkened the pages of pulp fiction, one of whom is the inevitable space princess; check and double-check. My copy is now riddled with marginal notations like this one on page 59: “A fairly obvious ploy, which EH’s fatheaded characters will fall straight into.” (And they did, too.) Still, it’s all good: a beautiful example of a completely formalized type of storytelling. The sequel, Return to the Stars, written twenty-some years later, is something else again. It’s still a space opera with hairbreadth escapes and treacheries and adventures. But the style is more controlled, the characterization is more adept, EH’s characters are not infallible but now they can at least see the obvious after it smashes into their foreheads, sometimes even before it does. He was pushing sixty when the sequel was published, but he hadn’t stopped learning about writing. Apparently he never did. (For a counter-example, look at the rather crotchety work done by E.E. “Doc” Smith published in the fifties and sixties. But only if you have a high tolerance for anti-politician and anti-union hysteria.)

The third surprise was that I hadn’t really read a couple of Brackett’s Eric John Stark stories before; I just thought I had. Some uncredited (and less-skilled) hand apparently altered these stories for their first paperback publication (when “Black Amazon of Mars” became Secret of Sinharat and “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” became People of the Talisman), and these mutilated versions are the ones which have seen print since then. The originals (especially “Black Amazon”) seem to me much superior.

So both the earlier Haffner collections were great, but Lorelei of the Red Mist is, I think, better than both of them. Every story is a classic of the sub-genre. The weakest story may be the title one, where a character named both Starke (sic) and Conan (sic) swashbuckles across the sea of red mist on Venus (a venue Brackett would return to in “Enchantress of Venus”). If that sounds pretty damn cool, I have to admit that it is pretty damn cool; it’s just that the book is swimming in stories that are even cooler: like “Thralls of Endless Night” (about the distant descendants of space-crash survivors, struggling to adapt and survive in an intolerable environment) or “The Jewel of Bas” (maybe my favorite of all her stories; I won’t describe it further) or… As I say, every one is golden.

One thing I noticed (while looking over the three collections to write this post) was that Brackett’s earlier weaker stories were also shorter. There are 20 stories in Martian Quest, averaging just under 24 pages per story. Lorelei… contains only 12 stories but they are all longer, averaging 38 pages per story. The three Brackett solo-stories from Stark and the Star Kings are longer still, averaging nearly 71 pages. (The format of all three books is identical, so it’s not a question of font or page size either.)

Part of this may be due to the fact that, as Brackett got more experienced and better known, editors were willing to take longer stories from her. But I think that, for some sub-genres, it’s hard for a story to be better without being longer. You can’t introduce a new planet, a new species, a new type of plot-predicament, without deployingsome extra words. And even more words may be necessary to make vivid something the reader has seen before: it’s difficult for a dragon to really spread its wings within the Draconian limits of modern word-counts.

The health (or unhealth) of the modern genre market for short-fiction is a perennial topic that has just come up again. But if some perceive a decline in the scope and impact of modern genre fiction in the short form (and some, not all, do), part of the answer may lie in how very short it tends to be. And, as short fiction moves toward an era which is post-print and post-professional (the former is coming; the latter is already here: no one makes a living writing short fiction), I see less and less reason for these length restrictions.

“Tell us something we don’t know,” mutter the readers who’ve waded through the above verbiage.

Anyway, the short version is, in Max Beerbohm‘s classic formulation, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Brackett Bold: Lorelei of the Red Mist

  1. davidcapeguy says:

    I’ve got “Lorelei,” too, and I’m in total agreement with you: a beautiful book, and it shows clearly how Leigh Brackett was growing as a writer. I’m so glad Stephen Haffner is doing these quality hardcovers. I wish someone would do something similar for her screenplays, as I’m possibly even a bigger fan of the films she wrote than I am of her printed works.

    An embarrassing admission: I am a HUGE fan of Edmond Hamilton’s early “Interstellar Patrol” stories. They’re formulaic and frequently feature heroes about whom you have to question whether they could write their own name on the entrance exam to the Interstellar Academy. Still…they got under my skin ages ago, and I love ’em dearly. Can’t wait until Haffner’s collection of them, “The Star Stealers,” stops being potencial and achieves reality.

    I also picked up two new Planet Stories trade paperbacks, “Black God’s Kiss” and “Northwest of Earth,” both by C.L. Moore. I like Moore even better than I do Leigh Brackett; her stories really resonate with me emotionally. (An aside: I have a splendid print by Fastner & Larson, of Jirel’s kiss of the idol in “Black God’s Kiss,” upon the wall in my study. Much more serious than their usual.)

  2. JE says:

    Oh, I like the Interstellar Patrol stories, too. I guess I cut them more slack than Star Kings because they were written earlier and because the heroes are never as dumb as John Gordon usually is.

    I even like the Captain Future novels–that’s how depraved my tastes are. But it does seem to me that Hamilton kept on growing all through his career. The Haunted Stars is another 1960s novel that shows a striking maturation (although I admit I don’t like it as much as some of his splashier stuff). He doesn’t seem to have gone through a dotage like some other Golden Age authors (e.g. Asimov, Heinlein, etc.).

    I’d definitely buy a volume of Brackett’s screenplays, and I’m planning on getting hold of her detective fiction (which is supposed to be the reason why Hawks hired her for The Big Sleep).

    On the hardboiled side, I just watched L.A. Confidential last night, surely the best 1940s noir set in the 1950s and made in the 1990s.

    [edited to add]: I tried to make this a reply to your comment, but LiveJournal has been stupid about that lately. It’s one of those things that’s got me thinking about migrating my journal somewhere else.

  3. bluetyson says:

    Yeah, some Captain Future is fun.

    L.A. Confidential is indeed a great movie.

    Baen is supposed to do another Brackett/Hamilton Megavolume, so be interesting to see if they include the early versions, given the Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman were in the first Megavolume.

  4. peadarog says:

    Very interesting article, even for one like me, who has never in his life read any LB. I’d seriously look into getting Lorelei after this. However, even more fascinating for me was this point: “And, as short fiction moves toward an era which is post-print and post-professional (the former is coming; the latter is already here: no one makes a living writing short fiction), I see less and less reason for these length restrictions.” It’s probably just a fevered imagination, but I can almost see a time when novel writing too, becomes post-professional. A lot of first advances are less than $5000 these days.

  5. le_trombone says:

    I rather liked “Stark and the Star Kings”, probably because it was different from the others (side note: this story was written for Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions). However, it should be noted that I turn off all, and I mean all critical facilities when reading space opera.

  6. le_trombone says:

    Argh

    Re: side note: And now I go back to the whole entry and remember that you said that in your first paragraph.

    Sorry. I’m an idiot without caffeine.

  7. JE says:

    Was that first Brackett/Hamilton (Brackilton? Hamilkett?) megavolume an e-book only edition?

    I enjoyed the Captain Future books I’ve read in exactly the same way I enjoyed comic books back when I was reading them religiously (in what is now called the Silver Age, I think). And from Haffner’s site (and elsewhere) I learn that Hamilton was actually writing comic books for DC (and others) until ’66 or so. So I think I may have to chase down some of the reissues of those old comics.

  8. JE says:

    Re: Argh

    No problem. The same thing happens to me; if I had to choose between caffeine and air… it might be a tough choice.

    “it should be noted that I turn off all, and I mean all critical facilities when reading space opera.”

    I think this is the ideal state. I may have come to the story with too many expectations. I enjoyed Star Kings largely because I had no expectations about it at all, and I was impressed by Return to the Stars because it exceeded the modest expectations set up by its predecessor.

  9. JE says:

    [edited to add: This is meant as a response to above, but stupid LiveJournal seems to be unable to let me respond directly to comments these days.]

    “It’s probably just a fevered imagination, but I can almost see a time when novel writing too, becomes post-professional. A lot of first advances are less than $5000 these days.”

    Absolutely. No one could live on that (except maybe the Unabomber). But it’s at least a decent chunk of a year’s income.

    The future of publishing may be very different from the recent past. The internet and POD publishing (of various sorts) may completely drown established commercial structures, leaving us all amateurs. In some fields (like academic publishing) this would be a very good thing; about fiction, eh, I’m not so sure. But it seems to be happening without regard to my feelings in the matter (which is very rude of it).

  10. phoenixw says:

    How totally freakin’ cool! I read Leigh Brackett when I was a kid, and I loved Lorelei of the Red Mist, loved it to bits. I’ll definitely look for this collection. I enjoy re-reading things that I liked when I was younger – it’s interesting to see what I get out of it as an adult. Sometimes I’m disappointed (Heinlein) and sometimes I’m delighted (Andre Norton).

    Thanks!

  11. JE says:

    Thanks! A small return for Cerebus Cat.

    I like rereading old stuff, too. I don’t think I started reading Brackett until I was in my 30s for some reason, but I’m always impressed when I go back and reread the Norton books I loved as a teenager.

    She’s dangerous, though. She writes in this dry, plain style that has tremendous authority. It looks so easy! But, whenever I’ve tried to produce something like it, the result is distilled boredom.

  12. Hi, thanks for the add. I’m glad to see that Brackett is better known to others than me; she was sort of a personal discovery kicking around a library, someone I’d never heard mentioned among one’s fellow geeks & fans. The romance, mystery, and sense of antiquity gives her Mars stories a depth of wonder for me that I never felt in, e.g., Burroughs.

  13. JE says:

    Hi! Welcome, and thanks in turn.

    I like Burroughs for his sheer inventiveness, but he’s got a very clumsy way with a story–or for that matter a sentence. And I think you’re right that Brackett’s setting has more depth. Her characters are also more lively and convincing.

Comments are closed.