The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i] Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too. He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii] Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity. These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present. What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication? Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.
In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii] Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.” But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action. Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist? Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv] Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944. He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]
But back to Lorelei of the Red Mist and the cover illustration: The artist, Chester Martin, has drenched the scene in the nebulous vermillion of the title, exploiting a compositional scheme that bisects the image diagonally from top left to bottom right, like a big slash right across the page. Martin has captured the crepuscular Irish-saga atmosphere of Brackett’s grim fantasy. Brackett often drew on the nomenclature of Celtic myth in her fiction, probably with convenient recourse to William Butler Yeats, whom she admired, and to the sagas of the Mabinogion, which she knew from the retellings by T. W. Rolleston. Motifs of the standard science-fiction formula constitute Martin’s visualization. A derelict mechanism of some kind, perhaps a spaceship, thrusts its tapered cylindrical bows from a shallow sea, while the brawny hero stands at what appears to be the rail of a nautical vessel, holding in his muscular right arm the collapsed body of an Amazonian girl. She wears a skimpy blue bikini-like outfit. Or perhaps the place where the hero stands is the rampart of a fortress overlooking the scene, on which the man’s left hand rests. The girl’s red hair cascades in a ruddy chevelure, falling perpendicular to the lower frame of the cover. Tattooed corpses, gaunt and not quite human, lie at the hero’s feet as he gazes out at the oily waters. The garishness of the tableau succeeds, despite its slightly too-stiff character, in conveying a sense of elegiac denouement, of the passing of an age in an epochal calamity.
What of Brackett’s tale? After what ought to have been a fatal crash of his one-man flyer, protagonist and fugitive-from-the-law, Hugh Starke, opens his eyes in a strange place. “Dim tapestries,” he sees; “black stone, and three tall archways giving onto a balcony.” Beyond the balcony appears “a sky veiled and clouded with red mist.”[vi] Sanguine coloration indeed charges almost every episode of the story, red being the color not only of blood, life, and love, but also of bloodlust, superbia, and crisis. This Starke seems to be related prototypically to Brackett’s best-known character, Eric John Stark, who, although Mercury-born, undertakes most of his adventures on Mars.[vii] In Lorelei, Brackett avails herself of Venusian terra incognita: the northerly Viking or sea rover polity of Crom Dhu, where a human tribe currently wages a defensive existential war with Rann of Falga. The femme-fatale leader of a Faery-like non-human race, the Sea Folk, Rann competes for dominance in the roseate maritime realm. Students of the Celtic Twilight will take comfort in the proliferation of Erse monikers and assorted myth-motifs from Hebrides Islander folklore. Rann has exercised the mesmeric talent of her race to put Starke’s personality into the body of one Conan, after Starke’s flesh, irremediably traumatized in his crash, yields up the last of its insulted animal vitality to death.[viii] The gimmick precipitates readers, not to mention Starke, into something like Arthur Rimbaud’s Symbolist paradox of “Je est un autre,” just as it entails a self-revealing ethical crisis for the hero. Of planetary romance generally, Brackett once wrote that it stems from “primitive survival technique, interwoven with magic and ritual, to explain and propitiate the vast forces of nature with which man could not cope in any other way.”[ix] Such tales, Brackett says, “grew into religions.”[x]
Conan, under Rann’s influence, had once betrayed the rovers. He also betrayed his betrothed, Beudag – “muscled like a lioness, she walked with a flat-hipped arrogance, and her hair was like coiled flame”[xi] – who now fills the sword-armed office of lady war-leader at Crom Dhu.[xii] Starke affirms his metempsychosis in several appropriately inebriated constructions: “This isn’t Conan’s brain come back”; and “I never heard of this whole damn ocean, let alone a place called Falga.”[xiii] Conan’s old confederates detain him whom they take to be Conan in fetters in the dungeon of Crom Dhu while they contemplate how best to make the punishment fit the crime. Starke’s protestations that he is not who he appears to be are urgently linked to his short-term prospect of survival. Brackett now permits Romna, a harp-strumming bard, to fill in the bellicose history of Falga and Crom Dhu, after which Beudag tells what she knows about the transformation of the ancient sea from its mother-waters into the luminous red mist of its current weird state. This pulsating radiant blood-hued fog of an ocean informs the title of the tale, the bewitching Rann being the titular Lorelei. The sea that is not a sea but rather a cloudy abyss lies at the figural heart of Brackett’s concatenation of symbols. Says Beudag of it: “It will float a ship, if you know how to build the hull – very thin, of a white metal we mine from the foothills.”[xiv] More importantly: “When you swim in it, it’s like being in a cloud of bubbles. It tingles, and the farther down you go in it the stranger it gets, dark and full of fire.”[xv]
Starke experiences these sensations for himself when, after a series of guilty rationalizations, he decides to do right by throwing in his lot with Crom Dhu. He eludes Rann’s assassins, who have guessed his heart before him, by launching himself from a cliff-top into the roiling sea-cloudiness, “red like Beudag’s hair.”[xvi] Brackett, a native of Santa Monica, and something of a tomboy in adolescence, swam habitually in the Pacific Ocean; in order to participate fully in the prose alchemy that she works on the esthetics of that primal hobby, one must perhaps also be a native of Santa Monica who swam in his youth in the Pacific. Such a person – and I am one – remarks in the following rhetorical transformation certain features oddly connate to him who kens well the kelp forests off the beach at Pacific Palisades or their counterparts off the cliffs at Point Dume in Malibu, with their tall greenery of slowly dancing, delicately intertwining strands:
Dim coiling fire drifted with infinite laziness around him, caressing his body with slow, tingling sparks. A feeling of lightness, as though his flesh had become one with the drifting fire. A sense of suffocation that had no basis in fact and gave way gradually to a strange exhilaration…
He could see… spreading away along the downward-sloping floor of the ocean… slender fantastic trunks upholding a maze of delicate shining branches, without leaves or fruit…
He found he could swim quite easily. Or perhaps it was more like flying.[xvii]
Or as Starke might well have put it: Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème de la Mer, infusé d’astres, et lactescent, dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blême et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend.[xviii] Starke’s plunge has an initiatory connotation: It presages the dark hours of Une saison en Enfer, as in Rimbaud’s delirious prose poem, which I have just quoted. It is exactly this infernal “season” that the story’s hero must endure. Yet immersion functions for Starke both as baptism, a kind of initiation, and as liberation, quite as in Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre, where, as the voice of the poem says, “Les fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais.”[xix] Vouloir or choice plays an important role in the Brackett ethos; dislocation typically supplies the impetus for a decision.[xx] “Space opera,” writes Brackett, has the capacity “to draw us out beyond our narrow skies into the vast glooms of interstellar space,”[xxi] itself a Rimbaldian sentiment. Alienation productively throws the subject back on himself and demands an agenda. Whether loyal or selfish, every act acquires a cosmic implication. This cosmic connection – the orientation of the hero to something transcendent — is one of the secrets of the planetary romance: The reader, absorbed by the ordeal of the protagonist, undergoes with him a symbolic initiation. The traits of shamanism occur both in Symbolist poetry and in fantastic prose, such as Brackett’s.
Another of Brackett’s Venusian tales, The Enchantress of Venus (1949), takes place again in the planetary north of “Earth’s Sister,” as people still called the second planet from the sun in those days, “beyond the Mountains of White Cloud.”[xxii] In these hidden reaches lies also Crom Dhu, a place with a Celtic name. The Enchantress returns to the Red Sea for its primary setting. “Even on its own world,” as we learn, “the Red Sea is hardly more than legend”; and “few men have gone beyond the great [mountain] barrier… that hides away half a planet.”[xxiii] This time it is Eric John Stark (disdaining the final e) who, on approach by sailing ship to the port city of Shuruun, finds it necessary to take the plunge: “The surface of the Red Sea closed without a ripple over Stark. There was a burst of crimson sparks, a momentary trail of flame going down like a drowned comet, and then – nothing.”[xxiv] It is gorgeous imagery. Stark, from his own viewpoint, sees “a red gloom” and “great forests towering up into an eerie sky, their branches swaying gently to the wash of the currents.”[xxv] When he grasps that the trees died long ago and that “the gases of the sea had preserved them by some chemical magic,” a “strange fear” wells up within him; he breaks surface nagged by the conviction of a pursuit “by demons.”[xxvi] Stark, who has the instinct for it, must suspect that a basic moral law of life’s relation to death has been violated.
The towns and citadels of Lorelei, like those of The Enchantress, descend from an ancient past, darkly tinged, much of whose history has perished. Stark’s fear in The Enchantress arises in part from his civilized inference, based on his primitive intuition, that the Red Sea conceals an ancient evil. A lost city in the Red Sea’s depths indeed guards in its catacombs a source of dangerous power; the wise ones of the lost age sacrificed themselves to hide that power from the ambitious. In Lorelei, in the depths of the mist, the hero discovers an intimidating ebon city “of endless balustrades and battlements, of windowless turrets where creatures swayed like radium-skinned phantoms.”[xxvii] Brackett repeatedly deploys the adjective titanic to describe this Atlantean metropolis, alluding to the intergenerational conflicts of the gods in Hesiod’s version of Greek myth. From this eldritch redoubt a power greater than Rann’s threatens the existence of Crom Dhu. “Source Fire” can reanimate the deceased, a seeming boon, but those who control it have a coolly wicked plan. “Source Fire” indeed turns out to be the radiation that originally transformed the Red Sea from clear water to a purpling mist:
This was the Source of Life of the Red Sea. Here it had begun a millennium ago. Here the savage cyclones of sparks and fire energy belched up, shaking titanic black garden walls, causing currents and whirlpools that threatened to suck you forward and shoot you violently up to the surface, in cannulas of force, thrust, in capillaries of ignited mist, in chutes of color that threatened to cremate but only exhilarated you, gave you a seeming rebirth.[xxviii]
In a Brackett story, as opposed to an H. P. Lovecraft story, the perspective ascribes to the ancient menace an unmistakable evil, as normatively understood, not simply a Darwinian menace beyond good and evil. Brackett remained conventional in her morality; it is one of her strengths as a narrator. Yet a Brackett story, like a Lovecraft story, invokes age and ancientness to remind readers of the paltry quality of the present and the characteristic self-satisfaction of the modern. Where people go blithely and boldly, Brackett always argues between the lines, they bloody well ought to go wearily and humbly. Brackett’s Mars, even more than her Venus, boasts a history, or rather a legendary past, implicit in the architecture of its once splendid but now dilapidated cities, to shame the cinder-block present. Look on my works ye mighty and despair, the long-dead builders might say with Shelley’s Ozymandias, but without Shelley’s mocking irony, in a legitimate condemnation of present-day paltriness. The very decay of monumental greatness works a powerful allure. In The Beast-Jewel of Mars (1948), the despondent earthman Burk Winters seeks out the forbidden cult of Shanga in the region of the “Low-Canal Cities,” the most notorious of these being Valkis.
The city first reveals itself as ramshackle houses strung out along a canal: “A présent les maisons, d’abord éparpillées, s’étaient rassemblées le long du canal qui drainait au plus profond, le peu de vie qui pouvait y subsister. Il y avait quelque chose d’infiniment triste dans cette mince ligne sombre – tout ce qui restait d’un océan bleu et bondissant.”[xxix] I quote Sadoul’s loving and appropriate French translation. Valkis once held sway over a Martian sea-empire until the blue and bounding ocean shrank away into a Dead Sea bottom. Later in the tale, Brackett describes the archeological stratifications of Valkis: “Great looming docks, with the bollards and the scars of moored ships still on them, and the dust of their own decay lapping dry around their feet… Four harbors, four cities, four epochs written in fading characters of stone.”[xxx] The Brackett protagonist corresponds to a classic outsider, as does Stark or Space Pilot Winters; an opportunist although never a true criminal, the Stark-type has rejected the effete order represented by the crassness of the Trade Cities and yearns for engagement – and rebirth and resurrection, no doubt – in that faraway “vrai pays du Cockaigne,” as Baudelaire put it, “où tout est riche, propre et luisant, comme une belle conscience.”[xxxi] In The Last Days of Shandakor (1952), the ethnologist first-person narrator John Ross seeks the fabled lost city of the title. His chance meeting with someone who can lead him to it occurs when he is giddily drunk in a tavern in Low-Canal Barrakesh. Baudelaire writes: “Chaque homme porte en lui sa dose d’opium naturel, incessamment sécrétée et renouvelée.”[xxxii]
The ethnologist finds that goals such as lost cities and their treasure-chambers remain elusive. The longed-for Cock’s Egg of Shandakor, so to speak, consists at last of so much desiccated ruin: “The towers of jade and turquoise rose up against the little moons and they were broken and cracked with time and there was no glory in them. They were desolate and very sad. The night lay clotted around their feet.”[xxxiii] “No man knoweth our desolation,” writes that English follower of Baudelaire, Ernest Dowson, “memory pales of the eld delight; while the sad waters of separation bear us on to ultimate night.”[xxxiv] After his heart-breaking misadventure, Professor Cross sits in his university office, “eminent [and] respectable,” wishing only that he “had died with Shandakor.”[xxxv] The main characters in Brackett’s non-science fiction respond to the same half-hopeless vocation, as does Edmund Clive in No Good from a Corpse (1944) or the John Wayne lead (“J. T. Chance”) in the aptly named El Dorado (1966), which Brackett wrote once again for Howard Hawks, their penultimate collaboration. Key episodes of No Good from a Corpse take place in the seedy beach-town of Venice, California, adjacent to Santa Monica, in the middle of the war years. Venice began as a coastal reed-marsh, which the real-estate visionary Abbot Kinney could see as a Southland counterpart of Adriatic Venice, complete with sinuous canals, a simulated Ponte Vecchio, and low-cost palazzi for newcomers from the Midwest.
Kinney’s Venice maintained its splendor for a while in the 1920s, but by 1930 tidal silting had stopped the flow of water in the canals, leading to their aromatic stagnation. By the mid-1940s, the place had become a beachfront slum west of Lincoln Boulevard on the way to Marina Del Rey.[xxxvi] Oil drilling had begun. Brackett’s Clive grew up in Venice, his home a cottage by the canal: “Hot gingerbread and milk after school… Only home isn’t there any more. They pulled it down to make way for a derrick.”[xxxvii] A certain Beauvais asks Clive about the canals. Clive answers:
“Part of the old ‘Venice of the Pacific’ build-up, when the development was going to be something special. There’s a whole system of them. They get water from an inlet down at Del Rey. We kids used to spend most of our time down there, fishing and swimming.”
You wouldn’t want to swim there now. The banks are black with seeping oil, and the water’s black, too, and it stinks. There aren’t any fish in it now.[xxxviii]
Time, loss, and death: These things, which constitute life, find their articulation, their Platonic-transcendental reference, in the Symbols hovering beyond everyday that betoken redemption from the grinding slow demise of everydayness. One can look into the standing water of a Venice, California, canal and see reflected in it the Salle d’Ebène of the night sky. In The Road to Sinharat (1963), the story opens with main character Carey standing in an alley in one of the Low-Canal towns: “A few yards away, beyond the cracked and tilted paving-blocks, the Jekkara Low Canal showed its still black water to the still black sky, and both were full of stars.”[xxxix] The afflicted Sinharat-hero recognizes, as well as any other desperado, “cette maladie fiévreuse qui s’empare de nous dans les froides misères,”[xl] as Baudelaire named the affliction in L’invitation au voyage; he recognizes, too, the “élan insensé et infini aux splendeurs invisibles, aux délices insensibles,”[xli] as Rimbaud invoked that sweet delirium in Les illuminations. Like Baudelaire’s or Rimbaud’s, Brackett’s art was and is – and shall endure as – an art of transfiguration.
Finding his way a million years into the Martian past, Matt Carse, in The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), witnesses the oceans and seas in their full glory: “The water caught the pale tints of the first light and warmed them with its own phosphorescent fire – amethyst and pearl and rose and saffron. Then, as the sun rose higher, the sea changed to one sheet of burning gold.”[xlii] In an autobiographical note, Brackett once wrote: “I remember that one of the happiest things I used to do as a child was to walk out to the empty jetty and sit on the stringer with my feet in the ocean and just listen to the breathing of the sea and look out at the horizon and just feel and think.”[xliii] That would have been the old jetty, the “Long Jetty,” intended in the 1880s to be the beginning of a major Southern California harbor and port in Santa Monica Bay – a project that never came to be realized. Seated on the then already forlorn structure, as she describes herself, Brackett would have faced west into the Bay, contemplating the gold-and-red luster, not of the sunrise, but of the equally magnificent and powerfully nostalgic sunset.
Another lover of Mars and its canals, Ray Bradbury, lived, as did Brackett, in Los Angeles – mostly, during the 1950s, in Venice, adjacent to Santa Monica. Bradbury, as noted, completed the manuscript of Lorelei of the Red Mist, an errand for which he was well equipped, having been Brackett’s protégé in the mid-1940s. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950) owes much of its linguistic delicacy to its author’s tutelage under Brackett. I find after deliberation that I slightly prefer Brackett’s Mars and her Martians to Bradbury’s although I love his too, passionately; but Brackett’s Martians in particular strike me as a bit less passive than Bradbury’s, who play a mostly victimary role in his story-cycle. By contrast, the grim grip of Brackett’s Martians on a vanishing ethos has more than a touch of Angeleno tough-guy determination in it. Brackett’s Martians are not wont to go gently into their planetary good night. The symbolist prose of Leigh Brackett is also her Angeleno tough-guy prose, but, lest one forget, her Angeleno tough guy is also, deep down, a moralist. He possesses a heart, after all, and his heart-sickness is that he can love, that he has loved, and that he longs bitterly for lost love. To read the glittering prose of Leigh Brackett is to leap with her à la mode de vouloir, to let the red mist close over the plunge, and to swim, as though one were flying, in her dream of better, more dangerous and fulfilling places than our own.