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]