Monday, February 16, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Queen of the Martian Catacombs

Along with swords-and-sorcery, sword-and-planet stories exerted an immense influence over the imaginations of many early game writers. This second genre is most famously exemplified by the Barsoom stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also includes the works of authors as diverse as Edmond Hamilton, Otis Adalbert Kline (who was Robert E. Howard's literary agent), Gardner Fox, and Michael Moorcock. Stories in this genre can't rightly be called science fiction, since they often play rather fast and loose with scientific fact. At the same time, they're not wholly fantasy either, since many sword-and-planet authors tried to maintain some semblance of plausibility to their tales. Thus, they exist in a middle realm, freely borrowing elements from both science fiction and fantasy.

Leigh Brackett wasn't just another sword-and-planet writer. In 1946, she co-wrote -- with William Faulkner, no less! -- the script to the Humphrey Bogart movie, The Big Sleep, considered by some the best hardboiled detective movie ever made. Brackett also wrote the first story treatment for The Empire Strikes Back, owing to George Lucas's great fondness for her tales of planetary mercenary Eric John Stark. Stark made his first appearance in Planet Stories in the summer of 1949 and went on to become the protagonist in many more stories throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

"Queen of the Martian Catacombs" describes Stark's adventures on Mars, where he becomes enmeshed in a plot by criminals who are attempting to stage a revolution that would leave them masters of the planet. Initially, Stark comes to Mars as a mercenary to fight in the little wars between its city-states. When he's caught by Terran agents, though, he reluctantly agrees to work with them in investigating this plot and soon discovers that there's far more going on than anyone realizes. Unlike many sword-and-planet protagonists, Stark isn't a chivalrous straight arrow; he has a wild and unruly nature and his innate sense of justice means that he often acts against the powers-that-be rather than with them. Indeed, Brackett's stories often have an unexpectedly anti-colonialist thrust to them, a theme that becomes ever more important as the series grew over time.

"Queen of the Martian Catacombs" was expanded and republished in 1964 under the title The Secret of Sinharat, which is currently available from Paizo Publishing as part of their Planet Stories line. It's an engagingly written story and Eric John Stark is a terrific character. And of course Leigh Brackett is one of the great unsung writers of pulp fantasy and science fiction. It's unfortunate how few people in this hobby are familiar with her many works, given how much of an impact she's had over its early days. If you're one of those people, do yourself a favor and read a story or two by her -- any one will do; they'll all repay the effort.


  1. I always felt that the Fantasy genre didn't really establish itself as a separate genre until the early-to-mid 70's (for some reason 1974 strikes my mind, probably because that was when TLoTR went mass-market). Before then it was part of the pulp canon.

    Afterwards, it went to great lengths to distance itself from it's pulp roots.

  2. I recently and unexpectedly found copies of Brackett's The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith. I was looking forward to reading them and this blog entry has made my anticipation much stronger.

  3. Brackett is one of the great prose stylists of fantastic adventure. She can make an alien planet as vividly "real" in the mind's eye as an Earthly city or desert (of which she also did plenty).

    It's tempting to attribute neglect of her works in part to misogyny in some quarters, considering that (e.g.) C.L. Moore is similarly unsung.

    I think what's really telling is that the SF and fantasy "ghetto" has been increasingly transformed into a "colony" strip-mined for raw resources by non-natives.

    A few years ago, I came across a listing in the yellow pages under book dealers that led not to a shop but to a fellow's home. He said later that he invited me in because of the authors I mentioned. I could not afford the collectors' items in which he normally dealt, but he parted with a couple of volumes from his personal library.

    As recently as my childhood in the 1970s, finding people with whom to share the enthusiasm led one into the wainscot society of mutants called Fandom. Wisdom about The Greats was handed down from Fan to Fan, even when in some cases the actual texts could not be.

    Much wonderful stuff was freshly available again, due in no small part to Fans such as Carter, DeCamp, Del Rey and Wollheim. I had the further advantage of access to a shelf of Ace Double Novels in my grandfather's attic.

    Nowadays, a great many people with but a superficial interest come to the field via movies, TV, video games ... and D&D. There's so much "noise" in the environment that old and nascent Fans may pass each other by without mutual recognition.

    I think it's great that Grognardia so often presents classic works of genre fiction from a "gamer" perspective. The folks at the [b]Black Gate[/b] quarterly magazine also adroitly bridge those worlds.

  4. Another word about Brackett: professional; try "craftsman" for another nuance.

    It's not nearly as "easy" today to make a living writing SF&F as it was in the 1970s or they heyday of the pulps. S&S (contra "epic" fantasy) seems an especially slender market, albeit with some tentative signs of growth.

    Bob Howard perhaps epitomizes in his customary larger-than-life way the archetype of the writer with an old-fashioned work ethic. Philip K. Dick is today lauded by the literary establishment, but in his lifetime was yet another "pulp fiction" warrior.

    Tweaking a Warren Zevon line, "I'll be an artist when I'm dead." In the mean time, there are bills to pay by meeting deadlines and delivering what sells. Brackett did that in Hollywood when the doing was good, and sought greener pastures when it wasn't.

    Therein is to my mind a discipline and integrity as distinct from "selling out" as from being an ivory-tower dilettante of a creator.

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  6. It's funny seeing this post today, I just bought The Book of Skaith, yesterday. It's an anthology with all three of her Skaith books, after I finish Zothique I'm moving on to this one.

  7. I found Leigh Brackett a long time ago with one of the 70s re-prints (this one) and she has since become a "buy it if you see it" author in used book stores. To the point that I haven't ordered any of her stuff from the Planet Stories line as I already have it.

    Which only contributes to my sadness that after an initial burst the local B&N isn't carrying the Planet Stories line. I consider Leigh Brackett's Mars the real Mars, no matter what NASA photos show us. Oh, I know it's not the planet that we'll one day settle, NASA's is, but this is one of those cases where TRUTH is stronger than mere facts. The only truth to rival Brackett's is Burrough's.

    While Stark is not my favor pulp hero, Jirel is, Brackett is certainly one of my favorite pulp authors.

  8. mercenary Eric John Stark<

    Unless I am mistaken, the "Giants of the Earth" articles in old issues of The Dragon gave the D&D stats for Stark.

    I loved those Giants articles. My favorite entry was Professor Challenger, a total badass, and not at all like his TV and movie portrayals.

  9. Unless I am mistaken, the "Giants of the Earth" articles in old issues of The Dragon gave the D&D stats for Stark.

    Issue #28, p. 35.

  10. That explains why I didn't find him earlier.

    TSR should have gotten royalties for all the books I bought because characters were in "Giants of the Earth". That's how I found my beloved Jirel and H.P. Lovecraft among others.

  11. I finally read this in the form of The Secret of Sinharat. Damn! I probabyl shoudl saysoemthing more profoiund, but...damn! I had read a number of her storesi before, even a few Stark ones, but this one just grabbed and didn't let go. I'm not sute that she isn't the bleakest writer of S&S (which is what it is, even if you call it S&P) to be enthralling that I've ever read.

    Actually, I just pulled The Best of Leigh Brackett from the shelf to look at Edmund Hamilton's intro for this: "This is a favourite and recurring theme of the Leigh Brackett stories--the theme of a strong man's quest for a dream and of his final failure when it turns to smoke and ashes in his hands....her heroes seek something that they can never quite attain, yet their failure is not really defeat."