Monday, June 6, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Enchantress of Venus

The distinctions separating the literary genres of fantasy and science fiction are fine ones, especially when dealing with early examples of the latter. For example, is A Princess of Mars a work of science fiction because its story takes place on the very real planet of Mars or is it a mere fantasy because so many of its setting details are incompatible with what we now know about the Red Planet? Over the decades, it's been a frequently contentious issue, hence the proliferation of even finer literary genres – planetary romance, science fantasy, and sword-and-planet, to name but a few – intended to put an end to such questions. As I've gotten older, I've simultaneously become less interested in these matters and more accepting of an expansive definition of "fantasy" that includes all types of imaginative fiction.

In the case of Leigh Brackett's tales of Eric John Stark, many of which appeared in the pages of Planet Stories in the 1940s and '50s, this primal concern nevertheless resurfaces. Even in 1949, when Brackett wrote her first story of Stark, enough was known about the other worlds of our solar system that there was little plausibility to their being habitable by mankind without significant technological aid, let alone having intelligent natives of their own. Was Brackett then writing fantasy or did her stories still qualify as science fiction, albeit of an old fashioned sort – or is this, as I increasingly feel, a distinction without a difference? 

Of course, little of this matters, as Stark's adventures are engaging yarns told with great enthusiasm. "The Enchantress of Venus," which first appeared in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, amply demonstrates what I mean. Second in the chronology of the tales of Stark, the novella takes place, as its title suggests, on the planet Venus, renowned for its "seas" of buoyant, phosphorescent gas. This detail is important because, as the story begins, Stark is aboard a ship making its way across one such Red Sea toward the town of Shuruun. 

Shuruun is, to borrow a phrase, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Stark is no stranger to such places and thus has no fear of the town. However, he only sought it out to find his friend, Helvi, "the tall son of a barbarian kinglet," who had gone into the town previously and never returned. Stark feels an obligation to locate Helvi and, if necessary, rescue him from whatever peril awaited him in Shuruun. Like so many pulp fantasy protagonists, Stark lives by his own code of honor, one that places great value in friends.

Malthor, the captain of the ship on which he is traveling, repeatedly suggests that Stark, whom he recognizes as a stranger, due to his black Mercurian skin, would do well to lodge with him when they reach Shuruun. Each time, Stark declines. As it turns out, he has good reason to do so: Malthor's true intentions are wholly sinister. Just as the ship gets within sight of the "squat and ugly town" that "crouch[ed] witch-like on the rocky shore, her ragged skirts dipped in blood," Malthor and some of his crew attack Stark in an attempt to take him prisoner, though for what precise purpose he did not know (and would not until later in the story). Rather than suffer this fate, Stark dives overboard into the Red Sea.
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.

Stark dropped slowly downward through a strange world. There was no difficulty about breathing, as in a sea of water. The gases of the Red Sea support life quite well, and the creatures that dwell in it have almost normal lungs.

Stark did not pay much attention at first, except to keep his balance automatically. He was still dazed from the blow, and he was raging with anger and pain.

Properly scientific or not, this is evocative stuff and a reminder of why Brackett made such a splash (no pun intended) in the world of pulp fantasy during the 1940s and '50s. 

Emerging from the sea, Stark makes his way to Shuruun in search of Helvi. He is almost immediately recognized as a stranger by the locals, who confront him and appear ready to attack. Before this can occur, a white-haired Earthman named Larrabee calls out and invites him to drink with him. Larrabee, we soon learn, is a notorious thief who "got half a million credits out of the strong room of the Royal Venus." In the nine years since, he has holed up in Shuruun to avoid being found by the authorities. When Stark introduces himself, Larrabee mentions that he knows his name from a wanted poster as "some idiot that had led a native revolt somewhere in the Jovian Colonies—a big cold-eyed brute they referred to colorfully as the wild man from Mercury." 

Stark is amused by this description of himself but soon shifts the conversation to local matters, in particular the whereabouts of Helvi. Larrabee claims not to have seen him and instead speaks of the Lhari, "the Lords of Shuruun," who are "always glad to meet strangers." Hearing this, Stark decides he to call on the Lhari to see if they might know something about Helvi. Along the way, he meets Zareth, the teenage daughter of Malthor, who'd been sent into Shuruun to find him and then lure him into an ambush outside the city. Then, he'd be handed over to "the Lost Ones," who dwell in the interior of the swamp and have an interest in strangers like Stark. Zareth doesn't follow through on her father's plans, though, because he beats her and she hates him. However, she has no interest in joining Stark in visiting the Lhari, who frighten her as much as her father.

If you're having difficulty keeping all these narrative threads – Malthor, the Lhari, the Lost Ones – straight in your head, that's understandable. Brackett throws a lot at her readers at the beginning of "The Enchantress of Venus" and its can be confusing at times. Fortunately, she's a very skilled writer and repays the patience and forbearance shown to her. By the time Stark enters the castle of the Lhari and meets them, in all their decadent glory, for the first time, that things begin to make a great deal more sense. In some ways, that's the real beginning of the novella and the action barrels along from that point until it reaches its ultimate, satisfying conclusion. It's a lot of fun to read and reminds me, in some ways, like many of Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Cimmerian: a "wild" outsider finds himself caught up in the machinations of several sinister factions and must find a way to extricate himself from their clutches. What's not to love?


  1. These early stories have such a weird flavor. I've been looking for stuff like this to listen to during exercise. This one's available on Librivox:

  2. I think that it was by no means certain in 1949 that no other planets in this solar system were habitable. At least children's science books still held that as possible even in the sixties.