Leaning into Leigh Brackett

Saturday , 24, June 2017 20 Comments

Leigh Brackett is something of a staple here at Castalia House and for the Pulp Revolution crowd at large, but I must admit it’s taken me quite a while to get to her stuff. I’ve seen Alex’s reviews, of course, and I’ve noted her constant exclusion by the “women have historically been excluded from SFF!!1” crowd. But in my crazed consumption of Howard, Burroughs, Vance, and other old-timey greats I’ve neglected some of the other masters. It’s a far out kind of experience, trying to get up to speed on Appendix N (though my reading list is slightly expanded). O glut of goodness!

Here’s another admission – I actually read one of her short stories a few months ago and for the most part I kept my mouth shut. Because I didn’t really care for it. But wait, don’t reach for your blaster yet! Winning the Every Day Should Be Tuesday Leigh Brackett Giveaway prompted a revisiting. So now I’ve started reading the Eric John Stark stories, and I’ve also gone back and read a couple more of her shorts.

And I have reassessed.

“The Jewel of Bas” tells the story of a couple of wandering thieves – a harpist and his mousy wife. We are initially introduced to a seemingly generic fantasy world with “Forbidden Plains” and a main character who grew up in the Thieves’ Quarter. But before long we’ve got beast men, androids, a dude named Bas the Immortal, and his magical gem. Although I felt the story dragged on a bit too long, I could see how some would enjoy this one. Personally I found the prose itself to be a little unsatisfying. I’ve mentioned before that certain fantasy tropes just stick in my craw for whatever reason (perhaps they just feel lazy to me), and this had a few such, mostly related to the two bickering protagonists. The drive of a loving husband to save his wife turns out to be a major theme, and that was well taken. Ultimately I found that I appreciated Brackett’s creativity but didn’t care much for the characters, and so overall the story fell flat. This was the first story in the collection I’ve been reading from, and I think it was a poor choice for leadoff hitter.

The second and third stories, “The Vanishing Venusians” and “The Veil of Astellar,” were much more impressive.

“The Vanishing Venusians” tells us the tale of a large group of colonists from Earth stranded on a barely inhabitable Venus. For quite some time they have been voyaging, trying to find a suitable piece of land to call home. Previous attempts at settling have failed due to the many hazards and generally poor conditions on the Venusian surface. Finally the group is forced to stop, and several men volunteer to search a nearby plateau for habitable ground. In this story, too, we are introduced to a mostly unlikable protagonist – a man who has been stripped of hope and become cynical and somewhat cruel. Yet over the course of the tale, he changes, or perhaps his true nature reasserts itself. Ultimately we wind up with a hero. I don’t want to give away too many elements of the story, but I was also struck by Brackett’s creativity in this one. The lifeforms found on Venus are imaginative and skillfully crafted and described. The way our hero handles these strange creatures makes for a great climax.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of “The Veil of Astellar” at first. At first the tale seems somewhat disjointed and the nature of the main character and the people around him is unclear. There are bits of dialogue and narrated thought that don’t make sense until later on. But there is a payoff, and I decided that I liked this one. The ending is bittersweet, and rather than hero, we wind up with a somewhat villainous protagonist who finally makes a good choice. He remembers a past love and his forgotten self. Whether or not redemption is possible for this once-man, he tries. I found the ending rather haunting, actually, but satisfying.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nor should you judge a master writer by a single story. If I had, I wouldn’t have discovered that hey – I like Leigh Brackett!

Now if only I could find something to make me appreciate Frizt Leiber…

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

 

20 Comments
  • I really enjoy her Eric Stark books. Haven’t read these shorts and I am not sure how our tastes line up but it sounds like you have reasonable thoughts on them.

    It’s really hard to judge an author by a short. And unfortunately, a lot of us will. Really one doesn’t know what they were necessarily going for, if it was for us, if we get their point, if they were just having an off day (I write shorts in about a day), any number of things. Sometimes I don’t even judge an author by a full book because there’s say… Anne McCaffrey’s horseback riding romance garbage which if I’d have read that first, she wouldn’t be my favorite author for example. Gives some perspective that it’s not always right to give up on someone.

  • Tyr says:

    It is hard for me to countenance any lack of appreciation for Leiber, but I would recommend “The Lords of Quarmall.”

    If that doesn’t do it, then truly you are beyond hope!

    • PC Bushi says:

      Haha, I thought that line might cause some invective!

      I haven’t given up on him yet. But I did find Gather, Darkness! to be near garbage, and Swords and Devilry was lackluster for me.

      • Bz says:

        I thought The Snow Women (in Swords and Deviltry, I believe) was a near-perfect little story.

        • PC Bushi says:

          No accounting for taste!

          I thought the story dragged and Fafhrd wasn’t a very likable protagonist. Ditching his knocked-up almost-fiance didn’t make him seem very heroic at all.

      • Tyr says:

        I thought that you might have thought that. 🙂

        I mostly enjoyed “Swords against Deviltry,” but as an origin story of two well established characters it was going to be weak in some regards.

        I liked most of the Lankhmar series more than the stories collected in that volume. Like I said, I would recommend “Lords of Quarmall.” It’s second only to Howard’s “Red Nails”, in my book, as a dungeon adventure.

        (For a laugh, check out Tor Book’s discussion of “Red Nails.” Boy, was Howard ever “problematic”! Among other things, I learned from that discussion that getting a tan made Conan a person of color! Also, the KKK was born from Southron men’s frustration at their loss of “access” to black women after the American Civil War. These SJW types are truly that pathetic and deluded.)

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Ultimately I found that I appreciated Brackett’s creativity but didn’t care much for the characters, and so overall the story fell flat.

    *Gasp*

    Here is what Edmond Hamilton said about Jewel of Bas:

    “I well remember that when I’d finished this story I shook my head in surprise and said “Hey, this gal can write!”

    I side with Edmond on this one.

    ….

    I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a lunatic or just flubbing it soo..

    I think that story is Leigh’s memorial to Robert E Howard.

    I thought that awhile ago and can’t remember all the reasons why. She does mention Atlantis and Bas has Black hair and blue eyes.

    Also the tale is about Bas who created the world leaving it for others before going into eternal sleep to dream of a woman who he never had. For some reason in my head I got the idea it was Howard handing off his world to Leigh.

    There is other stuff such as the action felt very Howardian. I think a somewhere in that story a huge hulking barbarian uses a corpse to bash to death a baddy.

    • PC Bushi says:

      Hey Hooc!

      You know, I do vaguely remember reading somewhere that Jewel had a character that was meant as a homage to Howard. It must be the nameless hunter, but…well without getting too spoilery, he doesn’t really live up to Conan in terms of his ultimate fighting prowess or luck.

      Referring to the text, Bas has gray eyes and black hair, though that’s an interesting thought – Bas as Howard.

      See, the action felt lacking in this one to me. There is a bit of fighting, but there’s no central, conventional hero. Cairan the thief plays his harp, and he stabs someone with a wand at one point. Aside from a little bit of battling by unnamed secondary characters, there’s no badass fighting men in this one. Which is fine…but didn’t really light my fire.

      • Morgan says:

        Brackett snuck in references to Howard in various stories, especially earlier on. She told David C. Smith that she loved Howard and Burroughs. “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is her most full blown homage to Robert E. Howard.

  • The Long Tomorrow is a fascinating novel of a future post-apocalyptic America. I liked the premise, although the characterization fell a bit flat for me.

  • Andy says:

    Read Sword of Rhiannon. It’s a novel but a short one.

    • Joe F Keenan says:

      Great book! I was going to post the same recommend as you, but you beat me to it! The Stark books are great, too! Regarding Leiber, I think it’s best to take him, and many other pulp writers, in small doses (though his Conjure Wife is a great read, and could be redone into a great movie). For example, I tried to read all the collected Harold Lamb (I know he wrote in the glossies) stories straight through when then came out in the Bison editions; however, I found out I didn’t enjoy them as much as if I read one story, then something by someone else. When it came to short stories I favor a volume with different writers. To me, Leiber displayed this shortcoming. He also seemed rather de Campian in overly favoring the cleverness of a character to advance a story, this could be very tiresome (it’s one reason I dislike ol’ Spragey). Earth to “clever people,” a rock in you face trumps cleverness. It may be a low IQ guy with a good arms wins, but that’s life.

  • Verdier says:

    Since we’re giving shout-outs to various Brackett novels, I thoroughly enjoyed Nemesis From Terra.

  • Keith West says:

    If you want to read Brackett hitting on all cylinders and showing her hard boiled chops alongside her sf, try “The Halfling”.

    Brackett wrote a number of stories that were at least as good as anything THE BEST OF. Some couldn’t have been included due to length, but others like “The Halfling” should have. I’ll echo what was said about about “Lorelei of the Red Mist”. And you will definitely want to read “Enchantress of Venus”; it’s one of the best of the Stark stories.

    I’ve blogged about a number of Brackett’s stories on my blog, if anyone is interested.

    As for Leiber, I would suggest you try “The Sunken Land”. And whatever you do, don’t read “Bazaar of the Bizarre”.

  • Andy N. says:

    Re Leiber suggestions: I would specially mention the story “A Pail of Air.”
    It can be read on Project Gutenberg.

  • PC Bushi says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, guys. I will be on the lookout for these stories!

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