THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: The Secret of the Sinharat and People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett

Thursday , 25, May 2017 16 Comments

My exposure to Brackett had been all of one short story, but for some reason I’ve long associated her with Edgar Rice Burroughs. After reading these two novellas, I think the better comparison is to Robert E. Howard (more on that in a bit). Whoever it is, I have no doubt that Brackett deserves to stand with—or above—either. That lady could spin a damn yarn. And Eric John Stark can stand with Tarzan or Conan.

I have two copies of these two novellas collected. The first is a Ballantine edition titled Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars. The second is an Ace Double with The Secret of the Sinharat reading one direction and People of the Talisman another. Want a copy? Head over to Every Day Should Be Tuesday for a chance to win the copy of your choice.

The two novellas stand alone, but each follows the Mars adventures of Eric John Stark, an earthman raised on Mercury.

The Secret of the Sinharat opens with Eric John Stark on the run and losing the race. The men who catch him give him an ultimatum: either turn informant or do hard time on Luna. Stark has been contracted to train Martian provincials looking to make a move against their betters. Throw in another merc with a personal enmity and Stark is cooking with gas.

People of the Talisman opens with Stark trekking north with a friend on his last legs. Said friend wanted to return to the city of his birth to die. He has a guilty conscience; he stole the talisman of his people before leaving. A talisman that the people of the city, and the barbarians that surround them, believe protects the city.

I mentioned Burroughs earlier, but his work and Brackett’s really don’t have that much in common. Burroughs real genius was in his sheer imagination.   Plot and prose-wise, he can’t compare with Brackett. But The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman each take place entirely on one relatively limited part of Mars, don’t feature creatures and monsters beyond giant lizards used as mounts, and only introduce one big fantastical element in the climax. Don’t believe me that Brackett’s outstrips Burroughs, an underrated stylist? Check out this passage:

Balin stood frozen, his borrowed sword half raised. He saw Stark hurl the warrior bodily off the Wall and heard the cry as he fell, and he saw Stark’s face as he grasped the ladder and shoved it outward. There were more screams. Then there were more ladders and more red-haired men, and Stark had found a sword and was using it. Balin smelled the blood, and suddenly he was shaken with the immediacy of it, the physical closeness of an enemy come to slaughter him and destroy everything he loved. A fever burned through him. He moved forward and began to chop at the heads that appeared over the Wall. But it was as Stark had said, and at first he found that it was easier if he did not look too closely into their faces. Because of this one of them got under his uncertain guard and almost gutted him. After that he had no more difficulty.

I’ve read that passage dozens of times now and it never gets old. You could teach an hour-long class in creative writing on that paragraph alone. The spare language, with nary an adjective to be seen. The mix of long and short sentences. The judicious use of polysyndeton, the repeated use of conjunctions. Writing on war as good as anything Hemingway ever wrote.

Don’t believe me about the comparison to Howard? And to Conan? Check out this passage:

Stark shivered, with more than the cold. He hated cities anyway. They were traps, robbing a man of his freedom, penning him in with walls and the authority of other men. They were full of a sort of people that he did not like, the mob-minded ones, the sheep-like ones and the small predators that used them.

Stark is much more Conan than John Carter. I’m not a gamer, but if you’re looking for an inspiration for your barbarian class or character, I would start with Stark over the Arnold Conan movies. Stark isn’t uncivilized, but he isn’t civilized either. Frequent references are made to Stark’s almost sixth sense to recognize danger on the horizon. Brackett suggests that humans were seeded across the solar system in our dim past, with earthmen only discovering their brethren after setting out for the stars. Science fictional weapons exist, but Stark spends his time in the hinterlands where conflict is more likely resolved by sword and spear. Stark never forgets his colonial roots. In exploring that, Brackett makes more modern efforts like Ann Leckie’s in Ancillary Sword look simplistic and crude.

Leigh Brackett was maybe the last great sword & planet writer. She also wrote hard-boiled mysteries and movie scripts, and it shows. She may not have Burroughs’ imagination, but her command of pacing and suspense, her grasp on the story structure, is virtuoso.

Oh, and that final sequence in People of the Talisman? I have to think it majorly influenced the Finn from The Wheel of Time well beyond the fae source material.


H.P. is an academic, attorney, and “author” (well, blogger) who will read and write about anything interesting he finds in the used bookstore wherever he happens to be at the moment. He can be found on Twitter @tuesdayreviews and at Every Day Should Be Tuesdsay.

  • Cambias says:

    Although one of them is actually a huge spoiler, I still prefer the original pulp magazine titles for these two stories: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars.”

    • HP says:

      As is at least one cover for it.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      Rumor has it that the expansion from pulp novella to paperback ‘novel’ was done by Brackett’s husband, Edmond Hamilton. I’ve never seen that rumor conclusively confirmed or denied.

  • deuce says:

    “I mentioned Burroughs earlier, but his work and Brackett’s really don’t have that much in common.”

    Brackett was a huge fan of ERB…as well as Haggard and Merritt. That said, her writing style is much closer to that of Moore. In fact, Brackett’s entire Solar System is a reasonable copy of Moore’s.

    She was definitely an REH fan, but she was also a fan of Hammett and Chandler. Her status in the hardboiled/noir genre is high. You see the hardboiled influence in her heroes. Brackett protagonists are all “damaged” to one extent or another, something you don’t see in Howard near as much.

    An excellent writer and one who should be much better known.

    • HP says:

      C.L. Moore? I definitely need to read more of her work. Before these two novellas, the grand total of my exposure to Brackett and Moore was one short story each from the same collection. (My second favorite story from that collection? Brackett’s. My favorite story? Moore’s.)

      The hard-boiled influence is all over these novellas. The damaged hero. The alluring, mysterious, and possibly villainous dames. The mystery driving the plot. The pessimism about both sides and the protagonist’s ambivalence toward “his” side. And the plotting, pacing, etc., something mystery and thriller writers as a rule do really well.

    • deuce says:

      Just HOW much Brackett’s Solar System (Venus and Mars, anyway) resembled Moore’s didn’t hit me until I reread all the Northwest Smith tales last year, all at once. After that, I could see numerous stories where Leigh riffed off ideas first put out there by Moore.

      Merritt was really the other big influence. Moore and Brackett were both big fans of Merritt. You could call both of their versions of Mars “Merrittesque Barsoom”. The influence of DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE is especially evident in Brackett’s SWORD OF RHIANNON, but you see her using Merrittesque tropes — separate from Moore’s — throughout her Solar System tales.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      She was definitely an REH fan …

      Witness the appearance of a “Conan” character in “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, and remember that this was written when the only place to read about Howard’s hero was in back issues of Weird Tales.

    • deuce says:

      In her intro to PLANET STORIES, Leigh flat-out admitted that name was an homage to REH. She also has a “Kynon” in “The Secret of Sinharat”, which name is just the Welsh version of “Conan”.

      Don Wollheim paired Brackett’s SWORD OF RHIANNON with REH’s CONAN THE CONQUEROR in an Ace Double.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Remember that C.L.Moore and Brackett were friends, and would often vacation together with their husbands, Henry Kuttner and Edmond Hamilton. She wrote her own hardboiled stories (No Good From a Corpse) and co-wrote the Big Sleep with William Faulkner. Then she worked with Howard Hawks making movies for a quarter of a century. No wonder her writing was superb.

      I’m with deuce: An excellent writer and one who should be much better known.

  • cirsova says:

    Fortuitous timing!

    Just yesterday I got my first sketches of Stark :3

  • B&N says:

    Erik John Stark in The Ginger Star IS Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back. Now who’s a scruffy-looking nerfherder?

  • Andy says:

    I always found it interesting that Brackett’s stories set in her solar system often revolved around crumbling old worlds and dead civilizations, more about lamenting the past than reveling in what’s new.

  • deuce says:

    Those are all themes that can be found in Haggard, ERB, Merritt, REH and Moore. The viewpoint regarding the frailty and fallibility of civilization can also be found in Hammett and Chandler.

    Brackett’s writing is a complex brew made of several ingredients.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Lot of good stuff here, anyone who likes Brackett has a fine taste in Heroic Fiction (or whatever you want to call it) so author is a friend of mine! Sword of Rhiannon is a masterwork, I wish everyone who wrote half assed trilogies would cut them down, there may have been more works on the level of SoR. Comments are also spot on too, per usual, deuce adds depth. Great article, great comments! Andy, as the present is often a faint shadow of the past (at best, most likely it’s a sick perversion) I can understand the appeal of the return. Be all this as it may, if you want your kids to read, put Brackett on the list!

  • Vlad James says:

    Well, you have convinced me! This sounds like a very intriguing series. And I concur that Burroughs was very limited in his writing mechanics but highly imaginative.

    Also, Ace Doubles rock.

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