By Bud Webster
Gats, Six-Guns and Blasters
"The company dicks were good. They were plenty good. Hugh Starke began to think maybe this time he wasn't going to get away with it."
Now, that's hard-boiled. Hell, that's a twenty-minute egg, pickled in brine. But it boils harder:
"His small stringy body hunched over the control bank, nursing the last ounce of power out of the Kallman. The hot night sky of Venus fled past the ports in tattered veils of indigo. Starke wasn't sure where he was anymore....Maybe even God wasn't sure."
Bubble bubble, toil and trouble indeed. By now, you could use that egg for a handball. So, who wrote it? Dashiell Weinbaum? Edgar Rice Chandler? Harlan Spillane? Who?
Now, let's not always see the same hands. I'll give you a clue: it appeared in the Fall 1953 issue of Tops in Science Fiction. Of course, if you have the references on hand to look this up, you probably won't need to, you stfnal hipster, you.
Right you are. Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett in their one and only collaboration, "Lorelei of the Red Mist." Not Bradbury's first collab, mind you — that was "Pendulum" in the 11/41 Super Science with Henry Hasse — but we're not here to talk about him anyway. In any case, his contribution to their collaboration was the last half of the story after she left to work in Hollywood; the opening, noir to the max, was all Brackett.
Leigh Douglas Brackett was born December 7th, 1915, and was, by all reports, something of a tomboy. She was active and athletic (not to mention adventurous), playing pirates with her friends on the beach in California, and it's not too much of a stretch to assume they went at each other as cops/robbers and cowboys/Indians, too. An avid reader, she was given a copy of Burroughs's The Gods of Mars, and it was a literal (and literary) turning point: her life-long love of imaginary swashbuckling became an interplanetary one.
As is frequently the case with avid readers, Brackett began writing. Her first sale was in 1939 to Astounding, "Martian Quest" appearing in the February 1940 issue. Although she'd sell a handful of stories to Campbell in the next few years, she soon began appearing in the magazine she would be most associated with when Planet Stories ran "Stellar Region" in their Winter 1940 issue. (Something else life-changing happened that year, too: she met and befriended Edmond Hamilton; six years later, they were married.)
From the beginning, Leigh Brackett wrote tough. Not just hard-boiled, as in the excerpt above, but tough, like a smart Doberman. One with a gun. Not always, mind you; she could wax lyrical enough when the story required it, as in this passage from The Sword of Rhiannon (1953):
"Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and the whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world."
Makes you want to give it all up and go back to selling vinyl siding, doesn't it? But as dulcet and decadent as the above is, you can't deny that it's also...well, Tough.
Brackett is best know within the genre for her stories about Eric John Stark, the direct literary descendent of Burroughs's John Carter. Originally run in Planet Stories, they were published in book form (reportedly after revision by Hamilton) by Ace Books as part of their Doubles series.
However, her first books weren't fantasy at all, but mysteries. The first, No Good From a Corpse (Coward McCann 1944), would lead her into a very productive and lucrative career, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Actor George Sanders was credited with two novels, neither of which he wrote (nor read, in all probability). The first was ghosted by Craig Rice (who also ghosted mysteries by Gypsy Rose Lee) and Cleve Cartmill, and the second by Brackett. Stranger At Home was published in 1947 by Simon & Schuster as part of their "Inner Sanctum" series, and is dedicated by Sanders "To Leigh Brackett, whom I have never met." Nice enough of him, I suppose. It was later reprinted as an Ace Double with Stephen Marlowe's Catch the Brass Ring, which I assume he wrote by himself.
However, it was her first book that eventually brought her fortune, if not fame. As author and critic James Sallis wrote in the Boston Globe:
It's 1944, and Howard Hawks has just hired William Faulkner to write the screenplay for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Thinking about who to bring on as collaborator, he remembers reading an outstanding hardboiled novel titled No Good from a Corpse. "Get me that Brackett guy," he tells an assistant. Surprised when an attractive young woman shows up, he hires her anyway, beginning a long relationship.
Hollywood being what it is, it didn't stop there. She wrote the script, it was passed around to the actors, and, again according to Sallis:
When Humphrey Bogart got his copy of the script, feeling that some of his dialogue was too gentlemanly, went to Brackett to discuss it with her, he found that the parts he disliked had been written not by Brackett as he assumed but by Faulkner. The good stuff was hers.
That's Tough. Don't get me wrong, though, she did have her gentle side. When she and Hamilton moved to an old Ohio farmhouse in 1950, they had an ongoing problem with woodchucks which he decided to solve by means of a Sako .222 rifle. She wouldn't let him use it, explaining that she liked to watch the chucks at play while she was writing. "Needless to say," Hamilton wrote, "my fine high-powered rifle with its beautiful variable telescopic sight has never been used."
She was a lady as well, as author Robert Silverberg attests, saying, "Leigh was not only one of the best of the space-opera writers, whose style and plotting technique and way of handling character I studied with great care when I was starting out, but also a charming and gracious person." He goes on to illustrate his point:
She also happened to be very conservative politically, which is at the core of one incident very typical of Leigh. It was 1964, when the Worldcon was in Oakland, and Leigh and Ed Hamilton and Harlan [Ellison] and our wives had gone out to dinner at some San Francisco restaurant. That summer was also the summer of the Goldwater-LBJ presidential race. Harlan, as far to the left then as he is now, started in on Goldwater at the dinner table, denouncing him as though he were Lucifer. Leigh listened to his tirade for a couple of minutes, and then said, very sweetly, with a pleasant smile, "Harlan, you ought to know that I'm a little old lady in tennis shoes" — which was not at all an accurate description of Leigh's physical self, but rather a code phrase then for a substantial band of Goldwater supporters. Harlan, who would not have wanted to give offense to Leigh for anything (she was one of his idols) shrank down in chagrin and muttered an apology. He said very little for the rest of the meal.
A lady indeed. Not only was she willing to spare Ellison the spectacle of slapping him down in public, she was good enough a writer in the first place — and enough of a gentleperson — that he was willing to accept her kind rebuke in the spirit in which it was offered. Silverberg continues: "What was significant was the complete sweetness of her tone as she told Harlan to put a lid on it. Truly ladylike, which was amusing when you consider that Leigh was a broad-shouldered, athletic-looking woman with a fine two-fisted outlook on the world. 'Little old lady' indeed!"
When I write these pieces, I make it a point to contact people who either knew the subject or at least had some kind of working relationship with them. Hard to do in some cases, like this one, when the subject has been gone for almost 30 years, but the point of those writers I touch on in Past Masters is that they've left a literary legacy of some sort, something that has outlived them, at least so far. So, Brackett having been a pioneering woman writer in a field dominated from top to bottom by men, I asked a number of women writers and editors, hoping that they'd share some insights about how Brackett had paved the way for the likes of McCaffrey and LeGuin, and thus themselves.
That ain't what I got. Perhaps I went to the wrong people, but most of what I got was noncommittal shrugging about how they'd liked her stuff as kids, but...
What I did get were, interestingly enough, accolades from men. Not surprising, I suppose. Brackett was a swashbuckler, not a gentle mother figure like Zenna Henderson (see last issue) or a strident feminist like Russ. She was what she was, and she wrote in a man's field so well that she stood out not because she was a woman – hell, most people thought Leigh was a man's name anyhow – but because she did it better than almost anyone else.
(I would have dearly loved to have been able to ask Catherine Moore about Brackett, as she and her husband Henry Kuttner were great friends of Hamilton and Brackett, but oh well.)
Author, editor and critic Barry Malzberg said: "[She] never got her true due. [It] was a hard and lonely thing to be a female scriptwriter in those times...and she made her way with panache and fury." Howard Hawks must have felt the same way; he used her a half a dozen times to write both gumshoe movies and westerns, and never second-guessed her. Some of the films he's best known for are ones she wrote: The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo, and Hatari, which was kind of an African western (if you squint). In all, she would do 17 films and teleplays, including one taken from her own novel, The Tiger Among Us, winding up with what is widely considered the best of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back. Laurence Kasdan may have finished it after her death in 1978, but Brackett put her indelible stamp on it.
Raymond Feist, a fantasist with deep roots in Hollywood, told me "I admired her because she did something that few of us do really well, operate in two different media. If she'd only written The Big Sleep with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, she'd probably have been a footnote, but she got the job because Howard Hawks fell in love with her first novel..." Of Brackett's fiction, he says:
...she wrote in the genre as well as anyone. Her Eric John Stark high- adventure stuff compares well with R. E. Howard's Solomon Kane and Burrough's Carter stuff, IMHO, though it's more "modern" circa 1950's. Her novel The Long Tomorrow is a fine example of post-nuclear stuff that ranks up there with Stewart's Earth Abides and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz...
Feist isn't alone in his praise for her best-known genre novel. No less a critic than Damon Knight waxed almost rhapsodic over it, calling it "...a startling performance from the gifted author of so much, but so entirely different, science-fantasy....Speculation as brilliantly sound as this no longer seems like speculation at all, but simple truth...as real, as intimately detailed and as warmly sympathetic as if the author herself had lived it."
Leigh Brackett died on March 18, 1978, three months or so after her 63rd birthday and only a year after burying her husband. She left behind a multitude of grieving fans and a legacy of finely-crafted stories, all of which I'm certain that she and her childhood pals wouild have loved to play out on the California sands.
The place to begin if you're not already a Brackett fan (and if not, why not?) is the well-chosen collection The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited and with an introduction by Edmond Hamilton. It's not so different from Brackett herself, being a broad-shouldered, athletic-looking book with a fine two-fisted outlook on her literary legacy. Bud sez, get into it.
(The following bibliography is necessarily incomplete, and as always, I welcome additions and corrections care of this site. C'mon, folks, make me look good.)
Martian Quest (Feb. 1940 Astounding)
The Treasure of Ptakuth (Apr. 1940 Astounding)
The Tapestry Gate (Aug. 1940 Strange Stories)
The Stellar Legion (Winter 1940 Planet)
Water Pirate (Jan. 1941 Super Science)
The Demons of Darkside (Jan. 1941 Startling)
Interplanetary Reporter (May 1941 Startling)
The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter (Summer 1941 Planet)
Lord of the Earthquake (June 1941 Science Fiction)
A World is Born (July 1941 Comet Stories)
No Man's Land in Space (July 1941 Amazing)
Retreat to the Stars (Nov. 1941 Astonishing)
The Sorcerer of Rhiannon (Feb. 1942 Astounding)
Child of the Green Light (Feb. 1942 Super Science)
Child of the Sun (Feb. 1942 Planet)
Out of the Sea (June 1942 Astonishing)
Cube from Space (Aug. 1942 Super Science)
Outpost on Io (Nov. 1942 Planet)
The Halfling (Feb 1943 Astonishing)
Citadel of Lost Ships (Mar. 1943 Planet)
The Blue Behemoth (May 1943 Planet)
Thralls of the Endless Night (Fall 1943 Planet)
The Veil of Astellar (Spring 1944 Thrilling Wonder)
The Jewel of Bas (Spring 1944 Planet)
Terror Out of Space (Summer 1944 Planet)
Shadow Over Mars (Fall 1944 Startling)
The Vanishing Venusians (Spring 1945 Planet)
Lorelei of the Red Mist (Summer 1946 Planet, with Ray Bradbury)
The Moon That Vanished (Oct. 1948 Thrilling Wonder)
The Beast-Jewel of Mars (Winter 1948 Planet)
Quest of the Starhope (Apr. 1949 Thrilling Wonder)
Sea-Kings of Mars (June 1949 Thrilling Wonder)
Queen of the Martian Catacombs (Summer 1949 Planet)
City of the Lost Ones (Fall 1949 Planet, as "Enchantress of Venus")
The Lake of the Gone Forever (Oct. 1949 Thrilling Wonder)
The Dancing Girl of Ganymede (Feb. 1950 Thrilling Wonder)
The Truants (July 1950 Startling)
The Citadel of Lost Ages (Dec. 1950 Thrilling Wonder)
Black Amazon of Mars (Mar. 1951 Planet)
The Starmen of Llyrdis (Mar. 1951 Startling)
The Woman from Altair (July 1951 Startling)
The Shadows (Feb. 1952 Startling)
The Last Days of Shandakor (Apr. 1952 Startling)
Shannach - The Last (Nov. 1952 Planet)
The Big Jump (Feb. 1953 Space Stories)
The Ark of Mars (Sept. 1953 Planet)
Teleportress of Alpha C (Winter 1954 Planet)
Mars Minus Bisha (Jan. 1954 Planet)
Runaway (Spring 1954 Startling)
The Tweener (Feb. 1955 F&SF)
Last Call from Sector 9G (Summer 1955 Planet)
The Queer Ones (Mar. 1957 Venture)
All the Colors of the Rainbow (Nov. 1957 Venture)
The Road to Sinharat (May 1963 Amazing)
Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon (Oct. 1964 F&SF)
Come Sing the Moons of Moravenn (in The Other Side of Tomorrow, ed. Roger Elwood, Random 1973)
How Bright the Stars (in Flame Tree Planet, ed. Roger Elwood, Concordia 1973)
Mommies and Daddies (in Crisis, ed. Roger Elwood, Nelson 1974)
Stark and the Star Kings (in Stark and the Star Kings, Haffner 2005 with Edmond Hamilton)
The Best from Planet Stories Vol. 1 (Del Rey 1975)
The Best of Edmond Hamilton (Del Rey 1977)
No Good from a Corpse (Coward McCann 1944)
Stranger at Home (Simon & Schuster 1946, as by George Sanders)
An Eye For an Eye (Doubleday Crime Club 1957)
The Tiger Among Us (Doubleday Crime Club 1957)
Rio Bravo (Bantam 1959)
Follow the Free Wind (Doubleday 1963)
Silent Partner (Putnam 1969)
The Starmen (Gnome Press 1952)
The Sword of Rhiannon (Ace D-36 1953, bound with Howard's Conan the Conqueror)
The Long Tomorrow (Doubleday 1955)
The Big Jump (Ace D-103 1955, bound with Dick's The Solar Lottery)
The Nemesis of Terra (Ace F-123 1961, bound with Silverberg's Collision Course)
Alpha Centauri or Die! (Ace F-187 1963, bound with Wallis's Legend of Lost Earth)
The Secret of Sinharat (Ace M-101 1964, bound with Brackett's People of the Talisman)
The Ginger Star (Del Rey 1974)
The Hounds of Skaith (Del Rey 1974)
The Reavers of Skaith (Del Rey 1976)
The Coming of the Terrans (Ace G-669 1967)
The Halfling and Other Stories (Ace 31590 1973)
The Best of Leigh Brackett (Del Rey 1977)
Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (Haffner 2000)
Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (Gollancz 2005, Vol. 46 of the Fantasy Masterworks series)
Screenplays and Teleplays
The Vampire's Ghost (1945, screenplay and story)
The Big Sleep (1946, screenplay)
Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946)
Rio Bravo (1959, screenplay)
"Checkmate" (one episode, Face in the Window 1960, story and teleplay)
Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)
13 West Street (1962, from her 1957 novel, The Tiger Among Us)
"The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (2 episodes, Terror at Northfield and Death of a Cop, both 1963)
Man's Favorite Sport? (1964, uncredited draft polish)
El Dorado (1966, screenplay)
Rio Lobo (1970)
The Long Goodbye (1973, screenplay)
"Archer" (1 episode, The Body Beautiful, 1975)
"The Rockford Files" (1 episode, The Four Pound Brick, 1975)Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980, screenplay, finished by Laurence Kasdan)
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