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Leigh Brackett, People of the Talisman

Like The Secret of Sinharat, with which it is paired in the Ace Double edition in which I read both short novels, People of the Talisman is an expansion of a novella originally published in the magazine Planet Stories. Wikipedia has a comparison of the two versions, but it's incomplete. Rich Horton's review of this same Ace Double also compares versions.

I should also note that it is commonly alleged that Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, was responsible for the expansions of the two novellas, but I've never seen any documentary evidence for this claim, so I don't lend it much credence.

This is another Eric John Stark story set on Mars. Planetary romance is a form of science fiction, but in many ways it feels more like historical adventure or sword and sorcery fantasy. There isn't much interest in science or technology, but there's a gizmo (the titular talisman) and eventually there's a lost race of aliens. The Secret of Sinharat also had something of the feel of a lost race or lost world story, but this one definitely falls into that category.

As an adventure, this is rock solid stuff. Brackett sets up an intriguing situation in which Stark inherits a talisman that was stolen from a city named Kushat near the north pole of Mars. He travels there and is caught up in an attempt by a tribe led by a mysterious figure in black to conquer Kushat. The talisman is said to be the key to finding a powerful ally through the Gates of Death who has protected Kushat in the legendary past.

Somebody compared this to a spaghetti western, and there's something of the Man with No Name about Stark, who wanders into this struggle with ambiguous loyalties. As is frequently the case in Brackett's stories, including The Secret of Sinharat, there are two women who draw Stark's interest, one young and innocent, the other older and more hard-bitten. The more experienced woman in People of the Talisman is one of Brackett's most fascinating characters: Ciaran, the bastard daughter of a king who has taken up arms to exert power in a world that has always tried to keep her powerless. She is Stark's physical equal, and Stark is an extraordinarily powerful physical specimen. It is perhaps the one time that Brackett expressed any frustration with being a woman in what was primarily a male profession at the time, but the frustration is also intimately connected to the erotic power of a strong woman's body.

Her face had a white blaze to it, a strength and an iron pride. He studied her, sitting tall and straight on the old rock, with her long legs and her splendid shoulders, and the fine hands that seemed forlorn without the axe to fondle.

"I would like to know," he said, "what made you as you are?"

She said impatiently, "A man is free to be what he will without questions, but a woman is supposed to be a woman and nothing more. One gets tired of explaining." She leaned back against the boulders, and there was a certain triumph in her eyes. "I did not ask for my sex. I will not be bound by it. I did not ask to be a bastard, and I will not be bound by that, either. So much I have accomplished, if I die today."

Later there is remarkable, erotically charged scene in which she and Stark are stripped naked, their bodies nicked and sliced by sadistic tormentors, whom they fight back against side by side, dripping with blood. The sadomasochistic sublimation of desire and pleasure in this scene is pretty potent stuff, further proof that great sex scenes don't necessarily need a graphic representation of sex or even of the body.

The sadomasochism of the climax, which involves decadent aliens who amongst other things cut themselves and others for pleasure, is perhaps shocking if you haven't read much pulp fiction or, for that matter, much Brackett. The Stark stories always seem to involve a scene in which he's tortured nearly to death. The ability to withstand pain and to transform it into the will to live is a constant theme. Because sexual desire has to be covert in these stories, it pops out in these sadomasochistic arenas, creating a mood of dark, sensual perversity.

This perverse mood carries into political areas as well, where Brackett takes the side of the lower class thieves against the effete aristocracy. There is another utterly remarkable scene where Stark and a companion have to find their way through catacombs in which the royalty of Kushat have been buried for centuries. They discover that the royal tombs have been stripped bare by the thieves over the ages, and that the thieves have taken their revenge in other ways as well.

Of all that immeasurable splendor, the tunneling thieves of Kushat had taken every crumb. Even the metal sconces had been dug out of the walls. Nothing was left, except the thrones, which were stone and immovable, and the kings themselves, who were not worth the carrying. Stripped of their robes and armor and their jeweled insignia of office, the naked corpses shivered on their icy thrones, and the irreverent thieves had placed some of those that were still sturdy enough in antic poses. Others were broken in bits and scattered on the floor or heaped like kindling in the throne seats.

Pure pulp poetry. These short novels, and the novellas they were based on, represent Brackett at the peak of her prowess. She would end her career with three novels about Eric John Stark, trying to recapture past magic -- or at least the enthusiastic paying audience for past magic. Brackett's fiction was a creature of commerce, but she invested it with something more. From the common elements of planetary romance she fashioned folk tales of intense sexual heat and the chilly embrace of death.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 12th, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
I like this! That last paragraph really ties things up neatly.
Aug. 12th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
Aug. 15th, 2012 11:48 am (UTC)
Yes, societal conventions against portraying sex did cause an extraordinary amount of sadomasochism to creep into the pulps. I suspect a lot of it was less about editors believing their readers were interested in sadomasochism and more about using the presence of it as an excuse to describe nudity. Obviously the scene in this story is more than that even if the basics are much like those in the Spicy range of magazines. Leigh Brackett did seem to enjoy taking standard pulp material from other stories and making it more visceral.
Aug. 15th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
Perhaps I should read some of these Spicy stories you speak of -- just for research purposes, you understand. Previously I've only looked at the pictures.
Aug. 25th, 2012 12:20 pm (UTC)
Actually given what you've written about this Bracket story and what I've read about the quality of the average 'spicy' story I suspect People Of The Talisman is a large step above the average 'spicy' tale. On the other hand some Talisman quality gems just might be lurking amongst all the whips and alabaster skin.
Aug. 25th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
Since our previous exchange I've noticed that Haffner Press has published a collection by Henry Kuttner that includes some tales from "spicy" pulps. I understand that Kuttner wrote a lot of crap to pay the bills, but I'm still intrigued.
Aug. 28th, 2012 11:45 am (UTC)
It's probably worth keeping in mind that at least part of the hate for Kuttner's 'spicy' fiction was that it was 'spicy', something not approved of by many early science fiction fans.
Aug. 28th, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
Mind you, what I've heard wasn't limited to his spicy stories. He wrote a lot of stories for the pulps, and I suppose Sturgeon's Law applies.
Aug. 15th, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC)
Just ran across this interesting comment about her crime story 'I Feel Bad Killing You' in Petri Lukkonen's excellent overview of Brackett's career: "The sadistic and masochistic elements of the story can be seen as a prelude to the post-war nihilism of Mickey Spillane."
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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