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The story about "Lorelei of the Red Mist" is that Leigh Brackett had written half of it when she was hired by Howard Hawks to work on the screenplay for The Big Sleep in 1945. So she handed it over to a young Ray Bradbury, who hadn't made his name yet, and he wrote the second half. With this story in mind, my feeling the first time I read the novella was that I couldn't tell where one writer left off and the other took over. Now having read it a second time, I perhaps mistakenly feel I can.

Planet Stories Summer 1946.jpg"Lorelei of the Red Mist" is, like much of Brackett's output, an old-fashioned story. This is a planetary romance in the mode of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with a layer of A. Merritt's science fantasy blended in, and like so much of the work of both of these models it is a lost world story. It's set on Venus, but protagonist Hugh Starke, in an attempt to escape the cops after a heist, crashes in the Mountains of White Cloud: "The backbone of the planet, towering far into the stratosphere, magnetic trap, with God knew what beyond." Well, it turns out that what lies beyond is a sea of red gases that works just like water except humans (or humanoids) can breath while swimming under it. Here three different tribes of more or less (in one case quite a bit less) humans are locked in a battle for domination. Starke comes from Brackett's shared pulp solar system universe where spaceships flit everywhere from Mercury to the moons of Jupiter, but the lost world he discovers on Venus might as well be in a pocket universe in another dimension. There's no contact with outside civilizations, and that was a pretty old dream already by the time the Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories was published with this story in it.

One thing that's interesting about the novella, at least to a Brackett fan like myself, is how similar it is in many ways to The Sword of Rhiannon, which was first published as Sea-Kings of Mars in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Both are stories of desperate thieves thrown into the middle of a conflict between various savage enemies, swords versus magical super science, and two erotic beauties in the balance -- one a scheming sorceress and one a powerful princess. But this much is typical Burroughs/Merritt material, and the more striking similarity is the dual consciousness of the protagonists of both stories. Actually, Starke's situation is even more complicated than that of Matthew Carse in The Sword of Rhiannon. Carse has another mind inside his own, but that mind cannot control him in any direct way. Starke, on the other hand, is occasionally possessed by the inhuman sorceress Rann, who is able to direct his action up to a point. On top of that, Starke suffers a fatal accident in the opening scene, and Rann transfers his mind to that of another person (unfortunately named Conan) whose own mind had been lost due to torture. So, according to the logic of the story, our protagonist is really a kind of composite of three identities: Starke, Rann, and Conan. And the confusion of identities leads to a similar confusion of allegiances.

To my mind, this is the thing that, along with her incredible sense of mood and atmosphere, makes Brackett stand out from the other acolytes of Burroughs and Merritt. Her characters -- all of them spun from common pulp formulas -- are conflicted, and she often found ways to make the conflicted motives literally the result of multiple identities or wills. (To be honest, this may come from Merritt too. I've only read The Moon Pool.) In "Lorelei of the Red Mist," Starke's backstory is that he was born in a isolated mining colony in the asteroids, his body stunted from being starved for most of his first 21 years, before he turned to a life of crime and spent time in the Lunar cell blocks. Because of his deprived early life, his survival depended on pure grit and will power. Conan was a powerful warrior with a well-developed body, but he was unable to resist Rann's compulsion of his will. That's what Starke brings to the mix: will-power.

FrankKellyFreas_TopsInScienceFiction_Fall1953_100.jpgNeedless to say, if you have any knowledge at all of Ray Bradbury, none of this is even remotely like Bradbury's typical material. This is all pure Brackett. I think that was what was so remarkable to me the first time I read the novella: that Bradbury could write in this vein so convincingly. I'm not sure Bradbury ever wrote another action-adventure story in his life, let alone one involving sword fights. But once you get past the oddity of this, I think you can start to see his fingerprints on the half he wrote.

Going out on a limb here, my guess is that he took over around the point Starke/Conan leaves Crom Dhu with the intent to leave this lost world behind. Going even further out on that limb, since this is all speculation any way, I'd point to the word "abortion" used in Starke's meditation on his old body -- "the little stunted abortion that had clawed and scratched its way to survival through sheer force of mind" -- as my first sign that something had changed. This word struck me as an unusually aggressive description for Brackett. Very soon there were other signs of Bradbury at work.

Some of the signs are actually signs of an inexperienced writer at work, I think. There are several points at which the second person is used to describe what I think should be Stark/Conan's reaction to events. The example I noted was: "The very silence of their encirclement made your skin crawl and sweat break cold on your cheeks." The use of "you" breaks the narrative frame for no apparent reason, so I assume inexperience (and a bad or inattentive editor). There are also at least a couple of points at which otherwise fine images are muffled by waffle-words, e.g.: "Dead bodies under-sea are never in a hurry. They sort of bump and drift and bide their time." Get rid of the "sort of," and that's a nice macabre image.

And the story becomes a lot more macabre in the second half. Bradbury had apparently published a few stories in Weird Tales by this point, and the infusion of the weird into this story is noticeable. Some of it is gruesome, as when Starke hacks at a dead body animated by magic super science, eventually cutting off the head, which continues to talk to him, um, animatedly. I found that the horrific nature of some of this jarred against the earlier tone of the story, but I have to say that nevertheless young Bradbury came up with some powerfully weird imagery, such as this brief moment of panic: "He was afraid his head might fall off and whirl away like a big fish, using its ears as propellers."

In other passages Bradbury seems to be channeling Lovecraft channeling Dunsany:

Long ago some vast sea Titan had dreamed of avenues struck from black stone. Each stone the size of three men tall. There had been a dream of walls going up and up until they dissolved into scarlet mist. There had been another dream of sea-gardens in which fish hung like erotic flowers, on tendrils of sensitive film-tissue. Whole beds clung to garden base, like colonies of flowers aglow with sunlight. And on occasion a black amoebic presence filtered by, playing the gardener, weeding out an amber flower here, an amythystine bloom there.


I think the influence of Lovecraft in his Dream Cycle phase is obvious, but I'm not sure I have the critical chops to explain why it seems unlike something Brackett would have written. I would probably start with the word "amythystine," which is far more precious than Brackett even at her most exotic:

Her skin was white, with no hint of rose. Her shoulders, her forearms, the long flat curve of her thighs, the pale green tips of her breasts, were dusted with tiny particles that glistened like powdered diamond. She sparkled softly like a fairy thing against the snowy fur, a creature of foam and moonlight and clear shallow water. Her eyes never left his, and they were not human, but he knew they would have done things to him if he had had any feeling below the neck."


Rather than raise the rhetorical level with the poetically rare "amythystine" it's perhaps more typical of Brackett to bring things down to the demotic earth with the hard-boiled plainness of "would have done things to him." It also seems typical of her writing that metaphors in her descriptions are fairly simple: foam, moonlight, and clear shallow water. Referring to "erotic flowers" seems decadent (in the aesthetic, not moral, sense), where "the pale green tips of her breasts" seems actually erotic.

"Lorelei of the Red Mist" is a strange marriage of two very different sensibilities. I'd be curious to know how much of the plot had been worked out by Brackett, who said she often didn't know where her stories were going until she finished them. (Unlike her husband, Edmond Hamilton, who always plotted his stories out before he started writing them.) If Bradbury took over about where I think he did, he got the most interesting world-building material, as in the second half of the story we're introduced to the "under-sea" world inside the red mist. There's also more than a little bit of Pirates of the Caribbean in the way the dead are re-animated and used as an army. If that's where Brackett was headed with the story, I wonder if it would have still managed to be less macabre if she had written it. But would that have made it less unusual?

Freas_Lorelei-1.jpg


ENDNOTES:

The same Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories that ran "Lorelei of the Red Mist" also included Bradbury's "The Million Year Picnic," which eventually became the capstone story in Bradbury's famous 1950 book, The Martian Chronicles. So you could say that 1946 was the year he started to make his name.

Artist credits for the three images above are Chester Martin for the cover of Planet Stories, and Kelly Freas for the two pieces of artwork from the Fall 1953 issue of Tops in Science Fiction, which is not a publication I was previously aware of. (Notice that Bradbury's name has been moved ahead in the byline, indicating that he was now the more famous writer.) Freas did two other interior illos for that reprint, both of which can be found at The Pictorial Arts, along with a a quote from Freas about his work on the project.

I originally read "Lorelei of the Red Mist" in the eponymous volume of Haffner Press' collection of the complete fantastic short fiction of Leigh Brackett. I read it again this week in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 8 (1946), edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Other notable stories in this volume include "A Logic Named Joe" by Will F. Jenkins (who usually published under the pen name Murray Leinster), which is renowned for anticipating some aspects of the internet; "The Million Year Picnic" by Bradbury, as described above; "Rescue Party" by Arthur C. Clarke, which packs remarkable scope and scale into a short story about an expedition from an advanced alien federation investigating Earth while the sun is in the process of going nova; "Vintage Season" by Lawrence O'Donnell (C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner), which is an absolutely terrific novella about sophisticated dilettantes who travel through time in search of thrills; and "Evidence" by Asimov, which is one of the stories in I, Robot. "Lorelei" stands out as old-fashioned in this bunch, although Nelson S. Bond's "Conqueror's Isle" is another lost world story of sorts and basically a sensationalistic short story version of Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 novel, The Coming Race.

There were still people writing pastiches of Burroughs, if not Merritt, as late as the 1970s. I'm thinking of Lin Carter, for instance, not to mention Brackett's own final three novels about Eric John Stark. I'm not aware of the Burroughsian style of planetary romance surviving beyond that era, however, although you can see elements of it in things like the movie Avatar.

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