Novella Review: “Enchantress of Venus” by Leigh Brackett

(Cover by Allen Anderson. Planet Stories, Fall 1949.)

Who Goes There?

Planet Stories is a pretty interesting magazine whose contents I ought to give the deep-dive treatment one of these days, since a) it was one of the few SFF magazines in the ’40s to have a distinct personality of its own, and b) it encapsulates pulp science fiction at its most charming. It is a charming publication, with garish action-packed covers (perfecting the brass bra, I wanna add), probably the liveliest letters column in the field at the time, and, despite its juvenile exterior, being home to some excellent writers. Poul Anderson started his Dominic Flandry series here. Ray Bradbury contributed a few entries in what would later form The Martian Chronicles. Philip K. Dick’s first published story appeared here. But the author to define the magazine’s image was undoubtedly Leigh Brackett, whose planetary romances often made the cover, though she was generally keen on publishing in the adventure-leaning magazines like Startling Stories.

Brackett made her first couple sales to Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction, but she quickly looked elsewhere for her fiction, even if these magazines paid less. Nowadays Brackett is most known for the pretty good but uncharacteristic novel The Long Tomorrow, as well as her fairly successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter—for collaborating with Howard Hawks and, at the end of her life, writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Because Brackett got final screenwriting credit, she won a Hugo when the film won for Best Dramatic Presentation; she had been dead for three years when this happened. But for much of her time in our field, she acted as the heir apparent to Edgar Rice Burroughs, albeit being easily more downbeat and sophisticated than Burroughs. The star of today’s story, Eric John Stark, an Earthman raised on Mercury, owes a good deal to John Carter and Tarzan, with a strong hint of Conan the Barbarian.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, which is on the Archive. More importantly, because “Enchantress of Venus” fell out of copyright and someone took note of this, it’s free and perfectly legal, being available on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats, link here. For print we have more options still, this being one of Brackett’s more reprinted works of short fiction. The most relevant to me would have to be The Best of Leigh Brackett, part of the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series—edited and with an introduction by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. Brackett did the same for Hamilton’s Best Of collection. Aww.

Enhancing Image

A bit of exposition before we get to the story proper, since the mechanics of Venus as depicted in the story are a little odd, especially for modern readers. In contrast with the red desert world of Mars, as in the preceding and proceeding Stark stories, the Venus in “Enchantress of Venus” is about as swampy as you can imagine—with gas so thick that it can actually buoy ships. Specifically the area where the action is set, so called the Red Sea, is what we might now call a dead sea in that it’s not filled with water; it is, however, filled to the brim with red gases. “It was not water. It was gaseous, dense enough to float the buoyant hulls of the metal ships, and it burned perpetually with its deep inner fires.” It is indeed possible to breathe at the bottom of the Red Sea, which will be important to keep in mind for later. I say all this now because I was quite confused at first myself.

Stark has come to Venus in search of a friend, but it doesn’t take long for him to acquire yet one more problem in the form of the captain of the ship he’s taken to Shuruun, the pirate-infested port town. The captain, Malthor, is perhaps one of these pirates in disguise, hoping to knock Stark unconscious or worse—a hint Stark picks up in time to fight back, scarring Malthor, before jumping ship. In Shuruun he again narrowly escapes getting his shit kicked in, partly because he’s musclebound enough to be played by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and partly because, under strenuous circumstances, his upbringing by native Mercurians kicks in and he’s able to go beast mode. Something we find out quickly enough in this series is that Stark rather strongly takes after Tarzan, being half-man and half-beast, born to Earth people but raised in a savage culture. Stark is a barbarian in the sense that he is halfway between a civilized man and an animal.

While in Shuruun, Stark meets up with Larrabee, a fellow Earthman in exile, one who has been gone so long that people of Earth have since thought him dead. “He had never met Larrabee, but he remembered the pictures of him that had flashed across space on police bands.” The two get along as fellow expats, but Larrabee is about to leave the narrative for a long so it’ll be easy to forget about him. More of immediate importance is that we also run into Malthor’s daughter, Zareth, who going by descriptions of her also has to be of high school age. (I’m somewhat baffled by Brackett’s decision to have the third-person narrator linger on Zareth’s barely pubescent physique. I would expect such a decision from Marion Zimmer Bradley, but not Brackett.) Zareth admits upfront to being an agent of Malthor, who will beat her if she doesn’t do her job of luring Stark into a trap, but even so she refuses to go through with it, instead urging Stark to get out of Shuruun.

There are two female characters of importance here (I guess there’s a third, but she doesn’t do much), with Zareth as the first. Something I’ve noticed about Brackett’s writing is that it would be easy, if we were to apply whiteout to author bylines, to assume that the Stark stories were written by a pretty masculine if also gloomy man, given the role women play here. Not to say Brackett indulges in some internal misogyny, but it’s more how the women exist in relation to the male lead. Zareth is an innocent, almost angelic figure whose beauty (problematically described though it is) is to be taken in an ultimately platonic context; we can infer that while Stark respects Zareth, he is not enough of a pedophile too virtuous, despite his savagery, to see her as anything more than a good friend.

We’re told, however, of a series of islands in the Red Sea, about the “Lost Ones,” people who are spirited away and never to be seen again—about a castle where a band of slave-drivers called the Lhari lives. So naturally Stark goes there! What could possibly go wrong? It’s here that we’re finally introduced to our villains, the Lhari: a family of incestuous thieves and warlords who have taken people as slaves for the purpose of finding something at the bottom of the Red Sea. There are several members, but the big players are Varra, the titular enchantress (also a falconer); Egil, a mad warrior and Varra’s cousin, who also happens to be madly in lust with said cousin (wooo); Treon, a disabled man who is treated by his family as a moron but who is clearly not that, on top of being clairvoyant (ya know, the token good member of the family); and Arel, the matriarch of the family, a demented old woman who is basically a witch.

(Some femme fatales would put on an outward appearance of benevolence, but Varra is surprisingly upfront about being a bad bitch who only wants Stark for his muscles; he is apparently quite… breedable. I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to put that. In fairness to Varra, her choices are some other slave or to give Egil a pity fuck, which she’s not inclined to do. Needless to say Stark is not looking forward to being Varra’s sex slave. If I recall correctly the titular villainess of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” also treats Stark as a sperm bank with arms and legs, which makes me wonder if there’s some femme-dom fetish-pandering at work here.)

In better news, in being held captive by the Lhari, Stark does finally meet Helvi, the friend he came to Venus looking for in the first place. Helvi has survived as a slave so far, but his brother, who “had broken tabu and looked for refuge in Shuruun,” was not so lucky. “A man cannot live too long under the sea,” Helvi says. They have to get out of here, but ideally before that they ought to figure out what the Lhari are excavating the bottom of the sea for and put a stop to them while they’re at it. You may notice we’re knee-deep in the novella and there’s been shockingly little action up to this point; we’ll get to that, but this is a story heavy on both atmosphere and dialogue, and the Lhari are quite chatty for being so inbred that their family tree looks more akin to a stump. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

There Be Spoilers Here

Varra offers Stark to kill Egil and the other members of the family, barring Treon (whom Varra dumbly sees as no threat) and Arel (who’s pretty old and decrepit already), in exchange for Stark’s freedom and being able to raw-dog Varra every other night as co-ruler of Shuruun. This all sounds like a good deal, if not for the fact that Varra is clearly untrustworthy and is as likely to stick a knife in Stark’s back. Stark ultimately refuses, in a reasonable move which indicates he’s at least of average intelligence; some others of his ilk are more easily bamboozled. Unfortunately Stark has made multiple enemies at this point, with even Malthor rearing his head again so that Stark and him can have a rematch. Apparently Zareth, having been beaten (again) for not betraying Stark, has led Malthor to the bottom of the sea. No matter. Malthor goes down easily enough.

Egil, who had been eyeing Stark this whole time, nearly gets him with a crossbow, only for Zareth to do that ’90s action movie trope of jumping in front of the bolt to save Stark, sacrificing herself in the process. I was expecting some deus ex machina to kick in so that Zareth could be saved, but no, she dies the real death. In fairness, Egil’s death is worse, with Treon even looking on casually, “as though he had seen it all before and was not surprised.” Stark and Treon agree to have Zareth buried in her proper place, and the snowball of vengeance has now thoroughly been set in motion. The back end of “Enchantress of Venus” is a bit of bloodbath. A war between the slaves and slave-drivers breaks out with the slaves narrowly winning, “Nearly half the slaves were dead, and the rest wounded.” The Lhari are worse off. Treon kills Varra (a death so sudden that it’s actually easy to miss), but not before she mortally wounds him, while the rest die in battle. Treon, being the token good member of the family, is the only one to get a proper farewell from Stark; Our Hero™ seems just glad to be rid of Varra.

The Lhari have been wiped out, but more importantly the dark secret they’ve been trying to uncover (I won’t go into details, but I will say it reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) has been rendered such that nobody can make use of it anymore. It’s not hard to take an allegorical reading from all this, with the dark secret that ought not to be used by anyone standing in for (perhaps) the invention of the atomic bomb. There was a good deal of science fiction written about atomic power and the possibility of nuclear weapons in the year’s leading up to World War II, but following that war SF writers became deeply wary about the tangible reality of living in a world that could be torn asunder by said nuclear weapons—previously hypothetical but now known. “Enchantress of Venus,” like some of Brackett’s other later fiction, is filled with such wariness. Stark rescues Helvi and frees the slaves, but at a steep cost. Despite its action and generous doses of testosterone, this is not an adventure yarn that would make the reader feel like a jolly good badass vicariously.

A Step Farther Out

I was originally gonna tackle the first Eric John Stark story for this site, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” but I found that a) I was not yet accustomed enough to Brackett’s swashbuckling style to make total sense of it, and b) “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” was such a straightforward adventure narrative that I struggled to think of things to say about it. Not as much of an issue with “Enchantress of Venus,” in part because it’s so much slower than its predecessor, but it’s also a good deal bleaker. Given the episodic nature of the series it’s expected that Stark will end up pretty much where he started, but in this case it means a whole lot of death, including a few characters we’ve actually come to care about. When the action finally ramps up towards the end it comes almost as a relief, given the oppressive foggy atmosphere and wholly unlikable villains. Brackett’s science-fantasy outlook still reads as partly foreign to me (if you care about scientific plausibility then you will not survive), but look, I’m willing to forgive something if the tone is the right amount of melancholy.

See you next time.


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