I first read this story in high school in the SFBC edition of The Best of Leigh Brackett. It was my first introduction to Eric John Stark, arguably Brackett’s greatest creation. In my opinion it is arguably her best work at shorter lengths.
Stark is an Earthman, raised by a tribe of aboriginals in Mercury’s twilight belt. (The astronomy geek in me is compelled to point out this story was written before Mercury’s 3:2 rotational/orbital resonance was discovered. Mercury doesn’t have a twilight belt because it doesn’t keep the same face towards the Sun.)
Stark is black, although whether he’s of African descent or permanently burned by the Sun, Brackett never explicitly says anywhere (that I can recall). His tribal name is N’Chaka, which implies the former rather than the latter.
Stark is on Venus, having left Mars after some trouble there. The story opens with him on a ship sailing on the Red Sea. This is the “ocean” of red gas that we saw in “Lorelei of the Red Mist“. Stark is on his way to the town of Shuruun, a haven for cutthroats, pirates, thieves, and fugitives. He’s looking for a friend, a native of Venus who fled to Shuruun for breaking a taboo.
The captain of the boat he’s on is a slaver and tries to capture Stark, who falls over the side and gets away, but not without permanently scarring the captain. When he reaches Shuruun, Stark begins looking for his friend. His search takes him to a castle above the city where the the remnants of an ancient family known as the Lhari reside. They are feared in Shuruun.
Once inside the castle, Stark finds an obese matriarch, two healthy men, two women, a spoiled sadistic child, and a crippled man. One woman is passive, her spirit entirely broken by her husband. The other woman is Varra. Beautiful and spirited, she’s engaged to Egil, and she hates him. She sees in Stark a tool she can use against Egil.
Treon is the crippled man, and he’s something of a prophet. He’s also by far the most interesting of the Lhari. The scene in which Stark meets the Lhari has stuck with me for years, ever since I first read it as a teenager. Here’s Treon’s reaction to Stark.
Treon raised his head and spoke, and his voice was like music, echoing with an eerie liveliness in that dark place.
“Dull I may be, Grandmother, and weak in body, and without hope. Yet I shall be the last of the Lhari. Death sits waiting on the towers, and he shall gather you all before me. I know, for the winds have told me.”
He turned his suffering eyes on Stark and smiled, a smile of such woe and resignation that the Earthman’s heart ached with it. Yet there was a thankfulness in it too, as though some long waiting was over at last.
“You,” he said softly, “Stranger with the fierce eyes. I saw you come, out of the darkness, and where you set foot there was a bloody print. Your arms were red to the elbows, and your breast was splashed with the redness, and on your brow was the symbol of death. Then I knew, and the wind whispered into my ear, ‘It is so. This man shall pull the castle down, and its stones shall crush Shuruun and set the Lost Ones free’.”
He laughed, very quietly. “Look at him, all of you. For he will be your doom!”
I still find that to be powerful writing, dramatic and poetic, lean yet full of imagery. And you know before the end of the story, Stark is going to leave a bloody footprint somewhere.
For obvious reasons, Stark isn’t well received among the Lhari. Egil correctly sees him as a rival for Varra and shoots Stark with a weapon which paralyzes him. He’s put to work as a slave excavating the ruins of an ancient city in the Red Sea. Varra comes to him and tries to convince him to murder Egil and rule with her as her consort. Stark says he won’t murder, but he will kill in self-defense.
The Lhari are searching for something in the ruins. It turns out that the something is the technology that destroyed the city. The inhabitants had developed the ability to change their physical forms, although the results were ultimately uncontrollable. The Lhari are desperate to find it, because their line is dying out and they are the last. Treon and Stark find the chamber containing the devices to do this. Treon enters while Stark waits outside, and when Treon returns he’s a godlike figure.
From there he and Stark go on to free the slaves and destroy the Lhari.
Read the story if you want the details. You’ll be glad you did.
Stark is a compelling protagonist, and I’ll be rereading the rest of his adventures. At times there’s more than a bit of Conan about him. Brackett was an acknowledged fan of Robert E. Howard, and it shows in places. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Stark is civilized on the exterior, but we see enough of who he really is at his core to know that the civilized Earthman is merely a veneer. The true person is the savage hunting among the rocks of the Twilight Belt of Mercury. Yet, like Conan, he’s a barbarian with his own code of honor, one that won’t let him murder to please a woman’ whim.
The other thing I find interesting is that Stark is black. Brackett doesn’t make a big deal out of Stark’s ethnicity, the some writers today would. She simply points it out and gets on with the story. No need to beat the reader over the head with identity politics; that’s not why (most) people read fiction. The Narrative of the History of Science Fiction is that there were no women writers before a certain time (exactly what time depends on who is making the claim; see my response to that idea here) and that if there were any characters of color in the pulps, they were stereotypes who were used as comic relief. I think Eric John Stark puts the lie to the second idea. Brackett’s body of work certainly disproves the first.
I maintain that Leigh Brackett was one of the greatest writers to have come out of the pulps, fully the equal of Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Chandler, and Hammett. She was also distinct enough to stand out. Reading her work, it’s easy to see why so many fans think The Empire Strikes Back is the strongest of the original Star Wars movies. The woman could tell a tale about heroes who were heroic and still flawed, villains who were villainous without being entirely evil for evil’s sake, and rogues who were appealing. And while some of the science in her stories has become outdated, that’s easily overlooked.
I think I’ve said in some of these posts that Brackett has a shelf in my library dedicated to her works (along with those of her husband Edmond Hamilton). She’s one of four for which that is the case. (Okay, five if you consider Kuttner and Moore as separate writers rather than a team who also wrote solo.) She’s one of the few writers I come back to time and again.
“Enchantress of Venus” is available in electronic format in Stark and the Star Kings, available from Baen.