I was asked in the comments of a previous post what I thought of this story. I had only read it once when I first read The Best of Leigh Brackett, back in the fall of [redacted]. I liked all the stories, but this one didn’t have much of an impact on the 14 year-old me who read it, unlike some of the other selections in the book.
So I reread the story the other day. Here are my thoughts, spoilers included:
This story is outside the Solar System most of her better known tales are set. At least there’s no indication that it’s part of the same universe. The narrator is one Rafe McQuarrie, the oldest child of the McQuarrie family, the preeminent family in space travel.
Rafe was hurt in a plane crash on the eve of his first interstellar voyage. Permanently grounded, he handles the financial side of the family business while his younger brother David is the lead space explorer. Their parents are dead, so the brothers handle the business.
The story opens when he, his kid sister Bet, and David’s fiance, The Miss Lewisham, are on their way to greet David as he returns to Earth from an interstellar voyage that included a stop at Altair. While waiting, they encounter Marthe Walters, a reporter who knows Bet from school.
When David disembarks, he’s accompanied by a petite woman who clearly is not of Earth. She has thick amethyst hair. Brackett describes her as fey-looking and quite attractive. David introduces her as his wife. (The Miss Lewisham runs off in embarassment at this point, never to be seen again.) This of course creates quite a hubbub.
The woman’s name is Ahrian. Once things calm down and she gets settled in, she requests a workshop from David in which she makes beautiful and exquisite pieces of jewelry for David, Rafe, and Bet. Marthe Walker accompanied the family back to the house after David’s landing, swept up in the momentum, and soon she and Rafe are dating and eventually engaged.
Then strange things begin to happen. Bet is chased up into a tree by Rafe’s dog. Even though the dog has never been aggressive before, he’s forced to kill it. He hates to do so. Then during a huge party, Bet walks out to the barn in her formal dress and is attacked by an aging horse that she had grown up with. The attack is fatal, and the party’s over.
Around this time Rafe starts to have odd dreams, of a city on a world he’s never visited. He also becomes depressed to the point of suicide. He’s stopped by Marthe, whom he has been avoiding for weeks. She convinces him to take off the ring Ahrian gave him. At once his mood improves.
They track down a shipmate of David’s, one who is usually around but has kept to himself since the ship got back. He reluctantly tells them that the people on Ahrian’s world need a particular drug. This would be a pharmaceutical, not a recreational drug. The Earthmen can easily manufacture it. Daivd gave it to them, but at a price. He wanted Ahrian. The fact that she was already promised to a man of her own race made no difference to him.
Marthe and Rafe return to the McQuarry estate. It’s not long before Ahrian tries to kill Marthe. In the final confrontation, she confesses to having tried to kill all of the McQuarries as revenge for David essentially buying her from her people. (There’s more to the confrontation than I’m telling. I don’t want to spoil the whole story.)
It’s not hard to see why this story didn’t resonate with the teenage me. I was expecting action and space adventure after reading the stories that preceeded this one in The Best of Leigh Brackett. “The Woman From Altair” is a gothic. All of the action takes place on Earth and involves family interactions. Not the sort of thing a 14 year old gets exxcited about.
And this story is definitely a gothic, albeit one with a science fictional facelift. The basic plot is that the elder son returns from a voyage to far shores with a new bride he acquired under less than honorable circumstances. The new bride has witch-like powers that no one knows about, and she uses those powers to destroy, or at least attempt to destroy, the family. Tragedy ensues.
The ending of “The Woman From Altair” is definitely a tragedy. Once you understand her motivation, it’s hard not to sympathize with Ahrian, even though she’s killing people who are not only innocent of any crime, they aren’t even aware a crime has been committed. Brackett presents her as a sympathetic figure, but never does Brackett condone how she killed Bet and tries to kill Rafe and Marthe. Nor does Brackett condone the way Ahrian manipulates things so that the dog and horse are killed.
David is never presented sympathetically until the end of the story, when he has to face the tragedy and deaths he’s caused, and even then, the sympathy Brackett shows him isn’t very strong. What is strongly shown is what a jerk David is. He’s full of himself, and he doesn’t listen to anyone who tries to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. Still, we aren’t really given a strong motivation for why he essentially blackmails Ahrian’s people into giving her to him.
The story is somewhat dated, in that terms like “school chum” are used. I noticed things like that, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.
One thing I did notice that wasn’t common in the pulps in those days, or so we’re told by The Narrative, is that the hero of the story isn’t a man. Marthe is the person who figures out what’s going on and takes decisive action to deal with it, at least initially. And while she does have to be eventually rescued by Rafe, if it weren’t for her courage and clear thinking, the entire McQuarry family would have died. All in all, “The Woman From Altair” isn’t the type of story you would expect to find in a pulp magazine published in 1951.
“The Woman From Altair” is also not the type of action-adventure story Leigh Brackett built her ruptation on. From what I recall, she wrote several stories that broke that mold in the 1950s. I’ll try to take a look at some of them here. This isn’t Brackett’s best-known work. As I said, the plot is pretty standard for a gothic. But in the hands of a craftsman like Leigh Brackett, even a boilerplate plot can be worth reading.
So, what do the rest of you think?