Both authors were living in the Los Angeles area in the 1940s, and both had been working hard to develop their craft as writers. Both were regulars in Planet Stories at the time. They were friends who had both been mentored by Henry Kuttner. They used to meet once a week to read and critique each other’s work.
Brackett had sold some detective short stories as well as one novel, No Good From a Corpse. The novel caught the attention of movie producer Howard Hawks, who decided he wanted Brackett to work on the screenplay for his next project. She was approximately halfway through a novellette she was writing for Planet Stories that was set on Venus (More about Brackett’s Venus in a bit.) when she got a call from Hawks, or more probably his secretary. Which is how Brackett launched her screenwriting career by coauthoring with William Faulkner the script for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. How freakin’ cool is that?
She couldn’t finish the novellette and work on the screenplay, and since the movies paid much better than the pulps, she asked her friend Ray to take over for her. In her introduction to The Best of Planet Stories #1, Brackett says that she was writing without an outline and “had no idea where the story was going.” Bradbury took up writing where she left off and finished the story.
It’s a top-notch adventure story that starts out sounding like a hard-boiled crime story. Hugh Starke is a small time criminal who has just made a big time score, a payroll job worth a million credits. In order to escape pursuit, he flies over a mountain range where magnetic effects cause his craft to crash in a region where the air is filled with red mists that rise from a red sea.
Starke regains consciousness in a bed in a palace. A beautiful alien woman tells him he’s dying but that she is going to transfer his mind to another body and not to worry because she will mentally accompany him.
Then he wakes up in a large muscular body chained by the neck to a wall in a grand hall. There’s a larger, more muscular man and a minstrel. The man, Faolan, is the leader of the city. His sister Beudag is out fighting in his place. They’re being attacked by the armies of Rann, who is the woman Starke met, the one who transferred him to the new body.
It turns out the body once belonged to Conan, a champion of the city of Crom Dhu, which is where he finds himself. Conan was once betrothed to Beudag but then he betrayed her and Crom Dhu for Rann. Now Rann’s forces are progressively destroying the army of Crom Dhu. Conan was captured and tortured until his mind broke, which allowed Rann to put Starke’s mine in Conan’s body.
You can probably guess that Rann put Starke there to cause trouble. He causes trouble, all right, but not exactly in the way Rann is expecting.
There’s a lot more, but I’ll leave the synopsis at that. If this were a reread like Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward are currently doing with Conan, I would talk about all the twists because I would assume most people reading the post had read the story.
This was a solid piece of pulp writing. And it gets very pulpy. Nearly every scene she’s in, Beudag is described as either being topless or naked (and looking good that way). And Brackett (and Bradbury as well) describes Rann’s breasts as being green tipped.
The action is well paced. Starke undergoes some major character development, which isn’t surprising since not only can he access Conan’s memories at times, he also has Rann in his head on a frequent basis.
Ray Bradbury isn’t usually thought of as a writer of action adventure, but he turns in some top notch work in that vein in this story. In fact, Bradbury’s contribution has most of the violence. And there’s a passage that gets pretty grim after a third political entity gets involved with the conflict.
Brackett’s Venus is a wild, unexplored place inhabited by multiple races, some of them human, some not. It’s full of surprises, and it’s nothing like her better known stories of Mars. The lake of red mist here was something Brackett would use again a few years later in the Eric John Stark novella, “Enchantress of Venus”. And, no, Hugh Starke in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is not an early version of Eric John Stark.
Finally, yes, the choice of “Conan” as a character name was a deliberate homage to everyone’s favorite writer from Cross Plains. She discusses that in her introduction in TBoPS#1. It was intended to be a tribute to Howard, but she finally concluded that she shouldn’t have used it.
If you haven’t read “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, you should. It’s a great science fantasy adventure. It’s available in electronic format from Baen.