“My name is Stark. Eric John Stark, Earthman, out of Mercury.”
From 1949 to 1951, Leigh Brackett wrote three short stories set on Mars: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs”, “Enchantress of Venus” and “Black Amazon of Mars”. They each featured her Mercury-born hero, Eric John Stark, and were published in the pulp magazine Planet Stories. Pulp adventure or space fantasy, “Black Amazon of Mars” is an entertaining adventure story that both tips its hat to, and outshines, the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard.
At the beginning of the story, Stark is travelling across the cold “Norlands” of Mars with Camar, his Martian friend. They are being pursued and Camar has been mortally wounded. He has stolen something of great value, a “talisman”, which Stark promises to return to his friend’s city of birth, “Kushat”. Camar is pleased but fears for Stark’s safety if he continues on alone.
“The riders of Mekh are wolves,” said Camar suddenly. “They hunt these gorges. Look out for them.”
Stark first appears as a typical masculine warrior-hero common to a lot of pulp adventure tales of the 1940s and 1950s. He goes through a series of trials as the story moves forward, including getting captured and being tortured. What I found refreshing was that Brackett offers brief glimpses of vulnerability in her hero, making him feel less of an invincible Conan-the-Barbarian type, and more relatable to readers.
‘It was Stark who yelled in blind atavistic fear, and the echo of his own cry brought him up standing, shaking in every limb.’
Another positive is Brackett’s depiction of the female characters. I haven’t mentioned them before, as I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative. They are very well realized, and offer a lot more to the story than their counterparts in the Conan or John Carter stories. For me, the leading female character was more interesting than the hero, Eric John Stark.
‘She sat, in a great chair of carven wood. Stark noticed that her hand was unsteady, her face the colour of white ash. He was glad she did not have the axe where she could reach it. She did not play at anger.’
‘She did not play at anger.’ What a brilliant line!
This story surprised me. I was expecting a dated pulp adventure similar in quality and style to Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” tales. Instead, Brackett’s prose is crisp and fluent. The writing feels fresh and the story is exciting. The author refrains from over-explaining the world she has created. She drops us into the middle of it and shows more than tells the adventure.
If you are looking for a fine example of an entertaining pulp adventure, I recommend giving one of Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories a try. “Black Amazon of Mars” was great fun to read and has left me hungry for more. I’ve also heard great things about her 1955 sci-fi novel The Long Tomorrow, and hope to read that in the near future.