One of my favorite Leigh Brackett stories, Queen of the Martian Catacombs is also for me the quintessential Eric John Stark adventure. First published in 1949, it was later rewritten and lengthened as The Secret of Sinharat, with a slightly different ending.
Whether you read one or the other, it’s still Leigh Brackett in her top form, delivering a fast-paced narrative in her gritty film noir style with the haunting and highly evocative images of Ancient Mars as the backdrop. It begins with Eric John Stark, a mercenary of feral origins, making a desperate break for freedom into the Martian desert and failing – only to be granted reprieve if he takes on a dangerous mission. The mission takes him into the ranks of a fanatical crusade, pits him against lethal rivals and the perils of Martian super-science, and culminates in a confrontation with the terrible secret of Sinharat, the City of the Ever-Living.
Elements from this story inspire me every time I read it. Among the gold nuggets you’ll find, as writer or gamer, are:
Eric John Stark
The hero of the story is a powerful and intriguing figure – great material for Hollywood, if only Hollywood executives would learn to stop tampering with good original material and give us the real thing. Stark comes off as a blend of Tarzan and Conan the Cimmerian, with a touch of the tired old gunslinger as exemplified by Clint Eastwood’s signature Western roles.
We encounter him first as a desperado on the run, and immediately Brackett begins dropping tidbits about what makes Stark unique: His feral nature, from being raised by non-human hunting aborigines on Mercury. He even carries a sort of double identity, with his most primal self defined by his Mercurian name, N’chaka – the Man Without a Tribe.
Brackett also gives Stark a surprising weakness. Stark, like a quintessential Howardian hero, normally fights just to live, but his deep sympathy for the native peoples of the outer planets drives him to accept the perilous mission. One detail about Stark you never see in the covers though: Brackett consistently describes him as black-skinned, darkened by his years on Mercury.
In Brackett’s future milieu, Earth has apparently united into a single government, and like the British Empire has established a paternalistic hold over the rest of the Solar System. In Queen of the Martian Catacombs, Colonial Earth is represented by the benevolent Simon Ashton, Stark’s foster-father. Some of Brackett’s later stories present Colonial Earth in a different light, still well-intentioned but blinkered by an arrogant missionary attitude.
Nevertheless, we get hints of Colonial Earth’s darker side in Stark’s back story. As in historical Asia and Africa, the colonial regime has coddled the unrestricted greed of big corporations. Stark was orphaned when miners gunned down his aboriginal foster-parents in cold blood. When the story begins, he’s on the lam for smuggling guns to Venusian natives oppressed by Terro-Venusian Metals. James Cameron would end up re-using the theme in Avatar.
One of Brackett’s most memorable creations of Martian super-science is Shanga, a ray that causes evolution to reverse, with pleasurable side effects. That side effect has turned it into a vice, with Martians (and in another story, renegade Terrans) bathing in the ray to temporarily experience a more primal existence in Shanga dens. Stark is pitted against a barbarian high on Shanga midway through the story, with his opponent made stronger and more aggressive by the ray’s effect.
The Coral City of Sinharat
I find Brackett’s visualization of Sinharat to be one of the most alien and evocative aspects of her Mars. Sinharat is a city carved into a mountain of coral, and its natural structure of pores and tunnels howls and moans in the Martian winds. There’s a fitting Gothic ghoulishness to this vista, as Sinharat was home to the sinister Ramas – a Martian race that practiced serial immortality by stealing younger bodies from other peoples.
The Crowns of the Ramas
The Big Maguffin of the story, the Crowns of the Ramas are the last surviving devices that makes the Rama mind-transfer possible. They are always used in pairs, one to ‘send’ the mind of an ageing or dying Rama, the other to receive it and plant it in a new host body. The host’s mind is obliterated as a result, making the act of mind transference also a kind of psychic murder.
The device is first displayed by the barbarian warlord/ messiah Kynon, Stark’s nominal employer, as bait for the barbarian tribes to join his crusade. Of course, with the Crown of the Ramas on display, real Ramas are not far away. Their sinister schemes bring the story to a head, and in the novel version (The Secret of Sinharat), force Stark to make a tough choice.
The temptation offered by the Crowns echoes the temptation of a vampire’s kiss or Tolkien’s the One Ring – immortality, at the price of working evil.
Brackett would revisit Sinharat and the immortal Ramas in 1963 with The Road to Sinharat (link to etext).