[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Queen of the Martian Catacombs by Leigh Brackett appeared in the Summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories. It can be found here on Internet Archive.
Queen of the Martian Catacombs introduced the world to Eric John Stark, one of the last great pulp heroes, in a messy and chaotic romp across the wilds of a Mars on the brink of total war.
Stark, a mercenary and an outlaw facing a 20 year stint for running guns to native Venusians, is confronted by his old mentor Simon Ashton and told that the only way he’ll remain a free man is if he’ll act as an Earth Police agent to investigate a pair of Martian warlords, Delgaun and Kynon, plotting to unite the barbarian tribes to launch a global war against the canal-dwellers’ city states.
Stark joins up with the warlords as a sell-sword, along with a number of other off-worlders, including an old enemy who’d betrayed him back on the Venus job. Delgaun tells the pair to keep their rivalry in check, at least until the war’s over, but you just know that these guys are gonna kill each other before things are over! Kynon arrives in a triumph, boasting that he’s found the ancient secrets of life transference from the lost Rama tribes; he puts on show, supposedly transferring the consciousness of an old man into a slave boy, for the crowd who meets him with messianic adulations. Stark sees through Kynon’s act and calls him on it – indeed, the transference was just an act, but it will be enough to stir the desert tribes and rally them behind Kynon and Delgaun’s banner. What no one knows, however, is that Delgaun, Berild (Kynon’s consort), and Fianna (Berild’s handmaiden) actually are quasi-immortal members of the lost Rama tribe, and Delgaun and Berild are using Kynon, the desert tribes, the off-world mercenaries, and the Rama mystique to establish a global empire and restore their lost power.
What Brackett gives us, in a sense, is a vampire romance without vampires. The lovely Berild is an Erzebet Bathory from the distant past eons of Mars, who has used the powers of her people, stealing the lives and bodies of Martian women, to stay young and beautiful forever. Though Delgaun is a Rama as well, he is ultimately a pawn in Berild’s scheming to restore her earthly powers, and she has grown bored with him over the centuries. Fianna, while immortal by the same means as Berild and Delgaun, is but slave and secret-keeper for Berild, bound in part by her guilt over the crimes of her race and those which have kept her immortal.
Whereas the villainess of Enchantress of Venus would drip and exude her evil in every word and action, Brackett created a much more subtle foe in Berild. We don’t really see her motivations right away, and as a beautiful, strong and capable woman, she seems like a perfect romantic lead for Stark as they struggle together to survive in the desert when a pair of mercenaries betray them during a dust storm. Even when we learn that she is, in fact, one of the ancient Martians, we don’t know her true plans or the extent of the evil that has kept her alive through the ages. It is only when she is ready to fully confide in Stark that both Stark and the readers see the depth of villainy to which she is willing to sink to achieve her goals.
Berild wants to swap Kynon and Stark’s bodies; she and Stark can do away with Delgaun, and once they’ve conquered Mars, Stark can have his sexy black body back for her to enjoy.
He bent his dark face to hers, so that their lips touched, and murmured, ‘Would I have you forever, Berild?’
‘Until you tire of me – or I of you.’ She kissed him, and then added mockingly, ‘Delgaun has had me for a thousand years, and I am weary of him. So very weary!’
‘A thousand years is a long time,’ said Stark, ‘and I am not Delgaun.’
‘No. You’re a beast, a savage, a most magnificent cold-eyed animal, and that is why I love you.’ She touched the muscle of his breast, and then his throat, and added, ‘It’s a pity there will never be another body like this one. We must keep it as long as we can.’
‘What is your plan?’ Stark asked her.
‘Simply this. I will place your mind in Kynon’s body. You will be Kynon, with all his power. You will be able then to keep Delgaun in check – later, you can destroy him, but not until after the battle is won, for we need the men of Valkis and Jekkara. You can keep your own body safe from him, and at the worst, if by some chance he should succeed in slaying the man he believes to be you, you will still be alive.’
‘And after the battle,’ said Stark softly. ‘What then, Berild?’
‘We will rule together.’ She held his palms against hers. ‘You have strong hands, wild man. Would you not like to hold a world between them – and me?’
She looked up at him, her eyes suddenly shrewd and probing. Or do you still believe the nonsense you talked to Kynon, about the tribes?’
Stark smiled. ‘It’s easy to have principles when there’s no gain involved. No. I am as my name says – a man without a tribe. I have no loyalties. And if I had, would I remember them now?’
Brackett plays with one of RE Howard’s favorite themes of Civilization vs. Barbarism here while injecting some awesome body horror. Berild’s current bod may be smokin’ hot, but Stark knows what the score is. Unfortunately, he has no choice but to play along until he can make his move. The Ramas’ decadence has all culminated into three individuals, two of whom are willing to throw countless lives away in total war in what is little more than a game to win creature comforts and political baubles to entertain themselves while distracting from immortality’s ennui. Stark, who grew up in the dangerous and savage lands of Mercury, knows that life and beauty are things on a razor’s edge, things to be appreciated and fought for. One has to wonder which would grow bored of the other first, the ageless vampiress or the caged wild-man?
In both Queen of the Martian Catacombs and Enchantress of Venus, Brackett tells the story of power-hungry women who have dehumanized the men around them to use them as a means to an end, and in both stories, they are presented with foils (Zareth in Enchantress and Fianna in Queen) who are given opportunities to gain personally from betraying Stark but instead choose to act with humanity and self-sacrifice. Zareth’s sacrifice was more explicit and literal than Fianna’s, but Fianna’s may have been the more complex of the two. Whereas Zareth was willing to give her life to save Stark because he was the only person to treat her as human, Fianna, while playing the coy and doe-eyed girl, understood the weight of her people’s crimes and did what she felt needed to be done to stop Berild who would have bathed Mars in blood. In the end, she knows she can’t have some happily ever after with Stark – she has blood on her hands, too – every woman who has died to keep her immortal to that point. But, by breaking the cycle and destroying the tools of transference, Fianna has taken a step towards atonement.
I’ll be interested to see if Brackett continues this theme in the third installment of her Stark trilogy, Black Amazon of Mars. The Brackett stories I’ve read have all had some tough, sometimes seriously wicked, dames, but these early Stark stories, more than the rest, feel like character studies of their titular leads. We get to look at them in context of how their men and families see them (something we don’t get to see much of with Ywain in Sword of Rhiannon), their interactions with Stark, who is an outsider on several levels (barbarian, mercenary, non-native, non-white), and shown in contrast with another female character. What you end up with are fascinating looks at some fantastic women villains who evoke both our disgust and our sympathies for their very human and very complex motivations.