What if Tarzan moved to Barsoom and Raymond Chandler wrote the story? You’d end up with Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (a title that gives a nod to noted fictioneer Otis Adelbert Kline). That’s not to say that Brackett’s work is derivative, rather she absorbed the tropes and styles of pulp icons and turned them into her own unique manner of story-telling.
Stark, aka N’Chaka the Man-Without-a-Tribe, is the eponymous hero of this brace of Martian novellas. He is of Earth descent, but born on the remote frontier of Mercury. His parents died in an accident and Stark adopted by the sub-human aborigines of Mercury. N’Chaka grew up more animal than man. Now he is a hard-bitten soldier of fortune, living by his sword in the dreary Martian canal towns.
That may sound a bit corny, and perhaps it is. But so what? Brackett mined some classic archetypes of modern myth: the Jungle-Boy, the Gunfighter, Dying Mars and put them trough their paces. Her vision of Mars is fantastic, but with a hard-boiled attitude. Brackett began her career writing detective stories (including the screen-play for Chandler’s The Big Sleep). That unsentimental school stood her in good stead.
The first novella, “The Secret of Sinharat”, sees Stark on the run from Earthman law. With twenty years in the tough Lunar prison system hanging over his head, Stark must infiltrate the leadership of a Martian rebellion and prevent a bloodbath. Inter-planetary renegades and gangsters from the Low Canal Martian city-states have joined forces with the barbarian hordes of the Martian Drylands. What seems like a war for power and resources has a dark riddle and an ancient curse at its heart. Stark must resolve that riddle or Mars’ canals will run with blood.
“People of the Talisman” also uses the theme of barbarian hordes and outlaw city-states. Stark helps a dying thief return the sacred artifact he stole long ago from his home city of Kushat. The only hitch is that a barbarian horde is about to overrun Kushat. The only people that will help Stark are the underworld rabble of the Thieves’ Quarter. Returning the artifact is only the beginning of Stark’s arduous quest on behalf of Kushat.
Readers who find themselves wanting more N’Chaka will also want to read Stark and the Star Kings. This omnibus collects two space opera yarns by Edmond Hamilton as well as other Stark stories. The titular Star Kings rule the galaxy thousands of years hence. When earthman John Gordon gets a chance to leave behind his tedious twentieth century life for living as a prince in the far future he gets quite a bit more than he bargained for. The sequel to The Star Kings, Return to the Stars, features further adventures by John Gordon in the stars. The stories are good, but Gordon, like many other Hamilton heroes, is basically a good-hearted, regular guy with a zest for adventure. That style of pulp-hero contrasts strongly with the trend that Stark fits into. Stark, like Conan, Elric, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe, is a consummate outsider, iron-willed, and a killer.
The volume includes the original versions of “The Secret of Sinharat” and “People of the Talisman, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “The Black Amazon of Mars”, the latter is so greatly re-written as to be a different story. There is an adventure set on Venus, the steamy fog-bound alternative to the Martian drylands. “The Enchantress of Venus” is a blend of gothic horror and sword & planet swashbuckling. “Stark and the Star Kings” is a Brackett-Hamilton collaboration that pits N’Chaka against the most clever rogue in all the worlds of the Star Kings. By bringing Stark into Hamilton’s space opera playground, Hamilton and Brackett united the two greatest trends in adventure-oriented science fiction. The result is highly entertaining.
If A Princess of Mars is the naïve infancy of Sword & Planet adventure, Outlaw of Mars is its full maturity. Brackett’s eclectic pulp background mingles styles with a wild abandon. It’s like encountering Caspar Gutman in the Maul of Spider-Haunted Shadizar or riding with Billy the Kid to meet Tars Tarkas. Brackett’s fast-paced action and unique style is one to savor.