The Halfling and Other Stories gathers together eight tales, of varying lengths, that Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” wrote between the years 1943 and ’57. The collection initially appeared as an Ace paperback in ’73, but it was the second edition, released in ’83, that this reader was fortunate enough to lay his hands on. This is a generous collection of over 300 pages of Brackett’s work, and for the most part, the stories reveal Brackett at the very peak of her form.
The anthology, however, does not begin with its strongest selections. “The Halfling” itself, a novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words) that first appeared in the February ’43 issue of Astonishing Stories, is a minor but colorful tale that conflates both the worlds of sci-fi and film noir. Here, Jade Greene, the owner of an interplanetary circus/carnival, hires the exotic Laura Darrow to be his new cooch dancer. Her advent is followed by a string of vicious murders at the circus, but is Laura to blame? Or, as seems to be the case, is it the catlike performer Laska, from Callisto, who always goes berserk when given a little coffee? (Caffeine enthusiasts should just love this java-addicted character!) “The Halfling” is distinguished by its noir-like femme fatale Laura, some equally noir-like dialogue (“She had a disposition like three yards of barbed wire…”), and its remarkable final sequence, in which all of the circus’ bizarre, interplanetary animals run amok. Good fun, to be sure, but as I say, minor stuff.
The novelette “The Dancing Girl of Ganymede” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 2/50) is up next, another fun but lesser affair. Here, Tony Harrah (a great moniker, right?), a space wanderer who is roaming the streets of the titular Jovian moon, befriends a woman who seems to be a pariah to the rest of the townsfolk of Komar. In an opening scene strongly reminiscent of C.L. Moore’s classic 1933 story “Shambleau,” Harrah defends the woman against the disgust and disdain of the others. But the woman, Marith, is not a life-sucking vampire, a la Shambleau, but rather … well, perhaps I’d better not say. Harrah falls in love with the woman and falls in with a plot that she and her three “brothers” are cooking up, in this lively and colorful outing, capped off by a surprisingly downbeat ending.
The collection shifts into very high gear with its next offering, “The Citadel of Lost Ages” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 12/50), in which Fenway, a man of the futuristic year 1987, wakes up with no memories on an Earth 1,200 years later than that; an Earth that has stopped spinning, and whose one side is in perpetual darkness. Fenway manages to escape from the temple where he is being held prisoner and engages in a quest to cross the continent, enter the Great Dark zone, and win his way to the ice-entombed New York City, where, a shred of memory has suggested, salvation may be found in the long-hidden “Citadel.” Fenway’s attempts to locate the Citadel, regain his memory, and deliver the frozen Earth from the hands of the feline Numi who currently lord over it, make up the bulk of this outstanding novella (a story of 17,500 – 40,000 words). The scene in which Fenn (as he is called by his newfound allies) sees the nighttime stars for the first time is highly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s classic 1941 story “Nightfall;” a memorable moment of cosmic wonder and revelation. In all, a marvelous piece of work from Brackett.
Up next is a novelette that might be deemed a minor masterpiece. “All the Colors of the Rainbow” (Venture Science Fiction, 11/57) gives us the story of Flin and Ruvi, a newlywed alien couple from the planet Mintaka. A specialist in weather control, Flin has been sent to Earth by Galactic Center to teach our newly contacted world the rudiments of his science. But during a pleasure drive through rural U.S.A., the couple encounters hostility, threats and violence from the locals, who refer to them as “green niggers.” Ultimately, Brackett’s story is a fairly scathing indictment of racial prejudice, segregation and intolerance, and demonstrates how such bigotry can have disastrous consequences for both sides. It is a beautifully written story, and Flin and Ruvi make for a warm and winning couple. The reader’s sympathies are squarely with them, even when Flin takes a violent vengeance on his tormentors. As I said, some truly great work here from Ms. Brackett.
In the short story “The Shadows” (Startling Stories, 2/52), a galactic survey ship from Earth lands on a dead, unnamed world, and a small team of men explores the immediate area. They soon encounter the shadowy beings of the story’s title, which hover and swoop around them menacingly, and then enter the crewmen’s corporeal bodies! In this taut and exciting tale, Brackett once again shows the reader the unfortunate consequences of jumping to hasty conclusions about alien life forms. This story, unlike “All the Colors of the Rainbow,” ends on a lovely note, however; one that all pet owners might truly appreciate.
The Halfling collection next offers up the superb novella “Enchantress of Venus” (Planet Stories, Fall ’49), the second story that Leigh wrote featuring her most famous character, Eric John Stark. I have already written at some length regarding this classic story under a separate heading on this site, so will just say now again that it is an unquestionably great piece of Golden Age sci-fi, and a bravura piece of work.
In the curiously titled novelette “The Lake of the Gone Forever” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 10/49), we encounter a spaceman named Rand Conway, whose father had visited the asteroid Iskar many decades before and later committed suicide, with the words “I can never go back to Iskar, to the Lake of the Gone Forever” on his lips. Rand is obsessed to find out what his Dad had discovered on that frozen world, and ultimately organizes a party to go there. He encounters a walled-in city whose inhabitants lead a barbaric existence, and does indeed learn the secret of his father’s final words. This is still another highly colorful, imaginative, exciting tale from this gifted author; a story that wraps up with a satisfying yet somewhat sad denouement.
To round out the collection, we have “The Truants” (Startling Stories, 7/50), a novelette whose title, as it turns out, has quite a double meaning. The story transpires in the northeast corner of Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border; not too far from where Brackett and her husband, pulpmaster Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton, lived in Kinsman. Here, family man/dairy farmer Hugh Sherwin is disturbed when his little girl, Janie, reports seeing a strange craft land in the woods behind their house. In the days to come, Janie and her pals befriend the fiery, angelic-looking beings from said craft and begin playing hooky from school, to their parents’ great consternation. But when Janie is gifted with an unusual crystal toy that allows her to see other planets, and when the local schoolhouse mysteriously disappears (!), the parents decide to take arms in hand to combat the otherworldly menace. Once again, Brackett demonstrates the inadvisability of leaping to conclusions when facing the alien unknown, while the story — which certainly does manage to elicit that elusive “sense of wonder” — concludes on a sweet, surprising note; one that might be especially appealing to all fans of the Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos.”
Thus, whether short, medium-length or longish, the eight stories in The Halfling collection all manage to satisfy and entertain. Read in conjunction with three other Brackett collections — The Best of Leigh Brackett, The Coming of the Terrans and The Best of Planet Stories, #1 — an unavoidable conviction of the author’s mastery of the shorter form will surely be formed. And now, I find that I need to get my hands on Haffner Press’ recent 504-page, hardcover anthology entitled Martian Quest: The Early Brackett,” which collects 20 of the author’s earliest tales, from 1940 – ’43. Sadly enough, this $40 whopper seems to be out of print at the moment. But at least you all know now what to buy me for my next birthday, right?