This is kind of this week’s piece of weird fiction – several months ago. But I finally located the relevant volume in the numerous boxes of books from my “recent” move.
Review: “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett, 1946, 1958.
The Science Fiction Encyclopedia says this story was first published in 1946 in Planet Stories and revised in 1953 and that seems the version I read. Supposedly, Bradbury finished this short novel for Brackett, and it dates from their first decade as published writers.
I suspect Brackett is the one, given her history of writing in multiple genres, for making this a mix of crime story, western, and historical tale. Given their later stories (in Brackett’s case I’m mostly basing this on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for her) on a romantic Mars, it’s hard to say where all the startling, romantic (and, at times, erotic) decadent details of this version of Venus come from.
The story starts out as a combination of crime story and western as hero Hugh Starke, a robber, is fleeing the agents of the Terra-Venus Mines, Incorporated after a heist. The western element comes as he draws near to the mysterious Mountains of White Cloud on Venus. His ship crashes there with a million credits of gold.
He wakes up and knows he is dying. He sees a woman on a fur covered chair watching him. Her skin is very white, her dusted nipples are “pale-green”, and her hair and eyes are “sea-green”. She tells him he is dying, but that he won’t die. He will reawaken in a new body and to not be afraid and let her mind guide him.
He falls unconscious and then, when awakening, sees an image of the woman in his mind. Again, she tells him he will not die but will awaken in a strange body and not to be afraid. He is laying on a bed of dirty straw. And he does have a new body, tall, muscular one quite unlike his original one which was stunted by malnutrition when young. He is glad to see it is at least a human body. Thus Bradbury and Brackett begin an interesting treatment of the bodyswitching theme. Though he curses the woman he saw, he has to admit he got the best of the trade.
The room has lots of weapons on the wall and a fire in a fireplace. There are two men in the room with him. This is a disorienting scene for the reader as well as Starke as we learn more about them. One is a giant of a man, a superb physical specimen, very tall, and wearing only a leather kilt. He is scarred across the eyes and obviously blind. Starke knows that he was once a man who enjoyed life, women, and song and now feels the cruelty of pain and uselessness. The other is a “swamp-edger”, an albino with a harp.
Outside the room are the sounds of battle. Then Starke realizes that he has a collar around his neck (he’s been chained before and served time in prison) and is chained to the floor. He has worn the collar long enough for it to gall his skin. A messenger from someone named Beudag says that they are still holding the Gate though the enemy has driven them back.
The large man, named Faolan, wants to go out and fight even if blind and asks the other, named Romna, to give him his sword. Romna tells Faolan he would only be in the way. Faolan bitterly says he’d fall on his sword point if he could see it.
Faolan walks towards Starke calling him Conan and says Conan is awfully quiet considering that he should be happy, he’s getting what he wanted. Or is it because Conan no longer has a mind left to speak? Faolan calls Conan “the dog, the betrayer, the butcher, the knife in the back”. He may no longer remember what he did, but Faolan does.
Romna begins playing a song of “savage tears for strong men dead of treachery”, and Faolan attacks Conan. Starke knows how to fight, but, showing an innate decency, he pulls a “killing blow” against Faolan who then attacks him with a knife. Starke’s new body is “magnificent”, but his “psycho-neural setup” is fighting a “civil war”. Normally a “trained, calculating, unemotional brain”, he finds himself filled with a lethal rage against Faolan. His normal personality, which keeps him from unnecessary killing, has been subsumed. Then he remembers the woman he saw when he woke up and her statement that she will “guide” his mind.
Aloud, Starke says “Hold it”, speaking to the woman. He resents being controlled. Her voice tells him he doesn’t have any choice. Besides the men will be dead soon one way or another. But he’ll have Conan’s body to lose if he doesn’t fight. “It’s a good body. I knew it, before Conan’s mind broke and left it empty.”
Faolan asks who spoke. Starke says he did, gives his name as Starke and not Conan, says he will kill them if they attack him.
Then Beudag makes an entrance. It turns out she is a tall, blue-eyed, red-haired, bare breasted, and beautiful warrior woman. She says the enemy was stopped at the Gate and can’t get into Crom Dhu. Romna tells her that Conan has regained his mind. The warriors behind Beudag are angered by seeing Conan, and Faolan says Conan is his to punish.
Beudag is incredulous. Conan was a drooling idiot before and now alright? Starke (whose heart has skipped at seeing the magnificent Beudag) says she can see in his eyes he’s normal. He’s from Earth. He was “shoved” into this body. Whatever Conan did before, he’s not responsible and isn’t going to take the blame.
Romna points out Starke could have killed Faolan but didn’t. Would Conan do that? Faolan says
Yes, if he had a better plan. Conan’s mind was a like a snake. It crawled in the dark, and you never knew where it was going to strike.
Starke tells his story. When he mentions the green-haired woman, her identity is immediately obvious to Romna. She’s Rann, and her people could do what Starke claims. Suddenly, Romna picks up Faolan’s sword and throws it at Starke who lets it fall to the floor. Starke mocks them by pointing out they have chained him up and now try to kill him at a distance. The blind Faolan asks Romna what happened. Romna tells him and says that Conan would have caught the sword and not let it fall. He could catch a sword by its hilt and wouldn’t drop a sword. He was their best fighter next to Faolan. Faolan thinks it’s a trick by Rann.
Starke angrily says he’s not a tool of Rann. She wants both Faolan and Romna dead for some reason, and he’s not cooperating. He’s not a killer except in self-defense. He doesn’t want a part of their fight with Rann. Beadag notes Starke’s accent is different from Conan’s. There’s only way to tell, says Romna.
Beudag walks to Starke and kisses him, an experience Starke finds rousing. Afterwards, she says Starke isn’t Conan.
Starke is given some clothes but still kept chained. Romna says he can sense Rann trying to control Conan.
Starke asks what this fight is all about, and we get the back story. Long ago, in the Red Sea, was a race of amphibians. Some decided to live entirely on the land. A dispute broke out, and some of the race did live on the land permanently. They lost their scales and fins, but they had great mental powers and liked ruling. They subjugated the local humans. (This point is glossed over – how long ago was this? Did humans evolve in parallel on Venus?) The land faction hated the part of their race that stayed in the sea and vice versa. Then a third faction showed up, the rovers with their longships, and they built Crom Dhu and started to take tribute from the coastal cities. (The rovers, with names and culture inspired by Irish and Viking culture, put the feel of an historical tale in the mix.) The enslaved humans did not want to repel the rovers. They wanted to join them. The ruler of the sea-folk on land is Rann. The rulers of Crom Dhu are Faolan and his sister Beudag.
Conan was captured by Rann in a battle. After being in captivity for a long time, Conan showed up back at Crom Dhu claiming he had escaped and knew a secret way to enter Rann’s harbor at Faluga. Conan and Beudag were married. But the attack on Falga is treacherously ambushed by Rann. Conan blinded Faolan with a sword but was hauled back to Crom Dhu in chains. He was tortured, and his mind was broken. Since then, Rann’s forces have besieged Crom Dhu. It’s a stalemate.
Starke is angry that Rann used him in an attempt to decapitate the rover leadership. He points out that, in stalemates, a third-party ally is sought. Is there one? Possibly, he’s told. There are the sea-folk who still living in the Red Sea.
Starke is told that sea is made of an odd substance. Lightweight, thin-skinned boats can float on it. You can even descend in it and breath. It tingles you the deeper you sink in it. It gets redder the deeper you go. Starke, in a not convincing bit of rationalization from Bradbury and Brackett, deduces the sea must be made a radioactive gas under heavy atmospheric pressure. The Venusians in the sea don’t like the rovers and attack their ships.
Starke is kept chained up, but now fed, as it’s decided what to do with him. Romna muses that it may have been better if Conan had returned. They would know what to do with him. Maybe he should have slit Starke’s throat. He tells Starke that, for him, none of this is important. To them, it’s a matter of life and death. Starke, he says, fights for himself and that also Rann fights through him.
Later that night, in a passionate and rather erotic scene, Beudag goes to Starke. She asks Starke who he is. Not Conan, is the reply, maybe not Starke either given his new body. She says that, though he was quarrelsome and hot-tempered, she loved Conan. Starke says she couldn’t have loved Conan if he wasn’t “straight”. Beudag begins to cry. “Women’s tears” she says self-depracatingly. Starke begins to caress her. She tells him he can’t love her. He says “No”. She commends his honesty. He asks if she could love him. She says “No”, and he proclaims her an honest woman.
After they presumably have sex, Starke says he could love her, and he’s never said that before to a woman. But Beudag isn’t like other women, and he’s a “different man” now. She says he is strange, Conan but not Conan.
Romna shows up and knows Beudag wants Starke released. Starke doesn’t say what his intentions are, but he is shown a secret passage off Crom Dhu (he has to keep out of sight of the people since they will, understandably, view him as a traitor). Beudag accompanies him but says she will stay and fight. They embrace, and then, suddenly, Starke tries to strangle her.
He is stopped by Romna and Faolan shows up too. Starke realizes that Rann has used the distraction of his sexual passion to control his mind and get him to kill Beudag. Starke is a good fighter and avoids killing Faolan. He escapes from the two men by throwing himself into the sea.
One of Rann’s ships shows up and fishes him out of the Red Sea. In the boat that takes him is Beudag, captive, Starke’s attack rendered her unconscious and available for capture. The ship heads to Falga.
They are taken to Rann whom Starke recognizes as the woman from his visions. Beudag is asked if Crom Dhu will surrender now. Not unless Faolan is dead, replies Beudag. Starke asks, since he attacked Faolan, if he killed him. No, Rann tells him, because Starke has a “damnably tough mind”. Starke asks why Conan betrayed his people. Because, says Rann, she controlled his mind. He tried to resist, but his mind wasn’t as tough as Starke’s.
Beudag is led away by guards, and Rann asks Starke what he plans to do. Does he have any choice, he asks? Rann says she always keeps her bargains (evidently implying that, despite his resistance, she regards the use of him to get at the rover leadership as successful). Starke demands he be given his credits and allowed to leave. She agrees to that, but suggests, while she won’t share her kingdom with her, he might be amused if he stays. Starke says he has no sense of humor. Doesn’t he want to see what happens to Crom Dhu? To hell with them, says Starke. Not even Beudag, Rann jibes.
But Starke is interested what will happen to Beudag. Nothing, he’s told. Her people will take care of her. She will be cared for and fattened. She will then be displayed at the masthead of Rann’s ships when it goes to Com Dhu.
Starke just asks when he can leave. Rann remarks that “humans are so damned queer”. She then bids bye to Hugh Starke and, a moment later, to Conan.
Accompanied by some of Rann’s men, Starke climbs some nearby mountains to get his loot. Along the way, Starke can feel Rann in his mind and her taunting words that Beudag, on her ship, will be given water and not much else. Rann ruminates that he long been an emotionless man in a body that few women could love. But now he thinks of love. Rann, in his mind, notes that the original Conan was a man who knew how to love one woman until she broke him.
Starke arrives where his treasure belt is and throws it into the sea, trembling. Then, breaking her promise (presumably because she thinks Starke isn’t going to leave but go back to Beudag), Rann’s men attack Starke. He dives into the sea.
Then comes several nicely done weird scenes as Starke swims under the Red Sea. He is herded like a sheep by strange sea creatures, descending deeper into the sea. He comes on an obsidian plain, an “ebon city” deeply lit by red. The “hounds” have guided him to a harp-playing sea-folk. When the “shepherd” plays, Starke loses control of his body. But he sees, drifting in this sea, the dead warriors of Falga.
The harp puts a song in Starke’s head that these dead men will walk again. In the ebon city, Starke sees other warriors and the memories of Conan in his body tell him these are his former comrades from Crom Dhu. In death, all men are equal, and they will march with their dead comrades on Crom Dhu.
Why march on their own city, asks Starke? Starke tries to stab a warrior, but no amount of stabbing will stop it.
A member of the sea-folk tells him the plan. The warriors will march on Crom Dhu, and its gates will be opened in gratitude when long lost comrades are seen again. They will kill Romna, Faolan, and Beudag. The dead warriors do the bidding of the sea-folk.
Starke goes into a room with six sea-folk. He’s told the same tactic will be used against Falga. Starke admits the sea folk have “all the aces”, but why attack Crom Dhu? They hate Rann more. Yes, the sea-folk agree, but the rovers are land dwellers too, and they may attack the sea-folk eventually. Rann will find some countermove, argues Starke. Attack Falga first. Attack Crom Dhu the next day.
The speaker for the sea-folk says Starke is just stalling for time, but there is logic in Starke’s argument, and the sea-folk accept it. Then Rann enters Starke’s mind again wanting to know what he’s plotting with the sea-folk. She tells him she gave him Conan’s body and now will take it away.
Starke has a fit. He has a vision of his old, now rotting body. Rann tells him that she’ll leave him in that body unless he reveals the sea-folk’s plan. She’ll still kill Beudag, he argues. Rann offers Beudag’s life in exchange for what he knows.
Then Starke calls out to the sea-folk spokesman. He says he will reveal what he knows to Rann if they don’t agree to leave Crom Dhu alone. They agree. Starke tells them to “give Rann hell for me”. Then he shouts at Rann that she was going to kill him anyway, and he will fight her if she tries to send him back to his corpse. He passes out and wakes up.
Linnl, that sea-folk shepherd, says Starke fought Rann and won. Starke says he knew Rann couldn’t really send him back to his corpse, that it was a bluff, and now he knows how to keep her out of his mind forever.
The dead warriors are taken to the Source Life of the Red Sea where their bodies are repaired, and Starke is revivified. The dead warriors march (well, swim) through the sea and take Falga as planned. “Dead father killed, startled alive son. Dead brother garrotted unbelieving brother.” Linnl frees the city’s slaves saying they will be allies when they take the city over.
The sea-folk army ascends from the depths and attacks Rann’s fleet, and Beudag is found. The dead warriors are rather indiscriminate in their attacks, and Starke has to fend one off when it attacks him. In a rather confused scene, Rann takes Beudag hostage in exchange for being allowed to row to shore. (She isn’t going to swim with the “sea-beasts”.) Starke jumps over the side with Beudag. Linnl shows up, and he and Starke head for the shore of Crom Dhu.
The scene shifts to Romna and Faolan. The latter hears sea folks’ harps. It’s a skirmish, says Romna. They drove the enemy back from the Gate. Faolan wonders why he hears bodies falling and their warriors are fighting so quitely. Romna tells him all their warriors are in the city. Romna describes to Faolan the return of their dead comrades, mentioning several names. Faolan wishes he could see it and will get drunk in celebration. Faolan hears someone come in.
It is Starke. He says he is with Linnl, Beudag, and Rann who has been captured. Starke tells Rann he let her live for only one reason: to give Faolan the vision of her defeat. She complies but tries one last gambit, really just an act of vengeance, and tries to stop Faolan’s heart. Starke strangles her to death, gripping her throat for an hour.
The last scene is Beudag and Starke ascending the mountain to see his corpse. He will instruct the sea-folk to retrieve his money, and he will have coins placed in the fingers of his body. “He killed himself getting it.” They and Faolan will be going to explore the Red Sea.
That last scene brings up an aspect of Brackett that Brian Stableford mentions in “Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett”, that her work was often about the ultimate pointlessness of romantic dreams. There is some of that in that scene, but the tale also ends on a very romantic note with the couple of Beudag and Starke/Conan.
This is a justly famous story full of lyric language, weird scenes, and romanticism.
So where does the title come from? There is no mention of any place or character named Lorelei. According to Wikipedia, there is a ballad by Clemens Bretano called “Zu Bacharach am Rheine” about a beautiful woman who bewitches men and causes their death.