“There began to be wisps of mist along the ground”: The Excellence of Leigh Brackett’s Prose

Whenever I hit a rut in my writing and need to be reminded why I am at the keyboard, I pull out one or another story or novel by Leigh Brackett to get me back on track, to remind me why I wanted to learn how to tell stories in the first place:

Jim Beckworth, on Old Raven’s buffalo horse, fired and reloaded until his arm was tired from pushing the ramrod home. The frenzy cooled. The survivors of the herd streamed away across the plain. Rich came up beside Jim. He was grinning, his long hair flying, his eyes wild and bright. “We made ’em come,” he said. “Wagh! We made ’em come!” He and Jim rode with the braves, yelping their triumph.

That’s from early in Follow the Free Wind, her 1963 Western novel. We are there. We are there, when we read this scene or any scene in one of Miss Brackett’s stories, and in a fashion that I, at least, find unique to her kind of word work. We get the most concise information we need for a character. Descriptions pull us in as though we are a camera eye. This is because Brackett nailed down how to manage her craft by writing screenplays.

I can’t think of a more exacting or demanding method of getting a story across with the absolute minimal amount of verbiage than a screenplay, but Miss Brackett had it mastered. She is, after all, the scripter that Howard Hawks kept on set so that she could rework dialogue with him while he was directing.

So look at what Brackett does with that paragraph. The short sentences are shots. Paragraphs and pages are scenes. She is guiding us with a camera eye over the plains, cutting to a character, pulling back to pan across the moving herd, coming in for a close-up of an excited mountain man.

Even in giving us exposition, Miss Brackett provides backstory with that precisely detailed camera eye that drops us right in the middle of where she is taking us:

They were about to cross the Platte and head south to the Arkansas where they wintered, and they had nothing in the line of food or horses to spare. But their cousins the Skidi, the Pawnee Loups, they said, had a permanent town at the Forks of the Plains where they wintered, and it might be that Tirawa had smiled more brightly upon them. So the General marched on westward, praying. And then, incredible as a vision of paradise, there were the big earth lodges, warm and dry, and steaming pots of food, and nothing to do but eat and sleep, hunt, and bargain for buffalo robes and new moccasins.

As efficient and succinct as this writing is, Brackett always allows herself just enough space to bring in the poetry, as in that paragraph, also from Follow the Free Wind, as well as with the title of this blog, which is taken from a line in her short story “The Shadows,” first published in the February 1952 issue of Startling Stories:

     Barrier walked ahead, going with a lanky noiseless stride like an Indian. His eyes were anxious, and his nerves on edge.

It was very lovely in the forest, with the blooms of many colors nodding overhead. Barrier thought of a garden at the bottom of the sea. The glades were full of blueness like still water. There began to be wisps of mist along the ground.

That last line is perfect, and here’s why. Brackett doesn’t say “Mist crawled along the ground” or “A mist began to rise” or “There was a mist on the ground.” She says, “There began to be,” with that expletive “There” initially holding us back, and the alliteration and the cadence of the stressed and unstressed syllables, and then “wisps of mist,” with the repetition of the short vowel sound but with the consonants slowing us down so that we are reading at the same speed that the wisps are moving, then ending with “along the ground,” guh-guh-duh, like an incantation coming to a rock hard conclusion: “There began to be…wisps…of mist…along the ground.” And the wisps are just beginning, in the same way that the claustrophobic adventure the characters find themselves in is just beginning. They are a team of earth or Terran explorers on some new planet; they have found the ruins of a lost civilization, and in a moment, they will become uncomfortably aware that shadows, moving shadows, independently alive shadows, are following them and closing in around them. And there began to be wisps of mist….

Then there is the dialogue. Brackett is renowned for the hard-boiled edge of her writing. True, that aspect of her prose is what gives her lines their electric crackle and snap. But she understands drama. The peppy back and forth of hardcore streetspeak is just the beginning for Brackett because she brings out character through her dialogue the way professional screenwriters do. This is from The Coming of the Terrans (1967):

     Dying star, and dying world, alone on the edge of nothing. Trehearne looked at it. “What do they do there?”
“Nothing. They just wait.”
“For what?”
He knew the answer before she told him. No more ships, no more voyaging, nothing to look forward to but the only release there was. Trehearne drew back from the viewer. Shairn smiled.
“I’m on your side.”
“Are you? Or are you just using me to punish Kerrel, because he bores you?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“But there isn’t much you can do about it, is there?”
“I guess not.”
“Then you might as well as make the best of it.”

Crackle. Snap. And “nothing to look forward to but the only release there was.” Ouch. Grim.

It is the judicious minimalism of her writing that really gets to me. Brackett pulls us in; she requires us to collaborate with her in her storytelling, just as she expected everyone involved with filming one of her screenplays to become involved in making the picture. There’s a great interview with Brackett in Films in Review for August-September 1976 in which she talks about the workmanlike aspect of crafting stories. This would been published during the time that I knew her and Edmond Hamilton—he died the following February—and I recall mentioning the Films in Review article to her, but if she said much about it, I don’t remember her comment, damn it.

In any event, I paraphrase because I don’t have my copy at hand, but one of the points she made was that, prior to crafting screenplays, she would start a story and get up a head of steam and go for it, and the story either worked or it didn’t. Once she began writing scripts, though, she had a clearer sense of fashioning a story, of fitting all of the pieces together.

I like that revelation about her professionalism because the more I’ve relied on what I know about filmmaking and the modern, cinematic form of storytelling, the surer I feel I have gotten with my own writing.

So I turn to Miss Brackett’s stories to remind myself just how much sheer fun and enjoyment we can have in crafting our yarns. She’s not a polemicist or a writer living indoors, looking into a mirror and talking back to herself, as so many of our contemporary literary writers are. I understand that that is their shtick, but she comes from a different school entirely. Writing for Leigh Brackett is not therapy or exhibitionism or oversharing; it is storytelling. She trusts us to understand that. And her enthusiasm comes through in her writing. It is professionalism of a very high order, and she’s having a ball telling these stories, using all of the tools in her tool chest, and we can tell that as we read her prose. We’re in very good hands from sentence one on.

Which brings to mind something else. I tend to think of writers — or their work, at least — as being warm or cool. Miss Brackett’s contemporaries Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont I think of as warm; another contemporary, Richard Matheson, is cool. (I can go back to Tolstoy, who I feel is warm, compared with Chekhov, who is very cool.) Brackett is cool; her stories are strong and solidly planted, waste no words, and pull us in like a movie does, showing us, not telling us, welcoming us to come by the fire (if I may mix my metaphors) and sit and be included and listen.

So her stories are cool. Still, regarding the woman herself…I don’t think I have ever seen a photograph of Leigh Brackett in which she isn’t smiling, or at least grinning, or at least has one little corner of her mouth turned up. She seems to me always to have been enjoying the trip. Smiling while she had fun the whole time she gave us these stories, this poetry, these shots, these scenes — all of this exemplary prose.

Website Reboot

Friends, the website has a great new look courtesy of my friend Mike Johnson, and I’m taking the new look seriously by promising to blog frequently and faithfully. Used to be that I’d blog maybe two or three times a year because I got it in my head that I needed to write reasonably thoughtful essays.

I like those essays, and I may yet have a few of them left in me, but the gist of this blog from now on is going to be putting down my thoughts of the moment—primarily about writing, the art and practice of, or jabber about what I have in the works.

Publishing? Such as it is these days, we can talk about it.

I want to talk about friends of mine who write and their projects.

Leigh Brackett–her writing style was singular and remarkable. I’m going to discuss that.

Sometime Lofty Towers, that art-epic sword-and-sorcery literary novel of mine that I’ve been at work on, off and on, since this time in 1997? You’re going to hear about that. I’m up to more than 40,000 words and we’re about to get into the big battle scene that will go on for who knows how long and, if I know what I’m doing, will be as spooky as hell.

I might even talk about the legendary and god-awful silent-movie version of The Whisperer in Darkness I made in 1975 with some friends in northeast Ohio. Long vilified and treated as a joke. Maybe I’ll share some thoughts on that.

Books I’ve read or am reading. How do I reconcile the philosopher John Gray’s excellent, reductionist Straw Dogs with Ptolemy Tompkins’s The Modern Book of the Dead-—the former a brilliant, pithy takedown of the modern West’s fetish with progress (among other topics), the latter a fascinating study by a former materialist-minded thinker as he pieces together, in a book that is superbly written-—a map of the afterlife based on evidence and insights from a plethora of sources, most of them dismissed by modern science.

Psychics. They’re real, and their gifts are bona fide.

Words. Grammar, English grammar.

Movies. Lots about movies, I’m sure.

We’ll see where this goes.

In the meantime, enjoy this newly designed website, which, coincidentally, strikes exactly the right tone of the Halloween season.

Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 4

While having breakfast with my daughter, Lily, the other morning, I made note of a commercial that came on as we were watching Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeon is pretty much the only channel we do watch these days, and that’s not a bad thing. The writing on I Carly—now canceled, alas—and Victorious, on See Dad Run and Marvin Marvin, is much better than what passes for scripting on most of the legacy broadcast network offerings. And if Supah Ninjas is new to you, be aware: this show has become appointment television in our house on Saturday evenings whenever a new episode premieres.)

The book advertised—I didn’t notice the title—is the latest of many series indebted to the wild success of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. This one was engineered or concocted to reach an audience of Middle Schoolers and has to do with a brother and sister. That the product being advertised is a book or a series of books is subordinate to the fact that the product advertised is a product. This is nothing new in America; we are, after all, the country that developed mass advertising and product promotion and we are the country that created consumerism as a contact sport. The television commercial served to remind me that the commercial success of any writer or author depends on two things: (1) the beginning of a trend that comes from out of nowhere, and then (2) promoting and profiting from that trend by finding the sweet spot that will tickle the Pavlovian response in potential customers.

Events aligned just once in my life to allow me to hit that sweet spot, matching what I was writing with what a sufficient number of people wanted to read. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s when sword-and-sorcery fiction was popular. The more profitable commercial possibilities of Tolkeinesque world-building fantasies, however, quickly took precedence in the marketplace. Continue reading

For Glenn, with Thanks

I completed the following appreciation in January 2011 for a book of testimonials to be published in connection with honoring Glenn at the annual Robert E. Howard Days celebration in Cross Plains, Texas, in June 2011. That particular volume of tributes to Glenn did not materialize; therefore, this is the first publication or appearance of this essay.

I’ve left it in the present tense although Glenn passed away on December 31, 2011.

If his name is new to you, please see the Wikipedia page devoted to him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Lord

Glenn Lord is an important man.

I first heard his name in the late 1960s. I was in high school and, as things turned out, a witness, one of many, to a turning point in this country’s popular culture. By that time, I was reading and collecting the Lancer editions of the Conan stories, I had subscribed to Amra, and I had been buying Creepy and Eerie for years, primarily for the Frank Frazetta covers, as well as Castle of Frankenstein magazine—isn’t that a name from the past for a lot of us?—to read Lin Carter’s book reviews of paperback fantasy novels. There was very little fantasy available then in print for those of us just discovering it. Otherwise, there was the Burroughs boom, of course. And a lot of science fiction paperbacks. And pulp reprints, mainly of the Shadow and Doc Savage. But for stories way beyond any of those, for stories that were as raw and visceral and real as a punch in the face or a cut on the arm, for stories that felt as actual as the things your dad told you had happened during the war and stories dealing with the arrant madness and arbitrariness and casual cruelty that the world can inflict on us—for these kinds of stories, there was Conan. There was nothing else remotely like them. They didn’t feel made up, not entirely. They felt raw and real.

Which, of course, they are.

This was the beginning of the Howard boom, or of the first Howard boom, and the boom occurred because of Glenn Lord. Continue reading

Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 3

Last summer, I got back the rights to 10 of the 18 paperback novels I saw published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These 10 are copyrighted in my name and are about my original characters, so . . . they’re mine. (The other eight novels—seven of them coauthored with Dick Tierney—feature characters originated by Robert E. Howard, the famous author of the Conan the Barbarian stories. Neither Dick nor I own those characters.) Once I had the rights back to these books, however, I was a little unsure what to do with them.

For years I had neglected these novels because, perversely, I had tried to ignore or forget the fact that I had even written them. This state of mind was as odd as it sounds. But the fact is that, after having published 18 paperback novels and pretty much having reached a dead end in trying to become a successful popular writer, I dropped out of writing in 1984. In retrospect, I can see that this was a foolish decision and an immature overreaction to the pressure I was under, but there it is. I had been working very hard at my craft for about 12 years, had seen a small measure of success in the fanzines of the time and then with the sales of those paperback novels, but otherwise had not one blessed clue about what I was doing or how the business worked. I saw no foreign sales of my own work and no nibbles from TV or film production companies. I relied on agents to promote my work and regarded them as business partners when, in fact, as I have learned over the years, literary agents are in business for themselves, and writers are useful to agents only insofar as they help increase the bottom line. Which makes sense. But in my desire to become a writer, my appreciation of such a practical fact was on par with my desire to become, when I was 10 years old, a Mercury space program astronaut. That is, I had about the same level of unsophisticated understanding of both professional milieus. In determining to succeed at writing, I thought it best to put my head down and go as fast as I could so that somehow something would happen.

My mind is turning in this direction right now because I have been working again in earnest at the writing craft. Starting a few years ago, I have been trying to get the fires going again, and I am beginning to see some success on the page—that is, the work I’m doing now reads well to my friends and to me. So the coals that were going dead and turning cold have been stoked and are blooming again with heat. What a good feeling it is. I spent the winter and spring revising my old fantasy trilogy, The Fall of the First World, and recently turned it in to John Betancourt at Wildside Press. I was able, in revising it, to make some changes or corrections I’ve wanted to make since Pinnacle Books first published the trilogy in 1983—improve some word choices, tighten sentences, round out some ideas—things of that nature. I’m enormously pleased that this trilogy and the other 7 of my 10 books will be reprinted by Wildside. (I’m sending John the two David Trevisan books next, as soon as I have scanned them in. Then Oron and the other Attluman novels.)

Also, I’ve placed my novel Call of Shadows with Ron Fortier’s Airship 27 Production. I’m very happy about this, as well.

And sooner or later, I suspect that Magicians will be produced, once we can get the modest $5 million needed to do the movie the way it should be done.

So I’m getting back into print after a long hiatus and, in surveying the radical changes in publishing that have occurred since the rise of the Internet, the collapse of the midlist, and the total corporatization of New York fiction publishing, I came across an article that appeared recently online in Prospect, the British periodical.
The article, by Edward Docx, is “Postmodernism is dead” (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/07/postmodernism-is-dead-va-exhibition-age-of-authenticism/) and reviews a comprehensive retrospective, currently on display in a London gallery, of the postmodernist movement. Docx provides a very nice definition of this social, philosophical, and artistic movement: “In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. . . . Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilize the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.”

Postmodernism quickly descended into the confusing, foolish parody of itself that we know today, although Docx makes it clear that postmodernism made critically important contributions to society. It has cleared away the paranoid concept of one dominant “narrative” (such a postmodern word, that) and provided alternatives to the conceit that that dominant narrative was western. It has provided parallel avenues of expression and acceptance of “difference” perspectives, thereby offering a horizontal appreciation of history, experience, and identity rather than a vertical, hierarchical one. And it has exposed the fiction of identity as a solid entity rather than as an aggregate of shifting coordinates of gender, religion, class, and so on; as Docx says, “We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else.” Postmodernism changed “the great banquet of human ideas” from “one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am.”

The fly in the ointment, however, is clearly this: the unease that most of us feel in regard to this radical awareness or sensibility. Do you really think that you are “constructed”? Do you really sense that you are a kind of postmodern, fluid force field of almost arbitrary labels—this religion, that gender—and not a real person or a real human being? My answer to this is that we are what we think we are. If we are able to make choices, then we will do so, but we won’t make them because we surmise that we are “an aggregate of shifting coordinates.” We know this intuitively, and most of us recoil from the idea of being an aggregated force field (my term, not Docx’s!). It is very similar to the ancient notion—surely there is nothing new under the sun—that life is an illusion and that we, too, are no more than an illusion. And this creates a paradox that may very well lie at the heart of human experience. Continue reading