Thursday, December 14, 2017

'I am no umpchay, and I never seen the proposition I can't beat.'

Theodore "Ted" Copp had a fairly short pulp career, publishing only eighteen stories over the course of a decade, according to the FictionMags Index. He published his first stories in Fiction House's Black Aces, then had his busiest period as a regular contributor to Street and Smith's Complete Stories. "Corn Doctor" (June 22, 1935) was his Argosy debut, the first of six stories (including a serial) he'd publish in the venerable weekly over the next year. As this is my first encounter with Copp, I can't say how representative this ten-pager is, but the story itself reads like an exercise in the Damon Runyon style. The protagonists are amiable con men who can't make it on 14th Street in the big city with their spiels -- the colorful narrator sells overnight bags for a quarter, tricking marks by leaving counterfeit coins inside to make them think they're profiting, while his friend Corny tries to sell a patent medicine for corns. Corny's real talent is an uncanny quickness of the hands that allows him, on a bet, to pluck flies off any surface. But as his nickname indicates, he's obsessed with podiatry, though he disdains the snake-oil he actually sells. His heart's desire is to remove corns from sufferer's feet, which our narrator finds vaguely creepy. They decide to try their luck, and Corny's dexterity, in Binghamton NY, despite their agreement that rustic "apple-knockers" are wiser to grifts than city folk. Their hope is that the easiest marks are those who think they're wise to everything. They find their ideal smart-mark in Jake the Barber ("a very common name among barbers, even when their mothers call them Thomas or Richard or Harold"), luring him into the trap by dropping a lot of bad bets to him before Corny does his fly trick. In case the readers were wondering how Corny does it, apparently he's just that good with his hands, as Jake learns when, suspecting that Corny keeps dead flies on hand to palm, puts him in a closed room with a single fly in it. Jake's not a good loser though, and when he invites Corny and friend to help him clean out two local suckers, our narrator suspects a set-up. Sure enough, Jake's pals lose a lot of coin, but the idea is to put the interlopers' money on the table when the inevitable stick-up man, another of Jake's cronies, shows up. The inevitable melee ends with the robber routed, the suckers on the run, and Corny on top of a disarmed Jake, going after the corns Jake had earlier admitted were plaguing his feet. There they remain when the cops arrive, though our narrator is smart enough to make his escape. He reports in an epilogue that Corny used his fly gag to pay his way into podiatry school and finally set up practice in Binghamton. This looks like a tragic waste of talent. "I hear it is a big week for Corny when he takes in five bucks," he closes, "which only goes to show you what happens to a guy who gives his natural genius the wave." Copp pulled out of pulp after 1936, with one exception, to concentrate on writing novels and publicity for Met Life. Apparently he was very close to his mother, famous in her own right as the inventor of a popular piano-teaching method, for when she died on New Year's Day 1945 he wrote her obituary, went to bed, and died in his sleep overnight at age 42.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'He had the satisfaction of hearing cries of pain.'

 Illustration from my own collection

Tom Curry trespasses on Arthur O. Friel's territory in "Brain and Brawn" (Argosy, June 22, 1935), set in oil-rich Venezuela. You'd think the present Bolivarian regime were in charge back then, given the way the natives treat the two American heroes running an oil rig. A Venezuelan concern wants to drink their milkshake, so to speak, and their operative, the peon foreman Espinosa, tries to make life difficult for the intrepid gringos, apparently the only people around interested in working hard. They are a typical Mutt & Jeff team; Sanderson is the "peppery little driller," Morton the "mighty giant" who does the heavy lifting and keeps the peons in line when they get uppity. In other words, Sanderson is the "Brain," Morton the "Brawn" of the title. The twist in Curry's bromance is that as they fight their way out of camp and flee through the jungle, hoping to salvage their well before the local rivals move in, a role reversal takes place. Morton gets shot in the leg and goes virtually lame, making it necessary for Sanderson to become the brawn by bearing his weight through the jungle. And as fatigue gradually clouds Sanderson's mind, it's up to Morton to do the quick thinking that eventually saves both men. Calling this a "bromance" is neither an anachronism or a joke. Morton and Sanderson are very close friends, albeit certainly in a purely platonic manner, with Sanderson the dominant partner despite Morton's tremendous strength. The story reaches its emotional climax when Sanderson, captured by the "Venzies," is taken to identify Morton's grave, having told his captors that his friend, still free, had died on the trail. Sanderson assumes that he'll be killed whether Morton's death is verified or not. Recalling Morton's hiding place, he hopes the big guy was smart enough to find another (he was), but has his doubts.

Sanderson almost wept; they'd surely find his partner, for Morton could not have worked very far by himself, and would not have done so, since he would wait for Sanderson to come back to him. Eager for a last look at his friend, the driller pushed forward. He wanted to die beside Morton.

Make of that what you will. Action fans were less distrustful of strong emotions back then. "Brain and Brawn" isn't top-flight Curry but it holds your interest easily enough and it has arguable historic interest as a document of the seeming arrogance that many Venezuelans resent in Americans to the present day.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'No clothed man fled.'

By the late 1930s Short Stories had become Arthur O. Friel's main market in pulps. He wasn't particularly prolific at this time; "Closed Country" (November 25, 1937) was his third and last story published that year, after only one Friel story appeared in all of 1936. I don't know what might have been going on in Friel's life in those years, but "Closed Country" struck me as an unusually hateful story, more preoccupied with racial hierarchy, more contemptuous toward blacks (the N-word is employed) than in other stuff I've read from him. It starts with our unarmed hero, Donovan, bravely trying to face down a black man with a revolver in Friel's usual stomping ground of Venezuela. Donovan is rescued when a stranger intervenes to grapple with the black and snap his neck. "I just didn't like this black bum," the interloper explains, "And I don't like the general idea of a black knocking off a white." He identifies himself as O'Brien, a Swede from Boston. Donovan identifies him as a likely guide for an expedition up the dangerous Rio Caura to where our hero hopes to scout out a route for a future railroad. O'Brien gathers a crew of reliable, manly Venezuelans, little removed from savages themselves in Friel's portrayal yet possessed of skills, a sense of honor, and a strong consciousness of superiority to Indians and other darker peoples. It's pretty hard-boiled stuff until the story veers into slightly more fantastical territory. Donovan has really been hunting for Tom McFarland, the man who swindled his father and reportedly fled into the jungle. He finds this McFarland ruling over some sort of lost race of people who are dark but not quite colored.

For one thing, these Indians looked unusually intelligent; faces longer, brows higher, eyes deeper than those of most aborigines. Also, their dark color was unnatural -- a dull greenish black, blending so softly into the forest shade as to make them almost invisible at a little distance. Although totally nude save for tiny dark clouts, they were so completely dyed that their real color was discernible only when they lay down to drink. Then a beam of sunlight piercing through the forest struck to the base of their thick black hair, disclosing scalp-skin almost white.

McFarland has a theory -- it's hard to tell how seriously we're meant to take it -- that his people are descended from survivors of Atlantis. He compares them favorably to the darker "humanimals" of the region. But he's no racist, really. "I got along by treating niggers and Indians like human beings," he tells Donovan, "They all are. Real niggers and real Indians, I mean. Half-breeds - pfah!"  Damn.... mixed-race people must have had a hard time trying to read pulps, with so many stories telling them they're the bottom of the human barrel. In any event, the ambiguous superiority of these dark-white tribespeople intrigues Friel more than whatever revenge agenda Donovan had, which gets forgotten as he gets to know McFarland better and fights alongside him against an invasion by a "back-bush gang" of "misbegotten mongrels," led by "an apparent white man. Even here, Friel perceives a hierarchy of courage and discipline. When McFarland's men attack, the gang's Indian guides flee as fast as they can swim, while "No clothed man fled." Predictably enough, McFarland dies, as do Donovan and O'Brien's Venezuelan companions, but not before he points Donovan to a fortune that will settle the old man's debt to our hero's father. Friel excels at pitched battles like the one that climaxes this story, and if you can overlook a racism unusually ugly even for pulp fiction "Closed Country" shows that at a relatively late point in his career he could still deliver the blood and thunder. He seems to have had an idea of doing a series with Donovan and O'Brien, but it's unclear from the FictionMags Index whether they ever came back for an encore.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

'Only a man after my own heart could make a mongrel find champagne in this place.'

Horace "Bugs" Sinnat is an agent of the Indian Secret Service and a master of disguises. He is the protagonist of a series of stories by S. B. H. Hurst, which appeared in Adventure, Wide World Adventures and Oriental Stories from the mid-1920s into the early 1930s. "Bhamo" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) isn't the first Sinnat story I've read but it's the first to make any impression on me. Our hero is introduced pretending to be a "gone native" white in order to infiltrate a criminal enclave in Burma. He's on the trail of George Latimer Fritz Maurice, a.k.a. Menzies, an English renegade and "the greatest and most spectacular criminal ever known in India," now conspiring with native bandits to seize control of a territory on the Burma-India border that would make him a power broker. While Sinnat's act invites the contempt of natives and half-breeds, his impudent wit impresses the bandit leader Kwung Ksi, who takes Bugs for a former fighting man who could become one again if he lays off the booze. Kwung Ksi is an undisputed villain, but Bugs "rather like[s] the brute." He comes off slightly favorably compared with the more decadent Menzies and the more despicable half-breeds who haunt the territory. Hurst joins many pulp writers in contempt for mixed-race people, describing a "breed" tavern-keeper as an "animal" and a "disgusting caricature of humanity." Kwung Ksi at least has balls. "The native who kicked a white man was an unusual character," our narrator explains, "The coolies felt sufficiently self-exalted when they vocally abased the apparently degenerate and cast-off member of the stronger race."

Bugs has to employ psychology once Kwung Ksi and his partner Menzies grow suspicious of him. Kwung Ksi in particular is alarmed when he discovers, while frisking him, that Bugs is in very remarkable physical shape for a gone-native drunk. Now that he suspects that Bugs still is what he seemingly had been or could be again, Kwung Ksi instantly loses his enthusiasm for the reclamation project and urges Menzies to kill Sinnat. Menzies pretends not to share Kwung Ksi's doubts until he can interview Sinnat privately, thinking he can turn the presumed secret agent with promises of plunder and power. Bugs takes a big chance taunting Menzies for his pretense to aristocracy. When Menzies announces that he has royal blood, Bugs boasts mockingly, "So do I!" Finally, he convinces both men of his harmlessness by playing the alcoholic coward. Somehow, while suspecting that he's a British agent, they take his imposture seriously, leaving him so poorly guarded that he can sneak out of camp and contact the Imperial authorities. Hurst ends the story with the rout of Kwung Ksi's forces -- the bandit himself apparently goes down fighting, taking many enemies with him -- and Menzies' less courageous escape. Hurst clearly has plans for this character, as he leaves Bugs cursing the villain's escape and judging his mission a failure despite the rescue of gold and captive women. Whether he appears again is up to hardcore Hurst fans, if any live today, to tell us.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

'Foreigners don't enjoy the sanctity that we had a few years ago.'

"Black Powder Diplomacy" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is H. P. Guiler's only known pulp story. Set at a chaotic moment in Chinese history when a young republic  was beset by warlords, it portrays increased resentment by Americans of a perceived lack of deference on the part of the Chinese, who requisition resources with little regard for white supremacy. "They've forgotten the lesson learned during the Boxer trouble [in 1900]," one American remarks, "and it looks like we shall have to give them another -- if we expect to stay here." An eager officer misses the good old days "when action was taken on the spot, and explained much later by letter when the affair had been settled and forgotten." Radio brings accountability all too quickly in the ultramodern 1920s, but our American protagonist insists on doing something now to restore the white prestige compromised by an influx of refugees from revolutionary Russia who've sunk to doing "coolie work." The problem with that is "when one white man loses caste out here, we all do." Unsurprisingly, the American's conclude that force is the only thing the Chinese will understand. Their challenge is to make their show of force look like something else. The arrival of a British admiral's ship gives them a pretext and an opportunity. The joke of the title is that the Americans fire the appropriate salute to the dignitary with live ammunition, out of alleged necessity, effectively terrorizing Chinese troops and ensuring compliance with previous American demands. "You will beat up Americans, will you, you yalla -----s," the American skipper roars, his meaning obscured slightly by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's typical editorial reticence. This is the sort of "diplomacy" the Chinese still remember resentfully, though now, when they may think themselves in a position to practice similar diplomacy in the South China Sea and elsewhere, that same attitude they've long resented may be making a comeback in an America where the old nationalism seems new again. Not so long ago scholars might have read Guiler's story and deplored the arrogance it portrays, but the same story might find more appreciative readers today.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

'By ---, if it ain't Slim Evans I'll kiss your foot to a cherry red!'

Thomson Burtis broke into pulp in 1920 and quickly made himself a star of Adventure magazine, specializing in aviation stories. Two of his longest-lived characters were army fliers Slimuel X. Evans (usually just "Slim") and Tex McDowell, who star in "Mistaken Island" (Adventure, March 30, 1926). I'd found earlier stories of Slim and Tex to be rather stilted affairs, but by this point, with Slim now a self-deprecating narrator, Burtis seemed to have found a comfortable storytelling voice, though it clearly made editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman a little uncomfortable. He cut any hint of blasphemy out of the stories he published, which means, on this occasion, that many oaths and adjectives disappear, though readers could guess easily enough what Slim or other characters were saying. "This is a --- farce!" Slim protests at one point, "And by --- I'm getting tired of standing here talking in circles to you three bozos here for no reason." The three bozos are a motley crew of disreputable types holed up with an apparent prisoner on an island in the flood-swollen Ohio River, on which Slim and Tex have to make an emergency landing. They first big mystery is that the trio seem to recognize Slim and Tex, even though our heroes have never seen them before. It turns out that they know the pilots by reputation, as related by the pilots' colleague, Hal Ellis. The problem with that explanation, however, is that our heroes have no idea who Ellis is. Ellis proves to be a charismatic scoundrel, not to mention an imposter, vying with the island trio, his erstwhile partners, to claim a bounty on the trio's prisoner, a hillbilly feudist. Burtis seems to be planning for the future while introducing Ellis, giving him an extensive backstory while putting a detailed description of the man in Slim's mouth. "I've seen some types in my time," Slim also observes, "but Mr. Happy Hal Ellis wins the slightly used beef-stew as far as I'm concerned, and I don't know whether I can explain the reasons for that statement or not." I know I can't.

Hal Ellis is slick enough to convince our heroes that he's the good guy in the scenario they've stumbled into, and to convince his enemies to play him, Slim and Tex in an epic card game for the rights to the prisoner. Playing for matches, the gamblers embark on a 72-hour marathon. "In poker, as in flying and other things, I sort of muddle through," Slim observes, but despite some reservations about Ellis's "somewhat mangy proposition," he and Tex decide that it'll be fun to play, especially if they can share in the bounty on the prisoner. "It all comes down to one explanation -- a couple of cuckoo flyers couldn't turn down a chance for excitement," which probably was what Ellis was depending on. Reserving his own strength and sobriety while the others exhaust or inebriate themselves, Happy Hal simply waits for the moment to start a fight so he can get away with the prisoner and keep the bounty all to himself. The island threesome provides the pretext by actually cheating at cards, but Slim and Tex learn that they're actually more in the right than Ellis was -- which makes it a good thing that they're able to stop him from flying away with his captive, though Ellis himself gets away, presumably to fight another day. "Mistaken Island" is easily the best Burtis story I've read to date, and while that isn't saying much considering what I've forced myself through before, it's actually good enough to make me more willing to seek out stories of Slim and Tex in the future.

Monday, November 27, 2017

'When a puny fool gives orders, inkosi, what can men do but laugh?'


L. Patrick Greene is best known now for his series of pulp stories about "The Major" and his sidekick Jim the Hottentot, but on the side he was the Georges Surdez of British imperialism in Africa. That is, Greene wrote a good number of stories dealing with the challenge of military discipline amid the clash of personalities in a military and colonial hierarchy. "Discipline" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is an obvious case in point. Simmons, our protagonist, is tasked with whipping the Black Watch of the British South African Police into shape. They're an awkward squad, inconsistently uniformed and clumsy in half-hearted drill with that inattention to cleanliness than considered characteristic of nonwhite peoples. Simmons gives them a stern talking to, breaking their complacency to remold them into some semblance of soldiery.

'Pigs!' he ejaculated. 'Pigs!' he said again, very slowly, as his finger traveled down the line.
The men stiffened perceptibly.
'You do not like to be called pigs, eh?' Simmons said with a harsh laugh. 'Then you must have pride and you are not altogether lost to shame. And yet --' the men squirmed under the lashing sarcasm of his voice -- 'I should have called you buloyi; I should have pointed my first finger at you. But, see how merciful I am, I only call you pigs.'
A cloud of dust arose from their embarrassed scuffling.
'You are liars, all of you,' Simmons continued in an even, unimpassioned voice. 'By your mouths you proclaim yourselves to be men and warriors of the great white chief, but by the filthiness in which you live it is plain that you are no men. No. Not men, but brothers to the dog-apes. Tchat! I spit your filth from me! I weep for you.'

This has a positive effect because many of the men do have warriors' pride and they are capable of shame, even if they want to blame their lax ways on their corporal, whom they disdain as a "puny fool." They respond well to harsh drilling, but a busybody English missionary, Banning, doesn't like what he sees when Simmons sends his men charging through a patch of thorns. The missionary, one of a brother-sister team, is determined to have Simmons written up for brutality. Greene wants us to recognize Banning as a naive idealist; the one thing he doesn't understand, it seems, is force. He doesn't take Simmons seriously when the officer warns that the missionary has hired porters from a hostile tribe, and sure enough, the tribe ends up kidnapping Banning's sister with intent to sacrifice her to one of their gods. "The curs! And I treated them like friends!" Banning protests.

The payoff reminds us that Greene was the creator of one of the more consistently heroic black characters in pulp in Jim the Hottentot. When the time comes to carry out a rescue mission, Simmons is prostrated by fever, and it's up to the Black Watch, including the "puny" corporal, to vindicate their commander's methods and his ultimate faith in them as men. Their mission, Simmons says, is "only another lesson in discipline. For us as well as them." The Black Watch, it turns out, has new pride in their imperial role. "Our voices are the voices of all white men," their top man tells the hostiles. In the face of the enemy's defiance, they ford a deep river, scatter their foes with disciplined, non-lethal fire and rescue Miss Banning. For some modern readers, the climax might reveal the Black Watch as tragic sellouts, brainwashed by the British, but Greene obviously had a different intention: to show that Africans were capable, if not of civilization as whites knew it, then of that discipline that arguably forms the foundation of any civilization. In short, "Discipline" is meant as a positive, if patronizing, portrait of black men, whatever people may think of it nearly a century later.