Monday, January 14, 2019

'A touch of sun -- it does queer things.'

Blue Book was the main market for H. Bedford-Jones' serial anthologies of thematically-related stories. The gimmick gave him an excuse to surround each actual story with some framing device when they could well have stood well on their own, but his approach certainly paid more. HBJ had two separate series going on in the July 1937 issue: "Ships and Men," written in collaboration with Captain L. B. Williams -- that is, in collaboration with himself -- and "Warriors in Exile," represented in this issue by "A Touch of Sun." The framing narrative includes an apparent nod to Theodore Roscoe's Thibaut Corday, as it introduces an impossibly old Foreign Legion veteran to narrate a tale from the early days of the Legion, in the 1830s, that he claims to have witnessed. The tale itself concerns Pan Andrei, a Polish nobleman who was exiled from his homeland by its Russian overlords and ended up with the Legion in Algeria, only to desert to the natives two years later. He takes up the Touareg cause under the name El Mohdi, alongside a Turkish veteran and his daughter Khattifa, with whom Andrei falls in love. The old narrator attributes the Pole's desertion and his transformation into a renegade "Arab" to too much sun, but apart from that insinuation that he had to be mad to do it all, the story treats his new Muslim friends in relatively respectful fashion. Khattifa, who dons a youth's uniform to remain at her beloved's side, is particularly contrasted with Andrei's Polish wife, who appears in Algeria bearing tidings of his pardon and his reinstatement to nobility. He hears of this indirectly, having infiltrated the French base in native guise in order to learn the Legion's plans. The prospect tempts him briefly, but once he leaps to the conclusion that his wife is more interested in her own reinstatement to high society, he remembers all of Khattifa's virtues.

Allah! What a contrast between that woman, a princess, and this Turkish girl who loved him, rode with him, was going to bear him a child within a few more months! Here was life -- warfare, hard living, privation, and love that sweetened it all. Here was the proper destiny for a man; not back there on the estates of a prince.

Alas, in the next engagement El Mohdi is knocked unconscious and separated from his army, waking up alone in the sun. He had set the Legion up to be ambushed, but now, hearing the songs of the Polish battalion and feeling the sun again, his alignment is scrambled once more. Now he rushes to warn the Poles of the attack but they, seeing him approach in Touareg garb, shoot him dead. This last detail confuses one of the audience in the framing story, because it's all supposed to be based on Pan Andrei's diary, and how could he have written up his own demise? The old narrator suggests that he might have thrown that last part in himself, but that disclaimer reads more like an authorial shrug of the shoulders.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

'Wipe your chest, renegade!'

H. Bedford-Jones was fond of framing devices, at least when writing short stories. Sometimes they helped maintain the gimmick for a series of thematically related stories, and sometimes, probably, they simply padded out a story to make it more lucrative for the prolific author. They tend to keep us at a distance from the main story, since you have to get the story of someone telling the story first. It's unusual for the framing device to warn us away from the story, but that's the impression given -- perhaps unintentionally -- by the framing device for "J. Smith, His Mark" (Adventure, June 1940). In the framing device, our present-day narrator is shown some curios by a Hollywood friend, and then is treated to a private screening of a film alleged to be unreleasably bad. The story of that apparent stinker is our main story, an adventure of Captain John Smith when he was a mercenary in Morocco, years before his legendary exploits in Virginia. The story itself is not bad, if not much of a story. Smith makes a friend who shows him the ropes, an English renegade kills the friend, and Smith gets a measure of revenge in a duel that ends with him carving his initials, Zorro-style, in his enemy's chest. This trifle has a morbid coda as our narrator's friend calls his attention back to an exotic drum he'd admired earlier. The skin of the drum is the skin of Smith's enemy, the initials still showing. The narrator has nothing to say about the cinematic quality of the film he's watched, but we might observe that if anything made the project unreleasable, it was the presumably explicit footage of Smith slicing both of his enemy's ears off before signing his work. The Production Code didn't allow for such things -- but pulp did.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

'You had a continent to choose from and you tried to steal what was mine.'

Based on my limited reading I think of J. D. Newsom is of a Foreign Legion story specialist, but his novella "Lord of the Stony Rises" (Adventure, July 30, 1924) finds him in Australia telling a meandering tale of one man's vengeance giving way to another's. The common foe is John Burdette, a mighty land baron on somewhat unscrupulous origins, first shown firing, in humiliating fashion, an even less scrupulous underling, Mitcham. This Mitcham dreams of taking revenge and has an inkling of how to do so, having become aware of the legal uncertainty of much of Burdette's property. He's such a loser, however, that he can do nothing about it and is reduced to a paranoiac fear of Burdette ever lurking near him until he happens to run into just the person to help him. A chance encounter begins a mismatched partnership between the thuggish, weaselly Mitcham and the dandified "shrimp" called Rushton, who has the means and the apparently whimsical temperament to take on Burdette by running cattle on his supposed land. Rushton is a constant infuriating surprise to Mitcham, from his unlikely competence with a bullwhip to his ability to hold his own with Mitcham in a fight. He also has more stick-to-it-ness than Mitcham, who's willing to sell out immediately when Burdette suggests a price that strikes Mitcham as lordly but seems pathetic to Rushton, who has hinted at reasons of his own to stick it to Burdette. Burdette himself recognizes Rushton as the real threat and strives to flip Mitcham back to his side. Mitcham had seemed to be the protagonist of the story, but as his craven nature becomes undeniable Rushton becomes our hero as rough outdoor life rips away his veneer of refinement to reveal the real character beneath. This change gives the story more of an episodic quality than it probably should have, especially once it moves into endgame mode with Burdette tasking Mitcham to provoke a native uprising in order to destroy Rushton. Newsom is blunt about the fate of the continent's aborigines, making plain that relegating them to reservations is more or less a death sentence, but shows them little sympathy. The tribe Mitcham deals with is especially awful, their adoration of the man as a god (for providing them with booze, among other reasons) going horrifically overboard in a kind of parody of the Catholic Mass as the people become convinced that partaking of the divine flesh will give them magical powers. With Mitcham thus disposed of the stage is cleared for the showdown with Burdette in which Rushton finally reveals his grudge with the land baron. It proves to be typical melodramatic stuff: Rushton's grandfather once owned most of the land Burdette now holds, but was driven out after refusing to let Burdette marry his daughter, Rushton's mother. In the ultimate melodramatic moment, Burdette has a vision of the long-lost girl and promises not to harm her boy before dropping dead from a heart attack. It's a bit of a mess but still an entertaining story, and in any event this was still early in Newsom's career. He'd been publishing in Adventure since 1922, and his best work was still ahead of him.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

'It was I who suggested the idea of two impostors meeting each other.'

From the publishers of Weird Tales, Oriental Stories covered an expansive "East" extending from our Middle East to the Pacific. In the Winter 1932 issue, E. Hoffman Price and Otis Adelbert Kline's "The Dragoman's Jest" is a play on readers' fanciful notions of the East. In Egypt, a native coffee shop owner regaled a tourist with the tale of how a conniving draagoman -- a translator and tour guide -- became a wealthy grandee. Once upon a time, this man was giving his American mark the usual tour, mainly in order to mooch off him, when the American is suddenly smitten by the vision of a briefly unveiled Kurdish princess. He promises a big payoff if the guide can arrange a tryst with the eastern beauty. The guide arranges with the princess to concoct an exotic adventure for the American, only for authentic bandits to introduce an unwelcome element of realism. That only makes things more romantic, but in the end the American mass to pay a huge ransom to the chieftain to whom his beloved had been sold in order to rescue her and himself. Just in case any reader thought the American had gone too far in his romantic enthusiasm, our native narrator assures us that the princess was also an American tourist (from Keokuk, Iowa) living out a fantasy adventure -- and that the tour guide had arranged for the bandits and ended up, disguised as the chieftain, collecting the ransom money. In short, everyone put on a show based on what a couple of yokels expected from their land and people, and laughed all the way to the bank. Cute stuff.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

'I'm going back to white man's country, where you can see what you're fighting!'

Let's start a hopefully more productive new year with a trifle from the November 12, 1932 issue of Argosy. William E. Barrett's "Cat Hair" is a story of white men in the Solomon Islands, part of a genre that never ceases to fascinate me. What fascinates me about the genre, set in Africa most of the time, is the ambiguity of the stories' superficial racism. The whole genre most likely qualifies as racist because Africans and other natives are shown consistently to be subordinate and ideally subservient to whites. Yet black characters are often given heroic qualities, particularly those who serve as sidekicks to series characters like Jim the Hottentot in L. Patrick Greene's series about the Major. Heroism is conditional upon loyalty to the white man, of course, but subordination isn't necessarily synonymous with inferiority in these stories unless we're dealing with social status. As it happens, there aren't really any heroic native characters in "Cat Hair." What I like about Barrett's short story is its reversal of a familiar trope of such stories. The hero, Collishaw, drives a cruel and bigoted white colleague off the islands by playing on the white villain's susceptibility to superstition.

After seeing  the new man beat a "number one boy," Collishaw realizes that the new man is likely to provoke a native uprising that will wipe out the good whites as well as the bad. He can't openly reproach Bronson, as "He was too old a hand to take sides with a native against white authority, no matter how abused that authority might be." But when Bronson proves hatefully intractable Collishaw conspires with a native servant to put a permanent scare in the goon. He sets up a scenario in which the native will be caught trying to take some of Bronson's hair for a voodoo-style ritual cursing. He reassures Bronson that the man has only gotten away with hair from Collishaw's cat. When the cat turns up dead soon afterward he allows Bronson to draw his own conclusions, assuring a happy ending for all but the cat. In a move that might offend some modern readers, Collishaw sacrificed his pet, poisoning it to cinch the illusion of evil magic and frighten Bronson out of Africa. The modern reader might be forgiven for asking why Collishaw didn't just kick Bronson's ass, but a story like this is a window opening out to, if not a funhouse mirror reflecting another world -- or at the least it shows us how people from 86 years ago or so saw how their world worked.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

'Kitty Gardner couldn't be blamed for encouraging him, but the truth was going to be a bitter pill.'

T. T. Flynn is best known today for writing The Man From Laramie, the source for one of director Anthony Mann's great western films with Jimmy Stewart. By the time that story first appeared as a Saturday Evening Post serial in 1954 Flynn was primarily a western writer, but at the end of the 1930s westerns were only a small part of his output. "The Devil's Lode" (Western Story, June 24, 1939) was one of only two westerns Flynn wrote that year, the rest of his stories going to detective pulps. Perhaps because he still wrote westerns only infrequently, this 60 page "book-length novel" has some freshness to it. Its hero, Paso Brand, flees Mexico to escape the family of a rival suitor he'd killed. He befriends a beleaguered gold miner who helps him out of one revenge attack and has new problems to solve. The main problem, in theory, is which of Bull Gardner's men at their isolated mine is betraying Gardner to the outlaw band of Shorty Baxter. Flynn sets up a lot of possibilities, but isn't really writing a detective story here. He makes Gardner's right-hand man a red herring, suspicious to us because of his reflexive hostility to our hero. In a lot of pulp fiction first impressions tell the whole story, but Flynn departs from expectations by making this antagonist one of the good guys, if never really a friend to our hero. His biggest departure from convention involves Bull Gardner's daughter Kitty, the inevitable ingenue who seems predestined to be Paso Brand's girl. Paso Brand himself seems to take this for granted, which sets up a reversal that gives a humorous unity to the whole sprawling story. Another young member of that Mexican clan has fallen in with Shorty Baxter's gang by the time they capture Paso and Kitty. Juan Escobar is determined to take revenge on Paso at a time and place of his own choosing, but in the meantime Paso desperately encourages Kitty to butter him up. This works better than Paso anticipates, as Juan proves willing to free Paso and forget his family honor if Paso will help him keep Kitty out of the dirty hands of the outlaws. Of course, Paso is happy to go along, though he pities Escobar for a poor sap. He keeps thinking this way all the way to the end of the story, when he advises Kitty to let Juan down slowly.

'You've got a problem in young Escobar. He's head over heels in love. It'll take a lot of talkin' to make him ever think different.'
'I don't want him ever to think different! I love him! Where is he?' Kitty cried, turning to the door.
Paso's mouth was open soundlessly as she left the room, running toward the office.

Paso actually takes this like a good sport, perhaps realizing that some cosmic justice has resolved his feud with the Escobars by allowing one of them to steal a girl away from him. Of course, like many an old-time cowboy, at least in the more comical stories, he's happy to have gotten a good horse out of his adventure. "Devil's Lode" isn't really comical apart from the ending, but it's an entertaining piece with space enough for Flynn to create a convincing sense of isolation and danger in the distant mining camp if nothing else. The novella stands out in length and quality from the mostly mundane contents of this particular issue of Western Story and promises better things still when Flynn becomes more of a full-time western writer in the 1940s.

Friday, November 30, 2018

'I regret that one cannot speak freely in France these days unless one carries a bomb.'

When World War II came, Georges Surdez, who had been the Foreign Legion writer par excellence in pulp, made the new war his subject, whether it was fought by the Legion or by others. With the end of the war came a new shift, or at least the hint of one. "One For France and One For Me" (Adventure, January 1946) sees Surdez moving in an almost noirish direction, with an abrupt cynicism about the French Resistance so soon after the war. Norman, an American point-of-view character returning to a town where he'd been harbored by resistance fighters during the war finds himself caught up in a manhunt that appears mostly to be a settling of scores. His old buddy in the resistance, Frederic, is still a fugitive, only now hunted by a sovereign French regime that sees him as no more than a bandit. The more Norman learns about the war within the more, the darker and murkier the picture grows. Ordinary Frenchmen took advantage of both the Resistance and the Nazis to get rid of personal enemies, and the same situation holds, more or less, now that the war is over.

Suppose you are an employee in some large firm, next in line for a good job. You make your choice between the Gestapo and the Resistance. In the first case, you write, 'So-and-so takes strolls near the railway station often - he notes the troops passing through.' That's enough to get him picked up. To the Resistance you write: 'You wonder who tipped off the Boches about the aviator? Ask so-and-so.' And you get your promotion while the other chap's in jail, or after he's killed. Or say you're a middle-aged man with a pretty wife younger than yourself. She has a cousin of whom she's very fond. There's nothing wrong as yet, but you think there may be soon. A couple of notes and he is arrested as hostage, or deported to Germany. It's the lettre de cachet within the reach of all.

Frederic has many scores to settle. He wants to publish lists of informants that the new government would rather see suppressed. He especially wants revenge on a pathetic informer who turned his own daughter, the resistance fighter's lover, over to the Gestapo, supposedly on the naive assumption that she would quickly confess under pressure. She proved tougher than anyone thought and ended up dying under torture without naming names, and her blood is on her father's hands. Over time, Frederic killed the Germans who'd tortured his love, but his vengeance is incomplete while the old man lives. He's a juror for the trial of Frederic's grandfather, a fascist and collaborator. Tricking Norman into acting as his escort, Frederic invades the courtroom carrying a bomb. He wants the opportunity to denounce several of the jurors as crooks or collaborators, but wants to act as judge, jury and executioner for the old man. Living up to the principle that gave Surdez his title, Frederic kills his grandfather ("One for France"), then delivers the coup de grace to his true enemy after the spectators virtually lynch him ("One for me."). As a bonus, Frederic finally shoots himself. Almost inevitably, Norman learns that Frederic's bomb was a fake. A fellow American laughs cynically, but Norman "had believed in the bomb. And then, when you thought of Emilie and the others ... you did not feel like laughing at all." For one of Surdez's first postwar stories, this is an extraordinary piece of work.