Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Won't have to listen to the woman killer yelpin' while his neck is stretchin'.'

Action Stories was Fiction House's answer to the general-interest adventure pulps like Argosy, Blue Book, Short Stories and, of course, Adventure. The title, which is self-explanatory, may be best known today as one of Robert E. Howard's more reliable markets. It came out monthly until the end of 1932, when the Depression forced an almost-year long hiatus, after which it returned as a bimonthly. In later years it was almost entirely western in content, but in 1932 there was a greater mix of subject matter, with Albert Richard Wetjen's violent tales of South Seas sailors among the most popular stories. Compared to Wetjen, Art Lawson was a rookie when "Hanging Bee" (September 1932) became his Action Stories debut. It's a grim little tale of a sheriff, the man accused of murdering his girl, and a lynch mob. Sheriff Matt Babcock is introduced brooding over a photo of his dead beloved; he can't look at the picture without envisioning her strangled and in her grave. He has every reason to hate the accused killer, Steve Jackson, and does hate him, but he also believes in the rule of law. In other words, we have the classic setup for the lawman facing down a lynch mob ... except that a crucial clue that would cinch the case has yet to turn up, and Jackson's brothers are waiting outside to shoot the sheriff, while other citizens are filling up with liquid courage before setting out on the lynch. Under these pressures, Babcock sells Jackson on the idea of sneaking him out of prison by disguising him as the sheriff, on the condition that Jackson return in two weeks to stand trial. It's unclear at this point whether Babcock wants Jackson to escape or expects him to be killed by his own brothers. He tells Jackson to make it look convincing by slugging him, tying him up, and leaving him in a cell. The uncertain Jackson notices that Babcock, trussed up, "looked almost happy." He manages to dodge his brothers' bullets, not knowing the source, while the mob takes advantage of the confusion to storm the jail. The one unconvincing part of the story is how readily the mob accepts the tied-up and gagged Babcock as Jackson. A character actually wonders aloud why the prisoner would be tied up, but another likes the idea of keeping him gagged as he hangs. Of course, we learn at the end that it was Babcock, not Jackson, who killed the girl, the incriminating ring finally falling out of a pocket when his corpse is thrown across a saddle. So did he want to die, or did a plan to get Jackson killed trying to escape backfire on him. That "almost happy" bit makes you wonder. But if he wanted to die, why not confess -- and if he wanted to get away with murder, why not get rid of the ring instead of carrying it around? It's all kind of confusing, but it's actually a good kind of confusing with a touch of morbid ambiguity, perhaps more subtle than what you'd expect from something called Action Stories or from an author less than a year in the business. Lawson had a long career ahead of him. Ironically enough, in light of this tale, he ended up a specialist in western romance stories.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

'A decent-hearted straight-spoken white man reduced to that! And liking it! It's rotten!'

Arthur O. Friel includes a history lesson in his novelette "Killer's Gold" (Adventure, August 1, 1935) and editor Howard V.L.  Bloomfield makes a point of informing readers that the backstory to the tale's treasure hunt is "actual Alto Orinoco history." The killer of the title is Tomas Funes, a "petty trader" who seized control of Venezuela's Amazonas territory in 1913 and held it for approximately eight years of "terror and murder." He's long gone by the time of Friel's story and only comes into it relatively late. At first it's the story of Pierce, sole survivor of a doomed expedition who encounters the vicious river trader/pirate Jacobo Dominguez. Predictably, Friel makes a big deal of Jacobo's black skin, though he makes a point later of saying while Funes was white, "inwardly he was even blacker" than the present-day villain. What gets Pierce's goat is that a fellow white man, calling himself "John Doe," is one of Jacobo's minions, though he also helps Pierce escape from Jacobo's clutches at a crucial point. Doe's complacency offends Pierce's sense of race prestige, but it turns out that Doe (short for Dolan) has an ulterior, selfish motive for sticking with Jacobo. He's after a long-rumored buried treasure of Funes' -- in the Camp Fire section Friel notes that no such had been found as of 1935 -- and when his path crosses again with Pierce's he figures a fellow American will help him so they can both get out of the benighted country. With one local guide of dubious loyalty, the Americans find the treasure and fight their way through Jacobo's effort to hijack it, predictably losing their token Venezuelan along the way. The poor superstitious chap believes that the dead hand of Tomas Funes claimed him, and Friel may mean to suggest that he's right in a way. In Camp Fire, he virtually apologizes for writing such a sordid portrait of Venezuela and feels obliged to remind readers that not everyone down there is a savage like the historical Funes or the fictional Jacobo. His story may well be a history lesson for anyone who hears about Venezuela in the 21st century and has the idea that everything was hunky dory down there before Hugo Chavez and his idiot understudy Maduro came along. As for Pierce and Dolan, there's a hint that they might become another of Friel's adventure teams, but as far as I know "Killer's Gold" was their one and only appearance. It's an interesting story regardless as an example of how Friel's own experiences in Venezuela -- he visited Funes' capital shortly after the tyrant fell -- shaped and darkened his once more romantic view of the region and its people.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

'He's utterly amoral, Yank, if you know what that means.'

In "The Bond of Bully Haines" (Adventure, February 1, 1930), L. Patrick Greene grapples with the allure of the antihero, the outlaw with a code, and maybe confesses more than he meant to. The title character, a "recruiter" who raids African villages for forced labor, is seen from the conflicted perspective of an American narrator who eventually joins the Rhodesian police force. The narrator introduces himself getting rolled by "Yellow Rose," a mixed-race prostitute, and her "dago" boyfriend in Portuguese-ruled Lourenco Marques. They beat him up again when he wakes up and wants his money back, but his rage against them vanishes when Bully Haines, just out of prison, appears in the dive to fulfill an earlier vow of revenge. Greene sets the ambivalent tone by having Haines arrive with a beam of sunlight flashing through the doorway into the dark dive. The narrator sees the denizens cowering as if they fear the light itself, as if they're vampires. He soon realizes that Haines may be a worse monster than any of them. He vowed to kill the dago and disfigure Yellow Rose for having ratted him out to the authorities, and the narrator watches in horror as he carries out his vow. Forgetting his own grievance, he tries to rescue Rose, only to be flung aside by Haines. Yet when a group of "dago" policemen arrive to arrest "Bloody Haines," our hero feels an impulse to defend him. He's dangerously fascinated by the idea that Haines always keeps his word. Told by a friend that Haines has "never been known to go back on that," the narrator goes off on a racial rhapsody.

"He must be a real white man, then," I said, thinking of the men of the West I'd known -- square, honest, law abiding men whose word was their bond. But Doc looked at me queerly. And he said:
"It all depends, doesn't it, on what sort of word he gives? But he said he'd mark Yellow Rose. He said he'd kill Pedro. And he did. He's utterly amoral, Yank, if you know what that means. And, if you're wise, you'll never get in his path...."

Yet he can't help admiring the way Haines sweeps up the head policeman and spanks him in front of everyone, fifty slaps for the fifty lashes he took in prison. He can't help not liking it when two more policemen skulk toward Haines to hamstring him with their knives.

Say, I couldn't sit there an' see that happen. Maybe there ain't no justification for what I did. Well, what of it? I ain't looking for justification; not in this world anyway. Maybe Bully Haines was a murderer, an' all the things I've since learnt about him, an' deserved what looked like coming to him. Maybe, I say. But I didn't stop to consider anything like that. He was, as I saw it, then, a white man, an' white men have got to stick together.

Our hero puts Haines in his debt by his intervention, though Bully naturally boasts that he could have taken care of all the cops himself. As this is a pulp story, you can guess pretty confidently that Haines will repay his debt, no matter how evil he's shown to be in the narrator's own judgment. The Texan is a casual racist himself, routinely using the dreaded n-word to describe the people of Africa, but he tells us that he came to like and respect many Africans -- "They can teach a white man a lot if he's willing to learn" -- while on the evidence of his antagonist's atrocities "I reckoned Bully Haines didn't think of niggers as people. He couldn't have done things that way, else." As an officer of the law he's sincerely dedicated to hunting down and destroying Haines.

And yet, when a moment comes when it looks like Africans are going to carry out vigilante justice against Haines, most likely the slow, spectacular way, our narrator reverts back to the form he showed in the Lourenco Marques dive. He has the drop on Haines when a vigilante leader charges in.

I shifted my aim. God knows why. I'd got nothing against the nigger. He was going to do what I hadn't the nerve to do. An' yet, seems like I've only had one creed knocked into me ever since I was knee high to a yearling. White men must stick together. I ain't trying to justify myself. I'm stating facts. I shifted my aim, an' the nigger fell.

It's as if, in L. Patrick Greene's mind, some race-instinct in some way makes all whites, or all self-conscious whites, complicit in the crimes of the worst by refusing to make them accountable to their victims. Of course, this is also the standard pulp trope you see most often in westerns when whites must convince Indians that white villains who've wronged them must be left to white man's law. The implicit argument often is that aboriginal peoples are too inclined to carry justice to sadistic excess, but back of that is some fundamental if not instinctual (according to pulp thinking) refusal of accountability to the other. Suffice it to say, of course, that Haines rewards our hero's impulse of solidarity by remembering the debt he owes the man, which our hero himself claims to have forgotten. Our hero and his men are in the path of indiscriminate vengeance, but Haines negotiates their safe withdrawal on the condition that he will return to accept the vigilante tribesmen's justice. They accept the deal, and our hero assumes that Haines will renege. Haines even says so, but this turns out to be a necessary lie to get our hero out of harm's way, after which, with our hero unable to stop him, Bully Haines recrosses the river to keep his last word.

In the end, Greene makes his narrator admirably inarticulate. Haines was "A bloody villain, if there ever was one. But wasn't he something else, too? I dunno! This blasted jungle fever fogs a man's judgment." I'm not sure Greene himself really reconciled the ambiguity, but he may not have though it possible. It all put me in mind of the scene in The Wild Bunch when William Holden argues with Ernest Borgnine over Robert Ryan's siding with the railroad detectives hunting them. Holden rejects Borgnine's vilification of their old friend, reminding Borgnine that Ryan had given his word to his new employer. Borgnine answers that it's not your word that matters, but who you give it to. With Bully Haines, you have to ask why it should matter that he keeps his word when you consider everything else he does. For the narrator, keeping one's word is "white," but to admire Haines for keeping his word is pretty much to betray the narrator's own principles as they've evolved over his time in Africa. You might ask how likely it is for as unprincipled a person as Bully Haines to keep his word consistently, but to question that premise probably misses the real point. From the "crime does not pay" standpoint, the idea of the outlaw who lives by a code is a dangerous illusion, or an excuse to admire utterly undeserving characters. In the case of Bully Haines, admiration for an outlaw's code seems even more like an excuse to avoid a necessary reckoning, even as Greene and the narrator recognize explicitly that Haines is as much a product of an oppressive system as he is an original sinner. Speaking for myself, those stories where the officer has to protect the white outlaw from the angry natives never really ring true. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd let the people with the grievance have those bastards.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

'Men like Jack Masters still lived, but there were not very many of them.'

Day Keene is one of the major writers of hard-boiled or noirish paperback original novels in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, he had a substantial background in the detective pulps, including the legendary Black Mask in its waning days. He wasn't much of a western writer until late in his pulp career. He published something in the January 1941 Star Western and didn't return to the genre, to judge from titles, until 1948. From then until 1951 Keene published with some frequency in Popular Publications' western titles, mostly in Fifteen Western Tales. "Hang the Man High!" (January 1949) seems partly inspired by The Ox-Bow Incident in its focus on the buildup to the lynching of some cattle rustlers. Unlike in that novel, the three in this story -- an old man, a young man, and a Mexican -- are guilty, but there's more to them, or at least to their ringleader, than their crime. Unfortunately, once one of the would-be lynchers idly lets the name of Jack Masters drop in conversation, and the narrative segues into an account of Masters' legendary exploits, Keene pretty much telegraphs that the taciturn oldster waiting to be hanged is the idolized Masters fallen on hard times. He manages to maintain an emotional suspense as Masters' angry son warns him constantly against revealing his identity, until the boy finally yells the truth at the obtuse lynchers. Alas, either Keene or his editor felt the story needed a happy ending, so a test of marksmanship is made so Masters can prove his identity, since "shooting is like riding a horse. If a man can, he can." And once his identity is proven, one of the lynchers, an especially good sport, recalls that his father cheated Masters out of a herd of cattle in a card game. As far as this worthy is concerned, that makes the rustled cattle rightfully the rustlers'. Isn't that nice? There's enough in this eight-page story to verify that Keene is a good writer of dialogue, at least, but the main impression the tale makes is of a writer paying his bills by giving a genre audience the sort of gimmicky stuff they presumably wanted.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pulp Poetry

Some writers of pulp prose have been elevated into the American literary canon, but that'll most likely never happen to the pulp poets. They were too old-fashioned, too dedicated to rhyme, meter and entertainment, and they could not be said to unveil hidden aspects of American life or the American psyche as the most acclaimed story writers are thought to have. It might still surprise people to find poetry in pulp, on the assumption that pulp readers might find any poetry to be some sort of mush. Yet you found it fairly regularly, in Adventure and other general fiction mags, in Weird Tales from the pens of Lovecraft, Howard and others, and quite often in western pulps, where poetry fit in with a tradition of balladry. One of the westerners, S. Omar Barker, was arguably the poet laureate of pulp, publishing prolifically (and in prose as well) from the 1920s into the 1970s, when he appeared frequently in the short-lived Far West. Barker was often, if not always, a comical poet, which probably put his work further into literary disrepute, but when he had the bit between his teeth he could at least entertain in fairly musical fashion. Here's a nice example of his work, handsomely presented in a two-page spread from a recently-scanned issue of Fifteen Western Tales from January 1949. It's actually pretty witty in its set-up for a triumph of peace-on-earth Christmas spirit and its punchline emphasis on simple carnal desire. If not fine art, Barker's stuff could count as folk art in future historians' eyes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

'Boil my eyebrows!...Why, this is booze and not such bad booze at that.'

Whether it was good or bad, I would have given a shout-out to Allan Vaughan Elston's modern-day western "The Ranch on Red River" (Adventure, July 1, 1929) because its hero hails from my current home town of Albany, New York. It turned out to be fairly entertaining. Our Albanian hero, Tom Hargrove, decides to visit a borderland property he owns incognito, in order to learn the ranch trade from the ground floor from Adolph Glover, who runs the place on lease. Hargrove hasn't sent word to Glover, wanting to be treated without privilege as a common working man. It's a cliched situation but Elston has already complicated the situation by showing us that Glover is a bootlegger. He raises hay but sneaks a bottle of booze into each bale as it's being baled, a dangerous procedure that could cost an uncareful man a finger or an arm. Given his occupation, it's no surprise to readers that he isn't willing to take on a new, anonymous hand. The way he blows off Hargrove is a nice rebuke to all the stories where it's oh so easy for the hero to land a position without pulling rank. Hargrove's refusal to carry identification actually gets him into deep trouble after Glover discovers that he's discovered Glover's secret, albeit by accident. Glover's natural assumption is that Hargrove is a federal investigator sneaking around after evidence. He and his henchmen debate whether to "bump" the stranger, but all they really need to do is eliminate the evidence of their racket, since who'd take the word of a mere hobo?

Hargrove is no mere dilettante but a pulp hero, so he manages to escape his captivity, killing one of Glover's hands with a pitchfork in the process. He seeks out the local district attorney, not realizing, as we already do, that this mobbed-up official is in cahoots with Glover. The D.A. is obliged to call in Hargrove's Albany lawyer, but uses stall tactics to delay Hargrove's trial, during which the defendant intends to denounce Glover, until all the evidence is safely out of the way. He doesn't realize that Hargrove, before turning himself in, had secreted a damning bale of hay acquired during the confusion caused by just the sort of accident Elston prompted us to anticipate at the start of the story. Lawyerly chicanery could still raise reasonable doubt as to whether Glover was responsible for planting the bottle in the bale, but by gruesome good luck Hargrove has won the evidentiary lottery. The story closes as a court official cuts open the bale, revealing not only a bottle but Glover's guilty hand! -- "a thing of hairs and dead flesh ... an exhibit of compelling potence." I didn't think Elston, a writer who started relatively late (first publishing in pulp at age 38) but became quite prolific in the 1930s, had such strong stuff in him. Most of what I've read from him has been relatively bland, but there's a playfulness to this one, as well as a bit of nastiness, that makes it my favorite story of his so far.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

'I'm not enthusiastic about crawling around in front of the enemy with a lunatic'

Leonard H. Nason is the pulp laureate of World War I, but instead of lamenting the losses and horrors he makes comedy of the conflict's chaos. "The Friend of His Youth" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) is one of the most bizarre Nason stories I've read to date. It's the story of a relatively inconsequential patrol turned into a living hell for one Lt. Lipp of the U.S. Army by his encounter with one Sgt. Sheehan, nee Wladichesnikov of Weehawken. "The facial angle, the shape of the nose and the curly hair that escaped from under the too large helmet proclaimed that the sergeant belonged to a race which, though not without honor, is more celebrated for its commercial abilities than for its prowess in battle," Nason narrates from the point of view of Lt. Sewall, an anxious bystander to Sheehan's feud with Lipp, nee Lipovitschky. Lipp denies knowing Sheehan, who would get on a man's nerves whether you knew him before or not, regardless of his record of heroism in battle. Nason seems to forget about that record as Sheehan seems to go literally insane in his obsession with Lipp, inviting sniper rounds as he raves loudly at his (imagined?) antagonist as the patrol searches for stray Germans to take prisoner and discovers a boat the Germans use to send their own patrols into No Man's Land. I was surprised to see Sheehan and Lipp call each other "kikes," which is one of those words the sometimes fastidious Arthur Sullivant Hoffman saw fit to print in his magazine while censoring every "hell" or "damn." They lose Lipp along the way but recover him unwittingly, mistaking him for a German and clobbering him in the boat. On the bright side, the patrol captures a genuine German, though he's actually a Polish-American who got drafted after his mother took him back to the old country, and he happily tells the Americans all they need to know. In the end, Lipp's reputation is ruined to save Sewell's, while Sheehan raves, "Say something dirty kikes now! I says, but all he could say was 'glub.'" With this one Nason takes the chaos of war to the point where it doesn't quite make sense, but I suppose that was his idea all along. It's too far over the top for my taste, but it's still an entertaining war story from one of the best at that particular game.