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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

'We've drunk up more than one good man's bet because we were there an' he wasn't.'

Back last September, I enjoyed a James Mitchell Clarke story in Adventure that told the story of the siege of Jericho from the point of view of two immortal drunkards. I wondered whether the 1932 story was part of a series, and as it turns out, Clarke's pulp debut, "Punishment" (Adventure, April 1,1927) introduces Belshar and Hovsep sharing a drink with a Baltimore ship chandler and telling their version of the story of Jonah. As in the later story, Hovsep tells the tale in the vernacular of 1927, more or less, giving Biblical events a common touch. They remember Jonah as "the skinny Jew we took aboard at Joppa that time," seemingly unaware of the man's scriptural fame. "We none of us liked the look of him," Hovsep recalls, "Everybody in those days knew that Jews were apt to go crazy and live alone in the deserts, eating roots and wild honey. But this blighter looked half there, even if we weren't on to what he was." They probably wouldn't have called Jonah a "Jew" in his own day, but I suppose we can grant them some retroactive license. There's not really much story to tell here: inevitably a storm strikes, and inevitably Jonah volunteers to be thrown into the sea to appease his god. Our heroes have the job of throwing him in. "We hate like ---- to do this, mister," they tell him in Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's approved version, but as Hovsep recalls, "I'm a son-of-a-gun if the storm didn't go down within a half an hour." I like that the whale or great fish never comes into their story. All they see is a flash of lightning and "there was nothing where he had been but a big smother of foam among the waves."

As this was Clarke's debut, he gets a more in-depth introduction in the Camp-Fire section, where he's identified as a recent member of the Adventure staff. He also initials a profile of Gordon MacCreagh that appears this issue. He published a grand total of nine stories (and two poems) in the magazine between 1927 and 1933, plus another for the 1935 one-shot inventory-burner The Big Magazine and a reappearance in 1944. I don't know in how many of these Hovsep and Belshar appear, but stories like "Bayou Man" and "The Shooting of Johnny Corbeau" look like unlikely candidate. "Authority" from the June 15, 1932 issue (in my collection) is another Bayou story, but Clarke's second story, "Up to Heaven," sounds more promising, while "Fisherman," from 1931, could be another Bayou story or something about Jesus or his disciples. However more stories in this series there actually are, I look forward to reading them some day.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"This Robin Hood stuff is all blah in this super-civilized century."

Before turning his focus to Africa as an explorer and author, Gordon MacCreagh was more of a South American specialist, covering much of the same territory as Arthur O. Friel. "The Society of Condors" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) finds the author struggling to make some kind of political statement as well as a few thrills. It's a familiar sort of story for the period, plunging an American, in this case a reporter, in the middle of regional unrest, in this case a conflict between Peru and Chile further complicated by internal unrest. The reporter encounters a disgruntled, Euro-educated aristocrat who tells him that the problem with South America, plainly and simply, is politicians.

"In all our vast country conditions are as unfortunate as in yours, and in some cases even worse. We are in the hands of the politicos. And why? Senor, the answer is very simple. Because they are men who make politics their profession; while we, the great rest of the people, talk sometimes about politics a little and once a year or so some of us go out and vote. We are the amateurs; and it is an indisputable rule in every human endeavor that professionals inevitably and always have the advantage over amateurs."

Going deeper, the problem seems to be democracy. The aristocrat boasts of not voting, because "what are our few votes against the unthinking thousands?... Those of discernment, capable of judgment, are always outnumbered by the mass. And it is upon the dull-witted emotions of the many that the professionals ply their art." The remedy he proposes, for all intents and purposes, is terrorism, albeit in the romanticized form of costumed brigandry. "My contribution toward reform will be to catch as many of these exploiters as I may, as opportunity occurs or as I can make it, and I shall show them the error of their ways by the imposition of fine or castigation, as they case may best deserve."

The reporter's natural skepticism is overriden by the force of the man's personalities, but once we get to the main action of the story some time later, MacCreagh introduces an element of moral suspense; he "El Rey" of the Society of Condors been corrupted by his bitterness against the political class. The reporter encounters him again as he is holding one of the politicos hostage. Are the Condors no better, say, than the Ku Klux Klan, which the story invokes without naming it outright. El Rey seems to have taken some inspiration from the American organization:

"In your own country the similar plan of a secret society with an avowed intention of reform flourishes today, even though it attacks whole races and creeds. It throve amazingly until the ignorant and the self-seeking swarmed in and it became itself an organization of political ambition too enormously unwieldy to withstand the many enemies it had made."

You wonder whether MacCreagh is imagining a Latin America's distanced view of the Klan, or whether El Rey mouths the authors own opinion of the cross-burners. Bear in mind that back in 1923 Black Mask published a special Klan issue containing stories both pro and contra, so there was nothing in MacCreagh's day like the consensus we presume (or hope) to exist today. But if you look close enough there's a consistent theme denouncing self-interested politicians, though it's difficult to look at something that seems to say that the Klan was okay, maybe, before it went wrong somewhere. In El Rey's part of the world, the solution to the problem of the politician seems to be the disinterested benevolence of which only the aristocrat may be capable. El Rey's camp, one notices, is well furnished with servants, but what disturbs the American reporter is that the young idealist is willing to torture people to get money out of them. The reporter is invited to sit alongside the prisoner and pretend to be another captive. He's told that one of the prisoner's retinue has had his ear cut off, and is shown the thing still lying on the floor. Now the reporter's only thought is to rescue the prisoner and return him to civilization. Because this is a pulp story, he manages to do this -- but then we learn that El Rey allowed him to do it. The bandit leader couldn't just let his prisoner go because it might make him look soft, but now his reputation remains intact, and he has given his American friend a terrific story to report, though he presumably won't report how El Rey used an ear from an anatomical model to scare his captive. Does this amount to a vindication of El Rey's tactics and his worldview? Perhaps, but whether you agree with MacCreagh's implied conclusions or not, give him credit for an adventure story that's intellectually provocative as well.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

JUNGLE STORIES, Summer of 1947

In this entire issue of Fiction House's jungle quarterly, for all of its explicit or implicit racism, you won't really find a black villain. I suppose some may say this is another way to deny agency to Africans in their own country, but the more I read jungle stories the more I'm convinced that their ultimate subject isn't the savagery of Africa or Africans but the dangerous possibilities open to white people in a place where their "civilized" rules don't appear to apply. You have white men plotting to rob native treasures or exploit native resources, white men becoming priests or pretending to be gods of unspeakable cults -- two of this issue's stories feature crocodile cults -- and so on and on. Invariably they are thwarted by more virtuous whites -- sometimes barely more so -- almost always accompanied by some virtuous black who has perhaps a 50-50 chance of surviving the story. The authors were a familiar repertory company; all of this issue's authors had published in Jungle Stories before and most would often do so again. However, this issue's "The Terrible Drums" was Paul Selonke's last-published pulp story. The idea here is that gangsters have infiltrated darkest Africa pretending to film a documentary about a tribe's rhythmic healing ritual, their real agenda being to steal a legendary ruby-encrusted blanket. The irony is that the rubies are fakes, the sort of stuff traders bestow on gullible natives, while the drum ritual, according to our white protagonist, has a genuine therapeutic effect -- if you're not driven mad by the drums, as the bad guys will be in a well-meaning native attempt to cure their madness.

If there's anything unusual about Bryce Walton's "The Silver Kraal," it's that the story is told from a female viewpoint. If not quite a complete heroine, Florence Sullivan has the look of a Fiction House superwoman: a "tall, lithe white woman ... The native policeman who walked stiffly beside her was barely taller than she, and he was tall." Her main purpose is to inspire a broken-down white explorer to clean up, regain his sanity and avenger her father, the victim of one of those crocodile cults. It turns out, of course, that a wicked white man has usurped the otherwise-harmless cult for his own nefarious purposes. In Emmett McDowell's "Bwana Two-Sleep," another strong female goes to Africa to investigate whether her father's mine is played out and should be sold, and another strong man helps her thwart the Russian who hopes to take the rich lode for a song or, failing that, feed the heroine to the crocodiles. In Alexander Wallace's "Killer's Spoor" a white woman, daughter of another martyred explorer, has become "Matyenda," the mother-goddess-good luck charm of the Mpongwe tribe, but of course she must be rescued from this exalted state by the generic hero.

The least generic of this issue's heroes is Dan Cushman's recurring character, "Armless" O'Neil. Cushman is best known for his westerns, and pretty much boasted of writing African stories without any basis in expertise, but he's also easily the best writer in this particular issue and O'Neil's hard-boiled exuberance in "Five Suns to Angola!", in which the hook-handed hero goes reluctantly to great pains to transport a payload of potential medicinal value, overwhelms any objections to his portrayal of the dark continent, which is probably no less fact-based than anyone else's here. In any event Fiction House's jungle is as much a fantasy world as pulpdom's innumerable Chinatowns any other locales where readers could dream of getting away with the impossible or the impermissible by the standards of ordinary life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

'I don't know who this man 'science' is, but he's a fool to take such chances.'

The adventures of Ki-Gor, White Lord of the Jungle, are some of the pulpiest stuff, in one sense of the word, of the 1940s. One of many imitation Tarzans, Ki-Gor was the star of Fiction House's quarterly Jungle Stories, published from 1938 to 1954. Authorship was credited to John Peter Drummond, a house name covering a number of authors. I don't know who actually authored "Warrior-Queen of Attila's Lost Legion" (Summer 1947), but the writer doesn't quite have the formula down. He makes a throwaway reference to the typical banter between Ki-Gor's two black sidekicks, the American boxer turned Masai chieftain Tembu George and pygmy chief N'Geeso -- themselves imitations of the two sidekicks of Gordon MacCreagh's Kingi Bwana -- but can't be bothered to actually write out their usual ball-busting. I can't say that I missed it, but I noticed it wasn't there. For that matter, there's no mention of George's American origins, and the first-time reader might assume that he's as much an African native as N'Geeso, though as a black man turned jungle lord of a sort he's one of the most potentially fascinating characters in pulpdom. Ki-Gor himself is a cookie-cutter clone, articulate like the literary Tarzan rather than primitive like the Tarzan of contemporary movies.  He's often upstaged on the magazine covers by his mate Helene, though that's less a reflection on Ki-Gor than standard Fiction House cover policy favoring cheesecake.

In any event, "Warrior Queen" pits the gang against yet another decadent lost civilization. Tarma, queen of the Maldeans, claims descent from "At-La," provoking speculation of Hunnish lineage, though I'm not sure that would be consistent with her lily-white status. She's the last pure-blood Maldean, the rest having interbred with natives, and she's looking for a white lord of the jungle to help her continue the royal line. The fact that Ki-Gor has a mate is immaterial, and the fact that Helene stabbed a particular ugly Maldean ape will only make it easier to put her out of the way. The gray ape, whom American explorer Williams wants to keep alive for the sake of science, is in fact an "earth god," a presumably sentient being with a language Tarma has mastered. Earth gods are, as you might expect, sacred, so both Helene and Williams, who dared capture one, are guilty of sacrilege and due to be sacrificed. The main action of the story is the capture of the two whites and the pursuit of the Maldeans -- just for the heck of it, their military commander is a hunchback -- by Ki-Gor and friends. I like pulp stories that pile wild new details on top of old ones, so we're well into the story by the time we find out that Tarma has control over dinosaurs thanks to a special reed whistle. The action takes us to the edge of spicy content, as Helene is subject to a whipping, though the villain gets only one stroke in before a berserk Ki-Gor intervenes. As I find to be typical of Jungle Stories, the narrative moves along quite nicely, the black characters are resourceful but deferential to the infallible white lord, and Ki-Gor himself is the least interesting element in the story. Luckily, his adventures are often fun in spite of him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

'I think it would clear the situation if the witness would explain what he means by drawing a blank.'

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is best known to history for effectively inventing the American comic-book with the 1935 publication of New Fun, the first magazine to feature all original comic strips instead of reprints from the newspapers. In pulpdom, he specialized, in Adventure at least, in stories inspired by his experience as a cavalryman in the U.S.-ruled Philippine islands. One such story is "Court-Martial" (January 1, 1932), but the court-martial proves to be only a framing device. A soldier is accused of the premediated murder of a native civilian, the premeditation apparently proved by his having gone to his squadroom after first encountering the victim in order to get his pistol. The defendant remembers nothing of this, however, having drank heavily that night. Our narrator is an officer serving on the court-martial panel who suggests during questioning that the defendant simply drew a blank and was no longer in his right mind when he fetched his weapon and shot his man. Finally, seven pages into the story, he begs his fellow officers' indulgence as he tells a story from his own experience as another example of drawing a blank. No, the narrator himself did no such thing, but he knew a young officer who did just that following the kidnapping of a Spanish girl by Moro bandits. Wheeler-Nicholson has the decency to interrupt his narrative occasionally to have the other officers express the impatience with his long-winded raconteur that some readers may have felt after a while. It's not that the story he tells is bad, or that Wheeler-Nicholson tells it badly. It's just unrealistic that the other officers would let him ramble on and on, in nearly novelistic detail -- technically it's a novelette -- when he probably could have gotten to the main point much quicker and with fewer literary flourishes. The payoff, finally, is that the our narrator changed the names in his story. The defendant is the sergeant whose kidnapped beloved killed herself in captivity, his victim a former bandit who insulted her memory, and his captain, who went on a drunken raid against the Moro camp only to forget it afterward, having drawn the proverbial blank, is none other than the fussy, teetotaling colonel who presides over the court-martial. That's a cute finish, but Wheeler-Nicholson simply takes too long getting to what is, ultimately, only a modest punchline.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

'I am a fighter. A man fighter.'

You can tell a pulp writer is confident of his storytelling ability, not to mention his story, when he skips an opportunity to write out a fight scene. In "Big Fella" (Adventure, January 1, 1932) Robert Carse has his protagonist, a Texas boxer stranded in Spain by an absconding manager, try to earn money by betting that "no man can known me off this handkerchief when I spread it on the floor and stand upon it." The scene ends just as it's about to begin, with "Big Fella" eagerly waiting for three men to take their shots. Carse ends a paragraph on an ellipsis, and starts the next the next morning, with our hero "full of food and equally full of liquor." He'll try the stunt again shortly, only to almost lose when a matador confronts him. The matador's protege sees potential in Big Fella's footwork and poise, despite his size. The Texan will train to be a bullfighter, but will also use his ranching expertise to help raise the bulls. Things get a bit corny from there, as Big Fella befriends a bull that rescues him from another rampaging animal, only to find himself encountering his taurine savior in the bullring as a substitute toreador in his first public performance. I couldn't help but be reminded of the cartoon where Popeye the Sailorman insists that "I ain't gonna harm no bull!" In this case, to prove to a hostile crowd that he's no coward, Big Fella fights the bull the American way, by steer wrestling the animal into submission. All ends well as the American keeps his job on the ranch, after conceding that "a big man can fight the bulls; but not a man who hasn't Spanish blood." The Spaniards don't see that as an insult, though I wonder. Carse wrote more than one bullfighting story in his career, though it was at most a minor subgenre for him. This story, however, gives you the idea that he had the bullfighting bug nearly as bad as Hemingway did; this came out the same year as the great man's Death in the Afternoon. "Big Fella" is relatively minor Carse, but minor Carse is usually above the pulp average.