Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"I was to be a first Earth meal for the abomination of the Universe!"

 
Of the so-called big four general-adventure pulps, Argosy published the most science fiction (or "fantastics" as they were often called in the 1930s, while Adventure probably ran the least, if any. Blue Book ran a fair amount, most notably Wylie and Balmer's When Worlds Collide and its sequel but also quite a bit from Nelson Bond and others in the 1940s. Anthony M. Rud was no sci-fi specialist. The onetime editor of Adventure had no specialty that I can see, though he published detective stories about Jigger Masters throughout his career. Rud's "Visitors from Venus" from the October 1937 Blue Book is really more horror than science fiction. It's horror of the "Look how horrified I am!" sort, heavy on not only the exclamation points but also whole paragraphs of italics in case readers might miss the urgency of an alien invasion.

Tom, our narrator, recalls events from the previous year from a converted chicken house in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, on a farm where 1,800 hens died in the events to be narrated, and where Annie Overalls the husky handywoman says, "This land is damned." It was damned by the naivete of Tom's astronomy mentor, Dr. Armstrong, who called him to New England to help unearth a spaceship from Venus that crashed into Ranger Mountain. From his observatory in Arizona Armstrong had been in contact with Venus, and specifically "Ooloo, the highest-powered of six message-sending stations," for several years. It was often a one-way conversation. "They never thank me," he complains, "They always ask more questions. They never answer the questions I ask -- or only partly. I -- well, to be frank, Tom, they have me worried. I fear they have no souls."

Armstrong keeps digging just the same, and as they unearth the vessel a "disintegration mechanism" activated by contact with air breaks down the vehicle's protective shell. A little more foreshadowing is in order. With hindsight, Tom knows that "more than 200,000 loathsome things were waiting down there -- held by a high pressure of indrawn breath, in that queerly constructed cylinder below ground. Waiting to destroy me, the Doctor, Helen, Mrs. Kramer, Annie Overalls, the half-witted Ranny and every other human being and living thing on the face of Mother Earth!" (emphasis in original)

The Venusians are sort of freeze dried until released, then forming "floating amber-colored balloons" that quickly turn predatory, attacking en masse and smothering people before settling down for dinner. "Oh, God, i was insane then for a time myself!" Tom recalls, "Those damned things were alive! They had big spots like bull's-eyes, that stared unwinkingly at me! Seven eyes apiece! I shrieked and tried to run."

Armstrong is killed and Annie Overalls scarred by the aliens, but like any proper monster they prove vulnerable to fire, as Tom discovers when he reaches desperately for a cigarette lighter as his only tool of defense. If that didn't work, "I was to be a first Earth meal for the abomination of the Universe!" Instead, some other unfortunates are the first meal before Tom can get a big enough fire going to wipe out the invaders. Later, he learns, Armstrong's old correspondents from Ooloo threw a hissy fit over what happened and informed the doctor's assistant in Arizona that they won't talk to Earth any more. I think the assistant was going to kill himself anyway to close the story, after what had happened to Earth, but that couldn't have helped much. In the end, "Visitors" is no more than an exercise in hysteria that looks cheesily out of place in the relatively upscale pulp confines of Blue Book. In fact, it was advertised on the cover, presumably because Rud had some prestige with pulp readers. And to be fair, I've read some Rud stories that I've liked. But "Visitors" is the sort of story that gave pulp a bad name.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

THIS DAY IN COLLIER'S WEEKLY: January 17, 1942

Ernest Haycox was an old Collier's hand by this point, and part eight of his ten-part serial Alder Gulch isn't exactly an event unto itself. But this issue features the one and only appearance in Collier's of Gordon MacCreagh.  A pulp veteran who'd been landing stories in Adventure since 1913, MacCreagh specialized in African stories, though not exclusively, and walked the walk by going on an expedition to Ethiopia for Adventure in 1927. He got a break in 1935 when Italy's invasion of Ethiopia made his expertise newsworthy. MacCreagh published a profile of Haile Selassie for The Saturday Evening Post and sold two more stories to that slickest of slicks the following year. "A Stone in a Sling" almost certainly was written and accepted for publication before Pearl Harbor. It's set in Qantara, a town at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula with strategic importance for the British Empire's war effort. MacCreagh gives us three protagonists: Prudence, a pretty young missionary teacher; "Dingo" Menges, a somewhat ineffectual Australian lieutenant; and Dawud ben Yessieh, a Bedouin boy whose name transliterates, as we're informed in the story's first sentence, as "David son of Jesse." The boy is good with a sling and is getting paid for target practice by his "uncle," a blue-eyed Tuareg from Libya who keeps most of his face veiled.

As MacCreagh explains, "since all good Mohammedans are brothers in Islam, Arab courtesy, imposed upon a boy more strictly than ever teacher imposed a moral precept, designated as uncle any stranger of the faith who sojourned within their tents." Of course, for the 1942 reader "uncle's" blue eyes are the tip-off that the man isn't a Tuareg or Berber at all, but a German whose Arabic is presumably fluent enough to fool all the Arabs in Qantara, with the help of the veil. He has an idea to sabotage Suez Canal traffic by training Dawud to put a sling shot through a ventilator hole of a transport ship, the boy not knowing that the shot is explosive.

Since we're in the slicks a romance plot is important to the story. Prudence has an unspoken crush on Dingo, and Dawud tries to help her out by stealing an "incantation" from his "uncle." The uncle calls his papers incantations, and Dawud notices that the writing resembles the Latin script Prudence keeps trying to teach him. When the boy presents her with one of the incantations, which will supposedly grant her soul's desire, Prudence recognizes the writing as German and the contents as details of a cargo scheduled to go through the Canal. Racing to find Dawud and his "uncle," she manages to distract the boy at the last moment before he lets his lethal shot fly. It still makes a "hell's fury" of flame on the deck, but it won't sink the ship. Dingo only gets himself shot by the Kraut, and Prudence gets herself clobbered trying to save him while the enemy lapses into vaudeville German ("Joost so your devil's woman don't schoot  at me yet, I leaf no weapon."), so it's up to Dawud to save the day, Old Testament style.

Besides this and the Haycox chapter, you also get one of William MacHarg's laconic O'Malley mysteries, an optimistic account of the Air Force's performance in the Philippines so far, a still more optimistic account of American scientists gearing up for war service, a less optimistic account of the Japanese sinking of two British battleships, a report on West Coast wartime measures ("residents displayed no bitterness toward Coast Japanese...") and a warning against Axis-inspired rumors, the "fake news" of the day, as well as one of Arthur Szyk's distinctively grotesque anti-Axis covers. Browse at your leisure by following this link.

Monday, January 16, 2017

VINTAGE PAPERBACK OF THE WEEK: Dan Cushman, THE FORBIDDEN LAND (1958)

Dan Cushman made his first sale to Fiction House in 1940, but it didn't see print until a 1943 issue of North-West Romances. The Fiction House pulps remained his most dependable market throughout the 1940s, though he broke into the slicks early with a 1945 Esquire story. If Cushman is known today it's for his westerns, including the modern-day Indian story Stay Away, Joe, which was his biggest success. That novel became a Book of the Month Club selection, a Broadway musical, and an Elvis Presley film reputed to be among his worst. Cushman lived to see it widely repudiated for its supposed patronizing attitude toward its subjects. While the western was his main genre, Cushman also became a mainstay of Fiction House's Jungle Stories, and Altus Press has collected his Armless O'Neil stories for that magazine. As the pulps died and paperback originals flourished Cushman continued to write exotic tales of Africa and the South Seas, including a 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal novel that barely merits a mention in Brent D. McCann's master's-thesis biography of the author. McCann -- and, presumably, Cushman himself, whom McCann interviewed extensively -- dismissed The Forbidden Land as "light" fiction, and that's probably being generous. I've read some good Cushman western stories, including one of his Pecos Kid tales for the short-lived Popular Publications pulp of that name, but he pretty much phoned in Forbidden Land.



Cushman wrote his exotics with little or no first-hand experience of their settings, and while the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya is mentioned, and a "Maji-Maji" menace dating back to early 20th century Tanzania is invoked on the back cover, Forbidden Land really isn't about Africa at all. Africa serves the purpose it did most of the time in Jungle Stories, as a lawless, amoral setting for black savagery or white depravity, depending on the author. Cushman opts for white depravity. At first Forbidden Land reads like something more conventional. Our protagonist, Ray Blades, deals in contraband ivory and guns for the Maji-Maji, but the novel quickly stops being about smuggling and native uprisings once Blades is mistaken for an old acquaintance, Fenton, who is involved in a bizarre conspiracy. Someone got the brilliant idea to turn part of Mozambique into South Israel, hoping to make money off Jewish settlers who found Palestine too crowded, violent, or morally troubling a place to make homes in. The plan quickly went south, with the original pioneers and investors held as hostages by "Lutgow, the most feared and hated man in all of Africa." Lutgow is German by birth but was raised by an English stepfather after World War I. He talks in a vaguely Germanic sentence structure but we're told that he only knows about 200 words of his native language. He runs a big plantation in Mozambique but his main profession seems to be mad scientist.

He captured this gorilla in the cold forest and the natives hauled him down in a cage on rollers. It took them two weeks. Then, in secret, behind a stockade, Lutgow tried to interest that beast in a native girl. But the beast struck her and killed her. It's hard to excuse a thing like that, except he did it for science. He had some theory about the Neanderthal man....Not to work his fields did he sacrifie this poor native girl. But to prove that a species could be evolved backward as well as forward, A super race, yes! A race with not only intelligence, but the bodies and physical strength to go with it.

Keep up, please: we achieve a super race by evolving man backward. Lutgow exemplifies this himself by building up his body to match his super genius, proving his strength by killing men with his bare hands. It looks like Cushman only interested himself in the story by cultivating a creepy homoerotic environment in Lutgow's compound. One of the villain's flunkies is Avalos "a large, smooth, handsome young man, a Turk perhaps, or a Turk-Levantine....He had a fine body, well-displayed by his sheer shirt and trousers, but he had a small, womanish mouth. In a way he reminded Blades of a picture he had seen in the Illustrated London News of the man who had just won the title of Mr. America." Inevitably Blades has to slug this perfumed fellow, and Lutgow recognizes him ultimately as a worthy adversary -- worthy of bare-handed combat to the death -- because only he had stood up to Avalos. "What a man you are!" the villain exclaims. The novel's climax is the inevitable single combat between Blades and Lutgow, but Cushman denies us the pulpy satisfaction of the hero breaking the villain with his hands. Instead, he has Blades prove his dominance by commanding one of Lutgow's servants to finish off his wounded master. Then he gets the girl, the daughter of one of the captive Jews whose husband was one of Lutgow's flunkies. It's 152 pages long and the first couple of chapters are total waste, as if Cushman started with one story in mind but got tired of it. The prose is mostly lifeless, the descriptions dull, and it has only the peculiar features I've mentioned to recommend it, if that's the word. I have a Cushman western on my reading list for later this year, and I feel certain it will be better than this. It would be hard not to be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

THIS DAY IN COLLIER'S WEEKLY: January 15, 1944

This wartime issue of the National Weekly is part of my personal collection but, alas, Collier's is too big for my scanner and I can't share its full-color glory with you. Long ago when I bought it, the fact that it had stories by Sax Rohmer and Ernest Haycox didn't really matter to me. Now they enhance its value. Writing for the slicks, Haycox could produce stories entirely without action, like this issue's "Tavern at Powell's Ferry." It's a sentimental tale about a daughter taking leave of her father, and a suitor her younger sister covets, to join a traveling show. It's told from the father's point of view as he progresses from anxious suspicion to recognition that she's truly her father's daughter in her restless spirit. Haycox wasn't just a western writer but a good writer, period, so this is an effective short story of its kind. Rohmer's "The Mark of Maat" is written in that dated style I identify with the generation before Rohmer, in which we're put at a remove from the events of the story by a narrator whose telling of the story is part of Rohmer's story. Apart from a few wartime references it could have been written twenty years before. Two Brits in Egypt are rivals for a pretty nurse; one survives a plane crash and one does not -- but is the first one telling the truth? The nurse insists on the test of Maat, ancient goddess of truth, in an unearthed chamber sacred to the old cult. While Rohmer and Haycox are big names for us, you can see from the cover that the star fiction contributor this issue is Damon Runyon, author of the "Guys and Dolls" cycle of stories about lovable hustlers and their peculiar speech patterns. The intro to his "A Light in France" identifies Runyon as "the man who, singlehanded, rearranged the English language." If you've seen the Guys and Dolls movie you have some idea of what they mean. It's all a little cute for someone with more hard-boiled tastes, but the virtue of a magazine like Collier's was that there was something for nearly everybody in any given issue. Given the period, this issue has a lot of cool war correspondence, including a look at Iran's role in the war, and some amazing advertising art that isn't done justice by unz.org's black and white scan. With that caveat in mind, you can browse through this issue by following this link.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"I make a specialty of getting up;" Robert E. Howard's Steve Costigan

Robert E. Howard's Conan stories were probably the first true pulp fiction I read, and for a while Conan defined pulp for me. I was a big sword and sorcery fan in high school, but only occasionally dabbled in Howard's other genres. The recent illustrated Del Rey editions of Howard's collected works got me interested in a wider range of his work. Unfortunately, Del Rey never put together a volume of Howard's boxing stories, though the University of Nebraska's Bison Press did. The two Del Rey sampler volumes had representative boxing works, but it took me 99 cents, the cost of a cheapo e-book, to go the distance with Howard's fistic fiction. I now rank Sailor Steve Costigan as one of my favorite Howard characters, and I'd argue that he's exceptional among Howard heroes for a certain modesty, if not also a certain masochism. His stories are also pretty funny for pulp fiction.

Costigan is a heavyweight by the standards of his time, standing an even six feet and weighing in at a consistent 190 pounds. He's the champion of his ship, the Sea Girl, and a more or less uncrowned champion of the Pacific Ocean, but he'll never be more than that. Steve knows his limitations, admitting at least once that the more scientific heavyweights in big-time professional boxing could beat him, though on any given day, as Howard often shows, Costigan can outslug or at least outlast the top fighters. You can infer that Costigan might be limited as a championship contender by the time limits of sanctioned fights. Ten or fifteen rounds might not be enough time to wear down the better opponents, though Steve often rises to the occasion when the plot imposes a time limit on him. In his own milieu, Costigan fights are ferocious battles of attrition. Howard excels at finding new ways to describe -- or more correctly, to have Costigan describe -- the punishment he endures from opponents both brutal and skillful. Here's a sample from the story I've read most recently, "The Slugger's Game" (1934).

 Jerusha! It wasn't like being hit by a human being. I felt like a fire-works factory hadst exploded in my skull. I seen comets and meteors and sky-rockets, and somebody was trying to count the stars as they flew past. Then things cleared up a little bit, and I realized it was the referee which was counting, and he was counting over me. I was on my belly on the resin, and bells seemed to be ringing all over the house. I could'st hardly hear the referee for 'em, but he said, 'Nine!' so I riz. That's a habit of mine. I make a specialty of getting up. I have got up off the floor of rings from Galveston to Shanghai.

If other Howard stories are fantasies of overwhelming strength, the Costigan tales may be Howard paying himself back by imagining himself on the receiving end of terrific beatings, albeit with a redeeming good humor. There's definitely a better balance of humor and violence with these tales than in Howard's comic westerns, for instance.

Sailor Steve narrates his own adventures in conversational, often ungrammatical style (see also Frank Richardson Pierce's No-Shirt McGee) that might put you in mind of Popeye, who first appeared in the Thimble Theater comic strip a few months before Costigan's 1929 debut in Fiction House's Fight Stories. Some Costigan stories are written in a different style (e.g. 1931's "The Sign of the Snake"), but that's because they weren't written as Costigans, but were changed by editors to feature the more recognizable name. Costigan often ends up in fights indirectly, sometimes manipulated into them, sometimes needing to fight to raise quick money. Steve is a sucker for smooth talk, especially from femmes fatales playing on his sympathies. But his fists get him out of every predicament, or else the fangs of his beloved bulldog Mike, who can put a gorilla on the run, do the trick. Costigan battles fighters of all races, though Howard misses the opportunity, due to western ignorance of Chinese martial arts up to a very late point, to have Sailor Steve go up against a kung fu master. Howard's treatment of Asia is typical for Thirties pulp, which means he meets Asians of all types, some good, some bad, probably all stereotyped in some way or another but not as badly as they could be. The fact that Costigan is something of a knucklehead himself mitigates Howard's portrayal of other races somewhat, and he can be appreciated as an Ugly American running amok in the Pacific without really doing any harm to anyone who doesn't deserve it. The Costigan stories -- Howard wrote more about Sailor Steve, I'm told, than about any character other than Conan -- are too good natured for anyone to hold a grudge against them, and for all their violence their good nature might make them among Howard's most accessible adventures. They're definitely among his most underrated and entertaining.

Monday, January 9, 2017

THIS DAY IN COLLIER'S WEEKLY: January 9, 1937

It was probably a rare issue of Collier's that did not have any graduate of the pulps contributing fiction to it. This particular issue features one of the magazine's most popular pulp graduates, Ernest Haycox, continuing his serial Deep West, which would be published in hardcover later in 1937. Other erstwhile pulpsters include Edmund Ware and William MacHarg, the latter continuing his amusing series about the laconic big-city police detective O'Malley. My focus is on Sidney Herschel Small's "The Starry Flag." Small had gotten a story published in The Saturday Evening Post back in 1928 but did not break into Collier's until 1932. The National Weekly soon became his main market. For the next few years he continued to publish in pulps regularly, mostly in Adventure and Detective Fiction Weekly, the latter featuring his Jimmy Wentworth series of Chinatown detective stories. His last Wentworth story appeared in a May 1936 issue of DFW. From then until the outbreak of World War II he stuck with the slicks except for an occasional sale to Blue Book. "The Starry Flag" (the title is taken from the marching song, "Underneath the Starry Flag/Civilize them with a Krag") wraps up a cycle of Collier's stories about several generations of the Bartlett family, missionaries, merchants and engineers in China. Each male Bartlett is destined to marry a "strange woman," and Richard Bartlett finds his in a besieged compound during the Boxer Rebellion, when the protagonists sees the work of family across the generations destroyed. A last-minute rescue by an international army doesn't really dispel a tone of despairing resignation to the fact that China never wanted foreigners, but love inspires our hero to persevere. Small specialized in East-meets-West stories like these, inevitably stereotypical but rarely in a blatant yellow-peril way. "Starry Flag" is probably the pulpiest piece in this particular issue, and Small eventually would return to pulps in a big way with his Koropak series in Adventure about an American spy in wartime Japan. After the war he was mainly a Post man until his death in 1958. You can browse the entire issue at unz.org.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

GEORGE C. APPELL, "Let Bullets Wait," FIFTEEN WESTERN TALES, June 1950

Fifteen Western Tales was one of Popular Publication's most tenacious pulp titles. That title was always a little deceptive, since non-fiction features and monthly department counted toward the 15-tale total. It began as a bimonthly in 1941 and was promoted to monthly late in 1945. It was one of the last pulps to run serials. Its very last multi-part story was a two-parter by L. P. Holmes that begins in this June 1950 issue. Fifteen resumed a bimonthly schedule in 1951. When Popular shut down its pulp line in the summer of 1954, it kept Fifteen alive, converting it to magazine format as it had done with Adventure the previous year. In that format, it lasted, still bimonthly, to the end of 1955. The effort to keep it alive suggests that Fifteen must have been one of the company's most popular titles, if not its most popular western. The promise of quantity probably had something to do with that, as the similar continuation of Fifteen Detective Stories suggests.


I'll be reviewing more stories from June 1950 but I'll start off with a short story in mid-issue. It's the first first-person story I've read from George C. Appell, narrated in the semi-literate style meant to evoke someone telling a story rather than writing it. "I come awake fast and clawed for my gun, but she was gone," it opens. Our narrator has been caught by surprise by a cattle rustler, one of two. The first, Steckfus, is a mean character, but the other, Side, is someone the narrator "could take to." A friendlier sort, Side doesn't carry a gun, earning his nickname by riding side-hung. Still, they're rustlers both, and once the narrator says, "They gave me the play" you can anticipate the finish. He's either a marshal, a deputy or a range detective, pretending to be a drifter, probably in the hope of meeting these very men. Recruited by Side, he sticks with the pair to find out where they're stashing cattle, and along the way Side rescues him from a stampeding herd. Side wants out of rustling and plans of opening an equipment store and marrying a girl. He's the sort of sympathetic outlaw you perhaps were seeing more often in these latter days of pulp, and the hints of the narrator's true mission make his admissions of friendship for Red ominously poignant.  Finally the rustlers get caught in an ambush the narrator apparently didn't anticipate, since he has to run for his life with the other two. Side doesn't make it while Steckfus saves himself. The narrator tracks Steckfus down to his lair and, ever honorable, gives Steckfus a chance to draw, "somethin' he never gave Side." He has no interest in taking Steckfus alive because "You can't save the life of the man who ran out on your friend." This short story (6.5 pages) closes on a note of regret. "I'll miss him sorely," the narrator says, reminding us again that pulp fiction wasn't always a matter of black and white.