Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'She either surrenders those papers or shall be stripped as naked as the day she was born!'

Beneath the magnolias and grits of Civil War fiction, Gordon Young's "The Loyal Lady" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a properly paranoid spy story. In 1862 Captain Haynes of the Union army is sent south across enemy lines incognito to get accurate information on the size of General Lee's army. Lee's opposite number, Gen. McClellan, has been paralyzed, to Commander-in-Chief Lincoln's dismay, by apparently exaggerated reports of the Confederate force he faces. Haynes hopes to pump a Major Rawks for information, but finds Rawks hunting for a Union spy, a southern belle turned turncoat, who's just stolen just the papers Haynes is looking for. Rawks provokes Haynes' sense of chivalry, not to mention his patriotism, by vowing to hang the supposed spy, Maybelle Marshall, hanged, despite her safe-conduct pass from Jefferson Davis himself. Worse, when they actually meet Miss Marshall, Rawks insists on a full-body search.

"Barbarous, sir!" said Haynes desperately.
"Undoubtedly," the major agreed with composure, "But war, my friend. She is a traitor. And one who has no honor can not claim the protection of decency and modesty. Corporal, disrobe the woman!"

A corporal is unwilling to do this grim work, and a backwoods private gets his face slapped for trying. Rawks decides to do the job himself, but Haynes -- still in disguise as a brother Rebel officer -- refuses to allow it. Rather than fight, Rawks agrees to leave the search to Dinah, his "buxom negress" maidservant, who reports back empty-handed. It turns out, however, that Dinah is, understandably, a clandestine Yankee sympathizer. "Black folks dey know dat de Yankees is a-fittin fo' us," she explains. She doesn't trust Haynes, unable to look past his southern uniform, but Marshall accepts his assistance in a daring escape. In return, her gift of a Derringer enables Haynes to escape after Rawks finally figures him out. In the end, Haynes learns that Rawks and Marshall had set him up. It had all been a play designed to get Haynes, whose coming they learned of from black spies within the household of Haynes' commanding officer, to deliver more fake intelligence back north. That bemused commander offers the story's moral: "When any Southern girl tells you she is loyal to her country -- don't be a fool! Believe her. She means the South!"

The Big Magazine was a one-shot published by Popular Publications in 1935, shortly after they acquired Adventure. The idea, historians say, was to burn off excess inventory for that prestigious pulp. If so, it was an odd decision considering that Popular had recently restored Adventure to a twice-a-month schedule, and that The Big Magazine's lineup was almost a Murderer's Row of pulp aces. Based on what I've read of it so far -- I'm not quite halfway through its 224 pages -- my hunch is that The Big was more of a dumping ground for subpar stuff from those top authors, some of it fairly old, to judge from the Prohibition setting of one story. "The Loyal Lady" is one of the better stories so far, nicely plotted if also marred by cringeworthy "negro" dialect. Any persistent pulp reader has got to get used to dialect dialogue; if you can't tolerate it you're reading the wrong stuff. To be fair, he also writes dialect for the backwoods soldiers, e.g. "Shore! An' we brunged her here." But there's a difference, or so I like to think, between dialect and comedy dialect. Dinah's dialogue marks her as a comedy relief character. It's embarrassing to read in a way the backwoods dialect isn't. "Oh, Lordy-lord!" she cries, warning Maybelle against first Haynes, then Rawks. "Don' yo' b'lief 'im, honey! A gemman he say anything fo' to fool a lady....Lordy-lord! We-all is sho' gwine git murdered by dat major-man!" Lordy-lord, indeed! Large historical claims are made for Gordon Young as, if not a pioneer, then a precursor of the hard-boiled style. From what I've read of him, that's more a matter of attitude, as might be seen here as well as in his more relevant Don Everhard stories, than of style. Young's style strikes me as stilted, but in the melodramatic setting of "The Loyal Lady" it feels almost correct. But it's the twist ending and the overall feeling that anyone could be a spy that give Young's story an almost-modern flavor.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

'He go hell, I no can catch!'

Imagine the stories Arthur O. Friel might write about Venezuela in the 21st century: the intrigues of Chavistas, dissidents and military men, Cubans and Americans, etc. Venezuela was Friel's meat. He explored the territory himself and wrote both fiction and non-fiction about it. Friel was one of the star writers for Adventure in the 1920s, but his output slowed over the course of the 1930s, and his work became less ambitious. In 1938 he created the character Dugan, whose exploits are reported by raconteurs addressing the reader in the second person, a favorite Friel device. As noted often here, because most pulp writers were freelancers, their characters were rarely considered the intellectual property of any one publisher. As a result, Dugan could wander back and forth between Adventure, where he first appeared, and Short Stories, where "Under Dog" appeared in the January 25, 1939 issue. The narrator has detailed knowledge of Dugan's exploits, though he doesn't take part in the story he tells. He claims to be a "side-kick" of Dugan, though I suppose he could be Dugan himself, whom he describes as "a husky lad about my size with big fists and no brains." In other words, a conventional tough-guy pulp hero who falls in with a suspicious band of traders after saving an accused thief they'd been shooting at. The lead trader is suspicious because he talks funny: "The words were English -- or North American -- with something a little queer in the long ones." He calls himself Brockley but pronounces it "Broccoli" ("Some kind of wop cabbage," the narrator explains). Brockley's unlikely mission is to bring a consignment of frying pans across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, Dugan has his doubts; the pans will most likely be melted down so the metal can be put to more militant use. He doesn't need the money Brockley offers him, but he hopes to shake "some people who didn't like him" who'd been following him north from some previous adventure. He'd be a minority of one if not for the loyalty of Tonio, the Indian he rescued.

As it turns out, Brockley has firearms very carefully packed within his load of frying pans, and he's set up Dugan to be the fall guy if the sale goes sour. And of course it does go sour, thanks to a German working for the Venezuelan government, who gives Friel the opportunity to write a more blatant accent than Brockley's. It's actually not as extremely vaudevillian as some writers got; the accent is mostly restricted to "ch" for "j" and the occasional hiss. He's about to have Dugan executed for gun-running when Tonio speaks up to exonerate him and explain his own beef with Brockley -- the man who killed his mother and left him to be raised in a squalid Indian village. The unimpressed German's going to shoot everybody anyway, but Dugan and Tonio fight their way out, while Brockley is killed in the crossfire, denying Tonio his revenge. "It's funny, the way wise guys go flop and dumb birds like me and Dugan keep drifting along," the narrator reflects. In fact, Dugan had at least two more stories in him, at least according to the FictionMags Index, one appearing the same month in Adventure. This particular short story is a far cry from the epic stuff Friel wrote in the Twenties, but even late in his career -- his last pulp stories appeared in 1941 -- he had enough juice to make his stuff readably entertaining.

Monday, August 7, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY vs 'the toughest egg south of Shanghai'

Still hunting his reprobate father, Singapore Sammy Shea is hunted himself in his third story, "South of Sulu." (Short Stories, June 25, 1930). Ever since word got out that he had brought in the infamous Blue Fire Pearl of Malobar to be appraised, the scum of sea of land have been gunning for him and the pearl. Following a lead on his father, Sammy encounters three such characters on the island of Pelambang. Peddy the trader, stereotypically fat, runs the place. Whisky Wallace is one of his henchman. Their uncomfortable partner is Big Nick Stark, "the toughest egg south of Shanghai," who feels that his cut of the loot to be taken from Sammy doesn't really reflect his contributions to the endeavor. Sammy's no fool and leaves his pearl in a secure location on his boat before setting foot on Peddy's island, where he is predictably ambushed by the terrible trio. They tie him up and threaten torture if he doesn't come across, but with each working at cross purposes against the others Sammy has an opening to escape. Things get pretty hard-boiled as the bad guys threaten to put a lit cigar, a broken bottle, etc. in Sammy's face, but this all proves to be prelude to Sammy's battle of wits with Big Nick. Detecting a double-cross from Peddy, and killing him off-stage, Stark offers to join forces with Sammy, luring the good-but-greedy Singapore with the long-sought mate to the Blue Fire Pearl. Sammy is greedy enough to gamble his pearl against Stark's, and once he agrees to that we remember the scene early in the story where Big Nick impressed Peddy with his fancy shuffling and dealing. Worts knows how to keep things suspenseful by having his bad guys often stay at least a step ahead of Sammy, and he increases readers' anxiety by having Sammy lose at cards to Nick not once, not twice, but thrice -- the last time with his life at stake, since losing obliges Sammy to swim through shark-infested water to get rescuers to their stranded boat.

Stark apparently has an uncanny yet deceptive shuffle that looks guilelessly awkward even to a practiced eye like Sammy's, yet infallibly delivers Big Nick the winning hand. It's a bit of a cheat that Worts never actually explains Nick's technique, but has Sammy finally find proof of his cheating by accident -- he'd left an ace in the box quite by mistake, yet Nick dealt himself four aces. Worts is also wise to give Nick plenty of time to make his spiel, as if trying to wear down the reader's resistance as Nick is trying to wear down Sammy's. And for the hell of it, the antagonists have to forget their differences long enough to get their boat through a nasty storm. It keeps you wondering whether Nick will prove a good egg after all, rather than a mere tough one. "South of Sulu" gives us a likably nasty Sammy instead of the self-righteous con man of the previous story, "Cobra." He gets great tough-guy dialogue, telling Nick that "If you put her aground, one second later your backbone's gonna think an elephant's takin' a walk on it," or that "for the pure pleasure of it, I could turn you into curry of lead." It's still not as good as the original entry, "The Blue Fire Pearl," but you're more likely to keep following Sammy on his quest after this one than after "Cobra." There are two more to go in the first Altus Press volume of Sammy stories, and then I'll jump ahead in time to some later items from my own collection. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

'What this country needs is more Chinese.'

Richard Howells Watkins had a forty-year career writing magazine stories for pulps, slicks and digests. You see his name a lot in the detective and general adventure pulps, usually contributing stories with nautical or auto-racing themes. He was the sort of dependable writer who was nobody's favorite, and perhaps not very memorable today, but usually worth a read. "Two Ways North" (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) deals with smugglers on the Florida coast, though exactly what they're smuggling, or if they're smuggling at all, is open to question most of the way. The story reads almost like a satire of smuggler stories as two men down on their luck dream of earning their way back north by earning a reward for some heroic feat. Denny Coyle, a failed gambler with an Irish brogue, and Jim Bush, a former waiter, are little better than tramps, barely earning a living helping Old Craikie operate a capstan bridge to let boats through. They hope to make some extra coin helping a motorboat "alive with men" that's apparently run aground nearby, but the surly Cuban captain rebuffs them. That makes our heroes suspicious. Jim deduces that the Cuban must be smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants. "These Chinks are bringing us our stake," he tells Denny, suggesting that they blackmail the Cuban with a threat to report him to the government. Since Denny worries about the Cuban knifing the, since "These Cubans live in the present," Jim suggests that they go straight to the government and collect a reward for ratting on the smuggler. Now Denny has a moral objection; it wouldn't be fair to the poor Chinese. The ensuing debate might just as easily take place 78 years later.

"That wouldn't be honest," he stated coldly.
"Why not?" argued Jim, heating up under censure, "He's sneaking a bunch of Chinks into the country, ain't he? Don't he deserve to be caught?"
Denny was like a rock. "Where's the harm in it?" he demanded. "What this country needs is more Chinese."
"Huh?"
"Well do I remember my old man saying, many's the time when he was out of work, 'Twinty two families in the house an' devil a Christian in the lot but wan Jew an' two Chinese.' We'd of starved, I'm tellin' you, if it weren't for a fat yellow grinnin' Chinese that owned a grocery around on Pell Street."
With more energy he added, "An' don't be callin' 'em Chinks. A Jap is a Jap but a Chink is a Chinese, an willin' to be white if ye give him half a chance."

There proves to be an easy solution to this impasse. Once Jim suggests that Ferrer, the Cuban, could be smuggling in a Japanese, Denny jumps to the conclusion that this theoretical person is a spy "comin' in under cover because we're tightening up on some of our bowin' and apologizin' to Jap visitors." The government will really pay out for reporting a spy, he concludes, while Jim argues for quantity over quality, assuming that the feds will pay more for a boatload of Chinese illegals. "Where's your patriotism, man?" Denny protests at this thought. "Up North," Jim answers.

Watkins cleverly avoids making clear whether or not the man our heroes eventually discover is Chinese or Japanese. Sure, the man cries out, "No Jap! Chinese!" before jumping ship, and sure, Denny boasts of his ability to tell Chinese and Japanese apart, but just because "the face was the face of a Chinese if Denny Coyle were any judge," that doesn't mean Denny's any judge. In any event, "the Oriental" turns out to be smuggling diamonds, leading Denny to observe, on his assumption that the "yellow man" was Chinese, that "the Chinese are a clever race -- sometimes too clever, belike!" Diamonds actually draw a pretty good reward that Jim and Denny share equally with Old Craikie, who has also talked of "going North" soon. The end of the story explains the title: Craikie dies moments after putting his share of the bills in his sock. To Denny that means "the old one's further North than you or me will ever get if we go to the pole." Modest as it is, "Two Ways North" may be the best thing I've read from Watkins to date.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'You, Baas, are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas'

The most successful 'white hunter' character in pulp fiction set in Africa was L. Patrick Greene's creation Aubrey St. John Major, better known simply as "The Major." Greene created the Major and his sidekick, Jim the Hottentot, for Adventure in late 1919. In 1921 they all moved to Short Stories, where the Major became a fixture, with possibly the most covers of any character in that magazine, for the next quarter-century. Strictly speaking, the Major is a good bad man or lovable rogue, wanted by the colonial authorities in his earliest adventures for illegal diamond buying but typically targeting men worse than himself. He evolved into a more standard good guy troubleshooter over time, while Jim evolved from something close to comic relief to one of the more rounded black characters in all pulp. Greene was conscious of his characters' evolution and made them conscious of it as well. In "Major Sacrifice," (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) Jim remarks that he once would have been fooled like the story's Zulu antagonists by the Major using his monocle like a magical "third eye" that can tell truth from lies. At the same time, Jim still feels a slight dread whenever he looks at a photograph. "We black ones are crammed with foolish fears," he reflects, "That is why white men impose their will upon us so easily." For all that, Jim has an exceptional relationship with his baas that allows for considerable criticism of what the Hottentot sees as the Major's misplaced idealism. Jim is deferential without being servile, and the dialogue between the two characters is sometimes the most interesting part of a Major story. Here's an exchange from "Major Sacrifice" in which they debate what to do about two disreputable characters trailing them on the veldt. The protagonists speak in Jim's dialect, allowing Jim full articulation of his thoughts.

"If they follow us, Jim."
"Oh, but they do, Baas. You know they do. I have shown them to you. Two men on horseback, Baas, each leading a pack horse. You have seen them. You have seen their campfires. They are clever, too. They know the veldt. Always they keep a day's trek behind us and ride so cunningly that none can see them."
"Yet you saw them, Jim."
"Ah, yes, Baas," the Hottentot said with simple conceit, "but I am not an ordinary man."
"By jove, you're not," the Major drawled in English.
"Golly, damme, no," Jim chuckled.

***
"And so they are evil as i said. Their purpose -- as concerning us and him -- is evil."
"That is my fear, Jim," the Major admitted.
"Ou, Baas. Then why did you not let me go back and kill them as I desired. Wo-we! It is not too late. let me go back now. In the night's darkness I will reach their outspan. for them there will be no pain -- that I promise. I will only lengthen their sleep into death. But of course," he continued sarcastically, "that is not the way of white men. Most assuredly it is not your way. You, Baas, you are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas, though he well knows that by so doing he endangers his own life. Why do not white men kill their enemies?"
"The evil ones do, Jim. The others refrain -- partly, I think, because they fear to destroy what they cannot create."
"Wu! That is folly, Baas. Men can create men -- else the world would now be empty. To kill an enemy is nothing, Baas. Death is nothing. No more than the snuffing out of a flame. And it's better, i say, to snuff out one flame that lights a hut than to permit it to grow into a big fire which will destory a kraal." Jim shook his head in mock reproach and then continued, "But perhaps the evil spirits of the waste lands will deal with those two evil men. Yet even that you will prevent if  you can. You -- how well I know you, Baas -- will risk your own life, if necessary, in order to save them."

While Jim can be very frank talking with the Major, Greene reminds us that they're not equals, though his conceit is that Jim, rather than the Major, enforces the limits of their friendship. Shortly after this exchange, Jim observes, almost self-mockingly, that "My only pleasure is to serve you." The Major counters, "What is this talk of service, Jim," and places his hand on the Hottentot's shoulder in "a gesture of friendship and protection." The Major may well see Jim as his friend in some truly egalitarian way, but Jim returns the sentiment with eyes that "glowed with the light of devotion and service." And even if Jim is right to chide the Major later for allowing evil to enter the story's happy valley, you get the sense that Jim himself recognizes that his Baas's sentiments are not contemptible foolishness but the idealism of a higher being.

The story as a whole is far less progressive than Greene's portrayal of Jim. The Major has been hired by a fiftysomething English woman to track down her husband, Henry Grey, believed lose in Africa. Her intentions become clear when she offers our hero 5,000 pounds for Henry's signature on a document, and 10,000 pounds for proof of his death. The other two trackers come into the story when Mrs. Grey learns from local gossip that the Major is not as unscrupulous as he himself had led her to believe. As for Henry Grey, "his true environment was an English suburb," but the Major and Jim recognize him from a photo provided by Mrs. Grey as the man who, under the name of "Kind Heart," somehow became the chief of a band of refugee Zulus and others living in a hidden "Happy Valley."  The situation is so preposterous -- Greene presumably has Lost Horizon and similar stories in mind -- that he can barely explain how it came about, other than to offer that Grey "knew his people. He could speak as they spoke. He could think as they thought. And that ability is the hallmark of white men who are successful in their work with natives." Unsurprisingly, some restless young men of the makeshift tribe chafe under Kind Heart's control, goaded by a pretentious would-be warrior whose refrain, "By the blood of Chaka!" is tiresome even to his own comrades. This gives our heroes an additional set of antagonists to worry about, but you probably can guess that everything works out all right in the end, the Major becoming an intermediary in a long-distance divorce proceeding after the Happy Valley elders beat sense into the rebellious youths. As a story "Major Sacrifice" is one of the sillier entries that I've read in the series, but the series as a whole remains fascinating to discover bit by bit as Altus Press prepares a complete edition and more scanned issues of Short Stories come on line. Look for more of the Major and Jim on this blog in the future.

Monday, July 24, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'A wise man knows the aim of a bottle'

The second Singapore Sammy story by George F. Worts, "Cobra" (Short Stories, May 25, 1930) takes place "several months" after the events of "The Blue Fire Pearl." By now, it's widely known that Sammy Shay has in his possession that famous bauble, and some people would like to take it off his hands, or from around his neck. The story opens with Sammy, ever on the hunt for his reprobate father, walking into an ambush set by our new villain. He is that most despicable of persons for George F. Worts: the half-caste. "This man was part Portuguese, part Malay, and part God knows what," we learn, "In him, the West met the East and became a power for unlimited malice." The narrator, and in turn Sammy himself, is obsessed with the way the villain resembles a cobra in his "steady, wicked stare." Singapore fights his way free from the ambush but suffers a severe stab wound in the process. If not for a good samaritan who arranges to have him hospitalized with private nursing care, our hero might have died in the street. Once Sammy recognizes his savior, he wants nothing to do with the man.

The man, or "rat" in Singapore's estimate, is Ted McAlister, a onetime protege of Sammy's who couldn't lay off gambling, and couldn't lay off the booze and opium while gambling. It takes a while for Sammy to understand that Ted is on the wagon, except for the gambling that is. He owes $15,000 in chits, proving to Singapore that "You don't belong in China." Ted wants to go back to America and make a fresh start in his dad's business, but can't afford passage with his debts. Now that Sammy owes him something and feels sorry for him, and with his dad's trail gone cold, he works on a way to send the American home while getting his revenge on that human cobra, Armand De Silvio.

Whether you like "Cobra" better than "Blue Fire Pearl" depends on how you like your pulp fiction. Sammy's debut was an all-out action story, while "Cobra" becomes a con-man caper as Sammy uses Ted's own black pearl to con the cobra. He has Ted show the pearl to De Silvio, who runs a jewelry store, and inquire as to whether the half-caste has a matching pearl, for which he'll pay a tremendous price. Sammy then arranges to sell De Silvio the very same pearl Ted showed him, at an inflated price that will more than cover Ted's debts and his passage home. While Sammy comes across as a goody two shoes for much of the story, the way he lectures Ted, he shows a more familiar ruthless streak while working his con. He's going to sell the pearl to De Silvio while disguised as a Hindu. Since he doesn't have a Hindu costume in his wardrobe, he lures some poor mark into an alley, beats him up and takes his clothes. His ultimate revenge on De Silvio is twofold. He has Ted tell him that he no longer wants the matching pearl, meaning that the half-caste has wasted his money. Then, out of a spiteful sense of poetic justice, he throws a real cobra into De Silvio's cashier's cage to terrify the villain into returning the money his men had taken from Sammy at the start of the story.

In an epilogue, a fresh lead puts Sammy back on his father's trail, despite a warning letter in which the old man had told him, "A wise man knows the aim of a bottle." According to Singapore, this is a Siamese saying meaning, in a more contemporary idiom, that "a hunch to a wise guy is plenty." The thought returns to him as the police discuss the cobra attack on De Silvio and express their reluctance to investigate anything having to do with such a dangerous creature. If this story proves anything, it's that Singapore Sammy is not about to take anyone's advice, including his own. His mentorship of Ted McAlister seems to have worked on a "Do as I say, not as I do" level, but you can only teach some people just so much. Sammy can be sentimental about people, as his first adventure showed, but whether that makes him a good guy the way he apparently wanted Ted to be is another story -- or several more to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Are there no small magics among the white men?'


Kingi Bwana,  American troubleshooter in Africa, probably was Gordon MacCreagh's most successful creation. MacCreagh, who went on safari for Adventure in 1927, published stories about Mr. King in that magazine for a decade, from 1930 to 1940. Like any good pulp hero, King had reliable sidekicks, the Mutt and Jeff team of Kaffa the wily Hottentot and the lordly Masai warrior Barounggo. People reading MacCreagh's stories today might be able to accept Barounggo as a badass, but however clever Kaffa is shown to be, it's got to be hard for modern readers to get past the author's favorite description of the Hottentot as a "wise ape." They're less politically correct templates for N'Geeso the pygmy and Tembu George, the American turned Masai chief, of Fiction House's Ki-Gor stories. Barounggo doesn't get too much to do, apart from kill a lion, in "The Witch Casting" (Adventure, November 1, 1931), while Kaffa's early suspicions of an American doctor on safari with his millionaire employer, for which King docks the impertinent African ("It is ill to speak so, unasked, of white masters.") one-tenth of his monthly pay, albeit with a promise of restitution for meritorious service, are ultimately vindicated. King senses something fishy about the safari himself, but he has white prestige to hold up. In any event, he's invited by ailing businessman Chet Howard, who's come to Africa for rest and recreation, to act as a hunting guide, but his personal physician, Dr. John Gerardi, clearly doesn't want him around. It takes a while for King and the reader to guess what exactly Gerardi is up to, if anything, for Howard thrives in Africa, proving an enthusiastic and effective hunter. If anything, there's a danger of him going native.

Howard leaped high and screamed his kill. Black forms leaped and screamed around him. Swiftly converging forms and darting spears marked the end of the drive. Uncouth leapings, howlings, wavings of weapons announced triump....Sharp blads quickly gashed throats to let the still warm blood run. Black men bathed their thighs and their foreheads in the thick welling liquid. White man Howard bathed and shrieked with them.
King looked down on it all, very still, very serious, with the beginning of understanding in his eyes.
'Good Lord, just like one of them,' he muttered.
Kaffa, still too, like a watching creature of the wild and quite as frightened, understood.
'No, bwana,' he whispered, 'Not just like one of them. He is one of them.'
King let minutes pass while he watched the orgy. Then explosively --
'And that, by God, is the witchcraft of this thing.'
'Yes, bwana,' said Kaffa with conviction, 'He is a lion man.'
'Who?' said King sharply.
'The witch doctor of this place, bwana. A man who can turn himself into a lion can surely turn a white man into a Dodinga savage.'

King's initial suspicion is that just such a witch doctor has put a spell on Chet, even though that would break a taboo against enchanting whites imposed by a friend of King's who is a very powerful "wizard," mind you. Our hero takes the idea of a "lion man" somewhat seriously, equating it with "the old werwolf belief. Lycanthropy, the scientific gents call it." the idea is not that a man physically transforms into a beast, but that he becomes convinced that he has, and acts accordingly. "Science knows it's possible," King reminds his Jewish trader friend Yakoub ben Abrahm, while the wizard suggests, "Are there no small magics among the white men?" After all, "That is no very hard magic. It is but making a pattern in the soft thing that is a man's mind. Is there no white man who knows how to plant the seed of a thought in a man's mind and then, by a careful watering with words, make that seed grow? That is a little thing that is not even magic."

King knows of such a white man, but doesn't share his knowledge with the reader until almost the end. He had asked Dr. Gerardi earlier who he had worked under in South Africa, and the doctor dropped a name that King identifies later as a hypnotist. King can leave this reveal in reserve until he figures out a motive for whatever Gerardi is up. Gerardi can mean no good for Chet, but if he wishes his employer ill, why not poison him, and why not at home in America? Yakoub makes the crucial suggestion that the death of a recklessly healthy man would not be considered suspicious. "You're the very devil," King compliments the trader, "Only a devil could think of such things." To which Yakoub answers, "For much money, my friend, many men have become devils." One King learns that Chet is going on a lion hunt, using only native weapons, all becomes clear. It's the test of a young man and Chet isn't equal to it, but Barounggo is luckily around to save the day. It's a nice touch on MacCreagh's part that it's not up to Kingi Bwana to kill the lion, and "Witch Casting" is a pretty good early story in the series. You wouldn't know from this story that MacCreagh was an experienced African traveler, though he may have been only a superficial observer of Africans, but he is a pretty good pulp writer and if you don't get hung up on the more embarrassing tropes of old fiction MacCreagh's stuff is usually worth reading.