Wednesday, March 22, 2017

'I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense.'

H. Bedford-Jones' "Captain Rose and the Bullfrog" (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is a study of the idiosyncratic ethics of an English sea captain, and perhaps a comment on English character. The title characters are the captain of the Ayuthia and his French mate, who approaches Rose with the proposition of liberating a Tonkinese convict from a French colonial prison. The mate hopes to win Rose's sympathy by explaining that the prisoner is a "deputy," one who agrees to serve the time for another man's crime in return for a handsome payout when he's free. In this particular case, the "deputy" has inherited some wealth and his family wants him free so he can claim it. Captain Rose does not sympathize. The deputy has made a bad bet, that's all, and on general principles breaking a convict out of prison is a form of "sneaking" that doesn't justify the risk of the captain's ticket. The mate finds this strange, knowing that Rose has been a smuggler when it suits him. That's lawbreaking just as much as springing a convict is, no?

"Were you never dishonest?" asked Hermant softly, looking at the horizon.
"No," said Captain Rose flatly, and removed his pipe to spit over the rail. "No! I've pulled a trick now and then, maybe a bit o' smuggling or worse, but plain crooked. Nothing dishonest; too much like sneakin', if you ask me."

***

"But you'd smuggle," said Hermant.
"That's different," said Captain Rose stoutly.
"How is it different? It's breaking the law."
"Huh! A fool parliament or governor or somebody says, 'Don't you dare do this or that, or we'll clap you in jail if we catch you at it. That's no law. That's a defiance. Like the liquor law in America. Makes a chap go do it, especially if he clears a bit o' money at it."
"But helping a poor devil get away to freedom, from a life sentence --"
"Is a sneakin' proposition," declared Captain Rose. "And if any chap came to me and made it flat out, I'd kick him in the pants. Yes, sir -- and take my fist to him, to boot!"


The mate carries out his plot anyway but Rose refuses to acquiesce. He suppresses the mutiny in bloody fashion, killing both the mate and the "deputy" in the process of vindicating his principles. His final verdict on the mate is, "I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense." To the modern reader Captain Rose may not seem the most principled man, but Bedford-Jones tells the story in a way that implies strongly that Englishmen like Rose --or, more generously, Anglo-Americans -- are the only people with principles, every other race, including other Europeans, being suspect. For all that, Bedford-Jones' portrait of the captain strikes me as all too plausible in the singlemindedness of his double standard, if that's what it is. Leaving character analysis aside, the story's a brisk bit of blood and thunder that won't disappoint those looking for such.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Revenant -- pulp style

The Oscar-winning 2015 film The Revenant revived interest in the legend of Hugh Glass, the mountain man who survived mauling by a bear, abandonment by his colleagues and an epic trek to confront his false friends. Needless to say this was a story well known to pulp creators and probably was retold many times in pulp magazines. One such retelling was in the June 1950 issue of Fifteen Western Tales. Just as many comic books once had a text feature, many pulps had regular illustrated features like Stookie Allen's "Men [or Women] of Daring" for Argosy. For Fifteen Western Marshall Lincoln Lee, signing his work simply as "Lee," contributed "Tales of the Old West" for a decade, from 1943 through 1953. Here's his take on the Hugh Glass legend in its original double-page spread form.



And here are closer looks at the individual pages. The narrative reads down one page, then down the other, so there should be no confusion.


Friday, March 17, 2017

THIS DAY IN COLLIER'S WEEKLY: March 17, 1934


You might expect a St. Patrick's Day cover from The National Weekly on this date, but you didn't get it this year. Inside, however, you get some pulp alumni, starting with the ever-popular Ernest Haycox, found here in the middle of one of his occasional change-of-peace air-oriented serials. Edward L. McKenna, author of the boxing romance "Never A Champ," made his name at Adventure in the late 1920s but was a full-time slickster at this point. The star attraction this time, however, is Harold Lamb, who contributes "The Bear's Head" on that ever-popular theme of Vikings fighting American Indians. While this short piece, illustrated by John Richard Flanagan, has the romantic angle you'd expect from Collier's, in its brutal brevity it's arguably more purely pulp than much of the stuff Lamb wrote for actual pulps. Basically a Viking ship takes the wrong turn on the way to "the Green Land" and discovers an unknown country. Two warriors vie for the love of the captain's sister, but Brand's retirement from violence (after a brief, bloody career of globetrotting) puts him at a disadvantage against "Fighting Mord." Brand wanders off on his own in the new country, but when the rest of the party are overrun by angry natives, and Fighting Mord is slaughtered, our hero remembers his Berserk (not "Berserker," as in modern usage) heritage. The "savages" are terrified at first when their arrows bounce off Brand's mail shirt, but once they see him bleed they overpower him and, as savages will, prepare him for torture. Unfortunately, torture only makes Brand more angry.

...And suddenly one of the chiefs gave a shout and drew a knife. He stepped behind Brand and cut through the flesh between two of his ribs. Brand's [death] song ceased. The anger that was in him suddenly filled his brain. The snow and the yelling crowd became red before his eyes, and with the strength of frenzy, he jerked his bound wrists against his upturned knee. Some of the withes cracked and slipped. With his shoulder sinews cracking, the Berserk  tore his hands free from the bonds. He leaped forward through the air, knocking the savages aside. And before they could grasp him well he had caught up his axe where it lay unheeded on the ground.
Leaping away from them, he swung it about his head and the steel whined. The curved blade crashed into the face of a man, shearing away part of the skull. It split open the skull of another....

While some pulp graduates changed genre (or tried to eschew it) to appeal to a broader audience or aspire to literature, Lamb's subject matter remained fairly consistent whether he was writing for pulps or slicks. Stories like "The Bear's Head" prove that for all his "mainstream" success, Lamb definitely hadn't sold out in any way. You can start the story here, at unz.org, and resume it here and here. And you can sample the whole issue at this link.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

VINTAGE PAPERBACK OF THE WEEK: C. N. Heckelmann, LAWLESS RANGE (1945-8)


The publishers of this 1948 paperback desperately want you not to think of it as mere pulp fiction. Let's go right to the back cover to see the case they make.



Lawless Range, then, is in the great tradition of Cimarron and The Ox-Bow Incident, or so Signet claims. It is literature of a new kind, as the first-page blurb reiterates: "Lawless Range is typical of the new brand of Western fiction -- literate and yet suspenseful, adult and action-packed." I'll give them "action-packed," but the rest is a load of bull. If this isn't pulp, then I don't know what Signet's copywriter thought pulp was. Is it not pulp if the author doesn't use the embarrassing yuhs and tuhs? Is it literate when two potential lovers debate their attraction thusly?

"In my own life I have known few women," he told her, "Perhaps that has been to my disadvantage. In any event it has always been in my mind that when a man kisses a woman, he does so because his intentions are serious, because he regards her as his woman and she accepts him as her man."
Diana's cheeks whitened and that pallor deepened, by contrast, the rich, red line of her mouth. She stepped nearer, suddenly enjoying the uneasy storm behind his slate-gray eyes.
"You're a strange man, Jim," she said, and now her eyes were mocking and inviting him, "Your belief leaves no room for the man and woman who are attracted to each other at first sight and must answer the call of their own nearness because they recognize it as a force bigger than themselves and not to be ignored." She stopped and put her hands on his chest. "Oh, Jim, why are we here talking when --?"

These two had kissed impulsively only a page before. Their almost academic exchange is a typically stilted romantic scene from the novel, though Jim, the hero, will end up with another woman, Sally the virtuous, tough-minded schoolteacher. Their courtship is complicated by the fact that Jim, a federal marshal operating undercover, killed Sally's brother just before the story started. His mission is to discover who's behind a rustling ring, and his refusal to reveal himself makes nearly every male character suspect, since all suspect him of being an outlaw and are hostile to him. It's a standard whodunit with a bunch of red herrings to blur Jim's trail, rather like a Texas Rangers novel with love scenes. The novel is not a paperback original but was first published in the Canadian Sunday-supplement magazine Star Weekly in 1945, and then in hardcover by Arcadia House, a company that specialized in genre fiction for five-and-dime "commuter libraries." I don't think I've read anything by Heckelmann before but I'll be reluctant to try more after this one. Whether Lawless Range is bad pulp or bad literature, merely inept or hopelessly pretentious, it's bad. There are more tin-eared sentences in this 163 page novel than I've seen collected between two covers in some time. Heckelmann writes drama badly and action badly.

Esmond's talk whipped at Sally, flat and disturbing.

Hockett cursed and his wide, stocky frame bowed in a crouch. Rashness was pinching his muscles, turning him wild and desperate.

She had hardened herself against him and the solid thrust of her contempt was an unscalable barrier between them.

Reed's gun canted upward in his fist. He felt it buck solidly against his wrist, saw the red froth crawl from the bore.

[and on the very same page...]

Red death was crawling from Braley's gun.

Nothing says "fast-action western" like stuff crawling out of guns. I might charitably assume that Heckelmann wrote this in a hurry and for a quick payday, but that's not the sort of western novel Signet was trying to sell with its ambitious blurbs. I might not be so hard on Heckelmann if his paperback publisher hadn't told me to expect something better -- not only something better written but something more mature, more researched, more authentically colorful. The sort of western novels Signet describes actually did exist at this time, but Lawless Range just isn't one of them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

'Only the people to whom he lent a helping hand knew this side of his job, and they would not remember it.'

It's most likely that I've read stuff by Joseph Chadwick in pulps I've already read, but I never really took notice of him until I read his "Girl For No Man's Land" from Ranch Romances. That made me curious to try more of his work, and it just so happened that Chadwick has a short story in the June 1950 Fifteen Western Tales I've been working through gradually this winter. "Dead Man's Star" takes what strikes me as an unorthodox approach to the typical "day of the showdown story." Ed Bassett is the marshal tasked with riding herd on Jake Pardee's cowboys, and Pardee resents it. The rancher warns Bassett that after one Saturday night of good behavior his men will "cut loose their wolf" the following weekend, and he means to make sure the marshal does nothing about it. In effect, Pardee says the town isn't big enough for him and Bassett, and next Saturday night will bring the showdown. In Chadwick's telling, next Saturday night plays out like a relatively uneventful Old West edition of COPS. Hyper-attentive to the sounds of ordinary life, the anxious Bassett is distracted by various public-servant errands. He checks on a family whose mother is about to go into labor. He helps a newcomer in town who can't find her boyfriend. He comforts an old drunk dying in a barn, then comforts the dead man's friend. These mundane encounters remind him of how much of his job both he and his constituents had taken for granted. He regrets not choosing a commercial life that could have earned him his girl's consent to a wedding. Even now, he tells the despairing girl that he can't refuse Pardee's challenge. Finally, however, the clammy-palmed marshal refuses the mythic faceoff in the street, instead tackling Pardee from behind in an effort to talk/bully him out of the fight. Pardee happily proves tractable, confessing that he had been just as terrified as Bassett, if not more so as the man whose big mouth had forced the issue. Chadwick's isn't the only story this issue -- I need to circle back soon to a Steve Frazee novelette -- that opts for anticlimax as a sign of genre maturity, a recognition that not every western tale needed to end with a gunfight. Chadwick's social-realist approach to his subject made it fresh, and while the finish might not be as dark as adult westerns could get, it still seems like the right way to finish the story. Score another one for Chadwick.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

'All of Islam is running this way!'


Lawrence G. Blochman took an aspiring pulpster's verion of the classical grand tour as a young man, writing his way around the world as a journalist for English-language papers in distant lands before settling down to write stories. He first appeared in Everybody's Magazine, which by the mid-1920s was pretty much a monthly version of Adventure. He made it into Adventure itself in 1929. "The Chota Sahib" (March 1, 1930) is only his second story for that magazine. As Blochman explains, the title denotes a "little" or "junior" white man in India, whether in the public or the private sector. Roy Spence is a chota sahib for Bengal Collieries, sent to Lalkand to help Sam Whyler, a hero of his who once saved his life, secure the rights to a coal seam found in a Shiite Muslim community. Blochman never uses the word "Shiite," but his description of a Moharram festival is the tipoff. Accompanied by a comic relief babu -- the gag is always that their syntax can't keep up with their English vocabulary -- Spence is an idealist, and this is a story of disillusionment. "There was a healthy glow to his cheeks," Blochman writes, "and an alert, candid light in his blue eyes. Something about him, some vague freshness, gave the impression that he had not been long in India." Pulpsters were believers in your face as a window to your essential character, and on the effects on character of intemperate climates like those of the Indian subcontinent. We will learn that they have done their dirty work on at least one burra sahib.

Reaching Lalkand, Spence finds Whyler grown fat and lazy. "His was not that extreme rotundity which gives an impression of frank good nature, but rather a careless corpulence," our young hero perceives. Despite his warnings that a rival company is sending agents to Lalkand, Whyler seems uninterested in the coal seam. He warns Spence not to bother negotiating until after the Moharram festival is over, and maybe not to bother negotiating at all, since the land Bengal Collieries wants is on "holy ground -- holy as hell. There's dozens of tombs of nigger saints on the property." Undeterred, Spence seeks an audience with the hajji who runs the local mosque and judges character much as pulp writers do. "You have honest eyes," he tells Spence, "Your face speaks the same message as your lips. Therefore honesty must cross your path." Spence gets the contract, only to have Whyler lose it, supposedly to a burglar. Luckily, Spence is fresh-minded enough to have a duplicate. Unfortunately, the village is suddenly out to kill all white man because some infidel has turned an unclean pig loose in the mosque. "All of Islam is running this way!" the panicky babu cries, urging Spence to make the hastiest of exits, but our hero is determined to rescue his hero, Whyler. Against all odds he finds the older man safe, only to discover that Whyler has sold him out, cutting a deal with the rival company's agent. His corruption complete, Whyler sneeringly tells Spence that he'd only rescued him back when because Spence was the boss's nephew and Whyler expected a promotion for his good dead. He put the pig in the mosque and kidnapped the hajji who knew the truth in the hope of getting the contract from Spence amid the confusion. "Young man, when you've been in India as long as I have, you'll know there aren't any pukkah sahibs," he says.

Making a desperate escape from his predicament, Spence goes a bit mad -- or at least Blochman writes him like a bit of a madman at the climax, when Whyler is shooting at him.

The youth clutched his gun. Something made him hesitate again. That something, Whyler, the hero. The man who saved his life. the ideal Whyler wanted to live ...
He blinked at a puff of flame. An explosion knocked him down. He had difficulty getting up. His left leg was numb.
Whyler was still standing there -- Whyler, the enemy. Whyler was shooting at him. The man wanted to kill -- not only him but the ideal Whyler. Spence had come to Lalkand to save the ideal Whyler. He would save him!
He squeezed the trigger.

And, of course, in his report to the company Spence credits Whyler with a heroic death in defense of Bengal Collieries. It's as if he needs to print the legend of a pukkah sahib -- a "perfect gentleman," more or less -- in order to deny Blochman's implicit truth that India ruins white men like Whyler. Whether Spence will go the same way is uncertain, but he does need a stiff drink before he sends the telegram. "The Chota Sahib" is the sort of story that's more interesting as a historical document of pop-culture attitudes toward India than for its literary qualities. The story may be bad in more than one sense, but it definitely isn't dull, and that's a point in its favor.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

RANCH ROMANCES: "Why don't you want to live, Joe?"

H. A. DeRosso is considered one of the darker authors of that mid-century period when western fiction, mirroring western movies, took on a more "adult" tone. He published his first pulp story in 1941; his last, posthumously published western stories appeared in Ranch Romances. DeRosso turned up frequently there, Ranch Romances being a market that probably ever western writer tried for. He also appeared at least once in Popular Publications' sweeter, gentler rival publication, Rangeland Romances, which tells me that DeRosso knew how to tailor his style to particular markets. How much did his stuff have to be tailored to Ranch Romances? "The Gun Rider" (First November Number, 1955) suggests that it was simply a matter of adding a happy ending to a pretty grim tale.


Jose Gomez, aka "Joe," is a hired gun for Senor Merriman, a corrupt rancher who dominates Dona Luz County with the votes of a Mexican community he keeps poor, ignorant and dependent. Merriman has sent Jose to his home town of San Onofre to hunt down Paul Vincent, a newspaperman making trouble with his investigative journalism. Jose finds himself a pariah, despised as a murderer even by his own mother, even though he claims to kill only in defense of Senor Merriman. The only sympathetic person in town is Erin Day, the pretty Anglo schoolteacher who's had a crush on Jose since they met. She tries to set "Joe" straight about Merriman by showing him the exposes Vincent has published, only to discover that Jose, to his own shame, can read neither English nor Spanish. To his further shame, he discovers that his own mother had been harboring Vincent, and so have most of the townspeople. He tries to cover up for her when Merriman and his bigoted sheriff show up in San Onofre, only to be warned that he can be framed for murder, for a killing that had saved Merriman's life, if he doesn't find the newsman. Finding his own situation increasingly hopeless, he helps Vincent get out of town by shooting two of Merriman's men and prepares for his own death. He figures Merriman has an airtight frame set up, and he figures that Erin, whom he'd pined for silently, thinking himself unfit for her, loves Vincent. Erin isn't so sure about that last part. She urges Jose to leave town until Vincent can clear his name and ruin Merriman, and despairs when he stays in San Onofre. "Why don't you want to live?" she asks, and while he says it's because the frame-up makes flight pointless, she figures out that he means to sacrifice himself, the big dummy, so she can go off with Vincent. "I know now why you helped Paul, why you came back, why you don't want to live," she says, "But I want you to." But she runs out of time to convince him to leave.

She began to cry softly.
"Please don't cry, Erin. Don't let me remember you the last time crying."
Outside Crabtree shouted, "Cobarde. Hijo de puto. Come on out, greaser."
"I'll do my best, Erin. I know how to use a gun good and I'll do my best. Tell my mother --" He did not finish.
"Tell her what, Joe?"
"Nothing."
He wanted to tell Erin good-bye but there was something too final in the words. They choked in his throat. So he touched her head again, the golden hair, and then he was throwing the door open and running out.

Maybe in a different magazine, or in something published a few years earlier Jose does get killed, and Erin does go off with Paul Vincent. Here, he kills his men, gasps "Erin, querida, Erin" with "what he was sure would be his last breath," and then wakes up in bed, recovering from his wounds. Erin will not only marry him, but will teach him to read and write. "Something filled his eyes, something like tears," DeRosso writes, "and he could not understand this because he had never been happy." But he's happy now. Despite that, it isn't quite prime Ranch Romances stuff. Erin's no action woman like you got on the covers so often, and DeRosso, in an effort to differentiate Jose speaking Spanish to his mother and other villagers and English to Erin, renders most of his hero's dialogue in that stilted fashion -- no contractions, no slang -- that 20th century writers from Ernest Hemingway to Pearl S. Buck and on down used to convey foreigners speaking their native tongue. Still, DeRosso can definitely create a mood and does so here pretty effortlessly. Whether the end of his story contradicts its mood was really for its target audience to decide.

The unz.org scan of this issue of Ranch Romances breaks "The Gun Rider" into two parts." Start here and continue with this link to a typical bit of  S. Omar Barker doggerel. On a tangent, you'll notice at the end of the story a promo for Robert Cummings' (ghost-written?) review of the upcoming Randolph Scott-Angela Lansbury picture My Gun Commands. If you've never heard of such a film, that's because the Joseph H. Lewis film was renamed A Lawless Street at the time of its release.