Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'What the hell do you think a man is?'

Stories of France's colonial empire allowed pulp writers to express more ambivalence about imperialism than adventures set in the British Empire. That's not to say that much pulp fiction was expressly anti-imperialist -- though one Foreign Legion specialist, J. D. Newsom, declared himself against in an Argosy autobiography. It's that tales of the French empire emphasize brutality and cruelty in a way English stories usually wouldn't, but it was usually cruelty and brutality as endured by Frenchmen or the mercenaries of all nations who filled the Foreign Legion. There's no British Empire equivalent of the Devil's Island subgenre, which is presumably to Britain's credit. If much of pulp fiction invited readers to vicariously test their courage, both Foreign Legion and Devil's Island stories posed this challenge: could you take it? For Depression readers especially, possibly, the hinted at how much worse things could get for a man. Robert Carse specialized in Devil's Island stories like "Prison" (Adventure, November 1, 1931) as well as Foreign Legion tales. The former could be summed up as the latter stripped of the last vestiges of romance and glory. "Prison's" protagonist is Rorke, an American Legionnaire and winner of the Croix de Guerre who ended up on Ile Diable, aka Ile Joseph, after killing his commanding officer, an archetypal military madman, to stop him from massacring his own men, both as a tactical blunderer and an outright murderer.

Only the influence of the U.S. ambassador got him imprisoned instead of executed, but prison proves a fate almost worse than death for Rorke because the warden, Morbillon, is the brother of the officer he killed. Their war of wills is the main event of the story, but Carse broadens its scope a little by shifting focus midway through to a third character, the young guard Geurot who sympathizes with Rorke once he learns of the American's heroism and comes to hate Morbillon's cruelty. He ends up collateral damage in the other two's private war, imprisoned after intervening to stop Morbillon from caning Rorke and finally striking his commander. While Rorke's rage for revenge sustains him, Geurot sickens rapidly but manages to smuggle Rorke a file for his latest escape attempt. When the American escapes his cell, he turns fatalistically selfless. No longer concerned with his own getaway, he confronts Morbillon to force him to free Geurot. "I got no way of saying it," Rorke says, presumably translated from his limited French, "I ain't got the words. But what the hell do you think a man is?" A bit implausibly, Morbillon seems to figure it all out in the end. He knows already that the old order's going to change; a committee of journalists with strong political backing back home is coming to investigate the prison. "Always we have blinded ourselves because we have been willing to die," he says of his family, "And the world is not that way any more. It has stopped being that way....France and the penal code. France -- That code is the only thing which has not changed, and which should be changed." He now expects his own court-martial to effect that change as Rorke, grateful but somewhat uncomprehending, goes his way. One suspects that at the last moment Carse turned his villain into a mouthpiece for his own opinion, though there's no "Camp Fire" comment this issue to confirm that. A Devil's Island story easily could veer into sadomasochistic territory, but Carse keeps things tasteful, concentrating on the prisoners' isolation and deprivation and how they can drive men mad. Without much violence, he conveys the extremity of the experience in a manner that no doubt chilled some original readers, while closing on an optimistic note that suggests that this, too -- like anything else in the pulp world -- could be endured and overcome.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

'Guess we're outlaws whether we want to be or not.'

In post-pulp days Frank Gruber made good in television. He was a co-creator and credited "Script Consultant" for the Tales of Wells Fargo show, which pitted Dale Robertson's troubleshooter Jim Hardie against outlaws factual and fictional. A hallmark of the show that we presumably can credit to Gruber is its often-sympathetic treatment of the historical outlaws. A totally made-up badman could be totally, irredeemably bad, but when Hardie met the famous ones he often discovered redeeming qualities in them. There's a precedent for that in Gruber's "Young Sam Began to Roam" (Short Stories, April 10, 1940. "Young Sam"is Sam Bass, a bandit portrayed in this story (and in a Wells Fargo episode where Chuck Connors played him) as a relatively happy-go-lucky fellow with no real mean streak in him. Bass reputedly never killed anyone in his brief outlaw career, making him an ideal candidate for the sympathetic treatment. The really noteworthy thing about the story is the narrative trick Gruber plays. He sets the story up as an elegiac remembrance of Sam by a surviving gang member, Eddie Slocum, who settled down and started a family and a ranch. Slocum's memories are provoked by cowboys singing the folk ballad that gives the story its title. The main story has an omniscient narrator rather than Slocum's "I," recounting how Slocum fell in with Sam after getting ripped off by a mining company. Gruber gives us Sam Bass's greatest coup, the $60,000 robbery of a Union Pacific train, and a (made-up?) episode in which the gang cons a town into betting against Sam's legendary superhorse, the Denton Mare, in an impromptu race. Along the way, Slocum meets Ruth, the woman who'll become his wife, but events eventually rush toward the betrayed Bass gang's fatal encounter with the Texas Rangers. The narrative climaxes as Sam sees Slocum take a bullet in the chest, and then we return to the present and learn the truth that adds a tragic tinge to all we'd read before. For it was Eddie Slocum who took a mortal wound that day and was mistaken for Sam Bass, and it was Sam, already poised to quit the outlaw life, who took Eddie's identity and settled down with Ruth. Apparently Ruth knew the truth all along -- she tells Sam that she talked to Slocum before he died -- but this seems to be the first time Sam actually told the whole story. For all intents and purposes Sam Bass the legendary laughing outlaw is dead, for "Slocum" doesn't laugh much anymore, for Eddie was his "heart." Ruth assures him that the long imposture was the right thing to do and okay with her, but that doesn't make the ending any happier. It does, however, end with just the effect Gruber wanted. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Brown Peril

We use the term "Yellow Peril" to describe an indiscriminate fear of Asia, particularly China and Japan, that flourished for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, or to describe archetypal Asian supervillains like Fu Manchu. The color palette of peril turns out to be slightly more subtle than that -- at least when an author imagines Asians' perceptions of each other. Read enough pulp fiction from the World War II period, or immediately before, and you'll notice that the Japanese, especially when opposed by the Chinese, are "brown" at least as often as they're "yellow," however "yellow" they may have seemed, by another measure, after Pearl Harbor. In Walter C. Brown's "Feng Kai and the Battle Dragon," (Short Stories, April 10, 1940), the Chinese protagonists almost invariably refer to the Japanese invaders as "the Brown Men." The story itself belonged to a popular wartime subgenre in which some humble citizen of an invaded country pulls off an improbable coup against a technologically superior enemy. In this case, Feng Kai, "keeper of the Temple of Milo Fo on Dragon Mountain, which is near the village of Lung-chu," avenges his temple and village by singlehandedly sinking a Japanese battleship or "battle dragon," as the fantastical Chinese call the mighty vessel. Brown specialized in Chinese stories, whether set in China or Chinatown, though any claim of his to know the "Oriental mind" probably was as preposterous as the claims made by the white heroes of many such stories. Chinese tales really were fantasies of an alternate, more flamboyantly ruthless lifestyle that re-envisioned everything in purple prose and nonsense names that amounted to a kind of bardic word-jazz that presumably was at least as much fun for authors to write as it was for fans to read. You didn't read them for the laconic kick of the hard-boiled school, but for an opposite thrill of vocabulary. Here's how Feng Kai responds to a report of a one-sided battle.

"Ai-ee!" Feng Kai replied, "It is a tale of sorrowful hearing, but let us not despair. There were also terrible dragons inthe old days, laying waste the whole land with fiery breath before they were conquered and slain by our honorable ancestors. Shall it be said that the Sons of Han have lost their ancient courage?"
The Long Sword veteran laughed bitterly. "Master, how shall men of mere flesh and bone conquer these great iron devil-machines that scoff at blows, and cannot be made to bleed and die? Times  without number did we rush forward, but the Brown Devils fight with chatter-guns that stand on three little iron legs, spitting out death faster than a man can count. The sons of Han were cut down in rows, like blades of rice at the harvesting. The Lung-ho runs red with their blood."

So on and on as Feng Kai tries to negotiate with the occupying commander only to see his village shelled, his temple wrecked. The bonze swears vengeance on the "dragon" or "devil-boat" more than the men manning it and slowly heads for a fateful rendezvous, meeting various helpers along the way, including a barber whom he asks, "Tell me, Man of Razors, how may I enter Shan-tze?" Passing through a coal mine, he ends up with a sack of dynamite that he manages to load on board the battleship with unlikely ease -- and he gets away to build a new temple to Milo Fo in Brown's fairy-tale ending. Before Pearl Harbor there was sometimes a hint of ambivalence in pulp accounts of the Sino-Japanese conflict -- no one ever made the Japanese the good guys, as far as I know, but some portrayed both sides as equally ruthless, and I've read a Spider novel in which a Chinese villain uses the war effort as a pretext for taking over organized crime in New York City -- but there's no question here who the good guys and bad guys are. Brown is bad, yellow good.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

'The Retreat of the Cowardly Gringos'

The 1916 American punitive expedition into Mexico was the Vietnam experience before Vietnam, or at least a preview of it. That's the impression you get from "Salt of the Service" (Adventure, July 1934), credited in print to "A. Dunn" but credited to veteran pulpsmith J. Allen Dunn in the FictionMags Index. Narrated by a soldier dying in France, "Salt" follows Troop G of the Tenth Cavalry on its way out of Mexico, not long after a massacre of U.S. troops by forces loyal to the Mexican president, Venustiano Carranza. American troops entered Mexico in pursuit of Carranza's ally-turned-enemy, Pancho Villa, who had raided a New Mexico town and killed both soldiers and civilians. If Villa's capture or death was the object, the mission was an abject failure, and Dunn describes the pointlessness of it in language that would be familiar to readers forty or fifty years later: "Now they knew that all they had accomplished was to change Mexico's fear into contempt." The troops see signs reading, "The Retreat of the Cowardly Gringos." As with Vietnam, the failure of the Mexican expedition is blamed on American politicians who would not let American soldiers go all out to win. Dunn seems to still carry a grudge against Woodrow Wilson, the president at that time, describing the humiliation of American forces as "the Army's monument to watchful waiting for peace at any price." "Watchful waiting" was Wilson's description of his policy toward both the Mexican unrest and the war that had broken out in Europe in 1914. In both cases, many American critics felt Wilson should have done something more substantial long before he actually did.

The story describes Troop G's encounters with two Mexican officers, the contemptible and treacherous Colonel Pardo and the honorable Captain Garcia. The latter is a Yaqui indian who instantly befriends the company doctor, Captain Edwards, because Edwards' father had been a friend to the Yaquis back when an older Mexican regime was trying to enslave them. In a reversal of the expected formula, the native is the one with "intelligent" eyes and a clean uniform, while the Mexican, Pardo, is "a cognac-bellied, crane-legged half breed" with "pigs' eyes and nose" and a "swine's mouth." Pardo wants to kick the Americans out of his territory as quickly as possible while Garcia, fearlessly defiant if not contemptuous toward his commander, prefers to permit them an honorable withdrawal. Unbeknownst to Garcia, Pardo sends men after dark to murder as many sleeping Americans as possible. They get four before the Americans capture two. The crisis comes when Pardo demands that these two be turned over to him, while the Americans insist on trying them for murder and dealing with them as the verdict dictates. Garcia quickly realizes what's happened and is surprised that the Americans don't simply rout Pardo's men.

"I cannot understand why you do not fight, you and your Army. I see you are brave. I see you wish to avenge your wrongs."
O'Hara said, "We swear loyalty and allegiance to our President -- not to the man but to the office. If we did not obey because we did not like or understand our orders, we would be like Mexico. We would have anarchy and suffering. We cannot break our oaths."
The Yaqui thought. "I am very sorry for you," he told him sincerely.

The lingering resentment of Wilson's policy is unmistakable. As it turns out, Pardo tricks the U.S. government into ordering the troop to turn over the killers, but Garcia detects the trick and resolves the situation by dragging Prado to the American camp and forcing him at machete-point to execute his killers himself. This "saved the spirits of this company," Captain Edwards tells the noble Yaqui. The tale closes on a cynical, foreboding  historical note: "At dawn, Troop G fumbled its way home through Chihuahua's desolation of hill and sand, leaving death behind. In another week it would read of German atrocities in poor defenseless Belgium." Dunn doesn't return to the dying soldier whose reminiscence gave his story its framing device, but that last mention of Europe effectively tells us how that poor man's fate was sealed.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

'You're a shrewd woman, Astarte. You know that I love you?'

Whether of not H. Bedford-Jones was king of the pulps, the superprolific author  pretty much was king of Blue Book until his death in 1949. For the McCall monthly he specialized in series based on some historic theme, published under his own name, or that of his favorite pseudonym Gordon Keyne, or sharing credit with his imaginary friend Captain L. B. Williams. While Bedford-Jones could write in the more direct modern pulp style, immersing the reader immediately into his story, his series stories for Blue Book (he did some for Short Stories as well) revert to an older indirect style in which the narrator encounters some interesting person who then tells or shows the story. This framing device gimmickry was taken to an absurd level in the "Famous Escapes" series (credited to Keyne) in which tales from history are told by a deaf-mute convict -- in sign language translated by the author. The actual stories usually are pretty entertaining as Bedford-Jones ranges across history from ancient to modern times in search of material. "Astarte Sails to War" (the May 1937 cover story) is part of the "Ships and Men" series credited to Bedford-Jones and Williams, whose captaincy presumably gave these stories a whiff of nautical authority. This particular story offers a secret origin for the Phoenician goddess Astarte in the form of a Hollywood screenplay.

In the framing story, the narrator literally bumps into a studio set designer -- with his car -- and takes the luckily uninjured man to the workshop where he's designing ships for Colossal Pictures' epic Astarte movie. Fascinated by the period detail, the narrator accepts an invitation to read the Astarte screenplay. The main story is the narrator's paraphrase of the script. "If you have witnessed that remarkable picture, which I believe was released sometime since, you'll remember the scene," is the segue. The screenplay is premised on the idea that the Phoenician gods were once mortal heroes and heroines. The god Melkarth originally was their prophet as they sailed from Assyria in search of a new home, and his daughter Astarte, later worshiped as a sometime war goddess who often adorned the prows of ships, is an innovative shipbuilder whose lighter vessels will run rings around a hostile Egyptian fleet.  Hollywood, of course, has to add a love triangle to this tale of female empowerment, as Astarte is coveted by Ithobal, her most ambitious captain, but falls for Hiram, her half-Greek assistant designer. Ithobal covets Astarte's power more than her love, really, but jealousy leads him to assassinate Hiram and attempt a coup d'etat which our heroine puts down in proper pulp fashion.

"You're doing, Ithobal!" she aid in slow, still voice. "This is a knife that my father gave you before we left Assyria. You dare not lie!"
"Neither dare nor would," and Ithobal stepped out boldly. "Aye, lady, I slew him. And now listen to me, Astarte! I am not alone --"
Had she let him speak his will, matters would have been different, for he was deep in guile and had a multitude of the host to back his purposes. But none of his friends were here among the captains in the tent. 
Swift as light, Astarte caught a spear from the ground and flung it, and the spear smote Ithobal where neck and arm came together; and he lay dead. She lifted her arms to the stupefied captains.
"You, who took oath to me! Am I your leader or not?"

I especially like the lapse into archaic, almost biblical language, as Ithobal is killed. Bedford-Jones then tries to have it both ways in the epilogue. At the end of the story proper, Astarte gets word that Hiram isn't dead and might survive. The narrator notes that the original screenplay ends with Astarte rushing to Hiram's tent, and admires its ambiguity over whether Hiram will survive, only to note that the finished film had an unambiguous happy ending. Saying he's not dead yet in the first place seems like kind of a cop-out to me, but I suppose Bedford-Jones is trying to make a point about the different ways in which movies and pulp fiction might handle such a situation. It hardly matters, as if you like historical pulp you'll probably enjoy "Astarte Goes to War" without worrying over whether a 1937 Astarte picture would have hit or flopped.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Posse Bait

Of the Fiction House line of western pulps, Lariat seems to have featured the most mature, or at least the most sophisticated stories. It promised "Cowboy-Life Romances," but like many a self-styled romance western (e.g. Ranch Romances or Star Western from the late 1940s on) Lariat's contents were often just as tough or hard-boiled as any non-"romance" title. Some Lariat stories had no romance content whatsoever. The November 1947 issue, for instance, sports a short story by John Jo Carpenter, a journeyman writer who broke into pulp around the time the U.S. entered World War II. "Posse Bait" intrigued me not for its romance elements or lack of them, but for stylistic elements I didn't expect to see in a 1940s pulp. The story itself is pretty simple: three cowboys of poor reputation are warned out of a town and expect a posse to descend upon them at any moment. Along the way, one of the three contrives to eliminate the others, succeeding the first time and failing the second, because he's actually in cahoots with one of the posse. Perhaps because it's so simple, and because Carpenter was being paid by the word, he had time with a short story to experiment a little, putting it most generously, or simply to pad the thing a bit. One of the fugitives is getting "light-headed" and starts to ramble on various subjects, to the irritation of the eventual villain of the piece, who'll use the other man's light-headedness as an excuse to shoot him, claiming that his victim, in his delirium, was going for his own weapon to kill the other two cowboys. This light-headedness allows Carpenter to throw in several paragraphs of grandly irrelevant dialogue, in a departure from pulp's usual expository efficiency. Apropos of very little, the doomed Sammy tells how he came to own the horse he has to shoot.

"I win thirty-six dollars off James Packrat, the Yaqui that tends stable for Dick Sparling," Sammy said, paying no attention to Nemo, "Then I win his horse, that fine little pinto mare he sets such a store by. Then I win his wife's sewing machine, and four dollars she had buried in the sand. Then James didn't have no more to lose, see? And when he went to turn over the stuff to me, he cried with his arms around that pinto's neck, dogged if he didn't. So I said, go bring me some kind of a horse and he could have the pinto back. So he brought me this one. Ain't he a card?"

For Sammy's two companions this is debatable proof that he's going loco, but to me his little digression seems to anticipate the much more digressive style employed in crime fiction by George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard, in which seemingly irrelevant narrative serves to set a mood or create tension as the reader begins to wonder when something will actually happen. In "Posse Bait" Sammy's rambling escalates the tension as Nemo, the villain, grows increasingly impatient with it and the hero by default, Red, wonders whether Sammy is going crazy or not. It's a nicely organic way to pad out a short story and it gives Carpenter's story an unexpectedly modern touch. I'm still working my way through this particular issue, and I still have stuff from tophand writers like H. A. DeRosso and Les Savage Jr. yet to read in it, but this little story from a relatively unknown author sets a pretty decent standard for the rest of the contributors.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'Nothing to be afraid of, anyway. All I need is another drink.'


Guessing from the titles of his stories, it looks like Robert Simpson specialized in tales of Africa. Apart from one 1922 appearance in The Saturday Evening Post, Simpson spent his whole career in the pulps, and mostly in Adventure. "Buried Out" (March 1934) is a misadventure of a British imperialist in Nigeria. Radnor, our protagonist, is on an upriver mission but finds himself abandoned by his "paddleboys" when he fishes a mysterious doll out of the water. With mangrove trees nearby Radnor names his new toy "Old Man Grove," and for all I know that may have been the story's title at one point. Along the way he acquires something like comedy relief in the form of a Sierra Leonean bureaucrat. Gulliver Anthony Dorr is an African version of the archetypal "babu" of India tales, the superficially educated butt of colonial contempt. Describing a more successful brother, Gulliver explains that "Absalom exhibited an adolescent idiosyncrasy to become quite adequately acquainted with the forest primeval." Simpson attempts to explain Gulliver himself, though it's unclear whether this is the author's objective opinion or Rador's prejudiced one.

This individual had been born of simple and well intentioned colored parents in Sierra Leone, who had made the mistake of sending him to the native college there to educate him for better things, with the result that Gulliver Anthony had concentrated principally upon the dictionary....Arrayed in spotless drill, he wore a flowing tie of lavender and orange stripes that made no pretence of matching a polka dot shirt, while about his waist was a cummerbund that was probably cerise in a better light. The hilt of a knife and the butt of a revolver stuck prominently out of the cummerbund, and on his crinkly head Gulliver Anthony sported a wide-brimmed panama that wa sturned up in front and down in back. The ensemble, in a colored revue, would probably have been very successful. Just then, however, the scene was Oagbi Creek at sunset and Radnor was in no humor to see the joke.

Simpson makes a point of emphasizing, however, that Gulliver's brother Absalom, an overseer is "one of the best in the business" and the man who'll actually be teaching Radnor the ropes of his new job should he make it there. This being a pulp story, once Radnor begins to have scary dealings with a powerful witch doctor (who needs to reclaim "Old Man Grove"), I began to suspect that this sinister figure blowing a bugle was probably Absalom Solomon Dorr. The climax is half horror, half humor as a tipsy Radnor gets the scare of his life from the mysterious bugler ("If you blow that damned bugle again, so help me, Hannah, I'll let--you--have--it!") and his legion of "human water snakes" threatening to capsize Radnor's canoe. All ends well, however, as the witch doctor was not A. S. Dorr and G.A Dorr, whom Radnor had beaten up sometime before the story proper began, saves our hero by reaching the British authorities and bringing them to the scene of the action. I inferred from the ending that Simpson may have intended "Buried Out" as the beginning of a series about Radnor and Gulliver, but it proved to be the last story he published. This issue's "Camp Fire" column reports that Simpson had died on January 7, 1934 "following a long and courageous fight that proved unavailing."