Saturday, February 17, 2018

'The main streets of London were, to Rodgers, as black as the chasms of the Taurus mountains. '

The outbreak of World War II took Paul Rodgers, the Red Wolf of Arabia in William J. Makin's long-running Blue Book series , away from his usual Middle Eastern haunts, at least initially. "London Blackout" (March 1940) takes Rodgers from the Mediterranean to the English metropolis in pursuit of the spies providing ship locations to German U-boats. Infiltrating a treacherous Greek vessel disguised as an Arab stowaway, he finds that the Nazis are using tricks out of the old pulp playbook. The spies transmit information through commercial radio broadcasts, embedding the crucial data in Spanish-language commercials. Once he figures this out, the Red Wolf sics the British navy on a German sub before abandoning the ship where he's been pressed into menial labor. From there it's on to London, where he tracks the Greek captain to spy headquarters. Rodgers uses a classic bluff to save himself and the Greek from the Nazis. Confronting them alone to save the captain from an abrupt execution, he brazenly announces that he has reinforcements right behind him. In fact, he has guaranteed reinforcements by stopping upstairs earlier and turning on all the lights in violation of the city 's blackout policy, assuring the place of a police visit. If only the whole war could be won so easily, but alas, Makin himself would not survive the conflict.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

'He won't be a real steel-man until he beats you up ...'

Pulp fiction often invited readers to ask, "could you take it?" That was the subject (or subtext) of stories comparable to today's tough-job genre of realty TV. The idea wasn't to question working conditions, but to aspire to coping with any circumstance. Edmund M. Littell's "The Profaned Shovel" (Adventure, January 30, 1926) is a case in point. Littell's hero, Ole Olson, is too good to be true. "Other men fought the heat" of the steel furnace, "but he played with it....Other men worked on the open hearth for money; he worked there because he loved it." Why he loves it so never quite becomes clear. Ole is an educated young man -- he speaks perfect English instead of the standard "yumpin' yimminy" dialect and is self-taught on the theory and practice of the industry -- yet he gladly becomes "a slave to the gigantic lamp of steel." But there's a serpent in his hellish paradise: Bull Dard, "a sullen man who could melt steel to perfection, but who in other ways was not so commendable." Bull makes a habit of hazing newcomers and makes a special case of Ole, perhaps because he's too handsome, too smart, too clean to be down among creatures like himself. "He's a purty boy, but he hurt his tummy," Bull sneers after Ole has a baptism of fire charging ferro. The novice inevitably gets his belly singed by molten splash-back, but while many quit after such an ordeal, in Ole's case "the test of the splash-back had uncovered a scar-bellied steel-man!" Bull's way of congratulating him is to slap him in the belly. Everyone lets Bull get away with his crap because he's too good a steel-man to lose. Complacent Ole simply has to go through a rite of passage that will climax when he finally stands up to the bully. Until then, his refusal to take offense only offends Bull more. The final straw finally breaks when Bull snaps the custom-carved handle of Ole's precious shovel. The narrator has explained that "to the man who lives with a shovel in his hand that tool must become an integral part of him.... Clothes might be burned, hide might be blistered, but an open hearth man's shovel must be guarded as precious." Bull breaking his shovel is all Ole can stand, he can't stands no more! The climactic fight, fist against fist, shovel against shovel, takes most of a double-column page, and with a big Swede fighting the mill bully, the outcome never was in doubt. Ole is eerily magnanimous in victory, to such a degree that a chastened Bull tries to quit his job, only to be dissuaded by his former foe, now his buddy. Their reconciliation is a practically orgasmic moment for all the workers: "A long sigh escaped from the tensely listening crowd, as though a blast of air had suddenly been released from the mighty blowers beneath them, a sigh more significant than the thundering applause of a cheering multitude," Littell writes.

"Shovel" was Littell's debut in Adventure and his first pulp story. That required him to introduce himself to "Camp-Fire" letter-column readers. "There, sir, is romance far too great for my poor effort," he says of the steel industry. The casual observer "does not see the gigantic work that goes on amid those man-made hells; the thousands of men who labor prosaically in the most spectacular surroundings ever devised by man. These men live and die as others. Their emotions may be dulled by fatigue, or blistered raw by the fires they serve, but they are all of the same stuff as the man who rides the cushioned steel Pullman on the rails they have made." He admits to some trepidation about submitting "Shovel," because of the industrial setting's "remoteness from the atmosphere which [Adventure's] stories generally depict....Certainly it is anything but one of the world's open spaces. But the courage of men is there, none the less." Littell needn't have worried. Given the steel-men's working conditions, the setting may have been more exotic or lurid than prosaic for pulp readers, but in the end, the superficial details aside, Littell told a story that could have been told in many different workplace settings, and probably had been already.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

'The groundhog was now a perfect philosopher, incapable of contemplating either good or evil.'

The hero of William Ransom's only credited pulp story, "The Texas Kind" (Western Short Stories, June 1955) has a grudge against the groundhog whose hole his horse stepped into, leaving young Larribee without a ride. He'd considered killing the critter until a horse trader happened along. Later, as part of the negotiation for a "sorrel crowbait," he blows the groundhog's head off. "The varmint hadn't even looked surprised," the narrator observes, "because by the time it should have looked surprised it didn't have anything left to look surprised with." That brings the price down by half, from eighty to forty dollars, but to no reader's surprise Larribee has bought a stolen horse, and that puts him on the bad side of the real owners, the Underwoods, father and daughter, who dominate the territory. Larribee is philosopher enough (albeit imperfect by groundhog standards) to talk sass to the daughter, Audrey, while she has a gun trained on him. "You've got an awful temper for a such a good-lookin' heifer," he charms, "Kind of a pert shape, too." Luckily, he convinces the Underwoods that he bought the animal in good faith and is allowed to leave their land alive, if on foot and without bullets in his gun. He falls in with some understandably disgruntled neighbors of the arrogant, water-monopolizing Underwoods, but quickly realizes that they're even worse in their murderous intentions toward the ranchers. Nor does it help their case that he recognizes the thief who sold him that horse in their ranks. He and we might feel that the Underwoods deserve some humbling, but the insurgents go predictably overboard, scheming to kill both father and daughter in the explosion of their dam, and Larribee finally has to put his foot down. Ransom himself goes overboard a bit with that climax, but I rather liked the often sardonic tone of the story as a whole. Ransom most likely was a pseudonym for another contributor or the editor, but I wonder whether Google was right when it answered my search for William Ransom with listings for William Ransom Hogan, a University of Oklahoma professor who published a history of the Texas republic in 1946 and later co-authored the flamboyantly titled The Barber of Natchez, Wherein a Slave is Freed and Rises to a Very High Standing: Wherein the Former Slave Writes a Two-thousand-page Journal about His Town and Himself; Wherein the Free Negro Diarist is Appraised in Terms of His Friends, His Code, and His Community's Reaction to His Wanton Murder. Someone who came up with a title like that could well have a pulp story in him.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

'I ain't havin' no ginger-haired she-catamaran poachin' around here, savvy?'

R. V. Gery was a British Navy veteran and ex-convict -- he did six months for fraud -- who settled in Canada and got into the pulp business. He started out as an Adventure regular but by the mid-1930s Short Stories had become his main market. "Magruder's Way" (November 25, 1937) is a title that tells only half the story, which is as much concerned with Red Heron's way as Jerry Magruder's. They're rival traders in the South Pacific, Magruder the established veteran, Heron the upstart interloper and a woman to boot. She's "poaching" on Magruder's normal trade with island natives and he doesn't like it. He expresses his disapproval in typical pulp male manner, warning her that "it'll be a spanked sit-upon for you -- and a single ticket to Sydney" when he catches up with her, "Go on down there an' get yourself marries. That's the lay for you!" Red Heron is a badass, however, and even more of a badass is her mate, the loyal but unscrupulous cockney Henry Jevons. The novelette evolves into a three-way battle as two villains, murderers and more literal poachers, an Australian and a Frenchman, make their play for anybody's boat. Magruder constantly underestimates Heron's ability to deal with this threat, perhaps because he sees how the stakes for her are higher than they would be for him.

Rusty [Magruder's mate] nodded again, sagely. 'They'll knock her off,' he observed. 'Sure's eggs!'
'Knock her off!' Cap'n Jerry almost groaned. Rusty's imagination was never his strong point. 'Ain't you been brought up to know the facts o' life, ye big ox? If t'was only that -- An' here, too, right smack-dab in the middle of my islands. Man alive, shut your eyes an' think for a minute -- if ye can thing -- what that couple'll do with her. Judas Priest!'
Obediently, Rusty closed his eyes, but when he opened them it was not with any lurid envisagement.
'It ain't any business o'yourn,' he said. 'Thought ye didn't like her.'
Cap'n Jerry drew a long breath and expanded it to the bottom of his lungs in a torrent of abuse that once again beat anything even Rusty had ever listened to.
'Like her!' he yelled finally. 'Why, ye blitherein' ape, what's that got to do with it? Like her? My soul an' body, I wish she was in everlastin' blazes this minute an' stying there. But that ain't it, ye lummox. She's here -- an' if them swine get a her, there'll be somethin' happen that'll give us all a black eye hereabouts for good. Give me a black eye, by Joseph, all up an' down the islands, just for lettin' it happen.

Magruder isn't wrong about the Frenchman's intentions, but so singleminded is he in his determination to defend Red Heron's virtue that he ends up inadvertently sacrificing his own boat to the bad guys, while Red ends up taking him prisoner on her own ship. She then proves herself a super sailor by giving chase to the villains in the teeth of a storm. Magruder finally joining her at the wheel as the captains discover common interests. She's ready to overtake the enemy and seize Magruder's abandoned ship for salvage, with Cap'n Jerry locked in a cabin, when Jerry recalls that the outsailed killers have an equalizer on board: Magruder's cargo of explosives. Gery moves smoothly into thriller mode as Heron closes in on her quarry, the Frenchman prepares to toss a bomb at her ship, and Magruder pounds hopelessly on the door to warn her. Finally he bursts through the skylight to save the day by literally batting the bomb away with his hand at almost the last moment. There's nothing like that to bring two people closer together, and the tale ends with thoughts of spankings mostly forgotten. It's an unpretentious, entertaining story, predictably heavy on accents but in a way fitting the overall lighthearted tone. I couldn't tell from the FictionMags Index whether Gery made a series of Magruder and Heron, but they struck me as characters worthy of an encore appearance.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

'When the bird flies away -- when the monkey drinks.'

L. Patrick Greene returns to Africa with "The Impertinence of M'Hoy," (January 30, 1926), one of his weaker contributions to Adventure. The problem with this one, I think, is that Greene is trying to tell two stories at once: one about the attempted uprising of the titular Matabele chieftain, the other about the pig-headed naivete of Resident Native Commissioner Percival "Reverend Percy" Roe. The latter's offense seems to be that he doesn't understand that the only thing some Africans understand is force. He's not exactly an anti-imperialist; Roe never questions Britain's right to colonize Africa, and he rather enjoys the flattery he receives from wily rogues like M'Hoy. But he shares with today's stereotypical "bleeding heart" anti-imperialist a belief in the essential innocence of his "dear black brothers," and that puts him at odds with the real hero of the story, Trooper Beamish, whom Roe presumes to be a racist ("You are the sort of man who refers to natives as niggers and has nothing but contemptuous hate for our black fellow subjects") because he doesn't trust M'Hoy's intentions and conducted a forcible search of the chief's kraal. Beamish is not the sort of dirty-mouthed racist Roe imagines; he gets on quite well with his own well-disciplined black troops, who share his contempt for Roe, -- he halfheartedly reminds them that the RNC it "the voice of the Great Queen," and is told, "He is her voidance of wind, more like," -- and his hunch about M'Hoy is quite correct. The action of the story is his labored effort to make Roe see the light of M'Hoy's darkness. His plan requires his own men to swallow their pride and accept the insults of M'Hoy's people. They balk at the idea until he explains to his corporal, "Have you ever seen a bird play lame in order to lure a snake away from her nest? Have you never seen a crocodile float like a rotten log on the top of the water until a foolish monkey approached to drink?" It's a fairly common trope of imperialist pulp that natives can defer gratification once convinced that doing so is part of a game or contest, and so thinking Beamish's men are willing to go along with his scheme until the time "when the bird flies away -- when the monkey drinks." The payoff is underwhelming: Beamish finally goads M'Hoy into attacking him and his men at a time when Roe is visiting his camp and will see the Matabele's illegal weapons, at a time when M'Hoy knows that Roe is nearby. This seems stupid after we've seen M'Hoy boast to Beamish that he'd always be able to convince "the fat white man" of his innocence. In fact, M'Hoy has conveniently explained all of his plans to Beamish, assuming (as villains will) that our hero won't be able to do anything about it. But Beamish hardly has to do anything so long as M'Hoy acts so quickly, and on such feeble pretext, to undermine his own strategy. It hardly matters, since the only point of the story is to wise up some fool about native wickedness, yet the story ends on a cynical, pessimistic note. Beamish believes that "Roe has had a little sense knocked into him" by his experience, but Beamish's superior is doubtful. as Greene writes, "He knew the breed."

Monday, January 22, 2018

'The longing to go down and serve fought the timidness born of his exile.'

Warren P. Staniford was an advertising executive who one fine day decided that he wanted to write fiction. He published one story in the pulps, and "His Service" (Adventure, Jan. 30, 1926) is it. The idea of it seems basically to be what if the American sailor in Madame Butterfly actually stayed in Japan and married his Japanese lover? What we get is a rather pathetic portrait of a homesick American, McConnell, who teaches English (presumably) to Japanese kids. He goes a little crazy when an American ship arrives in port to take on fuel. The year is 1918 or 1919 and the ship is on its way to Vladivostok to take part in the Allied expedition against Bolshevik Russia -- a subject about which Staniford wrote a non-fiction piece for The American Legion Weekly. McConnell is desperate to be useful to fellow countrymen, to feel like an American again. He acts as a negotiator and fixer; among other things, he "settled an incipient riot in a movie house where Charlie Chaplin on the screen aroused a reckless homesickness that sought relief in destruction." He tries to be evenhanded, keeping Japanese sharpers from ripping off the Americans, but also keeping the sailors from bullying innocent Japanese. McConnell is possessed by "the spirit of adventure and service" and a yearning to belong in a way he never can, so he thinks, in Japan. He becomes a creep about it, passing his long-suffering Japanese wife off as a maid while hosting the ship's commander. Meek and obedient, Omume cooperates in the imposture, hiding her wedding ring, but not before the commander notices. He has more respect for her than her husband does, it seems. "Somehow I knew it was that," he muses, "Poor little kid, it's tough on you." Fortunately, McConnell's conscience keeps him from deserting Omume. "I thought you'd come through like that -- old boy," the commander compliments him, but McConnell is still "gripping the sides [of his chair] and holding himself down" as the ship departs, while Omume thinks of cherry blossoms and how "McConnell had told her many times that cherry flowers were the next-best treasure of Japan." It's an unsually bittersweet story for Adventure, appearing at a time when editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman was feeling sensitive about dismissive critiques of his magazine's content. Regrettably, Staniford didn't claim a spot at "Camp-Fire" to talk about himself or the story, and pulpdom never heard from him again.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

'The Peloroxo cursed softly after the manner of the gringos, yet with a note of extraorinary cheefulness in his voice.'

I think of Gordon MacCreagh as a writer of African stories on the strength of his Kingi Bwana series and the Ethiopian safari he conducted for Adventure. But "He Shall Have Who Best Can Keep" (January 10, 1926) finds MacCreagh close to Arthur O. Friel country, in Brazil, telling a story in Friel style, from the viewpoint of a native observer. Theophilo Da Costa, or "Theophilo of the upper rivers," is a legendary trader and fighting man, but the real protagonist of his story is his red-haired American protege, nicknamed "the Peloroxo"or "Fire-Head." Their adventure fighting river pirates to recover a valuable shipment of tagua (i.e. ivory-nut palm) is entertaining in its own right, but almost a Macguffin relative to the generational tale MacCreagh wants to tell about America. The adventure happens while Peloroxo's father, Mr. Featherstone, is visiting in hopes of bringing his son home to take his rightful place in the family business. The old man is a sort of Babbit in his businesslike conformity, and the real danger in the story is that he will condemn his son to a similar stunted existence. Theophilo, who has an appreciation of Americans' historical character, sees the son, under his tutelage, reverting to the true pioneer character of his people. The three-way conversations between father, son and Theophilo are the real meat of this novelette. Featherstone objects to Peloroxo's description of his former self as a "hick;" Theophilo realizes that the h-word "was the most mortal affront that could be applied to those central States," but Peloroxo sees it as a fair label, since "as I found to my cost when I began to meet the rest of the world, that my outlook was a bit, er -- provincial." Again, it's not his American-ness that made Peloroxo "provincial," but a certain bourgeois decadence embodied by his father.

His bold spirit had come to him from his father's father and from that father's father, who had been of those hardy pioneers who had built the foundations of that great America of the north. Just such men as we need here in Amazonas to develop the equally great possibilities of this country....It was clear that he was swayed between obedience to the call of his father or to the call of his grandfather. But for only a minute. His spirit clung true to the demand for freedom and action that was his heritage.

Improbably, Featherstone joins our heroes in their pursuit of the pirates, determined not to let his son out of his sight. He's appalled to learn how Peloroxo has adapted to native ways in the jungle. "I don't know that I like all this pandering to heathen priests," he protests, "and I'm sure that your Uncle Malachi and Aunt Sarah would not approve." The old man warms to the action, however. In the heat of combat he cries out, "Gimme a gun. By golly, somebody gimme a gun and show me how to shoot it." Later, he encourages his boy with strong language, or at least the hint of strong language that editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman allowed. "To the -- with the law," he says, "Go on and win your own fight, son." At the climax the student surpasses the master with his audacity and the peculiar martial arts of his people. "The art of striking with the fist as you gringos do does not come easily to us of the South," Theophilo confesses after describing his clumsy brawl with an enemy. In the end, Featherstone recognizes that his son, in a foreign land, has become more authentically American than he. "You have grown in this wide open unsettled country to be a man such as my father was when he took the trail out to our wide open unsettled plains." He also recognizes that this disqualifies Peloroxo from any position in the family firm; "I am afraid that you would be a most disturbing element in our settled ways of business." Worse, from the son's standpoint, "I'd die in the family factory." Everybody wins, however, since Featherstone goes home to put the family firm in the tagua business, with Peloroxo and Theophilo as his regular suppliers. While Theophilo is too obviously a mouthpiece for the author, he's still an entertaining personality in his own right, and the story has that something extra to it that may enhance both its entertainment and educational value over time.