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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

'Happened?' she screamed back, 'I met a MAN, that's all.'

Ziff-Davis never was a major player in the pulp game, its best-known title being Amazing Stories, the pioneer sci-fi mag it acquired in 1938. During the 1940s the company began to expand into other genres with oversized publications using the Mammoth label. Mammoth Detective was the first of these to appear, in 1942, but Mammoth Western, which didn't launch until 1945, lasted the longest of the group, maintaining a monthly schedule from October 1947 to its demise at the end of 1950. At its peak it was genuinely mammoth by contemporary pulp standards at 194 pages an issue, but by the end of the trail it had dwindled to 130 pages, equal to most western pulps but smaller than the Thrilling group's copycat magazine Giant Western. Some major genre writers published in Mammoth, but it seemed to be dominated by a stable of Ziff-Davis house writers working under house pseudonyms. Does anyone who really wrote "All Roads Lead to Hell," the lead story in the December 1950 issue, under the name Mallory Storm? I wonder if it was editor Howard Browne, as I assume that some editorial indulgence was necessary for "Storm" to get away with something I didn't really expect to see in a pulp magazine.

"All Roads" is a vengeance story with a twist that is nearly given away by the opening blurb, which asks, "Can you avenge someone who hasn't been wronged?" Our avenger is Wate McCord, who saw his beloved Candy Thompson stolen from him and apparently raped by the villain, Bill Queen. McCord tracks Queen to a hell town in The Nations, where Candy works in a house of ill repute but assures Wate that "I've known only one man -- only one." Since Wate knows who that one man is, he's still more determined to take revenge on Queen, while the villain, for his own part, is oddly reluctant to eliminate a man he knows to be an avenger. From the time a more obvious good-girl character, Patricia Morely, is introduced, you can guess that there won't be a happy ending for Wate and Candy. Patricia is attended by her cousin Neal, a mute with his own grudge against Bill Queen, the man who cut his tongue out. This is convenient for the reader should Wate turn soft, but for a while we're uncertain of Neal's motives. He offers (in writing, of course) to help Wate set a trap for Queen, only to make it look like he's trapped Wate (and Patricia) for Queen. Neal is thinking several steps ahead of everyone else, however, knowing that he has to double-cross Wate in order to get Queen where he wants him. Once that happens, Neal changes into "a drooling, eager animal" who slowly tortures Queen to death while "giving out a sort of mad, obscene lullaby" while Wate and Patricia remain helpless. His work on earth finished, Neal cuts the others free and shoots himself in the head.

Then Candy arrives at the scene and jumps to the conclusion that Wate had butchered Bill Queen. Taking the trendy "adult western" genre to an extreme Hollywood dared not equal, "Mallory Storm" has Candy "become a raging, fighting fury" who screams at her savior, "You son of a bitch! I'll kill you! I'll cut you to pieces just the way you did him!"

"Candy -- for God's sake, Candy! What's happened to you?"
"Happened?" she screamed back, "I met a man, that's all. A better man than you cold be in a thousand years!"

Candy proceeds to describe her rape in relatively modest detail ("We fought until he had me stripped naked, and he was bleeding wehere I'd bitten through his ear and his lips."), revealing that she liked it precisely because Bill Queen wasn't a "wishy-washy country bumpkin [who] fell over his feet every time he asked me for a kiss." And so, "We had each other there in the bushes while you were eating dirt back in the grove."

Well damn. To his credit, Wate takes it without rancor, and to the author's credit, we're left feeling that Bill Queen was unworthy of Candy's love, given the "lascivious eyes [that] reflected perfectly his intentions toward" Patricia before Neal jumped him. And before you think the worst of Candy, we learn that she's the one who kept Queen from killing Wate. On that note of reconciliation Candy goes her own way while Wate gets the good girl. I might have expected such frankness, to use the buzzword of the time, from a paperback original, but not from a 1950 pulp magazine. But perhaps that just means I haven't read enough from the time period. In any event, "All Roads Lead to Hell" isn't exactly a great story, but it sure is a memorable one.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Sentimental Sammy was a pagan ..."

The Blue Fire Pearl is the first volume of Altus Press's planned complete edition of the Singapore Sammy stories of George F. Worts. The volume is part of Altus's "Argosy Library," but like some previous volumes in this series, the stories actually appeared in another pulp, Short Stories. Sammy did have his best-known run in Argosy and actually made some covers of the venerable weekly, but Worts didn't take him there until late 1931. The five stories in Blue Fire Pearl date from  March 1930 to May 1931, though the copyright information in the e-book backdates them to 1928-29. It's noteworthy in comparison to comic books in particular that pulp publishers didn't often claim series characters as their intellectual property, the great exceptions being the hero-pulp stars like The Shadow and Doc Savage. Characters like Singapore Sammy or W. C. Tuttle's Hashknife Hartley could bounce from magazine to magazine, presumably because the authors were never contract employees of the publishers. In any event, Sammy Shea emerges pretty much fully formed in his debut, "The Blue Fire Pearl" (March 10, 1928), in which Worts shows admirable restraint by not frontloading the story with Sammy's origin. Sammy is a fortune hunter working his way through Asia in search of his father, possibly pulpdom's ultimate deadbeat dad. Shea the elder abandoned Sammy and his mother, taking with him a will that gave Sammy his mother's fortune. Our hero's only clues on his vengeance trail is that Dad was obsessed with pearls and elephants.

Tales of an older man pursuing pearls and elephants take Sammy to Malobar, where he's arrested for invading a temple and slugging a guard, though he only wanted to ask if his father had been there. He becomes the captive of a decadent maharaja whose idea of modernity is an obsession with boxing. With two Americans as his prisoners, the maharaja decides it would be sporting to give them a chance at freedom and a great prize -- the title pearl -- by staging a fight. The winner goes free with the Blue Fire Pearl, while the loser is tossed into a panther pit. Not eager to kill or be killed, Sammy entertains Burke's plan for them to carry each other to a draw before making a break for it with the help of a Chinese boy Sammy has befriended. Worts does a great job keeping us suspicious of Burke's true intentions while emphasizing Sammy's self-interest throughout. Sam Shea is a good guy overall, but Worts makes it clear that he is greedy for that pearl and realistic about his own chances in a real fight with a bigger man, despite a fluke championship in his backstory. As the fight progresses, Sammy realizes that Burke is really out of shape and presumes that he proposed the fix for his own self-preservation. No sooner has he drawn this conclusion, however, than we realize that Sammy has underestimated his possum-playing opponent. Our hero is floored for a seven count, but Burke's treachery and the maharaja's contemptuous prodding ("Get up and fight, you white dog!") only make him mad. Now he's looking for a way to kayo Burke, break free from the ring and steal the pearl -- and, despite himself, to save Burke from execution, because it's the holiday season.

While Worts was also known for his series about defense attorney Gillian Hazeltine and the Peter the Brazen stories (under the pseudonym Loring Brent), his Singapore Sammy stories are by far his best work as far as I'm concerned. They're more hard-boiled and less melodramatic than Worts's other stuff, while Sammy himself is convincingly a good guy without being a goody two shoes. I look forward to reading and reviewing the other stories in the Altus Press collection, and then jumping ahead to some Sammy material from my own collection in the near future. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

'To a destroyer every submarine was an enemy'

Edward Ellsberg specialized in underwater salvage, winning fame and a congressional commission for raising a sunken submarine in 1926. As Commander Ellsberg he wrote submarine stories for Adventure, including "Queenstown Patrol" (November 1, 1931), a World War I yarn noteworthy for an unromanticized view of the war that wasn't really atypical of its time. It concerns the perils of the L-18, an American sub hunting for German U-boats. Its commander, Lt. Parker, has trouble enough keeping the "pig" in one piece. A big part of the problem, so one of the crew tells us, is its fine American craftsmanship.

"What ails this tub, anyway? [Parker asks] The other pigs've managed to keep on moving?"
"The way she's built, I guess," answered McCarthy. "She's a war baby. Some shipyard made a record on 'er -- built 'er complete in four months from duct keel to connin' tower; sorta stunt to show how they was doin' their bit to win the war. An' this is the result. Nothin's right. When it's not one thing bustin' down it's two. I wisht I was back on a battlewagon. This bucket's gonna be our finish sure."

L-18 is soon on the trail of the U-6, but The Enemy Below this is not. Both subs have to dive for cover when an Allied destroyer starts dropping depth bombs indiscriminately. "Was it meant for them or the U-6? Who knew? To a destroyer every submarine was an enemy. Shoot first, investigate afterward." The subs nestle in the muddy bottom until the coast is clear, then resume their own duel. Parker maneuvers the L-18 until the pigs are face-to-face as in a Wild West shootout, but Parker's gun jams. To be more precise, the sub's bow cap jams, making it impossible to fire torpedoes.

"What had sprung the shafting, jammed the operating gears?" Parker wonders, "Rotten construction? Those depth bombs last night? No difference now." All that matters is whether the crew can coax the L-18 into diving fast and deep enough to dodge a German torpedo. The epic of errors ends with a happy surprise: U-6 somehow blew itself up with a cockeyed rudder sending the torpedo back at its owner like a boomerang. The moral of the story is, "I guess Heinie's pigboats ain't no more reliable than Uncle Sam's." Just the same, L-18 will claim the kill and Parker and his crew will be heroes. Such is war. Ellsberg would continue writing for Adventure, and occasionally for other magazines, until the next world war, when sentiments of the sort expressed in "Queenstown Patrol" were once more unwelcome, and Ellsberg had real work to do again.

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.