Wednesday, February 24, 2016

BELLOW BILL WILLIAMS: a preliminary checklist


The tough American sailor working the South Seas is a pulp archetype. Gordon Young is credited with popularizing the type with his Hurricane Williams stories (and here's a Hurricane Williams novel) while the writer who made it his specialty more than any other, both in the pulps and the slicks, was probably Albert Richard Wetjen, whose Wallaby Jim, a Collier's hero, inspired a 1930s B movie. These South Sea stories are part seaborne westerns, part barbarian tales. They describe a largely lawless land where "savages," normally ruled by homegrown superstition, are easily lorded over by unscrupulous white exploiters, often with the aid of "witch doctors," while colonial overseers are far away. The heroes of these stories are the exceptional men, just as determined to make a living by trade, often as contemptuous toward natives as their villainous rivals, sometimes more alienated from their own cultures and "civilized" life, but always essentially moral and honorable. While villains seek to build little empires by oppressing natives and plundering resources, the heroic seamen often end up building empires of a kind by slaughtering these oppressors and plunderers, thus becoming recognized as laws unto themselves in the islands, men to whom victims and innocents can turn for aid and advice. These heroes of the South Seas flourished in a world with no recognizable geopolitical limits. their greatest antagonists being men much like themselves, or those men's savage allies. It wouldn't be the same for them to spend their time fighting Nazis or Japs, as some presumably did during World War II. A dream of independence, self-reliance and power redeemed by character would be lost. It may have been no accident, then, that Bellow Bill Williams passed from the scene in 1936, not long before the Axis powers to be began to hog all the villain action in pulps. While he sailed, Bellow Bill had some of the most colorful and violent adventures of any South Sea hero, and he probably was literally the most colorful of them all.

Now Bellow Bill Williams was six feet and three inches of bone and muscle. He weighed two hundred and forty pounds. If his voice was known through the South Seas, so was the amazing display of tattooing that covered every inch of his skin from hips to neck and shoulder to wrists. There was a full-rigged ship on his chest, a Chinese dragon on his back, bracelets of rope tattooed in pale blue ink around each wrist, and a snake coiled three times around his hips.

"The Golden Oyster" (1935)

Ralph R. Perry made sure to put such a descriptive paragraph into all his Bellow Bill stories. For the record, Bill is also blond, though Perry describes his hair as curly, unlike the illustration above from "Terror Island" (1933). Perry also made a point of reminding readers that "Bellow Bill was a rotten shot, perfectly capable of missing a man with all six bullets at any range greater than fifteen feet," as in "The Atoll of Flaming Men" (1935). It's a nice touch that makes Bill something less than a superman, though Perry emphasizes that his hero likes to get to close quarters where his superior strength will tell. Perry is very good at putting Bill in physical distress in empathetic fashion. Bellow Bill is implacable but not imperturbable; you can tell when he's scared or flustered, or when he recognizes that he's misjudged a person or situation. There's a nice sequence in "Atoll" in which Bill has to talk himself into going into the hold of an abandoned lugger after already seeing that it's dragging a corpse by an air hose, knowing he can find nothing good. Bellow Bill is a pearler by vocation, but in the stories I've read you never see him ply his trade. Instead, he acts as a troubleshooter or negotiator for others based on his reputation for honorable dealing and formidable strength. His good nature and sense of loyalty get him into awful jams; his cunning, determination and brute strength usually get him out of them, though in "Terror Island" the main villains are taken out by a faithful dog whose mysterious death signals one last death trap for our hero.

Not much seems to be known about Ralph R. Perry. A birth year of 1895 appears to be certain, but the date of his death is unknown. He served in the Navy during World War I and wrote a number of non-fiction articles about his experiences, placing one in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1920. According to the Fiction Mags Index he started appearing in pulps in 1924. In fact, he started at the top in Adventure. His first Argosy story doesn't appear until 1929, by which time he had published frequently in Adventure, Short Stories and several western and sea pulps. He published two more short stories and a two-part serial in the venerable weekly that year. When Bellow Bill first appeared I don't yet know. The first time the character is mentioned on a cover is in the August 1, 1931 issue, but the very fact that "Missing" is identified as "A Bellow Bill Novelette" indicates that Perry's hero was already a known quantity to Argosy readers. A number of novelettes from 1931 or 1930 are candidates for the first Bellow Bill story until a more complete Argosy collector sets me straight. It's possible, of course, that Bill was tried out in Adventure or Short Stories before settling in for his long run at Argosy, since authors usually could move characters from pulp to pulp at their pleasure.

If we don't know yet when Bellow Bill begins, we can at least build considerably on the Fiction Mags Index's very limited listing of Bellow Bill stories. In its index of series characters, the Index identifies only two Bellow Bill stories, ignoring the three stories that have long been identifiable and available in the unz.org trove. Moving forward from "Missing," I submit my preliminary and sometimes speculative list of Bellow Bill Williams stories in Argosy:

"Missing," August 1, 1931.

"More Than Millions," December 26, 1931 -- from this point, I'm going to work on the assumption that a "South Seas novelette" by Perry is a Bellow Bill tale.

"The Stuff of Empire," July 9, 1932  (confirmed by Sai S. below)

"Cat's-Paw,"  September 17, 1932 - ?

"Fanged Harbor," January 7, 1933 - ?

"The Accomplice," July 22, 1933 - (confirmed by Sai S. below)

"Terror Island," October 7, 1933 (unz.org)

"Huascar's Treasure," January 6, 1934 - ?

"Jib-Boom Charlie," March 3, 1934 (verified from the previous issue's "Looking Ahead" feature)

"The Wrong Move," April 7, 1934 (verified by Fiction Mags Index; in my collection)

"The Scar," June 2, 1934 (verified by Fiction Mags Index; in my collection)

"The Jungle Master," July 14, 1934 (verified from previous issue's "Looking Ahead")

"Blood Payment," October 6, 1934 (in my collection)

"The Rats of Mahia," December 1, 1934 (in my collection)

"Fangs of the Fetish," February 23, 1935 (in my collection)

"The Golden Oyster," May 25, 1935 (unz.org)

"The Atoll of Flaming Men," October 19, 1935 (unz.org)

"Shark Trail," March 21, 1936 (in my collection).


After 1936 Perry concentrated on westerns, though his 1939 Argosy story "Shark's Treasure" comes close to the old flavor of South Seas mayhem. Ultimately, to make my case for Bellow Bill I have to show rather than tell, so later this week I'll upload my scan of "Fangs of the Fetish" and point you to the Bellow Bill stories in the unz.org trove, which has become trickier to negotiate recently than it used to be. You practically have to be a Bellow Bill of the computer to find your way around, but the pulp trove is worth the trip.


3 comments:

  1. The good news for you is that these two are Bellow Bill stories too.

    "The Stuff of Empire," July 9, 1932
    "The Accomplice," July 22, 1933

    The better news is that any issue of Argosy in the 1930s is fun. The serials make life hard, because you can never get a long run together easily, but the short stories and novelettes make up for them, usually.

    I always thought the readership of Argosy was slanted towards teens and young adults. Adventure readers on the other hand, were professionals who loved the outdoors. Blue Book readers were solid white collar employees and their families that wanted a little escapist literature and appreciated great art. Short Stories readers were working class men who read stories in their spare time, maybe even on the job during breaks.

    Which is also my theory for why Argosy was most affected when World War 2 came around. Most of the readers went away either to work early or to be soldiers. And of the big 4 I listed above, it was the earliest to shutdown as a pulp in 1943.

    Of course, this is all my imagination, and I could be completely off the mark here.

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    1. Interesting theory Sai and one that I sort of agree with. We know that Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, the editor of ADVENTURE up to 1927, often talked about wanting to appeal more to professional men: doctors, businessmen, attorneys, etc. BLUE BOOK and SHORT STORIES always impressed me as aiming for a more mature readership than ARGOSY.

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  2. Thanks for the clarification, Sai! I felt pretty sure about "Accomplice" but not 100%, and now I'll be grabbing that issue soon.

    Sai and Walker: My take on Argosy is that it pitched itself as a family pulp despite the frequent blood and thunder. "Argonotes" often printed letters from wives turned onto Argosy by their husbands, or stories of whole families sharing an issue. Argosy also doesn't seem to have pandered to "Men" the way Blue Book and Short Stories sometimes did on their covers or spines. It and the Munsey chain were also clearly in their death throes by mid-1940, when they started flailing about with different cover formats, etc., which was well before Americans went off to war. My hunch remains that Argosy and Detective Fiction Weekly suffered from and were to an extent sacrificed to Munsey's ill-conceived "Red Star" brand expansion. You could see the opposite phenomenon at Popular Publications during the war, when they arguably sacrificed other titles or their page counts to build Adventure back up to 160 pages a month for a while. As for your speculations on the readerships of the rest of the "big 4," I defer to your deeper reading into all of them.

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