Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tom Curry trespasses on Arthur O. Friel's territory in "Brain and Brawn" (Argosy, June 22, 1935), set in oil-rich Venezuela. You'd think the present Bolivarian regime were in charge back then, given the way the natives treat the two American heroes running an oil rig. A Venezuelan concern wants to drink their milkshake, so to speak, and their operative, the peon foreman Espinosa, tries to make life difficult for the intrepid gringos, apparently the only people around interested in working hard. They are a typical Mutt & Jeff team; Sanderson is the "peppery little driller," Morton the "mighty giant" who does the heavy lifting and keeps the peons in line when they get uppity. In other words, Sanderson is the "Brain," Morton the "Brawn" of the title. The twist in Curry's bromance is that as they fight their way out of camp and flee through the jungle, hoping to salvage their well before the local rivals move in, a role reversal takes place. Morton gets shot in the leg and goes virtually lame, making it necessary for Sanderson to become the brawn by bearing his weight through the jungle. And as fatigue gradually clouds Sanderson's mind, it's up to Morton to do the quick thinking that eventually saves both men. Calling this a "bromance" is neither an anachronism or a joke. Morton and Sanderson are very close friends, albeit certainly in a purely platonic manner, with Sanderson the dominant partner despite Morton's tremendous strength. The story reaches its emotional climax when Sanderson, captured by the "Venzies," is taken to identify Morton's grave, having told his captors that his friend, still free, had died on the trail. Sanderson assumes that he'll be killed whether Morton's death is verified or not. Recalling Morton's hiding place, he hopes the big guy was smart enough to find another (he was), but has his doubts.
Sanderson almost wept; they'd surely find his partner, for Morton could not have worked very far by himself, and would not have done so, since he would wait for Sanderson to come back to him. Eager for a last look at his friend, the driller pushed forward. He wanted to die beside Morton.
Make of that what you will. Action fans were less distrustful of strong emotions back then. "Brain and Brawn" isn't top-flight Curry but it holds your interest easily enough and it has arguable historic interest as a document of the seeming arrogance that many Venezuelans resent in Americans to the present day.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
For one thing, these Indians looked unusually intelligent; faces longer, brows higher, eyes deeper than those of most aborigines. Also, their dark color was unnatural -- a dull greenish black, blending so softly into the forest shade as to make them almost invisible at a little distance. Although totally nude save for tiny dark clouts, they were so completely dyed that their real color was discernible only when they lay down to drink. Then a beam of sunlight piercing through the forest struck to the base of their thick black hair, disclosing scalp-skin almost white.
McFarland has a theory -- it's hard to tell how seriously we're meant to take it -- that his people are descended from survivors of Atlantis. He compares them favorably to the darker "humanimals" of the region. But he's no racist, really. "I got along by treating niggers and Indians like human beings," he tells Donovan, "They all are. Real niggers and real Indians, I mean. Half-breeds - pfah!" Damn.... mixed-race people must have had a hard time trying to read pulps, with so many stories telling them they're the bottom of the human barrel. In any event, the ambiguous superiority of these dark-white tribespeople intrigues Friel more than whatever revenge agenda Donovan had, which gets forgotten as he gets to know McFarland better and fights alongside him against an invasion by a "back-bush gang" of "misbegotten mongrels," led by "an apparent white man. Even here, Friel perceives a hierarchy of courage and discipline. When McFarland's men attack, the gang's Indian guides flee as fast as they can swim, while "No clothed man fled." Predictably enough, McFarland dies, as do Donovan and O'Brien's Venezuelan companions, but not before he points Donovan to a fortune that will settle the old man's debt to our hero's father. Friel excels at pitched battles like the one that climaxes this story, and if you can overlook a racism unusually ugly even for pulp fiction "Closed Country" shows that at a relatively late point in his career he could still deliver the blood and thunder. He seems to have had an idea of doing a series with Donovan and O'Brien, but it's unclear from the FictionMags Index whether they ever came back for an encore.
Saturday, December 2, 2017
Bugs has to employ psychology once Kwung Ksi and his partner Menzies grow suspicious of him. Kwung Ksi in particular is alarmed when he discovers, while frisking him, that Bugs is in very remarkable physical shape for a gone-native drunk. Now that he suspects that Bugs still is what he seemingly had been or could be again, Kwung Ksi instantly loses his enthusiasm for the reclamation project and urges Menzies to kill Sinnat. Menzies pretends not to share Kwung Ksi's doubts until he can interview Sinnat privately, thinking he can turn the presumed secret agent with promises of plunder and power. Bugs takes a big chance taunting Menzies for his pretense to aristocracy. When Menzies announces that he has royal blood, Bugs boasts mockingly, "So do I!" Finally, he convinces both men of his harmlessness by playing the alcoholic coward. Somehow, while suspecting that he's a British agent, they take his imposture seriously, leaving him so poorly guarded that he can sneak out of camp and contact the Imperial authorities. Hurst ends the story with the rout of Kwung Ksi's forces -- the bandit himself apparently goes down fighting, taking many enemies with him -- and Menzies' less courageous escape. Hurst clearly has plans for this character, as he leaves Bugs cursing the villain's escape and judging his mission a failure despite the rescue of gold and captive women. Whether he appears again is up to hardcore Hurst fans, if any live today, to tell us.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
"Black Powder Diplomacy" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is H. P. Guiler's only known pulp story. Set at a chaotic moment in Chinese history when a young republic was beset by warlords, it portrays increased resentment by Americans of a perceived lack of deference on the part of the Chinese, who requisition resources with little regard for white supremacy. "They've forgotten the lesson learned during the Boxer trouble [in 1900]," one American remarks, "and it looks like we shall have to give them another -- if we expect to stay here." An eager officer misses the good old days "when action was taken on the spot, and explained much later by letter when the affair had been settled and forgotten." Radio brings accountability all too quickly in the ultramodern 1920s, but our American protagonist insists on doing something now to restore the white prestige compromised by an influx of refugees from revolutionary Russia who've sunk to doing "coolie work." The problem with that is "when one white man loses caste out here, we all do." Unsurprisingly, the American's conclude that force is the only thing the Chinese will understand. Their challenge is to make their show of force look like something else. The arrival of a British admiral's ship gives them a pretext and an opportunity. The joke of the title is that the Americans fire the appropriate salute to the dignitary with live ammunition, out of alleged necessity, effectively terrorizing Chinese troops and ensuring compliance with previous American demands. "You will beat up Americans, will you, you yalla -----s," the American skipper roars, his meaning obscured slightly by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's typical editorial reticence. This is the sort of "diplomacy" the Chinese still remember resentfully, though now, when they may think themselves in a position to practice similar diplomacy in the South China Sea and elsewhere, that same attitude they've long resented may be making a comeback in an America where the old nationalism seems new again. Not so long ago scholars might have read Guiler's story and deplored the arrogance it portrays, but the same story might find more appreciative readers today.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Hal Ellis is slick enough to convince our heroes that he's the good guy in the scenario they've stumbled into, and to convince his enemies to play him, Slim and Tex in an epic card game for the rights to the prisoner. Playing for matches, the gamblers embark on a 72-hour marathon. "In poker, as in flying and other things, I sort of muddle through," Slim observes, but despite some reservations about Ellis's "somewhat mangy proposition," he and Tex decide that it'll be fun to play, especially if they can share in the bounty on the prisoner. "It all comes down to one explanation -- a couple of cuckoo flyers couldn't turn down a chance for excitement," which probably was what Ellis was depending on. Reserving his own strength and sobriety while the others exhaust or inebriate themselves, Happy Hal simply waits for the moment to start a fight so he can get away with the prisoner and keep the bounty all to himself. The island threesome provides the pretext by actually cheating at cards, but Slim and Tex learn that they're actually more in the right than Ellis was -- which makes it a good thing that they're able to stop him from flying away with his captive, though Ellis himself gets away, presumably to fight another day. "Mistaken Island" is easily the best Burtis story I've read to date, and while that isn't saying much considering what I've forced myself through before, it's actually good enough to make me more willing to seek out stories of Slim and Tex in the future.
Monday, November 27, 2017
L. Patrick Greene is best known now for his series of pulp stories about "The Major" and his sidekick Jim the Hottentot, but on the side he was the Georges Surdez of British imperialism in Africa. That is, Greene wrote a good number of stories dealing with the challenge of military discipline amid the clash of personalities in a military and colonial hierarchy. "Discipline" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is an obvious case in point. Simmons, our protagonist, is tasked with whipping the Black Watch of the British South African Police into shape. They're an awkward squad, inconsistently uniformed and clumsy in half-hearted drill with that inattention to cleanliness than considered characteristic of nonwhite peoples. Simmons gives them a stern talking to, breaking their complacency to remold them into some semblance of soldiery.
'Pigs!' he ejaculated. 'Pigs!' he said again, very slowly, as his finger traveled down the line.
The men stiffened perceptibly.
'You do not like to be called pigs, eh?' Simmons said with a harsh laugh. 'Then you must have pride and you are not altogether lost to shame. And yet --' the men squirmed under the lashing sarcasm of his voice -- 'I should have called you buloyi; I should have pointed my first finger at you. But, see how merciful I am, I only call you pigs.'
A cloud of dust arose from their embarrassed scuffling.
'You are liars, all of you,' Simmons continued in an even, unimpassioned voice. 'By your mouths you proclaim yourselves to be men and warriors of the great white chief, but by the filthiness in which you live it is plain that you are no men. No. Not men, but brothers to the dog-apes. Tchat! I spit your filth from me! I weep for you.'
This has a positive effect because many of the men do have warriors' pride and they are capable of shame, even if they want to blame their lax ways on their corporal, whom they disdain as a "puny fool." They respond well to harsh drilling, but a busybody English missionary, Banning, doesn't like what he sees when Simmons sends his men charging through a patch of thorns. The missionary, one of a brother-sister team, is determined to have Simmons written up for brutality. Greene wants us to recognize Banning as a naive idealist; the one thing he doesn't understand, it seems, is force. He doesn't take Simmons seriously when the officer warns that the missionary has hired porters from a hostile tribe, and sure enough, the tribe ends up kidnapping Banning's sister with intent to sacrifice her to one of their gods. "The curs! And I treated them like friends!" Banning protests.
The payoff reminds us that Greene was the creator of one of the more consistently heroic black characters in pulp in Jim the Hottentot. When the time comes to carry out a rescue mission, Simmons is prostrated by fever, and it's up to the Black Watch, including the "puny" corporal, to vindicate their commander's methods and his ultimate faith in them as men. Their mission, Simmons says, is "only another lesson in discipline. For us as well as them." The Black Watch, it turns out, has new pride in their imperial role. "Our voices are the voices of all white men," their top man tells the hostiles. In the face of the enemy's defiance, they ford a deep river, scatter their foes with disciplined, non-lethal fire and rescue Miss Banning. For some modern readers, the climax might reveal the Black Watch as tragic sellouts, brainwashed by the British, but Greene obviously had a different intention: to show that Africans were capable, if not of civilization as whites knew it, then of that discipline that arguably forms the foundation of any civilization. In short, "Discipline" is meant as a positive, if patronizing, portrait of black men, whatever people may think of it nearly a century later.
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Thursday, October 12, 2017
O'Malley he stood there gaspin' for air; then wid a yell he jumps, an' the fist of him took her in the jaw an' she fell over the skylight and her laigs quivered like a frog's that's dying.
'Ye black dirt, into the water wid yez an' find that pearl -- Oi'll kill ye! Don't ye come up widout it!'
Finally Delaney intervenes to save Kate, only to get stabbed by her while he fights his former friend. Both white men go over the side, but our raconteur makes it back on board while the sharks -- or "maybe as Oi sometimes think, 't was the black Betsy girl" -- pull O'Malley under. There's nothing left for Delaney but to take Kate back to her trader and then make his furtive way back to America, where "Some day we'll have a real dinner, wid radishes an' beer, an then Oi'll tell ye a story worth two of this an' ivery bit as true!" Even with the brogue, I wouldn't mind hearing another one from Delaney, as long as he keeps it just as short.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
The stokers were Sunnites, Arabic Mohammedans, owing allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey. And the men brought aboard were Shiites, Indian Mohammedans. The Arabic crowd, fanatical and clannish, wanted their own kind.
Sunnis and Shiites at odds? That sounds right, even if they're not as neatly divided geographically as Hunter seems to think. Still, McGregor is a veritable scholar of Islam compared to Chief Engineer Miller, who's astonished to find that the Muslims own prayer rugs. "Ain't they heathens?" he asks. Told about Muslims' five daily prayers, he remarks, "If them poor black guys can't pray without rugs below their knee-bones it's not me that'll be hindering them."
The City of Manila sets sail at a moment of international tension caused by resurgent Islam. "Turkey's defeat and humiliation [in World War I] had shaken the Moslem world and stirred the leaders of the faithful into action. her sudden rally and stab back at Greece [in 1921] had given courage and hope to the Moslem hierarchy. Followers of Mohammed were being urged to preserve the faith of the Green Banner." Little do those followers know that Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal, will shortly stab them in the back by abolishing the Caliphate and embarking on a radical program of secularization and westernization, but where's the fun in that for a pulp writer? In any event, the British navy and British intelligence are ordered to keep an eye out for Muslims using the sea lanes to spread seditious literature. The stakes are high, since "They man the merchant ships of the East. A holy war could be waged on sea and land." So says Ames, a scholar of Islam whose movements begin to arouse suspicion. Personally, I began to suspect that Ames was some sort of Bolshevist, but that idea went overboard when Ames is found dying, apparently captured and tortured by some of the lascars. He turns out to have been an intelligence officer like McGregor, who breaks the case with one of those weird tests that "appeal to the pageant sense of the Oriental" and the pulp writer.
In this trick, McGregor gathers the lascars together and sets them to the task of licking envelopes. The ones who fail are guilty of killing Ames and concealing the jihadist literature inside their carpets. "The strain of smothering all [their] fears was considerable and affected them physically, parched their tongues, dried up the saliva in their mouths," McGregor explains, "They hadn't enough moisture to wet the mucilage on the stamps. They betrayed themselves!" I might have expected editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman to ask the author, "Was it the stamps or the envelopes they were supposed to lick?" but perhaps the great man had made up his mind to indulge Hunter by publishing his tale before reaching the end. Hunter missed his one-and-only chance to contribute to "The Camp-Fire," and quit pulp for several years to edit the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Banner before placing a run of stories in the Clayton magazines. His last pulp fiction appeared in Short Stories in 1938. He retired from the ministry at age 90 and died three years later, in 1961. If only today's seditious plots could be discovered as easily as Hunter imagined.
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Interestingly, in this issue's "Camp-Fire" section, where he makes his customary but belated introduction of himself to readers, Kelley confides that the cat-tamer he idolized as a youth was a woman, Mabel Stark, who in her day was just about the most famous female circus performer. I suppose, however, that his odd little story of animal jealousy would be odder still with a woman protagonist. Writing of the real life behind his story, he observes that "In the fascinating school of the steel arenas [the big cats] parallel a classroom where both intelligent pupils and those of retarded mental growth are found. There are model students and there are morons in the big training cages." He also defends circus people against a "rough and uncultured" stereotype. "With its citizenry of many nationalities and numerous religions, the circus is a great place to learn tolerance," Kelley notes, "All of which probably can be summed up like this: 'Never turn up your nose at anyone; remember the law of gravity.'"
Monday, October 2, 2017
'Outside were the squaws and papooses, hoping that the thief would be tortured and that they might have a hand in it.'
The circle visibly hesitated. Nothing was so dear to them at the moment as prolonged torture of the craven who feared not only death but hardship. Yet they could see a sardonic justice in the proposed punishment. They could imagine all sorts of suffering which the fugitive would have to undergo -- intensified a hundred times by his abject fear -- and it would be lengthened to an indefinite extent, since they could imagine him wandering for days amid the grim horrors of starvation and cold.
Sonnup gets his way, and also gets to sneak Pesokie a fur robe, a hunting knife and the tribe's remaining dogs. He reminds his brother that "You should die -- thief -- coward," but tells him to try for the nearby Bannack village, since "Even a Bannack will feed a starving stranger." This is the part, you might expect, where Pesokie redeems himself, either intentionally or inadvertently depending on the tone of the story, and regains the tribe's good graces. It doesn't quite turn out that way. No one in the tribe's going to miss those dogs Sonnup stole because they're not really domesticated. "Any time an Indian wished to lose a finger or two he had only to attempt to pet his dog," Robertson writes. After Pesokie had stolen their stores, the rest of the warriors had to kill most of the dogs to sustain themselves on their lengthy trek. Now Pesokie sees the remaining dogs as potential prey or potential predators. Numbers are on the dogs' side, and a still-starving Pesokie finds himself surrounded.
Almost by accident the old coward kills the first dog to attack, and as the others move in "A wild exhilaration flowed over Pesokie! He had ceased to fear! He was fighting at last -- the thing he had avoided all his craven life -- and to his intense wonder he found joy in it, and an overwhelming satisfaction. His weak medicine had suddenly become strong." Our hero has learned that "anticipation of suffering was much worse than the reality" -- but he has to die doing it. The story closes with a close-up of Pesokie's corpse, "On his face the peaceful look of a brave man." This is impressively grim stuff from an author still early in his career. Robertson had published his first story in 1920, his first in Adventure in 1922. He'd place six stories there in 1923 before moving on to become a mainstay of Short Stories, Ace High and West for the rest of the decade and into the 1930s. Robertson kept at it practically to the end of the pulp era, placing his last story in a 1957 Ranch Romances as one of the grand old men of the western genre.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
He was a true Legionnaire, in love with the spectacular and, his life being sacrificed, he granted himself the luxury of exacting admiration from the very Legionnaires who had laughed. To die was nothing -- if it meant that he would be remembered.
Inevitably he goes down in a hail of gunfire, but when some Berbers venture from their position to plunder the body, them men who had scorned Verlinden moments before now go berserk in defense of his corpse. "Verlinden's personality had fled wherever the spirit travels after death, but there remained his clay and his uniform," Surdez writes, "His head, taken as a trophy through the market places of desert villages, would be a reproach to his Legionnaires." By sacrificing himself for purely selfish reasons, Verlinden inadvertently wins the day for the Legion. The question of whether Verlinden was justified in his treatment of Laurens has been forgotten, proof that the story was more about Verlinden all along. Surdez doesn't really imply that Verlinden's conduct vindicates him, and his reluctance to pass final judgment is a nice touch from an author I've only rarely disliked.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
The broad shouldered one, with the shining black eyes and a beard which curled down his deep chest in black rings, had one huge hand over the bottle. The other, a slighter man, was plainly not a negro. Yet his skin was the color of chocolate; smooth and tight drawn; more like tanned leather than human flesh covering. His eyes, though only a few feet away, appeared to be looking across incalculable distance.
The strangers make friends with Jones and amaze him with tales of Jean Lafitte the pirate, told as if they knew the man. Amazing as that must sound, given that Lafitte flourished more than a century earlier, Belshar and Hovsep can top that easily. "We've seen some walls, Hovsep and me," says Belshar, the bearded one, who leaves Hovsep, the dark one, to tell of their role in the siege of Jericho. While "we follow the sea, Belshar and me .... once in awhile we find ourselves ashore and this was one of the times," Hovsep starts. Fugitives from the Persian Gulf, they became mercenary scouts for the Israelites under Joshua. In a dig at modern anti-semitism, Hovsep tells Jones, "It's maybe funny to you to think of [Jews] as fighting men. But they were -- a wild, hard, hairy lot, sleeping in tents, wondering where the next meal was coming from, scrapping with everybody they met; and licking 'em, too, mostly." Clarke doesn't soft-pedal Old Testament aggression. "Part of the Hebrew idea was to capture every town they came to and put the people out of the way," Hovsep recalls, "It saved trouble, and it was an order from their god." Iahweh, as Clarke calls that god, isn't bad compared to Ashtaroth and Baal, the dominant deities in Jericho, and their worshipers. "Them Canaanites were a scummy lot, take my word," Hovsep recalls. The priests of Ashtaroth take young women by force and make them temple prostitutes. The priests of Baal take young boys for human sacrifice. The family of Rahab, the biblical heroine, is victimized many times over. In Clarke's backstory, Rahab herself is taken from her family, while three of her brothers are chosen for sacrifice. Twenty years before Joshua's siege, Hovsep and Belshar, then friends of Rahab, made themselves personae non grata in Jericho by attempting to rescue her brothers, saving two of the three and leaving Rahab swearing that someday "my turn" will come.
Their past experience in Jericho recommends our heroes to Joshua for an infiltration mission, during which the meet and older, hardened Rahab, who sees "my turn" coming with the arrival of "the Evening Wolf," Joshua. She tells Hovsep and Belshar about a weak spot, caused by storm damage, in Jericho's strong walls. They relay this crucial intelligence to Joshua, who has just gotten his legendary marching orders, so to speak, from "the Lord's captain." "It isn't that I don't think it will work," Joshua tells them, "I don't doubt Iahweh. But I always like to help him when I can." He sets our heroes to work further undermining the wall until he has a change of heart. "I have not put my trust in Iahweh," he laments, "If we go through with this, His face will be turned away from His people." But Hovsep and Belshar decide they'll keep at it in secret, determined to do all they can to help Rahab get her revenge. Clarke has Hovsep tell what happens next in nicely ambiguous fashion. Did a miracle actually happen, or had "Joshua'd figured the balance better than he knew" when he put our heroes to work earlier? Whatever the cause, a slaughter ensues, but Rahab and her family are saved. Jones is so caught up in the story, virtually smelling the smoke of the burning city, that he doesn't notice at first that his new friends have disappeared, but not without leaving behind evidence that they actually had been there.
As you may have noticed from the excerpts, the gimmick of the story is that Belshar and Hovsep talk and tell their story in the vernacular of 1932. Maybe that's just Jones translating it in his own head, but I think it effectively establishes Clarke's immortals as eternal common men, neither archaically alien nor decadently refined. If I recall right, there was a sort of fad for this sort of writing in historical fiction -- F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his experiments in the genre -- but "Walls" survives whatever faddishness there was to it. While it adds an irreverent note to a Bible legend, it also gives the tale a fresh sense of immediacy and empathy as Clarke underscores the horrors of Canaanite idolatry. Most importantly, Belshar and Hovsep sound like cool guys with many more stories to tell, and it would be a shame if this turned out to be their only appearance.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
1955 was a late time to publish your first pulp story. In the western field, Popular Publications had converted a couple of titles to magazine format, but would soon kill them in favor of "true" adventures in the sweat genre. Thrilling had done away with most of its line at the end of 1953, leaving the most popular western pulps of the day, the monthly Texas Rangers and the biweekly Ranch Romances, as well as the quarterly Triple Western. The other surviving western titles came from Columbia, long considered the bottom of the publishing barrel, and Stadium, as the pulp arm of Martin Goodman's empire called itself then. Clayton Fox made his debut in a Stadium title, the June 1955 Western Short Stories, with "Tough, He Said He Was." It's a pretty basic character piece, the idea being that Bob Smith resents his mentor, Big John McLeod but gains a greater appreciation of him, and a greater sense of responsibility for his legacy, after McLeod dies in a freak accident. "You don't like a man you're forced on with a gun," the narrator observes, and that's how it is with Bob, for whom McLeod's hardscrabble ranch is the only alternative to reform school. After McLeod's demise, Bob falls under suspicion when a few cows are discovered missing from the older man's humble herd. At the same time, Bob feels the temptation to sell the rest of the herd and keep the proceeds rather than use them to pay McLeod's debts. Destiny points Bob toward a showdown with the real rustlers, the no-account Glidden brothers. Their in-jokey presence is probably the most noteworthy thing about Fox's debut, though I wonder how many 1955 readers recognized the joke. The Gliddens of the story are named Luke and Pete. The Gliddens of western pulp fame are Fred and John, who wrote under the names "Luke Short" and "Peter Dawson" respectively. Get it? I'm sure that the outlawry of the fictional Gliddens is meant as no reflection on the real-life authors, but maybe the name-dropping put a helpful smile on editor Robert O. Erisman's face just the same. The best thing about this little story is its modesty of scope. The big gunfight ends with no one dead, the stolen cattle reclaimed, and the Gliddens' cabin shot up until Bob's rifle barrel is too hot to touch. Fox introduces a potential love interest, but she never becomes more than that. We don't get the standard closing paragraph in which the hero thinks dreamily about the girl, because this story is more concerned with showing how Big John McLeod's lessons took. That's enough for this ten-page story to feel like a little change of pace. Fox published four more stories in Stadium pulps over the next two years before Stadium expired and he focused on novels -- though for all I know he's also the K. Clayton whose one and only western pulp story appeared in this same issue. The market for western short stories was drying up, but the pulps still gave aspiring pros an opportunity to learn how to write narratives that could sell.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
For Singapore Sammy's last bow (and only cover feature) in Short Stories, George F. Worts reverts to the formula of the second Sammy story. As in "Cobra," "Octopus" (May 10, 1931) makes much of its villain's resemblance to the title animal. Pierre Lauzanno isn't a half-caste, but he's nearly as bad in his author's eyes, "American born, of Portuguese ancestry and Oriental upbringing." While Worts mixes metaphors by giving Lauzanno "the arms of a gorilla," he is a moral octopus in the writer's eyes, "a man who would indulge in any form of murder to accomplish an object." "Octopus" also reproduces the earlier story's motif of partnership between a properly "hard" man and someone whose addictive nature makes him unfit for the life of a South Seas adventurer. The difference this time is that Sammy isn't one of the partners. Instead, back in the burg that gave him his nickname, he encounters a mismatched pair at a crooked card game. One of them, Kelvin Broome, "the Viking," is just like Sammy's protege from the earlier story, only more belligerent; he can't lay off the cards or the booze. The other, "the buccaneer," is virtually another version of Sammy Shea. The improbably named Lucifer "Lucky" Jones will end up being Singapore's sidekick in future stories; he proves a resourceful companion here as the men join forces to avenge Broome, who gets knifed in an alley after the card game breaks up violently. They mean to secure Broome's map of a sunken treasure; finding the treasure, they hope to send it to the dead man's poor family on an Arizona orange grove, to help his sister go to art school. These are the same guys who go around boasting of how "hard" they are, and who we're told are hard by the author. Mush!
Anyway, Singapore and Lucky catch up with Lauzanno and prove just how hard they are by torturing him into giving up the map, with unplanned assistance from an actual octopus that attaches itself to the villain while our heroes are dunking him in the sea. In the middle of this there's a weird moment when Sammy "placed the flat of his hand against a davit and looked at Lauzanno dreamily. Those who had experience knew that this was by far the most dangerous, most sinister expression that the red-haired young man used." I'm sure Worts only means that Sammy's on the brink of going psycho on his antagonist, but given the context of torture, and maybe because I'm a 21st century reader, I can't help reading something even more sinister into our hero's dreamy expression. Despite that, Lauzanno proves a tough egg until the octopus intervenes and makes him beg for mercy. Shay and Jones then make the mistake of letting Lauzanno live.
"Octopus" is the longest of the early Sammy stories, but the way it breaks into nearly equal halves suggests that Worts (or the editor of Short Stories) may have slammed two novelettes together. The second half of the story becomes a tag-team match as Lauzanno hooks up with the infamous Bill Shay, Sammy's reprobate father, whom the villain tracks down with an alacrity that puts all of Sammy's previous efforts to shame. Things went badly for the old man after we left him at the end of "The Pink Elephant." Held responsible for the sacred title creature's death, Bill was tortured by angry Siamese authorities. Already poised to benefit from Sammy's death according to the will of Sammy's grandfather, Bill, who was previously amused to lead the boy on wild-goose chases, is now out for blood. He and Lauzanno lay in wait while Sammy and Lucky hunt for the treasure, then pounce when the younger men go down in diving suits to retrieve the sunken gold. Worts is good at selling every encounter between Shay the elder and Shay the younger as a big moment, especially when Sammy is shocked to discover Dad in a diving suit attacking him alongside Lauzanno. There's also a very cinematic moment when, in the midst of another intervention by a real octopus, Sammy catches one last glimpse of Bill before the old man zips up to the surface to escape the carnage that consumes Lauzanno, and from which our heroes barely escape. It's an exciting finish to a story that's just slightly overlong, though by modern standards the extra length is put to relatively good use building up Singapore and Lucky's friendship.
From here Worts took Singapore Sammy to Argosy, where he debuted in an eponymous serial in December 1931. As for me, I'll be going back to where I discovered Sammy, in the invaluable Big Book of Adventure Stories, before proceeding to items from my own collection. Of his three major characters -- Peter the Brazen and Gillian Hazeltine are the others -- Worts stuck with Sammy the latest. The conclusion of the 1936 Sammy serial Murderer's Paradise was the effective end of the author's pulp career.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
Sidney Herschel Small was one of the pulp writers I discovered in the pages of a contemporary slick magazine, Collier's Weekly. He specialized in East-West encounters, whether they involved Americans exploring the Far East or Americans exploring their local Chinatowns. His Collier's stories don't exactly lack action, but Small's pulp writing is naturally more energetic, if no more or less accurate in their representations of Asia. "The River of the Sky" (Adventure, April 15, 1932) is set in modern Japan, but from Small's descriptions you'd think that Commodore Perry had only just arrived. Apart from the presence of the American businessman hero, A-1 agent Andrew Moffat, aka "Hairy Foreigner," and his rival, one of those dreaded half-castes, you'd think the country was still in Shogun days. Of course, if you're going to set your story in an exotic place, the place had better be exotic, however aggressive Japan actually was about modernizing. Small gives his readers a vivid if not salacious account of the kammairi procession, in which worshippers, despite the wintry conditions, run naked, or as nearly naked as they dare,to the temple of the moon god. From that spectacular starting point, he gets to the meat of his story as Moffat repels assassins sent by his half-caste rival and rescues an elderly man from becoming collateral damage. He takes the old man in to warm him up and make sure of his health, and learns that they have a common enemy in the half-caste. Kagawa Omura once was a big man in this town before George Yakahira, the half-caste, ruined him. Kagawa's daughter, descended from samurai, is now a mere servant in Yakahira's household, and that is one insult too many for the proud old man. This sets up a situation I've seen before in pulp fiction, though I may well have seen it in a later story by another of the Oriental story specialists like Walter C. Brown. The idea is that the broken old timer gets his foot in the door, the better to carry out some baroque revenge plot, by offering the villain the last precious thing in his possession. In this case, the River of the Sky is a beautifully crafted ceramic bowl that any collector, or anyone in the export-import trade, would treasure. The payoff, of course, is that this final tribute from vanquished to victor is -- in this case pretty much literally -- a poisoned chalice. The gimmick in Small's story is that Kagawa drinks from the bowl before Yakahira does, so the drink couldn't be poisoned -- could it? I haven't read enough mystery stories to know whether the explanation Kagawa gives at the end, which involves treating the bowl with two fresh layers of glaze, the first water-soluble, exposing a poison layer for the second tea-drinker, had been done before. It's the sort of cute ploy that's okay to close a relatively unambitious short story from a writer who's done much better in my own limited experience. Apparently Small had a series of stories in Adventure about the A-1 company, or so I infer from the way he drops names of Moffat's colleagues as if readers should recognize them. I'd be willing to read more to whether Small made anything of the more compelling story of Japan's modernization and its consequences for the rest of the world.
Thursday, August 31, 2017
It's that boasting that gets Clay's boy kidnapped by an outlaw out of prison and out for vengeance on Toggleson. Because of the circumstances, Toggleson feels responsible and talks Barnett after going after the boy himself. But he questions his resolve almost instantly. "He found himself thinking: I'd be a fool to go up there and let him kill me. It's not my son." Adams adds, "Immediately he felt ashamed of the thought." Yet he thinks it again as he closes in on the outlaw, though the thought doesn't stop him. This being a pulp western short story, there's no doubting that Toggleson will save the boy, slay the outlaw and earn the marshal's badge, but Adams still makes a halfway decent story out of it by stressing that Toggleson is not some picked-on loser who has to redeem himself for anything, as in the typical "coward" scenario, but simply someone suffering through a middle-age crisis of self-doubt despite the esteem of his community. The story reads as less cliched than it could or almost should be, and that's the mark of Clifton Adams' quality as a writer. He was one of the authors who made the last decade or so of pulp westerns a golden age of the genre.
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Into this tense situation wanders Sir Lester, a stereotypical Englishman touring the country "lookin' for big cats." His warning that Sammy runs "rather a risk" taking the phoouk all the way to Bangkok makes our hero suspicious. "Sammy looked quickly in Sir Lester's eyes," Worts writes, "saw something there that he did not like." But what else is new? Why wouldn't Sir Lester be just as eager to nab the elephant as anyone else? So Sammy has someone new to worry about -- except that the Englishman is not so new. After inviting Sammy to sit in a blatant trap and then springing it, Sir Lester reveals himself as Bill Shea. For this one time we can buy that Sammy could be so easily fooled because he hasn't had a good look at his father for so long. Once Sammy identifies him, Bill greets him with, "Smart boy! All you needed to find it out was a moving picture and a full set of directions!" Luckily for our hero, the old man is content to taunt him and steal his elephant.
They told me that you were one dangerous guy to cross. Hell, you ain't hard. You ain't smart. You're just a sucker. I was almost gettin' proud of you -- and then you have to up and pull this stunt. You sucker!...What did I tell you in that letter I sent you when you were in the Singapore Hospital? 'The hand is faster than the naked eye. A wise man knows the aim of a bottle!' I warned you. You're just dumb.
Worts uses the occasion to recap the Sammy series to date from Bill's second-hand point of view before the old man absconds with the phoouk. He's arranged to have Sammy freed some time later, well after Bill and the pink elephant are out of reach -- or so Bill assumes. He hasn't reckoned with the bond Sammy has formed with Bozo, the prince's mighty alcoholic elephant. In the story's silly finish, Sammy steals Bozo from the prince's estate, fuels him up with whisky, overtakes Bill's party and manages to sneak off with the pink elephant. Score one for Sammy Shea! Silly as it is, "Pink Elephant" is a strong entry in the series thanks to its spectacular introduction, four episodes in, of the main villain, who promises to give Sammy still more trouble in the future.
Monday, August 21, 2017
'You are the hardest man to get to agree with anybody I ever saw. You won't even agree with yourself.'
"That really is odd," Poggioli replies, "I suppose it is a race obsession. You are so obsessed with Chin Lee's Chineseness, if I may coin a term, that your recognition stops there and doesn't reach the individual. It is probably based on our Anglo-Saxon superiority complex."
Cue the arrival of a perfectly stereotyped, dialect-speaking black security guard, who reports that he's just found Chin Lee murdered on the dock, with a bullet hole in his head. Desperate to clear himself, on the assumption that Galloway will accuse him of the murder, Sam has to admit that he didn't hear the gunshots because "take mo'n a pistol to wake me up when I'se night watchin'." Of course Poggioli will investigate, but when Sam brings him to the crime scene, Chin Lee's body is gone. The psychologist speculates that the body has been picked up and taken away with care, and not thrown to the sharks, because there's no trail of blood. From this he deduces that the killer is a woman. "She could not endure the thought of her lover's body being thrown to the sharks or given over to any stranger who found it, or to the callousness of a coroner's jury," he assumes. The killer must be a strong woman, capable of lifting and carrying a corpse Sam estimates at between 150 and 160 pounds.
One virtue of the Poggioli stories, however, is that Stribling is willing to let his detective follow a train of thought to a dead end. Poggioli's speculations become moot when Chin Lee is discovered alive in his shack, while the detective and his companions are searching for clues among the assumed victim's personal effects. Chin Lee claims to have knocked himself out trying to reel in a fish, only to come to and go home. Something isn't right, however, and with a little additional data Poggioli figures out what it is. As if fully aware of the inability of both Galloway and (apparently) Sam to tell Chinese men apart, a smuggling ring based in Cuba has been bringing in illegal immigrants one at a time, each taking a turn as Chin Lee until the next one comes to take his place. One of these Chin Lees actually was murdered, but to Poggiloi's possible disappointment the murderer isn't a woman. I won't spoil a mystery that people might read (this issue of Adventure has been scanned and uploaded to the internet), but I wonder whether it's worth it not to spoil this shaggy-dog tale. It's mildly amusing in a characteristically sardonic way -- as usual, Poggioli is surrounded by idiots -- but if Stribling had some point to make about prejudice or stereotyping, it's blunted by his own impulse to reduce characters like Sam to their dialects. As a matter of style, I get the impression that Stribling saw the Poggioli series, at this time at least, as self-conscious hackwork that paid the bills between novels. If you want to see him at full power, check out the available chapters of his 1923 serial Fombombo, an epic satire about a Babbitt in the middle of a South American revolution. For all I know, The Store might be worth a read as well, even if the actual canonical writers of Stribling's time looked down on Pulitzer winners -- until they got their own, that is.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
"Barbarous, sir!" said Haynes desperately.
"Undoubtedly," the major agreed with composure, "But war, my friend. She is a traitor. And one who has no honor can not claim the protection of decency and modesty. Corporal, disrobe the woman!"
A corporal is unwilling to do this grim work, and a backwoods private gets his face slapped for trying. Rawks decides to do the job himself, but Haynes -- still in disguise as a brother Rebel officer -- refuses to allow it. Rather than fight, Rawks agrees to leave the search to Dinah, his "buxom negress" maidservant, who reports back empty-handed. It turns out, however, that Dinah is, understandably, a clandestine Yankee sympathizer. "Black folks dey know dat de Yankees is a-fittin fo' us," she explains. She doesn't trust Haynes, unable to look past his southern uniform, but Marshall accepts his assistance in a daring escape. In return, her gift of a Derringer enables Haynes to escape after Rawks finally figures him out. In the end, Haynes learns that Rawks and Marshall had set him up. It had all been a play designed to get Haynes, whose coming they learned of from black spies within the household of Haynes' commanding officer, to deliver more fake intelligence back north. That bemused commander offers the story's moral: "When any Southern girl tells you she is loyal to her country -- don't be a fool! Believe her. She means the South!"
The Big Magazine was a one-shot published by Popular Publications in 1935, shortly after they acquired Adventure. The idea, historians say, was to burn off excess inventory for that prestigious pulp. If so, it was an odd decision considering that Popular had recently restored Adventure to a twice-a-month schedule, and that The Big Magazine's lineup was almost a Murderer's Row of pulp aces. Based on what I've read of it so far -- I'm not quite halfway through its 224 pages -- my hunch is that The Big was more of a dumping ground for subpar stuff from those top authors, some of it fairly old, to judge from the Prohibition setting of one story. "The Loyal Lady" is one of the better stories so far, nicely plotted if also marred by cringeworthy "negro" dialect. Any persistent pulp reader has got to get used to dialect dialogue; if you can't tolerate it you're reading the wrong stuff. To be fair, he also writes dialect for the backwoods soldiers, e.g. "Shore! An' we brunged her here." But there's a difference, or so I like to think, between dialect and comedy dialect. Dinah's dialogue marks her as a comedy relief character. It's embarrassing to read in a way the backwoods dialect isn't. "Oh, Lordy-lord!" she cries, warning Maybelle against first Haynes, then Rawks. "Don' yo' b'lief 'im, honey! A gemman he say anything fo' to fool a lady....Lordy-lord! We-all is sho' gwine git murdered by dat major-man!" Lordy-lord, indeed! Large historical claims are made for Gordon Young as, if not a pioneer, then a precursor of the hard-boiled style. From what I've read of him, that's more a matter of attitude, as might be seen here as well as in his more relevant Don Everhard stories, than of style. Young's style strikes me as stilted, but in the melodramatic setting of "The Loyal Lady" it feels almost correct. But it's the twist ending and the overall feeling that anyone could be a spy that give Young's story an almost-modern flavor.
Wednesday, August 9, 2017
As it turns out, Brockley has firearms very carefully packed within his load of frying pans, and he's set up Dugan to be the fall guy if the sale goes sour. And of course it does go sour, thanks to a German working for the Venezuelan government, who gives Friel the opportunity to write a more blatant accent than Brockley's. It's actually not as extremely vaudevillian as some writers got; the accent is mostly restricted to "ch" for "j" and the occasional hiss. He's about to have Dugan executed for gun-running when Tonio speaks up to exonerate him and explain his own beef with Brockley -- the man who killed his mother and left him to be raised in a squalid Indian village. The unimpressed German's going to shoot everybody anyway, but Dugan and Tonio fight their way out, while Brockley is killed in the crossfire, denying Tonio his revenge. "It's funny, the way wise guys go flop and dumb birds like me and Dugan keep drifting along," the narrator reflects. In fact, Dugan had at least two more stories in him, at least according to the FictionMags Index, one appearing the same month in Adventure. This particular short story is a far cry from the epic stuff Friel wrote in the Twenties, but even late in his career -- his last pulp stories appeared in 1941 -- he had enough juice to make his stuff readably entertaining.
Monday, August 7, 2017
Stark apparently has an uncanny yet deceptive shuffle that looks guilelessly awkward even to a practiced eye like Sammy's, yet infallibly delivers Big Nick the winning hand. It's a bit of a cheat that Worts never actually explains Nick's technique, but has Sammy finally find proof of his cheating by accident -- he'd left an ace in the box quite by mistake, yet Nick dealt himself four aces. Worts is also wise to give Nick plenty of time to make his spiel, as if trying to wear down the reader's resistance as Nick is trying to wear down Sammy's. And for the hell of it, the antagonists have to forget their differences long enough to get their boat through a nasty storm. It keeps you wondering whether Nick will prove a good egg after all, rather than a mere tough one. "South of Sulu" gives us a likably nasty Sammy instead of the self-righteous con man of the previous story, "Cobra." He gets great tough-guy dialogue, telling Nick that "If you put her aground, one second later your backbone's gonna think an elephant's takin' a walk on it," or that "for the pure pleasure of it, I could turn you into curry of lead." It's still not as good as the original entry, "The Blue Fire Pearl," but you're more likely to keep following Sammy on his quest after this one than after "Cobra." There are two more to go in the first Altus Press volume of Sammy stories, and then I'll jump ahead in time to some later items from my own collection. Stay tuned.