Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Pier Angeli graces the cover of this issue from the last full year in which Collier's could rightly be called The National Weekly. On the fiction front this issue features a western (or northwestern) by pulp veteran Tom W. Blackburn. He'd toiled in the pulps for more than a decade, scoring only one story in the Saturday Evening Post during that time, before he saw more slick success at the start of the 1950s. "Cragar's Girl," a fairly tough story of the sale of some timberland, was Blackburn's third and last story for Collier's, and practically his last piece of magazine fiction. His future lay in Hollywood, where he would shortly score a double-hit as the writer for Disney's Davy Crockett series and its blockbuster theme song.

Robert W. Krepps broke into Collier's around the same time Blackburn did, in 1950, but after much less dues-paying. Krepps broke into the pulps in 1947 and continued to publish in the quasi-pulp Bluebook until its demise in 1956, not long before the end of Collier's. This issue's "Nomad of the Dusk" is one of those old pop-fiction reliables, the animal story, and probably the most violent tale in the magazine that week. Durgi the dog-otter -- how he has a name is a mystery to me -- struggles to provide for his bitch (in this context, a slick can use that word) and her brand-new litter, running afoul of a vengeful farmer in the process. This story's "bring out the gimp" moment comes when the farmer unleashes "Long Willie," which at first I assumed to be his pet name for a rifle or shotgun. It proves to be an "English hob or ferret," portrayed by Krepps as the servile psychopath of the animal kingdom. It's "a berserker among the beasts, living only for the thrill of slaying....Entirely dependent on man for its sustenance, it is yet more feral and bloodthirsty than any untamed animal; man has bred it so." The climactic fight nearly lives up to this build-up, including the random slaughter of one of the baby dog-otters. "Cragar's Girl" is quite good but for once I have to say an animal story is the highlight of a fiction magazine. Krepps moved on eventually to specialize in novels set in Africa and film adaptations. Check out the whole issue at your leisure at

Sunday, April 23, 2017


When he died in 2009, Elmer Kelton was widely hailed as the best western writer of his time, by which presumably was meant, in the face of whatever claim might be made for Larry McMurtry, that Kelton was top hand among genre specialists. Kelton belonged to the last generation who learned their trade in the western pulps, a peer of Elmore Leonard and John Jakes. Most of his pulp stuff appeared in Ranch Romances, understandably given that magazine's longevity and frequency. He was still placing stories in the Thrilling Group's remaining pulps when Ballantine published Barbed Wire, their third Kelton novel, in 1957. It resembles a Ranch Romance less than it does, at least thematically, the T. T. Flynn novel and Anthony Mann film The Man From Laramie. It's more Mann than Flynn, I think, because the protagonist reminds me of Jimmy Stewart's flawed, driven heroes. Doug Monahan is an ex-rancher who's gotten into the barbed wire business; he and his former ranch hands bring the wire and string it up when ranchers or farmers want to enclose their land. When he tries that in Kiowa County he runs afoul of Captain Andrew Rinehart, the local patriarch who took the land from the Indians and wants to keep it an open range for his cattle. When Rinehart's men break up Monahan's wire-stringing camp and kill his beloved Mexican cook, while Doug's employer scurries away like a coward, he provokes a slow-burning feud. Monahan isn't out to kill anyone, but he refuses to be driven out and strives relentlessly to interest the locals in barbed wire. He finds a customer in Noah Wheeler, an old war buddy of the Captain's who's been given freer rein to run a farm when others wouldn't get away with it. Wheeler's grudge isn't with the Captain but with a smaller "range hog" rancher whose scrub bulls get in the way of Noah's ambitious stock breeding plans. But Rinehart, egged on by foreman Archer Spann, sees any fencing as an insult to himself and his legacy. Along with his men, he's got the tenuous backing of his hand-picked sheriff Luke McKelvie, torn between loyalty to his patron and a growing appreciation of the rule of law. Taking his informal title of "peace officer" seriously, he tries to discourage Monahan and Rinehart from provoking each other, but there are too many forces in play, as well as the two antagonists' irreconcilable wills, for the well-meaning lawman to control.

Two things stand out in this first Kelton novel I've read. The first is his eye for the details of hard work, acquired from the ranch background touted on the back cover. The opening pages will give you as thorough a description of digging post holes as you'll probably ever want. I appreciate that sort of immersive detail, which explains why I find myself preferring ranch stories to generic gunfighter tales. The second standout is his consideration for both sides in the barbed-wire debate, though he clearly sympathizes with those characters who see the fencing off of land as a necessary and progressive step. He also allows readers to understand, if not agree with, the attitude of opponents like Rinehart, who becomes a figure of some pathos as he grows more conscious of his failing powers and more concerned over his wife's delicate health. Barbed Wire is almost a tale without a villain, but Kelton's approach to his villain is still unusual. He emphasizes that Archer Spann is a superior foreman, legitimately skilled in all the aspects of that job, as well as a clean liver who never touches alcohol. His fatal flaw is his "littleness," his inability to be "big," by which Kelton means a defensive, spiteful selfishness that leads him to rob a discharged cowhand of the $300 he'd allowed the ranch to withhold as a savings account. Spann is unable to transcend the bitterness of his upbringing and always looks for someone on whom to take out his undying resentment. Loyal to Rinehart in the hope of inheriting the R Cross Ranch from the childless rancher, Spann constantly urges the old man to escalate the campaign against Monahan and Wheeler, finally betraying his irredeemable mean streak when he gun-butchers Wheeler's prize cattle and tramples Wheeler's daughter in the novel's most brutal scene. It's the most brutal scene not simply because it's violence against a woman but also because, after the murder that starts the feud, Kelton goes out of his way not to kill major characters.

I got the sense that Kelton was consciously defying genre expectations, creating situations and relationships that make the reader almost certain that this or that character will die, only to deny the cheap catharsis of death without seeming to contrive his way out. It's not just about denying violence: Rinehart's wife is introduced as frail and at least momentarily bedridden, and once you tag Rinehart as a tragic antagonist you expect him to lose the thing he loves the most, but she simply gets better instead. Kelton finally teases her leaving Rinehart instead of dying on him. Likewise, you think that Wheeler's son Vern, the Rinehart cowhand robbed by Spann, is surely doomed to be killed by the foreman or one of his minions, especially once he hooks up with a childhood friend turned rustler, but for all that Barbed Wire is a metaphor for generational conflict as a metaphor for the nation's progress, Kelton's ultimately more interested in reconciliation than revenge. His main characters -- even Spann has a guilty conscience, though it never stops him -- are intelligent and empathetic enough to see when they've gone too far. Monahan is willing to quit the barbed-wire business after Noah Wheeler gets beat up, and has to be talked out of blaming himself for the collateral damage from his war of wills with Rinehart, whose stubbornness takes longer to break down but does so nonetheless. Not even Spann is killed, and the end of Barbed Wire feels no less cathartic for that. Having read this early Kelton, and knowing that he had a half-century of writing to go, I suspect that there probably was some reason for all the acclaim he received at the end of his trail.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Richard S. Prather didn't publish in the pulps. Instead, after establishing himself as a novelist and the creator of Sheldon "Shell" Scott, he landed stories in the hard-boiled crime digests of the 1950s and 1960s, including a short-lived Shell Scott Mystery Magazine. Prather maintained a blistering pace through those two decades -- Joker in the Deck is one of three 1964 novels -- but slowed down afterward, partly due to disputes with publishers. Shell Scott became a logo as well as a character, his cotton-topped head adorning every new paperback original. He's a ladies' man but not quite the swaggering stud one might expect from hard-boiled detective stories from his heyday. Joker sometimes exposes an anxiety bordering on the naive in the face of aggressive or deviant sexuality, as if Prather's audience were slightly younger than the average. Shell is also a political conservative who probably voted for Barry Goldwater in the year Joker was published. His commiseration here with a possible bad guy lamenting the huge, socialistic tax burden the government imposes on him may be the closest Shell Scott comes to empathizing with criminals. Usually he gets a bit sanctimonious about crime, particularly the drug trade, when he isn't in his more typical happy-go-lucky horndog mode. You might be able to divide detective and crime fiction into two categories: those stories that try to humanize criminals, whether they're the protagonists or not, and those that make comic-book heavies of them. In the few Shell Scotts I've read Prather falls into the latter category.

In Joker Shell gets involved in real estate intrigue on a coastal California island. He's getting deep into a game of strip poker with his buddy Jim Paradise and two dames they met at a promotional event when Jim gets the news that his business partner, who proves to be his brother under an alias, has been murdered. In short order someone shows up to murder him, but Shell saves the day. In the aftermath, however, Shell fails to notice someone dragging the would-be killer's body away. Brea Island is shared by Jim's development project and a baby-food factory that appears to be improbably mobbed up. The mob guys, led by an ex-con who learned organic gardening in stir, run the Da Da plant for its owner, who arranged with Jim's brother to shuffle ownership of the island so the baby-food magnate as part of an elaborate tax dodge. Shell may hate high taxes as much as any red-blooded American -- and in those days they were sky-high compared to now -- but he also knows lawbreaking when he sees it. He also suspects that there's more going on on the island than meets the eye. Are the mob guys using the baby-food plant as a front for drug smuggling? Has oil been discovered on Brea Island? Either could explain the book's lethal attempts to consolidate ownership of the island.

As he pieces the story together Shell maintains an interest in the two women who played strip poker with him. Laurie is the good girl of the two while Eve (introduced on the opening page as "a long-legged, voluptuous looking, slinky, busty hippy bomb, an Adam bomb") is too aggressive for Shell's taste, tempting though her body is. For all his presumed experience, Shell seems to have an adolescent's sense of discovery every time he meets a beautiful woman, as well as a detective novelist's impulse to attempt original descriptions of female pulchritude. It's with a "galvanizing shock" that the big he-man discovers that Eve isn't wearing a brassiere in one scene, and "when Eve leaned forward and -- not aware of what she was doing, I presume -- sort of wiggled her shoulders joyously from side to wild side, there was almost as much commotion under that blouse as two people kicking each other under a blanket."  There's a different sense of discovery, even as he remembers a past experience, when Shell enters a suspicious niteclub. Presumably his memory of San Francisco prepares the reader for what follows. The tone is set by a weird woman with "a face to be presented only to steel mirrors, the face on the bride of Death." Shell shudders as he watches this apparition chat with Eve, and his evening grows only more shuddery.

I moved across the room to the bar, a bit nervously, because for some reason I didn't want to be seen, not by anybody who knew me. I didn't know why for sure; I just knew I didn't want to be seen. Tension built up in me gradually, rose along my spine and gathered in a knot at the base of my skull....I looked around. At men and women, sitting at tables, drinking, talking. There seemed nothing unusual. But then the scene seemed to shift. It was the same -- yet different. I had looked right at it, it was there in front of my eyes, but it hadn't impressed me until now. Men and women were sitting at tables, true; but at no table was a man sitting with a woman.

Really, Shell? This is your 24th novel, and you've had more adventures than that, and it takes you that long to notice you're in a gay bar? Richard Prather is a far better writer than John B. West, yet on this point I prefer Rocky Steele's hard-boiled contempt for and familiarity with the gay scene to Prather's horror-movie buildup to his awesome realization. The issue isn't whether one is more or less homophobic than the other, but that a hard-boiled guy like Shell really ought to take such things for granted, if not in stride, at this point in his storied career. Maybe more devoted readers can tell me if this is typical of Shell Scott -- this overall feeling I had on reading Joker in the Deck that Prather's hero is kind of a big kid at heart. That point aside, I liked Joker quite a bit. Prather seems to write authoritatively on the legalistic shenanigans involving the transfers of title to the island, and on other subjects he wears his research lightly. In a story like this expertise (or the convincing simulation of it) help hold the reader's interest because he feels he's learning something about Shell Scott's world as well as this particular mystery plot. I may not agree with Shell's politics but I accept them as an artifact of his time -- by which I don't mean that they're obsolete -- and Prather has as much right to incorporate them into his fiction as anyone to his left. I have another Shell Scott on my shelf -- to give things away a bit, it's actually half a Shell story -- and on the strength of Joker I'll probably be getting to that one sooner rather than later.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


While the literary star of this issue of the National Weekly at its time of publication probably was Irwin Shaw, it also features two pulp veterans. It didn't take Thomas Walsh long to break out of pulpdom. Within two years of his 1933 debut in Black Mask -- starting his career there must have been a coup in its own right -- he made it into The Saturday Evening Post. Walsh made his Collier's debut a year later and that became his slick of choice. By 1937 he had pretty much graduated from pulps, though he'd make occasional returns, presumably if Collier's had rejected something. This issue's "Peaceful in the Country" is actually Walsh's last story for that publication. He became a Post regular until that mag effectively gave up on popular fiction in the early 1960s. With coincidental symmetry, this issue's coming-of-age story "One Timeless Spring" was the first appearance in Collier's of Ray Bradbury, part of a trifecta he scored when he made his first three sales to slicks in one week. Bradbury was of the first generation to start their careers in the fan press. He broke into the pulps in 1941, at age 21 and was well on his way by the end of 1942. Starting in the fantastics, he expanded into detective fiction around 1944 but didn't really stick with it. The first of his slick sales appeared in Mademoiselle in November 1945. Bradbury wouldn't return to Collier's until 1950, when the magazine published one of his Martian chronicles. He appeared more regularly there (and in the Post) thereafter, his most famous Collier's story (apart from the Martian piece, "There Will Come Soft Rains") probably being "A Sound of Thunder" in the June 28, 1952 issue. By that point Bradbury could go back and forth more regularly between the slicks and the sci-fi mags which by now, as many adopted the digest format, may have been more respectable than the old pulps. You can sample Bradbury, Walsh, Shaw and the rest of this issue at

Monday, April 10, 2017


For starters, this issue of The National Weekly headlines a new mystery serial by Max Brand, though that detail is obscured by a mailing label on this copy. Its pulp credentials are bolstered by a Harold Lamb Cossack story and a piece by Sidney Herschel Small, though it's a romance rather than one of his Asian adventures. But history will identify this number's main attraction as Ernest Haycox's most famous story, "Stage to Lordsbourg," immortalized two years later as John Ford's film Stagecoach. But that's not all! Hagar Wilde was a pulp author, too, in her early days. She published often in the romance pulps before becoming a regular in the slicks of the early 1930s. For this issue Wilde contributed the story that put her foot in the doorway of pop-culture history, "Bringing Up Baby," which was immortalized only one year later as Howard Hawks's screwball comedy masterpiece of the same name. Except for lacking a Fu Manchu serial chapter, this is probably as awesome as Collier's gets. You can browse through the issue at your leisure at

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Surdez wrote many long stories for Adventure that could have passed for novels but published in long form only rarely. As far as I can tell, Demon Caravan (the title refers to a type of desert storm) was written for publication as a novel instead of appearing in the pulps first. It reads as if written for a different market, which isn't necessarily to Surdez' advantage. It's more old fashioned in its construction than his contemporary pulp stories, in that it takes quite a while for the actual story to begin. Novelistic conventions require an elaborate establishment of the protagonist, Captain Paul Lartal, in his new environment, an Algerian colonial outpost, and the introduction of several nearly interchangeable supporting characters who'll be left behind when Lartal goes on the novel's true mission. There's a good desert battle scene in the middle of this, but nearly half the 214 page novel (that's the page count for the 1951 Dell paperback) is buildup for Lartal's expedition into a hidden oasis.

Some collectors are fond of Dell's back cover maps, but give me more hard-boiled copy any time.

We're somewhere between Lost Horizon (yet to be written) and L'Atlantide (which Surdez may have read in the original French or in its English translation in Adventure) when Lartal, accompanied by his faithful Arab sidekick Tlemsani reach this desert utopia. What we have here is a progressive Muslim community founded by people tired of war, led by a charismatic chieftain and his French son-in-law, a fugitive from his own army for killing a fellow officer. When Lartal arrives the son-in-law, who converted to Islam and took the name Si Khalil, is the leader who consults with a representative assembly of guild elders and the like. Just as Si Khalil in his youth fell for the chieftain's daughter and married her, so Lartal is smitten with Si Khalil's daughter Morjana, for whom her father has been seeking a suitable mate. There is, however, a rival suitor who threatens to disrupt Si Khalil's utopia. Omar ben Azziz is a type the world has come to know all too well in the 21st century. Surdez calls him a Senussi, but we'd call him an Islamist. "While all are Mohammedans here, tolerance has prevailed," Si Khalil explains, "The young wish to change that.

Of late there has come about a renewal of religious fervor. There are more ways than one to interpret the Koran. The military spirit has spread among the schoolboys in some way. Under their tuition, the boys are growing up to hate strangers, men not of their faith, although they have never seen them. Instead of warriors for protection, they maintain we should send them out for conquest.

Omar is the sort who has a quote from the Koran as the self-serving answer to every question. He uses the arrival of Lartal to stir up dissent against Si Khalil, arguing that the granddaughter of the great founder, though half-French herself, should not be married off to an infidel outsider. With a pessimism that probably appears prophetic now, Surdez shows Si Khalil's position crumbling until he decides that he, Morjana and Lartal should escape and seek shelter with the French. Omar's ascendancy has split the ruling family as Yusuf, Si Khalil's son by another mother, takes the side of the supposed holy man. Over the second half of the novel Surdez has been ratcheting up the tension, and in the final chapters he lets rip as the good guys make their break, though not without casualties or without a timely and brutal act of filial piety by the conflicted Yusuf. The second half of Demon Caravan makes the whole worth reading, so long as you understand that it's more romantic adventure than pulp fiction. It's still unmistakably Surdez, and it makes you sadly confident that he would have handled himself well in the era of paperback originals had he made it there instead of dying shortly before at the age of 49.

Monday, April 3, 2017


This ranch romance from the First May 1956 number begins with the hero discovering a suicide.

His eyes stamped every detail in his mind, so that it would be there whenever he might need it. He saw the pattern of drying blood, spread out grotesquely over the rough-hewn planks of the floor. There was not much left of Rowley's face.
"It's murder, Sheriff," someone said.

No one's disputing that Rowley shot himself, but most people in town feel that Ed Landry, the big storekeeper, drove his onetime competitor and present debtor to do it with sharp business practices. Sheriff Jim Gordon spends most of this novella trying to keep Landry from getting shot or lynched, but Landry hardly seems to deserve the lawman's solicitude. He lets Jim know that he's going to take over the bank that holds the mortgage on Jim's little spread, which will give him extra leverage on the sheriff.  Over the course of the story we'll learn that while Landry may be evil, he's not crooked. That is, it isn't him who's using violence to advance his interests. "He wanted money and power," the true villain of the piece explains, "but he didn't want it like I do....Folks thought he was hard, but it was mostly me that did his dirty work for him. And most of the time he didn't even know." Jim must expose this villain while rescuing Landry from the townspeople's misguided fury, and at the same time he has to choose between Landry's daughter Bethe and Jeannie Rae, whose brother tries to kill Landry. In short, it's the stuff of the typical western of the period, whether in pulp or paperback, with a few extra touches that make it a Ranch Romance. "It was a wild and exciting response that she stirred," Cotton writes of Jeannie, "a response that sent blood running hotly through him and made his heart pound crazily." The fact is, you probably could find a line like that in many a western that didn't bill itself as a romance. It came with the territory. Of the two women, it's Bethe who performs a feat worthy of a Ranch Romances cover heroine by snatching a gun from the villain's holster while his back is turned, but she's just a little too brazen for Jim's tastes, and she doesn't make his blood run as hot as the more stern Jeannie, who does get to hold a rifle on our hero for a while. He probably liked it.

Will Cotton was a latecomer to pulps in either sense of the term. He didn't publish his first story until 1951, when he was 39. He mostly wrote westerns but also did some detective stories as well as at least one novel in that genre, The Night Was Made For Murder. Nearly half his magazine output appeared in Ranch Romances, but that's understandable at a time when there were fewer and fewer alternatives for a short-form western writer. His last story for that mighty mag appeared in 1959, after it had shriveled from biweekly to quarterly. I found my first encounter with Cotton efficiently entertaining and relatively original in its refusal to make the greedy shopkeeper into the villain of the piece. "The Angry Men" and the First May 1956 issue are part of the trove, misidentified as a May 1954 issue. You can sample Cotton's story through this link.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not so old at that!

Frederick J. Jackson broke into the pulps way back in 1906 but didn't break into Adventure until 1922. In the latter stages of his pulp career -- he also wrote plays and screenplays, including the 1937 western Wells Fargo -- West was his primary market and Silvers Cassidy his recurring character. "Not So Old At That" (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is a comedy western, the sort of thing I normally avoid, but I couldn't help being charmed by the exuberant amorality of the protagonist. Newt Lucas, whose friskiness belies his 69 years, seems to have been a success at everything he's tried. In recent years he's settled into prosperous entrepreneurship, but he was a hellraiser in his heyday.

I'd git a little playful with my Colt in them days when I got a few days in me. The whole dang country was gitting so civilized that bimeby they began to issue warrants for me. Heh! They sent depity sheriffs to serve them warrants. I got me a whole collection of depity badges  and stars and guns and had the whole place looking like it had snowed because of the warrants I tore up.

Newt has come calling on his only living relative, a grand-niece, and found her husband Meredith, a beleaguered homesteader whose wife is in the hospital. Meredith has been victimized by the Moffitt clan that dominates his district and has resorted to chicanery to drive out the last few independent homesteaders. His sad story puts Newt in a "playful" mood, so the old man sets out to humble the Moffitts. His master plan plays out in three stages. First, he sends Meredith to the county seat to hire a lawyer and be seen by as many people as possible. At the same time, he invades Moffitt territory and shoots a bunch of their cattle, leaving sign that seems to implicate Meredith. Since the Moffitts know nothing about Newt, they can only assume that Meredith is attacking them. But when they swear out a warrant against the young man, they fall right into a perjury trap, instantly identifying Meredith as the man who shot their cattle and took pot shots at them, only to have respected citizens and public officials testify to seeing and talking with the defendant while all that was happening.  For the coup de grace, Newt plays con man, using one of his captured badges to convince the elder Moffitt that he's a federal officer who can offer them a deal to avoid prosecution by making concessions to Meredith and the other homesteaders. The truly funny thing about the story is that playful Newt Lucas is indisputably a sociopath, if thankfully not a homicidal maniac, who just happens to be on the side of good this time out. Jackson's story might remind you of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, as once Newt takes a side, the other side is hopelessly doomed to both injury and insult. Newt himself has something of Bugs' "Ain't I a stinker?" attitude, lamenting that "Them amateurs is so easy that there ain't no fun a-tall in foolin' them." And yet you shudder just a little when he muses that "He had had an unusual opportunity to 'git playful with the clan' -- as he had put it -- but felt that somehow or other he had cheated himself by not squeezing all the juice out of the opportunity he had held in his grasp." Were he not playing, Newt Lucas could be one scary man, whatever his age.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Is this pulp?

There's a pretty good used bookstore that's a five-minute walk from my home in Albany. They don't do paperbacks -- I suppose I should say "pocket books" or something that makes clear that they'll take trade paperbacks but not the small stuff -- but they have a great selection of literary fiction, criticism and historical writing catering to other tastes of mine. They have a crime fiction section that's always worth a look for used copies of trade-paperback reissues of classic stuff, as well as hardcover originals and anthologies. The book above is something I found today in the crime section. It's a 1997 collection of crime stories ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s, from a formidable selection of authors with a midcentury focus on the golden age of crime digests like Manhunt. It's a product of its moment in pop-culture history, just after Quentin Tarantino had effectively (if not unintentionally) changed the meaning of the word "pulp." For many people, "pulp" now meant "crime." As a result, as the editors report in their introduction, many curious people were disappointed upon discovering actual pulp magazines, since few resembled Pulp Fiction. Anthologists rushed to appease this market with this volume, the Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (which has a similar chronological and thematic focus) and Black Lizard's Big Book of Pulps (featuring stories from the actual pulp era, but still all in the crime genre). Don't get me wrong. I bought this book knowing what was in it because I love that noir-era fiction, and this collection may have the most formidable lineup ever of such authors -- including a sometime correspondent with this blog, James Reasoner. But I'd hate to think that after 20 years people still identify "pulp" with the matter or manner of Tarantino's instant classic when the word encompasses so much more than that. For me, Black Lizard's Big Book of Adventure Stories comes closer to the essence of pulp, and it's a shame that it couldn't identify it as such. I'd like to see more collections along those lines, and for that matter, am I the only one who thinks Black Lizard owes us a Big Book of Westerns instead of some of its more dubious recent publication choices? Or is that a question for another time? I had better answer my own question first. Is this pulp? I would say yes, despite the editors' own condescending attitude toward original pulp, which extends to a glaring typo that includes G-B and His Battle Aces in a list of magazine titles. I won't necessarily dispute their assertion that the digest era was the golden age of hard-boiled crime stories, and I'll certainly agree that the digests are direct descendants of pulp. To claim that the crime digests are the best of pulp, period, is another thing altogether and much more debatable. To publish a collection like this, however great it looks and however great it may prove to be, implies that the debate is over, when I think it's hardly begun.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

'I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense.'

H. Bedford-Jones' "Captain Rose and the Bullfrog" (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is a study of the idiosyncratic ethics of an English sea captain, and perhaps a comment on English character. The title characters are the captain of the Ayuthia and his French mate, who approaches Rose with the proposition of liberating a Tonkinese convict from a French colonial prison. The mate hopes to win Rose's sympathy by explaining that the prisoner is a "deputy," one who agrees to serve the time for another man's crime in return for a handsome payout when he's free. In this particular case, the "deputy" has inherited some wealth and his family wants him free so he can claim it. Captain Rose does not sympathize. The deputy has made a bad bet, that's all, and on general principles breaking a convict out of prison is a form of "sneaking" that doesn't justify the risk of the captain's ticket. The mate finds this strange, knowing that Rose has been a smuggler when it suits him. That's lawbreaking just as much as springing a convict is, no?

"Were you never dishonest?" asked Hermant softly, looking at the horizon.
"No," said Captain Rose flatly, and removed his pipe to spit over the rail. "No! I've pulled a trick now and then, maybe a bit o' smuggling or worse, but plain crooked. Nothing dishonest; too much like sneakin', if you ask me."


"But you'd smuggle," said Hermant.
"That's different," said Captain Rose stoutly.
"How is it different? It's breaking the law."
"Huh! A fool parliament or governor or somebody says, 'Don't you dare do this or that, or we'll clap you in jail if we catch you at it. That's no law. That's a defiance. Like the liquor law in America. Makes a chap go do it, especially if he clears a bit o' money at it."
"But helping a poor devil get away to freedom, from a life sentence --"
"Is a sneakin' proposition," declared Captain Rose. "And if any chap came to me and made it flat out, I'd kick him in the pants. Yes, sir -- and take my fist to him, to boot!"

The mate carries out his plot anyway but Rose refuses to acquiesce. He suppresses the mutiny in bloody fashion, killing both the mate and the "deputy" in the process of vindicating his principles. His final verdict on the mate is, "I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense." To the modern reader Captain Rose may not seem the most principled man, but Bedford-Jones tells the story in a way that implies strongly that Englishmen like Rose --or, more generously, Anglo-Americans -- are the only people with principles, every other race, including other Europeans, being suspect. For all that, Bedford-Jones' portrait of the captain strikes me as all too plausible in the singlemindedness of his double standard, if that's what it is. Leaving character analysis aside, the story's a brisk bit of blood and thunder that won't disappoint those looking for such.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Revenant -- pulp style

The Oscar-winning 2015 film The Revenant revived interest in the legend of Hugh Glass, the mountain man who survived mauling by a bear, abandonment by his colleagues and an epic trek to confront his false friends. Needless to say this was a story well known to pulp creators and probably was retold many times in pulp magazines. One such retelling was in the June 1950 issue of Fifteen Western Tales. Just as many comic books once had a text feature, many pulps had regular illustrated features like Stookie Allen's "Men [or Women] of Daring" for Argosy. For Fifteen Western Marshall Lincoln Lee, signing his work simply as "Lee," contributed "Tales of the Old West" for a decade, from 1943 through 1953. Here's his take on the Hugh Glass legend in its original double-page spread form.

And here are closer looks at the individual pages. The narrative reads down one page, then down the other, so there should be no confusion.

Friday, March 17, 2017


You might expect a St. Patrick's Day cover from The National Weekly on this date, but you didn't get it this year. Inside, however, you get some pulp alumni, starting with the ever-popular Ernest Haycox, found here in the middle of one of his occasional change-of-peace air-oriented serials. Edward L. McKenna, author of the boxing romance "Never A Champ," made his name at Adventure in the late 1920s but was a full-time slickster at this point. The star attraction this time, however, is Harold Lamb, who contributes "The Bear's Head" on that ever-popular theme of Vikings fighting American Indians. While this short piece, illustrated by John Richard Flanagan, has the romantic angle you'd expect from Collier's, in its brutal brevity it's arguably more purely pulp than much of the stuff Lamb wrote for actual pulps. Basically a Viking ship takes the wrong turn on the way to "the Green Land" and discovers an unknown country. Two warriors vie for the love of the captain's sister, but Brand's retirement from violence (after a brief, bloody career of globetrotting) puts him at a disadvantage against "Fighting Mord." Brand wanders off on his own in the new country, but when the rest of the party are overrun by angry natives, and Fighting Mord is slaughtered, our hero remembers his Berserk (not "Berserker," as in modern usage) heritage. The "savages" are terrified at first when their arrows bounce off Brand's mail shirt, but once they see him bleed they overpower him and, as savages will, prepare him for torture. Unfortunately, torture only makes Brand more angry.

...And suddenly one of the chiefs gave a shout and drew a knife. He stepped behind Brand and cut through the flesh between two of his ribs. Brand's [death] song ceased. The anger that was in him suddenly filled his brain. The snow and the yelling crowd became red before his eyes, and with the strength of frenzy, he jerked his bound wrists against his upturned knee. Some of the withes cracked and slipped. With his shoulder sinews cracking, the Berserk  tore his hands free from the bonds. He leaped forward through the air, knocking the savages aside. And before they could grasp him well he had caught up his axe where it lay unheeded on the ground.
Leaping away from them, he swung it about his head and the steel whined. The curved blade crashed into the face of a man, shearing away part of the skull. It split open the skull of another....

While some pulp graduates changed genre (or tried to eschew it) to appeal to a broader audience or aspire to literature, Lamb's subject matter remained fairly consistent whether he was writing for pulps or slicks. Stories like "The Bear's Head" prove that for all his "mainstream" success, Lamb definitely hadn't sold out in any way. You can start the story here, at, and resume it here and here. And you can sample the whole issue at this link.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


The publishers of this 1948 paperback desperately want you not to think of it as mere pulp fiction. Let's go right to the back cover to see the case they make.

Lawless Range, then, is in the great tradition of Cimarron and The Ox-Bow Incident, or so Signet claims. It is literature of a new kind, as the first-page blurb reiterates: "Lawless Range is typical of the new brand of Western fiction -- literate and yet suspenseful, adult and action-packed." I'll give them "action-packed," but the rest is a load of bull. If this isn't pulp, then I don't know what Signet's copywriter thought pulp was. Is it not pulp if the author doesn't use the embarrassing yuhs and tuhs? Is it literate when two potential lovers debate their attraction thusly?

"In my own life I have known few women," he told her, "Perhaps that has been to my disadvantage. In any event it has always been in my mind that when a man kisses a woman, he does so because his intentions are serious, because he regards her as his woman and she accepts him as her man."
Diana's cheeks whitened and that pallor deepened, by contrast, the rich, red line of her mouth. She stepped nearer, suddenly enjoying the uneasy storm behind his slate-gray eyes.
"You're a strange man, Jim," she said, and now her eyes were mocking and inviting him, "Your belief leaves no room for the man and woman who are attracted to each other at first sight and must answer the call of their own nearness because they recognize it as a force bigger than themselves and not to be ignored." She stopped and put her hands on his chest. "Oh, Jim, why are we here talking when --?"

These two had kissed impulsively only a page before. Their almost academic exchange is a typically stilted romantic scene from the novel, though Jim, the hero, will end up with another woman, Sally the virtuous, tough-minded schoolteacher. Their courtship is complicated by the fact that Jim, a federal marshal operating undercover, killed Sally's brother just before the story started. His mission is to discover who's behind a rustling ring, and his refusal to reveal himself makes nearly every male character suspect, since all suspect him of being an outlaw and are hostile to him. It's a standard whodunit with a bunch of red herrings to blur Jim's trail, rather like a Texas Rangers novel with love scenes. The novel is not a paperback original but was first published in the Canadian Sunday-supplement magazine Star Weekly in 1945, and then in hardcover by Arcadia House, a company that specialized in genre fiction for five-and-dime "commuter libraries." I don't think I've read anything by Heckelmann before but I'll be reluctant to try more after this one. Whether Lawless Range is bad pulp or bad literature, merely inept or hopelessly pretentious, it's bad. There are more tin-eared sentences in this 163 page novel than I've seen collected between two covers in some time. Heckelmann writes drama badly and action badly.

Esmond's talk whipped at Sally, flat and disturbing.

Hockett cursed and his wide, stocky frame bowed in a crouch. Rashness was pinching his muscles, turning him wild and desperate.

She had hardened herself against him and the solid thrust of her contempt was an unscalable barrier between them.

Reed's gun canted upward in his fist. He felt it buck solidly against his wrist, saw the red froth crawl from the bore.

[and on the very same page...]

Red death was crawling from Braley's gun.

Nothing says "fast-action western" like stuff crawling out of guns. I might charitably assume that Heckelmann wrote this in a hurry and for a quick payday, but that's not the sort of western novel Signet was trying to sell with its ambitious blurbs. I might not be so hard on Heckelmann if his paperback publisher hadn't told me to expect something better -- not only something better written but something more mature, more researched, more authentically colorful. The sort of western novels Signet describes actually did exist at this time, but Lawless Range just isn't one of them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

'Only the people to whom he lent a helping hand knew this side of his job, and they would not remember it.'

It's most likely that I've read stuff by Joseph Chadwick in pulps I've already read, but I never really took notice of him until I read his "Girl For No Man's Land" from Ranch Romances. That made me curious to try more of his work, and it just so happened that Chadwick has a short story in the June 1950 Fifteen Western Tales I've been working through gradually this winter. "Dead Man's Star" takes what strikes me as an unorthodox approach to the typical "day of the showdown story." Ed Bassett is the marshal tasked with riding herd on Jake Pardee's cowboys, and Pardee resents it. The rancher warns Bassett that after one Saturday night of good behavior his men will "cut loose their wolf" the following weekend, and he means to make sure the marshal does nothing about it. In effect, Pardee says the town isn't big enough for him and Bassett, and next Saturday night will bring the showdown. In Chadwick's telling, next Saturday night plays out like a relatively uneventful Old West edition of COPS. Hyper-attentive to the sounds of ordinary life, the anxious Bassett is distracted by various public-servant errands. He checks on a family whose mother is about to go into labor. He helps a newcomer in town who can't find her boyfriend. He comforts an old drunk dying in a barn, then comforts the dead man's friend. These mundane encounters remind him of how much of his job both he and his constituents had taken for granted. He regrets not choosing a commercial life that could have earned him his girl's consent to a wedding. Even now, he tells the despairing girl that he can't refuse Pardee's challenge. Finally, however, the clammy-palmed marshal refuses the mythic faceoff in the street, instead tackling Pardee from behind in an effort to talk/bully him out of the fight. Pardee happily proves tractable, confessing that he had been just as terrified as Bassett, if not more so as the man whose big mouth had forced the issue. Chadwick's isn't the only story this issue -- I need to circle back soon to a Steve Frazee novelette -- that opts for anticlimax as a sign of genre maturity, a recognition that not every western tale needed to end with a gunfight. Chadwick's social-realist approach to his subject made it fresh, and while the finish might not be as dark as adult westerns could get, it still seems like the right way to finish the story. Score another one for Chadwick.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

'All of Islam is running this way!'

Lawrence G. Blochman took an aspiring pulpster's verion of the classical grand tour as a young man, writing his way around the world as a journalist for English-language papers in distant lands before settling down to write stories. He first appeared in Everybody's Magazine, which by the mid-1920s was pretty much a monthly version of Adventure. He made it into Adventure itself in 1929. "The Chota Sahib" (March 1, 1930) is only his second story for that magazine. As Blochman explains, the title denotes a "little" or "junior" white man in India, whether in the public or the private sector. Roy Spence is a chota sahib for Bengal Collieries, sent to Lalkand to help Sam Whyler, a hero of his who once saved his life, secure the rights to a coal seam found in a Shiite Muslim community. Blochman never uses the word "Shiite," but his description of a Moharram festival is the tipoff. Accompanied by a comic relief babu -- the gag is always that their syntax can't keep up with their English vocabulary -- Spence is an idealist, and this is a story of disillusionment. "There was a healthy glow to his cheeks," Blochman writes, "and an alert, candid light in his blue eyes. Something about him, some vague freshness, gave the impression that he had not been long in India." Pulpsters were believers in your face as a window to your essential character, and on the effects on character of intemperate climates like those of the Indian subcontinent. We will learn that they have done their dirty work on at least one burra sahib.

Reaching Lalkand, Spence finds Whyler grown fat and lazy. "His was not that extreme rotundity which gives an impression of frank good nature, but rather a careless corpulence," our young hero perceives. Despite his warnings that a rival company is sending agents to Lalkand, Whyler seems uninterested in the coal seam. He warns Spence not to bother negotiating until after the Moharram festival is over, and maybe not to bother negotiating at all, since the land Bengal Collieries wants is on "holy ground -- holy as hell. There's dozens of tombs of nigger saints on the property." Undeterred, Spence seeks an audience with the hajji who runs the local mosque and judges character much as pulp writers do. "You have honest eyes," he tells Spence, "Your face speaks the same message as your lips. Therefore honesty must cross your path." Spence gets the contract, only to have Whyler lose it, supposedly to a burglar. Luckily, Spence is fresh-minded enough to have a duplicate. Unfortunately, the village is suddenly out to kill all white man because some infidel has turned an unclean pig loose in the mosque. "All of Islam is running this way!" the panicky babu cries, urging Spence to make the hastiest of exits, but our hero is determined to rescue his hero, Whyler. Against all odds he finds the older man safe, only to discover that Whyler has sold him out, cutting a deal with the rival company's agent. His corruption complete, Whyler sneeringly tells Spence that he'd only rescued him back when because Spence was the boss's nephew and Whyler expected a promotion for his good dead. He put the pig in the mosque and kidnapped the hajji who knew the truth in the hope of getting the contract from Spence amid the confusion. "Young man, when you've been in India as long as I have, you'll know there aren't any pukkah sahibs," he says.

Making a desperate escape from his predicament, Spence goes a bit mad -- or at least Blochman writes him like a bit of a madman at the climax, when Whyler is shooting at him.

The youth clutched his gun. Something made him hesitate again. That something, Whyler, the hero. The man who saved his life. the ideal Whyler wanted to live ...
He blinked at a puff of flame. An explosion knocked him down. He had difficulty getting up. His left leg was numb.
Whyler was still standing there -- Whyler, the enemy. Whyler was shooting at him. The man wanted to kill -- not only him but the ideal Whyler. Spence had come to Lalkand to save the ideal Whyler. He would save him!
He squeezed the trigger.

And, of course, in his report to the company Spence credits Whyler with a heroic death in defense of Bengal Collieries. It's as if he needs to print the legend of a pukkah sahib -- a "perfect gentleman," more or less -- in order to deny Blochman's implicit truth that India ruins white men like Whyler. Whether Spence will go the same way is uncertain, but he does need a stiff drink before he sends the telegram. "The Chota Sahib" is the sort of story that's more interesting as a historical document of pop-culture attitudes toward India than for its literary qualities. The story may be bad in more than one sense, but it definitely isn't dull, and that's a point in its favor.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

RANCH ROMANCES: "Why don't you want to live, Joe?"

H. A. DeRosso is considered one of the darker authors of that mid-century period when western fiction, mirroring western movies, took on a more "adult" tone. He published his first pulp story in 1941; his last, posthumously published western stories appeared in Ranch Romances. DeRosso turned up frequently there, Ranch Romances being a market that probably ever western writer tried for. He also appeared at least once in Popular Publications' sweeter, gentler rival publication, Rangeland Romances, which tells me that DeRosso knew how to tailor his style to particular markets. How much did his stuff have to be tailored to Ranch Romances? "The Gun Rider" (First November Number, 1955) suggests that it was simply a matter of adding a happy ending to a pretty grim tale.

Jose Gomez, aka "Joe," is a hired gun for Senor Merriman, a corrupt rancher who dominates Dona Luz County with the votes of a Mexican community he keeps poor, ignorant and dependent. Merriman has sent Jose to his home town of San Onofre to hunt down Paul Vincent, a newspaperman making trouble with his investigative journalism. Jose finds himself a pariah, despised as a murderer even by his own mother, even though he claims to kill only in defense of Senor Merriman. The only sympathetic person in town is Erin Day, the pretty Anglo schoolteacher who's had a crush on Jose since they met. She tries to set "Joe" straight about Merriman by showing him the exposes Vincent has published, only to discover that Jose, to his own shame, can read neither English nor Spanish. To his further shame, he discovers that his own mother had been harboring Vincent, and so have most of the townspeople. He tries to cover up for her when Merriman and his bigoted sheriff show up in San Onofre, only to be warned that he can be framed for murder, for a killing that had saved Merriman's life, if he doesn't find the newsman. Finding his own situation increasingly hopeless, he helps Vincent get out of town by shooting two of Merriman's men and prepares for his own death. He figures Merriman has an airtight frame set up, and he figures that Erin, whom he'd pined for silently, thinking himself unfit for her, loves Vincent. Erin isn't so sure about that last part. She urges Jose to leave town until Vincent can clear his name and ruin Merriman, and despairs when he stays in San Onofre. "Why don't you want to live?" she asks, and while he says it's because the frame-up makes flight pointless, she figures out that he means to sacrifice himself, the big dummy, so she can go off with Vincent. "I know now why you helped Paul, why you came back, why you don't want to live," she says, "But I want you to." But she runs out of time to convince him to leave.

She began to cry softly.
"Please don't cry, Erin. Don't let me remember you the last time crying."
Outside Crabtree shouted, "Cobarde. Hijo de puto. Come on out, greaser."
"I'll do my best, Erin. I know how to use a gun good and I'll do my best. Tell my mother --" He did not finish.
"Tell her what, Joe?"
He wanted to tell Erin good-bye but there was something too final in the words. They choked in his throat. So he touched her head again, the golden hair, and then he was throwing the door open and running out.

Maybe in a different magazine, or in something published a few years earlier Jose does get killed, and Erin does go off with Paul Vincent. Here, he kills his men, gasps "Erin, querida, Erin" with "what he was sure would be his last breath," and then wakes up in bed, recovering from his wounds. Erin will not only marry him, but will teach him to read and write. "Something filled his eyes, something like tears," DeRosso writes, "and he could not understand this because he had never been happy." But he's happy now. Despite that, it isn't quite prime Ranch Romances stuff. Erin's no action woman like you got on the covers so often, and DeRosso, in an effort to differentiate Jose speaking Spanish to his mother and other villagers and English to Erin, renders most of his hero's dialogue in that stilted fashion -- no contractions, no slang -- that 20th century writers from Ernest Hemingway to Pearl S. Buck and on down used to convey foreigners speaking their native tongue. Still, DeRosso can definitely create a mood and does so here pretty effortlessly. Whether the end of his story contradicts its mood was really for its target audience to decide.

The scan of this issue of Ranch Romances breaks "The Gun Rider" into two parts." Start here and continue with this link to a typical bit of  S. Omar Barker doggerel. On a tangent, you'll notice at the end of the story a promo for Robert Cummings' (ghost-written?) review of the upcoming Randolph Scott-Angela Lansbury picture My Gun Commands. If you've never heard of such a film, that's because the Joseph H. Lewis film was renamed A Lawless Street at the time of its release.

Monday, March 6, 2017


This issue of The National Weekly has a good tally of pulp veterans, including the almost inevitable Ernest Haycox and Octavus Roy Cohen, who hadn't appeared in pulp for nearly a generation by this time. Will F. Jenkins, who contributes a South Sea island story, was better known to pulpdom under his pseudonym, Murray Leinster. Jenkins used his real name occasionally in pulp, sometimes when "Leinster" was also appearing, and most recently in a 1935 Double-Action Western. He broke into Collier's as Jenkins in 1935 and hit the ground running, publishing ten stories in 1936. He continued to sell pulp stories as Jenkins, perhaps now because his real name had enhanced marketability. Jenkins never fully differentiated between Will F. Jenkins the slickster and Murray Leinster the pulp writer; Jenkins landed a story in Adventure in 1947 and appeared in Ranch Romances as late as 1957 while Leinster continued his legendary sci-fi career. He didn't sacrifice whatever pulpy gift he had for slick success, unlike Frederick Nebel, arguably the exemplary case of a pulpster selling out. Nebel was a titan of Black Mask magazine, a pioneer of the hard-boiled style alongside Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, et al and a writer who gave that style a distinctive emotional intensity as private eyes, cops and reporters butted heads against each other. His transition to the slicks began while he was still writing the Cardigan series for Dime Detective, when he made his Collier's debut in 1933. This issue's "The Grand Manner" was on newstands around the same time as his penultimate Cardigan story in the March 1937 Dime Detective; the last Cardigan appeared two months later. The mainstreaming of Nebel was an odd process. In movies, it involved the transformation of his Black Mask reporter Kennedy into girl reporter Torchy Blane for a series of movies made entertaining by Glenda Farrell's energetic work in the title role. For Collier's, meanwhile, Nebel wrote mostly romance stories that can't help but seem lifeless compared to his detective stories. Yet Nebel seemed to consider these his real work. He infamously declined to be included in an anthology of Black Mask fiction because he considered those stories inferior stuff. He had succumbed to middlebrow sensibilities just as more canonically literary writers were thought to have (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) when they collected the big paychecks from the mass-circulation slicks.It was probably easier for western writers like Haycox to cross over without compromising their imaginations because westerns were going to be thought of as genre stuff no matter what. In any event, Haycox, Jenkins and Nebel are three distinctive examples of how pulp stars adapted to the demands of the slicks and their own artistic temperaments. As usual, you can sample the whole issue at

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Cave's publishing career lasted nine decades, his first stories appearing when he was 19, in 1929, his last appearing in the 21st century. By the 1950s, with the pulps dying around him, he graduated smoothly to the slicks, only to be re-embraced by pulp fans in his old age, long after his main slick markets had vanished. For a time he was a mainstream author, known both for a nonfiction study of Haiti and for The Cross on the Drum, reportedly a best-seller and presumably based on his personal experience of Caribbean life. This is a mainstream novel, first published in hardcover, and in certain respects a conscious repudiation of pulp tropes. It addresses one of the classic pulp subjects, the clash of cultures, but takes an un-pulp approach to it.

Cave himself probably wrote pulp stories treating voodoo as a horror, and if he didn't many others writers did. Many more have used the generic "witch doctor" as the villain of stories in many settings, representing the unreasoning, reactionary superstition of primitive people.  Fanatic or fraud, this type is usually shown selfishly if not cynically exploiting his people's credulity for his own benefit. In The Cross Cave departs from that formula by stressing the similarities between his houngan, Catus Laroche, and his Christian missionary, Barry Clinton. For both men, religion is less a matter of dogma than service. Each persists in his beliefs and practices in spite of growing doubts because both want to help the people of Isle du Vent. Each is painfully aware of how limited his ability is to materially help the desperately poor people of the island. Each is also guardedly critical of the other's faith while withholding judgment on each other as individuals. Catus zeros in on the apparent absurdities of the Gospel while Barry finds a weak spot in the apparent indifference of the loa to the material or spiritual well-being of the people they possess and take sacrifice from. It's a measure of Barry's own doubt, however, that he can't simply dismiss all the behaviors of possessed people as mere shamming. In any event, it's not really a high priority for Barry to denounce vodun (Cave's usage) or the loa. Recognizing how vodun had incorporated Catholic saint worship, he'd be satisfied to have Catus's people add Jesus to their pantheon in order to learn Jesus's moral lessons. In turn, Catus wants to learn more about Christianity, if only to understand his antagonists better, but he really appreciates what Barry is able to accomplish simply as a glorified medic. While most of the novel is told from Barry's point of view, Cave lets us into Catus's head often enough for us to understand that these holy men are basically two of a kind.

Barry and Catus probably would work out a modus vivendi if not for the rest of the plot. An ambitious native, Pradon Beliard, tries to play the two off each other to advance his own interests. The island's white plantation boss, Lemke, backs Beliard's efforts to subvert Barry's mission, growing increasingly hostile as he suspects his estranged wife Alma of being attracted to him. Catus's sister Micheline has had an affair with Lemke and has the hots for Barry, despite Catus' hot hostility to the idea of her sleeping with white men. When Barry definitively spurns Micheline -- he actually has fallen for Alma -- she joins forces with Beliard with some explosive gossip. She'd been privy to a confidential conversation between Barry and Catus after the death of a village girl, when Barry had explained that the girl could have survived had Catus brought the girl to him for modern medicine. Barry promised to keep this secret in order not to undermine Catus's position in his community, but Micheline now blabs this to Beliard, so he can say that Barry's been telling the story all over. Worse, she tells Beliard that the child she's carrying is Barry's, when it's actually Lemke's. Once Catus appears convinced of this double betrayal, both Barry's mission and his life are in jeopardy....

When I said that Cross on the Drum was in some ways a conscious repudiation of pulp, I had in mind at least two scenes when Barry compares his situation to pop culture cliches. Micheline's disheveled seduction attempt, following their survival of a boat wreck, reminds him of scenes from numerous "South Sea" movies. Later, after days of menacing drumming abruptly stop, and one of Barry's few remaining friends fears the worst, the missionary reflects that this "isn't one of those movies in which the beleaguered  explorers crouch in the jungle, surrounded by howling savages." Cave underscores this point by having Barry and Catus eventually settle things like reasonable men, but before that can happen the story depends on two classic coups de pulp. First, Barry's faithful housekeeper poisons her nephew Pradon Beliard -- non-lethally, natch -- in order to terrify him into confessing his culpability in all the novel's conspiracies. Second, after the housekeeper has saved Barry from eating a poisoned chicken, the missionary decides to play on the islanders' superstition and awe them into halting any attack. He has the word spread that he actually did die by poisoning, so that his appearance outside his church as the islanders converge upon it can look miraculous. He makes a point, however, of promising Catus after the fact that he'll tell the people the truth at his next service. His ultimate victory, Cave tells us, comes when Catus calls him mon frere rather than mon Pere. The novel closes on a note of peaceful coexistence, with the spiritual development of both divines to be continued. Despite the melodramatic climax, The Cross on the Drum often succeeds in what I take to be Cave's goal of transcending pulp formulae and the conventions of popular fiction in general while presenting a remarkably non-judgmental comparison of Christianity and vodun. I wouldn't say it really rises to the level of literature, but it's an earnestly entertaining, briskly plotted story that held my interest for all its almost 300 paperback pages. It may not so much transcend pulp as illustrate how pulp fiction could evolve as a pulp author learned more about the world and its people.

Friday, March 3, 2017

RANCH ROMANCES: The courtship of Jim Bannister

Joseph Chadwick was a prolific pulp writer during the 1940s and 1950s. His "Girl For No Man's Land" was the lead novelette in the 1953 First August Number of Ranch Romances. At 37 dense pages it's a pretty substantial piece of work, and this length gives us a better idea of the balance writers tried to strike between romance and mayhem in this most popular of western pulps.

Jim Bannister has resigned from the Texas Rangers to conduct a personal manhunt for Matt Duane, an escaped convict he more or less let escape. Duane was the only member of an outlaw gang to be captured after a robbery in which Bannister's mentor was killed. The search takes him into "No Man's Land," aka the "Neutral Strip," a piece of "forgotten" territory bordering five states. Bannister expects to meet strange characters here, but the real surprise is when he stumbles upon a woman bathing in a creek. "In all my years as a Ranger, nothing like this had ever happened to me!" he narrates. While he gapes at the spectacle, the woman dives to the bank, finds her rifle and opens fire at him. I bet that happened to him before! This is Bannister's first meeting with Janet Cameron, daughter of a rancher and girlfriend of Matt Duane. Bannister doesn't know that yet at their first more formal meeting, but he suspects that the Camerons know where Duane is and mean to warn him that someone's after him. Chadwick is good at showing his hero's thought processes as Jim tries to decide whether a Mexican ranch hand has been sent to Duane's hideout to warn him, or whether the Mexican was meant to distract him from Duane's presence at the ranch. He confronts Janet a second time and notices that she's got dishes for two in her sink. When Duane finally appears to confirm Jim's suspicions, Janet snatches the gun from Jim's holster to leave him helpless. But she won't let Duane shoot the unarmed man and a melee results

I grabbed at her, and in the darkness I wasn't able to see what I grabbed. I got an armful of girl. She screamed and fought against me, and for a time I had my hands full. I'd never had a woman fight me before, and Janet Cameron's strength surprised me.

You get the feeling that, if anything, this makes Janet more attractive to our manhunter hero. Despite her efforts Bannister reclaims the upper hand, but offers to leave Duane be if he'll rat out his three partners. Duane does this readily while telling Bannister his hard-luck story of oppression by the banks and the big ranchers. Bannister isn't naive about rich folk so he gives Duane some benefit of the doubt. It's not until he's on the trail again, and when he encounters Will Hanks, a cunning drifter he'd met earlier in the story, that he reconsiders why Duane was so ready to rat on his partners. Hanks, who wants a piece of the outlaw bounty, plants the idea in Bannister's head that Duane has all the loot from the robbery hidden someplace. Why else would the other three be looking for Duane, as Hanks has found out? Not to give him his share, certainly; more likely to get theirs. That sends Bannister back to the Cameron ranch, only for Janet to get the drop on him with her rifle. Since this is Ranch Romances, Jim finds himself addressing Janet as "Honey," though this "surprised me as much as it did her." He keeps trying to smooth-talk her into dropping her guard, but she's unimpressed by his abrupt confession that "You've got me crazy in love with you." Planting doubts in her mind about Duane proves more effective, but disarming her only starts the next round.

I threw the rifle aside and went after her, across a comfortably furnished parlor to a desk at its far end. She jerked open a drawer and grabbed out a six-shooter. I had to strike her across the wrist with the edge of my hand in a nasty chopping blow. She shrieked with pain, dropped the revolver. I stooped to pick it up and she caught me with both hands at the shoulders and shoved hard. I fell onto my side, rolled over, scrambled up just in time to keep her from getting the gun. I caught her across the waist, and it was like taking hold of a cougar. She fought me as she had the other night, with wild fury. I picked her up, carried her squirming fiercely to a sofa, dumped her onto it. When she tried to get off it, I pinned her down by the shoulders.

What happened after that happened more by accident than by design.

I bent over and kissed her.

My lips touching her mouth did what force couldn't have done...

And so the tide turns. Janet's still in denial, insisting that she means to marry Tom Duane, but it's only a matter of time before Duane shows his true colors, confirming Bannister and Will Hanks' suspicions. The confirmation comes when the other three outlaws arrive at the ranch looking for Duane and their money. Everyone converges there for the big showdown, including the mercenary Hanks, who decides that the robbery loot is a better prize than any bounty. Bannister understandably takes care of most of the business toward the end, though Janet scores with a pot of freshly boiled coffee in an outlaw's face. Overall, "Girl For No-Man's Land" illustrates how the tone of Ranch Romances stories could turn on a dime from violence to romance, perhaps on the assumption that there was some continuity between the two. It definitely works as a western action story, and compared to what you might read in a "straight" western there's a more urgent tone to the romance scenes that doesn't really compromise the story. I wonder whether there was too much violence in Jim and Janet's encounters for some of the female readership, but I also suspect that the rough-and-ready elements of their courtship were part of Ranch Romances' enduring appeal.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Violent World of RANCH ROMANCES

While Analog, a digest-sized magazine formerly known as Astounding Science Fiction, might fairly claim to be the last of the pulps, in a technical sense of the word that designation is usually reserved for a modest-sounding magazine called Ranch Romances. With apologies to Analog, Ranch Romance's record really is astounding. The pulp era ended in the 1950s, with most titles folding while a few (like Astounding) switched to a snazzier digest format. Ranch Romances, launched in 1924, continued until 1971. It was a reprints-only quarterly in its dotage, but it had continued to publish original fiction deep into the 1960s. When most pulps diminished in frequency to bimonthly or quarterly during the Fifties, Ranch Romances maintained a biweekly schedule until 1958.  But who cares about a romance pulp, right? Romance pulps are the bottom of posterity's barrel, offering none of the blood or thunder that defined pulp historically, or so we presume. But don't judge a pulp by its title. Take a look instead at the Ranch Romances collection at It's a small sample of eleven issues, but most of them, fortunately, are from the 1950s when the Thrilling group published the magazine. I can't vouch for what it was like before Thrilling took over, but this is what it looked like in the summer of 1953.

Nothin' says lovin' like gun-totin' wimmen. I don't know whether she's protecting that poor man or is just pausing before moving on to her next target. This cover is taken from the limited unz sample, but I could have taken almost any of unz's 1950s issues to make the same point, and they're pretty typical of the magazine throughout this era. Ranch Romances would have been all over The Pulp Calendar if it hadn't dated itself by "First August Number," etc. instead of using actual dates. So who's the primary audience for such stuff? The key to Ranch Romances' success probably was that it appealed to both sexes; to women who enjoyed just plain romance and/or the female empowerment promised on the covers; to men turned on by the action and/or the female empowerment promised on the covers.

Did the stories inside live up to the covers? I'll be taking a survey of the unz Ranch Romances holdings to find out, but the first story up for examination gives its heroine a handicap that keeps her from playing a dominant role like the cover lady does, but doesn't exactly leaver her helpless.

The heroine of W. J. Reynolds' "Devil's Notch" (First August Number, 1953) is discovered by Sheriff John Bolton sitting on a rock with a busted ankle. It's a self-inflicted injury, inflicted at the insistence of her outlaw step-brother, on the assumption that the sheriff, a chivalrous gentleman, will take her somewhere to be treated before resuming his pursuit. Not satisfied with Lily Conway's handiwork, Kid Permain went to work on her ankle himself with a rock. And just to be sure that the sheriff will be distracted, the Kid sets some fires to draw Indians down on Bolton and the girl. Once the sheriff realizes that Lily's not Permain's girlfriend, he thinks he may have a chance with her, if he can treat her ankle before she dies of blood poisoning. This story's idea of a bonding experience is his treatment of her swollen ankle with hot towels soaked in boiling water. She shows character by biting her lips after the first scream, in keeping with her stoic demeanor when Bolton first found her.

Eventually they cross paths with Permain, pursued by Indians. Handicapped by her ankle, Lily gets jumped by the outlaw while trying to hold him off with a pistol. "Permain yelled triumphantly, with the meaty sound of a fist meeting soft flesh," but Lily's not out for the count. As Bolton turns his attention to Permain and drops his revolver, fearing for the girl, the girl beans her step-brother with a rock. "She threw the fist-sized missile hard, as a man would throw it," Reynolds writes approvingly. A half-page fistfight ensues between outlaw and sheriff, until Permain dives for a gun on the ground and Lily throws another to Bolton. Bang bang bang bang. After the smoke clears, we get a standard romantic finish. How standard is it? I mean no reflection on W. J. Reynolds, from whom I'd read nothing before, but the fact is, there's little to distinguish "Devil's Notch" from stories that might appear in the other western titles Thrilling published in 1953, right down to the romantic finish. It may have been that most authors always had an eye on Ranch Romances as a market, or that most authors had their eye on a female readership that didn't buy just western romance pulps -- though there certainly were plenty of those to choose from back then. I expect to find some stories, and more likely the longer novelettes that are heavier on the love stuff, but fans of just plain westerns probably needn't be scared off by the Ranch Romances name. Trust what those covers show you, I dare say.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


John Jakes, who turns 85 this year, is one of the last-surviving writers to appear in an actual pulp magazine, if not the last living western pulp writer. He broke in while still a teenager and was successful enough to have his name mentioned on some magazine covers. Yet when he remade himself into a historical novelist at the end of the pulp era, he was told that his name was to bland for the genre. Little did that editor know that John Jakes would become one of the most successful brand names in historical fiction during the 1970s. In the 1960s, we got "Jay Scotland." One of his subjects was the last days of piracy in Jamaica in the early 18th century. This happens to be the subject matter of one of my favorite current TV shows, the Starz series Black Sails, now in the middle of its final season. The gimmick of Black Sails is that the historical pirates of Nassau interact with characters invented by Robert Louis Stevenson, making he pirate saga a prequel to his beloved novel Treasure Island. It takes creative license with the historical characters on the premise that their careers would be altered by the interventions of both the Stevenson characters and entirely original characters invented for the show. For instance, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach has just made his exit, but instead of going down fighting, as is understood to have been the actual case, he is captured, along with fellow historical figures Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, and is put to death by keel-hauling on the direct order of real-life pirate nemesis Woodes Rogers. Jakes/Scotland takes similar license with history by introducing his own hero, Gideon Clark, and making him quartermaster for historical pirate Charles Vane, his exploits and those of others eventually changing Vane's fate. When I started watching Black Sails, I noticed that the Nassau pirates hadn't been used much in movies, though Anne Bonny provided a vague template for numerous female pirates. The Starz show has succeeded so well at making them tremendous antiheroes that I've been left wondering even more. Unfortunately, that makes it hard not to judge Strike the Black Flag's versions of these characters by what's been done on television, and to find the "Scottish" pirates somewhat wanting.

Jakes' Charles Vane is a dissolute brute with none of the thuggish charisma or redeeming heroism that Zach McGowan gave the character before his third-season exit. The historic Vane was hanged rather ignominiously, but the Black Sails Vane becomes a martyr embodying resistance to Redcoat tyranny. In Strike the Black Flag Vane is murdered offstage (apparently) by Clive Steed, the novel's main villain and a fictionalized version of Stede Bonnet, the dilettante pirate who consorted with Teach and Vane. As quartermaster of Vane's ship, Gideon Clark is a target for the ambitious Jack Rackam (to use Jakes' spelling), who again has none of the redeeming qualities of the TV Rackham. Historically Rackham and Anne Bonny were a pair, and Black Sails treats them that way -- sometimes with an extra woman thrown in as, apparently, in real life. Strike the Black Flag gets there eventually, but the immediate problem Bonny poses for Gideon Clark is as the likely avenger of her husband James Bonny, a member of Vane's crew whom Clark had to kill in self-defense. It's pretty universally acknowledged that Clark is in a world of trouble once Anne finds out what's happened. As a female pirate, and one who reportedly showed more courage and ferocity than Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny has fascinated people for the last 300 years. Unsurprisingly in our time, Black Sails presents her as something of a superwoman, just about unstoppable in hand-to-hand combat. Just in last week's episode, forced to fight a burly, sledgehammer-wielding British marine with no weapons of her own, Anne manages to spark the liberation of her fellow pirate-captives with a couple of bits of broken glass, despite taking a terrible beating. Jakes' Anne is not quite this sort of female fury, but Gideon Clark would "sooner swim in a hurricane than face her....A woman who learns to live among men like us must have twice the craft and savagery of the male." Yet one someone finally attacks him, he's surprised to find that it's Anne, she of the "impudent breasts" and the "stormy grey beauty of her eyes." She's vicious with a dagger but vulnerable to a forearm to the jaw. The eventual alliance of Anne and Jack creates a problem for Gideon Clark's future, which Jakes leaves open-ended with a sequel in mind. I'd rather have that sequel than the actual book, since Clive Steed never manages to fascinate like the historical pirates.  Stike the Black Flag wraps up with Clark rescuing the novel's good girl Clarissa Harlow -- erudite Jakes named her after Samuel Richardson's epistolary heroine -- from Rackam and Clive Steed's clutches, while Blackbeard goes to his fate, only for a lookalike to scare off the Spanish fleet at a convenient moment. Black Flag strikes me as a novel written mainly for the money, but conscientiously so, as his Author's Note explaining the mix of fact and fiction testifies. I didn't find it very memorable, but it was doomed to an unfair comparison once I saw Black Sails first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Strange indeed were the ways of the umlungu!"

I. D. B. stands for "Illicit Diamond Buying." In pulp days, that meant taking diamonds out of South Africa without going through the De Beers company. In pulp fiction, the most famous illicit diamond buyer was L. Patrick Greene's "Major." Who was E. Van Lier Ribbink to poach on Greene's ground? Was that even a real name? It certainly was. Ribbink wrote a handful of stories for Adventure and Everybody's Magazine, but his real calling was journalism, a profession in which he rose to an editorship. His few stories draw on his South African background. "I.D.B." (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is only incidentally about diamond buying. Its hero, Bob Breeze, is the typical guileless American seeking his fortune in South Africa. He gets entrapped into buying a diamond illicitly by a personal enemy, the sleazy "Portogreek" Manuel Silva ("for thus are men of a certain degree of swarthiness styled in Africa"). Bob makes an enemy of Silva by intervening when the Portogreek beats one of his Matabele servants. Silva conspires with a corrupt policeman to set Bob up by having an old native offer the American a diamond, with the promise of secret knowledge of a rich mine. The judge recognizes how Bob has been tricked, but the best he can do for the young American in court is impose the minimum sentence of six months in prison. He doesn't even stay a whole day. The Matabele man he'd rescued earlier is now working for a brave, virtuous Boer lady, who has sent him to break Bob out of prison. In classic H. Rider Haggard fashion, this young man is a prince of his tribe, sent out to earn his own way and learn something of white ways before inheriting power. He thus can guarantee safe conduct for Bob, the girl and her trusty right-hand man in his father's kraal. The chief in turn promises his protection against the pursuing policeman and Silva, whom he'll throw off the good guys' trail with something like the same diamond trick they pulled on Bob. The Matabele think they've worked things out perfectly for their new white friends, but when Bob learns that his enemies are headed for a snake-pit death trap, to the amusement of his protectors, he can't permit it to happen. "My God, we can not let them do that," he says, "It's unspeakable. Those fellows may be scoundrels and criminals, but they are human beings. We've got to stop it." To his credit, he doesn't say, "but they are white." His noble sentiments don't stop the irredeemable Silva from death by snakebite, but the British policeman is saved with great difficulty. Inyoni, the Matabele prince, accepts this with a shrug. "Strange indeed were the ways of the umlungu," he muses of his white friends as he goes to the rescue with them.

The most interesting thing about "I.D.B." is its careful observation of racial hierarchies. Beyond the obvious differentiation of black and white, there's a clear feeling that "Portogreeks" like Silva are inferior to the Boers and British (and Americans) while the Matabele (and Zulus) are acknowledged as a higher order of native, despite their proclivity for E.C. Comics style justice. This race-consciousness grates on modern sensibilities but Ribbink's story at least has the virtue of honesty about the subject, rather than the idealistic, err, whitewashing of the subject in some modern genre fiction. Ribbink doesn't have L. Patrick Greene or The Major's panache, and Inyoni is a poor substitute for Jim the Hottentot. But it's still an interesting read if only as a document of South Africa as pulp consciousness imagined it.