Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'She either surrenders those papers or shall be stripped as naked as the day she was born!'

Beneath the magnolias and grits of Civil War fiction, Gordon Young's "The Loyal Lady" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a properly paranoid spy story. In 1862 Captain Haynes of the Union army is sent south across enemy lines incognito to get accurate information on the size of General Lee's army. Lee's opposite number, Gen. McClellan, has been paralyzed, to Commander-in-Chief Lincoln's dismay, by apparently exaggerated reports of the Confederate force he faces. Haynes hopes to pump a Major Rawks for information, but finds Rawks hunting for a Union spy, a southern belle turned turncoat, who's just stolen just the papers Haynes is looking for. Rawks provokes Haynes' sense of chivalry, not to mention his patriotism, by vowing to hang the supposed spy, Maybelle Marshall, hanged, despite her safe-conduct pass from Jefferson Davis himself. Worse, when they actually meet Miss Marshall, Rawks insists on a full-body search.

"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

'He go hell, I no can catch!'

Imagine the stories Arthur O. Friel might write about Venezuela in the 21st century: the intrigues of Chavistas, dissidents and military men, Cubans and Americans, etc. Venezuela was Friel's meat. He explored the territory himself and wrote both fiction and non-fiction about it. Friel was one of the star writers for Adventure in the 1920s, but his output slowed over the course of the 1930s, and his work became less ambitious. In 1938 he created the character Dugan, whose exploits are reported by raconteurs addressing the reader in the second person, a favorite Friel device. As noted often here, because most pulp writers were freelancers, their characters were rarely considered the intellectual property of any one publisher. As a result, Dugan could wander back and forth between Adventure, where he first appeared, and Short Stories, where "Under Dog" appeared in the January 25, 1939 issue. The narrator has detailed knowledge of Dugan's exploits, though he doesn't take part in the story he tells. He claims to be a "side-kick" of Dugan, though I suppose he could be Dugan himself, whom he describes as "a husky lad about my size with big fists and no brains." In other words, a conventional tough-guy pulp hero who falls in with a suspicious band of traders after saving an accused thief they'd been shooting at. The lead trader is suspicious because he talks funny: "The words were English -- or North American -- with something a little queer in the long ones." He calls himself Brockley but pronounces it "Broccoli" ("Some kind of wop cabbage," the narrator explains). Brockley's unlikely mission is to bring a consignment of frying pans across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, Dugan has his doubts; the pans will most likely be melted down so the metal can be put to more militant use. He doesn't need the money Brockley offers him, but he hopes to shake "some people who didn't like him" who'd been following him north from some previous adventure. He'd be a minority of one if not for the loyalty of Tonio, the Indian he rescued.

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

SINGAPORE SAMMY vs 'the toughest egg south of Shanghai'

Still hunting his reprobate father, Singapore Sammy Shea is hunted himself in his third story, "South of Sulu." (Short Stories, June 25, 1930). Ever since word got out that he had brought in the infamous Blue Fire Pearl of Malobar to be appraised, the scum of sea of land have been gunning for him and the pearl. Following a lead on his father, Sammy encounters three such characters on the island of Pelambang. Peddy the trader, stereotypically fat, runs the place. Whisky Wallace is one of his henchman. Their uncomfortable partner is Big Nick Stark, "the toughest egg south of Shanghai," who feels that his cut of the loot to be taken from Sammy doesn't really reflect his contributions to the endeavor. Sammy's no fool and leaves his pearl in a secure location on his boat before setting foot on Peddy's island, where he is predictably ambushed by the terrible trio. They tie him up and threaten torture if he doesn't come across, but with each working at cross purposes against the others Sammy has an opening to escape. Things get pretty hard-boiled as the bad guys threaten to put a lit cigar, a broken bottle, etc. in Sammy's face, but this all proves to be prelude to Sammy's battle of wits with Big Nick. Detecting a double-cross from Peddy, and killing him off-stage, Stark offers to join forces with Sammy, luring the good-but-greedy Singapore with the long-sought mate to the Blue Fire Pearl. Sammy is greedy enough to gamble his pearl against Stark's, and once he agrees to that we remember the scene early in the story where Big Nick impressed Peddy with his fancy shuffling and dealing. Worts knows how to keep things suspenseful by having his bad guys often stay at least a step ahead of Sammy, and he increases readers' anxiety by having Sammy lose at cards to Nick not once, not twice, but thrice -- the last time with his life at stake, since losing obliges Sammy to swim through shark-infested water to get rescuers to their stranded boat.

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.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

'What this country needs is more Chinese.'

Richard Howells Watkins had a forty-year career writing magazine stories for pulps, slicks and digests. You see his name a lot in the detective and general adventure pulps, usually contributing stories with nautical or auto-racing themes. He was the sort of dependable writer who was nobody's favorite, and perhaps not very memorable today, but usually worth a read. "Two Ways North" (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) deals with smugglers on the Florida coast, though exactly what they're smuggling, or if they're smuggling at all, is open to question most of the way. The story reads almost like a satire of smuggler stories as two men down on their luck dream of earning their way back north by earning a reward for some heroic feat. Denny Coyle, a failed gambler with an Irish brogue, and Jim Bush, a former waiter, are little better than tramps, barely earning a living helping Old Craikie operate a capstan bridge to let boats through. They hope to make some extra coin helping a motorboat "alive with men" that's apparently run aground nearby, but the surly Cuban captain rebuffs them. That makes our heroes suspicious. Jim deduces that the Cuban must be smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants. "These Chinks are bringing us our stake," he tells Denny, suggesting that they blackmail the Cuban with a threat to report him to the government. Since Denny worries about the Cuban knifing the, since "These Cubans live in the present," Jim suggests that they go straight to the government and collect a reward for ratting on the smuggler. Now Denny has a moral objection; it wouldn't be fair to the poor Chinese. The ensuing debate might just as easily take place 78 years later.

"That wouldn't be honest," he stated coldly.
"Why not?" argued Jim, heating up under censure, "He's sneaking a bunch of Chinks into the country, ain't he? Don't he deserve to be caught?"
Denny was like a rock. "Where's the harm in it?" he demanded. "What this country needs is more Chinese."
"Well do I remember my old man saying, many's the time when he was out of work, 'Twinty two families in the house an' devil a Christian in the lot but wan Jew an' two Chinese.' We'd of starved, I'm tellin' you, if it weren't for a fat yellow grinnin' Chinese that owned a grocery around on Pell Street."
With more energy he added, "An' don't be callin' 'em Chinks. A Jap is a Jap but a Chink is a Chinese, an willin' to be white if ye give him half a chance."

There proves to be an easy solution to this impasse. Once Jim suggests that Ferrer, the Cuban, could be smuggling in a Japanese, Denny jumps to the conclusion that this theoretical person is a spy "comin' in under cover because we're tightening up on some of our bowin' and apologizin' to Jap visitors." The government will really pay out for reporting a spy, he concludes, while Jim argues for quantity over quality, assuming that the feds will pay more for a boatload of Chinese illegals. "Where's your patriotism, man?" Denny protests at this thought. "Up North," Jim answers.

Watkins cleverly avoids making clear whether or not the man our heroes eventually discover is Chinese or Japanese. Sure, the man cries out, "No Jap! Chinese!" before jumping ship, and sure, Denny boasts of his ability to tell Chinese and Japanese apart, but just because "the face was the face of a Chinese if Denny Coyle were any judge," that doesn't mean Denny's any judge. In any event, "the Oriental" turns out to be smuggling diamonds, leading Denny to observe, on his assumption that the "yellow man" was Chinese, that "the Chinese are a clever race -- sometimes too clever, belike!" Diamonds actually draw a pretty good reward that Jim and Denny share equally with Old Craikie, who has also talked of "going North" soon. The end of the story explains the title: Craikie dies moments after putting his share of the bills in his sock. To Denny that means "the old one's further North than you or me will ever get if we go to the pole." Modest as it is, "Two Ways North" may be the best thing I've read from Watkins to date.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'You, Baas, are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas'

The most successful 'white hunter' character in pulp fiction set in Africa was L. Patrick Greene's creation Aubrey St. John Major, better known simply as "The Major." Greene created the Major and his sidekick, Jim the Hottentot, for Adventure in late 1919. In 1921 they all moved to Short Stories, where the Major became a fixture, with possibly the most covers of any character in that magazine, for the next quarter-century. Strictly speaking, the Major is a good bad man or lovable rogue, wanted by the colonial authorities in his earliest adventures for illegal diamond buying but typically targeting men worse than himself. He evolved into a more standard good guy troubleshooter over time, while Jim evolved from something close to comic relief to one of the more rounded black characters in all pulp. Greene was conscious of his characters' evolution and made them conscious of it as well. In "Major Sacrifice," (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) Jim remarks that he once would have been fooled like the story's Zulu antagonists by the Major using his monocle like a magical "third eye" that can tell truth from lies. At the same time, Jim still feels a slight dread whenever he looks at a photograph. "We black ones are crammed with foolish fears," he reflects, "That is why white men impose their will upon us so easily." For all that, Jim has an exceptional relationship with his baas that allows for considerable criticism of what the Hottentot sees as the Major's misplaced idealism. Jim is deferential without being servile, and the dialogue between the two characters is sometimes the most interesting part of a Major story. Here's an exchange from "Major Sacrifice" in which they debate what to do about two disreputable characters trailing them on the veldt. The protagonists speak in Jim's dialect, allowing Jim full articulation of his thoughts.

"If they follow us, Jim."
"Oh, but they do, Baas. You know they do. I have shown them to you. Two men on horseback, Baas, each leading a pack horse. You have seen them. You have seen their campfires. They are clever, too. They know the veldt. Always they keep a day's trek behind us and ride so cunningly that none can see them."
"Yet you saw them, Jim."
"Ah, yes, Baas," the Hottentot said with simple conceit, "but I am not an ordinary man."
"By jove, you're not," the Major drawled in English.
"Golly, damme, no," Jim chuckled.

"And so they are evil as i said. Their purpose -- as concerning us and him -- is evil."
"That is my fear, Jim," the Major admitted.
"Ou, Baas. Then why did you not let me go back and kill them as I desired. Wo-we! It is not too late. let me go back now. In the night's darkness I will reach their outspan. for them there will be no pain -- that I promise. I will only lengthen their sleep into death. But of course," he continued sarcastically, "that is not the way of white men. Most assuredly it is not your way. You, Baas, you are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas, though he well knows that by so doing he endangers his own life. Why do not white men kill their enemies?"
"The evil ones do, Jim. The others refrain -- partly, I think, because they fear to destroy what they cannot create."
"Wu! That is folly, Baas. Men can create men -- else the world would now be empty. To kill an enemy is nothing, Baas. Death is nothing. No more than the snuffing out of a flame. And it's better, i say, to snuff out one flame that lights a hut than to permit it to grow into a big fire which will destory a kraal." Jim shook his head in mock reproach and then continued, "But perhaps the evil spirits of the waste lands will deal with those two evil men. Yet even that you will prevent if  you can. You -- how well I know you, Baas -- will risk your own life, if necessary, in order to save them."

While Jim can be very frank talking with the Major, Greene reminds us that they're not equals, though his conceit is that Jim, rather than the Major, enforces the limits of their friendship. Shortly after this exchange, Jim observes, almost self-mockingly, that "My only pleasure is to serve you." The Major counters, "What is this talk of service, Jim," and places his hand on the Hottentot's shoulder in "a gesture of friendship and protection." The Major may well see Jim as his friend in some truly egalitarian way, but Jim returns the sentiment with eyes that "glowed with the light of devotion and service." And even if Jim is right to chide the Major later for allowing evil to enter the story's happy valley, you get the sense that Jim himself recognizes that his Baas's sentiments are not contemptible foolishness but the idealism of a higher being.

The story as a whole is far less progressive than Greene's portrayal of Jim. The Major has been hired by a fiftysomething English woman to track down her husband, Henry Grey, believed lose in Africa. Her intentions become clear when she offers our hero 5,000 pounds for Henry's signature on a document, and 10,000 pounds for proof of his death. The other two trackers come into the story when Mrs. Grey learns from local gossip that the Major is not as unscrupulous as he himself had led her to believe. As for Henry Grey, "his true environment was an English suburb," but the Major and Jim recognize him from a photo provided by Mrs. Grey as the man who, under the name of "Kind Heart," somehow became the chief of a band of refugee Zulus and others living in a hidden "Happy Valley."  The situation is so preposterous -- Greene presumably has Lost Horizon and similar stories in mind -- that he can barely explain how it came about, other than to offer that Grey "knew his people. He could speak as they spoke. He could think as they thought. And that ability is the hallmark of white men who are successful in their work with natives." Unsurprisingly, some restless young men of the makeshift tribe chafe under Kind Heart's control, goaded by a pretentious would-be warrior whose refrain, "By the blood of Chaka!" is tiresome even to his own comrades. This gives our heroes an additional set of antagonists to worry about, but you probably can guess that everything works out all right in the end, the Major becoming an intermediary in a long-distance divorce proceeding after the Happy Valley elders beat sense into the rebellious youths. As a story "Major Sacrifice" is one of the sillier entries that I've read in the series, but the series as a whole remains fascinating to discover bit by bit as Altus Press prepares a complete edition and more scanned issues of Short Stories come on line. Look for more of the Major and Jim on this blog in the future.

Monday, July 24, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'A wise man knows the aim of a bottle'

The second Singapore Sammy story by George F. Worts, "Cobra" (Short Stories, May 25, 1930) takes place "several months" after the events of "The Blue Fire Pearl." By now, it's widely known that Sammy Shay has in his possession that famous bauble, and some people would like to take it off his hands, or from around his neck. The story opens with Sammy, ever on the hunt for his reprobate father, walking into an ambush set by our new villain. He is that most despicable of persons for George F. Worts: the half-caste. "This man was part Portuguese, part Malay, and part God knows what," we learn, "In him, the West met the East and became a power for unlimited malice." The narrator, and in turn Sammy himself, is obsessed with the way the villain resembles a cobra in his "steady, wicked stare." Singapore fights his way free from the ambush but suffers a severe stab wound in the process. If not for a good samaritan who arranges to have him hospitalized with private nursing care, our hero might have died in the street. Once Sammy recognizes his savior, he wants nothing to do with the man.

The man, or "rat" in Singapore's estimate, is Ted McAlister, a onetime protege of Sammy's who couldn't lay off gambling, and couldn't lay off the booze and opium while gambling. It takes a while for Sammy to understand that Ted is on the wagon, except for the gambling that is. He owes $15,000 in chits, proving to Singapore that "You don't belong in China." Ted wants to go back to America and make a fresh start in his dad's business, but can't afford passage with his debts. Now that Sammy owes him something and feels sorry for him, and with his dad's trail gone cold, he works on a way to send the American home while getting his revenge on that human cobra, Armand De Silvio.

Whether you like "Cobra" better than "Blue Fire Pearl" depends on how you like your pulp fiction. Sammy's debut was an all-out action story, while "Cobra" becomes a con-man caper as Sammy uses Ted's own black pearl to con the cobra. He has Ted show the pearl to De Silvio, who runs a jewelry store, and inquire as to whether the half-caste has a matching pearl, for which he'll pay a tremendous price. Sammy then arranges to sell De Silvio the very same pearl Ted showed him, at an inflated price that will more than cover Ted's debts and his passage home. While Sammy comes across as a goody two shoes for much of the story, the way he lectures Ted, he shows a more familiar ruthless streak while working his con. He's going to sell the pearl to De Silvio while disguised as a Hindu. Since he doesn't have a Hindu costume in his wardrobe, he lures some poor mark into an alley, beats him up and takes his clothes. His ultimate revenge on De Silvio is twofold. He has Ted tell him that he no longer wants the matching pearl, meaning that the half-caste has wasted his money. Then, out of a spiteful sense of poetic justice, he throws a real cobra into De Silvio's cashier's cage to terrify the villain into returning the money his men had taken from Sammy at the start of the story.

In an epilogue, a fresh lead puts Sammy back on his father's trail, despite a warning letter in which the old man had told him, "A wise man knows the aim of a bottle." According to Singapore, this is a Siamese saying meaning, in a more contemporary idiom, that "a hunch to a wise guy is plenty." The thought returns to him as the police discuss the cobra attack on De Silvio and express their reluctance to investigate anything having to do with such a dangerous creature. If this story proves anything, it's that Singapore Sammy is not about to take anyone's advice, including his own. His mentorship of Ted McAlister seems to have worked on a "Do as I say, not as I do" level, but you can only teach some people just so much. Sammy can be sentimental about people, as his first adventure showed, but whether that makes him a good guy the way he apparently wanted Ted to be is another story -- or several more to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Are there no small magics among the white men?'

Kingi Bwana,  American troubleshooter in Africa, probably was Gordon MacCreagh's most successful creation. MacCreagh, who went on safari for Adventure in 1927, published stories about Mr. King in that magazine for a decade, from 1930 to 1940. Like any good pulp hero, King had reliable sidekicks, the Mutt and Jeff team of Kaffa the wily Hottentot and the lordly Masai warrior Barounggo. People reading MacCreagh's stories today might be able to accept Barounggo as a badass, but however clever Kaffa is shown to be, it's got to be hard for modern readers to get past the author's favorite description of the Hottentot as a "wise ape." They're less politically correct templates for N'Geeso the pygmy and Tembu George, the American turned Masai chief, of Fiction House's Ki-Gor stories. Barounggo doesn't get too much to do, apart from kill a lion, in "The Witch Casting" (Adventure, November 1, 1931), while Kaffa's early suspicions of an American doctor on safari with his millionaire employer, for which King docks the impertinent African ("It is ill to speak so, unasked, of white masters.") one-tenth of his monthly pay, albeit with a promise of restitution for meritorious service, are ultimately vindicated. King senses something fishy about the safari himself, but he has white prestige to hold up. In any event, he's invited by ailing businessman Chet Howard, who's come to Africa for rest and recreation, to act as a hunting guide, but his personal physician, Dr. John Gerardi, clearly doesn't want him around. It takes a while for King and the reader to guess what exactly Gerardi is up to, if anything, for Howard thrives in Africa, proving an enthusiastic and effective hunter. If anything, there's a danger of him going native.

Howard leaped high and screamed his kill. Black forms leaped and screamed around him. Swiftly converging forms and darting spears marked the end of the drive. Uncouth leapings, howlings, wavings of weapons announced triump....Sharp blads quickly gashed throats to let the still warm blood run. Black men bathed their thighs and their foreheads in the thick welling liquid. White man Howard bathed and shrieked with them.
King looked down on it all, very still, very serious, with the beginning of understanding in his eyes.
'Good Lord, just like one of them,' he muttered.
Kaffa, still too, like a watching creature of the wild and quite as frightened, understood.
'No, bwana,' he whispered, 'Not just like one of them. He is one of them.'
King let minutes pass while he watched the orgy. Then explosively --
'And that, by God, is the witchcraft of this thing.'
'Yes, bwana,' said Kaffa with conviction, 'He is a lion man.'
'Who?' said King sharply.
'The witch doctor of this place, bwana. A man who can turn himself into a lion can surely turn a white man into a Dodinga savage.'

King's initial suspicion is that just such a witch doctor has put a spell on Chet, even though that would break a taboo against enchanting whites imposed by a friend of King's who is a very powerful "wizard," mind you. Our hero takes the idea of a "lion man" somewhat seriously, equating it with "the old werwolf belief. Lycanthropy, the scientific gents call it." the idea is not that a man physically transforms into a beast, but that he becomes convinced that he has, and acts accordingly. "Science knows it's possible," King reminds his Jewish trader friend Yakoub ben Abrahm, while the wizard suggests, "Are there no small magics among the white men?" After all, "That is no very hard magic. It is but making a pattern in the soft thing that is a man's mind. Is there no white man who knows how to plant the seed of a thought in a man's mind and then, by a careful watering with words, make that seed grow? That is a little thing that is not even magic."

King knows of such a white man, but doesn't share his knowledge with the reader until almost the end. He had asked Dr. Gerardi earlier who he had worked under in South Africa, and the doctor dropped a name that King identifies later as a hypnotist. King can leave this reveal in reserve until he figures out a motive for whatever Gerardi is up. Gerardi can mean no good for Chet, but if he wishes his employer ill, why not poison him, and why not at home in America? Yakoub makes the crucial suggestion that the death of a recklessly healthy man would not be considered suspicious. "You're the very devil," King compliments the trader, "Only a devil could think of such things." To which Yakoub answers, "For much money, my friend, many men have become devils." One King learns that Chet is going on a lion hunt, using only native weapons, all becomes clear. It's the test of a young man and Chet isn't equal to it, but Barounggo is luckily around to save the day. It's a nice touch on MacCreagh's part that it's not up to Kingi Bwana to kill the lion, and "Witch Casting" is a pretty good early story in the series. You wouldn't know from this story that MacCreagh was an experienced African traveler, though he may have been only a superficial observer of Africans, but he is a pretty good pulp writer and if you don't get hung up on the more embarrassing tropes of old fiction MacCreagh's stuff is usually worth reading.

Monday, July 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Sentimental Sammy was a pagan ..."

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

'To a destroyer every submarine was an enemy'

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'What the hell do you think a man is?'

Stories of France's colonial empire allowed pulp writers to express more ambivalence about imperialism than adventures set in the British Empire. That's not to say that much pulp fiction was expressly anti-imperialist -- though one Foreign Legion specialist, J. D. Newsom, declared himself against in an Argosy autobiography. It's that tales of the French empire emphasize brutality and cruelty in a way English stories usually wouldn't, but it was usually cruelty and brutality as endured by Frenchmen or the mercenaries of all nations who filled the Foreign Legion. There's no British Empire equivalent of the Devil's Island subgenre, which is presumably to Britain's credit. If much of pulp fiction invited readers to vicariously test their courage, both Foreign Legion and Devil's Island stories posed this challenge: could you take it? For Depression readers especially, possibly, the hinted at how much worse things could get for a man. Robert Carse specialized in Devil's Island stories like "Prison" (Adventure, November 1, 1931) as well as Foreign Legion tales. The former could be summed up as the latter stripped of the last vestiges of romance and glory. "Prison's" protagonist is Rorke, an American Legionnaire and winner of the Croix de Guerre who ended up on Ile Diable, aka Ile Joseph, after killing his commanding officer, an archetypal military madman, to stop him from massacring his own men, both as a tactical blunderer and an outright murderer.

Only the influence of the U.S. ambassador got him imprisoned instead of executed, but prison proves a fate almost worse than death for Rorke because the warden, Morbillon, is the brother of the officer he killed. Their war of wills is the main event of the story, but Carse broadens its scope a little by shifting focus midway through to a third character, the young guard Geurot who sympathizes with Rorke once he learns of the American's heroism and comes to hate Morbillon's cruelty. He ends up collateral damage in the other two's private war, imprisoned after intervening to stop Morbillon from caning Rorke and finally striking his commander. While Rorke's rage for revenge sustains him, Geurot sickens rapidly but manages to smuggle Rorke a file for his latest escape attempt. When the American escapes his cell, he turns fatalistically selfless. No longer concerned with his own getaway, he confronts Morbillon to force him to free Geurot. "I got no way of saying it," Rorke says, presumably translated from his limited French, "I ain't got the words. But what the hell do you think a man is?" A bit implausibly, Morbillon seems to figure it all out in the end. He knows already that the old order's going to change; a committee of journalists with strong political backing back home is coming to investigate the prison. "Always we have blinded ourselves because we have been willing to die," he says of his family, "And the world is not that way any more. It has stopped being that way....France and the penal code. France -- That code is the only thing which has not changed, and which should be changed." He now expects his own court-martial to effect that change as Rorke, grateful but somewhat uncomprehending, goes his way. One suspects that at the last moment Carse turned his villain into a mouthpiece for his own opinion, though there's no "Camp Fire" comment this issue to confirm that. A Devil's Island story easily could veer into sadomasochistic territory, but Carse keeps things tasteful, concentrating on the prisoners' isolation and deprivation and how they can drive men mad. Without much violence, he conveys the extremity of the experience in a manner that no doubt chilled some original readers, while closing on an optimistic note that suggests that this, too -- like anything else in the pulp world -- could be endured and overcome.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

'Guess we're outlaws whether we want to be or not.'

In post-pulp days Frank Gruber made good in television. He was a co-creator and credited "Script Consultant" for the Tales of Wells Fargo show, which pitted Dale Robertson's troubleshooter Jim Hardie against outlaws factual and fictional. A hallmark of the show that we presumably can credit to Gruber is its often-sympathetic treatment of the historical outlaws. A totally made-up badman could be totally, irredeemably bad, but when Hardie met the famous ones he often discovered redeeming qualities in them. There's a precedent for that in Gruber's "Young Sam Began to Roam" (Short Stories, April 10, 1940. "Young Sam"is Sam Bass, a bandit portrayed in this story (and in a Wells Fargo episode where Chuck Connors played him) as a relatively happy-go-lucky fellow with no real mean streak in him. Bass reputedly never killed anyone in his brief outlaw career, making him an ideal candidate for the sympathetic treatment. The really noteworthy thing about the story is the narrative trick Gruber plays. He sets the story up as an elegiac remembrance of Sam by a surviving gang member, Eddie Slocum, who settled down and started a family and a ranch. Slocum's memories are provoked by cowboys singing the folk ballad that gives the story its title. The main story has an omniscient narrator rather than Slocum's "I," recounting how Slocum fell in with Sam after getting ripped off by a mining company. Gruber gives us Sam Bass's greatest coup, the $60,000 robbery of a Union Pacific train, and a (made-up?) episode in which the gang cons a town into betting against Sam's legendary superhorse, the Denton Mare, in an impromptu race. Along the way, Slocum meets Ruth, the woman who'll become his wife, but events eventually rush toward the betrayed Bass gang's fatal encounter with the Texas Rangers. The narrative climaxes as Sam sees Slocum take a bullet in the chest, and then we return to the present and learn the truth that adds a tragic tinge to all we'd read before. For it was Eddie Slocum who took a mortal wound that day and was mistaken for Sam Bass, and it was Sam, already poised to quit the outlaw life, who took Eddie's identity and settled down with Ruth. Apparently Ruth knew the truth all along -- she tells Sam that she talked to Slocum before he died -- but this seems to be the first time Sam actually told the whole story. For all intents and purposes Sam Bass the legendary laughing outlaw is dead, for "Slocum" doesn't laugh much anymore, for Eddie was his "heart." Ruth assures him that the long imposture was the right thing to do and okay with her, but that doesn't make the ending any happier. It does, however, end with just the effect Gruber wanted. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Brown Peril

We use the term "Yellow Peril" to describe an indiscriminate fear of Asia, particularly China and Japan, that flourished for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, or to describe archetypal Asian supervillains like Fu Manchu. The color palette of peril turns out to be slightly more subtle than that -- at least when an author imagines Asians' perceptions of each other. Read enough pulp fiction from the World War II period, or immediately before, and you'll notice that the Japanese, especially when opposed by the Chinese, are "brown" at least as often as they're "yellow," however "yellow" they may have seemed, by another measure, after Pearl Harbor. In Walter C. Brown's "Feng Kai and the Battle Dragon," (Short Stories, April 10, 1940), the Chinese protagonists almost invariably refer to the Japanese invaders as "the Brown Men." The story itself belonged to a popular wartime subgenre in which some humble citizen of an invaded country pulls off an improbable coup against a technologically superior enemy. In this case, Feng Kai, "keeper of the Temple of Milo Fo on Dragon Mountain, which is near the village of Lung-chu," avenges his temple and village by singlehandedly sinking a Japanese battleship or "battle dragon," as the fantastical Chinese call the mighty vessel. Brown specialized in Chinese stories, whether set in China or Chinatown, though any claim of his to know the "Oriental mind" probably was as preposterous as the claims made by the white heroes of many such stories. Chinese tales really were fantasies of an alternate, more flamboyantly ruthless lifestyle that re-envisioned everything in purple prose and nonsense names that amounted to a kind of bardic word-jazz that presumably was at least as much fun for authors to write as it was for fans to read. You didn't read them for the laconic kick of the hard-boiled school, but for an opposite thrill of vocabulary. Here's how Feng Kai responds to a report of a one-sided battle.

"Ai-ee!" Feng Kai replied, "It is a tale of sorrowful hearing, but let us not despair. There were also terrible dragons inthe old days, laying waste the whole land with fiery breath before they were conquered and slain by our honorable ancestors. Shall it be said that the Sons of Han have lost their ancient courage?"
The Long Sword veteran laughed bitterly. "Master, how shall men of mere flesh and bone conquer these great iron devil-machines that scoff at blows, and cannot be made to bleed and die? Times  without number did we rush forward, but the Brown Devils fight with chatter-guns that stand on three little iron legs, spitting out death faster than a man can count. The sons of Han were cut down in rows, like blades of rice at the harvesting. The Lung-ho runs red with their blood."

So on and on as Feng Kai tries to negotiate with the occupying commander only to see his village shelled, his temple wrecked. The bonze swears vengeance on the "dragon" or "devil-boat" more than the men manning it and slowly heads for a fateful rendezvous, meeting various helpers along the way, including a barber whom he asks, "Tell me, Man of Razors, how may I enter Shan-tze?" Passing through a coal mine, he ends up with a sack of dynamite that he manages to load on board the battleship with unlikely ease -- and he gets away to build a new temple to Milo Fo in Brown's fairy-tale ending. Before Pearl Harbor there was sometimes a hint of ambivalence in pulp accounts of the Sino-Japanese conflict -- no one ever made the Japanese the good guys, as far as I know, but some portrayed both sides as equally ruthless, and I've read a Spider novel in which a Chinese villain uses the war effort as a pretext for taking over organized crime in New York City -- but there's no question here who the good guys and bad guys are. Brown is bad, yellow good.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

'The Retreat of the Cowardly Gringos'

The 1916 American punitive expedition into Mexico was the Vietnam experience before Vietnam, or at least a preview of it. That's the impression you get from "Salt of the Service" (Adventure, July 1934), credited in print to "A. Dunn" but credited to veteran pulpsmith J. Allen Dunn in the FictionMags Index. Narrated by a soldier dying in France, "Salt" follows Troop G of the Tenth Cavalry on its way out of Mexico, not long after a massacre of U.S. troops by forces loyal to the Mexican president, Venustiano Carranza. American troops entered Mexico in pursuit of Carranza's ally-turned-enemy, Pancho Villa, who had raided a New Mexico town and killed both soldiers and civilians. If Villa's capture or death was the object, the mission was an abject failure, and Dunn describes the pointlessness of it in language that would be familiar to readers forty or fifty years later: "Now they knew that all they had accomplished was to change Mexico's fear into contempt." The troops see signs reading, "The Retreat of the Cowardly Gringos." As with Vietnam, the failure of the Mexican expedition is blamed on American politicians who would not let American soldiers go all out to win. Dunn seems to still carry a grudge against Woodrow Wilson, the president at that time, describing the humiliation of American forces as "the Army's monument to watchful waiting for peace at any price." "Watchful waiting" was Wilson's description of his policy toward both the Mexican unrest and the war that had broken out in Europe in 1914. In both cases, many American critics felt Wilson should have done something more substantial long before he actually did.

The story describes Troop G's encounters with two Mexican officers, the contemptible and treacherous Colonel Pardo and the honorable Captain Garcia. The latter is a Yaqui indian who instantly befriends the company doctor, Captain Edwards, because Edwards' father had been a friend to the Yaquis back when an older Mexican regime was trying to enslave them. In a reversal of the expected formula, the native is the one with "intelligent" eyes and a clean uniform, while the Mexican, Pardo, is "a cognac-bellied, crane-legged half breed" with "pigs' eyes and nose" and a "swine's mouth." Pardo wants to kick the Americans out of his territory as quickly as possible while Garcia, fearlessly defiant if not contemptuous toward his commander, prefers to permit them an honorable withdrawal. Unbeknownst to Garcia, Pardo sends men after dark to murder as many sleeping Americans as possible. They get four before the Americans capture two. The crisis comes when Pardo demands that these two be turned over to him, while the Americans insist on trying them for murder and dealing with them as the verdict dictates. Garcia quickly realizes what's happened and is surprised that the Americans don't simply rout Pardo's men.

"I cannot understand why you do not fight, you and your Army. I see you are brave. I see you wish to avenge your wrongs."
O'Hara said, "We swear loyalty and allegiance to our President -- not to the man but to the office. If we did not obey because we did not like or understand our orders, we would be like Mexico. We would have anarchy and suffering. We cannot break our oaths."
The Yaqui thought. "I am very sorry for you," he told him sincerely.

The lingering resentment of Wilson's policy is unmistakable. As it turns out, Pardo tricks the U.S. government into ordering the troop to turn over the killers, but Garcia detects the trick and resolves the situation by dragging Prado to the American camp and forcing him at machete-point to execute his killers himself. This "saved the spirits of this company," Captain Edwards tells the noble Yaqui. The tale closes on a cynical, foreboding  historical note: "At dawn, Troop G fumbled its way home through Chihuahua's desolation of hill and sand, leaving death behind. In another week it would read of German atrocities in poor defenseless Belgium." Dunn doesn't return to the dying soldier whose reminiscence gave his story its framing device, but that last mention of Europe effectively tells us how that poor man's fate was sealed.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

'You're a shrewd woman, Astarte. You know that I love you?'

Whether of not H. Bedford-Jones was king of the pulps, the superprolific author  pretty much was king of Blue Book until his death in 1949. For the McCall monthly he specialized in series based on some historic theme, published under his own name, or that of his favorite pseudonym Gordon Keyne, or sharing credit with his imaginary friend Captain L. B. Williams. While Bedford-Jones could write in the more direct modern pulp style, immersing the reader immediately into his story, his series stories for Blue Book (he did some for Short Stories as well) revert to an older indirect style in which the narrator encounters some interesting person who then tells or shows the story. This framing device gimmickry was taken to an absurd level in the "Famous Escapes" series (credited to Keyne) in which tales from history are told by a deaf-mute convict -- in sign language translated by the author. The actual stories usually are pretty entertaining as Bedford-Jones ranges across history from ancient to modern times in search of material. "Astarte Sails to War" (the May 1937 cover story) is part of the "Ships and Men" series credited to Bedford-Jones and Williams, whose captaincy presumably gave these stories a whiff of nautical authority. This particular story offers a secret origin for the Phoenician goddess Astarte in the form of a Hollywood screenplay.

In the framing story, the narrator literally bumps into a studio set designer -- with his car -- and takes the luckily uninjured man to the workshop where he's designing ships for Colossal Pictures' epic Astarte movie. Fascinated by the period detail, the narrator accepts an invitation to read the Astarte screenplay. The main story is the narrator's paraphrase of the script. "If you have witnessed that remarkable picture, which I believe was released sometime since, you'll remember the scene," is the segue. The screenplay is premised on the idea that the Phoenician gods were once mortal heroes and heroines. The god Melkarth originally was their prophet as they sailed from Assyria in search of a new home, and his daughter Astarte, later worshiped as a sometime war goddess who often adorned the prows of ships, is an innovative shipbuilder whose lighter vessels will run rings around a hostile Egyptian fleet.  Hollywood, of course, has to add a love triangle to this tale of female empowerment, as Astarte is coveted by Ithobal, her most ambitious captain, but falls for Hiram, her half-Greek assistant designer. Ithobal covets Astarte's power more than her love, really, but jealousy leads him to assassinate Hiram and attempt a coup d'etat which our heroine puts down in proper pulp fashion.

"You're doing, Ithobal!" she aid in slow, still voice. "This is a knife that my father gave you before we left Assyria. You dare not lie!"
"Neither dare nor would," and Ithobal stepped out boldly. "Aye, lady, I slew him. And now listen to me, Astarte! I am not alone --"
Had she let him speak his will, matters would have been different, for he was deep in guile and had a multitude of the host to back his purposes. But none of his friends were here among the captains in the tent. 
Swift as light, Astarte caught a spear from the ground and flung it, and the spear smote Ithobal where neck and arm came together; and he lay dead. She lifted her arms to the stupefied captains.
"You, who took oath to me! Am I your leader or not?"

I especially like the lapse into archaic, almost biblical language, as Ithobal is killed. Bedford-Jones then tries to have it both ways in the epilogue. At the end of the story proper, Astarte gets word that Hiram isn't dead and might survive. The narrator notes that the original screenplay ends with Astarte rushing to Hiram's tent, and admires its ambiguity over whether Hiram will survive, only to note that the finished film had an unambiguous happy ending. Saying he's not dead yet in the first place seems like kind of a cop-out to me, but I suppose Bedford-Jones is trying to make a point about the different ways in which movies and pulp fiction might handle such a situation. It hardly matters, as if you like historical pulp you'll probably enjoy "Astarte Goes to War" without worrying over whether a 1937 Astarte picture would have hit or flopped.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Posse Bait

Of the Fiction House line of western pulps, Lariat seems to have featured the most mature, or at least the most sophisticated stories. It promised "Cowboy-Life Romances," but like many a self-styled romance western (e.g. Ranch Romances or Star Western from the late 1940s on) Lariat's contents were often just as tough or hard-boiled as any non-"romance" title. Some Lariat stories had no romance content whatsoever. The November 1947 issue, for instance, sports a short story by John Jo Carpenter, a journeyman writer who broke into pulp around the time the U.S. entered World War II. "Posse Bait" intrigued me not for its romance elements or lack of them, but for stylistic elements I didn't expect to see in a 1940s pulp. The story itself is pretty simple: three cowboys of poor reputation are warned out of a town and expect a posse to descend upon them at any moment. Along the way, one of the three contrives to eliminate the others, succeeding the first time and failing the second, because he's actually in cahoots with one of the posse. Perhaps because it's so simple, and because Carpenter was being paid by the word, he had time with a short story to experiment a little, putting it most generously, or simply to pad the thing a bit. One of the fugitives is getting "light-headed" and starts to ramble on various subjects, to the irritation of the eventual villain of the piece, who'll use the other man's light-headedness as an excuse to shoot him, claiming that his victim, in his delirium, was going for his own weapon to kill the other two cowboys. This light-headedness allows Carpenter to throw in several paragraphs of grandly irrelevant dialogue, in a departure from pulp's usual expository efficiency. Apropos of very little, the doomed Sammy tells how he came to own the horse he has to shoot.

"I win thirty-six dollars off James Packrat, the Yaqui that tends stable for Dick Sparling," Sammy said, paying no attention to Nemo, "Then I win his horse, that fine little pinto mare he sets such a store by. Then I win his wife's sewing machine, and four dollars she had buried in the sand. Then James didn't have no more to lose, see? And when he went to turn over the stuff to me, he cried with his arms around that pinto's neck, dogged if he didn't. So I said, go bring me some kind of a horse and he could have the pinto back. So he brought me this one. Ain't he a card?"

For Sammy's two companions this is debatable proof that he's going loco, but to me his little digression seems to anticipate the much more digressive style employed in crime fiction by George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard, in which seemingly irrelevant narrative serves to set a mood or create tension as the reader begins to wonder when something will actually happen. In "Posse Bait" Sammy's rambling escalates the tension as Nemo, the villain, grows increasingly impatient with it and the hero by default, Red, wonders whether Sammy is going crazy or not. It's a nicely organic way to pad out a short story and it gives Carpenter's story an unexpectedly modern touch. I'm still working my way through this particular issue, and I still have stuff from tophand writers like H. A. DeRosso and Les Savage Jr. yet to read in it, but this little story from a relatively unknown author sets a pretty decent standard for the rest of the contributors.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'Nothing to be afraid of, anyway. All I need is another drink.'

Guessing from the titles of his stories, it looks like Robert Simpson specialized in tales of Africa. Apart from one 1922 appearance in The Saturday Evening Post, Simpson spent his whole career in the pulps, and mostly in Adventure. "Buried Out" (March 1934) is a misadventure of a British imperialist in Nigeria. Radnor, our protagonist, is on an upriver mission but finds himself abandoned by his "paddleboys" when he fishes a mysterious doll out of the water. With mangrove trees nearby Radnor names his new toy "Old Man Grove," and for all I know that may have been the story's title at one point. Along the way he acquires something like comedy relief in the form of a Sierra Leonean bureaucrat. Gulliver Anthony Dorr is an African version of the archetypal "babu" of India tales, the superficially educated butt of colonial contempt. Describing a more successful brother, Gulliver explains that "Absalom exhibited an adolescent idiosyncrasy to become quite adequately acquainted with the forest primeval." Simpson attempts to explain Gulliver himself, though it's unclear whether this is the author's objective opinion or Rador's prejudiced one.

This individual had been born of simple and well intentioned colored parents in Sierra Leone, who had made the mistake of sending him to the native college there to educate him for better things, with the result that Gulliver Anthony had concentrated principally upon the dictionary....Arrayed in spotless drill, he wore a flowing tie of lavender and orange stripes that made no pretence of matching a polka dot shirt, while about his waist was a cummerbund that was probably cerise in a better light. The hilt of a knife and the butt of a revolver stuck prominently out of the cummerbund, and on his crinkly head Gulliver Anthony sported a wide-brimmed panama that wa sturned up in front and down in back. The ensemble, in a colored revue, would probably have been very successful. Just then, however, the scene was Oagbi Creek at sunset and Radnor was in no humor to see the joke.

Simpson makes a point of emphasizing, however, that Gulliver's brother Absalom, an overseer is "one of the best in the business" and the man who'll actually be teaching Radnor the ropes of his new job should he make it there. This being a pulp story, once Radnor begins to have scary dealings with a powerful witch doctor (who needs to reclaim "Old Man Grove"), I began to suspect that this sinister figure blowing a bugle was probably Absalom Solomon Dorr. The climax is half horror, half humor as a tipsy Radnor gets the scare of his life from the mysterious bugler ("If you blow that damned bugle again, so help me, Hannah, I'll let--you--have--it!") and his legion of "human water snakes" threatening to capsize Radnor's canoe. All ends well, however, as the witch doctor was not A. S. Dorr and G.A Dorr, whom Radnor had beaten up sometime before the story proper began, saves our hero by reaching the British authorities and bringing them to the scene of the action. I inferred from the ending that Simpson may have intended "Buried Out" as the beginning of a series about Radnor and Gulliver, but it proved to be the last story he published. This issue's "Camp Fire" column reports that Simpson had died on January 7, 1934 "following a long and courageous fight that proved unavailing."

Sunday, May 7, 2017


For the past two weeks I've found myself unusually busy and too preoccupied by other reading to give this blog the attention its readers deserve, but I'm just about over the hump now and posts should become more regular shortly. For the moment, and for the sake of getting something pulp-related written, here's an update on my pulp collection.

As readers may know, my pulp interests are mainly in the adventure and western genres. Adventure pulps predominate in my collection, and Argosy predominates among adventure pulps -- though some might label the venerable weekly a general-interest pulp instead. I currently own 29 issues of Argosy, the earliest from 1933 and the latest from 1938, but most from the 1934-5 period I deem the magazine's golden age.

After Argosy the magazine with the most issues in my collection is Blue Book. I have ten of those, the earliest being one of my very first pulp purchases, a 1935 issue, and the latest, two from 1952, acquired at the same time. I own nine issues of Adventure, including the oldest pulp in my collection, a 1928 issue. My most recent Adventure is the March 1948 issue. Rounding out the so-called big four, I have only four issues of Short Stories so far: one from 1938, one from 1944 and two consecutive issues from the summer of 1948, the magazine's last full year on its twice-a-month schedule.

My western collection consists of 22 magazines, including two issues of Dell's digest-format Zane Grey's Western Magazine. I have no special favorite among western pulps; instead, I tend to buy issues with authors I've come to like. The collection includes three issues apiece of Popular Publications' Star Western and Fifteen Western Tales, and two apiece of Dime Western and .44 Western. From the Thrilling Group, latter-day publishers of Ranch Romances, I have one issue apiece of Popular Western, Giant Western and the short-lived Texas Western. From Martin Goodman's pulp empire, the same people who gave you Marvel Comics, I have two issues apiece of Complete Western Book and Western Novel and Short Stories. My only Fiction House pulp is a 1951 issue of Two Western Books, and my only Columbia pulp is a 1955 issue of Real Western. Chronologically, these pulps coincide with the advent of the "adult" western in movies and paperback originals. The Real Western is the latest of all pulps in my collection, while the May 1948 Dime Western, which I've scanned and uploaded to the internet, is the earliest western.

For now, I own no science fiction, detective, horror, air, war, sports or romance pulps.I list these genres in the rough order of likelihood of my acquiring any issues. I own nothing from Street & Smith, though I'll probably try some Western Story issues eventually.

Thanks to my membership in the Yahoo pulpscans group, I own a few hundred scanned pulps that I carry around on my trusty e-reader. At this moment I'm making my way through a 1934 issue of Adventure and a 1947 issue of Lariat, a Fiction House western, and I hope to find time to review some of their contents shortly. For a devoted reader pulpscans is a gift that keeps on giving -- though it's sometimes better to give than receive -- but there's something about reading a physical pulp magazine while holding it in your hands that guarantees that the collection on my shelf will continue to grow as long as I can afford its growth.

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 unz.org.

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 unz.org.