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.

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 unz.org.

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 unz.org 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 unz.org, 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 unz.org 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.