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.