Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Sentimental Sammy was a pagan ..."

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

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

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