Monday, January 30, 2017


During the 1930s, it seemed that when there wasn't a western serial by Ernest Haycox running in Collier's, there was a serial by Alan LeMay. It's LeMay this time, with part VII of Winter Range. Between these two, the National Weekly has to count as one of the top western magazines of the decade. Meanwhile, a near-perfect illustration of the delicate balance of pulp and slick elements in Collier's is this week's story by Hubert Ravenal Sass. He made a fleeting appearance in Adventure early in his career, back in 1912, and he'd appear more frequently in Blue Book in the 1940s and 1950s. His story this time features his "gentleman buccaneer" Captain Africa, which is just about as pulpy a name as you can imagine. The title of the story is "The Love Pirate." It describes his antagonist, a vamp of the seven seas whom he inevitably wins over. It's more romance than adventure, the action described in a somewhat perfunctory way. It looks like there were no more than four stories in the Captain Africa series, which doesn't really live up to the hero's lurid name. A more experienced pulp veteran in this issue is Hugh McNair Kahler, who showed up in many Street & Smith titles in the Teens and early Twenties, especially in Detective Story. By the thirties he was a pure slickster and his serial The Big Pink is pure comedy that need not detain us. There's another western story this issue besides the LeMay serial. The author of "The Man She Trusted," Henry Meade Williams, had not done any pulp work up to that time, or at least not under his own name, but he would place a story in Detective Story the following year. The fiction star of the issue, however, is Damon Runyan of Guys and Dolls fame. He, too, was a pulp veteran, having place a vignette in Blue Book back in 1907, a story in Short Stories later that year, and three in Adventure's first year of existence. From 1930 forward Runyon was mainly a Collier's man, with Cosmopolitan his next most regular market. I doubt the pulp stuff gave much hint of his later characteristic style. From our perspective, the issue's nonfiction highlight might be Grantland Rice's expose of paid players in college football. You may wonder how much has changed since then. As always, you can browse the whole issue at

Sunday, January 29, 2017


The Ace Double edition of The Hand of Zei is a "moderately abridged" version of the "expanded" second half of L. Sprague de Camp's 1950 Astounding Science Fiction serial of the same title. Publishing this as a separate book from the serial's first half, which took the name The Search for Zei, is like what Hollywood does nowadays with books at the end of a series, to squeeze one extra payday out of a tentpole franchise. I'm sure Avalon Books had a similarly mercenary motive for splitting the original into two books, but I wonder why Ace abridged the second half for its reunion volume. Unless Ace had a smaller page limit for its doubles in the 1960s than in the 1950s, there should have been room for something more substantial than the 108 page Hand of Zei we get here, following the 138 page Search. In this abridged form Hand reads nothing like a standalone novel. It's blatantly just a wrap-up of the story started in Search which, as you'll recall from last week, had Earthman Dirk Barnevelt infiltrating the planet Krishna, disguising himself as an uncomfortably prominent native, to retrieve his lost employer, a celebrity explorer who turns out to have become a mind-controlled pirate. Zei is the crown princess of the matriarchy of Qirib, where females maintain control with an aprhodisiac drug now being smuggled throughout the universe. Admirably uncomfortable with the tradition requiring the queen of Qirib to conclude each annual marriage by devouring her husband, Zei is kidnapped by pirates but rescued by Barnevelt.

In Hand the superstitious crew of Dirk's rescue ship abandons Dirk, Zei and one loyal crewman on an island inhabited by carnivorous man-beasts. These promptly kill the loyal crewman while the two survivors escape via a minimalist raft after Dirk distracts the savages by setting a forest fire, for which he is chided later by his human sidekick, the Polynesian-Australian xenologist George Tangaloa. After this episode the title character of both books recedes into the background until the very end while Dirk becomes commander-in-chief of an international naval expedition against the pirates. At this point de Camp formally introduces a much-mentioned character who had first appeared in an earlier Krishna story: Prince Ferrian, his world's great modernizer, who contributes an oar-propelled aircraft carrier, technology having advanced only sporadically under a wide embargo of Earth technology, to the anti-pirate armada. After a hard fight the pirates sue for peace, but Zei's mother the queen proves treacherous, while some of the pirates, many of whom are male refugees from Qirib, prove honorable despite early attempts to assassinate Dirk. Barnevelt, having reclaimed his employer, wraps up his work on Krishna by leading the pirates in a coup d'etat against the Qirib matriarchy, to the relief of Zei, who has inherited the throne and a responsibility to marry and kill a friend. While this uprising promises the replacement of matriarchy with gender equality, I'm sure some modern readers will find something politically incorrect in Dirk's intervention, especially since de Camp shows the defeated amazons happily fraternizing with the occupying pirates. Dirk's reunion with Zei might not have been so happy, since the author has emphasized the incompatibility of species -- Krishnans appear mammalian but lay eggs -- but in a finishing touch reminiscent of many a hoary old melodrama about whites falling in love in the darker regions, it turns out that Zei is not Krishnan but human, having worn fake antennae since infancy after the old queen secretly adopted her to conceal her own disqualifying barrenness. All things end happily, as I suppose they should in these planetary romances. They're meant as light entertainment and often as exercises in stylish erudition, wordplay illustrating the foreignness of distant cultures. Zei is a fine example of this subgenre, and while an Ace Double isn't the ideal way to present the story the format ultimately shouldn't be held against a fun read like this one.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Death is a White Goddess

It made quite an exciting story," Joseph W. Musgrave's novella closes, "the romance of two government agents who fell in love while on a dangerous mission among Congo gun runners." In fact, Musgrave's "Death is a White Goddess" (Short Stories, February 10, 1949) is fairly exciting, but the irony of that closing observation is that Musgrave told the story from the point of view of one of the gun runners. Musgrave wrote only a handful of pulp stories during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but "Goddess" proves him adept at manipulating pulp tropes and expectations. Almost to the end, you expect his narrator to redeem himself and win the leading lady of the piece, but he proves bracingly irredeemable. Dirk Morris has the only boat on an African river, as well as a special relationship with a powerful local chief, and so Tiger Jim Wiley, a has-been celebrity explorer, makes him a partner in a pulpy sort of grift. He's enticed some rich ninny with tales of a white woman raised in the jungle and worshiped as a goddess by the black tribes, and the ninny is paying for an expedition to find her. Dirk's role in the charade is to present the mark with a photo of the goddess in her jungle habitat, as confirmation of Wiley's stories. The picture was posed near Port Nairobi, and the plan is to plant the woman in the photograph, a bar girl who's run away from a stereotypical piggish German, in the wild for the ninny to find. To do this, Wiley needs the chief's permission, which only Dirk can secure. The chief drives a hard bargain for the humiliation his tribe will endure pretending to worship a white woman. He wants a thousand guns, and he has a heap of diamonds to pay for them. Our protagonists become gun runners in short order, buying them from the German and keeping their extra cargo secret from the ninny, a frail fitness buff who seems likely to collapse after one day on safari but does calisthenics the next morning, but not from Wiley's head bearer, who seems too clever to be trustworthy. As things develop, almost everyone in the story is playing a double game, while our gun runners prove themselves Africa's prize saps. All the while you expect Dirk to have a change of heart, but as you near the end you understand that what you might have taken to be Joseph Musgrave's racism as a writer is actually Dirk Morris's vile racism as a character. That's not to say that "Goddess" isn't racist, however. It shows no real knowledge of Africa and a stock witch doctor becomes one of the villains. At the same time, Musgrave invests the long-suffering (and as we learn, doomed) chief with a sense of put-upon honor, and in many small ways he shows that the blacks aren't as stupid as the gun runners assume. It's a very hard-boiled story and the sort of thing you might have seen in paperback rather than pulp at this time, though the revelation of the cynical bar girl as an undercover government agent seems a little too goody-good to be true. It's good enough to make me regret that Musgrave didn't write as much as he did. Check it out for yourself at

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


In a survey of Collier's it seems difficult not to run into Ernest Haycox. This day in 1936 finds the top hand western writer finishing his serial Trail Smoke. The other pulp alumni in this issue are Sidney Herschel Small, whose "Gunpowder Tea"is one in his series about the Bartlett family's adventures in China; Arthur Somers Roche, who appeared in the pulps back in the teens, and Karl Detzer with the short story "Butter for Breakfast." Detzer touched all bases as an author, landing not only in the pulps (where he specialized in firefighting stories) and the slicks (he appeared in The Saturday Evening Post more often than in Collier's) but also in more literary magazines like The North American Review, and as a nonfiction contributor to a wide range of titles. "Butter" is a railroad rather than a fire story, and its essential "slick" character is established in the table of contents, which defines the story as "Romance on Rails." The header on the opening page elaborates on that slightly, calling it "a story which, to be appreciated, should be read in the depths of a comfortable armchair before a nice, roaring wood fire." In part that's because the hero rescues the girl from a snowdrift, but it still gives you an idea of how stories in the slicks served as a different kind of comfort food from pulp stuff. If you're looking for something just slightly more pulpish and exotic, yet with romance still in the forefront, try the Small story. His Collier's stories turned me on to him before I read any of his pulp work. George de Zayas did the cover.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


L. Sprague de Camp's The Hand of Zei, a novel in his Viagens Interplanetarias series, exists in at least three different forms. It first appeared as a four-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction (the present Analog) in 1950. The serial was published as two separate books, the second taking the original title, and each with new material by de Camp, in 1962. The following year, Ace published both, somewhat disingenuously, in one of their popular double novel editions, with Hand "moderately abridged" from the expanded version and Search complete and unabridged. The Viagens stories are set in a 22nd century in which Brazil is the dominant power on Earth and humans are exploring the stars. They feature a cosmopolitan cast of human characters and eccentric aliens. The hero of Zei is Dirk Barnevelt, a Dutch-American writer and publicist for Igor Shtein, a celebrity traveler and explorer. Barnevelt is a type common to postwar literature: a sort of corporate drone longing for adventure yet tied to Mom's apron strings until his employers assign him to hunt for the missing Shtein on the planet Krishna, where an aphrodisiac drug giving women dominance over men is becoming a dangerous export to Earth. Dirk's sidekick for the search is George Tangaloa, a Polynesian xenologist who oddly uses a lot of stock Australian slang ("shiela," "dinkum") in his speech. On Krishna they'll be limited to the planet's approximately 19th-century level technology due to a Viagens embargo, though they carry miniature cameras to shoot footage in secret, and while humans trade on the planet they will disguise themselves as natives, the better to roam more widely than humans might. Impractically, Dirk is given the alias of a famous Nyaman warrior, and his challenge will be to live up to the name's reputation as a swashbuckling strategist. Most of the action takes place in the matriarchy of Qirib, where the queen takes a new husband every year after executing and eating his predecessor. Zei is the heir presumptive of Qirib and happily takes a dim view of the custom, in light of Dirk's growing affection for her. The Search portion of the original novel climaxes with Dirk leading a rescue of Zei, who had been kidnapped by pirates who control the realm's supply of the crucial drug. What happens after, I'll find out next week.

This is the first de Camp novel I've read in decades. Growing up, I knew the author, who first appeared in pulp in 1937,  for his involvement in the paperback editions of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. I read his time-travel story Lest Darkness Fall and some of his collaborations with Fletcher Pratt. None of these really prepared me for Zei. The blurb on the cover compares it to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian stories, but in retrospect the more obvious stylistic comparison is with the work of Jack Vance. Arguably, de Camp had Vance's style before Vance did. It's all there in Zei except for Vance's pseudo-erudite footnotes. The rococo speech patterns of alien characters are definitely there, and that sort of word jazz give Zei much of its entertainment value. De Camp writes action and description well enough, but once he gets his protagonists off his somewhat stodgy, gray-flannel-suit Earth, the novel becomes an exercise in style for its own sake that modern readers will have to take or leave. In this sample, Zei's mother the queen introduces her daughter to our hero.

And now, sirs, to your business. You shall deal, not with me, but with my daughter, the Princess Zei, whom you see sitting upon my left. For within a ten-night comes our yearly festival called kashyo, after which I'll abdicate in favor of my dutiful chick. 'Tis meet, therefore, that she should gain experience in bearing burdens such as sit upon our shoulders, before responsibility in very truth descends upon her. Speak.

And that's a mild sample, with conventional grammar and few archaic usages or neologisms. Try this one, the queen's response to Zei inviting our heroes to a Krishnan version of Chinese Checkers:

Ever a creature of whim. Such an invitation before even their bona fides have been confirmed! Oh, have 'em in, since not without dishonor may we withdraw an invitation once extended. But post a guard over the best royal plate. Perchance they'll prove more guestly than the locals, all of whom are either queer or dull, and oftimes both.

While you might question whether it conveys the truly alien or renders all the universe a vast Ruritania, some find it a pleasure to read, myself included. This much of Zei, at least, is an unapologetic romp to de Camp's tuneful, dancing prose. Come back soon to see how the rest goes.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"I was to be a first Earth meal for the abomination of the Universe!"

Of the so-called big four general-adventure pulps, Argosy published the most science fiction (or "fantastics" as they were often called in the 1930s, while Adventure probably ran the least, if any. Blue Book ran a fair amount, most notably Wylie and Balmer's When Worlds Collide and its sequel but also quite a bit from Nelson Bond and others in the 1940s. Anthony M. Rud was no sci-fi specialist. The onetime editor of Adventure had no specialty that I can see, though he published detective stories about Jigger Masters throughout his career. Rud's "Visitors from Venus" from the October 1937 Blue Book is really more horror than science fiction. It's horror of the "Look how horrified I am!" sort, heavy on not only the exclamation points but also whole paragraphs of italics in case readers might miss the urgency of an alien invasion.

Tom, our narrator, recalls events from the previous year from a converted chicken house in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, on a farm where 1,800 hens died in the events to be narrated, and where Annie Overalls the husky handywoman says, "This land is damned." It was damned by the naivete of Tom's astronomy mentor, Dr. Armstrong, who called him to New England to help unearth a spaceship from Venus that crashed into Ranger Mountain. From his observatory in Arizona Armstrong had been in contact with Venus, and specifically "Ooloo, the highest-powered of six message-sending stations," for several years. It was often a one-way conversation. "They never thank me," he complains, "They always ask more questions. They never answer the questions I ask -- or only partly. I -- well, to be frank, Tom, they have me worried. I fear they have no souls."

Armstrong keeps digging just the same, and as they unearth the vessel a "disintegration mechanism" activated by contact with air breaks down the vehicle's protective shell. A little more foreshadowing is in order. With hindsight, Tom knows that "more than 200,000 loathsome things were waiting down there -- held by a high pressure of indrawn breath, in that queerly constructed cylinder below ground. Waiting to destroy me, the Doctor, Helen, Mrs. Kramer, Annie Overalls, the half-witted Ranny and every other human being and living thing on the face of Mother Earth!" (emphasis in original)

The Venusians are sort of freeze dried until released, then forming "floating amber-colored balloons" that quickly turn predatory, attacking en masse and smothering people before settling down for dinner. "Oh, God, i was insane then for a time myself!" Tom recalls, "Those damned things were alive! They had big spots like bull's-eyes, that stared unwinkingly at me! Seven eyes apiece! I shrieked and tried to run."

Armstrong is killed and Annie Overalls scarred by the aliens, but like any proper monster they prove vulnerable to fire, as Tom discovers when he reaches desperately for a cigarette lighter as his only tool of defense. If that didn't work, "I was to be a first Earth meal for the abomination of the Universe!" Instead, some other unfortunates are the first meal before Tom can get a big enough fire going to wipe out the invaders. Later, he learns, Armstrong's old correspondents from Ooloo threw a hissy fit over what happened and informed the doctor's assistant in Arizona that they won't talk to Earth any more. I think the assistant was going to kill himself anyway to close the story, after what had happened to Earth, but that couldn't have helped much. In the end, "Visitors" is no more than an exercise in hysteria that looks cheesily out of place in the relatively upscale pulp confines of Blue Book. In fact, it was advertised on the cover, presumably because Rud had some prestige with pulp readers. And to be fair, I've read some Rud stories that I've liked. But "Visitors" is the sort of story that gave pulp a bad name.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Ernest Haycox was an old Collier's hand by this point, and part eight of his ten-part serial Alder Gulch isn't exactly an event unto itself. But this issue features the one and only appearance in Collier's of Gordon MacCreagh.  A pulp veteran who'd been landing stories in Adventure since 1913, MacCreagh specialized in African stories, though not exclusively, and walked the walk by going on an expedition to Ethiopia for Adventure in 1927. He got a break in 1935 when Italy's invasion of Ethiopia made his expertise newsworthy. MacCreagh published a profile of Haile Selassie for The Saturday Evening Post and sold two more stories to that slickest of slicks the following year. "A Stone in a Sling" almost certainly was written and accepted for publication before Pearl Harbor. It's set in Qantara, a town at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula with strategic importance for the British Empire's war effort. MacCreagh gives us three protagonists: Prudence, a pretty young missionary teacher; "Dingo" Menges, a somewhat ineffectual Australian lieutenant; and Dawud ben Yessieh, a Bedouin boy whose name transliterates, as we're informed in the story's first sentence, as "David son of Jesse." The boy is good with a sling and is getting paid for target practice by his "uncle," a blue-eyed Tuareg from Libya who keeps most of his face veiled.

As MacCreagh explains, "since all good Mohammedans are brothers in Islam, Arab courtesy, imposed upon a boy more strictly than ever teacher imposed a moral precept, designated as uncle any stranger of the faith who sojourned within their tents." Of course, for the 1942 reader "uncle's" blue eyes are the tip-off that the man isn't a Tuareg or Berber at all, but a German whose Arabic is presumably fluent enough to fool all the Arabs in Qantara, with the help of the veil. He has an idea to sabotage Suez Canal traffic by training Dawud to put a sling shot through a ventilator hole of a transport ship, the boy not knowing that the shot is explosive.

Since we're in the slicks a romance plot is important to the story. Prudence has an unspoken crush on Dingo, and Dawud tries to help her out by stealing an "incantation" from his "uncle." The uncle calls his papers incantations, and Dawud notices that the writing resembles the Latin script Prudence keeps trying to teach him. When the boy presents her with one of the incantations, which will supposedly grant her soul's desire, Prudence recognizes the writing as German and the contents as details of a cargo scheduled to go through the Canal. Racing to find Dawud and his "uncle," she manages to distract the boy at the last moment before he lets his lethal shot fly. It still makes a "hell's fury" of flame on the deck, but it won't sink the ship. Dingo only gets himself shot by the Kraut, and Prudence gets herself clobbered trying to save him while the enemy lapses into vaudeville German ("Joost so your devil's woman don't schoot  at me yet, I leaf no weapon."), so it's up to Dawud to save the day, Old Testament style.

Besides this and the Haycox chapter, you also get one of William MacHarg's laconic O'Malley mysteries, an optimistic account of the Air Force's performance in the Philippines so far, a still more optimistic account of American scientists gearing up for war service, a less optimistic account of the Japanese sinking of two British battleships, a report on West Coast wartime measures ("residents displayed no bitterness toward Coast Japanese...") and a warning against Axis-inspired rumors, the "fake news" of the day, as well as one of Arthur Szyk's distinctively grotesque anti-Axis covers. Browse at your leisure by following this link.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Dan Cushman made his first sale to Fiction House in 1940, but it didn't see print until a 1943 issue of North-West Romances. The Fiction House pulps remained his most dependable market throughout the 1940s, though he broke into the slicks early with a 1945 Esquire story. If Cushman is known today it's for his westerns, including the modern-day Indian story Stay Away, Joe, which was his biggest success. That novel became a Book of the Month Club selection, a Broadway musical, and an Elvis Presley film reputed to be among his worst. Cushman lived to see it widely repudiated for its supposed patronizing attitude toward its subjects. While the western was his main genre, Cushman also became a mainstay of Fiction House's Jungle Stories, and Altus Press has collected his Armless O'Neil stories for that magazine. As the pulps died and paperback originals flourished Cushman continued to write exotic tales of Africa and the South Seas, including a 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal novel that barely merits a mention in Brent D. McCann's master's-thesis biography of the author. McCann -- and, presumably, Cushman himself, whom McCann interviewed extensively -- dismissed The Forbidden Land as "light" fiction, and that's probably being generous. I've read some good Cushman western stories, including one of his Pecos Kid tales for the short-lived Popular Publications pulp of that name, but he pretty much phoned in Forbidden Land.

Cushman wrote his exotics with little or no first-hand experience of their settings, and while the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya is mentioned, and a "Maji-Maji" menace dating back to early 20th century Tanzania is invoked on the back cover, Forbidden Land really isn't about Africa at all. Africa serves the purpose it did most of the time in Jungle Stories, as a lawless, amoral setting for black savagery or white depravity, depending on the author. Cushman opts for white depravity. At first Forbidden Land reads like something more conventional. Our protagonist, Ray Blades, deals in contraband ivory and guns for the Maji-Maji, but the novel quickly stops being about smuggling and native uprisings once Blades is mistaken for an old acquaintance, Fenton, who is involved in a bizarre conspiracy. Someone got the brilliant idea to turn part of Mozambique into South Israel, hoping to make money off Jewish settlers who found Palestine too crowded, violent, or morally troubling a place to make homes in. The plan quickly went south, with the original pioneers and investors held as hostages by "Lutgow, the most feared and hated man in all of Africa." Lutgow is German by birth but was raised by an English stepfather after World War I. He talks in a vaguely Germanic sentence structure but we're told that he only knows about 200 words of his native language. He runs a big plantation in Mozambique but his main profession seems to be mad scientist.

He captured this gorilla in the cold forest and the natives hauled him down in a cage on rollers. It took them two weeks. Then, in secret, behind a stockade, Lutgow tried to interest that beast in a native girl. But the beast struck her and killed her. It's hard to excuse a thing like that, except he did it for science. He had some theory about the Neanderthal man....Not to work his fields did he sacrifie this poor native girl. But to prove that a species could be evolved backward as well as forward, A super race, yes! A race with not only intelligence, but the bodies and physical strength to go with it.

Keep up, please: we achieve a super race by evolving man backward. Lutgow exemplifies this himself by building up his body to match his super genius, proving his strength by killing men with his bare hands. It looks like Cushman only interested himself in the story by cultivating a creepy homoerotic environment in Lutgow's compound. One of the villain's flunkies is Avalos "a large, smooth, handsome young man, a Turk perhaps, or a Turk-Levantine....He had a fine body, well-displayed by his sheer shirt and trousers, but he had a small, womanish mouth. In a way he reminded Blades of a picture he had seen in the Illustrated London News of the man who had just won the title of Mr. America." Inevitably Blades has to slug this perfumed fellow, and Lutgow recognizes him ultimately as a worthy adversary -- worthy of bare-handed combat to the death -- because only he had stood up to Avalos. "What a man you are!" the villain exclaims. The novel's climax is the inevitable single combat between Blades and Lutgow, but Cushman denies us the pulpy satisfaction of the hero breaking the villain with his hands. Instead, he has Blades prove his dominance by commanding one of Lutgow's servants to finish off his wounded master. Then he gets the girl, the daughter of one of the captive Jews whose husband was one of Lutgow's flunkies. It's 152 pages long and the first couple of chapters are total waste, as if Cushman started with one story in mind but got tired of it. The prose is mostly lifeless, the descriptions dull, and it has only the peculiar features I've mentioned to recommend it, if that's the word. I have a Cushman western on my reading list for later this year, and I feel certain it will be better than this. It would be hard not to be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


This wartime issue of the National Weekly is part of my personal collection but, alas, Collier's is too big for my scanner and I can't share its full-color glory with you. Long ago when I bought it, the fact that it had stories by Sax Rohmer and Ernest Haycox didn't really matter to me. Now they enhance its value. Writing for the slicks, Haycox could produce stories entirely without action, like this issue's "Tavern at Powell's Ferry." It's a sentimental tale about a daughter taking leave of her father, and a suitor her younger sister covets, to join a traveling show. It's told from the father's point of view as he progresses from anxious suspicion to recognition that she's truly her father's daughter in her restless spirit. Haycox wasn't just a western writer but a good writer, period, so this is an effective short story of its kind. Rohmer's "The Mark of Maat" is written in that dated style I identify with the generation before Rohmer, in which we're put at a remove from the events of the story by a narrator whose telling of the story is part of Rohmer's story. Apart from a few wartime references it could have been written twenty years before. Two Brits in Egypt are rivals for a pretty nurse; one survives a plane crash and one does not -- but is the first one telling the truth? The nurse insists on the test of Maat, ancient goddess of truth, in an unearthed chamber sacred to the old cult. While Rohmer and Haycox are big names for us, you can see from the cover that the star fiction contributor this issue is Damon Runyon, author of the "Guys and Dolls" cycle of stories about lovable hustlers and their peculiar speech patterns. The intro to his "A Light in France" identifies Runyon as "the man who, singlehanded, rearranged the English language." If you've seen the Guys and Dolls movie you have some idea of what they mean. It's all a little cute for someone with more hard-boiled tastes, but the virtue of a magazine like Collier's was that there was something for nearly everybody in any given issue. Given the period, this issue has a lot of cool war correspondence, including a look at Iran's role in the war, and some amazing advertising art that isn't done justice by's black and white scan. With that caveat in mind, you can browse through this issue by following this link.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"I make a specialty of getting up;" Robert E. Howard's Steve Costigan

Robert E. Howard's Conan stories were probably the first true pulp fiction I read, and for a while Conan defined pulp for me. I was a big sword and sorcery fan in high school, but only occasionally dabbled in Howard's other genres. The recent illustrated Del Rey editions of Howard's collected works got me interested in a wider range of his work. Unfortunately, Del Rey never put together a volume of Howard's boxing stories, though the University of Nebraska's Bison Press did. The two Del Rey sampler volumes had representative boxing works, but it took me 99 cents, the cost of a cheapo e-book, to go the distance with Howard's fistic fiction. I now rank Sailor Steve Costigan as one of my favorite Howard characters, and I'd argue that he's exceptional among Howard heroes for a certain modesty, if not also a certain masochism. His stories are also pretty funny for pulp fiction.

Costigan is a heavyweight by the standards of his time, standing an even six feet and weighing in at a consistent 190 pounds. He's the champion of his ship, the Sea Girl, and a more or less uncrowned champion of the Pacific Ocean, but he'll never be more than that. Steve knows his limitations, admitting at least once that the more scientific heavyweights in big-time professional boxing could beat him, though on any given day, as Howard often shows, Costigan can outslug or at least outlast the top fighters. You can infer that Costigan might be limited as a championship contender by the time limits of sanctioned fights. Ten or fifteen rounds might not be enough time to wear down the better opponents, though Steve often rises to the occasion when the plot imposes a time limit on him. In his own milieu, Costigan fights are ferocious battles of attrition. Howard excels at finding new ways to describe -- or more correctly, to have Costigan describe -- the punishment he endures from opponents both brutal and skillful. Here's a sample from the story I've read most recently, "The Slugger's Game" (1934).

 Jerusha! It wasn't like being hit by a human being. I felt like a fire-works factory hadst exploded in my skull. I seen comets and meteors and sky-rockets, and somebody was trying to count the stars as they flew past. Then things cleared up a little bit, and I realized it was the referee which was counting, and he was counting over me. I was on my belly on the resin, and bells seemed to be ringing all over the house. I could'st hardly hear the referee for 'em, but he said, 'Nine!' so I riz. That's a habit of mine. I make a specialty of getting up. I have got up off the floor of rings from Galveston to Shanghai.

If other Howard stories are fantasies of overwhelming strength, the Costigan tales may be Howard paying himself back by imagining himself on the receiving end of terrific beatings, albeit with a redeeming good humor. There's definitely a better balance of humor and violence with these tales than in Howard's comic westerns, for instance.

Sailor Steve narrates his own adventures in conversational, often ungrammatical style (see also Frank Richardson Pierce's No-Shirt McGee) that might put you in mind of Popeye, who first appeared in the Thimble Theater comic strip a few months before Costigan's 1929 debut in Fiction House's Fight Stories. Some Costigan stories are written in a different style (e.g. 1931's "The Sign of the Snake"), but that's because they weren't written as Costigans, but were changed by editors to feature the more recognizable name. Costigan often ends up in fights indirectly, sometimes manipulated into them, sometimes needing to fight to raise quick money. Steve is a sucker for smooth talk, especially from femmes fatales playing on his sympathies. But his fists get him out of every predicament, or else the fangs of his beloved bulldog Mike, who can put a gorilla on the run, do the trick. Costigan battles fighters of all races, though Howard misses the opportunity, due to western ignorance of Chinese martial arts up to a very late point, to have Sailor Steve go up against a kung fu master. Howard's treatment of Asia is typical for Thirties pulp, which means he meets Asians of all types, some good, some bad, probably all stereotyped in some way or another but not as badly as they could be. The fact that Costigan is something of a knucklehead himself mitigates Howard's portrayal of other races somewhat, and he can be appreciated as an Ugly American running amok in the Pacific without really doing any harm to anyone who doesn't deserve it. The Costigan stories -- Howard wrote more about Sailor Steve, I'm told, than about any character other than Conan -- are too good natured for anyone to hold a grudge against them, and for all their violence their good nature might make them among Howard's most accessible adventures. They're definitely among his most underrated and entertaining.

Monday, January 9, 2017


It was probably a rare issue of Collier's that did not have any graduate of the pulps contributing fiction to it. This particular issue features one of the magazine's most popular pulp graduates, Ernest Haycox, continuing his serial Deep West, which would be published in hardcover later in 1937. Other erstwhile pulpsters include Edmund Ware and William MacHarg, the latter continuing his amusing series about the laconic big-city police detective O'Malley. My focus is on Sidney Herschel Small's "The Starry Flag." Small had gotten a story published in The Saturday Evening Post back in 1928 but did not break into Collier's until 1932. The National Weekly soon became his main market. For the next few years he continued to publish in pulps regularly, mostly in Adventure and Detective Fiction Weekly, the latter featuring his Jimmy Wentworth series of Chinatown detective stories. His last Wentworth story appeared in a May 1936 issue of DFW. From then until the outbreak of World War II he stuck with the slicks except for an occasional sale to Blue Book. "The Starry Flag" (the title is taken from the marching song, "Underneath the Starry Flag/Civilize them with a Krag") wraps up a cycle of Collier's stories about several generations of the Bartlett family, missionaries, merchants and engineers in China. Each male Bartlett is destined to marry a "strange woman," and Richard Bartlett finds his in a besieged compound during the Boxer Rebellion, when the protagonists sees the work of family across the generations destroyed. A last-minute rescue by an international army doesn't really dispel a tone of despairing resignation to the fact that China never wanted foreigners, but love inspires our hero to persevere. Small specialized in East-meets-West stories like these, inevitably stereotypical but rarely in a blatant yellow-peril way. "Starry Flag" is probably the pulpiest piece in this particular issue, and Small eventually would return to pulps in a big way with his Koropak series in Adventure about an American spy in wartime Japan. After the war he was mainly a Post man until his death in 1958. You can browse the entire issue at

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Fifteen Western Tales was one of Popular Publication's most tenacious pulp titles. That title was always a little deceptive, since non-fiction features and monthly department counted toward the 15-tale total. It began as a bimonthly in 1941 and was promoted to monthly late in 1945. It was one of the last pulps to run serials. Its very last multi-part story was a two-parter by L. P. Holmes that begins in this June 1950 issue. Fifteen resumed a bimonthly schedule in 1951. When Popular shut down its pulp line in the summer of 1954, it kept Fifteen alive, converting it to magazine format as it had done with Adventure the previous year. In that format, it lasted, still bimonthly, to the end of 1955. The effort to keep it alive suggests that Fifteen must have been one of the company's most popular titles, if not its most popular western. The promise of quantity probably had something to do with that, as the similar continuation of Fifteen Detective Stories suggests.

I'll be reviewing more stories from June 1950 but I'll start off with a short story in mid-issue. It's the first first-person story I've read from George C. Appell, narrated in the semi-literate style meant to evoke someone telling a story rather than writing it. "I come awake fast and clawed for my gun, but she was gone," it opens. Our narrator has been caught by surprise by a cattle rustler, one of two. The first, Steckfus, is a mean character, but the other, Side, is someone the narrator "could take to." A friendlier sort, Side doesn't carry a gun, earning his nickname by riding side-hung. Still, they're rustlers both, and once the narrator says, "They gave me the play" you can anticipate the finish. He's either a marshal, a deputy or a range detective, pretending to be a drifter, probably in the hope of meeting these very men. Recruited by Side, he sticks with the pair to find out where they're stashing cattle, and along the way Side rescues him from a stampeding herd. Side wants out of rustling and plans of opening an equipment store and marrying a girl. He's the sort of sympathetic outlaw you perhaps were seeing more often in these latter days of pulp, and the hints of the narrator's true mission make his admissions of friendship for Red ominously poignant.  Finally the rustlers get caught in an ambush the narrator apparently didn't anticipate, since he has to run for his life with the other two. Side doesn't make it while Steckfus saves himself. The narrator tracks Steckfus down to his lair and, ever honorable, gives Steckfus a chance to draw, "somethin' he never gave Side." He has no interest in taking Steckfus alive because "You can't save the life of the man who ran out on your friend." This short story (6.5 pages) closes on a note of regret. "I'll miss him sorely," the narrator says, reminding us again that pulp fiction wasn't always a matter of black and white.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Frank O'Rourke started in the slicks, as far as we can tell, publishing his first story in Collier's in 1945. He became a regular there and in The Saturday Evening Post, and also appeared in Fifties post-pulp publications like Argosy and Bluebook. O'Rourke worked in a variety of his genres but his westerns are probably his most noteworthy writings. If Henry King's film The Bravados (1958) is faithful to O'Rourke's source novel then I want to read that book. Richard Brooks' The Professionals (1966) was also made from a O'Rourke novel.

The Big Fifty is an end-of-the-west story, though the year is only 1878. That's the end for the old buffalo hunters, who've seen the great herds hunted nearly to oblivion. Some hunters have resorted to hide-stealing, and that's where True Benton comes in. I hope that's True for "Truman," but O'Rourke never says so. Benton's been hired by Colonel DeLight (almost invariably "Old Colonel DeLight") to find evidence that the Colonel's son was killed by the arch hide-thief Jan Schmidt. In other words, Big Fifty is a tried-and-true infiltration story in which Benton must win Schmidt's confidence while setting him up for Old Colonel DeLight's vengeance. Fortunately it's more than that.

As you might expect from an end-of-the-west story, Big Fifty is more a mood piece than anything else. The tone grows more melancholy as we read along, as Benton comes to like if not admire Schmidt, a charismatic, somewhat honorable villain who is himself conscious of the imminent end of things. As we come to understand, Schmidt has really been playing out his string ever since the end of the Civil War; part of him has been dead for all that time, and he keeps that part buried in a set of sealed boxes he carries with him. Benton learns that Schmidt is not personally guilty of the murder of Old Colonel DeLight's son, but he's inescapably responsible, having given an order to rough up the young man that was carried out overzealously. Benton still feels it his duty to steer Schmidt toward a reckoning, but he doesn't feel good about it. No one really feels good in this story. The novel's romantic quadrangle -- I'm starting to notice this is a fairly common story structure -- does little to lighten to mood. Benton and Old Colonel DeLight's right-hand man Lance McGowan seem destined to be rivals for Celia DeLight, the colonel's daughter, but then we see Lance gradually fall for Schmidt's henchwoman (and lover?) Emma Lu Boudreau as Celia warms to True. Our female leads grow increasingly gloomy as Emma becomes more certain of Schmidt's doom and Celia fears for her father's rapidly declining health. Old Colonel's desire for revenge on Schmidt only seems to be hastening his end. and it becomes a question whether he'll live to see Schmidt caught in Benton's elaborate trap.

As it turns out, Schmidt gets to make a dramatic last stand, confronting the betrayer he thought a friend while keeping his back to an impatient McGowan, poised to act as Old Colonel DeLight's executioner. And Old Colonel lives long enough to hear the news, at least. And I suppose it's a happy ending because True and Lance look to get their girls, but under the circumstances it's one of the most gloriously miserable happy endings you'll ever read. I appreciate that, though, because it gives Big Fifty character. It's not the most action-packed western but O'Rourke's emphasis on character and mood keep you from missing that. I'm willing to read more O'Rourke after this, and fortunately there's plenty more to read.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Red Wolf of Arabia meets the Assassins of Angora

William J. Makin created Paul Rodgers, the "Red Wolf of Arabia," in 1932 for Pearson's, a British magazine. The American monthly pulp Blue Book eventually became the character's home, while also publishing Makin's series about gypsy detective Isaac Heron. With a name like the Red Wolf, you might expect Rodgers to be a warrior out of Robert E. Howard, but his are more suspense than action stories.

"The Assassins of Angora" (October 1937) begins in Aleppo, the accursed city of 2016, where Rodgers is waiting for a train to Angora, now known as Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Kemal Ataturk, a modernizer and secularist, still rules the republic as an effective dictator following his abolition of the caliphate. The Red Wolf's mission is to join European diplomats in Angora, where a treaty will be signed allowing Turkey to fortify the Dardanelles for the first time since World War I, and to copy the fortification plans for British Intelligence. Boarding the Taurus Express in Aleppo, Rodgers notices three Syrians bringing aboard crates of oranges, and nabs one for a snack. He tries to be sociable with the other real passenger, an aloof "Levantine" schoolmistress with remarkable hands.

They had stretched out for a serviette and revealed long, tapering fingers, beautiful in their slimness, the nails slightly tinted. The fingers of a genius. Or a murderer.

In Angora, Rodgers notices that the three Syrians commute regularly from Aleppo, always with fresh loads of oranges for the school where Lilo Alaya teaches. In a shop he meets one of the country's last eunuchs, "a queer, dying race of history," and finds a photo of Latifa Hanum, Ataturk's ex-wife, which looks oddly familiar to him. He meets Ataturk himself at a jazz party and informs him of something Makin has withheld from readers until now: the Syrians' oranges are hollow and contain gun cartridges, as our hero found out when he bit into his stolen fruit on the train. Rodgers has also deduced that the orange baskets have false bottoms enabling the Syrians to smuggle pistols into Angora. Lilo Alaya's school for modern Turkish girls is the center of some sort of feminist coup plot to avenge Latifa Hanum by killing Ataturk. Many of the student conspirators are at the party, and Ataturk quickly makes arrangements to have them discreetly arrested. When he returns, the Red Wolf brazenly announces that he has stolen the fortification plans from Ataturk's safe. He assures the dictator, however, that "the knowledge of these fortifications will be safer in the files of the British Intelligence than in the files of any other nation," and promises on his government's behalf that the British "favor the fortification as a defense of Turkey against more ambitious nations." Reassured and impressed by Rodgers' courage, Ataturk takes the plans from the safe and asks the Red Wolf to make a closer appraisal for him. As we learn at the end, Rodgers now sees the plans for the first time, having bluffed Ataturk after failing to crack the safe. He uses a micro-camera to snap pictures while studying the plans. Leaving the party, he finds that Lilo Alaya has killed herself. It's a little poignant now to read a story from eighty years ago of intrigue reaching from Syria to Turkey in which Islam figures not at all, in which a modernizing secularist is challenged by a faction that doesn't consider him progressive enough.

Makin continued publishing Red Wolf stories until 1940. A final story appeared in the November 1944 Blue Book, along with an obituary noting the author's death in action while working as a war correspondent in France that summer.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Introducing COLLIER'S

Collier's (1888-1957) was the great rival of The Saturday Evening Post among large-sized general interest magazines printed on slick paper with color illustrations. Known at the turn of the 20th century for its muckraking exposes of American business and politics, Collier's ("The National Weekly") soon would become a genre-fiction trailblazer as the American home of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Starting in 1927, when Zane Grey became a regular contributor, Collier's attracted many of the top western writers of the day, most notably Alan LeMay and Ernest Haycox, as they graduated from the pulp ranks. Pick up any given issue of Collier's and you're likely to find someone who'd risen from the pulps or was still publishing there. The slicks were a different kind of market, of course, and it was often assumed that pulp veterans would tone down their work in deference to female readers. I've read some rather violent Collier's stories that belie that assumption, but it's indisputable that some pulp masters, e.g. Frederick Nebel, often neutered themselves in the name of respectability. Of course, many Collier's stories will seem no less politically incorrect in their stereotypes and prejudices than pulp tales, and in Roark Bradford they had a specialist in popular fiction's most retroactively embarrassing genre, comic tales about black people in which the characters talk in cartoon dialect. Many Collier's stories became movies, the short story format being perhaps the ideal raw material for Hollywood screenwriters, though the magazine's serials also proved movie-ready, very late examples including Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers from 1954 and  Fred Gipson's Old Yeller from 1956. The best-known short-story movie source is probably Haycox's "Stage to Lordsburg," the basis of John Ford's Stagecoach, which appeared in the same April 10, 1937 issue as Hagar Wilde's "Bringing Up Baby," the source of Howard Hawks' screwball comedy classic. That same issue has short stories by pulp stars Harold Lamb and Sidney Herschel Small, and the opening installment of a Max Brand serial. That's what I'm talking about.

When I discovered the trove of magazine scans I pounced on Collier's first. I have a handful of issue in my own collection, bought decades ago when probably every town had a used book store where you could buy these, or the Post, or Life and Look, for a dollar an issue. I loved these old magazines as much for their advertisements -- they transported you back to another time, just before my own, perhaps more effectively than anything else -- as the articles, and I confess that back then I didn't care that much for the fiction in Collier's or the Post. By my old standards the unz Collier's collection is terribly disappointing, because all the interior pages were scanned in black and white. But by this time I'd read through many of the pulp stories in the massive Black Lizard Big Book collections, and I was thrilled to find similar stuff in the National Weekly. I hope to share that sense of discovery with readers of True Pulp Fiction through this new regular (though not daily) feature, in which we follow the fortunes of pulp writers in one of the great American magazines.

For example, on this day in Collier's in 1932, Sax Rohmer gets star billing. "The Turkish Yataghan" is a Rohmer rarity: a Nayland Smith story in which Fu Manchu's nemesis has something else to do besides thwarting the devil doctor. Apparently Rohmer wrote only three such stories in his long career, but that isn't really surprising, since most readers, presumably, were more interested in the bad guy.

Rohmer technically isn't a pulp writer but Alan LeMay and Albert Richard Wetjen were. LeMay, the future author of The Searchers, broke into Collier's in 1929. He was still publishing in pulp in 1932, though he would adopt the pseudonym Alan M. Emley lest he dilute his brand by appearing too much there. LeMay had graduated to Collier's serials in 1931. Winter Range, beginning back on December 19, 1931, was his second. Wetjen, an Australian sea story specialist, broke into pulp in 1922 and had been appearing in Collier's since 1923. In pulp Wetjen specialized in violent stories of tough sea captains. He created one such for Collier's, and Wallaby Jim eventually made it to the movies, but Wetjen provided Collier's with a somewhat wider range of stories, usually focusing on clashing personalities under adversity. Along with Sidney Herschel Small, Wetjen is one of my favorite writers discovered through Collier's, and you'll probably see a lot of him in this feature, starting with this issue's "Masters of the Craft."

For trivia's sake, this issue continues a serial biography of Josef Stalin by Lev Nussimbaum writing under the pseudonym Essad Bey and a profile by John B. Kennedy of Edward G. Robinson, who had hit big in Little Caesar the previous year. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice makes some predictions for 1932 and an editorial predicts, in the midst of Depression, that "good times are actually close at hand."It was certainly nice to think so.