Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Violent World of RANCH ROMANCES

While Analog, a digest-sized magazine formerly known as Astounding Science Fiction, might fairly claim to be the last of the pulps, in a technical sense of the word that designation is usually reserved for a modest-sounding magazine called Ranch Romances. With apologies to Analog, Ranch Romance's record really is astounding. The pulp era ended in the 1950s, with most titles folding while a few (like Astounding) switched to a snazzier digest format. Ranch Romances, launched in 1924, continued until 1971. It was a reprints-only quarterly in its dotage, but it had continued to publish original fiction deep into the 1960s. When most pulps diminished in frequency to bimonthly or quarterly during the Fifties, Ranch Romances maintained a biweekly schedule until 1958.  But who cares about a romance pulp, right? Romance pulps are the bottom of posterity's barrel, offering none of the blood or thunder that defined pulp historically, or so we presume. But don't judge a pulp by its title. Take a look instead at the Ranch Romances collection at unz.org. It's a small sample of eleven issues, but most of them, fortunately, are from the 1950s when the Thrilling group published the magazine. I can't vouch for what it was like before Thrilling took over, but this is what it looked like in the summer of 1953.

Nothin' says lovin' like gun-totin' wimmen. I don't know whether she's protecting that poor man or is just pausing before moving on to her next target. This cover is taken from the limited unz sample, but I could have taken almost any of unz's 1950s issues to make the same point, and they're pretty typical of the magazine throughout this era. Ranch Romances would have been all over The Pulp Calendar if it hadn't dated itself by "First August Number," etc. instead of using actual dates. So who's the primary audience for such stuff? The key to Ranch Romances' success probably was that it appealed to both sexes; to women who enjoyed just plain romance and/or the female empowerment promised on the covers; to men turned on by the action and/or the female empowerment promised on the covers.

Did the stories inside live up to the covers? I'll be taking a survey of the unz Ranch Romances holdings to find out, but the first story up for examination gives its heroine a handicap that keeps her from playing a dominant role like the cover lady does, but doesn't exactly leaver her helpless.

The heroine of W. J. Reynolds' "Devil's Notch" (First August Number, 1953) is discovered by Sheriff John Bolton sitting on a rock with a busted ankle. It's a self-inflicted injury, inflicted at the insistence of her outlaw step-brother, on the assumption that the sheriff, a chivalrous gentleman, will take her somewhere to be treated before resuming his pursuit. Not satisfied with Lily Conway's handiwork, Kid Permain went to work on her ankle himself with a rock. And just to be sure that the sheriff will be distracted, the Kid sets some fires to draw Indians down on Bolton and the girl. Once the sheriff realizes that Lily's not Permain's girlfriend, he thinks he may have a chance with her, if he can treat her ankle before she dies of blood poisoning. This story's idea of a bonding experience is his treatment of her swollen ankle with hot towels soaked in boiling water. She shows character by biting her lips after the first scream, in keeping with her stoic demeanor when Bolton first found her.

Eventually they cross paths with Permain, pursued by Indians. Handicapped by her ankle, Lily gets jumped by the outlaw while trying to hold him off with a pistol. "Permain yelled triumphantly, with the meaty sound of a fist meeting soft flesh," but Lily's not out for the count. As Bolton turns his attention to Permain and drops his revolver, fearing for the girl, the girl beans her step-brother with a rock. "She threw the fist-sized missile hard, as a man would throw it," Reynolds writes approvingly. A half-page fistfight ensues between outlaw and sheriff, until Permain dives for a gun on the ground and Lily throws another to Bolton. Bang bang bang bang. After the smoke clears, we get a standard romantic finish. How standard is it? I mean no reflection on W. J. Reynolds, from whom I'd read nothing before, but the fact is, there's little to distinguish "Devil's Notch" from stories that might appear in the other western titles Thrilling published in 1953, right down to the romantic finish. It may have been that most authors always had an eye on Ranch Romances as a market, or that most authors had their eye on a female readership that didn't buy just western romance pulps -- though there certainly were plenty of those to choose from back then. I expect to find some stories, and more likely the longer novelettes that are heavier on the love stuff, but fans of just plain westerns probably needn't be scared off by the Ranch Romances name. Trust what those covers show you, I dare say.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


John Jakes, who turns 85 this year, is one of the last-surviving writers to appear in an actual pulp magazine, if not the last living western pulp writer. He broke in while still a teenager and was successful enough to have his name mentioned on some magazine covers. Yet when he remade himself into a historical novelist at the end of the pulp era, he was told that his name was to bland for the genre. Little did that editor know that John Jakes would become one of the most successful brand names in historical fiction during the 1970s. In the 1960s, we got "Jay Scotland." One of his subjects was the last days of piracy in Jamaica in the early 18th century. This happens to be the subject matter of one of my favorite current TV shows, the Starz series Black Sails, now in the middle of its final season. The gimmick of Black Sails is that the historical pirates of Nassau interact with characters invented by Robert Louis Stevenson, making he pirate saga a prequel to his beloved novel Treasure Island. It takes creative license with the historical characters on the premise that their careers would be altered by the interventions of both the Stevenson characters and entirely original characters invented for the show. For instance, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach has just made his exit, but instead of going down fighting, as is understood to have been the actual case, he is captured, along with fellow historical figures Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, and is put to death by keel-hauling on the direct order of real-life pirate nemesis Woodes Rogers. Jakes/Scotland takes similar license with history by introducing his own hero, Gideon Clark, and making him quartermaster for historical pirate Charles Vane, his exploits and those of others eventually changing Vane's fate. When I started watching Black Sails, I noticed that the Nassau pirates hadn't been used much in movies, though Anne Bonny provided a vague template for numerous female pirates. The Starz show has succeeded so well at making them tremendous antiheroes that I've been left wondering even more. Unfortunately, that makes it hard not to judge Strike the Black Flag's versions of these characters by what's been done on television, and to find the "Scottish" pirates somewhat wanting.

Jakes' Charles Vane is a dissolute brute with none of the thuggish charisma or redeeming heroism that Zach McGowan gave the character before his third-season exit. The historic Vane was hanged rather ignominiously, but the Black Sails Vane becomes a martyr embodying resistance to Redcoat tyranny. In Strike the Black Flag Vane is murdered offstage (apparently) by Clive Steed, the novel's main villain and a fictionalized version of Stede Bonnet, the dilettante pirate who consorted with Teach and Vane. As quartermaster of Vane's ship, Gideon Clark is a target for the ambitious Jack Rackam (to use Jakes' spelling), who again has none of the redeeming qualities of the TV Rackham. Historically Rackham and Anne Bonny were a pair, and Black Sails treats them that way -- sometimes with an extra woman thrown in as, apparently, in real life. Strike the Black Flag gets there eventually, but the immediate problem Bonny poses for Gideon Clark is as the likely avenger of her husband James Bonny, a member of Vane's crew whom Clark had to kill in self-defense. It's pretty universally acknowledged that Clark is in a world of trouble once Anne finds out what's happened. As a female pirate, and one who reportedly showed more courage and ferocity than Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny has fascinated people for the last 300 years. Unsurprisingly in our time, Black Sails presents her as something of a superwoman, just about unstoppable in hand-to-hand combat. Just in last week's episode, forced to fight a burly, sledgehammer-wielding British marine with no weapons of her own, Anne manages to spark the liberation of her fellow pirate-captives with a couple of bits of broken glass, despite taking a terrible beating. Jakes' Anne is not quite this sort of female fury, but Gideon Clark would "sooner swim in a hurricane than face her....A woman who learns to live among men like us must have twice the craft and savagery of the male." Yet one someone finally attacks him, he's surprised to find that it's Anne, she of the "impudent breasts" and the "stormy grey beauty of her eyes." She's vicious with a dagger but vulnerable to a forearm to the jaw. The eventual alliance of Anne and Jack creates a problem for Gideon Clark's future, which Jakes leaves open-ended with a sequel in mind. I'd rather have that sequel than the actual book, since Clive Steed never manages to fascinate like the historical pirates.  Stike the Black Flag wraps up with Clark rescuing the novel's good girl Clarissa Harlow -- erudite Jakes named her after Samuel Richardson's epistolary heroine -- from Rackam and Clive Steed's clutches, while Blackbeard goes to his fate, only for a lookalike to scare off the Spanish fleet at a convenient moment. Black Flag strikes me as a novel written mainly for the money, but conscientiously so, as his Author's Note explaining the mix of fact and fiction testifies. I didn't find it very memorable, but it was doomed to an unfair comparison once I saw Black Sails first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Strange indeed were the ways of the umlungu!"

I. D. B. stands for "Illicit Diamond Buying." In pulp days, that meant taking diamonds out of South Africa without going through the De Beers company. In pulp fiction, the most famous illicit diamond buyer was L. Patrick Greene's "Major." Who was E. Van Lier Ribbink to poach on Greene's ground? Was that even a real name? It certainly was. Ribbink wrote a handful of stories for Adventure and Everybody's Magazine, but his real calling was journalism, a profession in which he rose to an editorship. His few stories draw on his South African background. "I.D.B." (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is only incidentally about diamond buying. Its hero, Bob Breeze, is the typical guileless American seeking his fortune in South Africa. He gets entrapped into buying a diamond illicitly by a personal enemy, the sleazy "Portogreek" Manuel Silva ("for thus are men of a certain degree of swarthiness styled in Africa"). Bob makes an enemy of Silva by intervening when the Portogreek beats one of his Matabele servants. Silva conspires with a corrupt policeman to set Bob up by having an old native offer the American a diamond, with the promise of secret knowledge of a rich mine. The judge recognizes how Bob has been tricked, but the best he can do for the young American in court is impose the minimum sentence of six months in prison. He doesn't even stay a whole day. The Matabele man he'd rescued earlier is now working for a brave, virtuous Boer lady, who has sent him to break Bob out of prison. In classic H. Rider Haggard fashion, this young man is a prince of his tribe, sent out to earn his own way and learn something of white ways before inheriting power. He thus can guarantee safe conduct for Bob, the girl and her trusty right-hand man in his father's kraal. The chief in turn promises his protection against the pursuing policeman and Silva, whom he'll throw off the good guys' trail with something like the same diamond trick they pulled on Bob. The Matabele think they've worked things out perfectly for their new white friends, but when Bob learns that his enemies are headed for a snake-pit death trap, to the amusement of his protectors, he can't permit it to happen. "My God, we can not let them do that," he says, "It's unspeakable. Those fellows may be scoundrels and criminals, but they are human beings. We've got to stop it." To his credit, he doesn't say, "but they are white." His noble sentiments don't stop the irredeemable Silva from death by snakebite, but the British policeman is saved with great difficulty. Inyoni, the Matabele prince, accepts this with a shrug. "Strange indeed were the ways of the umlungu," he muses of his white friends as he goes to the rescue with them.

The most interesting thing about "I.D.B." is its careful observation of racial hierarchies. Beyond the obvious differentiation of black and white, there's a clear feeling that "Portogreeks" like Silva are inferior to the Boers and British (and Americans) while the Matabele (and Zulus) are acknowledged as a higher order of native, despite their proclivity for E.C. Comics style justice. This race-consciousness grates on modern sensibilities but Ribbink's story at least has the virtue of honesty about the subject, rather than the idealistic, err, whitewashing of the subject in some modern genre fiction. Ribbink doesn't have L. Patrick Greene or The Major's panache, and Inyoni is a poor substitute for Jim the Hottentot. But it's still an interesting read if only as a document of South Africa as pulp consciousness imagined it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Saddlepard for Satan

Western Short Stories was one of the titles published by Martin Goodman, the man behind Marvel Comics. In 1949 Goodman called his company Interstate Publishing Corp.; it would have different names at different times. Robert O. Erisman edited their western titles. Goodman's pulps are said to have been low-payers but Erisman could still scare up a decent list of writers for one of his bimonthly titles. This April 1949 issue has such reputable contributors as H. A. DeRosso and D. B. Newton, among others. Clem Yager's name wouldn't have meant anything to western fans because "A Saddlepard for Satan" was his pulp-fiction debut. The FictionMags Index credits Yager with only seven stories total, most for Goodman. Biographically all the Index can say about Yager is that he flourished, so to speak, in the 1940s and 1950s. It's possible "Yager" was a pseudonym for one of the other contributors, since editors and publishers didn't want any author's name to appear twice in one issue. If that's so, I suppose he could be Joseph Payne Brennan, who appears in the same issue as Yager a total of four times, including an issue of Thrilling's Texas Western to indicate that Yager wasn't a Goodman group house name. But it could be that Yager had only a handful of stories in him. His first effort isn't half bad once you get past the overly melodramatic title that was typical of western pulps.

"Saddlepard" is a short piece, only four pages, about hard-times cowboys forced by poverty to desperate measures. "It was one of those lean years in the cow country," it opens, "and its mark lay on the two men's faces." Bob Harshany and Roy Waters are down to their last two dimes, but Roy's too "touchy" to accept charity from the girl in the cafe. As Bob tells the waitress, Roy doesn't want to be like his "no-good drunken bum" of a father, "always beggin' a handout." Roy would rather rob a saloon instead, but the real story is Roy's moral dilemma. He tries to talk Roy out of his plan but Roy pulls a gun on him and warns him not to interfere. Feeling helpless, Bob waits for the inevitable disaster. But when he hears the shots, "In that brief instant Harshany's decision was made. Gone was that stubborn faith of his. He knew only that he had an obligation born out of years of friendship and, right or wrong, he, Bob Harshany was going to stick by his partner." Yet when Roy sees him yelling, "I'm with you, Roy," he opens fire on Bob. Finally Bob has to return fire to save his own life, mortally wounding his best if not only friend, who lies raving against Bob's interference in his plans. The ending gets a bit corny once Bob realizes, by looking into Roy's "pleading" eyes, that his friend is denouncing him in order to confirm his innocence to the public, which shows plenty of presence of mind for a dying man. It makes you wonder whether Roy made a snap decision to die by Bob's hand, plausibly or not. It's an awkward effort to salvage a sort of happy ending out of an awful situation, but overall Yager does a good job quickly establishing the hard times and the two men's desperation without getting overwrought about it. I'm still making my way through this issue, which is available online through Yahoo's Pulpscans newsgroup, and with most of the bigger names still to come I'd say it was the best entry I've read so far. We'll see how that holds up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Here's how Signet introduced readers to their new author:

JOHN B. WEST was born in Washington D.C. and educated at Howard University and Harvard University. He holds five academic degrees. Dr. West is a specialist in the prevention and treatment of tropical diseases, and he has a general practice in Liberia, Africa. He also owns and operates the Liberian Broadcasting Company, is President of the National Manufacturing Company and President of the Liberian Hotel and Restaurant Corporation. An Eye for an Eye is his first book.

How many paperback readers were sufficiently culturally literate to recognize what "Howard University" and "Liberia" signified? Did they realize they were reading a hard-boiled detective novel by a black man? It probably didn't matter, because West manages the feat of writing an utterly generic crime story in a presumably lily-white milieu, with no reflection whatsoever of his own experiences as a relatively privileged black man. A doctor's son, he first went to Africa in the early 1930s, where he became a special public health advisor to Emperor Haile Selassie. After returning to the U.S. and earning an M.P.H. from Harvard, he became the first black man to be appointed a district health officer in New York City. He went to Liberia during World War II as a major in the Army Medical Corps and stayed on after the war as an important figure in that country's public and private sector. The nearest thing I could find in his biography to a detail relevant to his detective novel career was that he recommended a family friend, Kansas City policeman Leon Jordan, to take over the police force in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. But if West paid special attention to police work it doesn't show in An Eye for an Eye. In this first of five novels produced before his 1960 death in a traffic accident, he gives us the generic tough but fair cop willing to give his detective the benefit of the doubt sometimes, as well as the hothead who hates the shamus's guts for some reason and longs to have him put away. You've seen them hundreds of times if you've read books like these.

The shamus himself is Rocky Steele, ex-prizefighter and more recently the winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in the Pacific theater of World War II. He remains a sort of celebrity whom people often recognize from his fight days, but he struggles, as do all of his kind, to keep his office afloat and his pretty secretary paid. A big payday is promised when he's hired to protect Norma Carteret, a sexy heiress, from a kidnap threat issued to her father by extortionists. Rocky takes the job despite a phone warning from a rough voiced man, hereafter "Rough Voice." His first night on the job he bangs Norma. The next day she's dead. Naturally Rocky's a suspect, but naturally Rocky's a better detective than the police, though it takes some roughing up by gangsters to clue him in that he should be looking for the bullet that killed Norma. After roughing up some gangsters they clue him on some names that put him on the vengeance trail, for he has sworn to avenge Norma blood for blood.

An Eye for an Eye is a bloodbath in the Mickey Spillane style. Rocky Steele is fond of gut-shooting people for maximum suffering when they deserve to die, and of course as a private dick he takes frequent beatings himself. Steele's detective method usually consists of learning things from stoolies or beating them out of goons. Those in the latter category that he doesn't kill are soon dispatched by their unforgiving employers. These violent encounters are punctuated with comic-book level tough-guy dialogue as the mystery unravels with blunt monotony. Occasionally, however, West will come up with a scene that at least has some camp value. One such moment comes when Rocky, with secretary Vicky in tow, visits the gay bar ("Fairyland," a cabbie calls it) run by one of his informants, Benny the Dyp. Benny (the "Dyp" is for "dypsomania") will tell Rocky that the man he's after killed Benny's brother back in Chicago, and he will urge Rocky (who needs little urging on this subject) to kill the man, but also to make sure that the man knows before he died that Benny ratted him out. It's in his desire for revenge for his brother that Benny seems to Rocky (he narrates, natch) to almost be a man. Meanwhile, Vicky receives some unwanted attention from the sapphic contingent.

Vicky was taking it in stride now. She could see from the exaggerated masculine swaggering of the half-females and the overdone switching of the half-males that were were in a joint for the third sex. And the fourth. All the men in the place were drooling as they watched me with my arm around Benny, and all the women were giving Vicky the once over....

Vicky was getting the works, too. A wrestler in pants, with two bumps on her chest big enough to hide behind, had slipped up on Vicky's blind side and was giving her the once over with a pair of hands that knew what they were looking for. I could almost see the shivers running up and down Vicky's back. This was gonna be a new experience for her. And I had a hunch it was gonna be a new experience for the wrestler, too. Vicky was frozen stiff, and that was an incentive for her newfound playmate, who sensed virgin territory to be conquered. But she didn't know Vicky. Under that sleek, clinging dress that made her look as soft as the two peaches that stood out on her chest, there lurked a familiarity with judo and jujitsu that I'd taught her. and what she didn't want to give, nobody got. Benny saw it coming, too, and he tittered some more.

The wrestler cooed something in Vicky's ear, and got the best backhand slap in the kisser I'd ever seen Vicky dish out. The wrestler's eyes blazed and she made a grab for Vicky's shoulder, and then mild hell broke loose. Vicky caught her by the hand, and the first thing anybody knew the wrestler was flat on her flat backside, looking up at Vicky from under a table, with a knot rising on her head. I couldn't help laughing out loud. From that point on. Vicky figured to be safe in that joint. Poor Vicky was as red as a sunset in Moscow.

For the record, however, the only "fags" in the novel are Rocky's cigarettes. There's something that'll always be funny about that scene, but at least West meant it that way that time. The scene I found funniest of all is almost certainly unintentionally hilarious. A sub-boss, Tanner, has the drop on Rocky and is busy taunting him when a "well-stacked" woman sneaks into the room. Rocky recognizes her as someone who had given him some info a short time earlier, and he suspects now that she sold him out to Tanner. When she first catches his eye Tanner thinks Rocky is trying to distract him with a variation on the "Look! Behind you!" gag, but he's not going to fall for it. He thus remains arrogantly oblivious as a mortal drama plays out behind him. I'll spare you the full length of it and start in the middle. The broad, clearly hurt bad, approaches Tanner but faints twice in the first paragraph. Here's the second.

She moved again. Slowly -- so slowly -- she pulled herself up once more to stand beside the chair. I could see her better now -- it was like cold clay, and there were blue welts under both eyes. Her hand was pressed against her left breast. She held onto the chair and took a deep breath like it hurt, then she leaned against the chair and slid to the floor again. My pulse was hammering in my ears. I couldn't see why Tanner didn't hear it. She couldn't keep coming like that. She was making it on sheer will power, and it couldn't hold up -- not long enough for her to make that last ten feet. Only ten feet now between me and death. She sat on the floor beside the chair for a minute or two, like a woman in a daze, then she started to pull herself up again, and every muscle in my body was pulling with her. She couldn't make it any more. She slid back down again, exhausted, and my hopes slid with her, but she didn't know how to quit. She came toward us on her hands and knees, every movement spreading pain across her face.Four feet from Tanner's stool she washed out again, flat on the floor, her pale face buried in the warmth of the rug. It was all I could do to keep from trying to make it over the goon with the gun to help her, but I waited, working overtime to keep staring at Tanner so my eyes wouldn't give her away. Every nerve and muscle in my body was tense as a violin string. It was a full five minutes this time before she moved again, pushing to her knees and crawling on toward Mike Tanner's back. Three feet. Two. She stopped. One foot!...

The poor woman needs to make it all the way because she has no gun, and must press her lipstick against Tanner's back to make him think she's packing. I dunno: maybe you found this genuinely suspenseful, but I couldn't help visualizing the scene, imagining it all playing out in a single take and how melodramatically ridiculous the dame would look staggering and stumbling around while this idiot Tanner, enthralled by Rocky's hypnotic gaze, doesn't notice. Apparently he couldn't hear her falling over the roar of Rocky's pulse. There are many ways in which West proves himself a bad writer, from the questionable time management of his plot -- it always seems like a lot more time has passed than Rocky claims -- to his embarrassing renderings of Irish brogue and drunken slur (change every "s" to "sh" and you've got it), but this one takes the cake. Chester Himes he is not. And yet I suppose it was transgressive in some mild way for a black writer to imagine the adventures of a white man, or especially to imagine him making love to a white woman. Believe that or not, you might still believe that West's success as a mystery writer, however tragically short-lived, put him in the vanguard of racial progress just as the Civil Rights movement was gaining strength, for in Signet and its readers he had found an apparently undiscriminating audience.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They March From Yesterday

In the golden age of Adventure, when Arthur Sullivant Hoffman was the editor, star writers like Georges Surdez could publish something like a genuine novel of 60 or more dense two-column pages in a single issue. Later editors may not have liked to see one writer take up so much space, even in a 192 page magazine. That might explain Surdez's "They March From Yesterday," which totals 56 pages, being split between the March 1 and March 15, 1930 issues. Having read both parts, thanks to Foreign Legion fan Jack Wagner's Mon Legionnaire blog, I suspect that Surdez may have been asked to pad his story into a two-parter. The story in its basic form follows the American Peter Kempton, who joins the Legion under the name Edouard Maguil to escape the gangsters who killed his stepfather back in New York City. As one might expect in such a story, one of those gangsters has joined the Legion himself to escape the law. This gives Surdez an opportunity to refute the legend, exploited by other writers, of the Legion sheltering fugitives from justice. Contrary to "the most false among the false tales told of the Legion," if his superiors learned Legionnaire Recki's true identity they'd turn him over upon his government's request. What really protects Recki, alias Siskow, is that "if there was scorn for the assassin, there was scorn for a denouncer." In other words, no one likes a snitch. In fact, Kempton/Maguil finds himself almost liking Siskow/Recki because the onetime criminal is so guileless in his homesick desire to befriend anyone who speaks English, and especially a fellow American, even after he learns Maguil's true identity. "Recki, endowed with human speech, was nevertheless an animal," Maguil thinks of him, "Here was a fortunate organism in which remorse finds no place." Yet Recki proves a sympathetically enigmatic character, willing to risk his life alongside Maguil on a rescue mission because they'd agreed to let the fortunes of battle decide whether Maguil will be around to denounce Recki, or whether Recki will be around to be denounced.

Unlikely male bonding is at the core of Legion pulp, but smack in the middle of "Yesterday" an episode that reads as if Surdez was trying to break into Fight Stories. On leave, Maguil is trying to raise money so his American girlfriend, who had foolishly come to Africa looking for him, can go home. Two Legion "buddies" talk him into entering the ring to replace an American contender in a bout with a local hero. "They'll want to see an American take it on the chin for a change," the promoter says of the local fans, but a Legionnaire is no mere pug and, despite a cliffhanger ending the first installment, Maguil wins the fight, only to be robbed by his deserting buddies and left to be framed for murder. He's court-martialed, acquitted and returned to the Legion, ending the story's superfluous middle section. The rest of it on either side is all right, though its more a sequence of set pieces than a truly novelistic story. You get a long march through the desert, the distance measured by telegraph poles and a big battle scene in each installment. By the end you get the feeling that Recki interested Surdez more than Maguil, who is almost a generic hero toughened and refined by Legion duty and discipline. Surdez is always very readable, and the Foreign Legion genre as a whole intrigues me both in its mostly unapologetic imperialism and its rite-of-passage aspect of manhood discovered through ordeal. "They March From Yesterday" isn't top-flight Surdez, but Surdez himself is nearly always top-flight pulp, and this wouldn't be a bad introduction to him.

The March 1, 1930 Adventure is available in its entirety online through Yahoo's Pulpscans group, but the Mon Legionnaire blog has Part One of "They March From Yesterday" as a separate file here. Wagner scanned Part Two from his own collection and made it available here.

Monday, February 13, 2017


A Valentine's cover by Earl Oliver Hurst fronts a Collier's with plenty of pulpish content. Ernest Haycox makes his typical contribution with the penultimate chapter of the serial Deep West, while Sidney Herschel Small closes out his historical series about the Bartlett family of Asia traders with the modern-dress piece "Orient Packet." This issue's short-short story ("Complete on this Page") is by Robert Ormond Case, a veteran pulpster who got his start in Western Story back in 1923. He stuck to Street & Smith for about a decade before making his first slick sales to The Country Gentleman (from the publishers of The Saturday Evening Post)in 1931. He made his Collier's debut with a short-short in 1932 and managed to land something in the National Weekly about once a year after that. Case didn't really hit his stride in the slicks until the 1950s, when he published several serials in the Post. His last pulp story appeared in a 1951 Blue Book. This issue's "Expert Witness," which might have come in at 2-3 pages in a pulp, pins the fate of an accused murderer on his old friend's ability to measure time without consulting a clock, though we learn that his stunt isn't as prodigal as jurors might believe. Hugh Wiley traveled a different path, turning to the pulps relatively late in his career after starting out in the slicks. For Collier's he created a character almost tailor-made for pulp; James Lee Wong was that magazine's answer to Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan, whose adventures first appeared as Post serials. Wong was popular enough to inspire a Poverty Row movie series that missed the point of the character by casting Boris Karloff to play him. Wiley's idea was something more like the opposite of Charlie Chan: a handsome young man so thoroughly Americanized (though he can play the traditional scholar when he pleases) that he can virtually pass for white as "James Lee." Monogram finally smartened up and cast Keye Luke as Wong for the final film in their series, while Wiley brought his character to Blue Book in 1940, his debut there appearing almost simultaneously with Wong's last Collier's story.  Frederick Hazlitt Brennan was a slickster all the way, apart from a 1945 Argosy story when that magazine arguably didn't count as pulp anymore, but his comic tales for Collier's about the brawling sailors Linn and Dunnevan wouldn't have seemed out of place on rougher paper. Finally, Octavus Roy Cohen was all over the pulps in the 1910s but by the end of the decade had become a regular with The Saturday Evening Post, one of his most popular features being a black-dialect series about Florian Slappey. He started appearing in Collier's regularly by the mid-1920s and tended to do longer stories there like the serial I Love You Again, Part III of which appears in this issue, and which was made into a 1940 film vehicle for Myrna Loy and William Powell. As always, check out all the contents of this issue in inglorious black and white at unz.org.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

'This is Russia. You can jump into the sea or get a Cossack lance through your gizzard -- no other choice.'

H. Bedford-Jones was one of the more plausible claimants to the title "King of the Pulps." Versatile in many genres, and under many names, he perfected the gimmick of creating themed series of stories. Blue Book published many of these series, under HBJ's own name or using his favorite alias, Gordon Keyne. These anthologies often ranged all over history, but the "Warriors in Exile" series had a more narrow focus on the French Foreign Legion. "Leather-Bellies in the Crimea" (Blue Book, October 1937) reads a little like one of Theodore Roscoe's Thibaut Corday tall tales, introducing an element of the supernatural into an otherwise conventional Legion story. Like many of Bedford-Jones' anthology stories, the meat of this one is the story within the story. He often wrote in a once-removed style typical of an earlier era, in which we have to be introduced to the narrator of the main story as a character in a framing device. The narrator is Casey, a retired Irish Legionnaire and, predictably enough, a drunk. He recounts an eerie experience he had while serving with the Legion in support of the Whites against the Reds in the Russian civil war. In the Crimea Casey encountered a big man who was the spitting image of his long-lost uncle who had served in Russia with the Legion during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Sight of this surprising figure inspires a vision that Casey takes to be an actual episode from the life of his Uncle Teague, and this is the true meat of the story, told by an omniscient narrator rather than present-day Casey.

Teague Casey isn't a good fit with the Foreign Legion. He'd started out with the British Army, apparently, but had deserted. "He was the type of man who rebels at discipline; and he was in the most highly disciplined corps in the world, as he had found to his sorrow, Little they cared whether he were a British deserter or not -- they needed every man they could get." On the other hand, "A Legionnaire, as he had found, could get away with anything." He has no trouble sneaking out of camp to fraternize in a nearby Russian village where the food and drink are better, where a Cossack peddler speaks English suspiciously well, and the peddler's daughter is pretty. The peddler is happy to get stray Legionnaires drunk and pump them for information about their troop strength, but his daughter is smitten with Teague and warns him to call "tails" any time her father invites him to wager anything on a coin flip. The peddler proves a good sport about this and warns Teague, who plans to desert once more, to play sick at his post next morning. Hung over, Teague nevertheless forgets to do this, for otherwise Bedford-Jones could not describe the battle so vividly. Teague can't help but distinguish himself in combat, earning a promotion, but he deserts anyway.

This seems like a simple story without a moral, but there remains the question of whether the story is true. Present-day Casey's two interlocutors debate whether it's possible for him to have had an authentic vision, or whether this was all a drunken yarn. They finally determine that it probably was the truth, since Casey had included a detail very few people (apart from H. Bedford-Jones and anyone who read the same sources he had) would have known, namely that Legionnaires in the Crimea wore wooden sabots rather than proper boots. Since Casey isn't "the sort to probe into [the Legion's] history and traditions," the agree patronizingly, he must have seen a ghost, or possibly the then-still-living and very old man. These stories (HBJ's, that is) seem tailor made for radio anthology shows, and it wouldn't surprise me if he'd tried to get such a thing going at some point. I'm not sure why he or Blue Book needed this excuse to write stories, but the gimmick seemed to work for them, as he kept at it (in Short Stories as well) until his death. Sometimes the framing devices are worse than superfluous (e.g. the recurring narrator of "Famous Escapes," a deaf-mute convict who somehow communicated the details through sign language) but the stories themselves are usually good samples of Bedford-Jones' effortless, often-engaging style. You might get impatient for the actual story to start, but once it did it usually was pretty good.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


As it happens, Appell's first published story appeared in Collier's in 1944, but apart from a couple of stories in Esquire he was a pulp writer from then on, working the western mags until almost the bitter end of the era. Like many pulpsters he moved into paperback originals (and the occasional hardcover) as the pulps lost favor. I liked most of the stories and novelettes of his that I've read, so I was eager to give one of his long-form works a try. Three Trails is a grim tale of a manhunt spiraling out of control. At the behest of a federal commissioner, a corrupt marshal assigns three deputies to capture Shad Kruger, a gunman who's worked on and off as an enforcer for the marshal. Naturally he assigns his three most expendable men to the task. Kendon Sheppard is a rival to the marshal, even though his father was a marshal who died under questionable circumstances with a cloud of corruption over him. Preacher Cole, a layman despite his name, simply hasn't proven useful to the marshal, failing to use his personal popularity to promote his boss's political career. Buford "Chink" Lee, is sort of like Kruger, acting as the marshal's muscle in shady dealings at the other end of the territory and probably knowing too much about those dealings for his own good. The novel gets its title from the deputies' plan to arrive in Cold Spring one at a time, by different routes, so that if Kruger gets wind of one of them coming, the other two have a chance to intercept him if he leaves town. Since that plan quickly falls apart, the title more accurately describes what we'd now call the character arcs of the three deputies.

The deputies aren't really equal as artistic creations. By far the most fascinating of the three is Chink Lee -- he's white but his eyes slant a bit -- who we learn once rode with the James Gang and, in this reality, betrayed them at Northfield. Lee is a tale-spinner who likes to talk of his father the war hero who knew General Grant, but he's pretty much trash. He's ruthless and mostly unrepentant about it, but his cunning sometimes runs ahead of his brains -- or would it be vice versa? His plan initially is to find some way to get all of the $20,000 reward promised to the deputies for himself. His first step is to convince Preacher Cole to travel with him instead of taking his own trail, the idea being that Cole will walk point and probably get shot while Lee swoops in to nab Kruger. That marks him as a bad guy in our eyes for a while, and he never fully evolves into a good guy, but what makes him fascinating is how Appell brilliantly describes Lee's erratic, contradictory personality. At different points he rivals Sheppard for a doctor's daughter and lusts after Cole's wife, but his heart ultimately belongs to Trixie (she prefers "Tricia" and "Buford") the sickly saloon girl. Lee's plans change on the fly over the course of the novel, and for the most part the changes seem plausible rather than contrived. Sheppard and Cole pale by comparison. Sheppard has a standard vengeance/redemption plot, with a long-term motive to clear his father's name, and he has little personality beyond that. Preacher Cole is described as looking like a worried Abraham Lincoln, inspiring me instantly to cast Royal Dano in my dream movie version. His role is basically that of an anxious family man who knows this will be his last job for the marshal one way or another, and that the reward for Kruger is his only hope of providing for his family and proving himself a man. He's not the sap Lee initially takes him for, since the commissioner secretly ordered him to spy on Chink, but his self-doubt defines him until he discovers what he's capable of under pressure. If Sheppard and Cole aren't as compelling creations as Chink Lee, the three deputies' interaction with each other at least keeps everyone in the same room.

One reason Chink Lee's plans keep changing, apart from the influence of the woman nearest him, is that the plan to capture Shad Kruger quickly goes to pieces as the deputies proceed from disaster to disaster. They're concerned from the start that Kruger will have men with him in Cold Spring, but it's not until they get there that they realize how horribly outnumbered they are. In short order they find themselves under siege in a hotel room. Their best option seems to be Lee's harebrained scheme to lure one of Kruger's men, a rival of Lee's for Trixie's affections, into getting captured by negotiating with him for Trixie's safe conduct out of the hotel. This actually works until Chink learns that while he and Trixie were negotiating more of Kruger's men got into the hotel room and disarmed Sheppard and Cole. This predicament climaxes in a horrific gunfight, with Lee using his hostage as a human shield and Trixie suffering collateral damage. Now our deputies are holed up in a hotel room full of dead men and the dying Trixie. In an absurdly macabre touch, the deputies find Trixie's handbag after she expires and apply her mascara to their faces in a desperate effort to disguise themselves -- inspired by Chink, in a fog of mourning, drawing cat whiskers on his face the way Trixie used to -- before they try to escape via a dumb waiter to the basement. They go through the remainder of the novel looking like bad stage actors, and that may have been Appell's way of commenting on the improbability of their escape and eventual victory (not for all three, however) over Kruger, which comes with the destruction of Cold Spring by fire and a tense chase through the wilderness before things are settled for good. Three Trails anticlimaxes a bit after the exit of a major character, but it's a dark, dramatic western well worth reading. Appell goes overboard a little early on spelling out every character's motivation, but once he has a handle on them he builds tension and momentum effectively. He slips up on detail every once in a while, most noticeably when he describes two exit wounds in Trixie's back but has Preacher contemplating probing for the bullets three pages later, but that's something an editor should have caught. In creating character, mood and suspense, Three Trails is a clear success that has me looking forward to reading another Appell in my collection later this year.

Monday, February 6, 2017


Here's a wartime issue of the National Weekly mocking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler's takeover of Germany. The fiction star this week, as advertised, is Nobel prizewinner Pearl S. Buck -- retroactively regarded as one of our least deserving laureates -- with her latest serial China Flight. Of more interest to us are this number's pulp veterans. The most prominent of those is Harold Lamb, perhaps the star writer of Adventure in its golden age, who made his Collier's debut back in 1928. After 1936 the slick weekly became Lamb's primary market until the end of World War II,  when he started placing more often in The Saturday Evening Post. This issue's "St. Olaf's Day" is a Viking story, perhaps with some contemporary relevance. George F. Worts, the creator of Singapore Sammy, Gillian Hazeltine and (as Loring Brent) Peter the Brazen, actually got his start at Collier's, his first published story appearing there way back in 1918. Like Lamb, Worts had pretty much pulled out of pulp by 1937, though both would publish in Blue Book towards the end of World War II. The seventh installment of his mystery serial Five Who Vanished appears this week. Arch Whitehouse, a stalwart of the air (or "war air") pulps, makes his one and only Collier's appearance with "Kaypees Don't Fly," after publishing five stories in the Post in 1941-2. In addition, Eustace Cockrell contributes this issue's short short story, "The Patriot," a comedy about a magician whose big patriotic trick of making a giant American flag out of a hatful of allied flags is sabotaged by his angry wife, who puts a Rising Sun flag in the hat instead. Hardy har har. Cockrell made an early splash at Blue Book starting in 1934, and made his Collier's debut in 1937. By the outbreak of war he was almost exclusively a Collier's man, though he returned to Blue Book and the revamped Argosy later in the Forties. Finally, this issue apparently has the first published story by one Pete Pedersen. The editor compares his boxing story  "They Can't Hurt Us, Kid" with the work of the legendary Ring Lardner. Strong praise for an author who never appeared in Collier's again. We mention him here because the four remaining stories of his career wold appear in Argosy and Blue Book after the war. Check it all out at unz.org

Thursday, February 2, 2017


A few days ago I wrote that you were almost certain to run into either Alan LeMay or Ernest Haycox in any given issue of Collier's from the 1930s. It's a rare issue like this one that gives you both authors. LeMay, who had a couple of years' seniority over Haycox at the National Weekly, continues his serial The Smoky Years, while Haycox, as if showing deference, does not contribute a western story. Fifty-fifty or Quit" is a flying story or, to be more specific, a flying romance. The other pulpsters here are Blake Cabot, who makes his  Collier's debut with "Love on Ice" after spending some years in the sports pulps, and May Edginton, author of the serial "Woman of the Family," who appeared in some Street & Smith titles back in the 1910s. On the non-fiction side there's a profile of the actor Charles Laughton by Quentin Reynolds and a critique of protectionist trade policy by Secretary of Agriculture and future Vice-President Henry A. Wallace. Check it all out at unz.org.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


A few days ago, had I remembered, I could have shown you George Surdez's most famous story. It might be more correct to call it his most lasting cultural legacy, since very few people now, I imagine, can say they've read the story. Surdez honed his mastery of Foreign Legion stories in the pulps and continued publishing their throughout his too-short life. He broke into Collier's, which became his main slick market, late in 1932. By comparison, he appeared in The Saturday Evening Post only once. The January 30, 1937 Collier's included Surdez's story "Russian Roulette," which is credited with popularizing -- or, I should say, widening public awareness of the infamous game of death. In 1941 Surdez was writing "fall of France" stories in pulps and slicks alike, though these often sounded a strong note of continuing resistance to Nazi occupation. This issue's "The Men of Yore" is in that line, with an appropriate note of fatalism at a moment when Germany was still ascendant. For the mundane reader, Surdez would be deeply overshadowed by the issue's two star contributors: Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, who begins the "important new serial novel" China Sky, and Agatha Christie, who continues her famous Hercule Poirot serial Evil Under the Sun. Christie was a pulp veteran, many of her stories making their first American appearances in Blue Book or Flynn's (before it became Detective Fiction Weekly) in the 1920s. This number, like many a Collier's, is marred by one of Roark Bradford's negro-dialect comedies. The National Weekly kept publishing Bradford's stuff until he died, the last stories appearing as late as 1949. The Post had a similar series, while by comparison, with the sad exception of Blue Book, you didn't see that kind of crap much in the pulps. Anyway, browse at your leisure via this link.