Tuesday, July 3, 2018

'I'm not enthusiastic about crawling around in front of the enemy with a lunatic'

Leonard H. Nason is the pulp laureate of World War I, but instead of lamenting the losses and horrors he makes comedy of the conflict's chaos. "The Friend of His Youth" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) is one of the most bizarre Nason stories I've read to date. It's the story of a relatively inconsequential patrol turned into a living hell for one Lt. Lipp of the U.S. Army by his encounter with one Sgt. Sheehan, nee Wladichesnikov of Weehawken. "The facial angle, the shape of the nose and the curly hair that escaped from under the too large helmet proclaimed that the sergeant belonged to a race which, though not without honor, is more celebrated for its commercial abilities than for its prowess in battle," Nason narrates from the point of view of Lt. Sewall, an anxious bystander to Sheehan's feud with Lipp, nee Lipovitschky. Lipp denies knowing Sheehan, who would get on a man's nerves whether you knew him before or not, regardless of his record of heroism in battle. Nason seems to forget about that record as Sheehan seems to go literally insane in his obsession with Lipp, inviting sniper rounds as he raves loudly at his (imagined?) antagonist as the patrol searches for stray Germans to take prisoner and discovers a boat the Germans use to send their own patrols into No Man's Land. I was surprised to see Sheehan and Lipp call each other "kikes," which is one of those words the sometimes fastidious Arthur Sullivant Hoffman saw fit to print in his magazine while censoring every "hell" or "damn." They lose Lipp along the way but recover him unwittingly, mistaking him for a German and clobbering him in the boat. On the bright side, the patrol captures a genuine German, though he's actually a Polish-American who got drafted after his mother took him back to the old country, and he happily tells the Americans all they need to know. In the end, Lipp's reputation is ruined to save Sewell's, while Sheehan raves, "Say something dirty kikes now! I says, but all he could say was 'glub.'" With this one Nason takes the chaos of war to the point where it doesn't quite make sense, but I suppose that was his idea all along. It's too far over the top for my taste, but it's still an entertaining war story from one of the best at that particular game.

Monday, July 2, 2018

'We've drunk up more than one good man's bet because we were there an' he wasn't.'

Back last September, I enjoyed a James Mitchell Clarke story in Adventure that told the story of the siege of Jericho from the point of view of two immortal drunkards. I wondered whether the 1932 story was part of a series, and as it turns out, Clarke's pulp debut, "Punishment" (Adventure, April 1,1927) introduces Belshar and Hovsep sharing a drink with a Baltimore ship chandler and telling their version of the story of Jonah. As in the later story, Hovsep tells the tale in the vernacular of 1927, more or less, giving Biblical events a common touch. They remember Jonah as "the skinny Jew we took aboard at Joppa that time," seemingly unaware of the man's scriptural fame. "We none of us liked the look of him," Hovsep recalls, "Everybody in those days knew that Jews were apt to go crazy and live alone in the deserts, eating roots and wild honey. But this blighter looked half there, even if we weren't on to what he was." They probably wouldn't have called Jonah a "Jew" in his own day, but I suppose we can grant them some retroactive license. There's not really much story to tell here: inevitably a storm strikes, and inevitably Jonah volunteers to be thrown into the sea to appease his god. Our heroes have the job of throwing him in. "We hate like ---- to do this, mister," they tell him in Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's approved version, but as Hovsep recalls, "I'm a son-of-a-gun if the storm didn't go down within a half an hour." I like that the whale or great fish never comes into their story. All they see is a flash of lightning and "there was nothing where he had been but a big smother of foam among the waves."

As this was Clarke's debut, he gets a more in-depth introduction in the Camp-Fire section, where he's identified as a recent member of the Adventure staff. He also initials a profile of Gordon MacCreagh that appears this issue. He published a grand total of nine stories (and two poems) in the magazine between 1927 and 1933, plus another for the 1935 one-shot inventory-burner The Big Magazine and a reappearance in 1944. I don't know in how many of these Hovsep and Belshar appear, but stories like "Bayou Man" and "The Shooting of Johnny Corbeau" look like unlikely candidate. "Authority" from the June 15, 1932 issue (in my collection) is another Bayou story, but Clarke's second story, "Up to Heaven," sounds more promising, while "Fisherman," from 1931, could be another Bayou story or something about Jesus or his disciples. However more stories in this series there actually are, I look forward to reading them some day.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"This Robin Hood stuff is all blah in this super-civilized century."

Before turning his focus to Africa as an explorer and author, Gordon MacCreagh was more of a South American specialist, covering much of the same territory as Arthur O. Friel. "The Society of Condors" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) finds the author struggling to make some kind of political statement as well as a few thrills. It's a familiar sort of story for the period, plunging an American, in this case a reporter, in the middle of regional unrest, in this case a conflict between Peru and Chile further complicated by internal unrest. The reporter encounters a disgruntled, Euro-educated aristocrat who tells him that the problem with South America, plainly and simply, is politicians.

"In all our vast country conditions are as unfortunate as in yours, and in some cases even worse. We are in the hands of the politicos. And why? Senor, the answer is very simple. Because they are men who make politics their profession; while we, the great rest of the people, talk sometimes about politics a little and once a year or so some of us go out and vote. We are the amateurs; and it is an indisputable rule in every human endeavor that professionals inevitably and always have the advantage over amateurs."

Going deeper, the problem seems to be democracy. The aristocrat boasts of not voting, because "what are our few votes against the unthinking thousands?... Those of discernment, capable of judgment, are always outnumbered by the mass. And it is upon the dull-witted emotions of the many that the professionals ply their art." The remedy he proposes, for all intents and purposes, is terrorism, albeit in the romanticized form of costumed brigandry. "My contribution toward reform will be to catch as many of these exploiters as I may, as opportunity occurs or as I can make it, and I shall show them the error of their ways by the imposition of fine or castigation, as they case may best deserve."

The reporter's natural skepticism is overriden by the force of the man's personalities, but once we get to the main action of the story some time later, MacCreagh introduces an element of moral suspense; he "El Rey" of the Society of Condors been corrupted by his bitterness against the political class. The reporter encounters him again as he is holding one of the politicos hostage. Are the Condors no better, say, than the Ku Klux Klan, which the story invokes without naming it outright. El Rey seems to have taken some inspiration from the American organization:

"In your own country the similar plan of a secret society with an avowed intention of reform flourishes today, even though it attacks whole races and creeds. It throve amazingly until the ignorant and the self-seeking swarmed in and it became itself an organization of political ambition too enormously unwieldy to withstand the many enemies it had made."

You wonder whether MacCreagh is imagining a Latin America's distanced view of the Klan, or whether El Rey mouths the authors own opinion of the cross-burners. Bear in mind that back in 1923 Black Mask published a special Klan issue containing stories both pro and contra, so there was nothing in MacCreagh's day like the consensus we presume (or hope) to exist today. But if you look close enough there's a consistent theme denouncing self-interested politicians, though it's difficult to look at something that seems to say that the Klan was okay, maybe, before it went wrong somewhere. In El Rey's part of the world, the solution to the problem of the politician seems to be the disinterested benevolence of which only the aristocrat may be capable. El Rey's camp, one notices, is well furnished with servants, but what disturbs the American reporter is that the young idealist is willing to torture people to get money out of them. The reporter is invited to sit alongside the prisoner and pretend to be another captive. He's told that one of the prisoner's retinue has had his ear cut off, and is shown the thing still lying on the floor. Now the reporter's only thought is to rescue the prisoner and return him to civilization. Because this is a pulp story, he manages to do this -- but then we learn that El Rey allowed him to do it. The bandit leader couldn't just let his prisoner go because it might make him look soft, but now his reputation remains intact, and he has given his American friend a terrific story to report, though he presumably won't report how El Rey used an ear from an anatomical model to scare his captive. Does this amount to a vindication of El Rey's tactics and his worldview? Perhaps, but whether you agree with MacCreagh's implied conclusions or not, give him credit for an adventure story that's intellectually provocative as well.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

JUNGLE STORIES, Summer of 1947

In this entire issue of Fiction House's jungle quarterly, for all of its explicit or implicit racism, you won't really find a black villain. I suppose some may say this is another way to deny agency to Africans in their own country, but the more I read jungle stories the more I'm convinced that their ultimate subject isn't the savagery of Africa or Africans but the dangerous possibilities open to white people in a place where their "civilized" rules don't appear to apply. You have white men plotting to rob native treasures or exploit native resources, white men becoming priests or pretending to be gods of unspeakable cults -- two of this issue's stories feature crocodile cults -- and so on and on. Invariably they are thwarted by more virtuous whites -- sometimes barely more so -- almost always accompanied by some virtuous black who has perhaps a 50-50 chance of surviving the story. The authors were a familiar repertory company; all of this issue's authors had published in Jungle Stories before and most would often do so again. However, this issue's "The Terrible Drums" was Paul Selonke's last-published pulp story. The idea here is that gangsters have infiltrated darkest Africa pretending to film a documentary about a tribe's rhythmic healing ritual, their real agenda being to steal a legendary ruby-encrusted blanket. The irony is that the rubies are fakes, the sort of stuff traders bestow on gullible natives, while the drum ritual, according to our white protagonist, has a genuine therapeutic effect -- if you're not driven mad by the drums, as the bad guys will be in a well-meaning native attempt to cure their madness.


If there's anything unusual about Bryce Walton's "The Silver Kraal," it's that the story is told from a female viewpoint. If not quite a complete heroine, Florence Sullivan has the look of a Fiction House superwoman: a "tall, lithe white woman ... The native policeman who walked stiffly beside her was barely taller than she, and he was tall." Her main purpose is to inspire a broken-down white explorer to clean up, regain his sanity and avenger her father, the victim of one of those crocodile cults. It turns out, of course, that a wicked white man has usurped the otherwise-harmless cult for his own nefarious purposes. In Emmett McDowell's "Bwana Two-Sleep," another strong female goes to Africa to investigate whether her father's mine is played out and should be sold, and another strong man helps her thwart the Russian who hopes to take the rich lode for a song or, failing that, feed the heroine to the crocodiles. In Alexander Wallace's "Killer's Spoor" a white woman, daughter of another martyred explorer, has become "Matyenda," the mother-goddess-good luck charm of the Mpongwe tribe, but of course she must be rescued from this exalted state by the generic hero.


The least generic of this issue's heroes is Dan Cushman's recurring character, "Armless" O'Neil. Cushman is best known for his westerns, and pretty much boasted of writing African stories without any basis in expertise, but he's also easily the best writer in this particular issue and O'Neil's hard-boiled exuberance in "Five Suns to Angola!", in which the hook-handed hero goes reluctantly to great pains to transport a payload of potential medicinal value, overwhelms any objections to his portrayal of the dark continent, which is probably no less fact-based than anyone else's here. In any event Fiction House's jungle is as much a fantasy world as pulpdom's innumerable Chinatowns any other locales where readers could dream of getting away with the impossible or the impermissible by the standards of ordinary life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

'I don't know who this man 'science' is, but he's a fool to take such chances.'


The adventures of Ki-Gor, White Lord of the Jungle, are some of the pulpiest stuff, in one sense of the word, of the 1940s. One of many imitation Tarzans, Ki-Gor was the star of Fiction House's quarterly Jungle Stories, published from 1938 to 1954. Authorship was credited to John Peter Drummond, a house name covering a number of authors. I don't know who actually authored "Warrior-Queen of Attila's Lost Legion" (Summer 1947), but the writer doesn't quite have the formula down. He makes a throwaway reference to the typical banter between Ki-Gor's two black sidekicks, the American boxer turned Masai chieftain Tembu George and pygmy chief N'Geeso -- themselves imitations of the two sidekicks of Gordon MacCreagh's Kingi Bwana -- but can't be bothered to actually write out their usual ball-busting. I can't say that I missed it, but I noticed it wasn't there. For that matter, there's no mention of George's American origins, and the first-time reader might assume that he's as much an African native as N'Geeso, though as a black man turned jungle lord of a sort he's one of the most potentially fascinating characters in pulpdom. Ki-Gor himself is a cookie-cutter clone, articulate like the literary Tarzan rather than primitive like the Tarzan of contemporary movies.  He's often upstaged on the magazine covers by his mate Helene, though that's less a reflection on Ki-Gor than standard Fiction House cover policy favoring cheesecake.

In any event, "Warrior Queen" pits the gang against yet another decadent lost civilization. Tarma, queen of the Maldeans, claims descent from "At-La," provoking speculation of Hunnish lineage, though I'm not sure that would be consistent with her lily-white status. She's the last pure-blood Maldean, the rest having interbred with natives, and she's looking for a white lord of the jungle to help her continue the royal line. The fact that Ki-Gor has a mate is immaterial, and the fact that Helene stabbed a particular ugly Maldean ape will only make it easier to put her out of the way. The gray ape, whom American explorer Williams wants to keep alive for the sake of science, is in fact an "earth god," a presumably sentient being with a language Tarma has mastered. Earth gods are, as you might expect, sacred, so both Helene and Williams, who dared capture one, are guilty of sacrilege and due to be sacrificed. The main action of the story is the capture of the two whites and the pursuit of the Maldeans -- just for the heck of it, their military commander is a hunchback -- by Ki-Gor and friends. I like pulp stories that pile wild new details on top of old ones, so we're well into the story by the time we find out that Tarma has control over dinosaurs thanks to a special reed whistle. The action takes us to the edge of spicy content, as Helene is subject to a whipping, though the villain gets only one stroke in before a berserk Ki-Gor intervenes. As I find to be typical of Jungle Stories, the narrative moves along quite nicely, the black characters are resourceful but deferential to the infallible white lord, and Ki-Gor himself is the least interesting element in the story. Luckily, his adventures are often fun in spite of him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

'I think it would clear the situation if the witness would explain what he means by drawing a blank.'

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is best known to history for effectively inventing the American comic-book with the 1935 publication of New Fun, the first magazine to feature all original comic strips instead of reprints from the newspapers. In pulpdom, he specialized, in Adventure at least, in stories inspired by his experience as a cavalryman in the U.S.-ruled Philippine islands. One such story is "Court-Martial" (January 1, 1932), but the court-martial proves to be only a framing device. A soldier is accused of the premediated murder of a native civilian, the premeditation apparently proved by his having gone to his squadroom after first encountering the victim in order to get his pistol. The defendant remembers nothing of this, however, having drank heavily that night. Our narrator is an officer serving on the court-martial panel who suggests during questioning that the defendant simply drew a blank and was no longer in his right mind when he fetched his weapon and shot his man. Finally, seven pages into the story, he begs his fellow officers' indulgence as he tells a story from his own experience as another example of drawing a blank. No, the narrator himself did no such thing, but he knew a young officer who did just that following the kidnapping of a Spanish girl by Moro bandits. Wheeler-Nicholson has the decency to interrupt his narrative occasionally to have the other officers express the impatience with his long-winded raconteur that some readers may have felt after a while. It's not that the story he tells is bad, or that Wheeler-Nicholson tells it badly. It's just unrealistic that the other officers would let him ramble on and on, in nearly novelistic detail -- technically it's a novelette -- when he probably could have gotten to the main point much quicker and with fewer literary flourishes. The payoff, finally, is that the our narrator changed the names in his story. The defendant is the sergeant whose kidnapped beloved killed herself in captivity, his victim a former bandit who insulted her memory, and his captain, who went on a drunken raid against the Moro camp only to forget it afterward, having drawn the proverbial blank, is none other than the fussy, teetotaling colonel who presides over the court-martial. That's a cute finish, but Wheeler-Nicholson simply takes too long getting to what is, ultimately, only a modest punchline.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

'I am a fighter. A man fighter.'

You can tell a pulp writer is confident of his storytelling ability, not to mention his story, when he skips an opportunity to write out a fight scene. In "Big Fella" (Adventure, January 1, 1932) Robert Carse has his protagonist, a Texas boxer stranded in Spain by an absconding manager, try to earn money by betting that "no man can known me off this handkerchief when I spread it on the floor and stand upon it." The scene ends just as it's about to begin, with "Big Fella" eagerly waiting for three men to take their shots. Carse ends a paragraph on an ellipsis, and starts the next the next morning, with our hero "full of food and equally full of liquor." He'll try the stunt again shortly, only to almost lose when a matador confronts him. The matador's protege sees potential in Big Fella's footwork and poise, despite his size. The Texan will train to be a bullfighter, but will also use his ranching expertise to help raise the bulls. Things get a bit corny from there, as Big Fella befriends a bull that rescues him from another rampaging animal, only to find himself encountering his taurine savior in the bullring as a substitute toreador in his first public performance. I couldn't help but be reminded of the cartoon where Popeye the Sailorman insists that "I ain't gonna harm no bull!" In this case, to prove to a hostile crowd that he's no coward, Big Fella fights the bull the American way, by steer wrestling the animal into submission. All ends well as the American keeps his job on the ranch, after conceding that "a big man can fight the bulls; but not a man who hasn't Spanish blood." The Spaniards don't see that as an insult, though I wonder. Carse wrote more than one bullfighting story in his career, though it was at most a minor subgenre for him. This story, however, gives you the idea that he had the bullfighting bug nearly as bad as Hemingway did; this came out the same year as the great man's Death in the Afternoon. "Big Fella" is relatively minor Carse, but minor Carse is usually above the pulp average.

Monday, June 4, 2018

'No fool but yourself made you enlist, Waldemar.'

I like the way Georges Surdez backs his way into the actual meat of his Foreign Legion story, "By Special Request" (Adventure, January 1, 1932). Lieutenant Framyr volunteers to hold Bou-Mabrouk, a Moroccan post overrun and then abandoned by the Riffi rebels, because his best friend had commanded the Senegalese infantry who had been killed to the last man. Surdez lets us see Framyr through the eyes of Sergeant Kellburger, only to have Kellburger become the protagonist when Framyr is abruptly killed. The real story is the war of wills within the insurgent war between Kellburger and Private Waldemar. Of the latter, Surdez writes: "His chief fault was one rare in Germans, if common enough in Frenchmen and Belgians. He loved to argue with his superiors, to show off before a crowd -- in a word, to be different." This is significant in a unit that is disproportionately German. Waldemar fled Germany after getting "mixed up in a counterrevolution in Germany soon after the armistice." The changing political situation in Germany -- it's unclear when exactly this story is set -- encourages Waldemar to think of returning home to his family now that his term of service is almost up. In fact, it expires while the post is under siege by the Riffi, as the ranks of Legionnaires are steadily whittled down and the survivors are tempted to quit by Megandank, a deserter who promises safe passage and pretty much whatever men want, while threatening utter destruction, by air power if necessary, to those who hold out. Kellburger refuses to let Waldemar leave, fearing that others would follow him, and as his fellow sergeants and corporals fall one by one the ad hoc commander is forced to trust Waldemar with responsibility. There's some unseemly pride at stake, at least from our modern perspective. Kellburger is determined to hold out longer than the Sengalese, who after all "were unimaginative men who suffered only physically, from thirst, hunger and wounds." His men hold out one day longer, and then Kellburger is seriously wounded when Megendank, approaching under a truce flag, lures him into sniper's range. At last, if inevitably, Waldemar rises to the occasion, taking out Megandank and rallying the remaining defenders until relief arrives. Surdez doesn't go overboard and have Waldemar reenlist, but his experience clearly has changed the ertswhile malcontent for the better. Again, Surdez keeps his Legion material fresh by foregrounding a clash of  personalities. His characters aren't very sophisticated, to be honest, but Surdez has a knack for making the reader feel that he's encountering distinctive individuals with every new story. It's a rare one of his that I haven't enjoyed.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

'He aint like your New York pugs. He never paid anybody to lay down for him.'

Prolific pulpster Frederick C. Davis created, or was given, the pseudonym Art Buckley for a boxing story published in the July 1930 issue of Street & Smith's High-Spot Magazine, where Davis already had a story under his own name. "Buckley" became Davis's regular alias for Street & Smith fight stories, including a series about contender Duke Elliot in Complete Stories. "Iron Fists" (February 1, 1932) finds Elliot, his manager Carl Rost and his handler Hunter in the town of Carmel to train for an important fight with Mike Conlin. Winning will put him "pretty close to the belt," but Duke may have a fight on his hands before that. A local amateur, "champ of the mines" Chuck Veach, stalks Elliot and challenges him to a fight. Veach and his manager predictably denounce Duke as a coward and a crooked fighter for refusing, and only Rost's threat to quit keeps Elliot from attacking Veach to avenge the insult. There's an interesting story right here, but I have a feeling it might have been done already, since Davis/Buckley adds additional complications. It's made clear to Duke that fighting Veach is a no-win situation, even if he can handle the miner with relative ease. Veach is not only the champ but the idol of the miners. A local newspaper man warns Elliot that beating Veach could start a riot where he could very well get hurt, ruining his chance at Mike Conlin. Still, even if he must be a professional and think of his career and the big paydays in the future, a fighter has his pride and a point to prove to the local upstart. Where this gets corny, in my opinion, is when Duke and his entourage learn that Veach has been put up to his grandstand challenge by none other than Conlin, who presumably hopes that something will happen to let him skip his own meeting with Elliot. Apparently the story lacked a real bad guy until this revelation, and that allows the author to turn Veach into a good guy. When the fight finally happens, Davis/Buckley renders it fairly realistically, allowing Veach to be a puzzle for a few rounds but showing plainly enough that the miner is grossly outclassed. When Duke inevitably knocks him out, people in the crowd accuse the winner of fouling and the predicted riot starts -- only to be aborted by none other than the revived Veach, who tells the crowd that Elliot beat him fair and square and now has his respect. "He may be a dude, but he can hit!" the miner explains. He explains further that Conlin had put him up to the challenge and had promised him a hundred bucks before the fight started, only to welsh. Conlin shows his true cowardly colors as the good guys rescue him from the re-enraged mob. The story ends with Elliott offering to pay for the promising Veach's training, earning the ultimate accolade from his former foe: "Say -- you're sure white to say that, after all I said about you." This was the second of five Elliott stories in a series that continued through the end of 1932. I haven't read many fight stories apart from Robert E. Howard's standard-setting Steve Costigan tales, but I liked this one despite its overplotting. The boxing seemed well-described and the characters likable enough, and I wouldn't mind another round with Duke Elliott if circumstances ever permit.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

'Jiminy Krishna! Now we get the hell from here!'


Chullunder Ghose is one of Talbot Mundy's series characters, a babu (i.e. an English-speaking Indian bureaucrat or professional) who worked for the Crime Investigation Department. The babu is often a figure of contemptuous fun in pulp fiction (see L. G. Blochman's Guru Dutt) but Mundy's is a more sophisticated figure, capable of real wit and possessed of a degree of worldly-wise cynicism missing in similar characters who exist only so authors can write funny sounding sentences. As Ghose says to his sometime colleague Larry O'Hara, "Philosophy and logic absolutely prove to me that governments are aggregations of amazing liars bent on graft and nothing else whatever. Nevertheless, I am rising with you on a silly-damn-dangerous expedition, drawing small pay and smaller expenses from the secret service of a government in whose stability I disbelieve, whose methods seem to me ridiculous, whose spirit is one of ingratitude, and for whose future I care nothing." Such eloquence is juxtaposed with presumably put-on pidgin talk and a veritable word jazz of multicultural references. Here's how he answers the simple question, "What's your plan?"

"Non est. Haven't one. Do you mistake me for a fathead general in Flanders studying a map to find out what the enemy is thinking? No, O'Hara sahib. This babu is opportunist ad lib. Am exponent of the theory that cats jump otherwise than expected, Am ju-jitsuist of circumstance. If circumstances pull, I push them. If they push, I pull them. We are being sent to do a cheap job that the politzei have failed at. Let us not act like policemen."

He's half Charlie Chan, half Groucho Marx, and that's not the half of it. For the purposes of the story quoted above, Ghose is also a superstitious fraidy-cat. I don't know if "Case 13" (Adventure, January 1, 1932) is numerically accurate as far as Ghose's publication history is concerned, but it suffices that the hunt for bandit chieftain Lalla Lingo is Ghose's thirteenth and theoretically unlucky investigation for the C.I.D., and he can't let the frightful idea of it drop. He and O'Hara must track down the bandit, who has kidnapped a moneylender at the instigation of three prominent debtors. Ghose worms his way into Lalla Lingo's camp by stripping his clothes and going naked as a holy man, while O'Hara gets to wear a dhoti "as a tribute to your inhibitions." It's really an amusing enough story without the whole superstition angle, which seems shoehorned in as if Mundy felt a need to undermine his character's intellectual effectiveness, the better for O'Hara to play the action hero. Or he may have felt that it made Ghose a more complexly comical figure. It may be that Mundy didn't fully have a grip on his creation yet. If I get a chance to read Ghose's later appearances I should be able to say whether the babu of "Case 13" is the finished product or only a work in progress.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'Say the word, pal, and nothing will come back but me and the field order book.'

Frederick C. Painton was an air-story specialist before becoming more of an espionage writer until World War II, when he became a war correspondent. It's unusual to find him writing a Foreign Legion story, and in fact "Gold Galons" (Adventure, March 1937) isn't much of a story. It features two Americans who joined the Legion to get off the proverbial beach, one becoming a corporal, the other making sergeant and aspiring to officer's training school at St. Cyr. Corporal Lacey and Sergeant Connery remain buddies, though their different career tracks and the impact on their friendship might have made a story in its own right. The story here, however, is the threat to Connery's advancement presented by a onetime romantic rival, Lieutenant Latour. The American beat up the Frenchman off duty after Latour tried to flog the woman who had been his but had become Connery's. At first, heading into a battle, all seems professional between the two men as Latour gives Connery the coordinates for an artillery barrage. Something goes wrong, however, and Connery discovers Latour's error when he sees that he's firing on his own men. Of course, Latour insists that the error is all Connery's. "You species of merde -- you have killed twelve of my men and wounded twenty," the lieutenant protests, promising to have Connery court-martialed. The American's only hope is getting hold of Latour's field-message book, which he believes will vindicate him by showing that Latour gave him the wrong coordinates in the first place. Lacey basically offers to frag Latour to get the book, -- see the header -- but Connery demurs. After the next engagement the sergeant faces a dilemma when he discovers that both Latour and Lacey have been wounded. There's a bit of sloppy writing her that the editor missed, since Connery appears to discover twice over that Latour has been wounded. In any event the enemy is closing in with bad intentions for the wounded, and Connery can't carry both men to safety. He has to choose between his buddy and his superior officer, with Latour promising to clear Connery's name by admitting his error, even though someone has stolen the precious book. In the end, he decides that Lacey is more badly wounded and more in need of help. Taking his buddy to the medic, he leaves Latour to a cruel fate at the hands of Chlueh tribesmen, and throws away his only chance of redemption in the absence of the field-message book. It turns out, of course, that he made the right choice after all, for in the between Latour's wounding and Lacey's, the American corporal "glommed" the book off the Frenchman. Painton writes well as a matter of style, but his story is resolved too neatly for its own good. It's a story that probably could have been told in any military setting, and making it a Legion story only exposes its inferiority to the good stuff put out by the likes of Surdez, Newsom, Carse, etc. Painton was better off sticking to the genres he did well, and for the most part, with exceptions like this, he did so.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

'I'm here to earn a guinea. Reckon I'll stay.'

One of H. Bedford-Jones's specialties was worm's-eye view accounts of history in the making. His "Hell For a Guinea" (Adventure, March 1937) makes the battle of Bunker Hill the backdrop for a petty wager between "tap-room yokel" Adam Ford and Ensign Sullivan of His Majesty's army. When Sullivan boasts that the Redcoats will march unimpeded from Boston to Philadelphia, there to arrest the Continental Congress, patriot Ford bets that guinea that the British won't be able to break out of Boston. To make the bet more sporting, Sullivan vows that his men will break out within three days of the wager. One thing I like about this story is the way HBJ avoids the temptation to make the bet itself some great turning point. While Sullivan's comrades warn him against announcing the British schedule too exactly, it turns out that the Americans were well aware of the Redcoat plans well before Ford crosses over to their side. He's been given a pass "to hell and back by way of Charlestown" by General Gage so he can get "the family guinea" to put up, and inevitably he's sent up Breed's Hill to fight the British. He has a harrowing experience as HBJ nicely emphasizes the terror of battle, which escalates as the colonials run out of ammunition and the British keep on coming. The tale turns pulpy only when Ford coincidentally encounters Sullivan at the climax of the fight, only to see his new buddy Martin, who's been hoping the whole time to kill a Redcoat, blow him away. Seeing the ensign mortally wounded, Ford suddenly doesn't want to claim his winnings, but Sullivan reminds him that "King's officer never - never welches." Knowing that the battle will discourage Gage from leaving Boston, Sullivan hands over his guinea as practically his last act, but by now Ford feels "It warn't wuth it -- there'd ought to be some other way." That there wasn't makes the tale a tragedy at both the macro and micro level, and something more than the patriotic pap one might expect from pulp, if one didn't know better.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

'As much as I loved my king, I love the Legion.'

When is a Foreign Legion story not a Foreign Legion story? Perhaps when the subject isn't the French Foreign Legion but it's Spanish counterpart. The Spanish organization is the subject of Robert Carse's "Legion" (Adventure,  December 1936), set in North Africa in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Carse has something of a reputation as a leftist, so he might be expected to take the Republican side, but for this story, at least, he takes a neutral position. In short, an officer thought long lost escapes from Moorish captivity and promptly falls under suspicion as a relic of the old regime. The new commander is a Republican loyalist, but he and his predecessor eventually realize that their shared first loyalty is to the Legion. Their second shared loyalty is to Spain's colonial empire. Leftists the Republicans may have been, but that doesn't translate to anti-imperialism, at least in this story. Under Republican rule, the Legion's job remains to maintain Spanish rule in the region, while the old officer's main purpose is to avenge the insult to national pride he endured as a captive and virtual slave. The King of Spain may have oppressed  his own people, the old man concedes, "But before any King of Spain did that, we drove the Moors from there, swept them out and into the sea. I do not know, but I think that in the years the Moors held me as a slave the memory of those things kept me alive." The old hero dies an epic, almost Arthurian death, impaled on a bayonet but driving himself forward to get his old enemy the Moor in a literal death grip. So passes the old regime in honorable style, one might believe, though in fact it would be reborn in less honorable form, but leaving that aside, "Legion" is a typically solid action story from Carse that gains added interest from its historical context.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are.'


Arthur O. Friel's "The Hawk of Zaguamon" (Adventure, December 1936) reminded me of a later story of Friel's that I read earlier, in which his series hero Dugan, an American adventurer in South America, tentatively befriends a young aristocrat turned rebel. As usual, the setting in "Zaguamon" is Venezuela, specifically during the regime of President Juan Vicente Gomez, who died a year before Friel's story was published. The American hero this time, Rod Steele, is the sidekick/adviser of Ricardo Torre, the U.S.-educated hawk of the title ("El Halcon") and a rebel against one of Gomez's abusive and potentially rebellious governors. The Hawk's small army intervenes in a skirmish between the governor's forces and another rebel force whose leader ends up mortally wounded. The dying man entrusts his heir, a slender youth, to the American's stewardship, while his army readily joins forces with Torre's. This proves a decisive encounter in more ways than one. Torre and Steele discover that Governor Boves, their true enemy, has been importing Germany military advisers for some can't-be-good purpose. His now-augmented force inspires Torre to provoke Boves into a decisive battle. The two factions get along well enough, except that the Guerra forces are very protective toward Ricardo, their beardless new leader.Ricardo's father hadn't wanted them to join with any other rebel force because "He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are." This makes sense to Steele, since "the average gang of self-styled rebels in these wilds comprised human beasts of prey, vicious in every word and deed." But there's more to it than that, as Steele finds out after young Guerra has to kill a soldier who's less protective than possessive, telling the young commander, "No man -- have you!"

Steele's amazed eyes, lifting sooner than the furious gaze of the slayer, stared anew. The loose army-shirt was torn wide open; and, scratched by clawing nails now dead, out swelled firm young breasts never those of a boy. The gray eyes flashed up, met the wide brown ones. Quick hands yanked the shirt together. Burning red arose to the dark hair, gradually receded. Then, with a sigh, Carlota Guerra holstered her pistol and stood mute, head still high but gaze avoiding Steele's astonished regard.

I must confess that the twist took me by surprise, though in hindsight I should have been tipped off by "Carlos" deciding to wear an oversized uniform confiscated from one of the dead Germans. Certain things become inevitable from here, of course. Carlota convinces Stelle to let her continue her imposture, reminding him, "Have there not been fighting women before now?...Have I not fought for years like a man? Do not be stupid!" Friel makes a point, however, of having Carlota thrown from a horse and taken out of the action for the final battle against Boves, so she can live to become, at age seventeen, our American hero's bride. In Steele's defense, he offers to send her to a "high-class girls' school up North" first, but she's not having that. "I know men!" she protests, "Men that are men, not schoolboys! And damn, hell, if you not want me --" No, damn, hell, he does want her, and "right over yonder in Trinidad are English clergymen waiting for us." Such is romance south of the border, and it doesn't really feel out of place in this entertaining mini-epic of pulp South America.



Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'I'm so sober, I'm damn near ready to fight anybody for any reason.'

Robert Carse wasn't the most prolific of pulp writers, and that probably explains why his work was consistently above average. He published a grand total of thirteen stories in 1932, including a six-part Argosy serial, and that's not much considering that his stuff usually appeared in weeklies like Argosy or Detective Fiction Weekly or in twice-monthlies like Adventure and what for that year was known as The Popular Complete Stories. This was the merger of Street & Smith's two general-adventure pulps, The Popular Magazine and Complete Stories. The selling point, as you might guess, was that there were no serials, when Argosy, by comparison, ran four at a time, so you weren't going to be in the middle of something if you picked up a TPCS. Carse specialized in what could be called the French Colonial genre, encompassing both Foreign Legion adventures and Devil's Island-type tales of brutality and resistance. "The Web" (February 1, 1932) has a little bit of both. Its co-protagonist, James, is an American who was framed for murder and condemned to the typical hell on earth so a crooked French Guiana politician (a "half-breed," of course) could take over the oil fields James inherited from his father. We never actually see the prison, since the story opens with James a free man in France, but suddenly subject to blackmail. Somehow, someone has learned that he's an escapee and fugitive, and that someone is demanding a huge sum of francs for his silence. Somehow James catches the interest of Rand, an alcoholic American journalist who only sobers up on the promise of a big story. He sees one in James's plight and together they discover that the very people who smuggled him out of prison are blackmailing him and other escapees. Basically it becomes a gangster story in a French setting, with Rand swinging from man of action to staggering drunk until he finally recruits a gang of ex-Legionnaires in Marseilles to take on the blackmailers, who of course include James's old enemy, who supposedly had been lynched in his homeland years ago. Rand may be rather implausible as a hero, arguably a sort of defective-detective type, but Carse's semi-hard boiled style makes him palatable. This is a "complete novel" at 48 pages and it's actually novelistically paced in an almost-daring way as Carse opens with several pages of dialogue introducing his protagonists to each other. Perhaps the Street & Smith editors were more indulgent of this than others. Fortunately Carse is good enough with dialogue that the protracted opening holds your interest, and there's enough novelty to the setting and situation to make this a fairly entertaining little thriller from one of pulp's more dependable writers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

'This probably was the last time he'd pick up something Trump brought him.'

Arthur Hawthorne Carhart's "Give a Dog a Name" (Adventure, June 1943) is a cute mystery story in which a heroic dog discovers the crucial clue. Carhart, a western specialist, wrote something short and to the point. The hero, Lige, is reluctantly conscripted to hunt down a friend accused of murdering another man. The law has leverage over him because Lige is wanted in another territory. The authorities expect Lige's dog, himself a sort of outcast, to be able to sniff out the suspected man. The twist is that the dog leads Lige to the alleged victim, who had faked his death, making it look like his bloody body had been dragged to the rapids, in order to get away with robbery. The crucial clue is the victim/culprit's bloodstained shoe, which indicates that the shoe's owner had to have taken it off after he'd supposedly been killed. Good dog! The thing that makes this story worth a post to me, or at least worth some clickbait, is that the dog's named Trump. I could have used a lot of sentences to headline this post. For instance:

Trump was an ugly dog. Everyone thought so, except Lige.

Trump was about to be shot the day they met some years ago. The shepherd had seen Trump smelling a coyote-killed lamb. He believed Trump guilty.

Trump must have realized he'd been pulled out of a bad spot.

The citizens wouldn't care what became of Trump. He'd probably haunt back doors, scavenging food, until someone shot him or poisoned him and felt righteous doing it.

There was one way to do it. Kill Trump and then let Newt Slayne send a telegram to the law man up north.

Maybe if he could understand, Trump would rather have this happen than to have Syd caught.

"Me and Trump don't think Syd's guilty."

Trump came back when called but then struck out in that wrong direction again.

"I'll bet Trump's hungry, too. He's done a day's work."

[Or, if you really want to editorialize...]

"Don't try," said Lige, "From here on we both follow Trump."

This is all very sophomoric in what I hope is nonpartisan fashion, but I couldn't help myself. If anyone takes offense, I swear that if I find a jungle story featuring any sort of savage named Obama, I'll do the same thing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.'

The man known only as Dugan was Arthur O. Friel's last major series character. The intellectual property of his author rather than a publisher, Dugan appeared in both Adventure and Short Stories during 1938 and 1939, if not later. He was one of Friel's typical American adventurers in South America, if more of a tough-guy loner than his predecessors. "A Piece of Gold" (Adventure, January 1939) finds him a hungry wanderer in Venezuela until he discovers a party of men roasting beef. He joins in uninvited and gets into a fight, which of course he wins. The situation seems to be defused by the appearance of the men's leader, a young "high class" Spaniard who offers him more meat to travel on, but Dugan only makes matters worse by offering to pay for it. The youth takes that as an insult and throws the coin away. Dugan takes that as an insult and throws the meat away. Eventually the two will reconcile and join forces to recover a treasure located in a house that once belonged to the young man's prestigious family, now belonging to the new tyrannical governor, but this tense early encounter is the most dramatic moment of the story. It seems all the more dramatic now for the racial charge Friel infuses it with. His narrator -- the typical raconteur who claims to know Dugan but may be Dugan himself for all I know -- makes a point of emphasizing that the young man, Lorenzo, isn't the typical South American trash. "Not a thick Indian slur in his voice, not a word left out or misspoken; not the common lingo of the llanos," he says, "And his face was like his talk: sharp, clear-cut, with straight black brows and straightforward brown eyes and a firm nose and chin." And yet Lorenzo is an inferior, at least according to Dugan's own hierarchy of blood:

Well, that's the way Dugan's built. Sort of temperamental. Take him right, and he'll give you his shirt. Get him wrong, and that's different. And the Irish, if you don't happen to know it, have better reasons to get proud than anything that ever came out of Spain. A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.

The sentiment is deplorable in an objective way and yet almost admirable, on Friel's part, for a frankness in viewpoint that too often goes missing today. In any event, the story doesn't treat Lorenzo like an inferior; it only insists that on almost all points someone from down there is going to be outclassed by an American, and an Irish-American especially. That goes double for Pompeyo, the de facto head of the goon squad that's attached itself to Lorenzo, hoping to snatch the treasure for themselves. He's "A cheap plug-ugly who'd tried to be a prize fighter in Havana, probably, but hadn't made good. But, down here, good enough to beat up all comers, till an Irish-American came along. The story itself is a punchy, hard-boiled entertaining affair, and if anything the casual bigotry enhances the overall tone. In the end, by the way, Lorenzo offers Dugan a whole bag of gold, but our hero deems himself satisfied with a single coin and some food, accepting what the young man originally offered him. Money doesn't mean much if you're more interested in moving on than in settling down, and Dugan has more adventures waiting for him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Variations on the good German

Let that be a lesson to me. In my last point I commented dismissively on Popular Publications' war-air pulp Dare-Devil Aces  based on a reading of approximately half of the January 1937 issue. Each story of the three I'd read featured stereotypical German villains and one-note gimmickry, leading me to deride the whole magazine as juvenile stuff. Having now finished the issue, I don't really think it much less juvenile, but I have to acknowledge it to be less monotonous in its overall content. Three of the remaining stories feature "Good German" characters, of which there were at least two sorts in this sort of pulp.  In C. M. Miller's "Eye of Doom" and the pseudonymous William Hartley's "Gentlemen Eagles" we get what might be called the sportsman, a relatively good-natured character who doesn't use the dirty "cold meat" tactics of more villainous Germans. In the Miller story the German isn't even the primary antagonist, but gets caught in the middle of a feud between two American airmen dating back to when all three were soldiers of fortune, more or less, in Latin America, the two Americans being on opposite sides of a civil war that cost the German a land investment. The suspense is twofold: will one American take vengeance on the other for having him flogged back then, or will the German take vengeance should his old American friend rat out his comrade as the one who cost the Kraut his plantation land? In the end there's no revenge and the German, even when taken prisoner, is just too good-natured to hold the one American's revolutionary antics against him. In "Gentlemen Eagles" the German is a chivalrous sport who withdraws from a dogfight when he sees that his American foe's machine gun has failed. The chagrined Yank bets his buddies that he can defeat this same ace within a certain time, and is forced to pursue the German to near the Swiss border in order to pick a fresh fight.This story is ultimately comic, the only one in the issue in which it can be said that no one really wins, unless you want to count it a win for both pilots that they're forced to land in Switzerland and taken prisoner for the duration, thus assured of surviving the war. It does count as a win for the American to an extent, since the German good-sportingly agrees to sign a statement confirming that the Yank brought him down at such-and-such a time so he can win his bet.

On a more serious if not mawkish note, O. B. Meyers' "Aces and Death" gives us a conscientious German, one more honorable than his commanders. This story invites us to see the American and German protagonists as near-exact counterparts, down to their similarly alliterative names, David Decker and Dagmar (isn't that a woman's name?) Denkert. The latter is forced down while on a bombing run against an Allied hospital housing a large number of German P.O.Ws. Denkert is shocked to learn that, contrary to German propaganda claiming that the Allies paint red crosses on ammo dumps, his target really was a hospital. He's naive enough to convince Decker to let him fly back to the German side so he can convince his superiors to stop bombing red crosses. When Denkert is predictably rebuffed and prevented from fulfilling his promise to return to the Allied side, Decker decides that he's just another treacherous Hun and is hot to shoot down his distinctive plane with a Z on the wing. Even after Denkert helps him escape after he's brought down behind enemy lines, Decker freaks out when the Z-plane appears to pursue him. The final twist comes after the American shoots that plane down, when a German plane drops off a message -- an omnipresent plot device in these stories -- explaining that Denkert's asshole commandant had used his plane to chase the American. As opposed to the more humorous stories with sportsman Germans, this one closes on a relatively grim note as Denkert reminds Decker that they'll be enemies once more should they meet again before the war ends. I still can't say I'm much impressed with Dare-Devil Aces, but I have to give credit where it's due for greater variety of content than I first assumed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

'Damn you, Kraut, what kind of lousy trick is this?'

A few weeks ago I rewatched Wings, the original Best Picture Oscar winner from 1927. That World War I classic made me curious about the "war-air" pulps that flourished around the same time or shortly afterward. Conveniently, I had a chance to sample one such magazine. Dare-Devil Aces was an early Popular Publications title, launching in February 1932 and lasting through the end of World War II. I've been making my way through the January 1937 issue, and even though I'm only halfway through it I realize what a challenge it must have been to write for the war-air pulps. There doesn't seem to be a lot of stories one can write about the war in the air, compared to the comparatively infinite possibilities of the chaotic war on the ground. Nor could one take anything like a nuanced view of World War I, apparently, as the audience for Dare-Devil Aces, on the evidence of this issue, was a lot more juvenile than the audience for Wings or the later films of screenwriter John Monk Saunders. In the war of the Dare-Devil Aces the Germans are always vicious, arrogant and cowardly, preferring to attack only with superior numbers and, whenever possible, with secret weapons. To write for the magazine, your story had to have a gimmick. In the lead novelette, star writer Robert Sidney Bowen's "Black Vengeance," the Germans have gimmicked tracer bullets that release clouds of poisoned splinters that paralyze enemy pilots on contact. In Eliot Todd's "Dynamite Buzzard," the Huns have a prototype "range finder" that allows anti-aircraft guns to detect Allied planes through clouds and in complete darkness. Fortunately for the U.S. and their Entente pals, these prototype superweapons are always destroyed and, ideally, their inventors are killed before they can fully share their insights with the high command. Some stories have gimmicks that have nothing to do with special weapons. In Reg Dinsmore's "Hell's Hooligan," for instance, the gimmick is that our American pilot hero is such a ginger snap that both allies and enemies laugh at his appearance until his heroism shuts their mouths. It's not much of a gimmick, admittedly, but it wasn't much of a story, either. Dare-Devil Aces seems to have been monotonous stuff; the target reader must have had a mental button that really needed pushing to keep buying the pulp month after month. It's the first pulp I've read that really reminded me of reading a comic book -- of the Golden or Silver Age sort -- in its high-concept simplicity. My understanding was that in 1937 a more cynical attitude toward the Great War prevailed in pop culture, though that would change very shortly, but Dare-Devil Aces reads as if the war was still on -- or, depending on your perspective, as if the war had already re-started.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Your hoodlums split the scalp of a prettier girl than you to keep her quiet. Taught me how!'


Created in 1917 for Adventure by Gordon Young, Don Everhard is recognized by some as fiction's first hard-boiled detective. That recognition is based on substance rather than style. Everhard, aka Donald Richmond, an oil-rich gambler and sometimes troubleshooter, has a grim, somewhat cynical attitude, but Young as a writer, especially early on, lacks the terse, staccato manner of the more generally recognized hard-boiled pioneers writing for Black Mask. Over time, their influence sunk in, so that by 1936 Young could talk the talk as well as walk the walk. The title "Everhard" (Adventure, May 1936) suggests that his novelette was meant as a kind of "reboot" for the character, and not necessarily the first since he, or his editor, had already given a 1933 novelette the same name. There had only been one Everhard story in between, the 1936 "Everhard" being the first in more than two years. He'd been mostly writing sea stories and westerns in the interval and presumably refining his style. The 1936 story re-establishes the hero's household: his sister Helen; his servant Kang Ko, a disciplinarian of long standing; and his chauffeur Mike, a professional wrestler who himself can talk the talk, cutting a mean promo to distract people while his boss does some sneaking, as well as walk the walk by breaking a crook's neck. Everhard himself is drawn to the aid of casino operators threatened by the unexpected release from prison of "Killer" Lynn, who has vowed vengeance on both the casino owner and Everhard himself. It develops that the threat to the casino is meant to draw Everhard out so Lynn and his mysterious employer Rinsko can eliminate him. It then develops, in an entertaining extra complication, that Everhard is being used as bait to draw out Lynn and Rinsko by a G-Man and his fanatical girlfriend, who fools Everhard so completely that he suspects her of setting him up for the gangsters to kill. That element of fallibility, the extent to which his own wrath at the gangsters leads him to blunder severely, makes Everhard a much more interesting and (dare I say?) likeable character than he was in previous stories I tried to read. In short, the 1936 "Everhard" read like a very promising restart for the franchise, but Young apparently was running out of ideas for his detective. Don Everhard only made two more appearances, in the November 1937 Adventure and in his only foray outside his home pulp, in a 1939 issue of Short Stories.  His heart may not have been in the genre anymore; he may have preferred writing, and fans may have preferred reading the exploits of his cowboy hero Red Clark, which continued for much of the 1940s, until Young's death in 1948. If anyone has read anymore Everhards worth recommending, I'll be glad to hear about them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'It's a yellow way to get out of a hole, Gatlin -- abandoning a white man in this country."

A common theme makes Ralph R. Perry's "Congo Sun" and W. Townend's "Red" appropriate bookends for the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. Both stories quite consciously attack the anarchically egalitarian attitude that "no one's any better than I am." In the Townend story, as regular readers will recall, a merchant-marine communist discovers his own superiority to the trash of proletarian London and emerges as a leader of men. In Perry's a frustrated first mate struggles to break the resistance of a crew of trash against an erratic captain. There's really a threeway struggle among First Mate Tom Cole, the hero, Captain Gatlin, who careens between cowardly indulgence of a malcontent crew and irrational rage against them, and Seaman Sutson, self-appointed ringleader of a bad crew of deckhands. Cole understands that someone like Sutson has to be brought to heel as soon as possible, but Gatlin fears the harm to his record should violence have to be employed against the crew. Cole doesn't necessarily think violence is the only solution, but while force may not be the only thing Sutson understands, forcefulness in manner may be the only other thing. As the ship heads up the Congo to pick up loads of lumber the equatorial heat gets to everybody and Gatlin grows increasingly intolerant of Sutson's goldbricking ways while Cole worries that it's too late to tame Sutson without violence. A sunstruck Gatlin has an alternative, which is to abandon Sutson and his buddies in a jungle town where they've been drinking the latest advance on their salaries extorted from the captain. While Cole feels that Sutson deserves such a fate, it still seems wrong to him somehow, and when Gatlin finally collapses from exhaustion, our hero uses his temporary authority to finally force the issue with the defiant seaman.

This isn't the sort of adventure thriller that Perry would write later in his Bellow Bill Williams series for Argosy. Instead, it's a character study of the shifting moods of mate and captain amid gradually increasing suspense as Perry delays the inevitable hand-to-hand showdown between Cole and Sutson. When that finally comes, Perry makes the blowoff surprising brief but unsurprisingly brutal. It works somehow; Cole breaking Sutson's arm is more abruptly decisive than the pages of knock-down and drag-out another writer might attempt. Despite the title, Perry has little to say about Africa or Africans, apart from noting, despite his characters' free use of the n-word, that native krooboys are more dependable workers than white trash like Sutson. In "Congo Sun" and "Red," pulp fiction seems to be preparing readers not only to pass the expected tests of courage and responsibility, but to take authority over others and prove that not everyone is as good as they are. Another way of putting it is that pulp, at least as published by Adventure editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, favors meritocracy over egalitarianism, or prefers a meritocratic egalitarianism that rewards talent and character regardless of class (see "Red") over an egalitarianism that stubbornly rejects all meritocratic distinctions. To look at it yet another way, modern critics may focus on how pulp affirms racial hierarchies, but pulp stories often require stiff-necked whites to bow before heroic characters as well, sometimes after struggles nearly as difficult as any empire's civilizing mission.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"I'm a white man. I don't savvy no frog lingo."

One of my rules for reading pulp magazines is to skip serial chapters, if I'm not going to see the complete story, unless they're first or last chapters. I've made an exception for the third installment of Leonard H. Nason's five-part war serial "Chevrons," from the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. I had a feeling that I'd be no more lost reading a middle chapter than I would be at any other point in the story, because being lost is pretty much the point of the whole thing. Nason may be the most underrated major writer in the Adventure stable. If so, that's probably because he dealt with the comparatively mundane subject of World War I, with the major exception of his 18th century picaresque serial The Bold Dragoon from 1925. Inspired by his own wartime experiences, Nason is above all a chronicler of the chaos of war. His stories typically deal with protagonists who get separated from their units and careen their way through battles bouncing off fellow soldiers in similar straits. Within the confines of Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's editing, Nason developed a hard-boiled style parallel to the detective writers at Black Mask, giving his characters angry, slangy dialogue that suits the hot-blooded cynicism of his stories and the uneducated eloquence of many of his soldier characters. Nason's war, retold less than a decade after the fact, is thoroughly deromanticized, as are its soldiers. His stories are episodic, virtually plotless apart from a protagonist's struggle for survival, so that part three of Chevrons is almost as artistically complete as any of his standalone stories, even if it leaves his protagonist Sgt. Eadie still in the thick of the action. On its own, the third installment is a coherent, convincing worm's-eye view of the war.

Call it cynicism or realism, but Nason is unafraid to show the American soldier in his ignorance, his selfishness, his sometimes cowardice and his often courageous resourcefulness. In this installment, Eadie, his sidekick Jake (responsible for our headline quote when confronted with a cartridge of Fumee Jaune) and an aggressive captain encounter "a half dozen gallant defenders of democracy who had huddled into a shell-hole and, having allowed the [German] advance to pass them, now began to timidly make their way out with every intention of breaking for the rear and safety." These draftees "don't see what good we can do by staying here and getting killed" after losing their officers, but the captain tells them, "You can stop a bullet from killing a better man!...This isn't the Russian army. You're a bunch of yellow ----." One of the draftees offers a characteristic response: "I'm not afraid of getting killed, but I am not going to be butchered. I'm no sheep; I'm an American citizen," and gets knocked "into a whimpering heap" for his trouble before the captain is killed by a falling shell.

"Where'd it getcha?" asked Jake earnestly.
"Never mind," said Eadie, "he's dead. I know by the way he feels."
Two or three infantrymen came cautiously over and watched Eadie fold the captain's hands and put his helmet over his face.
"What did he want to stand up like that for?" muttered one of them, "Can you tie that?"
"He wanted to show us he was braver'n us," replied another. "I tell yuh this place is a poor one to be brave in."
***
The man who had been knocked down by the captain now came over to the group.
"What outfit do you men belong to?" he asked.
"We're artillerymen," said Eadie, "from the Third Division."
"Oh!" cried the other. "The ---- regular Army! They shove us in here to crack the hardest nut in the whole sector just because we're men that can earn our living on the outside. These are the guys that want to shove us up against some more machine guns"
Jake was about to reply, but Eadie waved his hand to him to be silent.
"We don't give a ---- whether you go or stay," said the sergeant, "There's a barrage of military police in back of you that a rat couldn't get through. And if they get their hooks on you you'll wish you'd been killed up here. This isn't my first scrap. I know what I'm talking about. I wasn't shoved into the Army with a bayonet, nor shoved on to the front lines with another one. If you were any kind of man I'd lick you for what you said about the regulars, but as it is I'll give you a good kick if you open your mouth again. If it hadn't been for us you'd be wading around the Atlantic Ocean now to save yourself from being a Boche prisoner."
"Huh!" grunted the other sarcastically.

After the draftees head for the rear, Eadie observes, "There's a hero for you. He'll go home and be president of the Society of Veterans of the American Excavationary Forces yet. He's just the kind of a bird to shine in public life." But Jake answers, "I don't know but what he's right. We won't do no good to get killed. This outfit has run itself down like a kettled steer." And they still have stubborn, stupid or insane officers yet to encounter in this installment. I can't help wondering how the passage above went over with editor Hoffman, an early promoter of veterans' organizations like the American Legion, but the fact that counts is that he gave Nason his start in fiction and made Adventure his home base  -- he also appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post -- as long as he published in pulp. I find these conflicts within the conflict fascinating, along with Nason's inventively episodic approach to the war in general. His stuff is a highlight of any issue it appears in.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Shame rode her this morning, and in Burt stirred a peculiar compassion for her shame."




When the Thrilling Group acquired Ranch Romances in 1950, it had been publishing an imitation title of its own, Thrilling Ranch Stories, since late 1933. Thrilling Ranch wasn't the phenomenon Ranch Romances was; while the latter continued to be published twice a month as late as 1958, the best Thrilling Ranch could manage was a monthly schedule from mid-1934 through early 1938. Most of the time it came out bimonthly, and after Ranch Romances made it superfluous it finished its run as a quarterly from the summer of 1950 through the fall of 1953. Needless to say, many of the same writers appeared in both titles, including rising star Lewis B. Patten, whose "Rustler's Run" was the lead novelette in the Spring 1953 Thrilling Ranch Stories. Judging by his story alone, Thrilling Ranch had much the same content as Ranch Romances, tougher tales than the "Romance" (or "Ranch") label might suggest but with more consideration of human emotion. If anything, "Rustler's Run" tips more heavily toward romance than a lot of the Ranch Romances stuff I've seen. The genre plot about rustlers and their hidden passage in the hills doesn't seem to interest Patten as much as the sad lives of his two protagonist families and their redemption through merger. Burt Norden is a young rancher whose father's murder has broken his mother's spirit. Stella Norden has become a drunk desperately seeking companionship from any man who ambles along, bringing a shame on her family that she feels acutely whenever she sobers up. Burt resents his circumstances but can't bring himself to hate or break ties with his mother, even though her downward spiral handicaps his own social life. He hopes to court Lucy Cross, daughter of a neighbor rancher who has his own cross to bear in the form of a slowly dying wife. Burt has a rival in the form of "blocky and savage" Mitch Riorson, a thug from a family of thugs who conveniently turn out to be the mystery rustlers. Patten intercuts from Burt's fights with the Riorsons to the final days of Mrs. Cross, who in her moribund saintliness urges husband John to hook up -- she phrases it more delicately, of course, -- with her old friend Stella Norden so he won't be lonely and Lucy will still have a mother. The fist and gunfights are rote stuff but Patten puts more effort into the deathbed scenes and the tense mornings in the Norden home, maybe because that's what Thrilling Ranch readers expected and possibly because those moments of bereavement and regret, cliche though they also may be, came closer to home for him. The story effectively ends once it becomes clear that Stella, now cleaned up for good, will marry John Cross. That makes it okay for John to take time on the day of his wife's funeral to rescue Burt from pursuing rustlers, and it allows Patten to end the story quite abruptly, mentioning the offstage capture of the Riorsons and Mitch's hanging in a final paragraph. Of course, that might have been editor Fanny Ellsworth's axe falling rather than Patten's own decision, but it still shows where readers' priorities were presumed to be.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In brief: ADVENTURE, October 15, 1932

With the September 1, 1932 issue the once-mighty Adventure shrunk to half its former size, from 192 to 96 pages, while cutting its issue price by more than half, from a quarter to a dime. Considering that Argosy gave you 144 pages every single week for the same price, you wonder whether Adventure readers felt they were getting their money's worth. A casual reader probably was most disappointed, since in this particular issue, nearly a third of the content, 29 pages, went to serials. Gone was the traditional lead novel that in Adventure's golden age might have run for 60 or 70 pages. The longest standalone story in this issue is Robert Simpson's "The Crown on Crocodile Island," a mere 15 pages in length. This African story develops an interesting situation and is actually informative about the labor obligations imposed on tribal chiefs and the efforts made to evade them, but the climax is perfunctory and underwhelming, leaving you feeling there should have been more to it.

This number actually has two of my favorite pulp writers in it. Georges Surdez contributes "The Man From Nowhere," about a Foreign Legionnaire who can barely speak French and whose native tongue is known to none in the Legion's cosmopolitan ranks. It's basically a gimmick story that gives Surdez a chance to show off a different landscape from the norm by sending the Legion into the snowy mountains of North Africa. See the recent French film Of Gods and Men for a visual reference. The gimmick is that the mystery Legionnaire turns out to be an Inuit from Greenland who'd been brought to Europe by an explorer and gotten lost. By Surdez standards, a trifle. Robert Carse's "The Long Night" is a typical contest of wills aboard an aged windjammer between a young captain and a veteran mate, with the typical conclusion of belated mutual respect and teamwork in a crisis. There's nothing special about the story but Carse has a knack for infusing tales like these with a surly energy that makes them entertaining.

The best story this issue is Allan Vaughan Elston's "The Belfry," about a fugitive killer who nearly outwits an entire town of pursuers. The ingenious criminal hides in a tree as the posse passes him by, then follows discreetly behind them, walking in their footprints. In like manner he makes his way back into town and holes up in the church belfry, figuring that after a few days of fruitless searching the posse will finally give up so he can sneak out for good. This story works well as a thriller, establishing the danger our criminal protagonist faces at every moment, when the slightest wrong move can set the church bell ringing and give him away. It's the hallmark of a good thriller that you can't help sympathizing with if not rooting for the killer, even as you try to guess how he'll screw up in the end. The ending proves somewhat anticlimactic but Elston shows some real talent here.

Along with the serials by W. C. Tuttle and William McLeod Raine, there's T. R. Ellis's "Fences," about a rodeo rider turned auto racer, and two non-fiction pieces, including a good one from Carl Elmo Freeman that's part of a series on firearms history. The Camp-Fire letters column is a mere four pages, though that's still more than you'd see anywhere but in a science-fiction mag. Overall, Adventure in this period can't help looking and reading like a shadow of its former self. It'd put some more meat on its bones in 1933, going up to 128 pages, but it sacrificed frequency to do it, going from semi-monthly to monthly. The page count would fluctuate thereafter from a World War II peak of 160 pages a month to 112 pages every two months toward the end of its life as a pulp magazine. In short, better days were still to come for what had arguably been the greatest of pulps.

Monday, February 26, 2018

'He had an ambition at last; a passionate desire to bring about a desired result'

W. Townend's "Red" (Adventure, September 8, 1926) plays out like one of those "night from hell" movies crossed with a Horatio Alger story. The Alger side of it is the way our poor protagonist, named "Red" for his hair, earns an opportunity for success through an act of personal heroism. The After Hours aspect is the satiric sequence of nasty, brutish encounters Red, also named for his communist beliefs, experiences on his way to a naive rendezvous before his heroic opportunity. Red Wilson's a sailor who's lost his berth after getting into a fight with a crewmember, sick and tired of taking orders from people when, as far as he's concerned, no one's better than anyone else. With a comic-relief Scotsman as his sometime sidekick, Red embarks on a series of misadventures taking him to the Isle of Dogs, one of London's most squalid neighborhoods. Townend's idea seems to be to destroy Red's idealism about the working class, if that's an accurate label for the ensemble of criminal scum he encounters on his fool's mission to find Alf Coley, a supposed good comrade recommended to him by a man whose laughter signals to readers that he's having a great joke at Red's expense. Coley proves to be the most despicable of all, a would-be kidnapper and rapist who beats up Red and becomes the object of our hero's vengeful ambition. For what he tells himself are perfectly selfish reasons, he tracks Coley to where the thug plans to lure a millionaire into a shakedown with an ailing (drug-addicted?) son as bait. The situation becomes more severe when the millionaire's pretty daughter shows up at Coley's lair instead. The predictable melodramatics ensue, after which we get to the real meat of the story, when the millionaire and Red debate the state of society. By this point Red has shown the reader many heroic qualities, and Townend has emphasized that, unlike the enduring stereotype of the leftist, his protagonist is not motivated by envy of anyone. He doesn't want any reward from the millionaire, so he gets a straight talk instead. Presumably Townend's mouthpiece, the millionaire echoes the point the narrator hinted at earlier about the importance of ambition. Admirably, neither millionaire nor author tries to idealize capitalist society; they come instead from the "life's not fair" school, though the millionaire is not so snide about this as many are today.

The world's in a bad state, no doubt. It always has been, and while you get men like your friend, Coley, it always will be. Even though you eradicate the abuses we all know of, abuses many of us are trying to eradicate in different ways from the ways you recommend,you'll always have human nature to contend with. Your friends in Russia [i.e. the Bolsheviks] have proved that you can't change things wholesale, only, I suppose, Mr. Wilson,you wouldn't regard it in that way, quite, would you?...The world's a hard old place but there's good to be found in it, if you know where to look.

By the end, having taken the millionaire ship-owner's offer of a berth as a bosun, Red has changed for good, in either sense of the word, by giving up egalitarian idea that no one's better than anyone else. He learned during his night from hell that he was better than plenty of people. "Life was tough, more tough than it need have been," Red reflects, "if men and women would only think less of themselves now and again and more about other people." Ambition does not mean robbing or thrashing everyone around you, as so many he'd met had tried to do, but it does mean asserting yourself when you actually know better than someone else. Facing one of his old antagonists aboard his new ship, he tells the man, "You're not as good as any one else aboard this ship and you needn't think it. You're not as good as me to begin with....You may be as Red as you like ashore, but aboard this ship you'll remember you're one of the hands and you'll do as you're told." There's no denying that "Red" is a conservative work of fiction that stacks the deck by populating Red's path with so many scumbags, but at the same time it struck me as a more nuanced portrait of a left-winger, however misguided Townend takes him to be, than one might have expected from pulp fiction of this period.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

'All right my brothers....Let us follow the flag'


Last weekend while clearing some of my DVR queue I watched the 1956 George Marshall film Pillars of the Sky, a western vehicle for Jeff Chandler. When Sam Rolfe got a writing credit for adapting Will Henry's story "Frontier Fury," I said to myself, "I have that one!" In fact, I have it in its original form as an 82-page "complete novel" in the September 1952 issue of Zane Grey's Western Magazine. Published by Dell for approximately seven years (Nov/Dec 1946 to January 1954, mostly monthly), Zane Grey's was the most successful attempt at a western magazine in the digest format that would supplant the traditional pulp magazine. Originally highlighting abridged reprints of Grey's novels, the magazine increasingly highlighted original works by current writers from late 1950 forward. Henry W. Allen, formerly a story man for cartoon auteur Tex Avery, published most of his magazine fiction there under the pseudonyms "Will Henry" and "Clay Fisher." Editor Don Ward noted that "Frontier Fury" would soon appear in expanded form as a novel. It did so as To Follow the Flag, which makes it curious that Pillars of the Sky cites "Frontier Fury" as its source. Maybe Universal could pay Henry less, if anything, that way. I couldn't help wondering how the novel differed from the magazine piece, since the film bears only a minimal resemblance to the original.

"Frontier Fury" is based on an 1858 battle in the Pacific Northwest in which the U.S. Calvary took a beating, and it's mostly a battle narrative focusing on Sgt. Emmett Bell (aka "Ametsun") and his Nez Perce scouts. They manage to help the commanding colonel avoid a complete massacre, and it's clear from the close that the war with the Palouse, their chief Kamiak and his allies will continue. Meanwhile, Emmett gets the girl who had once been engaged to another officer who gets killed during he battle. Improbably for 1956, one of the changes made for Pillars of the Sky is that Emmet does not get the girl, there played by the late Dorothy Malone. Instead, Cally realizes that the other officer, who survives the film, cares more about her than Emmet does. Emmet apparently has a higher calling. Pillars portrays the 1858 war as virtually a war of religion. As in "Frontier Fury," most of the Indians are Christianized, use Christian names and speak fluent English, the exception being our villain Kamiakin (Michael Ansara), who signifies his disdain for the white man's religion by keeping his original name. Pillars makes a major character out of Protestant missionary (Ward Bond) who is only mentioned but never seen in "Frontier Fury." In the film's climax, Kamiakin kills the missionary in cold blood, only to be killed by the Christian Indians, thus presumably ending the war. In the end, it looks like Emmet will take the missionary's place, leading the Indians in prayer in the ruins of the mission. Where the hell did that come from? Not from To Follow the Flag, I suspect.

If anything, the title of the novel suggests that its focus is even more strongly on the Nez Perce scouts than in "Frontier Fury." For Timothy, the chief scout, following the flag is a point of honor. His character reminded me a lot of the Apache scout in Ulzana's Raid whose loyalty to the cavalry is unswerving because he "signed the paper committing him to its service. It goes deeper than that for Timothy, though he finds himself constantly distrusted by the cavalry officers. He's been obsessed with the American colors since his childhood. As he explains to Emmett, comparing his loyalty and idealism to the other scouts:

When they look on that gay banner of the Pony Soldiers they don't see what I do.They have no eyes for that bright cloth on its roundtopped lance-haft. They can't feel the blood and the snow of its stripes. They can't touch the deep blue of its sky nor reach the bright glitter of its stars. Well, wuska, let that be the end of it. If they can't see the flag, how can they follow it?
But I can see it. I have always seen it. From the day the old chief, Menitoose, my father who walked with Lewis and Clark, drew its design and color upon my first boyhood shield, I have seen it. The old man bade me take the emblem and walk behind it with his image in my eyes for all the days of my life. I have done that bidding. Where that flag goes, Tamason [his real name] will follow it.

By comparison, Emmett is something of a cynic, though more trusting of Timothy as a matter of personality and experience than his superiors are. While he's convinced of Timothy's integrity, he also suspects that the Nez Perce are acting on tribal self-interest first and foremost, concerned mainly with weakening their native enemies with American help. He's also "an Indian veneer-peeler of five years' good standing" who doubts how deeply Christianity has changed the natives. He makes a running joke of Timothy's devotion to Choosuklee, aka Jesus Christ, which good-natured Timothy takes in stride. All this makes Emmett's arc in Pillars of the Sky more strange, but one thing the film admirably preserves from "Frontier Fury" is Henry's overall eschewal of the stilted dialogue that passes for Indians speaking English fluently in many westerns. The flowery excerpt above notwithstanding, Timothy and the other scouts, Jason and Lucas, speak more casually than western readers and viewers may have been used to, and often with an actual sense of humor. Alas, Henry abruptly throws away any good will he might earn from the "politically correct" modern reader by giving Cally a black servant who speaks minstrel dialect and is described with both the n-word and the d-word by our hero! Emmet is grimly amused by the role reversal when an Indian captures the women and takes the black woman as a wife, making Cally his new wife's servant, but modern readers may not laugh with him. Wisely, the servant doesn't appear in Pillars.

In "Frontier Fury" it's Timothy, not Emmett, who gets the last word. His double ordeal, scrambling to survive and making heroic efforts despite the distrust of most officers, has embittered him in a way he won't express to his friend Ametsun. But he makes his feelings clear to his own sidekicks on the final page of the story.

It's a fool's flag, my brothers, and those who follow it with them [the white soldiers] are fools.The red you see upon it is Indian blood. The blue is the empty sky they trade for our lands. Those white stars are their promises, high as the heavens, bright as moonlight, cold and empty as the belly of a dead fish.

Lucas and Jason, never idealists and never disillusioned, see things more practically. "My belly, too, is cold and empty as a dead fish's," one says, "And the food is there. Where the flag is." Once the motion is seconded, Timothy wistfully acquiesces with the words above this post. Overwritten as it sometimes is, and in spite of its uglier moments, "Frontier Fury" is a better western story that Pillars of the Sky, okay on its own terms, is a western movie.