Sunday, December 24, 2017

'He knew very well that strange things came out of wild Africa with the slaves.'

Norman Springer told The Editor magazine in 1918 that he wasn't the typical writer. He had no youthful urge to write or tell stories, but was only looking for a way to make easy money when he signed up for a correspondence course in movie scenario writing. He bombed as a scenario writer but got his real education in a night-school class on short story writing. After the usual period of writing "for the waste basket," he sold a story to Adventure in 1914. "About all I remember about that event is my stunned amazement when the postman handed me the little brown envelope with the pirate in the upper left hand corner," Springer recalled. A subsequent sale to Argosy actually made it into print first, two months before "For Ways That Are Dark" appeared in the December 1914 Adventure. He broke briefly into the slicks with two 1917 stories for The Saturday Evening Post, but mainly stuck with the pulps, not too prolifically, when not writing novels. "The Spanish Tornado," his lead novelette for the January 10, 1926 Adventure, was his first pulp story in a year and a half. It's a period piece, starting in 1877 San Francisco where down-on-his-luck sailor Charlie Peace gets a lucky break when he lands a berth as second mate of the Oloron on the strength of his name. The superstitious Captain Peter Lamont hopes that Charlie will bring peace to his turbulent ship. Complications ensue almost immediately when the captain brings his new bride on board. Charlie recognizes her instantly as La Carmencita, the Spanish dancer he fell for on first sight in a Frisco theater. The crew was on edge even before a woman and her supposed bad luck came on board, however. The ship is haunted, if not dominated, by the presence of Jude, its black steward, who seems to have a supernatural power over the captain. Springer conveys Charlie's increasingly hysterical perception of the black man in language that today's readers might read as making explicit many white folks' raw fear of the Negro. He complicates the horror, however, by revealing that Jude was complicit, along with Captain Lamont's father, in the latter-day transatlantic slave trade, using "Egbo" black magic to keep the slaves, if not the crew, in line. Jude seems to be planning to sacrifice La Carmencita to avenge the old Captain, who was killed for his cruelties by the dancer's father long ago. Springer aims for horrific effects -- his previous pulp appearance had been in Weird Tales -- but undermines them, for posterity at least, with a florid, almost Dickensian prose style and a weakness for accents. I understand that there's a realist impulse behind that, a desire to write out speech as the ear hears it, but the effort usually ends up replacing realism with mere rhetoric and taking a tale straight to the realm of camp. Jude (see first-page illustration) is supposed to be a figure of terror -- "No child's dream of a with could have revealed a more unhuman and sinister looking creature" -- but terror turns to travesty whenever Jude speaks in his minstrel-show voice. Likewise, La Carmencita is supposed to be a romantic ideal and a noble, Christian soul, but talks like a cartoon character:

"What I care he keel me!" exclaimed Carmencita. "You not onderstan' God, Meester Peese. He, my Pedro, take me out of the hell back there. Now I make me prays and the good God takes 'eem out of 'ees hell here. It ees so. No more the evil ones can come to heem. The Evil, the neegar, God make feenish!"

Mine is inevitably "presentist" criticism, but it's hard not to read old prose with other than a present-day sensibility. Since a lot of pulp fiction from the same time still passes muster today, and not just the hard-boiled stuff that shaped modern idioms, it seems fair to call out inferior writers like Springer who probably didn't satisfy contemporary readers, either. Arthur Sullivant Hoffman apparently liked him, but that doesn't mean we have to.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Are we children that you would ask us to believe you can fairly judge your own flesh and blood?'

Harry F. Olmsted was a terrifically prolific western writer. In 1940 alone he's credited with 59 stories in the FictionMags Index. Sixteen of them appeared in Street and Smith's weekly Western Story, including "Bullet Boomerang" (November 2). In this short piece, Long Tom Galbraith saves his son John from Indian justice after the boy's accused of killing a tribal elder in order to elope with the old man's daughter. Olmsted is at pains to explain that Pasiska, the daughter of Lame Caribou, is actually a white girl, "given unto him by the white squaw of a great white chief."  After the main events of the story, he even has the Indians reveal that "There is a paper with the white man's word upon it, in the lodge of Lame Caribou," so there'll be no doubt about the legality of John Galbraith's marriage to Pasiska. John has a rival in love, and Long Tom a rival in business, in the form of Rene LeDuc, who happens to be the only witness to John's killing of Lame Caribou. Of course, whether John did the deed or not, a white man can't be left to Indian justice, and Long Tom asserts his right as the Great Provincial's factor to try the case. The Indians reasonably doubt his objectivity, but rethink their resistance when Long Tom proposes submitting the matter to divine judgment, to be revealed through a round of what Georges Surdez called Russian roulette. Long Tom's son isn't thrilled by the idea, but Dad assures him that "This is not a sinful gamble, ... This is a matter of honor, of life and death. The souls of two men, each having sworn to God, are on the block here. You must have faith, son, that if you are innocent God will exonerate you now."  What we have here is a twist on the old pulp formula of the white man using a pseudo-supernatural test to detect a criminal among superstitious natives. It's not the natives, but LeDuc the white man -- to the extent that pulp fiction regarded French Canadian trappers as white -- who is to be terrified into confessing, not because he fears God but because he fears bad luck. As it turns out, this test is as fake as such tests usually are, for Long Tom has loaded the gun with blanks, as LeDuc learns when he tries to shoot the factor. The natives are impressed just the same. "They moved in to touch him, murmuring strange words of awe [for Long Tom] had shown them a brand of justice new to the Lone Land. Chief Running Bear is especially humble in retrospect. "None but witless children could have gone so wrong," he tells Long Tom, "We were honest, but our mistake was in not calling upon the Great Spirit. Your faith was large, ours small and weak." Thus did civilization advance according to pulp history.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

'I am no umpchay, and I never seen the proposition I can't beat.'

Theodore "Ted" Copp had a fairly short pulp career, publishing only eighteen stories over the course of a decade, according to the FictionMags Index. He published his first stories in Fiction House's Black Aces, then had his busiest period as a regular contributor to Street and Smith's Complete Stories. "Corn Doctor" (June 22, 1935) was his Argosy debut, the first of six stories (including a serial) he'd publish in the venerable weekly over the next year. As this is my first encounter with Copp, I can't say how representative this ten-pager is, but the story itself reads like an exercise in the Damon Runyon style. The protagonists are amiable con men who can't make it on 14th Street in the big city with their spiels -- the colorful narrator sells overnight bags for a quarter, tricking marks by leaving counterfeit coins inside to make them think they're profiting, while his friend Corny tries to sell a patent medicine for corns. Corny's real talent is an uncanny quickness of the hands that allows him, on a bet, to pluck flies off any surface. But as his nickname indicates, he's obsessed with podiatry, though he disdains the snake-oil he actually sells. His heart's desire is to remove corns from sufferer's feet, which our narrator finds vaguely creepy. They decide to try their luck, and Corny's dexterity, in Binghamton NY, despite their agreement that rustic "apple-knockers" are wiser to grifts than city folk. Their hope is that the easiest marks are those who think they're wise to everything. They find their ideal smart-mark in Jake the Barber ("a very common name among barbers, even when their mothers call them Thomas or Richard or Harold"), luring him into the trap by dropping a lot of bad bets to him before Corny does his fly trick. In case the readers were wondering how Corny does it, apparently he's just that good with his hands, as Jake learns when, suspecting that Corny keeps dead flies on hand to palm, puts him in a closed room with a single fly in it. Jake's not a good loser though, and when he invites Corny and friend to help him clean out two local suckers, our narrator suspects a set-up. Sure enough, Jake's pals lose a lot of coin, but the idea is to put the interlopers' money on the table when the inevitable stick-up man, another of Jake's cronies, shows up. The inevitable melee ends with the robber routed, the suckers on the run, and Corny on top of a disarmed Jake, going after the corns Jake had earlier admitted were plaguing his feet. There they remain when the cops arrive, though our narrator is smart enough to make his escape. He reports in an epilogue that Corny used his fly gag to pay his way into podiatry school and finally set up practice in Binghamton. This looks like a tragic waste of talent. "I hear it is a big week for Corny when he takes in five bucks," he closes, "which only goes to show you what happens to a guy who gives his natural genius the wave." Copp pulled out of pulp after 1936, with one exception, to concentrate on writing novels and publicity for Met Life. Apparently he was very close to his mother, famous in her own right as the inventor of a popular piano-teaching method, for when she died on New Year's Day 1945 he wrote her obituary, went to bed, and died in his sleep overnight at age 42.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'He had the satisfaction of hearing cries of pain.'

 Illustration from my own collection

Tom Curry trespasses on Arthur O. Friel's territory in "Brain and Brawn" (Argosy, June 22, 1935), set in oil-rich Venezuela. You'd think the present Bolivarian regime were in charge back then, given the way the natives treat the two American heroes running an oil rig. A Venezuelan concern wants to drink their milkshake, so to speak, and their operative, the peon foreman Espinosa, tries to make life difficult for the intrepid gringos, apparently the only people around interested in working hard. They are a typical Mutt & Jeff team; Sanderson is the "peppery little driller," Morton the "mighty giant" who does the heavy lifting and keeps the peons in line when they get uppity. In other words, Sanderson is the "Brain," Morton the "Brawn" of the title. The twist in Curry's bromance is that as they fight their way out of camp and flee through the jungle, hoping to salvage their well before the local rivals move in, a role reversal takes place. Morton gets shot in the leg and goes virtually lame, making it necessary for Sanderson to become the brawn by bearing his weight through the jungle. And as fatigue gradually clouds Sanderson's mind, it's up to Morton to do the quick thinking that eventually saves both men. Calling this a "bromance" is neither an anachronism or a joke. Morton and Sanderson are very close friends, albeit certainly in a purely platonic manner, with Sanderson the dominant partner despite Morton's tremendous strength. The story reaches its emotional climax when Sanderson, captured by the "Venzies," is taken to identify Morton's grave, having told his captors that his friend, still free, had died on the trail. Sanderson assumes that he'll be killed whether Morton's death is verified or not. Recalling Morton's hiding place, he hopes the big guy was smart enough to find another (he was), but has his doubts.

Sanderson almost wept; they'd surely find his partner, for Morton could not have worked very far by himself, and would not have done so, since he would wait for Sanderson to come back to him. Eager for a last look at his friend, the driller pushed forward. He wanted to die beside Morton.

Make of that what you will. Action fans were less distrustful of strong emotions back then. "Brain and Brawn" isn't top-flight Curry but it holds your interest easily enough and it has arguable historic interest as a document of the seeming arrogance that many Venezuelans resent in Americans to the present day.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'No clothed man fled.'

By the late 1930s Short Stories had become Arthur O. Friel's main market in pulps. He wasn't particularly prolific at this time; "Closed Country" (November 25, 1937) was his third and last story published that year, after only one Friel story appeared in all of 1936. I don't know what might have been going on in Friel's life in those years, but "Closed Country" struck me as an unusually hateful story, more preoccupied with racial hierarchy, more contemptuous toward blacks (the N-word is employed) than in other stuff I've read from him. It starts with our unarmed hero, Donovan, bravely trying to face down a black man with a revolver in Friel's usual stomping ground of Venezuela. Donovan is rescued when a stranger intervenes to grapple with the black and snap his neck. "I just didn't like this black bum," the interloper explains, "And I don't like the general idea of a black knocking off a white." He identifies himself as O'Brien, a Swede from Boston. Donovan identifies him as a likely guide for an expedition up the dangerous Rio Caura to where our hero hopes to scout out a route for a future railroad. O'Brien gathers a crew of reliable, manly Venezuelans, little removed from savages themselves in Friel's portrayal yet possessed of skills, a sense of honor, and a strong consciousness of superiority to Indians and other darker peoples. It's pretty hard-boiled stuff until the story veers into slightly more fantastical territory. Donovan has really been hunting for Tom McFarland, the man who swindled his father and reportedly fled into the jungle. He finds this McFarland ruling over some sort of lost race of people who are dark but not quite colored.

For one thing, these Indians looked unusually intelligent; faces longer, brows higher, eyes deeper than those of most aborigines. Also, their dark color was unnatural -- a dull greenish black, blending so softly into the forest shade as to make them almost invisible at a little distance. Although totally nude save for tiny dark clouts, they were so completely dyed that their real color was discernible only when they lay down to drink. Then a beam of sunlight piercing through the forest struck to the base of their thick black hair, disclosing scalp-skin almost white.

McFarland has a theory -- it's hard to tell how seriously we're meant to take it -- that his people are descended from survivors of Atlantis. He compares them favorably to the darker "humanimals" of the region. But he's no racist, really. "I got along by treating niggers and Indians like human beings," he tells Donovan, "They all are. Real niggers and real Indians, I mean. Half-breeds - pfah!"  Damn.... mixed-race people must have had a hard time trying to read pulps, with so many stories telling them they're the bottom of the human barrel. In any event, the ambiguous superiority of these dark-white tribespeople intrigues Friel more than whatever revenge agenda Donovan had, which gets forgotten as he gets to know McFarland better and fights alongside him against an invasion by a "back-bush gang" of "misbegotten mongrels," led by "an apparent white man. Even here, Friel perceives a hierarchy of courage and discipline. When McFarland's men attack, the gang's Indian guides flee as fast as they can swim, while "No clothed man fled." Predictably enough, McFarland dies, as do Donovan and O'Brien's Venezuelan companions, but not before he points Donovan to a fortune that will settle the old man's debt to our hero's father. Friel excels at pitched battles like the one that climaxes this story, and if you can overlook a racism unusually ugly even for pulp fiction "Closed Country" shows that at a relatively late point in his career he could still deliver the blood and thunder. He seems to have had an idea of doing a series with Donovan and O'Brien, but it's unclear from the FictionMags Index whether they ever came back for an encore.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

'Only a man after my own heart could make a mongrel find champagne in this place.'

Horace "Bugs" Sinnat is an agent of the Indian Secret Service and a master of disguises. He is the protagonist of a series of stories by S. B. H. Hurst, which appeared in Adventure, Wide World Adventures and Oriental Stories from the mid-1920s into the early 1930s. "Bhamo" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) isn't the first Sinnat story I've read but it's the first to make any impression on me. Our hero is introduced pretending to be a "gone native" white in order to infiltrate a criminal enclave in Burma. He's on the trail of George Latimer Fritz Maurice, a.k.a. Menzies, an English renegade and "the greatest and most spectacular criminal ever known in India," now conspiring with native bandits to seize control of a territory on the Burma-India border that would make him a power broker. While Sinnat's act invites the contempt of natives and half-breeds, his impudent wit impresses the bandit leader Kwung Ksi, who takes Bugs for a former fighting man who could become one again if he lays off the booze. Kwung Ksi is an undisputed villain, but Bugs "rather like[s] the brute." He comes off slightly favorably compared with the more decadent Menzies and the more despicable half-breeds who haunt the territory. Hurst joins many pulp writers in contempt for mixed-race people, describing a "breed" tavern-keeper as an "animal" and a "disgusting caricature of humanity." Kwung Ksi at least has balls. "The native who kicked a white man was an unusual character," our narrator explains, "The coolies felt sufficiently self-exalted when they vocally abased the apparently degenerate and cast-off member of the stronger race."

Bugs has to employ psychology once Kwung Ksi and his partner Menzies grow suspicious of him. Kwung Ksi in particular is alarmed when he discovers, while frisking him, that Bugs is in very remarkable physical shape for a gone-native drunk. Now that he suspects that Bugs still is what he seemingly had been or could be again, Kwung Ksi instantly loses his enthusiasm for the reclamation project and urges Menzies to kill Sinnat. Menzies pretends not to share Kwung Ksi's doubts until he can interview Sinnat privately, thinking he can turn the presumed secret agent with promises of plunder and power. Bugs takes a big chance taunting Menzies for his pretense to aristocracy. When Menzies announces that he has royal blood, Bugs boasts mockingly, "So do I!" Finally, he convinces both men of his harmlessness by playing the alcoholic coward. Somehow, while suspecting that he's a British agent, they take his imposture seriously, leaving him so poorly guarded that he can sneak out of camp and contact the Imperial authorities. Hurst ends the story with the rout of Kwung Ksi's forces -- the bandit himself apparently goes down fighting, taking many enemies with him -- and Menzies' less courageous escape. Hurst clearly has plans for this character, as he leaves Bugs cursing the villain's escape and judging his mission a failure despite the rescue of gold and captive women. Whether he appears again is up to hardcore Hurst fans, if any live today, to tell us.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

'Foreigners don't enjoy the sanctity that we had a few years ago.'

"Black Powder Diplomacy" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is H. P. Guiler's only known pulp story. Set at a chaotic moment in Chinese history when a young republic  was beset by warlords, it portrays increased resentment by Americans of a perceived lack of deference on the part of the Chinese, who requisition resources with little regard for white supremacy. "They've forgotten the lesson learned during the Boxer trouble [in 1900]," one American remarks, "and it looks like we shall have to give them another -- if we expect to stay here." An eager officer misses the good old days "when action was taken on the spot, and explained much later by letter when the affair had been settled and forgotten." Radio brings accountability all too quickly in the ultramodern 1920s, but our American protagonist insists on doing something now to restore the white prestige compromised by an influx of refugees from revolutionary Russia who've sunk to doing "coolie work." The problem with that is "when one white man loses caste out here, we all do." Unsurprisingly, the American's conclude that force is the only thing the Chinese will understand. Their challenge is to make their show of force look like something else. The arrival of a British admiral's ship gives them a pretext and an opportunity. The joke of the title is that the Americans fire the appropriate salute to the dignitary with live ammunition, out of alleged necessity, effectively terrorizing Chinese troops and ensuring compliance with previous American demands. "You will beat up Americans, will you, you yalla -----s," the American skipper roars, his meaning obscured slightly by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's typical editorial reticence. This is the sort of "diplomacy" the Chinese still remember resentfully, though now, when they may think themselves in a position to practice similar diplomacy in the South China Sea and elsewhere, that same attitude they've long resented may be making a comeback in an America where the old nationalism seems new again. Not so long ago scholars might have read Guiler's story and deplored the arrogance it portrays, but the same story might find more appreciative readers today.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

'By ---, if it ain't Slim Evans I'll kiss your foot to a cherry red!'

Thomson Burtis broke into pulp in 1920 and quickly made himself a star of Adventure magazine, specializing in aviation stories. Two of his longest-lived characters were army fliers Slimuel X. Evans (usually just "Slim") and Tex McDowell, who star in "Mistaken Island" (Adventure, March 30, 1926). I'd found earlier stories of Slim and Tex to be rather stilted affairs, but by this point, with Slim now a self-deprecating narrator, Burtis seemed to have found a comfortable storytelling voice, though it clearly made editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman a little uncomfortable. He cut any hint of blasphemy out of the stories he published, which means, on this occasion, that many oaths and adjectives disappear, though readers could guess easily enough what Slim or other characters were saying. "This is a --- farce!" Slim protests at one point, "And by --- I'm getting tired of standing here talking in circles to you three bozos here for no reason." The three bozos are a motley crew of disreputable types holed up with an apparent prisoner on an island in the flood-swollen Ohio River, on which Slim and Tex have to make an emergency landing. They first big mystery is that the trio seem to recognize Slim and Tex, even though our heroes have never seen them before. It turns out that they know the pilots by reputation, as related by the pilots' colleague, Hal Ellis. The problem with that explanation, however, is that our heroes have no idea who Ellis is. Ellis proves to be a charismatic scoundrel, not to mention an imposter, vying with the island trio, his erstwhile partners, to claim a bounty on the trio's prisoner, a hillbilly feudist. Burtis seems to be planning for the future while introducing Ellis, giving him an extensive backstory while putting a detailed description of the man in Slim's mouth. "I've seen some types in my time," Slim also observes, "but Mr. Happy Hal Ellis wins the slightly used beef-stew as far as I'm concerned, and I don't know whether I can explain the reasons for that statement or not." I know I can't.

Hal Ellis is slick enough to convince our heroes that he's the good guy in the scenario they've stumbled into, and to convince his enemies to play him, Slim and Tex in an epic card game for the rights to the prisoner. Playing for matches, the gamblers embark on a 72-hour marathon. "In poker, as in flying and other things, I sort of muddle through," Slim observes, but despite some reservations about Ellis's "somewhat mangy proposition," he and Tex decide that it'll be fun to play, especially if they can share in the bounty on the prisoner. "It all comes down to one explanation -- a couple of cuckoo flyers couldn't turn down a chance for excitement," which probably was what Ellis was depending on. Reserving his own strength and sobriety while the others exhaust or inebriate themselves, Happy Hal simply waits for the moment to start a fight so he can get away with the prisoner and keep the bounty all to himself. The island threesome provides the pretext by actually cheating at cards, but Slim and Tex learn that they're actually more in the right than Ellis was -- which makes it a good thing that they're able to stop him from flying away with his captive, though Ellis himself gets away, presumably to fight another day. "Mistaken Island" is easily the best Burtis story I've read to date, and while that isn't saying much considering what I've forced myself through before, it's actually good enough to make me more willing to seek out stories of Slim and Tex in the future.

Monday, November 27, 2017

'When a puny fool gives orders, inkosi, what can men do but laugh?'

L. Patrick Greene is best known now for his series of pulp stories about "The Major" and his sidekick Jim the Hottentot, but on the side he was the Georges Surdez of British imperialism in Africa. That is, Greene wrote a good number of stories dealing with the challenge of military discipline amid the clash of personalities in a military and colonial hierarchy. "Discipline" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) is an obvious case in point. Simmons, our protagonist, is tasked with whipping the Black Watch of the British South African Police into shape. They're an awkward squad, inconsistently uniformed and clumsy in half-hearted drill with that inattention to cleanliness than considered characteristic of nonwhite peoples. Simmons gives them a stern talking to, breaking their complacency to remold them into some semblance of soldiery.

'Pigs!' he ejaculated. 'Pigs!' he said again, very slowly, as his finger traveled down the line.
The men stiffened perceptibly.
'You do not like to be called pigs, eh?' Simmons said with a harsh laugh. 'Then you must have pride and you are not altogether lost to shame. And yet --' the men squirmed under the lashing sarcasm of his voice -- 'I should have called you buloyi; I should have pointed my first finger at you. But, see how merciful I am, I only call you pigs.'
A cloud of dust arose from their embarrassed scuffling.
'You are liars, all of you,' Simmons continued in an even, unimpassioned voice. 'By your mouths you proclaim yourselves to be men and warriors of the great white chief, but by the filthiness in which you live it is plain that you are no men. No. Not men, but brothers to the dog-apes. Tchat! I spit your filth from me! I weep for you.'

This has a positive effect because many of the men do have warriors' pride and they are capable of shame, even if they want to blame their lax ways on their corporal, whom they disdain as a "puny fool." They respond well to harsh drilling, but a busybody English missionary, Banning, doesn't like what he sees when Simmons sends his men charging through a patch of thorns. The missionary, one of a brother-sister team, is determined to have Simmons written up for brutality. Greene wants us to recognize Banning as a naive idealist; the one thing he doesn't understand, it seems, is force. He doesn't take Simmons seriously when the officer warns that the missionary has hired porters from a hostile tribe, and sure enough, the tribe ends up kidnapping Banning's sister with intent to sacrifice her to one of their gods. "The curs! And I treated them like friends!" Banning protests.

The payoff reminds us that Greene was the creator of one of the more consistently heroic black characters in pulp in Jim the Hottentot. When the time comes to carry out a rescue mission, Simmons is prostrated by fever, and it's up to the Black Watch, including the "puny" corporal, to vindicate their commander's methods and his ultimate faith in them as men. Their mission, Simmons says, is "only another lesson in discipline. For us as well as them." The Black Watch, it turns out, has new pride in their imperial role. "Our voices are the voices of all white men," their top man tells the hostiles. In the face of the enemy's defiance, they ford a deep river, scatter their foes with disciplined, non-lethal fire and rescue Miss Banning. For some modern readers, the climax might reveal the Black Watch as tragic sellouts, brainwashed by the British, but Greene obviously had a different intention: to show that Africans were capable, if not of civilization as whites knew it, then of that discipline that arguably forms the foundation of any civilization. In short, "Discipline" is meant as a positive, if patronizing, portrait of black men, whatever people may think of it nearly a century later.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

So, what have I been reading lately?

The short answer is: not much pulp. Back in late October I caught a cold  that seemed to go away after a few days, but by early November it was back as something more like full-blown flu. I functioned minimally, dragging myself to work and back but not doing much otherwise. When my eyes stopped watering enough to let me read, my interest turned to non-fiction, particularly books on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia 100 years ago. I finally started feeling better a week ago and I became conscious of neglecting pulp fiction. It was easy to start up again on the daily commute, and the good people of the Yahoo pulpscans group have been doing heroic work making vintage pulp available in scanned form for me to choose from. One relatively recent scan was the March 30, 1926 issue of Adventure. This was a milestone issue marking the end of the magazine's thrice-monthly schedule, which began back in October 1921. Editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman put a brave face on it, explaining that it was necessary to cut back because readers hadn't been able to keep up with the serials while promising that editorial standards would be even higher, as would the quality of the fiction, now that Adventure would come out less frequently. I'll let more extensive readers judge that, but I'm sure there was a more bottom-line explanation for the change than Hoffman let on. In any event, this issue itself was the usual mixed bag. I found myself with little patience for the lead novel, W. Townend's "A Light for His Pipe," which promised only to be an interminable feud of two crews of sailors. Nor did I bother with the fourth chapter (of five total) of Hugh Pendexter's serial "Log Cabin Men." These longest stories aside, there was still plenty of entertaining content. I'll deal with some of them in more detail later, but for now I'll note Walter J. Coburn's "Smiley," a short tale of a slightly sozzled, slightly crazy but ultimately heroic saloon swamper, and Robert Carse's "In the Boneyard," an atmospheric anecdote in which a mutilated U.S. Navy vet of the great war encounters a German U-boat officer on a repentant pilgrimage to America, even though the German has less to repent of than some of his peers. Over the week to come I'll review some of the longer stories as I get back into the swing of this pulp-blogging thing. I hope no one missed me too much!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

High Noon in Furnace City

For a change of pace, I'm not going to summarize or criticize some pulp story in this space. Instead, for the heck of it, I'm going to share with you a complete short story from the June 1955 issue of Western Short Stories, with the emphasis on short. The FictionMags Index describes Dick Baird's "High Noon in Furnace City" as a vignette; in a slick magazine it'd be called a "short short story." The Index offers no description at all for Baird, under whose name -- most likely a pseudonym -- appeared just two stories, both for Martin Goodman's Stadium outfit in 1955. It's reminiscent in length and format of the sort of two-page pieces that would have appeared in Goodman's Atlas comics in this period. The story is a simple set-up for a twist ending, but you may end up wondering whether what happens at high noon in Furnace City actually makes sense. Judge for yourselves, for here it is, straight from the twilight days of western pulp.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Look at their skins and ye can see who their father is.'

The four-page short story "Oysthers!" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) makes a better case for Gordon Young as a pioneer of the hard-boiled style, or at least the hard-boiled manner, than any of his longer works that I've read to date. It's an absolutely amoral tale told by a deliberately unreliable narrator, Patrick O'Flynn Delaney -- a sailor with "a brogue that was as thick as the San Francisco fog." In oldschool style Young introduces us to Delaney through the eyes of another first-person narrator, who meets the sailor in an oyster house where Delaney has spent his last dime on a bowl of soup. Once, however, "t'was less than six month ago that Oi was one of the richest men in the whole South Seas -- f'r ten minutes, but no longer." The rest of the story relates the rise and fall of Delaney and his fellow castaway on the isle of Rigoro, Buck O'Malley. Buck has "a way wid womin," having stolen a Dutch trader's "naygur wife" along with his schooner before picking up another woman on the island. Delaney practices abstinence, since "naygur womin [are] too [expletive deleted by editor A. S. Hoffman] handy wid knives an' ugly in other ways," but O'Malley enjoys having the women vie to service him in every way imaginable. To make a short story shorter, One of the women finds an oyster with a pearl inside "wid the shape of a hen's egg an' as big." The end of paradise follows quickly as Kate, the Dutchman's wife, ends an argument with her rival, Betsy, by burying a knife in Betsy's breast. "That for you, pig-woman," she says in farewell. O'Malley approves and has Betsy thrown to the sharks. "It was Kate that I love best anyhow," he remarks. He loves her too well and not enough, however, entrusting her to hold the great pearl while he does the dirty work of dumping Betsy overboard, only to have Kate pull a knife on him. She's worried that he'll find a way home to cash in the pearl, abandoning her. Extracting his promise to stay with her on Rigoro, she throws the pearl into the sea.

O'Malley he stood there gaspin' for air; then wid a yell he jumps, an' the fist of him took her in the jaw an' she fell over the skylight and her laigs quivered like a frog's that's dying. 
'Ye black dirt, into the water wid yez an' find that pearl -- Oi'll kill ye! Don't ye come up widout it!'

Finally Delaney intervenes to save Kate, only to get stabbed by her while he fights his former friend. Both white men go over the side, but our raconteur makes it back on board while the sharks -- or "maybe as Oi sometimes think, 't was the black Betsy girl" -- pull O'Malley under. There's nothing left for Delaney but to take Kate back to her trader and then make his furtive way back to America, where "Some day we'll have a real dinner, wid radishes an' beer, an then Oi'll tell ye a story worth two of this an' ivery bit as true!" Even with the brogue, I wouldn't mind hearing another one from Delaney, as long as he keeps it just as short.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

'Mohammedans interest me. Supermen of the East. Excitable, you know; rather fanatical.'

During the 1910s, Presbyterian minister George McPherson Hunter was secretary of the American Seamans' Friends Society and editor of its magazine, The Sailors' Magazine. He started writing fiction for the pulps in 1919, in his fifties, and made it into Adventure only once. "Seven Rugs and Seven Men" (September 30, 1923) resumes the adventures of McGregor Sahib, a character Hunter created for The Green Book. Here, McGregor is ship's doctor for the City of Manila, currently docked in New York. The author's knowledge of the sailor community in the metropolis adds some color here as the ship has to recruit not merely new crewmen but new lascars, Asiatic seamen, from "Brooklyn's Asiatic boardinghouses." McGregor, "steeped in Indian ways," sees that the wrong men may have been hired.

The stokers were Sunnites, Arabic Mohammedans, owing allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey. And the men brought aboard were Shiites, Indian Mohammedans. The Arabic crowd, fanatical and clannish, wanted their own kind.

Sunnis and Shiites at odds? That sounds right, even if they're not as neatly divided geographically as Hunter seems to think. Still, McGregor is a veritable scholar of Islam compared to Chief Engineer Miller, who's astonished to find that the Muslims own prayer rugs. "Ain't they heathens?" he asks. Told about Muslims' five daily prayers, he remarks, "If them poor black guys can't pray without rugs below their knee-bones it's not me that'll be hindering them."

The City of Manila sets sail at a moment of international tension caused by resurgent Islam. "Turkey's defeat and humiliation [in World War I] had shaken the Moslem world and stirred the leaders of the faithful into action. her sudden rally and stab back at Greece [in 1921] had given courage and hope to the Moslem hierarchy. Followers of Mohammed were being urged to preserve the faith of the Green Banner." Little do those followers know that Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal, will shortly stab them in the back by abolishing the Caliphate and embarking on a radical program of secularization and westernization, but where's the fun in that for a pulp writer? In any event, the British navy and British intelligence are ordered to keep an eye out for Muslims using the sea lanes to spread seditious literature. The stakes are high, since "They man the merchant ships of the East. A holy war could be waged on sea and land." So says Ames, a scholar of Islam whose movements begin to arouse suspicion. Personally, I began to suspect that Ames was some sort of Bolshevist, but that idea went overboard when Ames is found dying, apparently captured and tortured by some of the lascars. He turns out to have been an intelligence officer like McGregor, who breaks the case with one of those weird tests that "appeal to the pageant sense of the Oriental" and the pulp writer.

In this trick, McGregor gathers the lascars together and sets them to the task of licking envelopes. The ones who fail are guilty of killing Ames and concealing the jihadist literature inside their carpets. "The strain of smothering all [their] fears was considerable and affected them physically, parched their tongues, dried up the saliva in their mouths," McGregor explains, "They hadn't enough moisture to wet the mucilage on the stamps. They betrayed themselves!" I might have expected editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman to ask the author, "Was it the stamps or the envelopes they were supposed to lick?" but perhaps the great man had made up his mind to indulge Hunter by publishing his tale before reaching the end. Hunter missed his one-and-only chance to contribute to "The Camp-Fire," and quit pulp for several years to edit the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Banner before placing a run of stories in the Clayton magazines. His last pulp fiction appeared in Short Stories in 1938. He retired from the ministry at age 90 and died three years later, in 1961. If only today's seditious plots could be discovered as easily as Hunter imagined.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

'Then and there a savagery crept into his puppy-like nature.'

Francis Beverly Kelley was too busy in his full-time career as a publicist for the Ringling Bros. circus to be a prolific contributor to pulp magazines. His pulp career consists of two short stories and two nonfiction pieces published in Adventure between August 1931 and May 1933. "Black Prince" (April 15, 1932), the first of the stories, recounts the tragic career of a trained lion driven by very human emotions. The only survivor of a litter, the instantly orphaned cub is raised by lion tamer Lucky Davis of Keller's Kolossal Circus, who makes a she-goat the baby's wet nurse. The unlikely bond between the two animals persists after Black Prince is weaned, but is abruptly broken when some fool puts the goat in the wrong lion's cage. Black Prince watches a lioness kill his surrogate mother and goes mad with grief. Worse, he nurses a grudge until the opportunity comes to exact revenge on the lioness. His rage spent, the lion once more becomes a tractable animal, despite his inaccurate new reputation as a "man-killer." Kelley describes the training process for various lion acts in presumably authentic detail that makes his story worth reading, but then comes the next crisis for our poor lion. He grows jealous and irritable as Lucky starts training Sheba, a Bengal tigress who "showed rare promise as an actress." Re-reading the sentence, "How should Davis know that he fairly reeked of the hated tigress whom he had been petting previous to his visits to Black Prince's cage?" it occurred to me that, in Twenties slang, Kelley could just as well have been describing Lucky's makeout session with the circus vamp. For that matter, "Sheba" was the female counterpart of a "Sheik" in those roaring days. Ironically, the humbled Black Prince, relegated to an exhibition cage after a dangerous tantrum, ends up rescuing Lucky when the tigress freaks out after a botched spot in her act and the tamer actually calls for his old pet's help. Black Prince may have a "limited brain," but though outmatched by the tigress as a fighter, he knows he can distract her long enough for Lucky to make his escape. Making his own, he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the streets of Ridge City, where he is slowly slaughtered by a posse panicked by the prospect of a "man-killer" in their midst. Every year afterward, Kelley closes, Lucky makes a memorial pilgrimage to the hill in the city where Black Prince is buried. The final scene shows the aging lion tamer at his old friend's grave as the circus band plays "Auld Lang Syne" in the distance. It all reads sort of like a Tod Browning circus movie, though I'm not sure whether Lon Chaney would play the tamer or the lion.

Interestingly, in this issue's "Camp-Fire" section, where he makes his customary but belated introduction of himself to readers, Kelley confides that the cat-tamer he idolized as a youth was a woman, Mabel Stark, who in her day was just about the most famous female circus performer. I suppose, however, that his odd little story of animal jealousy would be odder still with a woman protagonist. Writing of the real life behind his story, he observes that "In the fascinating school of the steel arenas [the big cats] parallel a classroom where both intelligent pupils and those of retarded mental growth are found. There are model students and there are morons in the big training cages." He also defends circus people against a "rough and uncultured" stereotype. "With its citizenry of many nationalities and numerous religions, the circus is a great place to learn tolerance," Kelley notes, "All of which probably can be summed up like this: 'Never turn up your nose at anyone; remember the law of gravity.'"

Monday, October 2, 2017

'Outside were the squaws and papooses, hoping that the thief would be tortured and that they might have a hand in it.'

Many pulp stories focus on some test of courage. The protagonist is often misperceived as a coward, but for some reason or other he's shunned by his community or loved ones and must find some way to prove his true virtue to them. Frank C. Robertson's "The Regeneration of Pesokie" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) is such a story, with the twist of a grim coda in the Jack London style. The title character is the black sheep of a Shoshone tribe known as the Rootdiggers, recently returned to his people after five years following white trappers. "Among them he had learned many things that were not good," the narrator notes, until the whites finally drummed Pesokie out of their camp. In short, Pesokie makes no more favorable impression on his own people. Caught stealing food at a time of desperate need, he faces a terrible fate. "The man who would betray his own people to their death that his own belly may be full must die," says Pesokie's own brother. The rest of the tribe, in the manner of pulp aborigines everywhere, want Pesokie to die by torture, while the brother, Sonnup, would prefer the mercy of a quick end. It's his right, as the man who caught Pesokie, to recommend the manner of his death, so Sonnup convinces the tribe that leaving him naked in the snowy wilderness without food or weapons is a better torture than the fiery fate they were hoping for.

The circle visibly hesitated. Nothing was so dear to them at the moment as prolonged torture of the craven who feared not only death but hardship. Yet they could see a sardonic justice in the proposed punishment. They could imagine all sorts of suffering which the fugitive would have to undergo -- intensified a hundred times by his abject fear -- and it would be lengthened to an indefinite extent, since they could imagine him wandering for days amid the grim horrors of starvation and cold.

Sonnup gets his way, and also gets to sneak Pesokie a fur robe, a hunting knife and the tribe's remaining dogs. He reminds his brother that "You should die -- thief -- coward," but tells him to try for the nearby Bannack village, since "Even a Bannack will feed a starving stranger." This is the part, you might expect, where Pesokie redeems himself, either intentionally or inadvertently depending on the tone of the story, and regains the tribe's good graces. It doesn't quite turn out that way. No one in the tribe's going to miss those dogs Sonnup stole because they're not really domesticated. "Any time an Indian wished to lose a finger or two he had only to attempt to pet his dog," Robertson writes. After Pesokie had stolen their stores, the rest of the warriors had to kill most of the dogs to sustain themselves on their lengthy trek. Now Pesokie sees the remaining dogs as potential prey or potential predators. Numbers are on the dogs' side, and a still-starving Pesokie finds himself surrounded.

Almost by accident the old coward kills the first dog to attack, and as the others move in "A wild exhilaration flowed over Pesokie! He had ceased to fear! He was fighting at last -- the thing he had avoided all his craven life -- and to his intense wonder he found joy in it, and an overwhelming satisfaction. His weak medicine had suddenly become strong." Our hero has learned that "anticipation of suffering was much worse than the reality" -- but he has to die doing it. The story closes with a close-up of Pesokie's corpse, "On his face the peaceful look of a brave man." This is impressively grim stuff from an author still early in his career. Robertson had published his first story in 1920, his first in Adventure in 1922. He'd place six stories there in 1923 before moving on to become a mainstay of Short Stories, Ace High and West for the rest of the decade and into the 1930s. Robertson kept at it practically to the end of the pulp era, placing his last story in a 1957 Ranch Romances as one of the grand old men of the western genre.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'From first to last, I punished Laurens justly.'

Many of Georges Surdez's Foreign Legion stories strike me as having split personalities. At heart, many of them are essentially character studies. But knowing his pulp audience, Surdez always finds a way to resolve his character conflicts through combat situations. "Clay in Khaki" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a good example of this. The first half of it hardly has action in it, describing the fatal incompatibility of Verlinden, a veteran German sergeant, and Laurens, a popular recruit from a higher class background than was typical for Legionnaires. The story's told largely from the point of view of their new commander, Lieutenant Chamber, who sees Laurens as a decent kid unjustly goaded into desertion, and eventual death, by Verlinden. His attitude toward Verlinden is mild, however, compared to that of Laurens' buddies, who are ready to tear the sergeant apart when Laurens' body is returned to base. Still, Surdez lets Verlinden tell his side of the matter. The veteran found Laurens conceited; the younger man "thought himself my superior" and openly made fun of the sergeant, undermining his authority. That might just be an authoritarian talking, but this is the Foreign Legion, where discipline is everything. Seeing Verlinden's point, but also seeing that his position under his command is no longer tenable, Chamber arranges for his transfer to Indo-China, accepting the sergeant's suggestion that he, Verlinden, apply for the transfer himself in order to save face. But before the transfer can be finalized, Chamber's unit must go out in pursuit of a strong force of bandits. In the middle of battle mutiny breaks out as men refuse to take orders from Verlinden, and Chamber finally has to disarm him in order to have any hope of rallying his men. Then comes the ironic twist. Mocked by the men and believing his career ruined, Verlinden decides to commit suicide-by-Berber, charging the enemy position armed only with his automatic pistol.

He was a true Legionnaire, in love with the spectacular and, his life being sacrificed, he granted himself the luxury of exacting admiration from the very Legionnaires who had laughed. To die was nothing -- if it meant that he would be remembered.

Inevitably he goes down in a hail of gunfire, but when some Berbers venture from their position to plunder the body, them men who had scorned Verlinden moments before now go berserk in defense of his corpse. "Verlinden's personality had fled wherever the spirit travels after death, but there remained his clay and his uniform," Surdez writes, "His head, taken as a trophy through the market places of desert villages, would be a reproach to his Legionnaires." By sacrificing himself for purely selfish reasons, Verlinden inadvertently wins the day for the Legion. The question of whether Verlinden was justified in his treatment of Laurens has been forgotten, proof that the story was more about Verlinden all along. Surdez doesn't really imply that Verlinden's conduct vindicates him, and his reluctance to pass final judgment is a nice touch from an author I've only rarely disliked.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Baal and Ashtaroth, they told people to raise hell, and the people done so.'

James Mitchell Clarke had a long career as a writer and educator, but only a short one in the pulps. He published nine stories in Adventure, plus one in the one-shot Adventure spinoff The Big Magazine, between 1927 and 1935, before devoting himself to a WPA project in the San Diego school system. One of those stories is the remarkable "Walls" (April 15, 1932). The remarkable thing about it is that it's a sort of debunking account of the biblical conquest of Jericho, as narrated by an immortal man. In what looks a lot like the opening of a series, we're introduced to our protagonists in modern-day Louisiana, sharing a bottle on the wall of a ruined fort. "Never -- even in the Louisiana swamps which are full of strange men -- had been people like these," thinks Jones, our POV character.

The broad shouldered one, with the shining black eyes and a beard which curled down his deep chest in black rings, had one huge hand over the bottle. The other, a slighter man, was plainly not a negro. Yet his skin was the color of chocolate; smooth and tight drawn; more like tanned leather than human flesh covering. His eyes, though only a few feet away, appeared to be looking across incalculable distance.

The strangers make friends with Jones and amaze him with tales of Jean Lafitte the pirate, told as if they knew the man. Amazing as that must sound, given that Lafitte flourished more than a century earlier, Belshar and Hovsep can top that easily. "We've seen some walls, Hovsep and me," says Belshar, the bearded one, who leaves Hovsep, the dark one, to tell of their role in the siege of Jericho. While "we follow the sea, Belshar and me .... once in awhile we find ourselves ashore and this was one of the times," Hovsep starts. Fugitives from the Persian Gulf, they became mercenary scouts for the Israelites under Joshua. In a dig at modern anti-semitism, Hovsep tells Jones, "It's maybe funny to you to think of [Jews] as fighting men. But they were -- a wild, hard, hairy lot, sleeping in tents, wondering where the next meal was coming from, scrapping with everybody they met; and licking 'em, too, mostly." Clarke doesn't soft-pedal Old Testament aggression. "Part of the Hebrew idea was to capture every town they came to and put the people out of the way," Hovsep recalls, "It saved trouble, and it was an order from their god." Iahweh, as Clarke calls that god, isn't bad compared to Ashtaroth and Baal, the dominant deities in Jericho, and their worshipers. "Them Canaanites were a scummy lot, take my word," Hovsep recalls. The priests of Ashtaroth take young women by force and make them temple prostitutes. The priests of Baal take young boys for human sacrifice. The family of Rahab, the biblical heroine, is victimized many times over. In Clarke's backstory, Rahab herself is taken from her family, while three of her brothers are chosen for sacrifice. Twenty years before Joshua's siege, Hovsep and Belshar, then friends of Rahab, made themselves personae non grata in Jericho by attempting to rescue her brothers, saving two of the three and leaving Rahab swearing that someday "my turn" will come.

Their past experience in Jericho recommends our heroes to Joshua for an infiltration mission, during which the meet and older, hardened Rahab, who sees "my turn" coming with the arrival of "the Evening Wolf," Joshua. She tells Hovsep and Belshar about a weak spot, caused by storm damage, in Jericho's strong walls. They relay this crucial intelligence to Joshua, who has just gotten his legendary marching orders, so to speak, from "the Lord's captain." "It isn't that I don't think it will work," Joshua tells them, "I don't doubt Iahweh. But I always like to help him when I can." He sets our heroes to work further undermining the wall until he has a change of heart. "I have not put my trust in Iahweh," he laments, "If we go through with this, His face will be turned away from His people." But Hovsep and Belshar decide they'll keep at it in secret, determined to do all they can to help Rahab get her revenge. Clarke has Hovsep tell what happens next in nicely ambiguous fashion. Did a miracle actually happen, or had "Joshua'd figured the balance better than he knew" when he put our heroes to work earlier? Whatever the cause, a slaughter ensues, but Rahab and her family are saved. Jones is so caught up in the story, virtually smelling the smoke of the burning city, that he doesn't notice at first that his new friends have disappeared, but not without leaving behind evidence that they actually had been there.

As you may have noticed from the excerpts, the gimmick of the story is that Belshar and Hovsep talk and tell their story in the vernacular of 1932. Maybe that's just Jones translating it in his own head, but I think it effectively establishes Clarke's immortals as eternal common men, neither archaically alien nor decadently refined. If I recall right, there was a sort of fad for this sort of writing in historical fiction -- F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his experiments in the genre -- but "Walls" survives whatever faddishness there was to it. While it adds an irreverent note to a Bible legend, it also gives the tale a fresh sense of immediacy and empathy as Clarke underscores the horrors of Canaanite idolatry. Most importantly, Belshar and Hovsep sound like cool guys with many more stories to tell, and it would be a shame if this turned out to be their only appearance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Gunfight with the Glidden brothers

1955 was a late time to publish your first pulp story. In the western field, Popular Publications had converted a couple of titles to magazine format, but would soon kill them in favor of "true" adventures in the sweat genre. Thrilling had done away with most of its line at the end of 1953, leaving the most popular western pulps of the day, the monthly Texas Rangers and the biweekly Ranch Romances, as well as the quarterly Triple Western. The other surviving western titles came from Columbia, long considered the bottom of the publishing barrel, and Stadium, as the pulp arm of Martin Goodman's empire called itself then. Clayton Fox made his debut in a Stadium title, the June 1955 Western Short Stories, with "Tough, He Said He Was." It's a pretty basic character piece, the idea being that Bob Smith resents his mentor, Big John McLeod but gains a greater appreciation of him, and a greater sense of responsibility for his legacy, after McLeod dies in a freak accident. "You don't like a man you're forced on with a gun," the narrator observes, and that's how it is with Bob, for whom McLeod's hardscrabble ranch is the only alternative to reform school. After McLeod's demise, Bob falls under suspicion when a few cows are discovered missing from the older man's humble herd. At the same time, Bob feels the temptation to sell the rest of the herd and keep the proceeds rather than use them to pay McLeod's debts. Destiny points Bob toward a showdown with the real rustlers, the no-account Glidden brothers. Their in-jokey presence is probably the most noteworthy thing about Fox's debut, though I wonder how many 1955 readers recognized the joke. The Gliddens of the story are named Luke and Pete. The Gliddens of western pulp fame are Fred and John, who wrote under the names "Luke Short" and "Peter Dawson" respectively. Get it? I'm sure that the outlawry of the fictional Gliddens is meant as no reflection on the real-life authors, but maybe the name-dropping put a helpful smile on editor Robert O. Erisman's face just the same. The best thing about this little story is its modesty of scope. The big gunfight ends with no one dead, the stolen cattle reclaimed, and the Gliddens' cabin shot up until Bob's rifle barrel is too hot to touch. Fox introduces a potential love interest, but she never becomes more than that. We don't get the standard closing paragraph in which the hero thinks dreamily about the girl, because this story is more concerned with showing how Big John McLeod's lessons took. That's enough for this ten-page story to feel like a little change of pace. Fox published four more stories in Stadium pulps over the next two years before Stadium expired and he focused on novels -- though for all I know he's also the K. Clayton whose one and only western pulp story appeared in this same issue. The market for western short stories was drying up, but the pulps still gave aspiring pros an opportunity to learn how to write narratives that could sell.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

'The Anglo-Saxon is the only race that has developed the art of fighting without weapons.'

This howler comes from Gordon MacCreagh's "The Crawling Script" from the September 30, 1923 issue of Adventure. While Chinese martial arts remained largely unknown to Americans for nearly fifty years more after MacCreagh wrote, I would still have expected him to be aware of Japanese judo of jiu-jitsu, of which Americans had been aware since at least the turn of the 20th century. That's what makes this particular passage inexcusable, though I must note that no less an Oriental "expert" than Sidney Herschel Small makes a similar, and perhaps less forgivable error in his 1932 story "The River on the Sky," in which Japanese characters regard fist fighting as something uniquely western or Anglo-American.  As a whole, "Crawling Script" has the usual mixed messages we should expect from pulp stories. MacCreagh deals in stereotypes as a matter of course, but at the same time his Gurkha adventurer Bir Jung is presented as an equal partner to the story's American hero, and the actual instigator of the story's treasure hunt. Bir Jung is superstitious and often vicious, but MacCreagh's overriding message, implicit in the ending's hint of further adventures for the pair, is that he and Westerman, the American, are brother adventurers under the skin, despite the American bridge-builder's dismissive attitude toward the entire concept of "adventure." I ought to note as well that while MacCreagh may mean to give Anglo-Saxons credit for a uniquely clean style of fighting, he also notes at the start of the very next paragraph that Westerman "broke all the rules of civilized warfare in the first two minutes." The American grows squeamish occasionally, turning his head away when Bir Jung guts an enemy in a climactic duel, but comes across overall as a pretty hard guy, almost hard-boiled in his blithely cynical attitude. MacCreagh's better known for stories set in Africa, but this change-of-pace piece has its moments, both bad and good.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'Save the bother,' Lauzanno snapped, 'I'll shuck my own clothes off.'

For Singapore Sammy's last bow (and only cover feature) in Short Stories, George F. Worts reverts to the formula of the second Sammy story. As in "Cobra," "Octopus" (May 10, 1931) makes much of its villain's resemblance to the title animal. Pierre Lauzanno isn't a half-caste, but he's nearly as bad in his author's eyes, "American born, of Portuguese ancestry and Oriental upbringing." While Worts mixes metaphors by giving Lauzanno "the arms of a gorilla," he is a moral octopus in the writer's eyes, "a man who would indulge in any form of murder to accomplish an object." "Octopus" also reproduces the earlier story's motif of partnership between a properly "hard" man and someone whose addictive nature makes him unfit for the life of a South Seas adventurer. The difference this time is that Sammy isn't one of the partners. Instead, back in the burg that gave him his nickname, he encounters a mismatched pair at a crooked card game. One of them, Kelvin Broome, "the Viking," is just like Sammy's protege from the earlier story, only more belligerent; he can't lay off the cards or the booze. The other, "the buccaneer," is virtually another version of Sammy Shea. The improbably named Lucifer "Lucky" Jones will end up being Singapore's sidekick in future stories; he proves a resourceful companion here as the men join forces to avenge Broome, who gets knifed in an alley after the card game breaks up violently. They mean to secure Broome's map of a sunken treasure; finding the treasure, they hope to send it to the dead man's poor family on an Arizona orange grove, to help his sister go to art school. These are the same guys who go around boasting of how "hard" they are, and who we're told are hard by the author. Mush!

Anyway, Singapore and Lucky catch up with Lauzanno and prove just how hard they are by torturing him into giving up the map, with unplanned assistance from an actual octopus that attaches itself to the villain while our heroes are dunking him in the sea. In the middle of this there's a weird moment when Sammy "placed the flat of his hand against a davit and looked at Lauzanno dreamily. Those who had experience knew that this was by far the most dangerous, most sinister expression that the red-haired young man used." I'm sure Worts only means that Sammy's on the brink of going psycho on his antagonist, but given the context of torture, and maybe because I'm a 21st century reader, I can't help reading something even more sinister into our hero's dreamy expression. Despite that, Lauzanno proves a tough egg until the octopus intervenes and makes him beg for mercy. Shay and Jones then make the mistake of letting Lauzanno live.

"Octopus" is the longest of the early Sammy stories, but the way it breaks into nearly equal halves  suggests that Worts (or the editor of Short Stories) may have slammed two novelettes together. The second half of the story becomes a tag-team match as Lauzanno hooks up with the infamous Bill Shay, Sammy's reprobate father, whom the villain tracks down with an alacrity that puts all of Sammy's previous efforts to shame. Things went badly for the old man after we left him at the end of "The Pink Elephant." Held responsible for the sacred title creature's death, Bill was tortured by angry Siamese authorities. Already poised to benefit from Sammy's death according to the will of Sammy's grandfather, Bill, who was previously amused to lead the boy on wild-goose chases, is now out for blood. He and Lauzanno lay in wait while Sammy and Lucky hunt for the treasure, then pounce when the younger men go down in diving suits to retrieve the sunken gold. Worts is good at selling every encounter between Shay the elder and Shay the younger as a big moment, especially when Sammy is shocked to discover Dad in a diving suit attacking him alongside Lauzanno. There's also a very cinematic moment when, in the midst of another intervention by a real octopus, Sammy catches one last glimpse of Bill before the old man zips up to the surface to escape the carnage that consumes Lauzanno, and from which our heroes barely escape. It's an exciting finish to a story that's just slightly overlong, though by modern standards the extra length is put to relatively good use building up Singapore and Lucky's friendship.

From here Worts took Singapore Sammy to Argosy, where he debuted in an eponymous serial in December 1931. As for me, I'll be going back to where I discovered Sammy, in the invaluable Big Book of Adventure Stories, before proceeding to items from my own collection. Of his three major characters -- Peter the Brazen and Gillian Hazeltine are the others -- Worts stuck with Sammy the latest. The conclusion of the 1936 Sammy serial Murderer's Paradise was the effective end of the author's pulp career.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

'He said politely that North Japan was notoriously unhealthy during the Winter season.'

Sidney Herschel Small was one of the pulp writers I discovered in the pages of a contemporary slick magazine, Collier's Weekly. He specialized in East-West encounters, whether they involved Americans exploring the Far East or Americans exploring their local Chinatowns. His Collier's stories don't exactly lack action, but Small's pulp writing is naturally more energetic, if no more or less accurate in their representations of Asia. "The River of the Sky" (Adventure, April 15, 1932) is set in modern Japan, but from Small's descriptions you'd think that Commodore Perry had only just arrived. Apart from the presence of the American businessman hero, A-1 agent Andrew Moffat, aka "Hairy Foreigner," and his rival, one of those dreaded half-castes, you'd think the country was still in Shogun days. Of course, if you're going to set your story in an exotic place, the place had better be exotic, however aggressive Japan actually was about modernizing. Small gives his readers a vivid if not salacious account of the kammairi procession, in which worshippers, despite the wintry conditions, run naked, or as nearly naked as they dare,to the temple of the moon god. From that spectacular starting point, he gets to the meat of his story as Moffat repels assassins sent by his half-caste rival and rescues an elderly man from becoming collateral damage. He takes the old man in to warm him up and make sure of his health, and learns that they have a common enemy in the half-caste. Kagawa Omura once was a big man in this town before George Yakahira, the half-caste, ruined him. Kagawa's daughter, descended from samurai, is now a mere servant in Yakahira's household, and that is one insult too many for the proud old man. This sets up a situation I've seen before in pulp fiction, though I may well have seen it in a later story by another of the Oriental story specialists like Walter C. Brown. The idea is that the broken old timer gets his foot in the door, the better to carry out some baroque revenge plot, by offering the villain the last precious thing in his possession. In this case, the River of the Sky is a beautifully crafted ceramic bowl that any collector, or anyone in the export-import trade, would treasure. The payoff, of course, is that this final tribute from vanquished to victor is -- in this case pretty much literally -- a poisoned chalice. The gimmick in Small's story is that Kagawa drinks from the bowl before Yakahira does, so the drink couldn't be poisoned -- could it? I haven't read enough mystery stories to know whether the explanation Kagawa gives at the end, which involves treating the bowl with two fresh layers of glaze, the first water-soluble, exposing a poison layer for the second tea-drinker, had been done before. It's the sort of cute ploy that's okay to close a relatively unambitious short story from a writer who's done much better in my own limited experience. Apparently Small had a series of stories in Adventure about the A-1 company, or so I infer from the way he drops names of Moffat's colleagues as if readers should recognize them. I'd be willing to read more to whether Small made anything of the more compelling story of Japan's modernization and its consequences for the rest of the world.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

'You better let me go! My father's a U.S. marshal!'

A man faces a test of character and responsibility when another man's son is kidnapped by mistake, in place of his own son. Movie fans will recognize that as the story of Akira Kurosawa's modern-dress classic High and Low (1963). Crime fiction fans will recognize it as the story of the novel that inspired Kurosawa, Ed McBain's King's Ransom (1959). The core idea most likely had been done many times before in pulp fiction. One such time was in the pages of the May 1952 issue of New Western, one of Popular Publications' stable of western titles. Clifton Adams' "Fighting Man Wanted!" doesn't have the class element of the McBain and Kurosawa stories. Instead, the protagonist and the father of the kidnapped boy are peers, more or less. William Toggleson and Clay Barnett are deputy marshals in amicable competition to succeed a retiring old-timer. Both men are reasonably well qualified, but Toggleson, our protagonist, is handicapped by his appearance. Toggleson simply doesn't dress the part. He's "A far cry from the fire-eating lawmen like Earp and Masterson and Hickock. But then I'd look darn foolish wearing leather vests and tied-down .45s just to sit behind a desk. Barnett is the favorite for the post "because he wore a wide-brim hat and high-heel boots and had two .45s tied down on his legs. And maybe because he had two notches in his guns, representing two outlaws he had killed." To drive the point home, the illustration on pae one is of Barnett, not Toggleson. Our protagonist had been a town-tamer in his heyday, but he never was a killer and that, combined with his modest dress, makes him hard to idolize. When his and Barnett's boys play outlaw, Clay's kid boasts that he's "a fightin' U.S. marshal, like my father," while young Toggleson says, "Ah ... I'm nothin' much, I guess."

It's that boasting that gets Clay's boy kidnapped by an outlaw out of prison and out for vengeance on Toggleson.  Because of the circumstances, Toggleson feels responsible and talks Barnett after going after the boy himself. But he questions his resolve almost instantly. "He found himself thinking: I'd be a fool to go up there and let him kill me. It's not my son." Adams adds, "Immediately he felt ashamed of the thought." Yet he thinks it again as he closes in on the outlaw, though the thought doesn't stop him. This being a pulp western short story, there's no doubting that Toggleson will save the boy, slay the outlaw and earn the marshal's badge, but Adams still makes a halfway decent story out of it by stressing that Toggleson is not some picked-on loser who has to redeem himself for anything, as in the typical "coward" scenario, but simply someone suffering through a middle-age crisis of self-doubt despite the esteem of his community. The story reads as less cliched than it could or almost should be, and that's the mark of Clifton Adams' quality as a writer. He was one of the authors who made the last decade or so of pulp westerns a golden age of the genre.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'You ain't hard. You ain't smart. You're just a sucker.'

George F. Worts pulls off a nice piece of misdirection in the fourth Singapore Sammy story, "The Pink Elephant." (Short Stories, October 25, 1930). At the same time, he raises the stakes in Sammy Shea's hunt for his reprobate father, since I believe it's established here for the first time that the will which left Sammy his grandfather's fortune, but was stolen by his dad, contains a clause bestowing the estate upon the father in the event of Sammy's death. So just as we get our first real look at Bill Shea, we learn that he has a motive to kill his son. Sammy has tracked him to Siam (the present-day Thailand), where our hero's sob story has earned him the sympathy of a local prince who's equipped him with a handsome entourage of elephants and hunters to find the elder Shea. Early on, Sammy finally tracks has the old man in his sights -- or at least he finds a man who matches the description he depends on, that of a bearded man in the robes of a Buddhist monk, since Sammy himself hasn't seen the guy since he was two years old. After a tense, almost glancing encounter, Sammy is distracted from the chase by his abrupt discovery of the title creature, whom he rescues from crocodiles in a mud pit. The baby pink elephant is a phoouk, a rare and virtually sacred creature in Siam, and on sight of him Sammy is distracted from his potentially parricidal quest by that streak of greed that Worts has already well established. This changes the whole direction of the story, as Sammy realizes that he can earn a literally princely sum by delivering the phoouk to the king. The discovery also changes his relationship to the local prince and his minions, who feel that the pink elephant, being found in their master's territory, is his to deliver to the king, for whatever reward. Sammy understands that his trip to the capital will be dangerous, and that his erstwhile host will likely prove his enemy.

Into this tense situation wanders Sir Lester, a stereotypical Englishman touring the country "lookin' for big cats." His warning that Sammy runs "rather a risk" taking the phoouk all the way to Bangkok makes our hero suspicious. "Sammy looked quickly in Sir Lester's eyes," Worts writes, "saw something there that he did not like." But what else is new? Why wouldn't Sir Lester be just as eager to nab the elephant as anyone else? So Sammy has someone new to worry about -- except that the Englishman is not so new.  After inviting Sammy to sit in a blatant trap and then springing it, Sir Lester reveals himself as Bill Shea. For this one time we can buy that Sammy could be so easily fooled because he hasn't had a good look at his father for so long. Once Sammy identifies him, Bill greets him with, "Smart boy! All you needed to find it out was a moving picture and a full set of directions!" Luckily for our hero, the old man is content to taunt him and steal his elephant.

They told me that you were one dangerous guy to cross. Hell, you ain't hard. You ain't smart. You're just a sucker. I was almost gettin' proud of you -- and then you have to up and pull this stunt. You sucker!...What did I tell you in that letter I sent you when you were in the Singapore Hospital? 'The hand is faster than the naked eye. A wise man knows the aim of a bottle!' I warned you. You're just dumb.

Worts uses the occasion to recap the Sammy series to date from Bill's second-hand point of view before the old man absconds with the phoouk. He's arranged to have Sammy freed some time later, well after Bill and the pink elephant are out of reach -- or so Bill assumes. He hasn't reckoned with the bond Sammy has formed with Bozo, the prince's mighty alcoholic elephant. In the story's silly finish, Sammy steals Bozo from the prince's estate, fuels him up with whisky, overtakes Bill's party and manages to sneak off with the pink elephant. Score one for Sammy Shea! Silly as it is, "Pink Elephant" is a strong entry in the series thanks to its spectacular introduction, four episodes in, of the main villain, who promises to give Sammy still more trouble in the future.

Monday, August 21, 2017

'You are the hardest man to get to agree with anybody I ever saw. You won't even agree with yourself.'

If you asked a pulp reader in the 1930s which writer for the story magazines had the best chance of entering the American literary canon, he might not say Dashiell Hammett, and he certainly wouldn't suggest H. P. Lovecraft. The reader might well nominate T. S. Stribling instead, because he had something, as of 1933, that neither Hammett, Lovecraft or probably anyone else writing for the pulps had even a chance of having: the Pulitzer Prize for the best American novel of the year. Stribling received that accolade for his 1932 novel The Store. In 1932 he also published three mystery stories in Adventure featuring his psychological detective, Dr. Henry Poggioli. If Stribling is remembered at all today, it's for the Poggioli series that became his meal ticket in later life, after publishers no longer accepted his novels. On the evidence of the few stories I've read, Poggioli combines Holmesian powers of observation with an inclination for sweeping generalizations along the lines of "only such and such a person would do this particular thing." With possibly a sense of irony, the conscious satirist Stribling addresses the subject of generalization in one of his 1932 Poggiolis, "The Resurrection of Chin Lee" (Adventure, April 15), which turns on a Florida mill owner's inability to tell Chinese people apart. Absurdly, Mr. Galloway makes this claim having known only one Chinese man in his whole life, his cook Chin Lee. "I see him only now and then, and I don't remember how he looks from one time to the next," Galloway explains.

"That really is odd," Poggioli replies, "I suppose it is a race obsession. You are so obsessed with Chin Lee's Chineseness, if I may coin a term, that your recognition stops there and doesn't reach the individual. It is probably based on our Anglo-Saxon superiority complex."

Cue the arrival of a perfectly stereotyped, dialect-speaking black security guard, who reports that he's just found Chin Lee murdered on the dock, with a bullet hole in his head. Desperate to clear himself, on the assumption that Galloway will accuse him of the murder, Sam has to admit that he didn't hear the gunshots because "take mo'n a pistol to wake me up when I'se night watchin'." Of course Poggioli will investigate, but when Sam brings him to the crime scene, Chin Lee's body is gone. The psychologist speculates that the body has been picked up and taken away with care, and not thrown to the sharks, because there's no trail of blood. From this he deduces that the killer is a woman. "She could not endure the thought of her lover's body being thrown to the sharks or given over to any stranger who found it, or to the callousness of a coroner's jury," he assumes. The killer must be a strong woman, capable of lifting and carrying a corpse Sam estimates at between 150 and 160 pounds.

One virtue of the Poggioli stories, however, is that Stribling is willing to let his detective follow a train of thought to a dead end. Poggioli's speculations become moot when Chin Lee is discovered alive in his shack, while the detective and his companions are searching for clues among the assumed victim's personal effects. Chin Lee claims to have knocked himself out trying to reel in a fish, only to come to and go home. Something isn't right, however, and with a little additional data Poggioli figures out what it is. As if fully aware of the inability of both Galloway and (apparently) Sam to tell Chinese men apart, a smuggling ring based in Cuba has been bringing in illegal immigrants one at a time, each taking a turn as Chin Lee until the next one comes to take his place. One of these Chin Lees actually was murdered, but to Poggiloi's possible disappointment the murderer isn't a woman. I won't spoil a mystery that people might read (this issue of Adventure has been scanned and uploaded to the internet), but I wonder whether it's worth it not to spoil this shaggy-dog tale. It's mildly amusing in a characteristically sardonic way -- as usual, Poggioli is surrounded by idiots -- but if Stribling had some point to make about prejudice or stereotyping, it's blunted by his own impulse to reduce characters like Sam to their dialects. As a matter of style, I get the impression that Stribling saw the Poggioli series, at this time at least, as self-conscious hackwork that paid the bills between novels. If you want to see him at full power, check out the available chapters of his 1923 serial Fombombo, an epic satire about a Babbitt in the middle of a South American revolution. For all I know, The Store might be worth a read as well, even if the actual canonical writers of Stribling's time looked down on Pulitzer winners -- until they got their own, that is.