Monday, March 27, 2017

Not so old at that!

Frederick J. Jackson broke into the pulps way back in 1906 but didn't break into Adventure until 1922. In the latter stages of his pulp career -- he also wrote plays and screenplays, including the 1937 western Wells Fargo -- West was his primary market and Silvers Cassidy his recurring character. "Not So Old At That" (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is a comedy western, the sort of thing I normally avoid, but I couldn't help being charmed by the exuberant amorality of the protagonist. Newt Lucas, whose friskiness belies his 69 years, seems to have been a success at everything he's tried. In recent years he's settled into prosperous entrepreneurship, but he was a hellraiser in his heyday.

I'd git a little playful with my Colt in them days when I got a few days in me. The whole dang country was gitting so civilized that bimeby they began to issue warrants for me. Heh! They sent depity sheriffs to serve them warrants. I got me a whole collection of depity badges  and stars and guns and had the whole place looking like it had snowed because of the warrants I tore up.

Newt has come calling on his only living relative, a grand-niece, and found her husband Meredith, a beleaguered homesteader whose wife is in the hospital. Meredith has been victimized by the Moffitt clan that dominates his district and has resorted to chicanery to drive out the last few independent homesteaders. His sad story puts Newt in a "playful" mood, so the old man sets out to humble the Moffitts. His master plan plays out in three stages. First, he sends Meredith to the county seat to hire a lawyer and be seen by as many people as possible. At the same time, he invades Moffitt territory and shoots a bunch of their cattle, leaving sign that seems to implicate Meredith. Since the Moffitts know nothing about Newt, they can only assume that Meredith is attacking them. But when they swear out a warrant against the young man, they fall right into a perjury trap, instantly identifying Meredith as the man who shot their cattle and took pot shots at them, only to have respected citizens and public officials testify to seeing and talking with the defendant while all that was happening.  For the coup de grace, Newt plays con man, using one of his captured badges to convince the elder Moffitt that he's a federal officer who can offer them a deal to avoid prosecution by making concessions to Meredith and the other homesteaders. The truly funny thing about the story is that playful Newt Lucas is indisputably a sociopath, if thankfully not a homicidal maniac, who just happens to be on the side of good this time out. Jackson's story might remind you of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, as once Newt takes a side, the other side is hopelessly doomed to both injury and insult. Newt himself has something of Bugs' "Ain't I a stinker?" attitude, lamenting that "Them amateurs is so easy that there ain't no fun a-tall in foolin' them." And yet you shudder just a little when he muses that "He had had an unusual opportunity to 'git playful with the clan' -- as he had put it -- but felt that somehow or other he had cheated himself by not squeezing all the juice out of the opportunity he had held in his grasp." Were he not playing, Newt Lucas could be one scary man, whatever his age.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Is this pulp?

There's a pretty good used bookstore that's a five-minute walk from my home in Albany. They don't do paperbacks -- I suppose I should say "pocket books" or something that makes clear that they'll take trade paperbacks but not the small stuff -- but they have a great selection of literary fiction, criticism and historical writing catering to other tastes of mine. They have a crime fiction section that's always worth a look for used copies of trade-paperback reissues of classic stuff, as well as hardcover originals and anthologies. The book above is something I found today in the crime section. It's a 1997 collection of crime stories ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s, from a formidable selection of authors with a midcentury focus on the golden age of crime digests like Manhunt. It's a product of its moment in pop-culture history, just after Quentin Tarantino had effectively (if not unintentionally) changed the meaning of the word "pulp." For many people, "pulp" now meant "crime." As a result, as the editors report in their introduction, many curious people were disappointed upon discovering actual pulp magazines, since few resembled Pulp Fiction. Anthologists rushed to appease this market with this volume, the Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (which has a similar chronological and thematic focus) and Black Lizard's Big Book of Pulps (featuring stories from the actual pulp era, but still all in the crime genre). Don't get me wrong. I bought this book knowing what was in it because I love that noir-era fiction, and this collection may have the most formidable lineup ever of such authors -- including a sometime correspondent with this blog, James Reasoner. But I'd hate to think that after 20 years people still identify "pulp" with the matter or manner of Tarantino's instant classic when the word encompasses so much more than that. For me, Black Lizard's Big Book of Adventure Stories comes closer to the essence of pulp, and it's a shame that it couldn't identify it as such. I'd like to see more collections along those lines, and for that matter, am I the only one who thinks Black Lizard owes us a Big Book of Westerns instead of some of its more dubious recent publication choices? Or is that a question for another time? I had better answer my own question first. Is this pulp? I would say yes, despite the editors' own condescending attitude toward original pulp, which extends to a glaring typo that includes G-B and His Battle Aces in a list of magazine titles. I won't necessarily dispute their assertion that the digest era was the golden age of hard-boiled crime stories, and I'll certainly agree that the digests are direct descendants of pulp. To claim that the crime digests are the best of pulp, period, is another thing altogether and much more debatable. To publish a collection like this, however great it looks and however great it may prove to be, implies that the debate is over, when I think it's hardly begun.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

'I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense.'

H. Bedford-Jones' "Captain Rose and the Bullfrog" (Adventure, March 1, 1930) is a study of the idiosyncratic ethics of an English sea captain, and perhaps a comment on English character. The title characters are the captain of the Ayuthia and his French mate, who approaches Rose with the proposition of liberating a Tonkinese convict from a French colonial prison. The mate hopes to win Rose's sympathy by explaining that the prisoner is a "deputy," one who agrees to serve the time for another man's crime in return for a handsome payout when he's free. In this particular case, the "deputy" has inherited some wealth and his family wants him free so he can claim it. Captain Rose does not sympathize. The deputy has made a bad bet, that's all, and on general principles breaking a convict out of prison is a form of "sneaking" that doesn't justify the risk of the captain's ticket. The mate finds this strange, knowing that Rose has been a smuggler when it suits him. That's lawbreaking just as much as springing a convict is, no?

"Were you never dishonest?" asked Hermant softly, looking at the horizon.
"No," said Captain Rose flatly, and removed his pipe to spit over the rail. "No! I've pulled a trick now and then, maybe a bit o' smuggling or worse, but plain crooked. Nothing dishonest; too much like sneakin', if you ask me."


"But you'd smuggle," said Hermant.
"That's different," said Captain Rose stoutly.
"How is it different? It's breaking the law."
"Huh! A fool parliament or governor or somebody says, 'Don't you dare do this or that, or we'll clap you in jail if we catch you at it. That's no law. That's a defiance. Like the liquor law in America. Makes a chap go do it, especially if he clears a bit o' money at it."
"But helping a poor devil get away to freedom, from a life sentence --"
"Is a sneakin' proposition," declared Captain Rose. "And if any chap came to me and made it flat out, I'd kick him in the pants. Yes, sir -- and take my fist to him, to boot!"

The mate carries out his plot anyway but Rose refuses to acquiesce. He suppresses the mutiny in bloody fashion, killing both the mate and the "deputy" in the process of vindicating his principles. His final verdict on the mate is, "I never did see a bullfrog that had good sense." To the modern reader Captain Rose may not seem the most principled man, but Bedford-Jones tells the story in a way that implies strongly that Englishmen like Rose --or, more generously, Anglo-Americans -- are the only people with principles, every other race, including other Europeans, being suspect. For all that, Bedford-Jones' portrait of the captain strikes me as all too plausible in the singlemindedness of his double standard, if that's what it is. Leaving character analysis aside, the story's a brisk bit of blood and thunder that won't disappoint those looking for such.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Revenant -- pulp style

The Oscar-winning 2015 film The Revenant revived interest in the legend of Hugh Glass, the mountain man who survived mauling by a bear, abandonment by his colleagues and an epic trek to confront his false friends. Needless to say this was a story well known to pulp creators and probably was retold many times in pulp magazines. One such retelling was in the June 1950 issue of Fifteen Western Tales. Just as many comic books once had a text feature, many pulps had regular illustrated features like Stookie Allen's "Men [or Women] of Daring" for Argosy. For Fifteen Western Marshall Lincoln Lee, signing his work simply as "Lee," contributed "Tales of the Old West" for a decade, from 1943 through 1953. Here's his take on the Hugh Glass legend in its original double-page spread form.

And here are closer looks at the individual pages. The narrative reads down one page, then down the other, so there should be no confusion.

Friday, March 17, 2017


You might expect a St. Patrick's Day cover from The National Weekly on this date, but you didn't get it this year. Inside, however, you get some pulp alumni, starting with the ever-popular Ernest Haycox, found here in the middle of one of his occasional change-of-peace air-oriented serials. Edward L. McKenna, author of the boxing romance "Never A Champ," made his name at Adventure in the late 1920s but was a full-time slickster at this point. The star attraction this time, however, is Harold Lamb, who contributes "The Bear's Head" on that ever-popular theme of Vikings fighting American Indians. While this short piece, illustrated by John Richard Flanagan, has the romantic angle you'd expect from Collier's, in its brutal brevity it's arguably more purely pulp than much of the stuff Lamb wrote for actual pulps. Basically a Viking ship takes the wrong turn on the way to "the Green Land" and discovers an unknown country. Two warriors vie for the love of the captain's sister, but Brand's retirement from violence (after a brief, bloody career of globetrotting) puts him at a disadvantage against "Fighting Mord." Brand wanders off on his own in the new country, but when the rest of the party are overrun by angry natives, and Fighting Mord is slaughtered, our hero remembers his Berserk (not "Berserker," as in modern usage) heritage. The "savages" are terrified at first when their arrows bounce off Brand's mail shirt, but once they see him bleed they overpower him and, as savages will, prepare him for torture. Unfortunately, torture only makes Brand more angry.

...And suddenly one of the chiefs gave a shout and drew a knife. He stepped behind Brand and cut through the flesh between two of his ribs. Brand's [death] song ceased. The anger that was in him suddenly filled his brain. The snow and the yelling crowd became red before his eyes, and with the strength of frenzy, he jerked his bound wrists against his upturned knee. Some of the withes cracked and slipped. With his shoulder sinews cracking, the Berserk  tore his hands free from the bonds. He leaped forward through the air, knocking the savages aside. And before they could grasp him well he had caught up his axe where it lay unheeded on the ground.
Leaping away from them, he swung it about his head and the steel whined. The curved blade crashed into the face of a man, shearing away part of the skull. It split open the skull of another....

While some pulp graduates changed genre (or tried to eschew it) to appeal to a broader audience or aspire to literature, Lamb's subject matter remained fairly consistent whether he was writing for pulps or slicks. Stories like "The Bear's Head" prove that for all his "mainstream" success, Lamb definitely hadn't sold out in any way. You can start the story here, at, and resume it here and here. And you can sample the whole issue at this link.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


The publishers of this 1948 paperback desperately want you not to think of it as mere pulp fiction. Let's go right to the back cover to see the case they make.

Lawless Range, then, is in the great tradition of Cimarron and The Ox-Bow Incident, or so Signet claims. It is literature of a new kind, as the first-page blurb reiterates: "Lawless Range is typical of the new brand of Western fiction -- literate and yet suspenseful, adult and action-packed." I'll give them "action-packed," but the rest is a load of bull. If this isn't pulp, then I don't know what Signet's copywriter thought pulp was. Is it not pulp if the author doesn't use the embarrassing yuhs and tuhs? Is it literate when two potential lovers debate their attraction thusly?

"In my own life I have known few women," he told her, "Perhaps that has been to my disadvantage. In any event it has always been in my mind that when a man kisses a woman, he does so because his intentions are serious, because he regards her as his woman and she accepts him as her man."
Diana's cheeks whitened and that pallor deepened, by contrast, the rich, red line of her mouth. She stepped nearer, suddenly enjoying the uneasy storm behind his slate-gray eyes.
"You're a strange man, Jim," she said, and now her eyes were mocking and inviting him, "Your belief leaves no room for the man and woman who are attracted to each other at first sight and must answer the call of their own nearness because they recognize it as a force bigger than themselves and not to be ignored." She stopped and put her hands on his chest. "Oh, Jim, why are we here talking when --?"

These two had kissed impulsively only a page before. Their almost academic exchange is a typically stilted romantic scene from the novel, though Jim, the hero, will end up with another woman, Sally the virtuous, tough-minded schoolteacher. Their courtship is complicated by the fact that Jim, a federal marshal operating undercover, killed Sally's brother just before the story started. His mission is to discover who's behind a rustling ring, and his refusal to reveal himself makes nearly every male character suspect, since all suspect him of being an outlaw and are hostile to him. It's a standard whodunit with a bunch of red herrings to blur Jim's trail, rather like a Texas Rangers novel with love scenes. The novel is not a paperback original but was first published in the Canadian Sunday-supplement magazine Star Weekly in 1945, and then in hardcover by Arcadia House, a company that specialized in genre fiction for five-and-dime "commuter libraries." I don't think I've read anything by Heckelmann before but I'll be reluctant to try more after this one. Whether Lawless Range is bad pulp or bad literature, merely inept or hopelessly pretentious, it's bad. There are more tin-eared sentences in this 163 page novel than I've seen collected between two covers in some time. Heckelmann writes drama badly and action badly.

Esmond's talk whipped at Sally, flat and disturbing.

Hockett cursed and his wide, stocky frame bowed in a crouch. Rashness was pinching his muscles, turning him wild and desperate.

She had hardened herself against him and the solid thrust of her contempt was an unscalable barrier between them.

Reed's gun canted upward in his fist. He felt it buck solidly against his wrist, saw the red froth crawl from the bore.

[and on the very same page...]

Red death was crawling from Braley's gun.

Nothing says "fast-action western" like stuff crawling out of guns. I might charitably assume that Heckelmann wrote this in a hurry and for a quick payday, but that's not the sort of western novel Signet was trying to sell with its ambitious blurbs. I might not be so hard on Heckelmann if his paperback publisher hadn't told me to expect something better -- not only something better written but something more mature, more researched, more authentically colorful. The sort of western novels Signet describes actually did exist at this time, but Lawless Range just isn't one of them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

'Only the people to whom he lent a helping hand knew this side of his job, and they would not remember it.'

It's most likely that I've read stuff by Joseph Chadwick in pulps I've already read, but I never really took notice of him until I read his "Girl For No Man's Land" from Ranch Romances. That made me curious to try more of his work, and it just so happened that Chadwick has a short story in the June 1950 Fifteen Western Tales I've been working through gradually this winter. "Dead Man's Star" takes what strikes me as an unorthodox approach to the typical "day of the showdown story." Ed Bassett is the marshal tasked with riding herd on Jake Pardee's cowboys, and Pardee resents it. The rancher warns Bassett that after one Saturday night of good behavior his men will "cut loose their wolf" the following weekend, and he means to make sure the marshal does nothing about it. In effect, Pardee says the town isn't big enough for him and Bassett, and next Saturday night will bring the showdown. In Chadwick's telling, next Saturday night plays out like a relatively uneventful Old West edition of COPS. Hyper-attentive to the sounds of ordinary life, the anxious Bassett is distracted by various public-servant errands. He checks on a family whose mother is about to go into labor. He helps a newcomer in town who can't find her boyfriend. He comforts an old drunk dying in a barn, then comforts the dead man's friend. These mundane encounters remind him of how much of his job both he and his constituents had taken for granted. He regrets not choosing a commercial life that could have earned him his girl's consent to a wedding. Even now, he tells the despairing girl that he can't refuse Pardee's challenge. Finally, however, the clammy-palmed marshal refuses the mythic faceoff in the street, instead tackling Pardee from behind in an effort to talk/bully him out of the fight. Pardee happily proves tractable, confessing that he had been just as terrified as Bassett, if not more so as the man whose big mouth had forced the issue. Chadwick's isn't the only story this issue -- I need to circle back soon to a Steve Frazee novelette -- that opts for anticlimax as a sign of genre maturity, a recognition that not every western tale needed to end with a gunfight. Chadwick's social-realist approach to his subject made it fresh, and while the finish might not be as dark as adult westerns could get, it still seems like the right way to finish the story. Score another one for Chadwick.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

'All of Islam is running this way!'

Lawrence G. Blochman took an aspiring pulpster's verion of the classical grand tour as a young man, writing his way around the world as a journalist for English-language papers in distant lands before settling down to write stories. He first appeared in Everybody's Magazine, which by the mid-1920s was pretty much a monthly version of Adventure. He made it into Adventure itself in 1929. "The Chota Sahib" (March 1, 1930) is only his second story for that magazine. As Blochman explains, the title denotes a "little" or "junior" white man in India, whether in the public or the private sector. Roy Spence is a chota sahib for Bengal Collieries, sent to Lalkand to help Sam Whyler, a hero of his who once saved his life, secure the rights to a coal seam found in a Shiite Muslim community. Blochman never uses the word "Shiite," but his description of a Moharram festival is the tipoff. Accompanied by a comic relief babu -- the gag is always that their syntax can't keep up with their English vocabulary -- Spence is an idealist, and this is a story of disillusionment. "There was a healthy glow to his cheeks," Blochman writes, "and an alert, candid light in his blue eyes. Something about him, some vague freshness, gave the impression that he had not been long in India." Pulpsters were believers in your face as a window to your essential character, and on the effects on character of intemperate climates like those of the Indian subcontinent. We will learn that they have done their dirty work on at least one burra sahib.

Reaching Lalkand, Spence finds Whyler grown fat and lazy. "His was not that extreme rotundity which gives an impression of frank good nature, but rather a careless corpulence," our young hero perceives. Despite his warnings that a rival company is sending agents to Lalkand, Whyler seems uninterested in the coal seam. He warns Spence not to bother negotiating until after the Moharram festival is over, and maybe not to bother negotiating at all, since the land Bengal Collieries wants is on "holy ground -- holy as hell. There's dozens of tombs of nigger saints on the property." Undeterred, Spence seeks an audience with the hajji who runs the local mosque and judges character much as pulp writers do. "You have honest eyes," he tells Spence, "Your face speaks the same message as your lips. Therefore honesty must cross your path." Spence gets the contract, only to have Whyler lose it, supposedly to a burglar. Luckily, Spence is fresh-minded enough to have a duplicate. Unfortunately, the village is suddenly out to kill all white man because some infidel has turned an unclean pig loose in the mosque. "All of Islam is running this way!" the panicky babu cries, urging Spence to make the hastiest of exits, but our hero is determined to rescue his hero, Whyler. Against all odds he finds the older man safe, only to discover that Whyler has sold him out, cutting a deal with the rival company's agent. His corruption complete, Whyler sneeringly tells Spence that he'd only rescued him back when because Spence was the boss's nephew and Whyler expected a promotion for his good dead. He put the pig in the mosque and kidnapped the hajji who knew the truth in the hope of getting the contract from Spence amid the confusion. "Young man, when you've been in India as long as I have, you'll know there aren't any pukkah sahibs," he says.

Making a desperate escape from his predicament, Spence goes a bit mad -- or at least Blochman writes him like a bit of a madman at the climax, when Whyler is shooting at him.

The youth clutched his gun. Something made him hesitate again. That something, Whyler, the hero. The man who saved his life. the ideal Whyler wanted to live ...
He blinked at a puff of flame. An explosion knocked him down. He had difficulty getting up. His left leg was numb.
Whyler was still standing there -- Whyler, the enemy. Whyler was shooting at him. The man wanted to kill -- not only him but the ideal Whyler. Spence had come to Lalkand to save the ideal Whyler. He would save him!
He squeezed the trigger.

And, of course, in his report to the company Spence credits Whyler with a heroic death in defense of Bengal Collieries. It's as if he needs to print the legend of a pukkah sahib -- a "perfect gentleman," more or less -- in order to deny Blochman's implicit truth that India ruins white men like Whyler. Whether Spence will go the same way is uncertain, but he does need a stiff drink before he sends the telegram. "The Chota Sahib" is the sort of story that's more interesting as a historical document of pop-culture attitudes toward India than for its literary qualities. The story may be bad in more than one sense, but it definitely isn't dull, and that's a point in its favor.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

RANCH ROMANCES: "Why don't you want to live, Joe?"

H. A. DeRosso is considered one of the darker authors of that mid-century period when western fiction, mirroring western movies, took on a more "adult" tone. He published his first pulp story in 1941; his last, posthumously published western stories appeared in Ranch Romances. DeRosso turned up frequently there, Ranch Romances being a market that probably ever western writer tried for. He also appeared at least once in Popular Publications' sweeter, gentler rival publication, Rangeland Romances, which tells me that DeRosso knew how to tailor his style to particular markets. How much did his stuff have to be tailored to Ranch Romances? "The Gun Rider" (First November Number, 1955) suggests that it was simply a matter of adding a happy ending to a pretty grim tale.

Jose Gomez, aka "Joe," is a hired gun for Senor Merriman, a corrupt rancher who dominates Dona Luz County with the votes of a Mexican community he keeps poor, ignorant and dependent. Merriman has sent Jose to his home town of San Onofre to hunt down Paul Vincent, a newspaperman making trouble with his investigative journalism. Jose finds himself a pariah, despised as a murderer even by his own mother, even though he claims to kill only in defense of Senor Merriman. The only sympathetic person in town is Erin Day, the pretty Anglo schoolteacher who's had a crush on Jose since they met. She tries to set "Joe" straight about Merriman by showing him the exposes Vincent has published, only to discover that Jose, to his own shame, can read neither English nor Spanish. To his further shame, he discovers that his own mother had been harboring Vincent, and so have most of the townspeople. He tries to cover up for her when Merriman and his bigoted sheriff show up in San Onofre, only to be warned that he can be framed for murder, for a killing that had saved Merriman's life, if he doesn't find the newsman. Finding his own situation increasingly hopeless, he helps Vincent get out of town by shooting two of Merriman's men and prepares for his own death. He figures Merriman has an airtight frame set up, and he figures that Erin, whom he'd pined for silently, thinking himself unfit for her, loves Vincent. Erin isn't so sure about that last part. She urges Jose to leave town until Vincent can clear his name and ruin Merriman, and despairs when he stays in San Onofre. "Why don't you want to live?" she asks, and while he says it's because the frame-up makes flight pointless, she figures out that he means to sacrifice himself, the big dummy, so she can go off with Vincent. "I know now why you helped Paul, why you came back, why you don't want to live," she says, "But I want you to." But she runs out of time to convince him to leave.

She began to cry softly.
"Please don't cry, Erin. Don't let me remember you the last time crying."
Outside Crabtree shouted, "Cobarde. Hijo de puto. Come on out, greaser."
"I'll do my best, Erin. I know how to use a gun good and I'll do my best. Tell my mother --" He did not finish.
"Tell her what, Joe?"
He wanted to tell Erin good-bye but there was something too final in the words. They choked in his throat. So he touched her head again, the golden hair, and then he was throwing the door open and running out.

Maybe in a different magazine, or in something published a few years earlier Jose does get killed, and Erin does go off with Paul Vincent. Here, he kills his men, gasps "Erin, querida, Erin" with "what he was sure would be his last breath," and then wakes up in bed, recovering from his wounds. Erin will not only marry him, but will teach him to read and write. "Something filled his eyes, something like tears," DeRosso writes, "and he could not understand this because he had never been happy." But he's happy now. Despite that, it isn't quite prime Ranch Romances stuff. Erin's no action woman like you got on the covers so often, and DeRosso, in an effort to differentiate Jose speaking Spanish to his mother and other villagers and English to Erin, renders most of his hero's dialogue in that stilted fashion -- no contractions, no slang -- that 20th century writers from Ernest Hemingway to Pearl S. Buck and on down used to convey foreigners speaking their native tongue. Still, DeRosso can definitely create a mood and does so here pretty effortlessly. Whether the end of his story contradicts its mood was really for its target audience to decide.

The scan of this issue of Ranch Romances breaks "The Gun Rider" into two parts." Start here and continue with this link to a typical bit of  S. Omar Barker doggerel. On a tangent, you'll notice at the end of the story a promo for Robert Cummings' (ghost-written?) review of the upcoming Randolph Scott-Angela Lansbury picture My Gun Commands. If you've never heard of such a film, that's because the Joseph H. Lewis film was renamed A Lawless Street at the time of its release.

Monday, March 6, 2017


This issue of The National Weekly has a good tally of pulp veterans, including the almost inevitable Ernest Haycox and Octavus Roy Cohen, who hadn't appeared in pulp for nearly a generation by this time. Will F. Jenkins, who contributes a South Sea island story, was better known to pulpdom under his pseudonym, Murray Leinster. Jenkins used his real name occasionally in pulp, sometimes when "Leinster" was also appearing, and most recently in a 1935 Double-Action Western. He broke into Collier's as Jenkins in 1935 and hit the ground running, publishing ten stories in 1936. He continued to sell pulp stories as Jenkins, perhaps now because his real name had enhanced marketability. Jenkins never fully differentiated between Will F. Jenkins the slickster and Murray Leinster the pulp writer; Jenkins landed a story in Adventure in 1947 and appeared in Ranch Romances as late as 1957 while Leinster continued his legendary sci-fi career. He didn't sacrifice whatever pulpy gift he had for slick success, unlike Frederick Nebel, arguably the exemplary case of a pulpster selling out. Nebel was a titan of Black Mask magazine, a pioneer of the hard-boiled style alongside Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, et al and a writer who gave that style a distinctive emotional intensity as private eyes, cops and reporters butted heads against each other. His transition to the slicks began while he was still writing the Cardigan series for Dime Detective, when he made his Collier's debut in 1933. This issue's "The Grand Manner" was on newstands around the same time as his penultimate Cardigan story in the March 1937 Dime Detective; the last Cardigan appeared two months later. The mainstreaming of Nebel was an odd process. In movies, it involved the transformation of his Black Mask reporter Kennedy into girl reporter Torchy Blane for a series of movies made entertaining by Glenda Farrell's energetic work in the title role. For Collier's, meanwhile, Nebel wrote mostly romance stories that can't help but seem lifeless compared to his detective stories. Yet Nebel seemed to consider these his real work. He infamously declined to be included in an anthology of Black Mask fiction because he considered those stories inferior stuff. He had succumbed to middlebrow sensibilities just as more canonically literary writers were thought to have (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) when they collected the big paychecks from the mass-circulation slicks.It was probably easier for western writers like Haycox to cross over without compromising their imaginations because westerns were going to be thought of as genre stuff no matter what. In any event, Haycox, Jenkins and Nebel are three distinctive examples of how pulp stars adapted to the demands of the slicks and their own artistic temperaments. As usual, you can sample the whole issue at

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Cave's publishing career lasted nine decades, his first stories appearing when he was 19, in 1929, his last appearing in the 21st century. By the 1950s, with the pulps dying around him, he graduated smoothly to the slicks, only to be re-embraced by pulp fans in his old age, long after his main slick markets had vanished. For a time he was a mainstream author, known both for a nonfiction study of Haiti and for The Cross on the Drum, reportedly a best-seller and presumably based on his personal experience of Caribbean life. This is a mainstream novel, first published in hardcover, and in certain respects a conscious repudiation of pulp tropes. It addresses one of the classic pulp subjects, the clash of cultures, but takes an un-pulp approach to it.

Cave himself probably wrote pulp stories treating voodoo as a horror, and if he didn't many others writers did. Many more have used the generic "witch doctor" as the villain of stories in many settings, representing the unreasoning, reactionary superstition of primitive people.  Fanatic or fraud, this type is usually shown selfishly if not cynically exploiting his people's credulity for his own benefit. In The Cross Cave departs from that formula by stressing the similarities between his houngan, Catus Laroche, and his Christian missionary, Barry Clinton. For both men, religion is less a matter of dogma than service. Each persists in his beliefs and practices in spite of growing doubts because both want to help the people of Isle du Vent. Each is painfully aware of how limited his ability is to materially help the desperately poor people of the island. Each is also guardedly critical of the other's faith while withholding judgment on each other as individuals. Catus zeros in on the apparent absurdities of the Gospel while Barry finds a weak spot in the apparent indifference of the loa to the material or spiritual well-being of the people they possess and take sacrifice from. It's a measure of Barry's own doubt, however, that he can't simply dismiss all the behaviors of possessed people as mere shamming. In any event, it's not really a high priority for Barry to denounce vodun (Cave's usage) or the loa. Recognizing how vodun had incorporated Catholic saint worship, he'd be satisfied to have Catus's people add Jesus to their pantheon in order to learn Jesus's moral lessons. In turn, Catus wants to learn more about Christianity, if only to understand his antagonists better, but he really appreciates what Barry is able to accomplish simply as a glorified medic. While most of the novel is told from Barry's point of view, Cave lets us into Catus's head often enough for us to understand that these holy men are basically two of a kind.

Barry and Catus probably would work out a modus vivendi if not for the rest of the plot. An ambitious native, Pradon Beliard, tries to play the two off each other to advance his own interests. The island's white plantation boss, Lemke, backs Beliard's efforts to subvert Barry's mission, growing increasingly hostile as he suspects his estranged wife Alma of being attracted to him. Catus's sister Micheline has had an affair with Lemke and has the hots for Barry, despite Catus' hot hostility to the idea of her sleeping with white men. When Barry definitively spurns Micheline -- he actually has fallen for Alma -- she joins forces with Beliard with some explosive gossip. She'd been privy to a confidential conversation between Barry and Catus after the death of a village girl, when Barry had explained that the girl could have survived had Catus brought the girl to him for modern medicine. Barry promised to keep this secret in order not to undermine Catus's position in his community, but Micheline now blabs this to Beliard, so he can say that Barry's been telling the story all over. Worse, she tells Beliard that the child she's carrying is Barry's, when it's actually Lemke's. Once Catus appears convinced of this double betrayal, both Barry's mission and his life are in jeopardy....

When I said that Cross on the Drum was in some ways a conscious repudiation of pulp, I had in mind at least two scenes when Barry compares his situation to pop culture cliches. Micheline's disheveled seduction attempt, following their survival of a boat wreck, reminds him of scenes from numerous "South Sea" movies. Later, after days of menacing drumming abruptly stop, and one of Barry's few remaining friends fears the worst, the missionary reflects that this "isn't one of those movies in which the beleaguered  explorers crouch in the jungle, surrounded by howling savages." Cave underscores this point by having Barry and Catus eventually settle things like reasonable men, but before that can happen the story depends on two classic coups de pulp. First, Barry's faithful housekeeper poisons her nephew Pradon Beliard -- non-lethally, natch -- in order to terrify him into confessing his culpability in all the novel's conspiracies. Second, after the housekeeper has saved Barry from eating a poisoned chicken, the missionary decides to play on the islanders' superstition and awe them into halting any attack. He has the word spread that he actually did die by poisoning, so that his appearance outside his church as the islanders converge upon it can look miraculous. He makes a point, however, of promising Catus after the fact that he'll tell the people the truth at his next service. His ultimate victory, Cave tells us, comes when Catus calls him mon frere rather than mon Pere. The novel closes on a note of peaceful coexistence, with the spiritual development of both divines to be continued. Despite the melodramatic climax, The Cross on the Drum often succeeds in what I take to be Cave's goal of transcending pulp formulae and the conventions of popular fiction in general while presenting a remarkably non-judgmental comparison of Christianity and vodun. I wouldn't say it really rises to the level of literature, but it's an earnestly entertaining, briskly plotted story that held my interest for all its almost 300 paperback pages. It may not so much transcend pulp as illustrate how pulp fiction could evolve as a pulp author learned more about the world and its people.

Friday, March 3, 2017

RANCH ROMANCES: The courtship of Jim Bannister

Joseph Chadwick was a prolific pulp writer during the 1940s and 1950s. His "Girl For No Man's Land" was the lead novelette in the 1953 First August Number of Ranch Romances. At 37 dense pages it's a pretty substantial piece of work, and this length gives us a better idea of the balance writers tried to strike between romance and mayhem in this most popular of western pulps.

Jim Bannister has resigned from the Texas Rangers to conduct a personal manhunt for Matt Duane, an escaped convict he more or less let escape. Duane was the only member of an outlaw gang to be captured after a robbery in which Bannister's mentor was killed. The search takes him into "No Man's Land," aka the "Neutral Strip," a piece of "forgotten" territory bordering five states. Bannister expects to meet strange characters here, but the real surprise is when he stumbles upon a woman bathing in a creek. "In all my years as a Ranger, nothing like this had ever happened to me!" he narrates. While he gapes at the spectacle, the woman dives to the bank, finds her rifle and opens fire at him. I bet that happened to him before! This is Bannister's first meeting with Janet Cameron, daughter of a rancher and girlfriend of Matt Duane. Bannister doesn't know that yet at their first more formal meeting, but he suspects that the Camerons know where Duane is and mean to warn him that someone's after him. Chadwick is good at showing his hero's thought processes as Jim tries to decide whether a Mexican ranch hand has been sent to Duane's hideout to warn him, or whether the Mexican was meant to distract him from Duane's presence at the ranch. He confronts Janet a second time and notices that she's got dishes for two in her sink. When Duane finally appears to confirm Jim's suspicions, Janet snatches the gun from Jim's holster to leave him helpless. But she won't let Duane shoot the unarmed man and a melee results

I grabbed at her, and in the darkness I wasn't able to see what I grabbed. I got an armful of girl. She screamed and fought against me, and for a time I had my hands full. I'd never had a woman fight me before, and Janet Cameron's strength surprised me.

You get the feeling that, if anything, this makes Janet more attractive to our manhunter hero. Despite her efforts Bannister reclaims the upper hand, but offers to leave Duane be if he'll rat out his three partners. Duane does this readily while telling Bannister his hard-luck story of oppression by the banks and the big ranchers. Bannister isn't naive about rich folk so he gives Duane some benefit of the doubt. It's not until he's on the trail again, and when he encounters Will Hanks, a cunning drifter he'd met earlier in the story, that he reconsiders why Duane was so ready to rat on his partners. Hanks, who wants a piece of the outlaw bounty, plants the idea in Bannister's head that Duane has all the loot from the robbery hidden someplace. Why else would the other three be looking for Duane, as Hanks has found out? Not to give him his share, certainly; more likely to get theirs. That sends Bannister back to the Cameron ranch, only for Janet to get the drop on him with her rifle. Since this is Ranch Romances, Jim finds himself addressing Janet as "Honey," though this "surprised me as much as it did her." He keeps trying to smooth-talk her into dropping her guard, but she's unimpressed by his abrupt confession that "You've got me crazy in love with you." Planting doubts in her mind about Duane proves more effective, but disarming her only starts the next round.

I threw the rifle aside and went after her, across a comfortably furnished parlor to a desk at its far end. She jerked open a drawer and grabbed out a six-shooter. I had to strike her across the wrist with the edge of my hand in a nasty chopping blow. She shrieked with pain, dropped the revolver. I stooped to pick it up and she caught me with both hands at the shoulders and shoved hard. I fell onto my side, rolled over, scrambled up just in time to keep her from getting the gun. I caught her across the waist, and it was like taking hold of a cougar. She fought me as she had the other night, with wild fury. I picked her up, carried her squirming fiercely to a sofa, dumped her onto it. When she tried to get off it, I pinned her down by the shoulders.

What happened after that happened more by accident than by design.

I bent over and kissed her.

My lips touching her mouth did what force couldn't have done...

And so the tide turns. Janet's still in denial, insisting that she means to marry Tom Duane, but it's only a matter of time before Duane shows his true colors, confirming Bannister and Will Hanks' suspicions. The confirmation comes when the other three outlaws arrive at the ranch looking for Duane and their money. Everyone converges there for the big showdown, including the mercenary Hanks, who decides that the robbery loot is a better prize than any bounty. Bannister understandably takes care of most of the business toward the end, though Janet scores with a pot of freshly boiled coffee in an outlaw's face. Overall, "Girl For No-Man's Land" illustrates how the tone of Ranch Romances stories could turn on a dime from violence to romance, perhaps on the assumption that there was some continuity between the two. It definitely works as a western action story, and compared to what you might read in a "straight" western there's a more urgent tone to the romance scenes that doesn't really compromise the story. I wonder whether there was too much violence in Jim and Janet's encounters for some of the female readership, but I also suspect that the rough-and-ready elements of their courtship were part of Ranch Romances' enduring appeal.