Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Pier Angeli graces the cover of this issue from the last full year in which Collier's could rightly be called The National Weekly. On the fiction front this issue features a western (or northwestern) by pulp veteran Tom W. Blackburn. He'd toiled in the pulps for more than a decade, scoring only one story in the Saturday Evening Post during that time, before he saw more slick success at the start of the 1950s. "Cragar's Girl," a fairly tough story of the sale of some timberland, was Blackburn's third and last story for Collier's, and practically his last piece of magazine fiction. His future lay in Hollywood, where he would shortly score a double-hit as the writer for Disney's Davy Crockett series and its blockbuster theme song.

Robert W. Krepps broke into Collier's around the same time Blackburn did, in 1950, but after much less dues-paying. Krepps broke into the pulps in 1947 and continued to publish in the quasi-pulp Bluebook until its demise in 1956, not long before the end of Collier's. This issue's "Nomad of the Dusk" is one of those old pop-fiction reliables, the animal story, and probably the most violent tale in the magazine that week. Durgi the dog-otter -- how he has a name is a mystery to me -- struggles to provide for his bitch (in this context, a slick can use that word) and her brand-new litter, running afoul of a vengeful farmer in the process. This story's "bring out the gimp" moment comes when the farmer unleashes "Long Willie," which at first I assumed to be his pet name for a rifle or shotgun. It proves to be an "English hob or ferret," portrayed by Krepps as the servile psychopath of the animal kingdom. It's "a berserker among the beasts, living only for the thrill of slaying....Entirely dependent on man for its sustenance, it is yet more feral and bloodthirsty than any untamed animal; man has bred it so." The climactic fight nearly lives up to this build-up, including the random slaughter of one of the baby dog-otters. "Cragar's Girl" is quite good but for once I have to say an animal story is the highlight of a fiction magazine. Krepps moved on eventually to specialize in novels set in Africa and film adaptations. Check out the whole issue at your leisure at

Sunday, April 23, 2017


When he died in 2009, Elmer Kelton was widely hailed as the best western writer of his time, by which presumably was meant, in the face of whatever claim might be made for Larry McMurtry, that Kelton was top hand among genre specialists. Kelton belonged to the last generation who learned their trade in the western pulps, a peer of Elmore Leonard and John Jakes. Most of his pulp stuff appeared in Ranch Romances, understandably given that magazine's longevity and frequency. He was still placing stories in the Thrilling Group's remaining pulps when Ballantine published Barbed Wire, their third Kelton novel, in 1957. It resembles a Ranch Romance less than it does, at least thematically, the T. T. Flynn novel and Anthony Mann film The Man From Laramie. It's more Mann than Flynn, I think, because the protagonist reminds me of Jimmy Stewart's flawed, driven heroes. Doug Monahan is an ex-rancher who's gotten into the barbed wire business; he and his former ranch hands bring the wire and string it up when ranchers or farmers want to enclose their land. When he tries that in Kiowa County he runs afoul of Captain Andrew Rinehart, the local patriarch who took the land from the Indians and wants to keep it an open range for his cattle. When Rinehart's men break up Monahan's wire-stringing camp and kill his beloved Mexican cook, while Doug's employer scurries away like a coward, he provokes a slow-burning feud. Monahan isn't out to kill anyone, but he refuses to be driven out and strives relentlessly to interest the locals in barbed wire. He finds a customer in Noah Wheeler, an old war buddy of the Captain's who's been given freer rein to run a farm when others wouldn't get away with it. Wheeler's grudge isn't with the Captain but with a smaller "range hog" rancher whose scrub bulls get in the way of Noah's ambitious stock breeding plans. But Rinehart, egged on by foreman Archer Spann, sees any fencing as an insult to himself and his legacy. Along with his men, he's got the tenuous backing of his hand-picked sheriff Luke McKelvie, torn between loyalty to his patron and a growing appreciation of the rule of law. Taking his informal title of "peace officer" seriously, he tries to discourage Monahan and Rinehart from provoking each other, but there are too many forces in play, as well as the two antagonists' irreconcilable wills, for the well-meaning lawman to control.

Two things stand out in this first Kelton novel I've read. The first is his eye for the details of hard work, acquired from the ranch background touted on the back cover. The opening pages will give you as thorough a description of digging post holes as you'll probably ever want. I appreciate that sort of immersive detail, which explains why I find myself preferring ranch stories to generic gunfighter tales. The second standout is his consideration for both sides in the barbed-wire debate, though he clearly sympathizes with those characters who see the fencing off of land as a necessary and progressive step. He also allows readers to understand, if not agree with, the attitude of opponents like Rinehart, who becomes a figure of some pathos as he grows more conscious of his failing powers and more concerned over his wife's delicate health. Barbed Wire is almost a tale without a villain, but Kelton's approach to his villain is still unusual. He emphasizes that Archer Spann is a superior foreman, legitimately skilled in all the aspects of that job, as well as a clean liver who never touches alcohol. His fatal flaw is his "littleness," his inability to be "big," by which Kelton means a defensive, spiteful selfishness that leads him to rob a discharged cowhand of the $300 he'd allowed the ranch to withhold as a savings account. Spann is unable to transcend the bitterness of his upbringing and always looks for someone on whom to take out his undying resentment. Loyal to Rinehart in the hope of inheriting the R Cross Ranch from the childless rancher, Spann constantly urges the old man to escalate the campaign against Monahan and Wheeler, finally betraying his irredeemable mean streak when he gun-butchers Wheeler's prize cattle and tramples Wheeler's daughter in the novel's most brutal scene. It's the most brutal scene not simply because it's violence against a woman but also because, after the murder that starts the feud, Kelton goes out of his way not to kill major characters.

I got the sense that Kelton was consciously defying genre expectations, creating situations and relationships that make the reader almost certain that this or that character will die, only to deny the cheap catharsis of death without seeming to contrive his way out. It's not just about denying violence: Rinehart's wife is introduced as frail and at least momentarily bedridden, and once you tag Rinehart as a tragic antagonist you expect him to lose the thing he loves the most, but she simply gets better instead. Kelton finally teases her leaving Rinehart instead of dying on him. Likewise, you think that Wheeler's son Vern, the Rinehart cowhand robbed by Spann, is surely doomed to be killed by the foreman or one of his minions, especially once he hooks up with a childhood friend turned rustler, but for all that Barbed Wire is a metaphor for generational conflict as a metaphor for the nation's progress, Kelton's ultimately more interested in reconciliation than revenge. His main characters -- even Spann has a guilty conscience, though it never stops him -- are intelligent and empathetic enough to see when they've gone too far. Monahan is willing to quit the barbed-wire business after Noah Wheeler gets beat up, and has to be talked out of blaming himself for the collateral damage from his war of wills with Rinehart, whose stubbornness takes longer to break down but does so nonetheless. Not even Spann is killed, and the end of Barbed Wire feels no less cathartic for that. Having read this early Kelton, and knowing that he had a half-century of writing to go, I suspect that there probably was some reason for all the acclaim he received at the end of his trail.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Richard S. Prather didn't publish in the pulps. Instead, after establishing himself as a novelist and the creator of Sheldon "Shell" Scott, he landed stories in the hard-boiled crime digests of the 1950s and 1960s, including a short-lived Shell Scott Mystery Magazine. Prather maintained a blistering pace through those two decades -- Joker in the Deck is one of three 1964 novels -- but slowed down afterward, partly due to disputes with publishers. Shell Scott became a logo as well as a character, his cotton-topped head adorning every new paperback original. He's a ladies' man but not quite the swaggering stud one might expect from hard-boiled detective stories from his heyday. Joker sometimes exposes an anxiety bordering on the naive in the face of aggressive or deviant sexuality, as if Prather's audience were slightly younger than the average. Shell is also a political conservative who probably voted for Barry Goldwater in the year Joker was published. His commiseration here with a possible bad guy lamenting the huge, socialistic tax burden the government imposes on him may be the closest Shell Scott comes to empathizing with criminals. Usually he gets a bit sanctimonious about crime, particularly the drug trade, when he isn't in his more typical happy-go-lucky horndog mode. You might be able to divide detective and crime fiction into two categories: those stories that try to humanize criminals, whether they're the protagonists or not, and those that make comic-book heavies of them. In the few Shell Scotts I've read Prather falls into the latter category.

In Joker Shell gets involved in real estate intrigue on a coastal California island. He's getting deep into a game of strip poker with his buddy Jim Paradise and two dames they met at a promotional event when Jim gets the news that his business partner, who proves to be his brother under an alias, has been murdered. In short order someone shows up to murder him, but Shell saves the day. In the aftermath, however, Shell fails to notice someone dragging the would-be killer's body away. Brea Island is shared by Jim's development project and a baby-food factory that appears to be improbably mobbed up. The mob guys, led by an ex-con who learned organic gardening in stir, run the Da Da plant for its owner, who arranged with Jim's brother to shuffle ownership of the island so the baby-food magnate as part of an elaborate tax dodge. Shell may hate high taxes as much as any red-blooded American -- and in those days they were sky-high compared to now -- but he also knows lawbreaking when he sees it. He also suspects that there's more going on on the island than meets the eye. Are the mob guys using the baby-food plant as a front for drug smuggling? Has oil been discovered on Brea Island? Either could explain the book's lethal attempts to consolidate ownership of the island.

As he pieces the story together Shell maintains an interest in the two women who played strip poker with him. Laurie is the good girl of the two while Eve (introduced on the opening page as "a long-legged, voluptuous looking, slinky, busty hippy bomb, an Adam bomb") is too aggressive for Shell's taste, tempting though her body is. For all his presumed experience, Shell seems to have an adolescent's sense of discovery every time he meets a beautiful woman, as well as a detective novelist's impulse to attempt original descriptions of female pulchritude. It's with a "galvanizing shock" that the big he-man discovers that Eve isn't wearing a brassiere in one scene, and "when Eve leaned forward and -- not aware of what she was doing, I presume -- sort of wiggled her shoulders joyously from side to wild side, there was almost as much commotion under that blouse as two people kicking each other under a blanket."  There's a different sense of discovery, even as he remembers a past experience, when Shell enters a suspicious niteclub. Presumably his memory of San Francisco prepares the reader for what follows. The tone is set by a weird woman with "a face to be presented only to steel mirrors, the face on the bride of Death." Shell shudders as he watches this apparition chat with Eve, and his evening grows only more shuddery.

I moved across the room to the bar, a bit nervously, because for some reason I didn't want to be seen, not by anybody who knew me. I didn't know why for sure; I just knew I didn't want to be seen. Tension built up in me gradually, rose along my spine and gathered in a knot at the base of my skull....I looked around. At men and women, sitting at tables, drinking, talking. There seemed nothing unusual. But then the scene seemed to shift. It was the same -- yet different. I had looked right at it, it was there in front of my eyes, but it hadn't impressed me until now. Men and women were sitting at tables, true; but at no table was a man sitting with a woman.

Really, Shell? This is your 24th novel, and you've had more adventures than that, and it takes you that long to notice you're in a gay bar? Richard Prather is a far better writer than John B. West, yet on this point I prefer Rocky Steele's hard-boiled contempt for and familiarity with the gay scene to Prather's horror-movie buildup to his awesome realization. The issue isn't whether one is more or less homophobic than the other, but that a hard-boiled guy like Shell really ought to take such things for granted, if not in stride, at this point in his storied career. Maybe more devoted readers can tell me if this is typical of Shell Scott -- this overall feeling I had on reading Joker in the Deck that Prather's hero is kind of a big kid at heart. That point aside, I liked Joker quite a bit. Prather seems to write authoritatively on the legalistic shenanigans involving the transfers of title to the island, and on other subjects he wears his research lightly. In a story like this expertise (or the convincing simulation of it) help hold the reader's interest because he feels he's learning something about Shell Scott's world as well as this particular mystery plot. I may not agree with Shell's politics but I accept them as an artifact of his time -- by which I don't mean that they're obsolete -- and Prather has as much right to incorporate them into his fiction as anyone to his left. I have another Shell Scott on my shelf -- to give things away a bit, it's actually half a Shell story -- and on the strength of Joker I'll probably be getting to that one sooner rather than later.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


While the literary star of this issue of the National Weekly at its time of publication probably was Irwin Shaw, it also features two pulp veterans. It didn't take Thomas Walsh long to break out of pulpdom. Within two years of his 1933 debut in Black Mask -- starting his career there must have been a coup in its own right -- he made it into The Saturday Evening Post. Walsh made his Collier's debut a year later and that became his slick of choice. By 1937 he had pretty much graduated from pulps, though he'd make occasional returns, presumably if Collier's had rejected something. This issue's "Peaceful in the Country" is actually Walsh's last story for that publication. He became a Post regular until that mag effectively gave up on popular fiction in the early 1960s. With coincidental symmetry, this issue's coming-of-age story "One Timeless Spring" was the first appearance in Collier's of Ray Bradbury, part of a trifecta he scored when he made his first three sales to slicks in one week. Bradbury was of the first generation to start their careers in the fan press. He broke into the pulps in 1941, at age 21 and was well on his way by the end of 1942. Starting in the fantastics, he expanded into detective fiction around 1944 but didn't really stick with it. The first of his slick sales appeared in Mademoiselle in November 1945. Bradbury wouldn't return to Collier's until 1950, when the magazine published one of his Martian chronicles. He appeared more regularly there (and in the Post) thereafter, his most famous Collier's story (apart from the Martian piece, "There Will Come Soft Rains") probably being "A Sound of Thunder" in the June 28, 1952 issue. By that point Bradbury could go back and forth more regularly between the slicks and the sci-fi mags which by now, as many adopted the digest format, may have been more respectable than the old pulps. You can sample Bradbury, Walsh, Shaw and the rest of this issue at

Monday, April 10, 2017


For starters, this issue of The National Weekly headlines a new mystery serial by Max Brand, though that detail is obscured by a mailing label on this copy. Its pulp credentials are bolstered by a Harold Lamb Cossack story and a piece by Sidney Herschel Small, though it's a romance rather than one of his Asian adventures. But history will identify this number's main attraction as Ernest Haycox's most famous story, "Stage to Lordsbourg," immortalized two years later as John Ford's film Stagecoach. But that's not all! Hagar Wilde was a pulp author, too, in her early days. She published often in the romance pulps before becoming a regular in the slicks of the early 1930s. For this issue Wilde contributed the story that put her foot in the doorway of pop-culture history, "Bringing Up Baby," which was immortalized only one year later as Howard Hawks's screwball comedy masterpiece of the same name. Except for lacking a Fu Manchu serial chapter, this is probably as awesome as Collier's gets. You can browse through the issue at your leisure at

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Surdez wrote many long stories for Adventure that could have passed for novels but published in long form only rarely. As far as I can tell, Demon Caravan (the title refers to a type of desert storm) was written for publication as a novel instead of appearing in the pulps first. It reads as if written for a different market, which isn't necessarily to Surdez' advantage. It's more old fashioned in its construction than his contemporary pulp stories, in that it takes quite a while for the actual story to begin. Novelistic conventions require an elaborate establishment of the protagonist, Captain Paul Lartal, in his new environment, an Algerian colonial outpost, and the introduction of several nearly interchangeable supporting characters who'll be left behind when Lartal goes on the novel's true mission. There's a good desert battle scene in the middle of this, but nearly half the 214 page novel (that's the page count for the 1951 Dell paperback) is buildup for Lartal's expedition into a hidden oasis.

Some collectors are fond of Dell's back cover maps, but give me more hard-boiled copy any time.

We're somewhere between Lost Horizon (yet to be written) and L'Atlantide (which Surdez may have read in the original French or in its English translation in Adventure) when Lartal, accompanied by his faithful Arab sidekick Tlemsani reach this desert utopia. What we have here is a progressive Muslim community founded by people tired of war, led by a charismatic chieftain and his French son-in-law, a fugitive from his own army for killing a fellow officer. When Lartal arrives the son-in-law, who converted to Islam and took the name Si Khalil, is the leader who consults with a representative assembly of guild elders and the like. Just as Si Khalil in his youth fell for the chieftain's daughter and married her, so Lartal is smitten with Si Khalil's daughter Morjana, for whom her father has been seeking a suitable mate. There is, however, a rival suitor who threatens to disrupt Si Khalil's utopia. Omar ben Azziz is a type the world has come to know all too well in the 21st century. Surdez calls him a Senussi, but we'd call him an Islamist. "While all are Mohammedans here, tolerance has prevailed," Si Khalil explains, "The young wish to change that.

Of late there has come about a renewal of religious fervor. There are more ways than one to interpret the Koran. The military spirit has spread among the schoolboys in some way. Under their tuition, the boys are growing up to hate strangers, men not of their faith, although they have never seen them. Instead of warriors for protection, they maintain we should send them out for conquest.

Omar is the sort who has a quote from the Koran as the self-serving answer to every question. He uses the arrival of Lartal to stir up dissent against Si Khalil, arguing that the granddaughter of the great founder, though half-French herself, should not be married off to an infidel outsider. With a pessimism that probably appears prophetic now, Surdez shows Si Khalil's position crumbling until he decides that he, Morjana and Lartal should escape and seek shelter with the French. Omar's ascendancy has split the ruling family as Yusuf, Si Khalil's son by another mother, takes the side of the supposed holy man. Over the second half of the novel Surdez has been ratcheting up the tension, and in the final chapters he lets rip as the good guys make their break, though not without casualties or without a timely and brutal act of filial piety by the conflicted Yusuf. The second half of Demon Caravan makes the whole worth reading, so long as you understand that it's more romantic adventure than pulp fiction. It's still unmistakably Surdez, and it makes you sadly confident that he would have handled himself well in the era of paperback originals had he made it there instead of dying shortly before at the age of 49.

Monday, April 3, 2017


This ranch romance from the First May 1956 number begins with the hero discovering a suicide.

His eyes stamped every detail in his mind, so that it would be there whenever he might need it. He saw the pattern of drying blood, spread out grotesquely over the rough-hewn planks of the floor. There was not much left of Rowley's face.
"It's murder, Sheriff," someone said.

No one's disputing that Rowley shot himself, but most people in town feel that Ed Landry, the big storekeeper, drove his onetime competitor and present debtor to do it with sharp business practices. Sheriff Jim Gordon spends most of this novella trying to keep Landry from getting shot or lynched, but Landry hardly seems to deserve the lawman's solicitude. He lets Jim know that he's going to take over the bank that holds the mortgage on Jim's little spread, which will give him extra leverage on the sheriff.  Over the course of the story we'll learn that while Landry may be evil, he's not crooked. That is, it isn't him who's using violence to advance his interests. "He wanted money and power," the true villain of the piece explains, "but he didn't want it like I do....Folks thought he was hard, but it was mostly me that did his dirty work for him. And most of the time he didn't even know." Jim must expose this villain while rescuing Landry from the townspeople's misguided fury, and at the same time he has to choose between Landry's daughter Bethe and Jeannie Rae, whose brother tries to kill Landry. In short, it's the stuff of the typical western of the period, whether in pulp or paperback, with a few extra touches that make it a Ranch Romance. "It was a wild and exciting response that she stirred," Cotton writes of Jeannie, "a response that sent blood running hotly through him and made his heart pound crazily." The fact is, you probably could find a line like that in many a western that didn't bill itself as a romance. It came with the territory. Of the two women, it's Bethe who performs a feat worthy of a Ranch Romances cover heroine by snatching a gun from the villain's holster while his back is turned, but she's just a little too brazen for Jim's tastes, and she doesn't make his blood run as hot as the more stern Jeannie, who does get to hold a rifle on our hero for a while. He probably liked it.

Will Cotton was a latecomer to pulps in either sense of the term. He didn't publish his first story until 1951, when he was 39. He mostly wrote westerns but also did some detective stories as well as at least one novel in that genre, The Night Was Made For Murder. Nearly half his magazine output appeared in Ranch Romances, but that's understandable at a time when there were fewer and fewer alternatives for a short-form western writer. His last story for that mighty mag appeared in 1959, after it had shriveled from biweekly to quarterly. I found my first encounter with Cotton efficiently entertaining and relatively original in its refusal to make the greedy shopkeeper into the villain of the piece. "The Angry Men" and the First May 1956 issue are part of the trove, misidentified as a May 1954 issue. You can sample Cotton's story through this link.