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.