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.