Wednesday, December 5, 2018

'Kitty Gardner couldn't be blamed for encouraging him, but the truth was going to be a bitter pill.'

T. T. Flynn is best known today for writing The Man From Laramie, the source for one of director Anthony Mann's great western films with Jimmy Stewart. By the time that story first appeared as a Saturday Evening Post serial in 1954 Flynn was primarily a western writer, but at the end of the 1930s westerns were only a small part of his output. "The Devil's Lode" (Western Story, June 24, 1939) was one of only two westerns Flynn wrote that year, the rest of his stories going to detective pulps. Perhaps because he still wrote westerns only infrequently, this 60 page "book-length novel" has some freshness to it. Its hero, Paso Brand, flees Mexico to escape the family of a rival suitor he'd killed. He befriends a beleaguered gold miner who helps him out of one revenge attack and has new problems to solve. The main problem, in theory, is which of Bull Gardner's men at their isolated mine is betraying Gardner to the outlaw band of Shorty Baxter. Flynn sets up a lot of possibilities, but isn't really writing a detective story here. He makes Gardner's right-hand man a red herring, suspicious to us because of his reflexive hostility to our hero. In a lot of pulp fiction first impressions tell the whole story, but Flynn departs from expectations by making this antagonist one of the good guys, if never really a friend to our hero. His biggest departure from convention involves Bull Gardner's daughter Kitty, the inevitable ingenue who seems predestined to be Paso Brand's girl. Paso Brand himself seems to take this for granted, which sets up a reversal that gives a humorous unity to the whole sprawling story. Another young member of that Mexican clan has fallen in with Shorty Baxter's gang by the time they capture Paso and Kitty. Juan Escobar is determined to take revenge on Paso at a time and place of his own choosing, but in the meantime Paso desperately encourages Kitty to butter him up. This works better than Paso anticipates, as Juan proves willing to free Paso and forget his family honor if Paso will help him keep Kitty out of the dirty hands of the outlaws. Of course, Paso is happy to go along, though he pities Escobar for a poor sap. He keeps thinking this way all the way to the end of the story, when he advises Kitty to let Juan down slowly.

'You've got a problem in young Escobar. He's head over heels in love. It'll take a lot of talkin' to make him ever think different.'
'I don't want him ever to think different! I love him! Where is he?' Kitty cried, turning to the door.
Paso's mouth was open soundlessly as she left the room, running toward the office.

Paso actually takes this like a good sport, perhaps realizing that some cosmic justice has resolved his feud with the Escobars by allowing one of them to steal a girl away from him. Of course, like many an old-time cowboy, at least in the more comical stories, he's happy to have gotten a good horse out of his adventure. "Devil's Lode" isn't really comical apart from the ending, but it's an entertaining piece with space enough for Flynn to create a convincing sense of isolation and danger in the distant mining camp if nothing else. The novella stands out in length and quality from the mostly mundane contents of this particular issue of Western Story and promises better things still when Flynn becomes more of a full-time western writer in the 1940s.

Friday, November 30, 2018

'I regret that one cannot speak freely in France these days unless one carries a bomb.'

When World War II came, Georges Surdez, who had been the Foreign Legion writer par excellence in pulp, made the new war his subject, whether it was fought by the Legion or by others. With the end of the war came a new shift, or at least the hint of one. "One For France and One For Me" (Adventure, January 1946) sees Surdez moving in an almost noirish direction, with an abrupt cynicism about the French Resistance so soon after the war. Norman, an American point-of-view character returning to a town where he'd been harbored by resistance fighters during the war finds himself caught up in a manhunt that appears mostly to be a settling of scores. His old buddy in the resistance, Frederic, is still a fugitive, only now hunted by a sovereign French regime that sees him as no more than a bandit. The more Norman learns about the war within the more, the darker and murkier the picture grows. Ordinary Frenchmen took advantage of both the Resistance and the Nazis to get rid of personal enemies, and the same situation holds, more or less, now that the war is over.

Suppose you are an employee in some large firm, next in line for a good job. You make your choice between the Gestapo and the Resistance. In the first case, you write, 'So-and-so takes strolls near the railway station often - he notes the troops passing through.' That's enough to get him picked up. To the Resistance you write: 'You wonder who tipped off the Boches about the aviator? Ask so-and-so.' And you get your promotion while the other chap's in jail, or after he's killed. Or say you're a middle-aged man with a pretty wife younger than yourself. She has a cousin of whom she's very fond. There's nothing wrong as yet, but you think there may be soon. A couple of notes and he is arrested as hostage, or deported to Germany. It's the lettre de cachet within the reach of all.

Frederic has many scores to settle. He wants to publish lists of informants that the new government would rather see suppressed. He especially wants revenge on a pathetic informer who turned his own daughter, the resistance fighter's lover, over to the Gestapo, supposedly on the naive assumption that she would quickly confess under pressure. She proved tougher than anyone thought and ended up dying under torture without naming names, and her blood is on her father's hands. Over time, Frederic killed the Germans who'd tortured his love, but his vengeance is incomplete while the old man lives. He's a juror for the trial of Frederic's grandfather, a fascist and collaborator. Tricking Norman into acting as his escort, Frederic invades the courtroom carrying a bomb. He wants the opportunity to denounce several of the jurors as crooks or collaborators, but wants to act as judge, jury and executioner for the old man. Living up to the principle that gave Surdez his title, Frederic kills his grandfather ("One for France"), then delivers the coup de grace to his true enemy after the spectators virtually lynch him ("One for me."). As a bonus, Frederic finally shoots himself. Almost inevitably, Norman learns that Frederic's bomb was a fake. A fellow American laughs cynically, but Norman "had believed in the bomb. And then, when you thought of Emilie and the others ... you did not feel like laughing at all." For one of Surdez's first postwar stories, this is an extraordinary piece of work.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

'You might think you was a killer but you ... you didn't have the stuff'

In "Heritage of the Owlhoot" (Action Stories, October 1939) Walt Coburn strives to get into the head of a young outlaw. The first part of the "complete novel" is a harrowing account of Dave Sandall's killing of an abusive, alcoholic father and his sentencing to a cruel reform school. Everything seems to go against the youth, from the booze-sozzled attorney assigned him by an indifferent court to a bungled escape that leaves him in the wilderness with a broken leg. His fortunes turn, though not necessarily in the right direction, when he befriends another delinquent, Hutch, after earning his respect by beating him senseless with a crutch. They team up to escape, Hutch killing a sadistic guard in the process, and turn owlhoot to survive. Tension develops early as Dave stops Hutch from killing a cowboy who gives them shelter in a line camp shack. Dave may have killed his own father, but that was a "him or me" moment; as a rule he doesn't believe in killing harmless or defenseless men. Hutch has a "take no chances" mentality when it comes to potential snitches, and in general he has more of a mean streak than Dave, if not a compulsion to provoke life-or-death fights. From that point, Dave has a hunch that Hutch will try to kill him someday, if only because, so he intuits, Hutch is afraid of him. For all that, Hutch remains a loyal partner on the owlhoot trail. Given an opportunity to abandon Dave to the mercies of a theoretical posse, Hutch chooses to stick with him overnight. He has what Coburn calls a "queer code," by which he means (I think) nothing subtextual but something paradoxical if not unfathomable. He may well want to kill Dave someday, or it may be inevitable that something would provoke him into trying, but that doesn't contradict an equally compelling loyalty -- maybe solidarity might be a better word -- he feels toward his comrade in escape and banditry.

The pair finally end up with some version of a "Hole in the Wall" gang where Hutch exposes some fundamental weakness of character through his desperate efforts to impress veteran outlaws with his bragging, while Dave simply sits aloof. The plot takes a sadly melodramatic turn here when one of the outlaws reveals that Dave had not committed parricide after all. The drunken bum who raised him wasn't Dave's father at all, it turns out. His real father, long dead, was a rancher who bequeathed Dave his ranch. The outlaw arranges for Dave to leave and claim his heritage, but not before Dave saves Hutch from a sudden attacker bent on revenge for something -- it's actually a nice touch that Coburn doesn't fill in the backstory, though we can conclude that he was the man who left horses outside the reform school for Hutch and Dave's escape -- by shooting him in the hand. That itself may sound corny but Coburn actually treats this in a more realistic way than the movies or funnies, since the next time we see this man, he's minus the hand. By that time he also has Hutch as an ally, as several years later they visit Dave's ranch to shake him down for money. That tells us something about the sort of co-dependence Coburn perceives among the outlaw kind; they may hate each other but sometimes they have no one but each other to stick with.

The stage is set for a final showdown in which Hutch will likely have the advantage because of his preternatural ability to see in the dark. Fortunately, Hutch is backlit when the final showdown comes, but even then Dave takes a bullet to put one in Hutch. Dave will live but Hutch will not. His final words are "no ... hard ... feelin's." An interesting sentiment at the end for someone shown as such a hater, and maybe a suggestion that on some level (he also says "Pick up the marbles") none of it was ever more than a grim game for him. For Dave's part, "Somehow, he had never been able to hate Hutch." Instead, he weeps at his sometimes friend's passing. His old friend and his new friend, the line shack cowboy who's heir to a ranch of his own, agree that, despite all we've seen, Dave "never was a killer." To be a killer is something different from killing, it seems, but Hutch's sudden loss of rancor at the end of his life may make you wonder how much of a killer he really was. Coburn's story is suggestive rather than incisive, maybe raising more questions than it can answer, but it's certainly a more sympathetic attempt to understand the outlaw than I was expecting from a 1939 story. Despite its corny turns, I appreciate it for that.

Monday, November 5, 2018

'I belong here, where life is rough -- like me,' he refused.

Ralph R. Perry's "Missing" (Argosy, August 1, 1931) is the earliest Bellow Bill Williams story I've read so far. The tattooed pearler was already a well-established character by this point; he's mentioned as a favorite character by some Argonotes letter-writers as early as 1930. Perry is careful to remind us right away that Bellow Bill isn't the superhuman sailor of the sort Albert Richard Wetjen and others wrote about; it's practically a defining characteristic of him that "he is not a particularly good shot." Otherwise, he's strong as a bull and blessed with the proverbial hollow leg. Bill's task this time is to recover the archetypal wayward son of a rigid American businessman. The old man is offering a big reward, but the boy, for a time Bellow Bill's protege, now stands accused of piracy and attempted murder. Bill's partly responsible for the heir's plight, for to get him away from the local police the pearler sent him to "the den of the worst scoundrels in the pacific," the leader of whom now claims never to have seen the young man known as Pug. But Pug can be identified as part of a pirate gang by a distinguishing scar seen by witnesses, so Bill will be hard pressed to clear his name.

Even though there's plenty of action, this is more a battle of wits than many of the later Bellow Bill stories I've read. On Thursday Island he has to negotiate with a cunning crook, the half-caste proprietor of the Hall of the Five Benevolent Virtues, who combines "the cunning and the ambition of a Dutch father .. with the savage passions of a Papuan mother." He has to convince this Mitaki that it'll be worth his while, in pearls, to deliver Pug back to his father without first killing Bill. Mitaki is counterscheming just as fast and figures out a way to frame Bill himself for another murder in the course of the negotiations. All through this, Perry goes to great pains to describe the layout, above and below, of Mitaki's place, where most of the action takes place. You practically could draw a blueprint from his description, the point of which is to emphasize the advantages Mitaki enjoys on his home turf, including such modest ones as his ability to evade violence on Bill's part simply by taking a few steps from his office into plain view of the bar patrons. However racist Perry's description of Mitaki may be, the story's success as a thriller depends on establishing the half-caste as a very intelligent, hence very dangerous antagonist -- though the author makes it just a little too easy for Bill to see through Mitaki's subterfuge thanks to a telltale bloodstain on his sleeve. Everything turns out all right, of course, and for some reason Perry closes the story on something like a note of pathos as Pug invites Bill to come to America with him and take a job in the family business, only to be rebuffed. Bellow Bill belongs in a rough and tumble world, no matter how qualified he might be for success elsewhere. "Fact is," the pearler confesses in Perry's last word, "I like it that way, even at the worst."

Saturday, November 3, 2018

'Kinney was only eighteen,but moocah salesmen get them young.'

Donald Barr Chidsey worked in a wide variety of pulp genres from historical swashbucklers to contemporary crime stories. In "The Prairie Stretched Away" (Short Stories, July 25, 1940) he tried his hand at drug humor, though the story is probably on funny in retrospect. It intends to be a taut, suspenseful story, and I suspect that Chidsey brought a sense of irony to his sensitive subject matter, since narcotics are, in fact, instrumental to the story's happy resolution. The hero, Kinney, is introduced hitchhiking, hoping to make his way across the country after kicking what seems to have been a bad drug habit. Chidsey portrays a bleak, empty landscape, emphasizing his hero's isolation, until a truck nearly sideswipes Kinney on the shoulder of the road. As the truck goes on its way, Kinney finds that he's stumbled onto a line of wires that lead to the underside of a nearby bridge. Sure enough, he's also stumbled onto a band of gangsters who plan to blow up the bridge when a bus passes over it. The killers are professional and impersonal; they don't know who specifically ordered the atrocity or why it was ordered; it's all just a job of work to them, and though they're not to thrilled about the idea, they realize that they're going to have to kill Kinney as well. They're hiding out and shivering cold in a nearby shed and Kinney proposes to make himself useful by getting some kindling for a fire. You see, before they got to the shed, they passed over a stretch of weed that's actually a stretch of weed.

Kinney, seeing those weeds in the beam of the flashlight, swallowed hard and tried to think about something else. Sure he knew them! For he had not only used the stuff but when he got hard up he'd peddled it and packed it into cigarettes. So naturally he knew those weeds. They'll grow wild about anywhere. There's nothing fastidious about them.

Naive as I was, I thought, when his addiction had been mentioned earlier, that Kinney had been hooked on harder stuff than this. I had forgotten that circa 1940 many folks found it hard to imagine harder stuff than marijuana, the weed with roots in hell! Fearful though he is of falling back into addiction, Kinney calculates that his only way to thwart the bombing and escape alive is to set a heap of the stuff on fire -- Chidsey emphasizes that the weeds are sun-dried and ready for use -- and get both his captors and, inescapably himself, high as a kite. This gives Chidsey an opportunity to experiment, based on what experience I dare not say, in portraying a marijuana high.

He heard an automobile. This was with one mind; the other mind said that there were no automobiles in the world, and what of it anyway. But he heard this. It was far away. He glanced first at the tall man, then at the short one. Had they heard it too? Was it possible they didn't hear? Were they deaf?
After a long while the taller man got to his feet and moved slowly toward the door, which was very far away. He did not seem to walk; he seemed to float along. His lips were moving but Kinney did not hear any words.
*   *   *
Through every thinnest corporeal tissue and every minutest vein he could trace the circulation of his blood along each inch of its progress. He knew where it slowed, and where it churned fitfully ahead. He knew when every valve flapped. His heart had been beating so loudly that he was amazed that the others did not hear it, but now the shack was filled with glory that suffocated, and his heart labored no longer, a mere pump, but had become a fountain; the jet surged upward and struck against the roof of his mouth, and fell noisily back, splashing and scampering through his body, so that he tingled all over. Maybe he was having a hemorrhage? He thought that he would die very soon.

Meanwhile the tall gangster falls into  the telltale giggle of the marijuana addict familiar to all fans of Reefer Madness. He then grows agitated and violent, like the marijuana-smoking Mexican bandits of many another pulp tale. He's convinced that Kinney is trying to run away while Kinney is convinced that he isn't moving at all. He threatens Kinney with a shotgun that Kinney perceives to be "half a mile or more away. He fires, and Kinney hears "a dull, delayed, apologetic 'boom' which tumbled into oblivion, as though ashamed of itself." This failure reduces to gunman to helpless laughter. All the while, the short gangster remains in a stupor. Finally, when neither criminal can function, Kinney staggers out to catch the transcontinental bus, then wakes to learn that he's a hero, offered a big reward by the bus company, but like a proper pulp hero, Kinney would rather have a job. His mentor, the man who saved him from addiction, approves of his choice and tells him, "Give you a job? Why, if that's all they give you I'll go out and dynamite a few of their buses, myself!" That's so pulp, but so's the whole story.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

'Hissing steel answered 'political correctness'..."

Over the last week I read my way through the May 1944 issue of Adventure. It was quite a bit of reading because the pages had that tight 63-line layout I described from a later issue of Fifteen Western Tales. It enabled the editor to brag that even though the new issue, at 146 pages, was 16 pages less than the previous issue, it actually had more content. I believe it. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the stories were set in the wartime present. For whatever reason, the wartime stories in this issue mostly dealt with the Pacific war. Also unsurprisingly, there's an inescapable propaganda aspect to those stories. The proof of real quality, especially in retrospect, is how well any author transcended the propaganda imperative.  Allan R. Bosworth's "The Steamboat Breed" is hopeless, mainly because of its silly gimmick, apparently popular at the time, that has ghosts of heroes past helping Americans fight the Japs. In this story it was Davy Crockett and his backwoods buddies helping out in the Aleutians. Worse still, in its own way, is Sidney Herschel Small's "The War Fan." This was a story in Small's Koropok series, in which American airman Llewelyn Davies carries out sabotage inside Japan in the guise of a light-skinned "Hairy" Ainu, a despised minority in that country. In the past, Small had often written sympathetically, if also stereotypically, of Japan and other Asian cultures, but on this evidence the Koropok stories give a vicious caricature of the Japanese that probably should have been forgotten after the war. By far the best story here dealing with the Japanese is the conclusion of E. Hoffman Price's two-parter "Sign of Fire." To be clear, I don't expect to see the Japanese treated as anything other than bad guys in wartime stories. But while Small's Japanese are doomed idiots, and Bosworth's are thankfully faceless, Price at least gives us a Japanese antagonist who seems like a human being, and for that seems like a genuinely dangerous antagonist. More importantly, while there's still an inescapable propaganda element to his series of stories about Jim Kane and his fellow American guerrillas in the Philippines, Price doesn't see that as a reason to compromise his style of storytelling or his feel for character.

By wartime standards, "Sign of Fire" is hard-boiled stuff and more introspective in allowing Kane to feel doubt and anxiety while interned with a group of "sunshiners," Americans who are basically on the bum and no threat to the Japanese. There's a harder edge to Price's writing that allows Kane to express contempt for the sunshiners and for the sunshiners to behave contemptibly. There's also a whiff of racism in Kane's resentment of American subservience toward the Japanese occupiers. Kane, infiltrating the sunshiners, is put to work with them on street-cleaning detail, sometimes having to pick up trash, from cigarette butts to animal droppings, by hand. "But the worst part of the whole nasty job was seeing, from the corner of the eye, that white women, halting as prescribed to bow to the skibbie [Japanese] guard, saw white men fumbling in the many weeks' accumulation of offal." To put this in a larger context, the guerrilla band in the Kane stories includes an American-educated Chinese who talks like a gangster and a black American, "Bishop" Jackson, who talks in something like the typical minstrel dialect but, judging from his brief appearance here, is a more assertive character than his sometimes deferential tone (addressing our hero as "Mr. Kane") suggests. So even with the bit I quoted my overall impression is that Price is a far less racist writer than Small, while Bosworth gets a pass because his Japs don't have speaking roles. In any event, this was war and hate is part of war. Interestingly, though, the most violent, horrific moment in Price's story, or this chapter of it, isn't perpetrated by the Japanese or the Americans. In a chapter titled "Juramentado!" he describes a suicidal murder rampage by Don Hilario, just released from Jap custody but unable to endure the humiliation. This man, "a Christian and the descendant of Christians, was going fundamentalist according to the Malay spirit," Price writes, and his principal targets aren't the Japanese occupiers but Filipino collaborators, those who have become "politically correct" in the World War II sense of the term. The Japanese soldiers react as anyone might react to such a scene, and while Price has Kane make a big deal of their alleged racial nearsightedness, he never makes that an excuse not to take them seriously. In a crucial scene in which Kane is interrogated by a Jap officer he's met before, Price scrupulously emphasizes the rational calculations the enemy makes and his inability to be fooled by Kane's sunshiner disguise. For the author, it seems to suffice that the man is the enemy; he doesn't need to be a monster or a clown as well. For now, then, Price sets the standard for wartime pulp writing, and the fact that some stuff on that subject from that period can be good gives me the confidence to try more.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

'Always a German, but only since sunrise an enemy'

L. Patrick Greene's "One Man's Flag" (Adventure, March 15, 1931) is a bit of sentimental hogwash set in South Africa at the outbreak of World War I. "Papa" Haydn is the founder and patriarch of the little community of Williamstown, where nearly everyone is English, but when war breaks out between England and Germany in Europe, the old man remembers his heritage and an obligation to treat his neighbors as enemies. Despite his patriotic conscience, he can't generate very much hatred toward them, and they find his hostile gestures mostly amusing. At first, when he raises a German flag upon hearing of the war, the neighbors think he's simply made a typical old man's mistake. Soon enough, they realize that he knows full well what flag he's raised, but they still find it hard to hold that against him, in part because Haydn, old and fat, is effectively harmless. They have to rescue him from foolhardy attempts to link up with German forces in the wild, but all seem satisfied to let him carry on his old business despite theoretically being a prisoner of war. Given the ethnic tensions that must have existed from the Boer War to 1914, this all seems far too good to be true, especially when you read of how Germany's enemies effectively whipped up hysterical hatred toward ethnic Germans in their midst -- but maybe it was different in South Africa. In any event, when Haydn's shop is appropriated by Allied forces as a temporary command center for Gen. Jan Christian Smuts, the old man sees a final opportunity to serve his native country by informing the Germans of the enemy commander's position and plans. On the way, however, he rescues a lone British homesteader family he'd befriended long before from an attack by a band of native marauders, getting himself mortally injured in the process. His neighbors humor the old man to the bittersweet end, with the military getting in the act as all pretend to award the dying Haydn the Iron Cross. This was already a nauseatingly heartwarming story before the climax with its implication that black Africans, not English or Germans, are the real enemy. I know that wasn't an article of faith for Greene, who created one of pulp's best black characters in The Major's sidekick, Jim the Hottentot. But the more the main story seemed too good to be believable, the more the business with the natives seemed obnoxious if not offensive. No doubt, too, that Greene meant well, and that by 1931 the argument that English and Germans shouldn't be enemies was probably well received. By today's standards, however, "One Man's Flag" is probably too idealistic and at the same time not idealistic enough.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

'I hate to soil my decks,' he said crisply, 'But I shall kill the first man to board me.'

Albert Richard Wetjen had created a host of arguably interchangeable sailor heroes by the time he thought up Stinger Seave in 1938. This time he was determined to give readers a different type, at least physically, and a different style of story. The Seave stories are written in a retrospective style by an omniscient narrator who knows the character's entire history, foreshadowing Seave's death on at least one occasion. In an early outing, "Davey Jones' Loot" (Action Stories, December 1938), the narrator goes so far as to note that Seave would kill the story's villain on a later occasion, but not on this one. Seave himself was envisioned as nearly the opposite of Wetjen's other giant brawlers. The Stinger is "a small, frail man with a sandy, ragged mustache, mild blue eyes and a suit of comfortably baggy whites." A cold rage often seethes beneath his mild manner, and his threats are never bluffs. He is the most heartless and possibly most nearly psychopathic of Wetjen's violent heroes, though all the stories I've read have shown him in the right, or as much in the right as a "free trader" can be. Stinger Seave's idea of free trading is poaching pearls from an atoll claimed by Japan, as a matter of law, and by Buck Morgan, by right of might. Morgan is enraged when Seave, at this point a relative newcomer, muscles into Laviata Lagoon and hurls backs Morgan's efforts to drive the Stinger out. Morgan then commits the worst sin imaginable among free traders: he rats Seave out to the Japanese, forcing the Stinger to dump his cargo of pearls into the open sea to avoid arrest. The typical battling pearler might bellow and roar in anger, but Wetjen, playing the historian and claiming the Stinger's mate as his source, writes that Seave "sat at his table in the main cabin, a bottle of gin beside him and a glass in his hand ... and did not move, save to call the steward to bring a fresh bottle, right up to the time Morgan's brig was sighted." Over the objections of his crew ("The Stinger had not with him at this time that bunch of hard cases he was later to gather"), he sets a course to ram Morgan's ship before confronting the half-drunk, terrified Morgan and making him vacate the vessel. Morgan doesn't quite go without a fight and actually wounds the Stinger, and for that Seave spares him -- for the time being. "You're the first man who ever caught me off my guard, and I'll let you live to talk about it." The story ends on an ironic note, as Seave, who had earlier advised against cleaning Laviata out, sets a course to return and take every pearl remaining. Before Morgan's treachery, Seave had been a kind of conservationist poacher; leave something behind, after all, and you'll have another harvest later. Now he no longer cares. "I am a very impatient man," he says, "and I have patiently stood for a lot the past few days." It's a slightly ominous note to end an early adventure on, but Wetjen meant these to be darker stories than normal, and at the very least he succeeded at making them entertainingly different.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

More bang for your buck, or more quotes for your quarter

I haven't read much worth writing about lately, but what I have read lately interested me in a different way. I've just made my way through a recently-scanned issue of Fifteen Western Tales from May 1947. There were a few good stories in the more introspective late-pulp style -- stories by T.C. McClary, William Heuman and Tom W. Blackburn are highlights -- and relatively few in the more corny, cliched style. What impressed me most about the issue was the sheer density of text it offered. Any pulp reader knows that type sizes varied throughout the era, depending on how many pages a magazine had and how much content an editor wanted to cram in. Sometimes sizes varied within a single issue, as in many a mid-1930s issue of Argosy. The "normal" pulp page usually had forty-something lines of text to a column, but you often saw it go over fifty. This Fifteen Western Tales had a daunting 63 lines of text to a column. The only other time I've seen type that small in a standard-sized pulp is in a 1944 Adventure in my own collection, but I attributed that to Popular Publications (also Fifteen Western's publisher) having just reduced Adventure's page count from 160 to 144 pages. I don't know how representative  the May 1947 issue was, but in another recent scan from 1946, and another from 1949 (all with the same page count) the number of lines is much closer to "normal." Mind you, I'm not complaining about May 1947. Reading it on a 10" screen in a very good scan didn't strain the eye, and of course in real life it would be bigger still. To me there's something comforting about those walls of text. It looks like you're getting your money's worth, whether you paid a dime or a quarter once upon a time, a whole lot more in the 21st century, or absolutely nothing for a scan. Thinking about it, though, made me wonder whether anyone else noticed differences in type sizes or had an ideal number of lines per column for the optimal reading experience. One reader's feast of print easily could be another's eyestrain, especially as another grows older. The one sure thing is that when you look at something like that May 1947 issue you can believe that the editor and publisher tried their best to give you as much fiction as possible that month, and believing that is a good feeling.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

'Dirty! He is strong man, that fellow.'

There's often a vicarious "can you take it?" quality to Foreign Legion stories. The readers is invited to imagine whether he, in the protagonist's boots, can take the discipline, the climate, the bullying by superior officers. Such stories are often tests of character, the final exam taking place under fire when some (usually) Muslim insurgents attack the post or the patrol. Going against that grain, Georges Surdez's "Three Mad Sergeants" (Adventure, February 1939) is one of the master's most nihilistic works in his genre. It concerns a unit on punishment detail in the Atlas mountains as winter hits. They're put in charge of the titular non-coms, the worst of whom, and thus the leader, being a sadistic, possibly syphilitic Pole named Larkorska. While he torments the men, the other two, rivals for a woman, goad each other toward mutual destruction, egged on by Lakorska, the enemy of all. The hero of this tale is Magnus, a former German officer who apparently joined the Legion to forget his killing of a best friend for cowardice on a world-war battlefield. Normally he's the drunk of the regiment -- or else it's the Bulgarian, Nikirov, obsessed with finding a hidden stash of booze -- but as he sobers up, deprived of liquor (apart from the daily wine ration) by the cruel Lakorska, he regains enough of his old pride to find his situation intolerable.

Not to worry, though, since after Lakorska finally gets one of the other sergeants to kill the other, the maddest of the sergeants takes out the survivor and goes completely berserk, holing up in his well-stocked, well-fortified quarters to take potshots at anyone that moves. With his newfound clarity, Magnus realizes that the men have to take Lakorska alive in order not to be accused of fragging all three sergeants. He also comes up with a plan to smoke him out of his lair so he can be dogpiled, but doesn't anticipate the madman bursting out into the open stark naked, his apparently pasty pallor making excellent camouflage in the snow. It falls to Bulgarian brute Nikirov finally to subdue Lakorska, overcoming the Pole's proverbial strength of a madman (see Nikirov's comment in the header) in a desperate grapple. In the end, Nikirov finally finds the legendary stash and all the survivors get wasted except Magnus, who holds out until the captain who originally assigned everyone to this wintry hell offers him a promotion for his leadership. That brings back unbearable memories of the war, along with a sergeant's stripes, both of which he hopes to "soak off" by throwing himself off the wagon at the end. Most of the time you can find some sort of a moral in a Surdez story, but this one is bracing, and arguably one of his best, in its complete absence of such a thing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

ESQUIRE: The slick that wanted to be pulp?

For the past couple of weeks I've had a chance to look through midcentury issues of Esquire, the prestigious men's magazine founded in 1933 and still flourishing today. It's been a shapeshifter of a magazine, starting thick with prestige, with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as regular contributors, and becoming a cutting edge magazine on both the fiction and nonfiction fronts from the mid-1950s forward. But from the end of World War II to about 1952 Esquire made a big commitment to genre fiction. Look at it during those years and you can see what Popular Publications was aiming for when it transformed Argosy from a pulp to a full-sized magazine. Stories are designated as "Mystery" or "Western" when appropriate, and where there had not been proper illustrations in earlier years now there are dramatic two-page spreads, even for stories that are only that long, like the example shown here from June 1949.

Esquire's major contribution to genre fiction was Henry Kane's private eye Peter Chambers, who made his debut in February 1947 and remained an Esquire exclusive through the end of the decade. 1947 - 52 are the peak years for pulp-esque genre ficton in Esquire, and while many of the authors who appeared there also placed stories in slicks like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, one suspects that Esquire's status as a men's magazine, and a reputation gained by its showcasing of Varga and Petty girls, encouraged those writers to be, shall we say, more manly in their work. My guess is that erstwhile servicemen, initially attracted to Esquire by the pin-ups during the war, were the target audience for postwar he-man fiction. Along with Kane and numerous top-hand westerners, Esquire also published a good deal of early Ray Bradbury, including "The Illustrated Man." In short, this magazine at midcentury was a cornucopia for pulp or all-around genre fans. But after 1952, once co-founder Arnold Gingrich resumed the reins as publisher, Esquire turned again toward more literary fiction, after a few years of transition that, for example, placed Hugh B. Cave and Norman Mailer in the same issue. Objectively speaking, Esquire's greatest years were yet to come, but its greatness consisted in combining highbrow content with a pop-culture sensibility, with little room for genre fiction in the mix. There was a different kind of greatness in the previous generation, before "men's magazine," Argosy notwithstanding, came to denote something much less classy.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Caradosso meets Hitler?

The Renaissance rogue Luigi Caradosso was one of pulp's longer-lived characters, making his first Adventure appearance in 1924 and his last appoximately thirty years later, in 1953. F. R. Buckley usually made an effort to give his character's often amoral tales an appropriately archaic flavor -- they are narrated in the form of reminiscing letters a retired Caradosso writes to his aristocratic patron -- but on at least one occasion he clearly meant his tale to have contemporary relevance. "Of Penitence" (June 1941) is primarily a cautionary tale of a young lord who lets a guilty conscience over some slight mischief get in the way of the ruthlessness appropriate to princes, by Caradosso's standards, and thus loses his land. The young lord's worst mistake is to show clemency toward a rabble-rouser, described by one observer as "a damned plasterer [who] wants to be a leader of the people like what's-his-hame at Florence. Finds talking easier than daubing an honest wall, I'll be bound." The demagogue calls himself Adolfo Illeri, and as Adolf Hitler got his start in beer halls, so Illeri orates atop a giant wine barrel, and as Hitler, as an Austrian, was an outsider in Germany, so Illeri is a Brescian interloper. "I have oft wondered why those who'd tell folk how to live in one country should usually come from some other," Caradosso opines, and Buckley may have had in mind here not only Hitler but immigrants to America who espoused Marxism. Caradosso's instinct tells him to get rid of Illeri as soon as possible, but just as the Weimar Republican wouldn't put Hitler down after the Beer Hall Putsch, so the young lord proves dangerously merciful, too interested in proving that "I am no tyrant."  After his misadventure, which involves beating up and humiliating the local night watch, the lord orders Illeri released without even trying him, telling Caradosso, "Who am I to judge my fellow man?" Who is anyone, our hero answers, "But if none did it, what would become of the world?" Sent out of the country, Illeri promptly sets up shop next door and resumes his rabble-rousing. The young lord's fatal flaw is his belief that dealing ruthlessly with the likes of Illeri would automatically make him the sort of tyrant he abhors, but his unwillingness to get his hands dirty killing one deserving man only guarantees the deaths of many undeserving others once he finally goes to war with Illeri's protector. The lord himself dies in the attack, guaranteeing that his land will fall to another, while Caradosso decapitates Illeri "as one might a puppy by a garden-walk." Perhaps this makes Caradosso, and by extension Buckley, an authentic Machiavellian, but it no doubt was easy, with much of the world at war with Hitler and the U.S. soon to join, to say that someone should have whacked that bastard long before. Whether Buckley was advocating preemptive assassination as a tactic for the 20th century is another matter. The nearest he comes in his "Camp Fire" comments to addressing contemporary issues is to note that in Italian history, the less fearless people became about criticizing tyrants, the more dangerous it became to do so -- "Which is something we might think over nowadays."

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

'The Islands were not being tamed by prayers and good wishes.'

Albert Richard Wetjen wrote many a South Seas adventure story using different variations on the same basic character template, yet made a point of insisting that his heroes were all distinct personalities inhabiting what we'd now call the same "universe." His first such creation was Shark Gotch for Action Stories, starting in 1927, while the best known (in Wetjen's own time, at least) probably was Wallaby Jim, whose hardly toned-down adventures appeared in Collier's, one of the top slicks, and were made into a movie. In between came Typhoon Bradley, introduced in the September 1931 Action Stories after Shark Gotch was retired (for a time) earlier that year. Shark Gotch remains a point of reference in the Bradley stories."There are three men who can draw faster and shoot straighter than I can," a villain says in "Trial By Typhoon" (September 1932), "Those men are Larsen of Singapore, Shark Gotch and Typhoon Bradley." I'm not sure where Larsen appeared but I don't doubt that Wetjen had written stories about him. Wetjen would continue this self-referentiality in the Wallaby Jim series, in one episode of which Gotch, Bradley and others put in cameo appearances. "Trial" is the first Bradley series I read, and on that evidence he seems like a perfectly generic South Seas hero: big, strong, hard-boiled and fast on the draw. Noting Wetjen's emphasis on Bradley's gunmanship, I understood why Ralph R. Perry made a point of describing his South Seas hero, Bellow Bill Williams, as a lousy shot. It differentiated Bellow Bill from Wetjen's supermen -- which is not to say that Wetjen is the inferior writer, but that he and Perry really were writing two different kinds of story. Perry's are closer to thrillers in their emphasis on the obstacles to Bellow Bill's success, while Wetjen's are, well, action stories understandably focused on the hero's fighting prowess.

In this one, Typhoon Bradley makes an enemy by stopping a nasty captain from flogging a native crewman accused of petty theft. He "broke one of the unwritten laws of the Islands when he interfered," Wetjen opens, "A man had a right to punish his own natives. The Islands were not being tamed by prayers and good wishes. The South was raw and a man's crew might at any time turn and rip him to shreds if they thought him soft enough." Despite that, Bradley's humanitarian impulses compel him to beat the crap out of the captain, and as it turns out, if anyone has the right to interfere it's the temporary magistrate of this particular island, Typhoon Bradley. Concerned to maintain law and order, he boards the captain's ship after hearing rumors that his arch-enemy, Gentleman Harry, is on board. I assume Harry was introduced in an earlier story, but for those, like me, who missed it, Wetjen explains that the Gentleman was once a suave character whose nickname has been a parody ever since Bradley broke his face in a fight. He's a slick one, too; he planted the rumor of his presence to get Bradley off the island while his men, the captain's crooked crew, cleaned out the island's pearl dealers in a mass mugging. Gentleman Harry's triumph over Bradley is nearly complete, but he suffers from recurring-villain syndrome, whether he's actually recurring or not. That is, despite the captain's urging to kill Bradley and be done with it, Harry wants to humiliate and torture Typhoon to avenge his ruined face. Neither he nor the captain reckon on that poor native crewman remembering Bradley's kindness and freeing him so he can wreak characteristic havoc on the bad men. When it comes to action Wetjen delivers the goods, though not quite with the gusto of Action Stories regular Robert E. Howard. Conscious of writing a series rather than a stand-alone story, the author contrives to keep Gentleman Harry alive to fight another day, but that day was long in coming if it came at all. Action Stories soon went on a nearly yearlong hiatus and Wetjen moved on to other projects. The FictionMags Index doesn't report another Typhoon Bradley story, apart from his cameo in Collier's, until July 1939. From then, Bradley alternated with Wetjen's more recent and more interesting creation, Stinger Seave, until Wetjen tired of him again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Won't have to listen to the woman killer yelpin' while his neck is stretchin'.'

Action Stories was Fiction House's answer to the general-interest adventure pulps like Argosy, Blue Book, Short Stories and, of course, Adventure. The title, which is self-explanatory, may be best known today as one of Robert E. Howard's more reliable markets. It came out monthly until the end of 1932, when the Depression forced an almost-year long hiatus, after which it returned as a bimonthly. In later years it was almost entirely western in content, but in 1932 there was a greater mix of subject matter, with Albert Richard Wetjen's violent tales of South Seas sailors among the most popular stories. Compared to Wetjen, Art Lawson was a rookie when "Hanging Bee" (September 1932) became his Action Stories debut. It's a grim little tale of a sheriff, the man accused of murdering his girl, and a lynch mob. Sheriff Matt Babcock is introduced brooding over a photo of his dead beloved; he can't look at the picture without envisioning her strangled and in her grave. He has every reason to hate the accused killer, Steve Jackson, and does hate him, but he also believes in the rule of law. In other words, we have the classic setup for the lawman facing down a lynch mob ... except that a crucial clue that would cinch the case has yet to turn up, and Jackson's brothers are waiting outside to shoot the sheriff, while other citizens are filling up with liquid courage before setting out on the lynch. Under these pressures, Babcock sells Jackson on the idea of sneaking him out of prison by disguising him as the sheriff, on the condition that Jackson return in two weeks to stand trial. It's unclear at this point whether Babcock wants Jackson to escape or expects him to be killed by his own brothers. He tells Jackson to make it look convincing by slugging him, tying him up, and leaving him in a cell. The uncertain Jackson notices that Babcock, trussed up, "looked almost happy." He manages to dodge his brothers' bullets, not knowing the source, while the mob takes advantage of the confusion to storm the jail. The one unconvincing part of the story is how readily the mob accepts the tied-up and gagged Babcock as Jackson. A character actually wonders aloud why the prisoner would be tied up, but another likes the idea of keeping him gagged as he hangs. Of course, we learn at the end that it was Babcock, not Jackson, who killed the girl, the incriminating ring finally falling out of a pocket when his corpse is thrown across a saddle. So did he want to die, or did a plan to get Jackson killed trying to escape backfire on him. That "almost happy" bit makes you wonder. But if he wanted to die, why not confess -- and if he wanted to get away with murder, why not get rid of the ring instead of carrying it around? It's all kind of confusing, but it's actually a good kind of confusing with a touch of morbid ambiguity, perhaps more subtle than what you'd expect from something called Action Stories or from an author less than a year in the business. Lawson had a long career ahead of him. Ironically enough, in light of this tale, he ended up a specialist in western romance stories.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

'A decent-hearted straight-spoken white man reduced to that! And liking it! It's rotten!'

Arthur O. Friel includes a history lesson in his novelette "Killer's Gold" (Adventure, August 1, 1935) and editor Howard V.L.  Bloomfield makes a point of informing readers that the backstory to the tale's treasure hunt is "actual Alto Orinoco history." The killer of the title is Tomas Funes, a "petty trader" who seized control of Venezuela's Amazonas territory in 1913 and held it for approximately eight years of "terror and murder." He's long gone by the time of Friel's story and only comes into it relatively late. At first it's the story of Pierce, sole survivor of a doomed expedition who encounters the vicious river trader/pirate Jacobo Dominguez. Predictably, Friel makes a big deal of Jacobo's black skin, though he makes a point later of saying while Funes was white, "inwardly he was even blacker" than the present-day villain. What gets Pierce's goat is that a fellow white man, calling himself "John Doe," is one of Jacobo's minions, though he also helps Pierce escape from Jacobo's clutches at a crucial point. Doe's complacency offends Pierce's sense of race prestige, but it turns out that Doe (short for Dolan) has an ulterior, selfish motive for sticking with Jacobo. He's after a long-rumored buried treasure of Funes' -- in the Camp Fire section Friel notes that no such had been found as of 1935 -- and when his path crosses again with Pierce's he figures a fellow American will help him so they can both get out of the benighted country. With one local guide of dubious loyalty, the Americans find the treasure and fight their way through Jacobo's effort to hijack it, predictably losing their token Venezuelan along the way. The poor superstitious chap believes that the dead hand of Tomas Funes claimed him, and Friel may mean to suggest that he's right in a way. In Camp Fire, he virtually apologizes for writing such a sordid portrait of Venezuela and feels obliged to remind readers that not everyone down there is a savage like the historical Funes or the fictional Jacobo. His story may well be a history lesson for anyone who hears about Venezuela in the 21st century and has the idea that everything was hunky dory down there before Hugo Chavez and his idiot understudy Maduro came along. As for Pierce and Dolan, there's a hint that they might become another of Friel's adventure teams, but as far as I know "Killer's Gold" was their one and only appearance. It's an interesting story regardless as an example of how Friel's own experiences in Venezuela -- he visited Funes' capital shortly after the tyrant fell -- shaped and darkened his once more romantic view of the region and its people.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

'He's utterly amoral, Yank, if you know what that means.'

In "The Bond of Bully Haines" (Adventure, February 1, 1930), L. Patrick Greene grapples with the allure of the antihero, the outlaw with a code, and maybe confesses more than he meant to. The title character, a "recruiter" who raids African villages for forced labor, is seen from the conflicted perspective of an American narrator who eventually joins the Rhodesian police force. The narrator introduces himself getting rolled by "Yellow Rose," a mixed-race prostitute, and her "dago" boyfriend in Portuguese-ruled Lourenco Marques. They beat him up again when he wakes up and wants his money back, but his rage against them vanishes when Bully Haines, just out of prison, appears in the dive to fulfill an earlier vow of revenge. Greene sets the ambivalent tone by having Haines arrive with a beam of sunlight flashing through the doorway into the dark dive. The narrator sees the denizens cowering as if they fear the light itself, as if they're vampires. He soon realizes that Haines may be a worse monster than any of them. He vowed to kill the dago and disfigure Yellow Rose for having ratted him out to the authorities, and the narrator watches in horror as he carries out his vow. Forgetting his own grievance, he tries to rescue Rose, only to be flung aside by Haines. Yet when a group of "dago" policemen arrive to arrest "Bloody Haines," our hero feels an impulse to defend him. He's dangerously fascinated by the idea that Haines always keeps his word. Told by a friend that Haines has "never been known to go back on that," the narrator goes off on a racial rhapsody.

"He must be a real white man, then," I said, thinking of the men of the West I'd known -- square, honest, law abiding men whose word was their bond. But Doc looked at me queerly. And he said:
"It all depends, doesn't it, on what sort of word he gives? But he said he'd mark Yellow Rose. He said he'd kill Pedro. And he did. He's utterly amoral, Yank, if you know what that means. And, if you're wise, you'll never get in his path...."

Yet he can't help admiring the way Haines sweeps up the head policeman and spanks him in front of everyone, fifty slaps for the fifty lashes he took in prison. He can't help not liking it when two more policemen skulk toward Haines to hamstring him with their knives.

Say, I couldn't sit there an' see that happen. Maybe there ain't no justification for what I did. Well, what of it? I ain't looking for justification; not in this world anyway. Maybe Bully Haines was a murderer, an' all the things I've since learnt about him, an' deserved what looked like coming to him. Maybe, I say. But I didn't stop to consider anything like that. He was, as I saw it, then, a white man, an' white men have got to stick together.

Our hero puts Haines in his debt by his intervention, though Bully naturally boasts that he could have taken care of all the cops himself. As this is a pulp story, you can guess pretty confidently that Haines will repay his debt, no matter how evil he's shown to be in the narrator's own judgment. The Texan is a casual racist himself, routinely using the dreaded n-word to describe the people of Africa, but he tells us that he came to like and respect many Africans -- "They can teach a white man a lot if he's willing to learn" -- while on the evidence of his antagonist's atrocities "I reckoned Bully Haines didn't think of niggers as people. He couldn't have done things that way, else." As an officer of the law he's sincerely dedicated to hunting down and destroying Haines.

And yet, when a moment comes when it looks like Africans are going to carry out vigilante justice against Haines, most likely the slow, spectacular way, our narrator reverts back to the form he showed in the Lourenco Marques dive. He has the drop on Haines when a vigilante leader charges in.

I shifted my aim. God knows why. I'd got nothing against the nigger. He was going to do what I hadn't the nerve to do. An' yet, seems like I've only had one creed knocked into me ever since I was knee high to a yearling. White men must stick together. I ain't trying to justify myself. I'm stating facts. I shifted my aim, an' the nigger fell.

It's as if, in L. Patrick Greene's mind, some race-instinct in some way makes all whites, or all self-conscious whites, complicit in the crimes of the worst by refusing to make them accountable to their victims. Of course, this is also the standard pulp trope you see most often in westerns when whites must convince Indians that white villains who've wronged them must be left to white man's law. The implicit argument often is that aboriginal peoples are too inclined to carry justice to sadistic excess, but back of that is some fundamental if not instinctual (according to pulp thinking) refusal of accountability to the other. Suffice it to say, of course, that Haines rewards our hero's impulse of solidarity by remembering the debt he owes the man, which our hero himself claims to have forgotten. Our hero and his men are in the path of indiscriminate vengeance, but Haines negotiates their safe withdrawal on the condition that he will return to accept the vigilante tribesmen's justice. They accept the deal, and our hero assumes that Haines will renege. Haines even says so, but this turns out to be a necessary lie to get our hero out of harm's way, after which, with our hero unable to stop him, Bully Haines recrosses the river to keep his last word.

In the end, Greene makes his narrator admirably inarticulate. Haines was "A bloody villain, if there ever was one. But wasn't he something else, too? I dunno! This blasted jungle fever fogs a man's judgment." I'm not sure Greene himself really reconciled the ambiguity, but he may not have though it possible. It all put me in mind of the scene in The Wild Bunch when William Holden argues with Ernest Borgnine over Robert Ryan's siding with the railroad detectives hunting them. Holden rejects Borgnine's vilification of their old friend, reminding Borgnine that Ryan had given his word to his new employer. Borgnine answers that it's not your word that matters, but who you give it to. With Bully Haines, you have to ask why it should matter that he keeps his word when you consider everything else he does. For the narrator, keeping one's word is "white," but to admire Haines for keeping his word is pretty much to betray the narrator's own principles as they've evolved over his time in Africa. You might ask how likely it is for as unprincipled a person as Bully Haines to keep his word consistently, but to question that premise probably misses the real point. From the "crime does not pay" standpoint, the idea of the outlaw who lives by a code is a dangerous illusion, or an excuse to admire utterly undeserving characters. In the case of Bully Haines, admiration for an outlaw's code seems even more like an excuse to avoid a necessary reckoning, even as Greene and the narrator recognize explicitly that Haines is as much a product of an oppressive system as he is an original sinner. Speaking for myself, those stories where the officer has to protect the white outlaw from the angry natives never really ring true. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd let the people with the grievance have those bastards.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

'Men like Jack Masters still lived, but there were not very many of them.'

Day Keene is one of the major writers of hard-boiled or noirish paperback original novels in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, he had a substantial background in the detective pulps, including the legendary Black Mask in its waning days. He wasn't much of a western writer until late in his pulp career. He published something in the January 1941 Star Western and didn't return to the genre, to judge from titles, until 1948. From then until 1951 Keene published with some frequency in Popular Publications' western titles, mostly in Fifteen Western Tales. "Hang the Man High!" (January 1949) seems partly inspired by The Ox-Bow Incident in its focus on the buildup to the lynching of some cattle rustlers. Unlike in that novel, the three in this story -- an old man, a young man, and a Mexican -- are guilty, but there's more to them, or at least to their ringleader, than their crime. Unfortunately, once one of the would-be lynchers idly lets the name of Jack Masters drop in conversation, and the narrative segues into an account of Masters' legendary exploits, Keene pretty much telegraphs that the taciturn oldster waiting to be hanged is the idolized Masters fallen on hard times. He manages to maintain an emotional suspense as Masters' angry son warns him constantly against revealing his identity, until the boy finally yells the truth at the obtuse lynchers. Alas, either Keene or his editor felt the story needed a happy ending, so a test of marksmanship is made so Masters can prove his identity, since "shooting is like riding a horse. If a man can, he can." And once his identity is proven, one of the lynchers, an especially good sport, recalls that his father cheated Masters out of a herd of cattle in a card game. As far as this worthy is concerned, that makes the rustled cattle rightfully the rustlers'. Isn't that nice? There's enough in this eight-page story to verify that Keene is a good writer of dialogue, at least, but the main impression the tale makes is of a writer paying his bills by giving a genre audience the sort of gimmicky stuff they presumably wanted.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pulp Poetry

Some writers of pulp prose have been elevated into the American literary canon, but that'll most likely never happen to the pulp poets. They were too old-fashioned, too dedicated to rhyme, meter and entertainment, and they could not be said to unveil hidden aspects of American life or the American psyche as the most acclaimed story writers are thought to have. It might still surprise people to find poetry in pulp, on the assumption that pulp readers might find any poetry to be some sort of mush. Yet you found it fairly regularly, in Adventure and other general fiction mags, in Weird Tales from the pens of Lovecraft, Howard and others, and quite often in western pulps, where poetry fit in with a tradition of balladry. One of the westerners, S. Omar Barker, was arguably the poet laureate of pulp, publishing prolifically (and in prose as well) from the 1920s into the 1970s, when he appeared frequently in the short-lived Far West. Barker was often, if not always, a comical poet, which probably put his work further into literary disrepute, but when he had the bit between his teeth he could at least entertain in fairly musical fashion. Here's a nice example of his work, handsomely presented in a two-page spread from a recently-scanned issue of Fifteen Western Tales from January 1949. It's actually pretty witty in its set-up for a triumph of peace-on-earth Christmas spirit and its punchline emphasis on simple carnal desire. If not fine art, Barker's stuff could count as folk art in future historians' eyes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

'Boil my eyebrows!...Why, this is booze and not such bad booze at that.'

Whether it was good or bad, I would have given a shout-out to Allan Vaughan Elston's modern-day western "The Ranch on Red River" (Adventure, July 1, 1929) because its hero hails from my current home town of Albany, New York. It turned out to be fairly entertaining. Our Albanian hero, Tom Hargrove, decides to visit a borderland property he owns incognito, in order to learn the ranch trade from the ground floor from Adolph Glover, who runs the place on lease. Hargrove hasn't sent word to Glover, wanting to be treated without privilege as a common working man. It's a cliched situation but Elston has already complicated the situation by showing us that Glover is a bootlegger. He raises hay but sneaks a bottle of booze into each bale as it's being baled, a dangerous procedure that could cost an uncareful man a finger or an arm. Given his occupation, it's no surprise to readers that he isn't willing to take on a new, anonymous hand. The way he blows off Hargrove is a nice rebuke to all the stories where it's oh so easy for the hero to land a position without pulling rank. Hargrove's refusal to carry identification actually gets him into deep trouble after Glover discovers that he's discovered Glover's secret, albeit by accident. Glover's natural assumption is that Hargrove is a federal investigator sneaking around after evidence. He and his henchmen debate whether to "bump" the stranger, but all they really need to do is eliminate the evidence of their racket, since who'd take the word of a mere hobo?

Hargrove is no mere dilettante but a pulp hero, so he manages to escape his captivity, killing one of Glover's hands with a pitchfork in the process. He seeks out the local district attorney, not realizing, as we already do, that this mobbed-up official is in cahoots with Glover. The D.A. is obliged to call in Hargrove's Albany lawyer, but uses stall tactics to delay Hargrove's trial, during which the defendant intends to denounce Glover, until all the evidence is safely out of the way. He doesn't realize that Hargrove, before turning himself in, had secreted a damning bale of hay acquired during the confusion caused by just the sort of accident Elston prompted us to anticipate at the start of the story. Lawyerly chicanery could still raise reasonable doubt as to whether Glover was responsible for planting the bottle in the bale, but by gruesome good luck Hargrove has won the evidentiary lottery. The story closes as a court official cuts open the bale, revealing not only a bottle but Glover's guilty hand! -- "a thing of hairs and dead flesh ... an exhibit of compelling potence." I didn't think Elston, a writer who started relatively late (first publishing in pulp at age 38) but became quite prolific in the 1930s, had such strong stuff in him. Most of what I've read from him has been relatively bland, but there's a playfulness to this one, as well as a bit of nastiness, that makes it my favorite story of his so far.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

'I'm not enthusiastic about crawling around in front of the enemy with a lunatic'

Leonard H. Nason is the pulp laureate of World War I, but instead of lamenting the losses and horrors he makes comedy of the conflict's chaos. "The Friend of His Youth" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) is one of the most bizarre Nason stories I've read to date. It's the story of a relatively inconsequential patrol turned into a living hell for one Lt. Lipp of the U.S. Army by his encounter with one Sgt. Sheehan, nee Wladichesnikov of Weehawken. "The facial angle, the shape of the nose and the curly hair that escaped from under the too large helmet proclaimed that the sergeant belonged to a race which, though not without honor, is more celebrated for its commercial abilities than for its prowess in battle," Nason narrates from the point of view of Lt. Sewall, an anxious bystander to Sheehan's feud with Lipp, nee Lipovitschky. Lipp denies knowing Sheehan, who would get on a man's nerves whether you knew him before or not, regardless of his record of heroism in battle. Nason seems to forget about that record as Sheehan seems to go literally insane in his obsession with Lipp, inviting sniper rounds as he raves loudly at his (imagined?) antagonist as the patrol searches for stray Germans to take prisoner and discovers a boat the Germans use to send their own patrols into No Man's Land. I was surprised to see Sheehan and Lipp call each other "kikes," which is one of those words the sometimes fastidious Arthur Sullivant Hoffman saw fit to print in his magazine while censoring every "hell" or "damn." They lose Lipp along the way but recover him unwittingly, mistaking him for a German and clobbering him in the boat. On the bright side, the patrol captures a genuine German, though he's actually a Polish-American who got drafted after his mother took him back to the old country, and he happily tells the Americans all they need to know. In the end, Lipp's reputation is ruined to save Sewell's, while Sheehan raves, "Say something dirty kikes now! I says, but all he could say was 'glub.'" With this one Nason takes the chaos of war to the point where it doesn't quite make sense, but I suppose that was his idea all along. It's too far over the top for my taste, but it's still an entertaining war story from one of the best at that particular game.

Monday, July 2, 2018

'We've drunk up more than one good man's bet because we were there an' he wasn't.'

Back last September, I enjoyed a James Mitchell Clarke story in Adventure that told the story of the siege of Jericho from the point of view of two immortal drunkards. I wondered whether the 1932 story was part of a series, and as it turns out, Clarke's pulp debut, "Punishment" (Adventure, April 1,1927) introduces Belshar and Hovsep sharing a drink with a Baltimore ship chandler and telling their version of the story of Jonah. As in the later story, Hovsep tells the tale in the vernacular of 1927, more or less, giving Biblical events a common touch. They remember Jonah as "the skinny Jew we took aboard at Joppa that time," seemingly unaware of the man's scriptural fame. "We none of us liked the look of him," Hovsep recalls, "Everybody in those days knew that Jews were apt to go crazy and live alone in the deserts, eating roots and wild honey. But this blighter looked half there, even if we weren't on to what he was." They probably wouldn't have called Jonah a "Jew" in his own day, but I suppose we can grant them some retroactive license. There's not really much story to tell here: inevitably a storm strikes, and inevitably Jonah volunteers to be thrown into the sea to appease his god. Our heroes have the job of throwing him in. "We hate like ---- to do this, mister," they tell him in Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's approved version, but as Hovsep recalls, "I'm a son-of-a-gun if the storm didn't go down within a half an hour." I like that the whale or great fish never comes into their story. All they see is a flash of lightning and "there was nothing where he had been but a big smother of foam among the waves."

As this was Clarke's debut, he gets a more in-depth introduction in the Camp-Fire section, where he's identified as a recent member of the Adventure staff. He also initials a profile of Gordon MacCreagh that appears this issue. He published a grand total of nine stories (and two poems) in the magazine between 1927 and 1933, plus another for the 1935 one-shot inventory-burner The Big Magazine and a reappearance in 1944. I don't know in how many of these Hovsep and Belshar appear, but stories like "Bayou Man" and "The Shooting of Johnny Corbeau" look like unlikely candidate. "Authority" from the June 15, 1932 issue (in my collection) is another Bayou story, but Clarke's second story, "Up to Heaven," sounds more promising, while "Fisherman," from 1931, could be another Bayou story or something about Jesus or his disciples. However more stories in this series there actually are, I look forward to reading them some day.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"This Robin Hood stuff is all blah in this super-civilized century."

Before turning his focus to Africa as an explorer and author, Gordon MacCreagh was more of a South American specialist, covering much of the same territory as Arthur O. Friel. "The Society of Condors" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) finds the author struggling to make some kind of political statement as well as a few thrills. It's a familiar sort of story for the period, plunging an American, in this case a reporter, in the middle of regional unrest, in this case a conflict between Peru and Chile further complicated by internal unrest. The reporter encounters a disgruntled, Euro-educated aristocrat who tells him that the problem with South America, plainly and simply, is politicians.

"In all our vast country conditions are as unfortunate as in yours, and in some cases even worse. We are in the hands of the politicos. And why? Senor, the answer is very simple. Because they are men who make politics their profession; while we, the great rest of the people, talk sometimes about politics a little and once a year or so some of us go out and vote. We are the amateurs; and it is an indisputable rule in every human endeavor that professionals inevitably and always have the advantage over amateurs."

Going deeper, the problem seems to be democracy. The aristocrat boasts of not voting, because "what are our few votes against the unthinking thousands?... Those of discernment, capable of judgment, are always outnumbered by the mass. And it is upon the dull-witted emotions of the many that the professionals ply their art." The remedy he proposes, for all intents and purposes, is terrorism, albeit in the romanticized form of costumed brigandry. "My contribution toward reform will be to catch as many of these exploiters as I may, as opportunity occurs or as I can make it, and I shall show them the error of their ways by the imposition of fine or castigation, as they case may best deserve."

The reporter's natural skepticism is overriden by the force of the man's personalities, but once we get to the main action of the story some time later, MacCreagh introduces an element of moral suspense; he "El Rey" of the Society of Condors been corrupted by his bitterness against the political class. The reporter encounters him again as he is holding one of the politicos hostage. Are the Condors no better, say, than the Ku Klux Klan, which the story invokes without naming it outright. El Rey seems to have taken some inspiration from the American organization:

"In your own country the similar plan of a secret society with an avowed intention of reform flourishes today, even though it attacks whole races and creeds. It throve amazingly until the ignorant and the self-seeking swarmed in and it became itself an organization of political ambition too enormously unwieldy to withstand the many enemies it had made."

You wonder whether MacCreagh is imagining a Latin America's distanced view of the Klan, or whether El Rey mouths the authors own opinion of the cross-burners. Bear in mind that back in 1923 Black Mask published a special Klan issue containing stories both pro and contra, so there was nothing in MacCreagh's day like the consensus we presume (or hope) to exist today. But if you look close enough there's a consistent theme denouncing self-interested politicians, though it's difficult to look at something that seems to say that the Klan was okay, maybe, before it went wrong somewhere. In El Rey's part of the world, the solution to the problem of the politician seems to be the disinterested benevolence of which only the aristocrat may be capable. El Rey's camp, one notices, is well furnished with servants, but what disturbs the American reporter is that the young idealist is willing to torture people to get money out of them. The reporter is invited to sit alongside the prisoner and pretend to be another captive. He's told that one of the prisoner's retinue has had his ear cut off, and is shown the thing still lying on the floor. Now the reporter's only thought is to rescue the prisoner and return him to civilization. Because this is a pulp story, he manages to do this -- but then we learn that El Rey allowed him to do it. The bandit leader couldn't just let his prisoner go because it might make him look soft, but now his reputation remains intact, and he has given his American friend a terrific story to report, though he presumably won't report how El Rey used an ear from an anatomical model to scare his captive. Does this amount to a vindication of El Rey's tactics and his worldview? Perhaps, but whether you agree with MacCreagh's implied conclusions or not, give him credit for an adventure story that's intellectually provocative as well.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

JUNGLE STORIES, Summer of 1947

In this entire issue of Fiction House's jungle quarterly, for all of its explicit or implicit racism, you won't really find a black villain. I suppose some may say this is another way to deny agency to Africans in their own country, but the more I read jungle stories the more I'm convinced that their ultimate subject isn't the savagery of Africa or Africans but the dangerous possibilities open to white people in a place where their "civilized" rules don't appear to apply. You have white men plotting to rob native treasures or exploit native resources, white men becoming priests or pretending to be gods of unspeakable cults -- two of this issue's stories feature crocodile cults -- and so on and on. Invariably they are thwarted by more virtuous whites -- sometimes barely more so -- almost always accompanied by some virtuous black who has perhaps a 50-50 chance of surviving the story. The authors were a familiar repertory company; all of this issue's authors had published in Jungle Stories before and most would often do so again. However, this issue's "The Terrible Drums" was Paul Selonke's last-published pulp story. The idea here is that gangsters have infiltrated darkest Africa pretending to film a documentary about a tribe's rhythmic healing ritual, their real agenda being to steal a legendary ruby-encrusted blanket. The irony is that the rubies are fakes, the sort of stuff traders bestow on gullible natives, while the drum ritual, according to our white protagonist, has a genuine therapeutic effect -- if you're not driven mad by the drums, as the bad guys will be in a well-meaning native attempt to cure their madness.

If there's anything unusual about Bryce Walton's "The Silver Kraal," it's that the story is told from a female viewpoint. If not quite a complete heroine, Florence Sullivan has the look of a Fiction House superwoman: a "tall, lithe white woman ... The native policeman who walked stiffly beside her was barely taller than she, and he was tall." Her main purpose is to inspire a broken-down white explorer to clean up, regain his sanity and avenger her father, the victim of one of those crocodile cults. It turns out, of course, that a wicked white man has usurped the otherwise-harmless cult for his own nefarious purposes. In Emmett McDowell's "Bwana Two-Sleep," another strong female goes to Africa to investigate whether her father's mine is played out and should be sold, and another strong man helps her thwart the Russian who hopes to take the rich lode for a song or, failing that, feed the heroine to the crocodiles. In Alexander Wallace's "Killer's Spoor" a white woman, daughter of another martyred explorer, has become "Matyenda," the mother-goddess-good luck charm of the Mpongwe tribe, but of course she must be rescued from this exalted state by the generic hero.

The least generic of this issue's heroes is Dan Cushman's recurring character, "Armless" O'Neil. Cushman is best known for his westerns, and pretty much boasted of writing African stories without any basis in expertise, but he's also easily the best writer in this particular issue and O'Neil's hard-boiled exuberance in "Five Suns to Angola!", in which the hook-handed hero goes reluctantly to great pains to transport a payload of potential medicinal value, overwhelms any objections to his portrayal of the dark continent, which is probably no less fact-based than anyone else's here. In any event Fiction House's jungle is as much a fantasy world as pulpdom's innumerable Chinatowns any other locales where readers could dream of getting away with the impossible or the impermissible by the standards of ordinary life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

'I don't know who this man 'science' is, but he's a fool to take such chances.'

The adventures of Ki-Gor, White Lord of the Jungle, are some of the pulpiest stuff, in one sense of the word, of the 1940s. One of many imitation Tarzans, Ki-Gor was the star of Fiction House's quarterly Jungle Stories, published from 1938 to 1954. Authorship was credited to John Peter Drummond, a house name covering a number of authors. I don't know who actually authored "Warrior-Queen of Attila's Lost Legion" (Summer 1947), but the writer doesn't quite have the formula down. He makes a throwaway reference to the typical banter between Ki-Gor's two black sidekicks, the American boxer turned Masai chieftain Tembu George and pygmy chief N'Geeso -- themselves imitations of the two sidekicks of Gordon MacCreagh's Kingi Bwana -- but can't be bothered to actually write out their usual ball-busting. I can't say that I missed it, but I noticed it wasn't there. For that matter, there's no mention of George's American origins, and the first-time reader might assume that he's as much an African native as N'Geeso, though as a black man turned jungle lord of a sort he's one of the most potentially fascinating characters in pulpdom. Ki-Gor himself is a cookie-cutter clone, articulate like the literary Tarzan rather than primitive like the Tarzan of contemporary movies.  He's often upstaged on the magazine covers by his mate Helene, though that's less a reflection on Ki-Gor than standard Fiction House cover policy favoring cheesecake.

In any event, "Warrior Queen" pits the gang against yet another decadent lost civilization. Tarma, queen of the Maldeans, claims descent from "At-La," provoking speculation of Hunnish lineage, though I'm not sure that would be consistent with her lily-white status. She's the last pure-blood Maldean, the rest having interbred with natives, and she's looking for a white lord of the jungle to help her continue the royal line. The fact that Ki-Gor has a mate is immaterial, and the fact that Helene stabbed a particular ugly Maldean ape will only make it easier to put her out of the way. The gray ape, whom American explorer Williams wants to keep alive for the sake of science, is in fact an "earth god," a presumably sentient being with a language Tarma has mastered. Earth gods are, as you might expect, sacred, so both Helene and Williams, who dared capture one, are guilty of sacrilege and due to be sacrificed. The main action of the story is the capture of the two whites and the pursuit of the Maldeans -- just for the heck of it, their military commander is a hunchback -- by Ki-Gor and friends. I like pulp stories that pile wild new details on top of old ones, so we're well into the story by the time we find out that Tarma has control over dinosaurs thanks to a special reed whistle. The action takes us to the edge of spicy content, as Helene is subject to a whipping, though the villain gets only one stroke in before a berserk Ki-Gor intervenes. As I find to be typical of Jungle Stories, the narrative moves along quite nicely, the black characters are resourceful but deferential to the infallible white lord, and Ki-Gor himself is the least interesting element in the story. Luckily, his adventures are often fun in spite of him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

'I think it would clear the situation if the witness would explain what he means by drawing a blank.'

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is best known to history for effectively inventing the American comic-book with the 1935 publication of New Fun, the first magazine to feature all original comic strips instead of reprints from the newspapers. In pulpdom, he specialized, in Adventure at least, in stories inspired by his experience as a cavalryman in the U.S.-ruled Philippine islands. One such story is "Court-Martial" (January 1, 1932), but the court-martial proves to be only a framing device. A soldier is accused of the premediated murder of a native civilian, the premeditation apparently proved by his having gone to his squadroom after first encountering the victim in order to get his pistol. The defendant remembers nothing of this, however, having drank heavily that night. Our narrator is an officer serving on the court-martial panel who suggests during questioning that the defendant simply drew a blank and was no longer in his right mind when he fetched his weapon and shot his man. Finally, seven pages into the story, he begs his fellow officers' indulgence as he tells a story from his own experience as another example of drawing a blank. No, the narrator himself did no such thing, but he knew a young officer who did just that following the kidnapping of a Spanish girl by Moro bandits. Wheeler-Nicholson has the decency to interrupt his narrative occasionally to have the other officers express the impatience with his long-winded raconteur that some readers may have felt after a while. It's not that the story he tells is bad, or that Wheeler-Nicholson tells it badly. It's just unrealistic that the other officers would let him ramble on and on, in nearly novelistic detail -- technically it's a novelette -- when he probably could have gotten to the main point much quicker and with fewer literary flourishes. The payoff, finally, is that the our narrator changed the names in his story. The defendant is the sergeant whose kidnapped beloved killed herself in captivity, his victim a former bandit who insulted her memory, and his captain, who went on a drunken raid against the Moro camp only to forget it afterward, having drawn the proverbial blank, is none other than the fussy, teetotaling colonel who presides over the court-martial. That's a cute finish, but Wheeler-Nicholson simply takes too long getting to what is, ultimately, only a modest punchline.