Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Along with the serials by W. C. Tuttle and William McLeod Raine, there's T. R. Ellis's "Fences," about a rodeo rider turned auto racer, and two non-fiction pieces, including a good one from Carl Elmo Freeman that's part of a series on firearms history. The Camp-Fire letters column is a mere four pages, though that's still more than you'd see anywhere but in a science-fiction mag. Overall, Adventure in this period can't help looking and reading like a shadow of its former self. It'd put some more meat on its bones in 1933, going up to 128 pages, but it sacrificed frequency to do it, going from semi-monthly to monthly. The page count would fluctuate thereafter from a World War II peak of 160 pages a month to 112 pages every two months toward the end of its life as a pulp magazine. In short, better days were still to come for what had arguably been the greatest of pulps.
Monday, February 26, 2018
The world's in a bad state, no doubt. It always has been, and while you get men like your friend, Coley, it always will be. Even though you eradicate the abuses we all know of, abuses many of us are trying to eradicate in different ways from the ways you recommend,you'll always have human nature to contend with. Your friends in Russia [i.e. the Bolsheviks] have proved that you can't change things wholesale, only, I suppose, Mr. Wilson,you wouldn't regard it in that way, quite, would you?...The world's a hard old place but there's good to be found in it, if you know where to look.
By the end, having taken the millionaire ship-owner's offer of a berth as a bosun, Red has changed for good, in either sense of the word, by giving up egalitarian idea that no one's better than anyone else. He learned during his night from hell that he was better than plenty of people. "Life was tough, more tough than it need have been," Red reflects, "if men and women would only think less of themselves now and again and more about other people." Ambition does not mean robbing or thrashing everyone around you, as so many he'd met had tried to do, but it does mean asserting yourself when you actually know better than someone else. Facing one of his old antagonists aboard his new ship, he tells the man, "You're not as good as any one else aboard this ship and you needn't think it. You're not as good as me to begin with....You may be as Red as you like ashore, but aboard this ship you'll remember you're one of the hands and you'll do as you're told." There's no denying that "Red" is a conservative work of fiction that stacks the deck by populating Red's path with so many scumbags, but at the same time it struck me as a more nuanced portrait of a left-winger, however misguided Townend takes him to be, than one might have expected from pulp fiction of this period.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Last weekend while clearing some of my DVR queue I watched the 1956 George Marshall film Pillars of the Sky, a western vehicle for Jeff Chandler. When Sam Rolfe got a writing credit for adapting Will Henry's story "Frontier Fury," I said to myself, "I have that one!" In fact, I have it in its original form as an 82-page "complete novel" in the September 1952 issue of Zane Grey's Western Magazine. Published by Dell for approximately seven years (Nov/Dec 1946 to January 1954, mostly monthly), Zane Grey's was the most successful attempt at a western magazine in the digest format that would supplant the traditional pulp magazine. Originally highlighting abridged reprints of Grey's novels, the magazine increasingly highlighted original works by current writers from late 1950 forward. Henry W. Allen, formerly a story man for cartoon auteur Tex Avery, published most of his magazine fiction there under the pseudonyms "Will Henry" and "Clay Fisher." Editor Don Ward noted that "Frontier Fury" would soon appear in expanded form as a novel. It did so as To Follow the Flag, which makes it curious that Pillars of the Sky cites "Frontier Fury" as its source. Maybe Universal could pay Henry less, if anything, that way. I couldn't help wondering how the novel differed from the magazine piece, since the film bears only a minimal resemblance to the original.
"Frontier Fury" is based on an 1858 battle in the Pacific Northwest in which the U.S. Calvary took a beating, and it's mostly a battle narrative focusing on Sgt. Emmett Bell (aka "Ametsun") and his Nez Perce scouts. They manage to help the commanding colonel avoid a complete massacre, and it's clear from the close that the war with the Palouse, their chief Kamiak and his allies will continue. Meanwhile, Emmett gets the girl who had once been engaged to another officer who gets killed during he battle. Improbably for 1956, one of the changes made for Pillars of the Sky is that Emmet does not get the girl, there played by the late Dorothy Malone. Instead, Cally realizes that the other officer, who survives the film, cares more about her than Emmet does. Emmet apparently has a higher calling. Pillars portrays the 1858 war as virtually a war of religion. As in "Frontier Fury," most of the Indians are Christianized, use Christian names and speak fluent English, the exception being our villain Kamiakin (Michael Ansara), who signifies his disdain for the white man's religion by keeping his original name. Pillars makes a major character out of Protestant missionary (Ward Bond) who is only mentioned but never seen in "Frontier Fury." In the film's climax, Kamiakin kills the missionary in cold blood, only to be killed by the Christian Indians, thus presumably ending the war. In the end, it looks like Emmet will take the missionary's place, leading the Indians in prayer in the ruins of the mission. Where the hell did that come from? Not from To Follow the Flag, I suspect.
If anything, the title of the novel suggests that its focus is even more strongly on the Nez Perce scouts than in "Frontier Fury." For Timothy, the chief scout, following the flag is a point of honor. His character reminded me a lot of the Apache scout in Ulzana's Raid whose loyalty to the cavalry is unswerving because he "signed the paper committing him to its service. It goes deeper than that for Timothy, though he finds himself constantly distrusted by the cavalry officers. He's been obsessed with the American colors since his childhood. As he explains to Emmett, comparing his loyalty and idealism to the other scouts:
When they look on that gay banner of the Pony Soldiers they don't see what I do.They have no eyes for that bright cloth on its roundtopped lance-haft. They can't feel the blood and the snow of its stripes. They can't touch the deep blue of its sky nor reach the bright glitter of its stars. Well, wuska, let that be the end of it. If they can't see the flag, how can they follow it?
But I can see it. I have always seen it. From the day the old chief, Menitoose, my father who walked with Lewis and Clark, drew its design and color upon my first boyhood shield, I have seen it. The old man bade me take the emblem and walk behind it with his image in my eyes for all the days of my life. I have done that bidding. Where that flag goes, Tamason [his real name] will follow it.
By comparison, Emmett is something of a cynic, though more trusting of Timothy as a matter of personality and experience than his superiors are. While he's convinced of Timothy's integrity, he also suspects that the Nez Perce are acting on tribal self-interest first and foremost, concerned mainly with weakening their native enemies with American help. He's also "an Indian veneer-peeler of five years' good standing" who doubts how deeply Christianity has changed the natives. He makes a running joke of Timothy's devotion to Choosuklee, aka Jesus Christ, which good-natured Timothy takes in stride. All this makes Emmett's arc in Pillars of the Sky more strange, but one thing the film admirably preserves from "Frontier Fury" is Henry's overall eschewal of the stilted dialogue that passes for Indians speaking English fluently in many westerns. The flowery excerpt above notwithstanding, Timothy and the other scouts, Jason and Lucas, speak more casually than western readers and viewers may have been used to, and often with an actual sense of humor. Alas, Henry abruptly throws away any good will he might earn from the "politically correct" modern reader by giving Cally a black servant who speaks minstrel dialect and is described with both the n-word and the d-word by our hero! Emmet is grimly amused by the role reversal when an Indian captures the women and takes the black woman as a wife, making Cally his new wife's servant, but modern readers may not laugh with him. Wisely, the servant doesn't appear in Pillars.
In "Frontier Fury" it's Timothy, not Emmett, who gets the last word. His double ordeal, scrambling to survive and making heroic efforts despite the distrust of most officers, has embittered him in a way he won't express to his friend Ametsun. But he makes his feelings clear to his own sidekicks on the final page of the story.
It's a fool's flag, my brothers, and those who follow it with them [the white soldiers] are fools.The red you see upon it is Indian blood. The blue is the empty sky they trade for our lands. Those white stars are their promises, high as the heavens, bright as moonlight, cold and empty as the belly of a dead fish.
Lucas and Jason, never idealists and never disillusioned, see things more practically. "My belly, too, is cold and empty as a dead fish's," one says, "And the food is there. Where the flag is." Once the motion is seconded, Timothy wistfully acquiesces with the words above this post. Overwritten as it sometimes is, and in spite of its uglier moments, "Frontier Fury" is a better western story that Pillars of the Sky, okay on its own terms, is a western movie.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
The outbreak of World War II took Paul Rodgers, the Red Wolf of Arabia in William J. Makin's long-running Blue Book series , away from his usual Middle Eastern haunts, at least initially. "London Blackout" (March 1940) takes Rodgers from the Mediterranean to the English metropolis in pursuit of the spies providing ship locations to German U-boats. Infiltrating a treacherous Greek vessel disguised as an Arab stowaway, he finds that the Nazis are using tricks out of the old pulp playbook. The spies transmit information through commercial radio broadcasts, embedding the crucial data in Spanish-language commercials. Once he figures this out, the Red Wolf sics the British navy on a German sub before abandoning the ship where he's been pressed into menial labor. From there it's on to London, where he tracks the Greek captain to spy headquarters. Rodgers uses a classic bluff to save himself and the Greek from the Nazis. Confronting them alone to save the captain from an abrupt execution, he brazenly announces that he has reinforcements right behind him. In fact, he has guaranteed reinforcements by stopping upstairs earlier and turning on all the lights in violation of the city 's blackout policy, assuring the place of a police visit. If only the whole war could be won so easily, but alas, Makin himself would not survive the conflict.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
"Shovel" was Littell's debut in Adventure and his first pulp story. That required him to introduce himself to "Camp-Fire" letter-column readers. "There, sir, is romance far too great for my poor effort," he says of the steel industry. The casual observer "does not see the gigantic work that goes on amid those man-made hells; the thousands of men who labor prosaically in the most spectacular surroundings ever devised by man. These men live and die as others. Their emotions may be dulled by fatigue, or blistered raw by the fires they serve, but they are all of the same stuff as the man who rides the cushioned steel Pullman on the rails they have made." He admits to some trepidation about submitting "Shovel," because of the industrial setting's "remoteness from the atmosphere which [Adventure's] stories generally depict....Certainly it is anything but one of the world's open spaces. But the courage of men is there, none the less." Littell needn't have worried. Given the steel-men's working conditions, the setting may have been more exotic or lurid than prosaic for pulp readers, but in the end, the superficial details aside, Littell told a story that could have been told in many different workplace settings, and probably had been already.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Saturday, February 3, 2018
Rusty [Magruder's mate] nodded again, sagely. 'They'll knock her off,' he observed. 'Sure's eggs!'
'Knock her off!' Cap'n Jerry almost groaned. Rusty's imagination was never his strong point. 'Ain't you been brought up to know the facts o' life, ye big ox? If t'was only that -- An' here, too, right smack-dab in the middle of my islands. Man alive, shut your eyes an' think for a minute -- if ye can thing -- what that couple'll do with her. Judas Priest!'
Obediently, Rusty closed his eyes, but when he opened them it was not with any lurid envisagement.
'It ain't any business o'yourn,' he said. 'Thought ye didn't like her.'
Cap'n Jerry drew a long breath and expanded it to the bottom of his lungs in a torrent of abuse that once again beat anything even Rusty had ever listened to.
'Like her!' he yelled finally. 'Why, ye blitherein' ape, what's that got to do with it? Like her? My soul an' body, I wish she was in everlastin' blazes this minute an' stying there. But that ain't it, ye lummox. She's here -- an' if them swine get a her, there'll be somethin' happen that'll give us all a black eye hereabouts for good. Give me a black eye, by Joseph, all up an' down the islands, just for lettin' it happen.
Magruder isn't wrong about the Frenchman's intentions, but so singleminded is he in his determination to defend Red Heron's virtue that he ends up inadvertently sacrificing his own boat to the bad guys, while Red ends up taking him prisoner on her own ship. She then proves herself a super sailor by giving chase to the villains in the teeth of a storm. Magruder finally joining her at the wheel as the captains discover common interests. She's ready to overtake the enemy and seize Magruder's abandoned ship for salvage, with Cap'n Jerry locked in a cabin, when Jerry recalls that the outsailed killers have an equalizer on board: Magruder's cargo of explosives. Gery moves smoothly into thriller mode as Heron closes in on her quarry, the Frenchman prepares to toss a bomb at her ship, and Magruder pounds hopelessly on the door to warn her. Finally he bursts through the skylight to save the day by literally batting the bomb away with his hand at almost the last moment. There's nothing like that to bring two people closer together, and the tale ends with thoughts of spankings mostly forgotten. It's an unpretentious, entertaining story, predictably heavy on accents but in a way fitting the overall lighthearted tone. I couldn't tell from the FictionMags Index whether Gery made a series of Magruder and Heron, but they struck me as characters worthy of an encore appearance.