Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In brief: ADVENTURE, October 15, 1932

With the September 1, 1932 issue the once-mighty Adventure shrunk to half its former size, from 192 to 96 pages, while cutting its issue price by more than half, from a quarter to a dime. Considering that Argosy gave you 144 pages every single week for the same price, you wonder whether Adventure readers felt they were getting their money's worth. A casual reader probably was most disappointed, since in this particular issue, nearly a third of the content, 29 pages, went to serials. Gone was the traditional lead novel that in Adventure's golden age might have run for 60 or 70 pages. The longest standalone story in this issue is Robert Simpson's "The Crown on Crocodile Island," a mere 15 pages in length. This African story develops an interesting situation and is actually informative about the labor obligations imposed on tribal chiefs and the efforts made to evade them, but the climax is perfunctory and underwhelming, leaving you feeling there should have been more to it.

This number actually has two of my favorite pulp writers in it. Georges Surdez contributes "The Man From Nowhere," about a Foreign Legionnaire who can barely speak French and whose native tongue is known to none in the Legion's cosmopolitan ranks. It's basically a gimmick story that gives Surdez a chance to show off a different landscape from the norm by sending the Legion into the snowy mountains of North Africa. See the recent French film Of Gods and Men for a visual reference. The gimmick is that the mystery Legionnaire turns out to be an Inuit from Greenland who'd been brought to Europe by an explorer and gotten lost. By Surdez standards, a trifle. Robert Carse's "The Long Night" is a typical contest of wills aboard an aged windjammer between a young captain and a veteran mate, with the typical conclusion of belated mutual respect and teamwork in a crisis. There's nothing special about the story but Carse has a knack for infusing tales like these with a surly energy that makes them entertaining.

The best story this issue is Allan Vaughan Elston's "The Belfry," about a fugitive killer who nearly outwits an entire town of pursuers. The ingenious criminal hides in a tree as the posse passes him by, then follows discreetly behind them, walking in their footprints. In like manner he makes his way back into town and holes up in the church belfry, figuring that after a few days of fruitless searching the posse will finally give up so he can sneak out for good. This story works well as a thriller, establishing the danger our criminal protagonist faces at every moment, when the slightest wrong move can set the church bell ringing and give him away. It's the hallmark of a good thriller that you can't help sympathizing with if not rooting for the killer, even as you try to guess how he'll screw up in the end. The ending proves somewhat anticlimactic but Elston shows some real talent here.

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

'He had an ambition at last; a passionate desire to bring about a desired result'

W. Townend's "Red" (Adventure, September 8, 1926) plays out like one of those "night from hell" movies crossed with a Horatio Alger story. The Alger side of it is the way our poor protagonist, named "Red" for his hair, earns an opportunity for success through an act of personal heroism. The After Hours aspect is the satiric sequence of nasty, brutish encounters Red, also named for his communist beliefs, experiences on his way to a naive rendezvous before his heroic opportunity. Red Wilson's a sailor who's lost his berth after getting into a fight with a crewmember, sick and tired of taking orders from people when, as far as he's concerned, no one's better than anyone else. With a comic-relief Scotsman as his sometime sidekick, Red embarks on a series of misadventures taking him to the Isle of Dogs, one of London's most squalid neighborhoods. Townend's idea seems to be to destroy Red's idealism about the working class, if that's an accurate label for the ensemble of criminal scum he encounters on his fool's mission to find Alf Coley, a supposed good comrade recommended to him by a man whose laughter signals to readers that he's having a great joke at Red's expense. Coley proves to be the most despicable of all, a would-be kidnapper and rapist who beats up Red and becomes the object of our hero's vengeful ambition. For what he tells himself are perfectly selfish reasons, he tracks Coley to where the thug plans to lure a millionaire into a shakedown with an ailing (drug-addicted?) son as bait. The situation becomes more severe when the millionaire's pretty daughter shows up at Coley's lair instead. The predictable melodramatics ensue, after which we get to the real meat of the story, when the millionaire and Red debate the state of society. By this point Red has shown the reader many heroic qualities, and Townend has emphasized that, unlike the enduring stereotype of the leftist, his protagonist is not motivated by envy of anyone. He doesn't want any reward from the millionaire, so he gets a straight talk instead. Presumably Townend's mouthpiece, the millionaire echoes the point the narrator hinted at earlier about the importance of ambition. Admirably, neither millionaire nor author tries to idealize capitalist society; they come instead from the "life's not fair" school, though the millionaire is not so snide about this as many are today.

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

'All right my brothers....Let us follow the flag'

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 main streets of London were, to Rodgers, as black as the chasms of the Taurus mountains. '

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

'He won't be a real steel-man until he beats you up ...'

Pulp fiction often invited readers to ask, "could you take it?" That was the subject (or subtext) of stories comparable to today's tough-job genre of realty TV. The idea wasn't to question working conditions, but to aspire to coping with any circumstance. Edmund M. Littell's "The Profaned Shovel" (Adventure, January 30, 1926) is a case in point. Littell's hero, Ole Olson, is too good to be true. "Other men fought the heat" of the steel furnace, "but he played with it....Other men worked on the open hearth for money; he worked there because he loved it." Why he loves it so never quite becomes clear. Ole is an educated young man -- he speaks perfect English instead of the standard "yumpin' yimminy" dialect and is self-taught on the theory and practice of the industry -- yet he gladly becomes "a slave to the gigantic lamp of steel." But there's a serpent in his hellish paradise: Bull Dard, "a sullen man who could melt steel to perfection, but who in other ways was not so commendable." Bull makes a habit of hazing newcomers and makes a special case of Ole, perhaps because he's too handsome, too smart, too clean to be down among creatures like himself. "He's a purty boy, but he hurt his tummy," Bull sneers after Ole has a baptism of fire charging ferro. The novice inevitably gets his belly singed by molten splash-back, but while many quit after such an ordeal, in Ole's case "the test of the splash-back had uncovered a scar-bellied steel-man!" Bull's way of congratulating him is to slap him in the belly. Everyone lets Bull get away with his crap because he's too good a steel-man to lose. Complacent Ole simply has to go through a rite of passage that will climax when he finally stands up to the bully. Until then, his refusal to take offense only offends Bull more. The final straw finally breaks when Bull snaps the custom-carved handle of Ole's precious shovel. The narrator has explained that "to the man who lives with a shovel in his hand that tool must become an integral part of him.... Clothes might be burned, hide might be blistered, but an open hearth man's shovel must be guarded as precious." Bull breaking his shovel is all Ole can stand, he can't stands no more! The climactic fight, fist against fist, shovel against shovel, takes most of a double-column page, and with a big Swede fighting the mill bully, the outcome never was in doubt. Ole is eerily magnanimous in victory, to such a degree that a chastened Bull tries to quit his job, only to be dissuaded by his former foe, now his buddy. Their reconciliation is a practically orgasmic moment for all the workers: "A long sigh escaped from the tensely listening crowd, as though a blast of air had suddenly been released from the mighty blowers beneath them, a sigh more significant than the thundering applause of a cheering multitude," Littell writes.

"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

'The groundhog was now a perfect philosopher, incapable of contemplating either good or evil.'

The hero of William Ransom's only credited pulp story, "The Texas Kind" (Western Short Stories, June 1955) has a grudge against the groundhog whose hole his horse stepped into, leaving young Larribee without a ride. He'd considered killing the critter until a horse trader happened along. Later, as part of the negotiation for a "sorrel crowbait," he blows the groundhog's head off. "The varmint hadn't even looked surprised," the narrator observes, "because by the time it should have looked surprised it didn't have anything left to look surprised with." That brings the price down by half, from eighty to forty dollars, but to no reader's surprise Larribee has bought a stolen horse, and that puts him on the bad side of the real owners, the Underwoods, father and daughter, who dominate the territory. Larribee is philosopher enough (albeit imperfect by groundhog standards) to talk sass to the daughter, Audrey, while she has a gun trained on him. "You've got an awful temper for a such a good-lookin' heifer," he charms, "Kind of a pert shape, too." Luckily, he convinces the Underwoods that he bought the animal in good faith and is allowed to leave their land alive, if on foot and without bullets in his gun. He falls in with some understandably disgruntled neighbors of the arrogant, water-monopolizing Underwoods, but quickly realizes that they're even worse in their murderous intentions toward the ranchers. Nor does it help their case that he recognizes the thief who sold him that horse in their ranks. He and we might feel that the Underwoods deserve some humbling, but the insurgents go predictably overboard, scheming to kill both father and daughter in the explosion of their dam, and Larribee finally has to put his foot down. Ransom himself goes overboard a bit with that climax, but I rather liked the often sardonic tone of the story as a whole. Ransom most likely was a pseudonym for another contributor or the editor, but I wonder whether Google was right when it answered my search for William Ransom with listings for William Ransom Hogan, a University of Oklahoma professor who published a history of the Texas republic in 1946 and later co-authored the flamboyantly titled The Barber of Natchez, Wherein a Slave is Freed and Rises to a Very High Standing: Wherein the Former Slave Writes a Two-thousand-page Journal about His Town and Himself; Wherein the Free Negro Diarist is Appraised in Terms of His Friends, His Code, and His Community's Reaction to His Wanton Murder. Someone who came up with a title like that could well have a pulp story in him.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

'I ain't havin' no ginger-haired she-catamaran poachin' around here, savvy?'

R. V. Gery was a British Navy veteran and ex-convict -- he did six months for fraud -- who settled in Canada and got into the pulp business. He started out as an Adventure regular but by the mid-1930s Short Stories had become his main market. "Magruder's Way" (November 25, 1937) is a title that tells only half the story, which is as much concerned with Red Heron's way as Jerry Magruder's. They're rival traders in the South Pacific, Magruder the established veteran, Heron the upstart interloper and a woman to boot. She's "poaching" on Magruder's normal trade with island natives and he doesn't like it. He expresses his disapproval in typical pulp male manner, warning her that "it'll be a spanked sit-upon for you -- and a single ticket to Sydney" when he catches up with her, "Go on down there an' get yourself marries. That's the lay for you!" Red Heron is a badass, however, and even more of a badass is her mate, the loyal but unscrupulous cockney Henry Jevons. The novelette evolves into a three-way battle as two villains, murderers and more literal poachers, an Australian and a Frenchman, make their play for anybody's boat. Magruder constantly underestimates Heron's ability to deal with this threat, perhaps because he sees how the stakes for her are higher than they would be for him.

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.