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.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

'I am a fighter. A man fighter.'

You can tell a pulp writer is confident of his storytelling ability, not to mention his story, when he skips an opportunity to write out a fight scene. In "Big Fella" (Adventure, January 1, 1932) Robert Carse has his protagonist, a Texas boxer stranded in Spain by an absconding manager, try to earn money by betting that "no man can known me off this handkerchief when I spread it on the floor and stand upon it." The scene ends just as it's about to begin, with "Big Fella" eagerly waiting for three men to take their shots. Carse ends a paragraph on an ellipsis, and starts the next the next morning, with our hero "full of food and equally full of liquor." He'll try the stunt again shortly, only to almost lose when a matador confronts him. The matador's protege sees potential in Big Fella's footwork and poise, despite his size. The Texan will train to be a bullfighter, but will also use his ranching expertise to help raise the bulls. Things get a bit corny from there, as Big Fella befriends a bull that rescues him from another rampaging animal, only to find himself encountering his taurine savior in the bullring as a substitute toreador in his first public performance. I couldn't help but be reminded of the cartoon where Popeye the Sailorman insists that "I ain't gonna harm no bull!" In this case, to prove to a hostile crowd that he's no coward, Big Fella fights the bull the American way, by steer wrestling the animal into submission. All ends well as the American keeps his job on the ranch, after conceding that "a big man can fight the bulls; but not a man who hasn't Spanish blood." The Spaniards don't see that as an insult, though I wonder. Carse wrote more than one bullfighting story in his career, though it was at most a minor subgenre for him. This story, however, gives you the idea that he had the bullfighting bug nearly as bad as Hemingway did; this came out the same year as the great man's Death in the Afternoon. "Big Fella" is relatively minor Carse, but minor Carse is usually above the pulp average.

Monday, June 4, 2018

'No fool but yourself made you enlist, Waldemar.'

I like the way Georges Surdez backs his way into the actual meat of his Foreign Legion story, "By Special Request" (Adventure, January 1, 1932). Lieutenant Framyr volunteers to hold Bou-Mabrouk, a Moroccan post overrun and then abandoned by the Riffi rebels, because his best friend had commanded the Senegalese infantry who had been killed to the last man. Surdez lets us see Framyr through the eyes of Sergeant Kellburger, only to have Kellburger become the protagonist when Framyr is abruptly killed. The real story is the war of wills within the insurgent war between Kellburger and Private Waldemar. Of the latter, Surdez writes: "His chief fault was one rare in Germans, if common enough in Frenchmen and Belgians. He loved to argue with his superiors, to show off before a crowd -- in a word, to be different." This is significant in a unit that is disproportionately German. Waldemar fled Germany after getting "mixed up in a counterrevolution in Germany soon after the armistice." The changing political situation in Germany -- it's unclear when exactly this story is set -- encourages Waldemar to think of returning home to his family now that his term of service is almost up. In fact, it expires while the post is under siege by the Riffi, as the ranks of Legionnaires are steadily whittled down and the survivors are tempted to quit by Megandank, a deserter who promises safe passage and pretty much whatever men want, while threatening utter destruction, by air power if necessary, to those who hold out. Kellburger refuses to let Waldemar leave, fearing that others would follow him, and as his fellow sergeants and corporals fall one by one the ad hoc commander is forced to trust Waldemar with responsibility. There's some unseemly pride at stake, at least from our modern perspective. Kellburger is determined to hold out longer than the Sengalese, who after all "were unimaginative men who suffered only physically, from thirst, hunger and wounds." His men hold out one day longer, and then Kellburger is seriously wounded when Megendank, approaching under a truce flag, lures him into sniper's range. At last, if inevitably, Waldemar rises to the occasion, taking out Megandank and rallying the remaining defenders until relief arrives. Surdez doesn't go overboard and have Waldemar reenlist, but his experience clearly has changed the ertswhile malcontent for the better. Again, Surdez keeps his Legion material fresh by foregrounding a clash of  personalities. His characters aren't very sophisticated, to be honest, but Surdez has a knack for making the reader feel that he's encountering distinctive individuals with every new story. It's a rare one of his that I haven't enjoyed.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

'He aint like your New York pugs. He never paid anybody to lay down for him.'

Prolific pulpster Frederick C. Davis created, or was given, the pseudonym Art Buckley for a boxing story published in the July 1930 issue of Street & Smith's High-Spot Magazine, where Davis already had a story under his own name. "Buckley" became Davis's regular alias for Street & Smith fight stories, including a series about contender Duke Elliot in Complete Stories. "Iron Fists" (February 1, 1932) finds Elliot, his manager Carl Rost and his handler Hunter in the town of Carmel to train for an important fight with Mike Conlin. Winning will put him "pretty close to the belt," but Duke may have a fight on his hands before that. A local amateur, "champ of the mines" Chuck Veach, stalks Elliot and challenges him to a fight. Veach and his manager predictably denounce Duke as a coward and a crooked fighter for refusing, and only Rost's threat to quit keeps Elliot from attacking Veach to avenge the insult. There's an interesting story right here, but I have a feeling it might have been done already, since Davis/Buckley adds additional complications. It's made clear to Duke that fighting Veach is a no-win situation, even if he can handle the miner with relative ease. Veach is not only the champ but the idol of the miners. A local newspaper man warns Elliot that beating Veach could start a riot where he could very well get hurt, ruining his chance at Mike Conlin. Still, even if he must be a professional and think of his career and the big paydays in the future, a fighter has his pride and a point to prove to the local upstart. Where this gets corny, in my opinion, is when Duke and his entourage learn that Veach has been put up to his grandstand challenge by none other than Conlin, who presumably hopes that something will happen to let him skip his own meeting with Elliot. Apparently the story lacked a real bad guy until this revelation, and that allows the author to turn Veach into a good guy. When the fight finally happens, Davis/Buckley renders it fairly realistically, allowing Veach to be a puzzle for a few rounds but showing plainly enough that the miner is grossly outclassed. When Duke inevitably knocks him out, people in the crowd accuse the winner of fouling and the predicted riot starts -- only to be aborted by none other than the revived Veach, who tells the crowd that Elliot beat him fair and square and now has his respect. "He may be a dude, but he can hit!" the miner explains. He explains further that Conlin had put him up to the challenge and had promised him a hundred bucks before the fight started, only to welsh. Conlin shows his true cowardly colors as the good guys rescue him from the re-enraged mob. The story ends with Elliott offering to pay for the promising Veach's training, earning the ultimate accolade from his former foe: "Say -- you're sure white to say that, after all I said about you." This was the second of five Elliott stories in a series that continued through the end of 1932. I haven't read many fight stories apart from Robert E. Howard's standard-setting Steve Costigan tales, but I liked this one despite its overplotting. The boxing seemed well-described and the characters likable enough, and I wouldn't mind another round with Duke Elliott if circumstances ever permit.