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.