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.

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