Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'He had the satisfaction of hearing cries of pain.'

 Illustration from my own collection

Tom Curry trespasses on Arthur O. Friel's territory in "Brain and Brawn" (Argosy, June 22, 1935), set in oil-rich Venezuela. You'd think the present Bolivarian regime were in charge back then, given the way the natives treat the two American heroes running an oil rig. A Venezuelan concern wants to drink their milkshake, so to speak, and their operative, the peon foreman Espinosa, tries to make life difficult for the intrepid gringos, apparently the only people around interested in working hard. They are a typical Mutt & Jeff team; Sanderson is the "peppery little driller," Morton the "mighty giant" who does the heavy lifting and keeps the peons in line when they get uppity. In other words, Sanderson is the "Brain," Morton the "Brawn" of the title. The twist in Curry's bromance is that as they fight their way out of camp and flee through the jungle, hoping to salvage their well before the local rivals move in, a role reversal takes place. Morton gets shot in the leg and goes virtually lame, making it necessary for Sanderson to become the brawn by bearing his weight through the jungle. And as fatigue gradually clouds Sanderson's mind, it's up to Morton to do the quick thinking that eventually saves both men. Calling this a "bromance" is neither an anachronism or a joke. Morton and Sanderson are very close friends, albeit certainly in a purely platonic manner, with Sanderson the dominant partner despite Morton's tremendous strength. The story reaches its emotional climax when Sanderson, captured by the "Venzies," is taken to identify Morton's grave, having told his captors that his friend, still free, had died on the trail. Sanderson assumes that he'll be killed whether Morton's death is verified or not. Recalling Morton's hiding place, he hopes the big guy was smart enough to find another (he was), but has his doubts.

Sanderson almost wept; they'd surely find his partner, for Morton could not have worked very far by himself, and would not have done so, since he would wait for Sanderson to come back to him. Eager for a last look at his friend, the driller pushed forward. He wanted to die beside Morton.

Make of that what you will. Action fans were less distrustful of strong emotions back then. "Brain and Brawn" isn't top-flight Curry but it holds your interest easily enough and it has arguable historic interest as a document of the seeming arrogance that many Venezuelans resent in Americans to the present day.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'No clothed man fled.'

By the late 1930s Short Stories had become Arthur O. Friel's main market in pulps. He wasn't particularly prolific at this time; "Closed Country" (November 25, 1937) was his third and last story published that year, after only one Friel story appeared in all of 1936. I don't know what might have been going on in Friel's life in those years, but "Closed Country" struck me as an unusually hateful story, more preoccupied with racial hierarchy, more contemptuous toward blacks (the N-word is employed) than in other stuff I've read from him. It starts with our unarmed hero, Donovan, bravely trying to face down a black man with a revolver in Friel's usual stomping ground of Venezuela. Donovan is rescued when a stranger intervenes to grapple with the black and snap his neck. "I just didn't like this black bum," the interloper explains, "And I don't like the general idea of a black knocking off a white." He identifies himself as O'Brien, a Swede from Boston. Donovan identifies him as a likely guide for an expedition up the dangerous Rio Caura to where our hero hopes to scout out a route for a future railroad. O'Brien gathers a crew of reliable, manly Venezuelans, little removed from savages themselves in Friel's portrayal yet possessed of skills, a sense of honor, and a strong consciousness of superiority to Indians and other darker peoples. It's pretty hard-boiled stuff until the story veers into slightly more fantastical territory. Donovan has really been hunting for Tom McFarland, the man who swindled his father and reportedly fled into the jungle. He finds this McFarland ruling over some sort of lost race of people who are dark but not quite colored.

For one thing, these Indians looked unusually intelligent; faces longer, brows higher, eyes deeper than those of most aborigines. Also, their dark color was unnatural -- a dull greenish black, blending so softly into the forest shade as to make them almost invisible at a little distance. Although totally nude save for tiny dark clouts, they were so completely dyed that their real color was discernible only when they lay down to drink. Then a beam of sunlight piercing through the forest struck to the base of their thick black hair, disclosing scalp-skin almost white.

McFarland has a theory -- it's hard to tell how seriously we're meant to take it -- that his people are descended from survivors of Atlantis. He compares them favorably to the darker "humanimals" of the region. But he's no racist, really. "I got along by treating niggers and Indians like human beings," he tells Donovan, "They all are. Real niggers and real Indians, I mean. Half-breeds - pfah!"  Damn.... mixed-race people must have had a hard time trying to read pulps, with so many stories telling them they're the bottom of the human barrel. In any event, the ambiguous superiority of these dark-white tribespeople intrigues Friel more than whatever revenge agenda Donovan had, which gets forgotten as he gets to know McFarland better and fights alongside him against an invasion by a "back-bush gang" of "misbegotten mongrels," led by "an apparent white man. Even here, Friel perceives a hierarchy of courage and discipline. When McFarland's men attack, the gang's Indian guides flee as fast as they can swim, while "No clothed man fled." Predictably enough, McFarland dies, as do Donovan and O'Brien's Venezuelan companions, but not before he points Donovan to a fortune that will settle the old man's debt to our hero's father. Friel excels at pitched battles like the one that climaxes this story, and if you can overlook a racism unusually ugly even for pulp fiction "Closed Country" shows that at a relatively late point in his career he could still deliver the blood and thunder. He seems to have had an idea of doing a series with Donovan and O'Brien, but it's unclear from the FictionMags Index whether they ever came back for an encore.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

'Only a man after my own heart could make a mongrel find champagne in this place.'

Horace "Bugs" Sinnat is an agent of the Indian Secret Service and a master of disguises. He is the protagonist of a series of stories by S. B. H. Hurst, which appeared in Adventure, Wide World Adventures and Oriental Stories from the mid-1920s into the early 1930s. "Bhamo" (Adventure, March 30, 1926) isn't the first Sinnat story I've read but it's the first to make any impression on me. Our hero is introduced pretending to be a "gone native" white in order to infiltrate a criminal enclave in Burma. He's on the trail of George Latimer Fritz Maurice, a.k.a. Menzies, an English renegade and "the greatest and most spectacular criminal ever known in India," now conspiring with native bandits to seize control of a territory on the Burma-India border that would make him a power broker. While Sinnat's act invites the contempt of natives and half-breeds, his impudent wit impresses the bandit leader Kwung Ksi, who takes Bugs for a former fighting man who could become one again if he lays off the booze. Kwung Ksi is an undisputed villain, but Bugs "rather like[s] the brute." He comes off slightly favorably compared with the more decadent Menzies and the more despicable half-breeds who haunt the territory. Hurst joins many pulp writers in contempt for mixed-race people, describing a "breed" tavern-keeper as an "animal" and a "disgusting caricature of humanity." Kwung Ksi at least has balls. "The native who kicked a white man was an unusual character," our narrator explains, "The coolies felt sufficiently self-exalted when they vocally abased the apparently degenerate and cast-off member of the stronger race."

Bugs has to employ psychology once Kwung Ksi and his partner Menzies grow suspicious of him. Kwung Ksi in particular is alarmed when he discovers, while frisking him, that Bugs is in very remarkable physical shape for a gone-native drunk. Now that he suspects that Bugs still is what he seemingly had been or could be again, Kwung Ksi instantly loses his enthusiasm for the reclamation project and urges Menzies to kill Sinnat. Menzies pretends not to share Kwung Ksi's doubts until he can interview Sinnat privately, thinking he can turn the presumed secret agent with promises of plunder and power. Bugs takes a big chance taunting Menzies for his pretense to aristocracy. When Menzies announces that he has royal blood, Bugs boasts mockingly, "So do I!" Finally, he convinces both men of his harmlessness by playing the alcoholic coward. Somehow, while suspecting that he's a British agent, they take his imposture seriously, leaving him so poorly guarded that he can sneak out of camp and contact the Imperial authorities. Hurst ends the story with the rout of Kwung Ksi's forces -- the bandit himself apparently goes down fighting, taking many enemies with him -- and Menzies' less courageous escape. Hurst clearly has plans for this character, as he leaves Bugs cursing the villain's escape and judging his mission a failure despite the rescue of gold and captive women. Whether he appears again is up to hardcore Hurst fans, if any live today, to tell us.