Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are.'


Arthur O. Friel's "The Hawk of Zaguamon" (Adventure, December 1936) reminded me of a later story of Friel's that I read earlier, in which his series hero Dugan, an American adventurer in South America, tentatively befriends a young aristocrat turned rebel. As usual, the setting in "Zaguamon" is Venezuela, specifically during the regime of President Juan Vicente Gomez, who died a year before Friel's story was published. The American hero this time, Rod Steele, is the sidekick/adviser of Ricardo Torre, the U.S.-educated hawk of the title ("El Halcon") and a rebel against one of Gomez's abusive and potentially rebellious governors. The Hawk's small army intervenes in a skirmish between the governor's forces and another rebel force whose leader ends up mortally wounded. The dying man entrusts his heir, a slender youth, to the American's stewardship, while his army readily joins forces with Torre's. This proves a decisive encounter in more ways than one. Torre and Steele discover that Governor Boves, their true enemy, has been importing Germany military advisers for some can't-be-good purpose. His now-augmented force inspires Torre to provoke Boves into a decisive battle. The two factions get along well enough, except that the Guerra forces are very protective toward Ricardo, their beardless new leader.Ricardo's father hadn't wanted them to join with any other rebel force because "He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are." This makes sense to Steele, since "the average gang of self-styled rebels in these wilds comprised human beasts of prey, vicious in every word and deed." But there's more to it than that, as Steele finds out after young Guerra has to kill a soldier who's less protective than possessive, telling the young commander, "No man -- have you!"

Steele's amazed eyes, lifting sooner than the furious gaze of the slayer, stared anew. The loose army-shirt was torn wide open; and, scratched by clawing nails now dead, out swelled firm young breasts never those of a boy. The gray eyes flashed up, met the wide brown ones. Quick hands yanked the shirt together. Burning red arose to the dark hair, gradually receded. Then, with a sigh, Carlota Guerra holstered her pistol and stood mute, head still high but gaze avoiding Steele's astonished regard.

I must confess that the twist took me by surprise, though in hindsight I should have been tipped off by "Carlos" deciding to wear an oversized uniform confiscated from one of the dead Germans. Certain things become inevitable from here, of course. Carlota convinces Stelle to let her continue her imposture, reminding him, "Have there not been fighting women before now?...Have I not fought for years like a man? Do not be stupid!" Friel makes a point, however, of having Carlota thrown from a horse and taken out of the action for the final battle against Boves, so she can live to become, at age seventeen, our American hero's bride. In Steele's defense, he offers to send her to a "high-class girls' school up North" first, but she's not having that. "I know men!" she protests, "Men that are men, not schoolboys! And damn, hell, if you not want me --" No, damn, hell, he does want her, and "right over yonder in Trinidad are English clergymen waiting for us." Such is romance south of the border, and it doesn't really feel out of place in this entertaining mini-epic of pulp South America.



Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'I'm so sober, I'm damn near ready to fight anybody for any reason.'

Robert Carse wasn't the most prolific of pulp writers, and that probably explains why his work was consistently above average. He published a grand total of thirteen stories in 1932, including a six-part Argosy serial, and that's not much considering that his stuff usually appeared in weeklies like Argosy or Detective Fiction Weekly or in twice-monthlies like Adventure and what for that year was known as The Popular Complete Stories. This was the merger of Street & Smith's two general-adventure pulps, The Popular Magazine and Complete Stories. The selling point, as you might guess, was that there were no serials, when Argosy, by comparison, ran four at a time, so you weren't going to be in the middle of something if you picked up a TPCS. Carse specialized in what could be called the French Colonial genre, encompassing both Foreign Legion adventures and Devil's Island-type tales of brutality and resistance. "The Web" (February 1, 1932) has a little bit of both. Its co-protagonist, James, is an American who was framed for murder and condemned to the typical hell on earth so a crooked French Guiana politician (a "half-breed," of course) could take over the oil fields James inherited from his father. We never actually see the prison, since the story opens with James a free man in France, but suddenly subject to blackmail. Somehow, someone has learned that he's an escapee and fugitive, and that someone is demanding a huge sum of francs for his silence. Somehow James catches the interest of Rand, an alcoholic American journalist who only sobers up on the promise of a big story. He sees one in James's plight and together they discover that the very people who smuggled him out of prison are blackmailing him and other escapees. Basically it becomes a gangster story in a French setting, with Rand swinging from man of action to staggering drunk until he finally recruits a gang of ex-Legionnaires in Marseilles to take on the blackmailers, who of course include James's old enemy, who supposedly had been lynched in his homeland years ago. Rand may be rather implausible as a hero, arguably a sort of defective-detective type, but Carse's semi-hard boiled style makes him palatable. This is a "complete novel" at 48 pages and it's actually novelistically paced in an almost-daring way as Carse opens with several pages of dialogue introducing his protagonists to each other. Perhaps the Street & Smith editors were more indulgent of this than others. Fortunately Carse is good enough with dialogue that the protracted opening holds your interest, and there's enough novelty to the setting and situation to make this a fairly entertaining little thriller from one of pulp's more dependable writers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

'This probably was the last time he'd pick up something Trump brought him.'

Arthur Hawthorne Carhart's "Give a Dog a Name" (Adventure, June 1943) is a cute mystery story in which a heroic dog discovers the crucial clue. Carhart, a western specialist, wrote something short and to the point. The hero, Lige, is reluctantly conscripted to hunt down a friend accused of murdering another man. The law has leverage over him because Lige is wanted in another territory. The authorities expect Lige's dog, himself a sort of outcast, to be able to sniff out the suspected man. The twist is that the dog leads Lige to the alleged victim, who had faked his death, making it look like his bloody body had been dragged to the rapids, in order to get away with robbery. The crucial clue is the victim/culprit's bloodstained shoe, which indicates that the shoe's owner had to have taken it off after he'd supposedly been killed. Good dog! The thing that makes this story worth a post to me, or at least worth some clickbait, is that the dog's named Trump. I could have used a lot of sentences to headline this post. For instance:

Trump was an ugly dog. Everyone thought so, except Lige.

Trump was about to be shot the day they met some years ago. The shepherd had seen Trump smelling a coyote-killed lamb. He believed Trump guilty.

Trump must have realized he'd been pulled out of a bad spot.

The citizens wouldn't care what became of Trump. He'd probably haunt back doors, scavenging food, until someone shot him or poisoned him and felt righteous doing it.

There was one way to do it. Kill Trump and then let Newt Slayne send a telegram to the law man up north.

Maybe if he could understand, Trump would rather have this happen than to have Syd caught.

"Me and Trump don't think Syd's guilty."

Trump came back when called but then struck out in that wrong direction again.

"I'll bet Trump's hungry, too. He's done a day's work."

[Or, if you really want to editorialize...]

"Don't try," said Lige, "From here on we both follow Trump."

This is all very sophomoric in what I hope is nonpartisan fashion, but I couldn't help myself. If anyone takes offense, I swear that if I find a jungle story featuring any sort of savage named Obama, I'll do the same thing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.'

The man known only as Dugan was Arthur O. Friel's last major series character. The intellectual property of his author rather than a publisher, Dugan appeared in both Adventure and Short Stories during 1938 and 1939, if not later. He was one of Friel's typical American adventurers in South America, if more of a tough-guy loner than his predecessors. "A Piece of Gold" (Adventure, January 1939) finds him a hungry wanderer in Venezuela until he discovers a party of men roasting beef. He joins in uninvited and gets into a fight, which of course he wins. The situation seems to be defused by the appearance of the men's leader, a young "high class" Spaniard who offers him more meat to travel on, but Dugan only makes matters worse by offering to pay for it. The youth takes that as an insult and throws the coin away. Dugan takes that as an insult and throws the meat away. Eventually the two will reconcile and join forces to recover a treasure located in a house that once belonged to the young man's prestigious family, now belonging to the new tyrannical governor, but this tense early encounter is the most dramatic moment of the story. It seems all the more dramatic now for the racial charge Friel infuses it with. His narrator -- the typical raconteur who claims to know Dugan but may be Dugan himself for all I know -- makes a point of emphasizing that the young man, Lorenzo, isn't the typical South American trash. "Not a thick Indian slur in his voice, not a word left out or misspoken; not the common lingo of the llanos," he says, "And his face was like his talk: sharp, clear-cut, with straight black brows and straightforward brown eyes and a firm nose and chin." And yet Lorenzo is an inferior, at least according to Dugan's own hierarchy of blood:

Well, that's the way Dugan's built. Sort of temperamental. Take him right, and he'll give you his shirt. Get him wrong, and that's different. And the Irish, if you don't happen to know it, have better reasons to get proud than anything that ever came out of Spain. A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.

The sentiment is deplorable in an objective way and yet almost admirable, on Friel's part, for a frankness in viewpoint that too often goes missing today. In any event, the story doesn't treat Lorenzo like an inferior; it only insists that on almost all points someone from down there is going to be outclassed by an American, and an Irish-American especially. That goes double for Pompeyo, the de facto head of the goon squad that's attached itself to Lorenzo, hoping to snatch the treasure for themselves. He's "A cheap plug-ugly who'd tried to be a prize fighter in Havana, probably, but hadn't made good. But, down here, good enough to beat up all comers, till an Irish-American came along. The story itself is a punchy, hard-boiled entertaining affair, and if anything the casual bigotry enhances the overall tone. In the end, by the way, Lorenzo offers Dugan a whole bag of gold, but our hero deems himself satisfied with a single coin and some food, accepting what the young man originally offered him. Money doesn't mean much if you're more interested in moving on than in settling down, and Dugan has more adventures waiting for him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Variations on the good German

Let that be a lesson to me. In my last point I commented dismissively on Popular Publications' war-air pulp Dare-Devil Aces  based on a reading of approximately half of the January 1937 issue. Each story of the three I'd read featured stereotypical German villains and one-note gimmickry, leading me to deride the whole magazine as juvenile stuff. Having now finished the issue, I don't really think it much less juvenile, but I have to acknowledge it to be less monotonous in its overall content. Three of the remaining stories feature "Good German" characters, of which there were at least two sorts in this sort of pulp.  In C. M. Miller's "Eye of Doom" and the pseudonymous William Hartley's "Gentlemen Eagles" we get what might be called the sportsman, a relatively good-natured character who doesn't use the dirty "cold meat" tactics of more villainous Germans. In the Miller story the German isn't even the primary antagonist, but gets caught in the middle of a feud between two American airmen dating back to when all three were soldiers of fortune, more or less, in Latin America, the two Americans being on opposite sides of a civil war that cost the German a land investment. The suspense is twofold: will one American take vengeance on the other for having him flogged back then, or will the German take vengeance should his old American friend rat out his comrade as the one who cost the Kraut his plantation land? In the end there's no revenge and the German, even when taken prisoner, is just too good-natured to hold the one American's revolutionary antics against him. In "Gentlemen Eagles" the German is a chivalrous sport who withdraws from a dogfight when he sees that his American foe's machine gun has failed. The chagrined Yank bets his buddies that he can defeat this same ace within a certain time, and is forced to pursue the German to near the Swiss border in order to pick a fresh fight.This story is ultimately comic, the only one in the issue in which it can be said that no one really wins, unless you want to count it a win for both pilots that they're forced to land in Switzerland and taken prisoner for the duration, thus assured of surviving the war. It does count as a win for the American to an extent, since the German good-sportingly agrees to sign a statement confirming that the Yank brought him down at such-and-such a time so he can win his bet.

On a more serious if not mawkish note, O. B. Meyers' "Aces and Death" gives us a conscientious German, one more honorable than his commanders. This story invites us to see the American and German protagonists as near-exact counterparts, down to their similarly alliterative names, David Decker and Dagmar (isn't that a woman's name?) Denkert. The latter is forced down while on a bombing run against an Allied hospital housing a large number of German P.O.Ws. Denkert is shocked to learn that, contrary to German propaganda claiming that the Allies paint red crosses on ammo dumps, his target really was a hospital. He's naive enough to convince Decker to let him fly back to the German side so he can convince his superiors to stop bombing red crosses. When Denkert is predictably rebuffed and prevented from fulfilling his promise to return to the Allied side, Decker decides that he's just another treacherous Hun and is hot to shoot down his distinctive plane with a Z on the wing. Even after Denkert helps him escape after he's brought down behind enemy lines, Decker freaks out when the Z-plane appears to pursue him. The final twist comes after the American shoots that plane down, when a German plane drops off a message -- an omnipresent plot device in these stories -- explaining that Denkert's asshole commandant had used his plane to chase the American. As opposed to the more humorous stories with sportsman Germans, this one closes on a relatively grim note as Denkert reminds Decker that they'll be enemies once more should they meet again before the war ends. I still can't say I'm much impressed with Dare-Devil Aces, but I have to give credit where it's due for greater variety of content than I first assumed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

'Damn you, Kraut, what kind of lousy trick is this?'

A few weeks ago I rewatched Wings, the original Best Picture Oscar winner from 1927. That World War I classic made me curious about the "war-air" pulps that flourished around the same time or shortly afterward. Conveniently, I had a chance to sample one such magazine. Dare-Devil Aces was an early Popular Publications title, launching in February 1932 and lasting through the end of World War II. I've been making my way through the January 1937 issue, and even though I'm only halfway through it I realize what a challenge it must have been to write for the war-air pulps. There doesn't seem to be a lot of stories one can write about the war in the air, compared to the comparatively infinite possibilities of the chaotic war on the ground. Nor could one take anything like a nuanced view of World War I, apparently, as the audience for Dare-Devil Aces, on the evidence of this issue, was a lot more juvenile than the audience for Wings or the later films of screenwriter John Monk Saunders. In the war of the Dare-Devil Aces the Germans are always vicious, arrogant and cowardly, preferring to attack only with superior numbers and, whenever possible, with secret weapons. To write for the magazine, your story had to have a gimmick. In the lead novelette, star writer Robert Sidney Bowen's "Black Vengeance," the Germans have gimmicked tracer bullets that release clouds of poisoned splinters that paralyze enemy pilots on contact. In Eliot Todd's "Dynamite Buzzard," the Huns have a prototype "range finder" that allows anti-aircraft guns to detect Allied planes through clouds and in complete darkness. Fortunately for the U.S. and their Entente pals, these prototype superweapons are always destroyed and, ideally, their inventors are killed before they can fully share their insights with the high command. Some stories have gimmicks that have nothing to do with special weapons. In Reg Dinsmore's "Hell's Hooligan," for instance, the gimmick is that our American pilot hero is such a ginger snap that both allies and enemies laugh at his appearance until his heroism shuts their mouths. It's not much of a gimmick, admittedly, but it wasn't much of a story, either. Dare-Devil Aces seems to have been monotonous stuff; the target reader must have had a mental button that really needed pushing to keep buying the pulp month after month. It's the first pulp I've read that really reminded me of reading a comic book -- of the Golden or Silver Age sort -- in its high-concept simplicity. My understanding was that in 1937 a more cynical attitude toward the Great War prevailed in pop culture, though that would change very shortly, but Dare-Devil Aces reads as if the war was still on -- or, depending on your perspective, as if the war had already re-started.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Your hoodlums split the scalp of a prettier girl than you to keep her quiet. Taught me how!'


Created in 1917 for Adventure by Gordon Young, Don Everhard is recognized by some as fiction's first hard-boiled detective. That recognition is based on substance rather than style. Everhard, aka Donald Richmond, an oil-rich gambler and sometimes troubleshooter, has a grim, somewhat cynical attitude, but Young as a writer, especially early on, lacks the terse, staccato manner of the more generally recognized hard-boiled pioneers writing for Black Mask. Over time, their influence sunk in, so that by 1936 Young could talk the talk as well as walk the walk. The title "Everhard" (Adventure, May 1936) suggests that his novelette was meant as a kind of "reboot" for the character, and not necessarily the first since he, or his editor, had already given a 1933 novelette the same name. There had only been one Everhard story in between, the 1936 "Everhard" being the first in more than two years. He'd been mostly writing sea stories and westerns in the interval and presumably refining his style. The 1936 story re-establishes the hero's household: his sister Helen; his servant Kang Ko, a disciplinarian of long standing; and his chauffeur Mike, a professional wrestler who himself can talk the talk, cutting a mean promo to distract people while his boss does some sneaking, as well as walk the walk by breaking a crook's neck. Everhard himself is drawn to the aid of casino operators threatened by the unexpected release from prison of "Killer" Lynn, who has vowed vengeance on both the casino owner and Everhard himself. It develops that the threat to the casino is meant to draw Everhard out so Lynn and his mysterious employer Rinsko can eliminate him. It then develops, in an entertaining extra complication, that Everhard is being used as bait to draw out Lynn and Rinsko by a G-Man and his fanatical girlfriend, who fools Everhard so completely that he suspects her of setting him up for the gangsters to kill. That element of fallibility, the extent to which his own wrath at the gangsters leads him to blunder severely, makes Everhard a much more interesting and (dare I say?) likeable character than he was in previous stories I tried to read. In short, the 1936 "Everhard" read like a very promising restart for the franchise, but Young apparently was running out of ideas for his detective. Don Everhard only made two more appearances, in the November 1937 Adventure and in his only foray outside his home pulp, in a 1939 issue of Short Stories.  His heart may not have been in the genre anymore; he may have preferred writing, and fans may have preferred reading the exploits of his cowboy hero Red Clark, which continued for much of the 1940s, until Young's death in 1948. If anyone has read anymore Everhards worth recommending, I'll be glad to hear about them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'It's a yellow way to get out of a hole, Gatlin -- abandoning a white man in this country."

A common theme makes Ralph R. Perry's "Congo Sun" and W. Townend's "Red" appropriate bookends for the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. Both stories quite consciously attack the anarchically egalitarian attitude that "no one's any better than I am." In the Townend story, as regular readers will recall, a merchant-marine communist discovers his own superiority to the trash of proletarian London and emerges as a leader of men. In Perry's a frustrated first mate struggles to break the resistance of a crew of trash against an erratic captain. There's really a threeway struggle among First Mate Tom Cole, the hero, Captain Gatlin, who careens between cowardly indulgence of a malcontent crew and irrational rage against them, and Seaman Sutson, self-appointed ringleader of a bad crew of deckhands. Cole understands that someone like Sutson has to be brought to heel as soon as possible, but Gatlin fears the harm to his record should violence have to be employed against the crew. Cole doesn't necessarily think violence is the only solution, but while force may not be the only thing Sutson understands, forcefulness in manner may be the only other thing. As the ship heads up the Congo to pick up loads of lumber the equatorial heat gets to everybody and Gatlin grows increasingly intolerant of Sutson's goldbricking ways while Cole worries that it's too late to tame Sutson without violence. A sunstruck Gatlin has an alternative, which is to abandon Sutson and his buddies in a jungle town where they've been drinking the latest advance on their salaries extorted from the captain. While Cole feels that Sutson deserves such a fate, it still seems wrong to him somehow, and when Gatlin finally collapses from exhaustion, our hero uses his temporary authority to finally force the issue with the defiant seaman.

This isn't the sort of adventure thriller that Perry would write later in his Bellow Bill Williams series for Argosy. Instead, it's a character study of the shifting moods of mate and captain amid gradually increasing suspense as Perry delays the inevitable hand-to-hand showdown between Cole and Sutson. When that finally comes, Perry makes the blowoff surprising brief but unsurprisingly brutal. It works somehow; Cole breaking Sutson's arm is more abruptly decisive than the pages of knock-down and drag-out another writer might attempt. Despite the title, Perry has little to say about Africa or Africans, apart from noting, despite his characters' free use of the n-word, that native krooboys are more dependable workers than white trash like Sutson. In "Congo Sun" and "Red," pulp fiction seems to be preparing readers not only to pass the expected tests of courage and responsibility, but to take authority over others and prove that not everyone is as good as they are. Another way of putting it is that pulp, at least as published by Adventure editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, favors meritocracy over egalitarianism, or prefers a meritocratic egalitarianism that rewards talent and character regardless of class (see "Red") over an egalitarianism that stubbornly rejects all meritocratic distinctions. To look at it yet another way, modern critics may focus on how pulp affirms racial hierarchies, but pulp stories often require stiff-necked whites to bow before heroic characters as well, sometimes after struggles nearly as difficult as any empire's civilizing mission.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"I'm a white man. I don't savvy no frog lingo."

One of my rules for reading pulp magazines is to skip serial chapters, if I'm not going to see the complete story, unless they're first or last chapters. I've made an exception for the third installment of Leonard H. Nason's five-part war serial "Chevrons," from the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. I had a feeling that I'd be no more lost reading a middle chapter than I would be at any other point in the story, because being lost is pretty much the point of the whole thing. Nason may be the most underrated major writer in the Adventure stable. If so, that's probably because he dealt with the comparatively mundane subject of World War I, with the major exception of his 18th century picaresque serial The Bold Dragoon from 1925. Inspired by his own wartime experiences, Nason is above all a chronicler of the chaos of war. His stories typically deal with protagonists who get separated from their units and careen their way through battles bouncing off fellow soldiers in similar straits. Within the confines of Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's editing, Nason developed a hard-boiled style parallel to the detective writers at Black Mask, giving his characters angry, slangy dialogue that suits the hot-blooded cynicism of his stories and the uneducated eloquence of many of his soldier characters. Nason's war, retold less than a decade after the fact, is thoroughly deromanticized, as are its soldiers. His stories are episodic, virtually plotless apart from a protagonist's struggle for survival, so that part three of Chevrons is almost as artistically complete as any of his standalone stories, even if it leaves his protagonist Sgt. Eadie still in the thick of the action. On its own, the third installment is a coherent, convincing worm's-eye view of the war.

Call it cynicism or realism, but Nason is unafraid to show the American soldier in his ignorance, his selfishness, his sometimes cowardice and his often courageous resourcefulness. In this installment, Eadie, his sidekick Jake (responsible for our headline quote when confronted with a cartridge of Fumee Jaune) and an aggressive captain encounter "a half dozen gallant defenders of democracy who had huddled into a shell-hole and, having allowed the [German] advance to pass them, now began to timidly make their way out with every intention of breaking for the rear and safety." These draftees "don't see what good we can do by staying here and getting killed" after losing their officers, but the captain tells them, "You can stop a bullet from killing a better man!...This isn't the Russian army. You're a bunch of yellow ----." One of the draftees offers a characteristic response: "I'm not afraid of getting killed, but I am not going to be butchered. I'm no sheep; I'm an American citizen," and gets knocked "into a whimpering heap" for his trouble before the captain is killed by a falling shell.

"Where'd it getcha?" asked Jake earnestly.
"Never mind," said Eadie, "he's dead. I know by the way he feels."
Two or three infantrymen came cautiously over and watched Eadie fold the captain's hands and put his helmet over his face.
"What did he want to stand up like that for?" muttered one of them, "Can you tie that?"
"He wanted to show us he was braver'n us," replied another. "I tell yuh this place is a poor one to be brave in."
***
The man who had been knocked down by the captain now came over to the group.
"What outfit do you men belong to?" he asked.
"We're artillerymen," said Eadie, "from the Third Division."
"Oh!" cried the other. "The ---- regular Army! They shove us in here to crack the hardest nut in the whole sector just because we're men that can earn our living on the outside. These are the guys that want to shove us up against some more machine guns"
Jake was about to reply, but Eadie waved his hand to him to be silent.
"We don't give a ---- whether you go or stay," said the sergeant, "There's a barrage of military police in back of you that a rat couldn't get through. And if they get their hooks on you you'll wish you'd been killed up here. This isn't my first scrap. I know what I'm talking about. I wasn't shoved into the Army with a bayonet, nor shoved on to the front lines with another one. If you were any kind of man I'd lick you for what you said about the regulars, but as it is I'll give you a good kick if you open your mouth again. If it hadn't been for us you'd be wading around the Atlantic Ocean now to save yourself from being a Boche prisoner."
"Huh!" grunted the other sarcastically.

After the draftees head for the rear, Eadie observes, "There's a hero for you. He'll go home and be president of the Society of Veterans of the American Excavationary Forces yet. He's just the kind of a bird to shine in public life." But Jake answers, "I don't know but what he's right. We won't do no good to get killed. This outfit has run itself down like a kettled steer." And they still have stubborn, stupid or insane officers yet to encounter in this installment. I can't help wondering how the passage above went over with editor Hoffman, an early promoter of veterans' organizations like the American Legion, but the fact that counts is that he gave Nason his start in fiction and made Adventure his home base  -- he also appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post -- as long as he published in pulp. I find these conflicts within the conflict fascinating, along with Nason's inventively episodic approach to the war in general. His stuff is a highlight of any issue it appears in.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Shame rode her this morning, and in Burt stirred a peculiar compassion for her shame."




When the Thrilling Group acquired Ranch Romances in 1950, it had been publishing an imitation title of its own, Thrilling Ranch Stories, since late 1933. Thrilling Ranch wasn't the phenomenon Ranch Romances was; while the latter continued to be published twice a month as late as 1958, the best Thrilling Ranch could manage was a monthly schedule from mid-1934 through early 1938. Most of the time it came out bimonthly, and after Ranch Romances made it superfluous it finished its run as a quarterly from the summer of 1950 through the fall of 1953. Needless to say, many of the same writers appeared in both titles, including rising star Lewis B. Patten, whose "Rustler's Run" was the lead novelette in the Spring 1953 Thrilling Ranch Stories. Judging by his story alone, Thrilling Ranch had much the same content as Ranch Romances, tougher tales than the "Romance" (or "Ranch") label might suggest but with more consideration of human emotion. If anything, "Rustler's Run" tips more heavily toward romance than a lot of the Ranch Romances stuff I've seen. The genre plot about rustlers and their hidden passage in the hills doesn't seem to interest Patten as much as the sad lives of his two protagonist families and their redemption through merger. Burt Norden is a young rancher whose father's murder has broken his mother's spirit. Stella Norden has become a drunk desperately seeking companionship from any man who ambles along, bringing a shame on her family that she feels acutely whenever she sobers up. Burt resents his circumstances but can't bring himself to hate or break ties with his mother, even though her downward spiral handicaps his own social life. He hopes to court Lucy Cross, daughter of a neighbor rancher who has his own cross to bear in the form of a slowly dying wife. Burt has a rival in the form of "blocky and savage" Mitch Riorson, a thug from a family of thugs who conveniently turn out to be the mystery rustlers. Patten intercuts from Burt's fights with the Riorsons to the final days of Mrs. Cross, who in her moribund saintliness urges husband John to hook up -- she phrases it more delicately, of course, -- with her old friend Stella Norden so he won't be lonely and Lucy will still have a mother. The fist and gunfights are rote stuff but Patten puts more effort into the deathbed scenes and the tense mornings in the Norden home, maybe because that's what Thrilling Ranch readers expected and possibly because those moments of bereavement and regret, cliche though they also may be, came closer to home for him. The story effectively ends once it becomes clear that Stella, now cleaned up for good, will marry John Cross. That makes it okay for John to take time on the day of his wife's funeral to rescue Burt from pursuing rustlers, and it allows Patten to end the story quite abruptly, mentioning the offstage capture of the Riorsons and Mitch's hanging in a final paragraph. Of course, that might have been editor Fanny Ellsworth's axe falling rather than Patten's own decision, but it still shows where readers' priorities were presumed to be.

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.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

'When the bird flies away -- when the monkey drinks.'


L. Patrick Greene returns to Africa with "The Impertinence of M'Hoy," (January 30, 1926), one of his weaker contributions to Adventure. The problem with this one, I think, is that Greene is trying to tell two stories at once: one about the attempted uprising of the titular Matabele chieftain, the other about the pig-headed naivete of Resident Native Commissioner Percival "Reverend Percy" Roe. The latter's offense seems to be that he doesn't understand that the only thing some Africans understand is force. He's not exactly an anti-imperialist; Roe never questions Britain's right to colonize Africa, and he rather enjoys the flattery he receives from wily rogues like M'Hoy. But he shares with today's stereotypical "bleeding heart" anti-imperialist a belief in the essential innocence of his "dear black brothers," and that puts him at odds with the real hero of the story, Trooper Beamish, whom Roe presumes to be a racist ("You are the sort of man who refers to natives as niggers and has nothing but contemptuous hate for our black fellow subjects") because he doesn't trust M'Hoy's intentions and conducted a forcible search of the chief's kraal. Beamish is not the sort of dirty-mouthed racist Roe imagines; he gets on quite well with his own well-disciplined black troops, who share his contempt for Roe, -- he halfheartedly reminds them that the RNC it "the voice of the Great Queen," and is told, "He is her voidance of wind, more like," -- and his hunch about M'Hoy is quite correct. The action of the story is his labored effort to make Roe see the light of M'Hoy's darkness. His plan requires his own men to swallow their pride and accept the insults of M'Hoy's people. They balk at the idea until he explains to his corporal, "Have you ever seen a bird play lame in order to lure a snake away from her nest? Have you never seen a crocodile float like a rotten log on the top of the water until a foolish monkey approached to drink?" It's a fairly common trope of imperialist pulp that natives can defer gratification once convinced that doing so is part of a game or contest, and so thinking Beamish's men are willing to go along with his scheme until the time "when the bird flies away -- when the monkey drinks." The payoff is underwhelming: Beamish finally goads M'Hoy into attacking him and his men at a time when Roe is visiting his camp and will see the Matabele's illegal weapons, at a time when M'Hoy knows that Roe is nearby. This seems stupid after we've seen M'Hoy boast to Beamish that he'd always be able to convince "the fat white man" of his innocence. In fact, M'Hoy has conveniently explained all of his plans to Beamish, assuming (as villains will) that our hero won't be able to do anything about it. But Beamish hardly has to do anything so long as M'Hoy acts so quickly, and on such feeble pretext, to undermine his own strategy. It hardly matters, since the only point of the story is to wise up some fool about native wickedness, yet the story ends on a cynical, pessimistic note. Beamish believes that "Roe has had a little sense knocked into him" by his experience, but Beamish's superior is doubtful. as Greene writes, "He knew the breed."

Monday, January 22, 2018

'The longing to go down and serve fought the timidness born of his exile.'

Warren P. Staniford was an advertising executive who one fine day decided that he wanted to write fiction. He published one story in the pulps, and "His Service" (Adventure, Jan. 30, 1926) is it. The idea of it seems basically to be what if the American sailor in Madame Butterfly actually stayed in Japan and married his Japanese lover? What we get is a rather pathetic portrait of a homesick American, McConnell, who teaches English (presumably) to Japanese kids. He goes a little crazy when an American ship arrives in port to take on fuel. The year is 1918 or 1919 and the ship is on its way to Vladivostok to take part in the Allied expedition against Bolshevik Russia -- a subject about which Staniford wrote a non-fiction piece for The American Legion Weekly. McConnell is desperate to be useful to fellow countrymen, to feel like an American again. He acts as a negotiator and fixer; among other things, he "settled an incipient riot in a movie house where Charlie Chaplin on the screen aroused a reckless homesickness that sought relief in destruction." He tries to be evenhanded, keeping Japanese sharpers from ripping off the Americans, but also keeping the sailors from bullying innocent Japanese. McConnell is possessed by "the spirit of adventure and service" and a yearning to belong in a way he never can, so he thinks, in Japan. He becomes a creep about it, passing his long-suffering Japanese wife off as a maid while hosting the ship's commander. Meek and obedient, Omume cooperates in the imposture, hiding her wedding ring, but not before the commander notices. He has more respect for her than her husband does, it seems. "Somehow I knew it was that," he muses, "Poor little kid, it's tough on you." Fortunately, McConnell's conscience keeps him from deserting Omume. "I thought you'd come through like that -- old boy," the commander compliments him, but McConnell is still "gripping the sides [of his chair] and holding himself down" as the ship departs, while Omume thinks of cherry blossoms and how "McConnell had told her many times that cherry flowers were the next-best treasure of Japan." It's an unsually bittersweet story for Adventure, appearing at a time when editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman was feeling sensitive about dismissive critiques of his magazine's content. Regrettably, Staniford didn't claim a spot at "Camp-Fire" to talk about himself or the story, and pulpdom never heard from him again.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

'The Peloroxo cursed softly after the manner of the gringos, yet with a note of extraorinary cheefulness in his voice.'

I think of Gordon MacCreagh as a writer of African stories on the strength of his Kingi Bwana series and the Ethiopian safari he conducted for Adventure. But "He Shall Have Who Best Can Keep" (January 10, 1926) finds MacCreagh close to Arthur O. Friel country, in Brazil, telling a story in Friel style, from the viewpoint of a native observer. Theophilo Da Costa, or "Theophilo of the upper rivers," is a legendary trader and fighting man, but the real protagonist of his story is his red-haired American protege, nicknamed "the Peloroxo"or "Fire-Head." Their adventure fighting river pirates to recover a valuable shipment of tagua (i.e. ivory-nut palm) is entertaining in its own right, but almost a Macguffin relative to the generational tale MacCreagh wants to tell about America. The adventure happens while Peloroxo's father, Mr. Featherstone, is visiting in hopes of bringing his son home to take his rightful place in the family business. The old man is a sort of Babbit in his businesslike conformity, and the real danger in the story is that he will condemn his son to a similar stunted existence. Theophilo, who has an appreciation of Americans' historical character, sees the son, under his tutelage, reverting to the true pioneer character of his people. The three-way conversations between father, son and Theophilo are the real meat of this novelette. Featherstone objects to Peloroxo's description of his former self as a "hick;" Theophilo realizes that the h-word "was the most mortal affront that could be applied to those central States," but Peloroxo sees it as a fair label, since "as I found to my cost when I began to meet the rest of the world, that my outlook was a bit, er -- provincial." Again, it's not his American-ness that made Peloroxo "provincial," but a certain bourgeois decadence embodied by his father.

His bold spirit had come to him from his father's father and from that father's father, who had been of those hardy pioneers who had built the foundations of that great America of the north. Just such men as we need here in Amazonas to develop the equally great possibilities of this country....It was clear that he was swayed between obedience to the call of his father or to the call of his grandfather. But for only a minute. His spirit clung true to the demand for freedom and action that was his heritage.

Improbably, Featherstone joins our heroes in their pursuit of the pirates, determined not to let his son out of his sight. He's appalled to learn how Peloroxo has adapted to native ways in the jungle. "I don't know that I like all this pandering to heathen priests," he protests, "and I'm sure that your Uncle Malachi and Aunt Sarah would not approve." The old man warms to the action, however. In the heat of combat he cries out, "Gimme a gun. By golly, somebody gimme a gun and show me how to shoot it." Later, he encourages his boy with strong language, or at least the hint of strong language that editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman allowed. "To the -- with the law," he says, "Go on and win your own fight, son." At the climax the student surpasses the master with his audacity and the peculiar martial arts of his people. "The art of striking with the fist as you gringos do does not come easily to us of the South," Theophilo confesses after describing his clumsy brawl with an enemy. In the end, Featherstone recognizes that his son, in a foreign land, has become more authentically American than he. "You have grown in this wide open unsettled country to be a man such as my father was when he took the trail out to our wide open unsettled plains." He also recognizes that this disqualifies Peloroxo from any position in the family firm; "I am afraid that you would be a most disturbing element in our settled ways of business." Worse, from the son's standpoint, "I'd die in the family factory." Everybody wins, however, since Featherstone goes home to put the family firm in the tagua business, with Peloroxo and Theophilo as his regular suppliers. While Theophilo is too obviously a mouthpiece for the author, he's still an entertaining personality in his own right, and the story has that something extra to it that may enhance both its entertainment and educational value over time.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

'It is the law if a man is in your way, kill him.'

Tom Gill didn't spend much time in the pulps. A forester by profession, he became a star western writer for the slicks in the 1930s, appearing mainly in the monthlies, Cosmopolitan and The American Magazine. "The Game" (January 10, 1926) was the second and last of his stories to appear in Adventure, the first being his debut story in 1923. It's a romantic tale of the rivalry of an American soldier and a Mexican rancher for the beautiful Senorita Isabella. The tale is told by the American's former servant, Pedro, but in oldschool style Pedro himself is introduced briefly by a present-day American to whom he tells the story. Pedro is a typical pulp subaltern: noble in his own fashion, faithful to his master, but uncomprehending of the finer points of honor. As it becomes apparent that Don Carlos Brevedo will not surrender his claim on Isabella, despite her clear preference for the American, the unnamed lieutenant anticipates a duel, while Pedro wonders why he doesn't just have Brevedo murdered. Pedro isn't just being practical; he's also looking out for his lieutenant's long-term interests. He understands that if Brevedo succeeds in provoking the American into a duel, that will get the lieutenant discharged and sent home. It will be the same even if the American manages to win without killing Brevedo. Warned of this, the lieutenant says, "I know, Pedro, but there are worse things than a dishonorable discharge. To be struck in the face with a sombrero is one of them." Throughout the buildup to the duel, Pedro expects Brevedo and his second, Isabella's father, to cheat, so he can shoot them. But Brevedo has "the heart of a brave man" and takes a non-fatal bullet without flinching. From there things happen as Pedro feared, but he apparently didn't anticipate the lieutenant eloping with Isabella. Much less did he expect Brevedo to intervene with a friendly warning so the elopers can avoid an ambush set up by the angry father. Again, Pedro is ready to shoot Brevedo on the least pretext, but the spurned suitor's only concern is that "no sorrow must come to the Senorita Isabella." It's all most likely too good to be true, but it's a fascinating little story for the way it posits a distinction between the primitive honor of Pedro -- for I doubt we're meant to see him as other than honorable -- and the romantic honor of the American lieutenant and his antagonist. It's a distinction that may not have existed in the real world, but it's one the pulp imagination believed did or should exist.

Friday, January 12, 2018

'Johnny Paseo made no noble move to meet the man with fists.'

Sometimes one good idea can turn an ordinary pulp plot into a good story. Thomas Thompson had such a good idea in "A Good Range to Die For!" (Big-Book Western Magazine, June 1947). The idea was that his hero, the drifter Johnny Paseo, doesn't really know how to fight without guns. That means there'd be no blarney in this novelette about fist-fighting being a noble or uniquely honorable or culturally distinctive mode of combat. In fact, it's the villain, or actually the subordinate villain, who has a natural mastery of unarmed combat. For Thompson, at least in this story, that helps mark Smiley Rowe as a sadist; he enjoys hurting people with his hands. For Johnny Paseo, fighting is a more practical business.

Experience had taught Johnny Paseo that when he had the upper hand he should keep it. He had never been a man to fight with fists, anyway. If a man was his friend there would never be need of fists. If a man was his enemy it would take more than fists to settle the score.

Johnny's pragmatism helps him resist Smiley's taunting temptation to fight like men in their first encounter. Later, when Johnny doesn't have a gun or the upper hand, Smiley beats the stuffing out of him. They're enemies because Johnny has befriended Old Gramp Britton and his granddaughter Mary Lou, among the last small landholders holding out against Smiley's master, Cleg Partridge. Luke Britton, Gramp's son and Mary Lou's dad, had been sheriff in these parts, but had fallen off a cliff to his death, leaving the field wide open for Partridge and Rowe and leaving Mary Lou hostile to the idea of gunplay. Gramp believes that his son had been pushed, and probably beaten first, and while taking a beating from Smiley Johnny Paseo deduces that the big man must have been the one to kill the sheriff.

The story heads inevitably into Ranch Romances territory as Johnny and Mary Lou fall for each other, handicapped by Johnny's rep as a gunman, but before this Thompson has already established his credentials as a superior pulp writer. He'd broken into pulp briefly in 1936 in Popular Publications' own western romance title, but only started publishing in earnest during World War II. After the war he really poured it on. "A Good Range" is one of three stories he published in Popular western titles in June 1947 and 27 he published in the year as a whole. If "Good Range" is representative of the year's output, Thompson was maintaining a high level of quality; he has a better grip on character and his style is simply better than anyone else in this issue. It reads more like a genuinely original work of imagination than a recital of formulae. The ending is predictably happy: Johnny forces Smiley into a fast-draw gunfight and wins, while Mary Lou overcomes her revulsion towards guns to save Johnny's life by blasting another of his enemies "She had done that for him, done it with a gun," he exults, "She was a girl for a fighting man!" But there's really no good reason for this story to end any differently, and Thompson writes well enough that you can indulge him and his happy ending.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

'I'm a stray stallion in another's stud pasture.'


Were pulp readers more likely to be rejected suitors? Did pulp fiction cater to their fantasies of revenge on romantic rivals? Stories like Ed Earl Repp's "The Law Stops at Cactus City!" (Big-Book Western Magazine, June 1947) make me wonder. Repp started out as a science fiction specialist in the late 1920s, but by World War II he was writing westerns almost exclusively. "Cactus City" was one of only five stories he published in 1947; three of them were for Big-Book, one of Popular Publications' many western monthlies. The setup is simple: some time ago, Johnny Neill had been prematurely accused of murder -- the man he shot recovered -- and was run out of Cactus City. He returns bitterly after four years to entertain an offer from gambler Oliver Garand to help him take over the town. Garand wants Neill to kill the new sheriff, Vern Tyson, who's ordered him to shut down his crooked layouts and stop rolling drunks. The gambler assumes that Neill will be motivated by the fact that Tyson has married Johnny's old girlfriend, Dorothy Miller. Tyson is a model of an unworthy husband and lawman.

Vern Tyson, second-rate lawyer, had always fancied himself another Abe Lincoln, and Johnny had to admit that the man's emulation of the late president was complete, down to trimmed beard and soft, flat button shoes.

Tyson lacks Lincoln's fighting prowess, however. More importantly, he lacks "sand," that intangible quality that allows an outnumbered man to enforce law and impose order through force of personality. He wavers from neglect of crime to excessive enforcement, never knowing when to let things slide, ultimately preferring to depend on overwhelming force. His idea of cleaning up Cactus City involves calling in a detachment of Texas Rangers, not realizing that doing so "would make him the laughing stock of town, a political buffoon destined to failure in anything he later attempted." Recognizing Tyson's inadequacy, Dorothy's father, who had helped run Neill out of town, now urges Johnny to stay on as marshal. He's reluctant at first, but seeing the miserable life Dorothy leads as Mrs. Tyson -- she lives in the jailhouse -- and learning that Garand has designs on her himself, Johnny decides to wear the marshal's star, putting him on a collision course with both Garand and Tyson. Poor Tyson has the deck stacked against him by a higher power; his death is a foregone conclusion, as is Dorothy's reunion with Johnny after the requisite kidnappings and gunplay. Tyson at least dies honorably, albeit foolishly, charging into a fusillade in a brainless attempt to rescue Dorothy from Garand's clutches, while Johnny prevails with stealth and a sure gun hand. Still, he exists only to be dispensed with, and that makes the whole story seem more contrived than normal. It wouldn't bother regular readers, I suppose, if that's what they wanted to see. Did they want to see it that badly? The number of times such a story was told in pulp westerns might answer the question one way or another.

Monday, January 8, 2018

'He talks of the tickle! By the blimey, I do not play with you.'

J. D. Newsom was one of pulpdom's leading writers of Foreign Legion stories, along with Georges Surdez and Robert Carse, but he had probably the least reverent attitude toward the Legion (if not colonialism in general) of the three. It's certainly hard to imagine Surdez writing anything like "Mumps" (Adventure, Jan. 10, 1926), a pure burlesque so indifferent to the usual Legion tropes that a battle with Arab raiders is mentioned only in passing, as a minor point in a letter written home to his girl by Withers, a Cockney legionnaire tasked with being an orderly and English teacher for the abusive martinet Captain Trudaine in Algeria. It's pure vaudeville when the suspicious Trudaine performs a body-search on the ticklish Withers. The Cockney's only friend, or at least the only fellow-English speaker, is the American goldbricker Curialo, who's always happy to share Withers' hard-earned three-sou bottle of red wine. Learning from Withers that Trudaine has come down with the mumps ("Imbecile, do you not perceive that I am in the grip of a grave malady? My head boils!"), Curialo convinces him to steal the captain's uniform as part of an elaborate practical joke to ruin the Captain's reputation. The American's plan is to put the uniform on Krause, a crazy German ("You know 'ow he goes about saluting lamp-posts and such-like"), get him drunk on bapeli, a native alcohol, and send him to a swanky party to make a fool of himself.

"Bapeli is a firey, vile decoction, specially distilled to appeal to the native palate, which is non-corrosive and heat-proof," Newsom explains, "Its effect on the white man's brain is immediate and lethal." After two rounds, Krause's eyes "glittered more coldly than ever." Bapeli's effect on the already-addled German is to convince him that he really is Trudaine, and that he should close the shanty saloon he's been drinking in. Krause/Trudaine is now determined to denounce the husband of Madame Chaillot, the hostess of the party, for selling the Legion tainted meat. Curialo finally has to KO Krause for the second time that night before he continues his rampage in the native village, where "I will listen to the flute and the tomtom and watch the wriggle-wriggle dance." However implausibly, his imposture has the desired effect. The real Trudaine is sacked, though not before he clobbers poor Withers once more.

"Mumps" reads like the work of a writer temporarily impatient with his chosen genre, though Newsom would write fine Legion tales to the end of his pulp career and his appointment to direct the Federal Writers' Project. A lot of it is silly accents, both Trudaine's Franglish and Withers' Cockney, but unlike some pulp writers Newsom is trying to be funny here and more or less succeeds by piling absurdity on absurdity. It's an oddly structured story, setting up Withers as the protagonist but putting Curialo in charge of Krause for the climactic comedy, but the story's just amusing enough for me to forgive that slight awkwardness.