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.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

'Let him die white, Steve.'

It's no reflection on legendary editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman for me to say that the last thing I expected to see in the pages of Adventure in the 1920s was a thriller on the subject of racial injustice in the American South. Yet Hoffman clearly had a fondness for author Fiswoode Tarleton, who first appeared in Adventure in November 1925 and published fifteen stories there, including several after the editor's 1927 departure. Other than Adventure Tarleton appeared mostly in more literary magazines, though he did also make one appearance in Weird Tales. There's nothing fantastic about his second Adventure story, "Color " (January 10, 1926). It's the story of the day the circus came to the town of Leeston, attracting the curious of all races and social classes. Tarleton carefully observes the ways different groups approach the town, especially the mountain folk who come in very tentatively, instinctively congregating in groups of their own kind, even though individuals may be strangers to each other. Every group occupies a specific piece of space to watch the circus spieler make his spiel, except for an interloper who dangerously crosses many lines. He's a stranger to everyone, standing apart from all groups and thus drawing all eyes to him.

A big mulatto man steps out from the swaying blacks. He folds his arms and throws his head back, stands by himself, a statue cut in yellow stone. On his bare arm and neck mounts and ridges of muscle, salient in thelight of the gasoline torches.

The stranger attracts the special attention of Leeston's two law enforcement officers. Sheriff Floyd Jett is the more sympathetic of the two, the least eager for confrontations, the most ready to let everyone have a good time. Marshall Steve Dodie, on the other hand, has hate in his eyes, "the same blind hate that has driven all the blacks out of Leeston, driven them to the railroad head and to the hills." Dodie is outraged when the mulatto is the first man to ring the bell with the hammer in the traditional carny test of strength game, while Jett is reminded of the Discus Thrower of classical sculpture. John Henry-like, the mulatto rings the bell repeatedly, finally doing it one-handed instead of with both hands. All the while, he's been exchanging dangerous glances with a white circus performer, "the woman in flesh-colored tights." Everyone knows that the man spells trouble. The blacks, fearing the whites' resentment at being shown up by the strongman, are as eager to keep their distance from the mulatto as he is to stand apart. Dodie is enraged when Jett lets the mulatto buy his ticket for the circus, but the sheriff himself realizes that the mulatto is almost thoughtlessly asking for trouble. He sits apart in the colored section, worryingly close to the white section. Tarleton tersely defines the tension in thriller-friendly present-tense prose.

Sheriff Jett sits down on the first tier of board seats where the seats begin to curve around at the end of the tent. The sheriff is sitting at the edge of the white folks; the mulatto at the edge of the blacks. Fifteen feet of bare board seats are between them. Fifteen feet of no man's land.

Tarleton expertly uses that distance to ratchet the tension one foot at a time as the mulatto shifts himself closer to the white section while Jett judges when to intercept him, while Dobie watches grimly from the first row. The mulatto's gaze shifts from the woman in flesh-colored tights to his own forearm as he compulsively picks at his "yellow" skin. Once he gets a "familiar" look in his eyes the sheriff knows he has to take action, but the marshal acts first.

*   *   *

Hoffman has nothing to say about Tarleton or his story in this issue's "Camp-Fire" section, but the editor does go off on a rhetorical flight against critics who dismiss Adventure for its "melodramatic" content, its "pages kept clean of sex," or the cheap paper it's printed on. He boasts that since the world war "there has been a very pronounced turning to our magazine because it tries hard to keep clean from sex, loose ethics generally, effeminacy and decadence." The interesting thing about his tirade is that, despite whatever reputation for reactionary conservatism pulp might have, Hoffman's strictures leave room for a story like "Color." He may have had that specific story in mind when he asks "How many of them, in a magazine of highly calendered paper, would still seem melodramatic" to critics. The editor concludes that the pulp format "admits to our blaze only those who form their own judgments and form them from facts, not opinions or theories." Posterity's judgment may yet prove more favorable to Adventure than even Hoffman could imagine.