Tuesday, October 17, 2017

High Noon in Furnace City

For a change of pace, I'm not going to summarize or criticize some pulp story in this space. Instead, for the heck of it, I'm going to share with you a complete short story from the June 1955 issue of Western Short Stories, with the emphasis on short. The FictionMags Index describes Dick Baird's "High Noon in Furnace City" as a vignette; in a slick magazine it'd be called a "short short story." The Index offers no description at all for Baird, under whose name -- most likely a pseudonym -- appeared just two stories, both for Martin Goodman's Stadium outfit in 1955. It's reminiscent in length and format of the sort of two-page pieces that would have appeared in Goodman's Atlas comics in this period. The story is a simple set-up for a twist ending, but you may end up wondering whether what happens at high noon in Furnace City actually makes sense. Judge for yourselves, for here it is, straight from the twilight days of western pulp.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Look at their skins and ye can see who their father is.'

The four-page short story "Oysthers!" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) makes a better case for Gordon Young as a pioneer of the hard-boiled style, or at least the hard-boiled manner, than any of his longer works that I've read to date. It's an absolutely amoral tale told by a deliberately unreliable narrator, Patrick O'Flynn Delaney -- a sailor with "a brogue that was as thick as the San Francisco fog." In oldschool style Young introduces us to Delaney through the eyes of another first-person narrator, who meets the sailor in an oyster house where Delaney has spent his last dime on a bowl of soup. Once, however, "t'was less than six month ago that Oi was one of the richest men in the whole South Seas -- f'r ten minutes, but no longer." The rest of the story relates the rise and fall of Delaney and his fellow castaway on the isle of Rigoro, Buck O'Malley. Buck has "a way wid womin," having stolen a Dutch trader's "naygur wife" along with his schooner before picking up another woman on the island. Delaney practices abstinence, since "naygur womin [are] too [expletive deleted by editor A. S. Hoffman] handy wid knives an' ugly in other ways," but O'Malley enjoys having the women vie to service him in every way imaginable. To make a short story shorter, One of the women finds an oyster with a pearl inside "wid the shape of a hen's egg an' as big." The end of paradise follows quickly as Kate, the Dutchman's wife, ends an argument with her rival, Betsy, by burying a knife in Betsy's breast. "That for you, pig-woman," she says in farewell. O'Malley approves and has Betsy thrown to the sharks. "It was Kate that I love best anyhow," he remarks. He loves her too well and not enough, however, entrusting her to hold the great pearl while he does the dirty work of dumping Betsy overboard, only to have Kate pull a knife on him. She's worried that he'll find a way home to cash in the pearl, abandoning her. Extracting his promise to stay with her on Rigoro, she throws the pearl into the sea.

O'Malley he stood there gaspin' for air; then wid a yell he jumps, an' the fist of him took her in the jaw an' she fell over the skylight and her laigs quivered like a frog's that's dying. 
'Ye black dirt, into the water wid yez an' find that pearl -- Oi'll kill ye! Don't ye come up widout it!'

Finally Delaney intervenes to save Kate, only to get stabbed by her while he fights his former friend. Both white men go over the side, but our raconteur makes it back on board while the sharks -- or "maybe as Oi sometimes think, 't was the black Betsy girl" -- pull O'Malley under. There's nothing left for Delaney but to take Kate back to her trader and then make his furtive way back to America, where "Some day we'll have a real dinner, wid radishes an' beer, an then Oi'll tell ye a story worth two of this an' ivery bit as true!" Even with the brogue, I wouldn't mind hearing another one from Delaney, as long as he keeps it just as short.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

'Mohammedans interest me. Supermen of the East. Excitable, you know; rather fanatical.'

During the 1910s, Presbyterian minister George McPherson Hunter was secretary of the American Seamans' Friends Society and editor of its magazine, The Sailors' Magazine. He started writing fiction for the pulps in 1919, in his fifties, and made it into Adventure only once. "Seven Rugs and Seven Men" (September 30, 1923) resumes the adventures of McGregor Sahib, a character Hunter created for The Green Book. Here, McGregor is ship's doctor for the City of Manila, currently docked in New York. The author's knowledge of the sailor community in the metropolis adds some color here as the ship has to recruit not merely new crewmen but new lascars, Asiatic seamen, from "Brooklyn's Asiatic boardinghouses." McGregor, "steeped in Indian ways," sees that the wrong men may have been hired.

The stokers were Sunnites, Arabic Mohammedans, owing allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey. And the men brought aboard were Shiites, Indian Mohammedans. The Arabic crowd, fanatical and clannish, wanted their own kind.

Sunnis and Shiites at odds? That sounds right, even if they're not as neatly divided geographically as Hunter seems to think. Still, McGregor is a veritable scholar of Islam compared to Chief Engineer Miller, who's astonished to find that the Muslims own prayer rugs. "Ain't they heathens?" he asks. Told about Muslims' five daily prayers, he remarks, "If them poor black guys can't pray without rugs below their knee-bones it's not me that'll be hindering them."

The City of Manila sets sail at a moment of international tension caused by resurgent Islam. "Turkey's defeat and humiliation [in World War I] had shaken the Moslem world and stirred the leaders of the faithful into action. her sudden rally and stab back at Greece [in 1921] had given courage and hope to the Moslem hierarchy. Followers of Mohammed were being urged to preserve the faith of the Green Banner." Little do those followers know that Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal, will shortly stab them in the back by abolishing the Caliphate and embarking on a radical program of secularization and westernization, but where's the fun in that for a pulp writer? In any event, the British navy and British intelligence are ordered to keep an eye out for Muslims using the sea lanes to spread seditious literature. The stakes are high, since "They man the merchant ships of the East. A holy war could be waged on sea and land." So says Ames, a scholar of Islam whose movements begin to arouse suspicion. Personally, I began to suspect that Ames was some sort of Bolshevist, but that idea went overboard when Ames is found dying, apparently captured and tortured by some of the lascars. He turns out to have been an intelligence officer like McGregor, who breaks the case with one of those weird tests that "appeal to the pageant sense of the Oriental" and the pulp writer.

In this trick, McGregor gathers the lascars together and sets them to the task of licking envelopes. The ones who fail are guilty of killing Ames and concealing the jihadist literature inside their carpets. "The strain of smothering all [their] fears was considerable and affected them physically, parched their tongues, dried up the saliva in their mouths," McGregor explains, "They hadn't enough moisture to wet the mucilage on the stamps. They betrayed themselves!" I might have expected editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman to ask the author, "Was it the stamps or the envelopes they were supposed to lick?" but perhaps the great man had made up his mind to indulge Hunter by publishing his tale before reaching the end. Hunter missed his one-and-only chance to contribute to "The Camp-Fire," and quit pulp for several years to edit the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Banner before placing a run of stories in the Clayton magazines. His last pulp fiction appeared in Short Stories in 1938. He retired from the ministry at age 90 and died three years later, in 1961. If only today's seditious plots could be discovered as easily as Hunter imagined.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

'Then and there a savagery crept into his puppy-like nature.'

Francis Beverly Kelley was too busy in his full-time career as a publicist for the Ringling Bros. circus to be a prolific contributor to pulp magazines. His pulp career consists of two short stories and two nonfiction pieces published in Adventure between August 1931 and May 1933. "Black Prince" (April 15, 1932), the first of the stories, recounts the tragic career of a trained lion driven by very human emotions. The only survivor of a litter, the instantly orphaned cub is raised by lion tamer Lucky Davis of Keller's Kolossal Circus, who makes a she-goat the baby's wet nurse. The unlikely bond between the two animals persists after Black Prince is weaned, but is abruptly broken when some fool puts the goat in the wrong lion's cage. Black Prince watches a lioness kill his surrogate mother and goes mad with grief. Worse, he nurses a grudge until the opportunity comes to exact revenge on the lioness. His rage spent, the lion once more becomes a tractable animal, despite his inaccurate new reputation as a "man-killer." Kelley describes the training process for various lion acts in presumably authentic detail that makes his story worth reading, but then comes the next crisis for our poor lion. He grows jealous and irritable as Lucky starts training Sheba, a Bengal tigress who "showed rare promise as an actress." Re-reading the sentence, "How should Davis know that he fairly reeked of the hated tigress whom he had been petting previous to his visits to Black Prince's cage?" it occurred to me that, in Twenties slang, Kelley could just as well have been describing Lucky's makeout session with the circus vamp. For that matter, "Sheba" was the female counterpart of a "Sheik" in those roaring days. Ironically, the humbled Black Prince, relegated to an exhibition cage after a dangerous tantrum, ends up rescuing Lucky when the tigress freaks out after a botched spot in her act and the tamer actually calls for his old pet's help. Black Prince may have a "limited brain," but though outmatched by the tigress as a fighter, he knows he can distract her long enough for Lucky to make his escape. Making his own, he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the streets of Ridge City, where he is slowly slaughtered by a posse panicked by the prospect of a "man-killer" in their midst. Every year afterward, Kelley closes, Lucky makes a memorial pilgrimage to the hill in the city where Black Prince is buried. The final scene shows the aging lion tamer at his old friend's grave as the circus band plays "Auld Lang Syne" in the distance. It all reads sort of like a Tod Browning circus movie, though I'm not sure whether Lon Chaney would play the tamer or the lion.

Interestingly, in this issue's "Camp-Fire" section, where he makes his customary but belated introduction of himself to readers, Kelley confides that the cat-tamer he idolized as a youth was a woman, Mabel Stark, who in her day was just about the most famous female circus performer. I suppose, however, that his odd little story of animal jealousy would be odder still with a woman protagonist. Writing of the real life behind his story, he observes that "In the fascinating school of the steel arenas [the big cats] parallel a classroom where both intelligent pupils and those of retarded mental growth are found. There are model students and there are morons in the big training cages." He also defends circus people against a "rough and uncultured" stereotype. "With its citizenry of many nationalities and numerous religions, the circus is a great place to learn tolerance," Kelley notes, "All of which probably can be summed up like this: 'Never turn up your nose at anyone; remember the law of gravity.'"

Monday, October 2, 2017

'Outside were the squaws and papooses, hoping that the thief would be tortured and that they might have a hand in it.'

Many pulp stories focus on some test of courage. The protagonist is often misperceived as a coward, but for some reason or other he's shunned by his community or loved ones and must find some way to prove his true virtue to them. Frank C. Robertson's "The Regeneration of Pesokie" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) is such a story, with the twist of a grim coda in the Jack London style. The title character is the black sheep of a Shoshone tribe known as the Rootdiggers, recently returned to his people after five years following white trappers. "Among them he had learned many things that were not good," the narrator notes, until the whites finally drummed Pesokie out of their camp. In short, Pesokie makes no more favorable impression on his own people. Caught stealing food at a time of desperate need, he faces a terrible fate. "The man who would betray his own people to their death that his own belly may be full must die," says Pesokie's own brother. The rest of the tribe, in the manner of pulp aborigines everywhere, want Pesokie to die by torture, while the brother, Sonnup, would prefer the mercy of a quick end. It's his right, as the man who caught Pesokie, to recommend the manner of his death, so Sonnup convinces the tribe that leaving him naked in the snowy wilderness without food or weapons is a better torture than the fiery fate they were hoping for.

The circle visibly hesitated. Nothing was so dear to them at the moment as prolonged torture of the craven who feared not only death but hardship. Yet they could see a sardonic justice in the proposed punishment. They could imagine all sorts of suffering which the fugitive would have to undergo -- intensified a hundred times by his abject fear -- and it would be lengthened to an indefinite extent, since they could imagine him wandering for days amid the grim horrors of starvation and cold.

Sonnup gets his way, and also gets to sneak Pesokie a fur robe, a hunting knife and the tribe's remaining dogs. He reminds his brother that "You should die -- thief -- coward," but tells him to try for the nearby Bannack village, since "Even a Bannack will feed a starving stranger." This is the part, you might expect, where Pesokie redeems himself, either intentionally or inadvertently depending on the tone of the story, and regains the tribe's good graces. It doesn't quite turn out that way. No one in the tribe's going to miss those dogs Sonnup stole because they're not really domesticated. "Any time an Indian wished to lose a finger or two he had only to attempt to pet his dog," Robertson writes. After Pesokie had stolen their stores, the rest of the warriors had to kill most of the dogs to sustain themselves on their lengthy trek. Now Pesokie sees the remaining dogs as potential prey or potential predators. Numbers are on the dogs' side, and a still-starving Pesokie finds himself surrounded.

Almost by accident the old coward kills the first dog to attack, and as the others move in "A wild exhilaration flowed over Pesokie! He had ceased to fear! He was fighting at last -- the thing he had avoided all his craven life -- and to his intense wonder he found joy in it, and an overwhelming satisfaction. His weak medicine had suddenly become strong." Our hero has learned that "anticipation of suffering was much worse than the reality" -- but he has to die doing it. The story closes with a close-up of Pesokie's corpse, "On his face the peaceful look of a brave man." This is impressively grim stuff from an author still early in his career. Robertson had published his first story in 1920, his first in Adventure in 1922. He'd place six stories there in 1923 before moving on to become a mainstay of Short Stories, Ace High and West for the rest of the decade and into the 1930s. Robertson kept at it practically to the end of the pulp era, placing his last story in a 1957 Ranch Romances as one of the grand old men of the western genre.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'From first to last, I punished Laurens justly.'

Many of Georges Surdez's Foreign Legion stories strike me as having split personalities. At heart, many of them are essentially character studies. But knowing his pulp audience, Surdez always finds a way to resolve his character conflicts through combat situations. "Clay in Khaki" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a good example of this. The first half of it hardly has action in it, describing the fatal incompatibility of Verlinden, a veteran German sergeant, and Laurens, a popular recruit from a higher class background than was typical for Legionnaires. The story's told largely from the point of view of their new commander, Lieutenant Chamber, who sees Laurens as a decent kid unjustly goaded into desertion, and eventual death, by Verlinden. His attitude toward Verlinden is mild, however, compared to that of Laurens' buddies, who are ready to tear the sergeant apart when Laurens' body is returned to base. Still, Surdez lets Verlinden tell his side of the matter. The veteran found Laurens conceited; the younger man "thought himself my superior" and openly made fun of the sergeant, undermining his authority. That might just be an authoritarian talking, but this is the Foreign Legion, where discipline is everything. Seeing Verlinden's point, but also seeing that his position under his command is no longer tenable, Chamber arranges for his transfer to Indo-China, accepting the sergeant's suggestion that he, Verlinden, apply for the transfer himself in order to save face. But before the transfer can be finalized, Chamber's unit must go out in pursuit of a strong force of bandits. In the middle of battle mutiny breaks out as men refuse to take orders from Verlinden, and Chamber finally has to disarm him in order to have any hope of rallying his men. Then comes the ironic twist. Mocked by the men and believing his career ruined, Verlinden decides to commit suicide-by-Berber, charging the enemy position armed only with his automatic pistol.

He was a true Legionnaire, in love with the spectacular and, his life being sacrificed, he granted himself the luxury of exacting admiration from the very Legionnaires who had laughed. To die was nothing -- if it meant that he would be remembered.

Inevitably he goes down in a hail of gunfire, but when some Berbers venture from their position to plunder the body, them men who had scorned Verlinden moments before now go berserk in defense of his corpse. "Verlinden's personality had fled wherever the spirit travels after death, but there remained his clay and his uniform," Surdez writes, "His head, taken as a trophy through the market places of desert villages, would be a reproach to his Legionnaires." By sacrificing himself for purely selfish reasons, Verlinden inadvertently wins the day for the Legion. The question of whether Verlinden was justified in his treatment of Laurens has been forgotten, proof that the story was more about Verlinden all along. Surdez doesn't really imply that Verlinden's conduct vindicates him, and his reluctance to pass final judgment is a nice touch from an author I've only rarely disliked.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Baal and Ashtaroth, they told people to raise hell, and the people done so.'

James Mitchell Clarke had a long career as a writer and educator, but only a short one in the pulps. He published nine stories in Adventure, plus one in the one-shot Adventure spinoff The Big Magazine, between 1927 and 1935, before devoting himself to a WPA project in the San Diego school system. One of those stories is the remarkable "Walls" (April 15, 1932). The remarkable thing about it is that it's a sort of debunking account of the biblical conquest of Jericho, as narrated by an immortal man. In what looks a lot like the opening of a series, we're introduced to our protagonists in modern-day Louisiana, sharing a bottle on the wall of a ruined fort. "Never -- even in the Louisiana swamps which are full of strange men -- had been people like these," thinks Jones, our POV character.

The broad shouldered one, with the shining black eyes and a beard which curled down his deep chest in black rings, had one huge hand over the bottle. The other, a slighter man, was plainly not a negro. Yet his skin was the color of chocolate; smooth and tight drawn; more like tanned leather than human flesh covering. His eyes, though only a few feet away, appeared to be looking across incalculable distance.

The strangers make friends with Jones and amaze him with tales of Jean Lafitte the pirate, told as if they knew the man. Amazing as that must sound, given that Lafitte flourished more than a century earlier, Belshar and Hovsep can top that easily. "We've seen some walls, Hovsep and me," says Belshar, the bearded one, who leaves Hovsep, the dark one, to tell of their role in the siege of Jericho. While "we follow the sea, Belshar and me .... once in awhile we find ourselves ashore and this was one of the times," Hovsep starts. Fugitives from the Persian Gulf, they became mercenary scouts for the Israelites under Joshua. In a dig at modern anti-semitism, Hovsep tells Jones, "It's maybe funny to you to think of [Jews] as fighting men. But they were -- a wild, hard, hairy lot, sleeping in tents, wondering where the next meal was coming from, scrapping with everybody they met; and licking 'em, too, mostly." Clarke doesn't soft-pedal Old Testament aggression. "Part of the Hebrew idea was to capture every town they came to and put the people out of the way," Hovsep recalls, "It saved trouble, and it was an order from their god." Iahweh, as Clarke calls that god, isn't bad compared to Ashtaroth and Baal, the dominant deities in Jericho, and their worshipers. "Them Canaanites were a scummy lot, take my word," Hovsep recalls. The priests of Ashtaroth take young women by force and make them temple prostitutes. The priests of Baal take young boys for human sacrifice. The family of Rahab, the biblical heroine, is victimized many times over. In Clarke's backstory, Rahab herself is taken from her family, while three of her brothers are chosen for sacrifice. Twenty years before Joshua's siege, Hovsep and Belshar, then friends of Rahab, made themselves personae non grata in Jericho by attempting to rescue her brothers, saving two of the three and leaving Rahab swearing that someday "my turn" will come.

Their past experience in Jericho recommends our heroes to Joshua for an infiltration mission, during which the meet and older, hardened Rahab, who sees "my turn" coming with the arrival of "the Evening Wolf," Joshua. She tells Hovsep and Belshar about a weak spot, caused by storm damage, in Jericho's strong walls. They relay this crucial intelligence to Joshua, who has just gotten his legendary marching orders, so to speak, from "the Lord's captain." "It isn't that I don't think it will work," Joshua tells them, "I don't doubt Iahweh. But I always like to help him when I can." He sets our heroes to work further undermining the wall until he has a change of heart. "I have not put my trust in Iahweh," he laments, "If we go through with this, His face will be turned away from His people." But Hovsep and Belshar decide they'll keep at it in secret, determined to do all they can to help Rahab get her revenge. Clarke has Hovsep tell what happens next in nicely ambiguous fashion. Did a miracle actually happen, or had "Joshua'd figured the balance better than he knew" when he put our heroes to work earlier? Whatever the cause, a slaughter ensues, but Rahab and her family are saved. Jones is so caught up in the story, virtually smelling the smoke of the burning city, that he doesn't notice at first that his new friends have disappeared, but not without leaving behind evidence that they actually had been there.

As you may have noticed from the excerpts, the gimmick of the story is that Belshar and Hovsep talk and tell their story in the vernacular of 1932. Maybe that's just Jones translating it in his own head, but I think it effectively establishes Clarke's immortals as eternal common men, neither archaically alien nor decadently refined. If I recall right, there was a sort of fad for this sort of writing in historical fiction -- F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his experiments in the genre -- but "Walls" survives whatever faddishness there was to it. While it adds an irreverent note to a Bible legend, it also gives the tale a fresh sense of immediacy and empathy as Clarke underscores the horrors of Canaanite idolatry. Most importantly, Belshar and Hovsep sound like cool guys with many more stories to tell, and it would be a shame if this turned out to be their only appearance.