Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, March 25, 1939

INTRODUCTION: What is the Argosy?

ARGOSY was one of the "big four" pulp magazines of the medium's heyday. Today, if anyone imagines a big four of pulp, you'd probably see Black Mask (home of hardboiled detective fiction), Weird Tales (home of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos), The Shadow and Doc Savage on the list. Those are the pulps remembered today -- the ones from which stories are still reprinted. But 75 years ago the big four were, in ascending frequency of publication, the monthlies Adventure and Blue Book, the biweekly Short Stories and the weekly Argosy. All four were general fiction magazines covering a variety of genres, and of the four Argosy was probably the most diverse, publishing science fiction and fantasy under the catch-all label "fantastics." In 1939 a typical issue had chapters of three serials, one or two complete novelettes and several short stories. Argosy was published by the Munsey company, half of a weekly one-two punch along with Detective Fiction Weekly. By 1939 Munsey was in some sort of trouble. The company had embarked on an ill-fated brand expansion to compete with the larger pulp lines. Argosy paid the price by shrinking from 144 to 128 pages in 1938; it would shrink again to 112 pages in 1940. Even so, the idea of 128 pages of pure storytelling every week -- Argosy had fewer illustrations than many pulps -- is pretty amazing. The pulps flourished at a time when there were few alternatives for readers hungry for narrative. By 1939 they had the classic adventure strips, radio dramas, and the new medium of comic books, Action Comics having premiered Superman the year before. The pulp audience was splitting into demographic fragments, most of the younger readers turning to comics while an older remaining market forced the evolution of pulps into the "men's adventure" or "sweat" magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Argosy itself was mostly spared that fate. It became a "slick" monthly after Popular Publications bought the title in 1943 and endured well into the 1970s. By the end, however, it had largely if not entirely given up fiction, or at least overt fiction, in favor of "In Search Of" type material about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.

This Week's Issue

Back in 1939, however, Argosy was probably still seen as one of the dominant pulps, if not the mightiest of all. It certainly boasted of its connections to Hollywood, trumpeting the debut in this issue of its second serial featuring Max Brand's Dr. Kildare. I'm not sure of the exact relation between the Kildare serials and the M-G-M film series -- whether the movies are adaptations of the stories or the serials are novelizations of the screen stories. "Max Brand" was a name identified with westerns -- the man born Frederick Faust also wrote Destry Rides Again and near-countless others -- and while the author used different pseudonyms for different genres, e.g. George Challis for historical swashbucklers, everyone involved wanted the big name for the Kildare series. I haven't watched any of the movies, or any of the 1960s TV shows, so all I know about Jimmy Kildare is what I've read here.

Kildare is the son of a doctor and the protege of the irascible yet brilliant Dr. Gillespie -- you can hear Lionel Barrymore's voice in Brand's dialogue and it may have been meant that way from the start. The running subplot of the series, at least as of this second story, is that Gillespie is in a race against time to transmit his vast knowledge to Kildare before he succumbs, supposedly in a year, to an incurable disease. At the same time, Gillespie doesn't want Kildare to become a mere medical machine. He worries that Jimmy has grown cold and insensitive toward patients and may lack the human touch that's sometimes crucial to a cure. "Calling Dr. Kildare" seems designed to open Jimmy's heart by exposing him to dramatic medical crises. The highlight of this week's opening chapter is the clandestine meatball surgery our hero performs to extract a bullet from a wounded young Irish gangster. Medical drama hardly matches anyone's idea of pulp fiction, but Brand is an old hand at making situations suspenseful. The interplay between Kildare and Gillespie comes across as corny but the surgery scene does capture your attention and gets you interested in the fate of the gangster and his young friends and in whether Kildare is compromised by helping them.

The Kildare serial is one of two movie tie-ins in this Argosy. This week's issue also concludes "Fast and Loose" by Marco Page, also known as Harry Kurnitz. This is a sequel to the previous year's "Fast Company," which like "Young Dr. Kildare" became an M-G-M picture. The studio made three pictures about the mystery-solving bookseller Joel Sloane and his wife Garda, a poor man's Nick and Nora, with three different couples in the roles. I've just summed up "Fast and Loose" to may satisfaction. It's generic semi-screwball detective work with snappy patter between husband and wife and none of the intensity Brand brings to the Kildare story. Why it's in Argosy and not Detective Fiction Weekly is a mystery unto itself.

Don't let anyone tell you that reviewing 75 year old pulps is irrelevant to today's world. My answer to that claim would be Frederick C. Painton's novelet "A Package for Paris," featuring his series character, the globetrotting insurance investigator Dan Harden. In this adventure, Harden is asked to facilitate the sale of an expensive piece of jewelry to help finance a fascist coup d'etat in Ukraine, then a republic in the Soviet Union. Who could imagine such a thing? But as it turns out, Harden has stumbled into a spy ring smuggling military blueprints to Germany, which makes it unlikely that he'll get to the hospital in time to see his first child born. I've read better Harden stories but Painton is a consistently good writer who keeps this yarn punchy and entertaining. For what it's worth, both he and Brand/Faust would die as war correspondents during World War II, Faust taking a bullet in Italy while Painton had a heart attack shortly after covering Iwo Jima.

We haven't yet gotten to the actual cover story for this week. Uncredited on the cover, the author is David V. Reed, whose career lasted at least into the late 1970s in the comics. "Secret of the Silent Drum" is perhaps the most "pulp" of this issue's stories. It's told in an old-fashioned indirect style, with an initial narrator telling of his meeting with someone who narrates the actual story. Maybe in the past they thought it necessary to establish some distance between the reader and a story that might prove too shocking in its immediacy. In any event, the real narrator explains the mystery of a photo that shows himself, a Haitian guide and a drum, but identifies three men in the picture. It's the story of an obsessive treasure hunt in which the guide, a faithful retainer and more articulate than black characters often were in pulps, emerges as the nearest thing to the tale's hero. The gruesome explanation of the mystery may not surprise many readers, but Reed adds an extra ironic twist that adds sadness to the horror. These are the guide's words:

'You know, Mait' Constant, I never saw that map so closely until today. I tried to tell him. He refused to listen. And when I persisted, after a time I realized the horror of what he was thinking: that I wanted it. He trusted no one, not even me -- and after all, my skin is black.' The small, crystal tears sped down his face. 'So I never spoke of it again, never again asked him to let me examine it closely. Then, I might have told him as a certainty that I had seen its counterpart twice before. I might have told him that it was worthless...'

In this issue's other serial Arthur Leo Zagat, one of Argosy's specialists in 'fantastics,' continues the serial "Seven Out of Time," in which a detective hired to track an heiress joins her as captive to monstrous super-intelligent beings claiming to hail from Earth's far future. Famous people who had supposedly disappeared without trace throughout history are captives as well; the hero met the poet Francois Villon (hero of the recent film If I Were King) in an earlier chapter, and in this one he meets King Arthur. Neither he nor the author are much impressed, "Can't you see he's nothing but a big baby and has to be humored?" the heroine tells the hero after one frustrating episode with the imperious Pendragon. Such irreverent touches enliven the story, even though the fantastics aren't that big an attraction for me.


Rounding out this week: Luke Short, once groomed as Max Brand's successor to the western throne, contributes a short story, "Indian Scare," in which the hero tries in vain to dissuade settlers from occupying territory disputed by Apaches and renegade "rawhiders." It may be the most hard-boiled piece in the issue, but it closes on a romantic note. Arden X. Pangborn -- his real name, as far as I know -- offers "The Curse of K'ang," featuring his series character Wong Sun, a Chinatown jeweler. Wong Sun is a walking stereotype, talking almost entirely in Charlie Chan-style proverbs (e.g. "A man does not win races sitting down...Likewise a man who seeks fish does not go to a dry lake."). Still, if this story is any indication readers were meant to root for Wong as an underdog turning the tables on bullies and oppressors, while the white cop in his neighborhood is portrayed as an idiot. In this one, Wong exploits the superstitious bigotry of a crooked white realtor, convincing him that he's fallen under a curse until he repays the laundryman he'd ripped off. Finally, Alexander Key, best known as the author of the Witch Mountain books, gives us the nautical comedy, "Luck on the Ladybird," in which a character takes advantage of his reputation as a jinx or Jonah to blackmail a ship's captain into paying off an old debt. If Reed and arguably even Pangborn give us positive ethnic characters, Key doesn't even bother giving his black sailor a name, referring to him consistently as "the darkest" and giving him a cartoon dialect. That's the risk you run with pulps, but the story is amusing and no one, really, is portrayed in a positive way.

Each Argosy also includes a one-page cartoon feature, W. A. Windas's "Legends of the Legionaries," and Stookie Allen's two-page "Men of Daring" spread, which sometimes becomes "Women of Daring." There's also a letter column, "Argonotes," of varying length, this week featuring one writer's recollection of H. P. Lovecraft as a leading letterhack -- noting also that Lovecraft never placed his own stories in Argosy. In our busy day it may seem hard to believe that someone could read through it all, even at its reduced size, in time to be ready for the next week's issue. But it was a heroic age, of a sort, and the writers who could meet the demand and remain entertaining --even today -- were heroes of a sort themselves. We'll meet more of them in the coming weeks, in Argosy and elsewhere, if you'll follow me into a world more obscure even than the wild world of cinema. Few alive today have looked upon these artifacts, but like much of cult cinema, they are often trash and treasure at once. Watch and learn.



Marty McKee said...

I remember "David Vern" writing a lot of Batman comics in the '70s. Naturally, fans were curious about this "new" writer who hadn't been published before, or so it seemed. Letter pages had fun making guesses, until the editor finally revealed Vern was David V. Reed.

Samuel Wilson said...

Marty, I guess that shows how obscure Reed/Vern had become, since he published regularly in the pulps under both names, and others. He gets into Argosy at least twice in '39 as Reed and shows up as Vern in 1941. Not sure whether there was any logic to his choice of name for any given story.

hobbyfan said...

Oh, snap! Reed/Vern's Batman run was his last go-round in published work, was it not, Sam?

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobby, it looks like Reed's last issue of Batman was #305 from the fall of 1978. He lived until 1989 and was 64 at the time he left the title, but I don't know whether he went on to write anything else.