Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 13, 1939

This week's cover heralds the return to Argosy of one of its most popular writers. For promotional purposes, at least, the magazine calls Fred MacIsaac "the master of adventure fiction." The 53 year old had been a mainstay of Argosy for about a dozen years, starting in 1924, but the three-part serial "The Golden Woman" is his first appearance in the venerable weekly for almost exactly three years. Since 1936 his output had fallen off considerably. The FictionMags Index credits him with only one published story, a novella in Dime Detective, in all 1938. In 1939 he had already published two stories, including a serial in Detective Fiction Weekly, before this Argosy gig, and he'll co-author another Argosy serial later this year. A year later he would kill himself in an act blamed on his going dry creatively. If we judged writers by the way they died, MacIsaac might be as famous today as Robert E. Howard, pulp's most famous suicide, but Howard's end had little or nothing to do with his writing, as far as I know. In any event, MacIsaac seems not to have stood the test of time, and I regret to report that the opening installment of "Golden Woman" is nothing special. The author is almost apologetic about any literary shortcomings that might be detected, presenting the tale in what he thinks might be taken for an archaic style, on the pretense that it's a recently-discovered 19th century manuscript factually relating an ancestor's adventure. The title character is admittedly inspired by Lola Montes, but has little of the personality that association might lead us to anticipate. She is mostly an idol for the men of the story to worship, except for the unscrupulous captain who abandons her and the "Company of Jason," a group of New England gold-seekers, in the wilds of Patagonia, subject to attack by South American savages. MacIsaac attempts to differentiate the men of the company and establish conflicts among them, but no strong personalities emerge. We'll presumably get to the meat of the story next week, when the castaways encounter the villain of the piece, a European (as shown on the cover) who's made himself king of the Araucanians, the Patagonians' enemies. But that doesn't excuse a certain lifelessness in this installment, compared to some of the other content this week.

Donald Barr Chidsey is back with his second novelet in as many weeks. In "The Coughing Mountain" the owner of a struggling New Guinea copra plantation meets a potential new investor: the superwoman T.S. "Terry" Ashley, a former tennis champion, aviatrix and big game hunter, now in search of new thrills. Our hero needs at least one more white person to control his 86 native workers. Chidsey pulls no punches in this blatantly racist tale.

"I have yet to meet anyone who has a good word for the natives."
"You're not likely to, unless they're a missionary or a liar."
"They are a surly lot."
"They're surly," agreed Liggett, "and they're ignorant and stupid and ungrateful and lazy and treacherous and incompetent. The worst ones are from the coast villages, where the missionaries have had a crack at them."

The title refers to a semi-active volcano that gets busier later in the story. While the Melanesian natives worry about an eruption, the mysterious Duk-Duk criminal society stirs up trouble by playing on native superstitions. When the malefactor pictured above accidentally sets himself on fire the natives panic. Terry proves her mettle by helping prevent a fatal stampede. "The girl in that instant realized that dealing with natives in New Guinea was not essentially different from dealing with cattle," Chidsey writes. It turns out that unscrupulous white men are behind the Duk-Duk provocations, and our hero and heroine deal with them and the inevitable eruption before getting married. Horrible as Chidsey's (or his protagonists') sentiments may be, this story is this issue's best. It's energetic and action-packed and the racism is at least an honest expression of how many Americans felt in those days, adding an authentic edge to the narrative.

A different sort of racism finds expression in Walter C. Brown's "Steal No Man's Shadow." Brown was a Chinatown specialist, sometimes telling his stories from the viewpoint of white policemen, sometimes from what he took to be the Chinese viewpoint. This week's story is all Chinese, a kind of love story with a macabre twist. A illegal-immigrant refugee from the Japanese invasion of China is available for marriage. Our hero pines for her but can't afford the bride price because his uncle is a moocher and a gambler who spends his nephew's earnings from a gift-shop catering to "rice-face" (i.e. white) tourists. His sympathetic business partner finds a way to help his friend and repay a debt. He hosts the uncle for several days of unrestrained feasting until the glutton eats himself to death, thus freeing the nephew to use his resources to win his bride. If writers like Chidsey portray an inferior Other in the South Seas, writers like Brown portray Chinese as Other for the sake of Otherness. Brown is racist insofar as he fails (or refuses) to portray Chinese as Just Like Us, but I can't imagine anyone reading this story and simply assuming that Chinese are simply inferior. They are just profoundly different, if also a little quaint. Here's a sample:

"There is an evil weight on thy spirit, Wang Kai," said Hugh Lee, "for thy mouth droops like the branches of the willow tree. If a pain-devil has entered thy skin, let the apothecary be sent for. But if thy trouble be of the spirit, share the burden with thy unworthy friend and its weight will be lessened by half."
Wang sighed heavily. "It is because of my great love for the girl Ming Yan and the sea of silver that stands between us. Across the water the parent of a girl-child must save up money to purchase a husband for her, but in this land a goodly price must be paid before she leaves her father's roof."
"But here that is the law," Hugh Lee declared solemnly, "Only yesterday I sought enlightenment on this puzzling fact from the Rice-face who drives the look-see wagon [i.e. tourist bus], and he informed me it was the Law of Supply and Demand."
"There may well be such a law," young Wang answered, "for this is a goodly country, but there are many strange customs."

The Chinese characters speak in such flowery fashion throughout. It may be just as offensive to Chinese-American readers as Amos-n-Andy style dialect would be to blacks, but I'm not sure the two cases were meant to have the same effect on the default white readership of Argosy. I actually wonder whether we can draw a straight line from this sort of Chinatown story -- there are others more obviously hateful -- to the elves, vampires and other magical creatures who appear in 21st century "urban fantasy" books. Nowadays we can indulge in fantasies of Otherness without projecting those fantasies on existing races of people; back in 1939 writers like Walter C. Brown didn't know better and probably meant no harm in their writing. Perhaps they can be forgiven.

Elsewhere this week, Phillip Ketchum presents the latest installment of his chronicle of Bretwalda, the magic axe tied to the destiny of England. In the three previous stories he's established that the axe confers great joy and great sorrow on its wielders. In "Paths of Conquest" the sorrow comes from the hero's failure, despite Bretwalda, to prevent William of Normandy's conquest of England in 1066. The joy is his winning of a girl in the process, while Ketchum, writing at a time of growing Anglophilia in the face of the Nazi threat to Europe, suggests that William's conquest will prove a good thing for everyone. Turning to our own nation, Richard Sale returns with another Civil War tale involving Robert E. Lee. "The Judas Tree" focuses on a double-agent trying to trick General Grant into letting Lee escape from his predicament at Petersburg near the end of the war, and how the spy arguably outwits himself. This is a shorter, grimmer piece than Sale's tale from last week. The issue closes with an "Argosy Oddity," a short-short story by the weekly's standards. John Ames York's "The Time is at Hand" is a Twilight-Zoney vignette about a busy businessman confronted by Death Himself and the chance he gets to make a farewell that might actually save him. In the other serials, we finally get a murder in the second chapter of Hugh Pentecost's "Cancelled in Red," in which our hero blunders into a conspiracy to destroy evidence in order to protect a suspect he presumes innocence, and of course gets into trouble with the police, while Bennett Foster's western "Rider of the Rifle Rock" wraps up with the remaining mysteries resolved, vengeance taken, and all well for our hero who had started the serial lame, drunk and broke. It's almost too neat, but I suppose the serials have to end happily in this sort of magazine.

Speaking of which, would any other pulp magazine boast of presenting "The Great American Novel of 1939?" Argosy does, and we'll have its first chapter next week, along with the return of No-Shirt McGee and our first visit to Theodore Roscoe's Four Corners, a town out of Norman Rockwell's nightmares.


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