Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 20, 1939

The "Great American Novel of 1939" was, to my knowledge, never published in book form. Its author is a mystery man. According to the Fiction Mags Index, "Wild River," which begins this week, is John Stromberg's only appearance in Argosy. Apparently it's his only appearance in pulp fiction. It may be his only appearance in print, period. "Stromberg" may be a pseudonym, but I haven't found out who he really was. There's reason to suspect he's a front, since it's hard to imagine Argosy touting a serial from a complete nobody without having first published at least a short story. The subject may have been attractive, however. "Dangerous jobs" was a popular sub-genre in pulps, or at least in Argosy. The future screenwriter Borden Chase (Red River, Winchester '73) made it a specialty with tales of "sandhogs," tunnel diggers, etc. Such stories are Argosy's answer to the social realism of its time. Stromberg's is a story about the construction of Boulder (nee Hoover) Dam. The hero is "Speed" Foley, a college baseball star with an engineering degree who boasts of landing a job on the great dam project to impress a girl. He has none, in fact, but is determined to find one. The main subject of the first installment is poverty, rare for Argosy if not pulps in general, as Speed's money and possessions melt away as he hunts for work. He just about touches bottom before getting work as a helper to a veteran tunnel driller, in part because a Big Boss recognizes him as a ball player and presumably as a prospect for a company team down the line. The claim Argosy makes for "Wild River" is preposterous, of course, but the serial does demonstrate the weekly's literary pretensions, and this installment isn't the action-packed affair you'd expect from pulp fiction. It isn't bad, either, and I get a sense that some lived experience influences it. We'll be back for more next week.

If John Stromberg is a nobody, Theodore Roscoe is one of Argosy's stars. His name above the logo probably sold more copies of this week's issue than the cover. "Stay As Sweet As You Are" is one of his stories set in Four Corners, his grim parody of the small-town America of a generation before. It's a Capra-esque locale if you can imagine It's A Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace happening in the same place. The Four Corners stories are told by a narrator who grew up there and witnessed or heard about the gruesome episodes that took place with disquieting frequency. This time it's a tale of a love triangle involving two spinster sisters who run a candy store and the town's new druggist. The older, meaner sister tyrannizes over the younger, prettier one and becomes her rival for the druggist's affections. Everyone's sympathies run one way, but Four Corners has a lot of twists, the name notwithstanding. It isn't much of a whodunit when the town learns that the druggist died after receiving poisoned candy, and the twist in the tale is predictable once you're used to this sort of story, but Roscoe's mastery of tone and his success in evoking place and period (his titles are usually taken from popular songs of the time) hold your interest to the end.

Frank Richardson Pierce's latest No-Shirt McGee story, "A Ton of Gold," covers a forty-year period. "This ton of gold business starts back in Skagway about the time folks first commenced callin' me No-Shirt McGee," the old sourdough says to get things started. No-Shirt befriends the proprietor of a shipping company whose title ton of gold is lost, apparently stolen, in the near-sinking of a steamship. There are suspects, of course, but no evidence until the ship is sold for scrap metal to one of the suspects in the present day. It's a little implausible that a crook would wait that long to claim his loot, but with Pierce the telling counts for more than the tale and I enjoy No-Shirt's vernacular narrative voice. The author never overdoes it and that makes the McGee stories a pleasure to read -- small triumphs of style over substance.

The other noteworthy stand-alone story this week is Garnett Radcliffe's "The Cup of Satan." It's the sort of yarn that often gets described as a "Boy's Own" type. That usually means gruesome action and a whiff of bigotry. An officer of the Raj is tortured by an Afridi bandit, as illustrated above. The villain taunts the hero with the certainty of his demise while looting the officer's possession. Radcliffe makes grim sport of the barbarian's ignorance; the bandit devours not only his victim's lunch of biscuits and sausage but a bar of scented soap. The villain's gastronomic curiosity proves his undoing as the hero convinces him that a bottle of petrol is actually a rare wine that's really good when heated over a fire. Begging for it to warm himself as he dangles over a cliff, he provokes the bandit into claiming it for himself out of spite. One way or the other, someone's going down. By now I've grown jaded about pulps' portrayal of non-whites as evil and cruel, -- there is a good Sikh, however, who gets killed by the villain -- but it still annoys me when they're shown as this stupid. Short and to the point and more an anecdote than a real story, this is definitely the pulpiest thing in the magazine this week in both the good and the bad sense of the word.

Along with two other nondescript stories, Fred MacIsaac's "The Golden Woman" continues as we finally meet the villain from last week's cover and everyone prepares for an epic escape from a war-torn jungle, while Hugh Pentecost's "Cancelled in Red" reaches its halfway point with the identity of the murderer no more apparent than before, while giving us a new murder of a supposed suspect to solve. Pentecost keeps things lively as his stamp-collector hero gets himself still deeper into trouble with the cops as he struggles to protect two different suspects, each of whom may well be guilty. Next week's chapter should be a highlight, but it's sure to be overshadowed by Arthur Leo Zagat's return with a vision of an American apocalypse that will prove one of Argosy's most popular stories of the year.


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