Friday, June 20, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 17, 1939

This week's cover story is Arthur Leo Zagat's sequel to "Tomorrow," from the May 27 issue. The cover even uses the previous cover as a background image, which tells me that "Tomorrow" must have gone over big. That fact isn't flattering to Argosy readers, since you'll recall that "Tomorrow" is a fantasy about a race war waged against a presumptively white United States by a vague yellow/black coalition. It becomes more clear in "Children of Tomorrow" that the Asians run things, while the blacks -- it's unclear whether they're Africans or African-Americans -- are the foot soldiers of the occupying power. You can almost excuse a "yellow peril" fantasy in 1939 given the rising power of Japan, but Zagat's fantasy is doubly offensive because he so plainly imagines it as a race war pitting the whites against everyone else. It's pretty clear that there were no black children in the little group that found a haven in the mountains to become "the Bunch" led by our hero Dikar. In the previous story he made his first foray down from the mountain to find Americans enslaved in concentration camps by the non-white oppressors. In "Children" Dikar is back in charge of the Bunch, but his old rival Tomball -- for some reason the kids, grown up without adult supervision, call themselves by their old full names -- is behaving suspiciously, apparently trying to signal the airplanes that sometimes fly over the mountain. It develops that Tomball also knows of the occupiers below, and in his jealousy of Dikar is willing to betray the Bunch to the enemy. Dikar and his friends have to stop him from contacting the occupiers. Zagat adds an unexpected complication, allowing us to suspect that Marilee, Dikar's mate, has betrayed him in favor of Tomball, driving our hero to contemplate killing them both. That would probably have been slightly too hard-boiled or noirish for Argosy, so Marilee turns out to have been Tomball's hostage, not his accomplice. In any event, Dikar goes back down the mountain, stops Tomball, encounters a vicious black soldier, and discovers the existence of an underground resistance organization operating near the concentration camp. Dikar and his new friends must outwit the wily commander Li Logo -- almost deliberately, this sounds like no actual Asian name -- before he can begin to transform the Bunch into a ragtag resistance army. At least they start out with the rags already. The Bunch will take most of the summer off to train before returning to Argosy in September; by then there'll be a real war on.

If the "Tomorrow" stories express a sort of patriotism, Robert Cochran's "Americans are Different" expresses a different kind. Cochran has a good idea that depends on a punchline for the payoff. A disgruntled D.C. bureaucrat finds himself kidnapped by spies for an unnamed European power who are willing to pay him to acquire confidential documents, but are also willing to torture him if he won't cooperate. He won't cooperate, and ultimately the foreigners go soft on him. They can't comprehend why he's willing to endure torture and unwilling to take money to betray the government he appears to hate. The moral is that his country is one thing, his job another. After his bizarre adventure, he returns to work the next day and promptly resumes his griping. American patriotism, then, is a matter neither of unconditional love nor unconditional obedience -- but it means unconditional loyalty just the same. That's an interesting point to make at a time when Americans were struggling to differentiate themselves from totalitarians and violent nationalists around the world. Readers today would get this, I suspect.

Pulp writers aspired to write for the slicks -- the larger-format magazines on better-quality paper like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. Sometimes when pulp writers reached the next level they quit the pulps. In some cases, Frederick "Max Brand" Faust being a notable case, writers who cracked the slicks preferred the pulps because of looser editorial policies. Jacland Marmur, a sea-story specialist, moved freely between the two levels. His "Salt Water Hick" in this issue falls between stories published the month before and two months later in Collier's. It's reasonable to guess that "Hick" had been rejected by the self-styled National Weekly, but Marmur may have tailored the story to the market. Usually the difference between a "slick" and a "pulp" story is more romantic interest in the former to please the slicks' larger percentage of female readers. There's no romance angle in "Hick." Instead, as the title suggests, we have a fish-out-of-water situation and a neat gimmick in the hero's ingenious use of a cargo of wheat to save his ship from sinking. I like Marmur's more exotic sea stories but this was entertaining enough. The other stand-alone story this week is C. F. Kearns's "Gold at Black-Knife," featuring Two-Horse Swen, a supporting character in Kearns's more popular Handsled Burke series. It's notable for the extent to which Kearns resists the temptation to go overboard with Swen's accent. It's there, but this isn't a dialect story, and the difference matters. Kearns is less interested in writing a character who talks funny than in telling a story, which is more than I can say for some pulp writers.

On the serial front, John Stromberg's "Wild River" closes with anticlimactic notes as the hero's Red pal settles down to be a schoolteacher on the hero's grandfather's ranch, while the hero himself, predictably enough, gets the girl he'd been pining for all along. Stromberg has been critical but not condemnatory of leftism throughout; his remedy for radicalism, it seems, is that people need personally fulfilling work, though he leaves no assurance that everyone can find it. While Stromberg has made sure to season his story with action scenes, the so-called "Great American Novel of 1939" never really felt like a pulp serial. It really did seem more ambitious than that, though its appearance in Argosy, and apparently noplace else, indicates that Stromberg's ambition exceeded his talent. Meanwhile, Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro" evolves into a battle of wits and a tale of temptation as its young hero seems to befriend the mutineer he had idolized from afar while worrying over the fate of his sick companion. We learn more about the island's mystery hermit and his still more mysterious daughter, the elusive "Nautilus." This week gets us past the halfway point and the story's still developing nicely. Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" goes into whodunit mode, introducing one of those folksy policemen types that people always underestimate to solve the mystery of last chapter's killing. Our hero fears a frame-up, since he had, after all, threatened to kill the dead man, and he can't tell the truth about himself without making himself the most obvious suspect. The eccentric if not sinister Mr. Nibbs, the mission minister from last week, takes an interest in our hero and hires one of the city's top defense attorneys to keep him out of jail. Most likely he smells money, whether or not he realizes the size of the treasure our hero's trying to recover. Already we're pretty much past the Spanish Civil War political context of the opening chapters, and it looks like the story will evolve in more conventionally strange directions. We'll find out next week, when Argosy seems to raise a warning flag by giving its cover to a reprinted story. Is the mighty weekly cheaping out of us, or is it simply responding to popular demand?


1 comment:

Lionel said...

Interesting insights here about Pulps vs Slicks. C.F.Kearns was an example of a successful Pulp author who aspired to cross over to the Slicks whenever possible. They paid better. Maybe it was that feminine audience that was the problem. His story, Pilot’s Choice, Collier’s Mar 7 1942, had no women in it at all. Kearns was a flyer in WWI, and wrote a number of bush pilot stories, some of which material got into the 1942 Hollywood production of Captains of the Clouds.