Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 24, 1939

Writers to the "Argonotes" letter column were always asking when their old favorite authors would be showing up again in Argosy. There seems to have been considerable turnover in writing talent in the mid-to-late 1930s. Some of the most frequent contributors during the first half of the decade had stopped contributing. The biggest loss of all was George F. Worts, who wrote three popular series characters: the defense attorney Gillian Hazeltine, the adventurer Singapore Sammy, and fellow adventurer Peter the Brazen -- the last appearing under Worts's Loring Brent pseudonym. After 1936 Worts wrote almost exclusively for the slicks. All these characters, and others, were missed by longtime Argosy readers, but one of the most pined-for authors was the fantasy writer A. Merritt. People familiar with Merritt's work, if not his biography, might have taken him for a Weird Tales writer, but most of his best known stories first appeared in Argosy. None had appeared, however, since Creep, Shadow! had been serialized in the summer of 1934. Merritt may simply have gone dry; he certainly took on more responsibilities as editor of The American Weekly, a Sunday supplement that ran in William Randolph Hearst's papers and published many pulp authors. Considering how often readers requested more Merritt, and how fondly his past work was remembered, it must have seemed a good idea, and a way to save money, not just to reprint a Merritt novel, but to give the reprint this week's cover. Thus Argosy trumpets the reappearance of Merritt's 1927 novel Seven Footprints to Satan, at a time when many pulps preferred to boast that all stories in any given issue were new. This actually may have been useful to curious readers who, before the paperback era had really gotten under way, may not have been able to find a used copy of the novel in hardback, much less the Argosy back issues with the original serialization. Still, I can't help but see this as a gesture of weakness. The weekly had already reprinted Merritt's Ship of Ishtar, and John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the previous year. Given the Munsey company's failing attempt at brand extension and its consequences for Argosy's budget, reprints can't have been a good sign no matter how they were hyped. In any event, I intend to let Seven Footprints pass with no further notice, since my plan here has been to see how pulp writers see the world of 1939, or see the past through the prism of their present. It'll make the next few weeks easier to get through on time.

The continuing serials get quite intense this week. Walter Ripperger's Man From Madrid goes off on an eccentric tangent as the mysterious Mr. Nibbs who runs the mission for fugitives pretty much takes over this week's installment. He and his minions horn in on our hero's attempt to recover the treasure stolen from the Spanish Loyalists, Nibbs offering our man his assistance in return for one-fifth of the treasure, i.e. one million dollars. Nibbs and his stooges are fiends out of Edgar Wallace; the whole gimmick of a mission as a front for sinister doings is pure Wallace. They intend to find the stolen treasure by catching one of the conspirators -- recall that they are pretended Franco sympathizers who are really out for themselves -- and torturing him, while our hero continues to question whether his mission is worth carrying out. Meanwhile, Howard Rigsby's Voyage to Leandro really catches fire with an intense installment in which our young runaway hero is finally disillusioned with the legendary mutineer with whom he shares a desert isle. The highlight of this week's chapters, and probably of the whole serial, is a wild scene in which the drunken Jeremy Robb dares our hero's weaker, wealthier partner to drive a spike through his shoulder, to prove how tough Robb is. It reads like a scene from a Scorsese or Tarantino movie, only PG rated. It's not the most fantastical or violent moment I've read in these magazines, but it is raw pulp fiction at or near its best.

The headline stand-alone story this week is Theodore Roscoe's latest tall tale of the Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday. "Corday and the Seven-League Boots" is self-explanatory, unless I need to tell you that "seven-league boots" allow you to walk vast distances at superhuman speed. Corday's unit becomes convinced that their commander has acquired such a pair of boots, but the boots become a curse as they're handed down the chain of command after each previous wearer is killed. As is sometimes the case in the Corday stories, the "real" explanation for fantastical-seeming events is more preposterous than the myth. In this case, each man who wears the boots claims to have seen exotic sights from around the world, but all turn out to have fallen under the influence of contraband opium hidden inside the soles. It's not Corday's finest hour. More entertaining is E. Hoffman Price's "Allah's Infidel," in which a white trader retrieves a rare green pearl found by his crew yet stolen by the story's villain. This is only Price's second appearance in Argosy under his own name, though the Fiction Mags index credits him with earlier work under the pseudonym Martin McCall. Over the next two years Price, who had been a mainstay of the so-called "Spicy" pulps and a rare author for those disreputable periodicals to do without a pseudonym, would be an Argosy mainstay;his career would continue deep into the 1980s. Also making his second appearance in the weekly, and also a future star writer, is Louis C. Goldsmith. He was an aviation specialist, but this week's "Shovel Skinner" deals with the dangerous work of steam shovel operators and a veteran's reluctant mentorship of a seemingly ill-qualified novice. I've read some later Goldsmith and can assure you he gets better later, though this story isn't terrible, only mediocre. In addition, Baynard Kendrick's "Standing Orders" is another relevant story set during Hitler's takeover of Austria the previous year. A closeted dissident in Wehrmacht uniform helps smuggle the final writings of a more famous dissident out of the country. Curiously, there's a strong implication that the soldier hero is not just a closeted dissident but a closeted Jew, but maybe I'm reading too much into it. Finally, Murray Leinster contributes this week's Oddity, "The Kidder," in which the best friend and girlfriend of a condemned criminal feel a mistaken need to confess to his mother their blame for his imminent death.

Next week, Voyage to Leandro concludes and we travel to the South Sea islands, the Florida Keys, the Afghan hills and dear old Chinatown. Stay tuned!


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