Thursday, July 24, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 22, 1939

It was presumably the height of prestige for a pulp writer to get a serial published and cover-featured in Argosy. You can imagine writers paying their dues for years before earning such an honor. Yet for the third time in 1939, the venerable weekly gave its cover to a serial that is its author's debut in its pages. Unlike William Grey Beyer (Minions of the Moon) and the one-and-done John Stromberg (Wild River), Charles Rice McDowell wasn't exactly a nobody. "Argonotes" gives us a one-page biography of the author, who happened to be a law professor at Washington and Lee University. When he passed away in 1978, McDowell was described as the most beloved professor on that school's law faculty. A biographer of one of his students wrote that McDowell "talked like Will Rogers but was better looking." McDowell's serial, The Ringer, has nothing to do with law, however. Its hero is no crusading prosecutor or wily defense attorney. Instead, the story's based partly on McDowell's experiences as an athletic coach in the 1910s. It will follow its hillbilly hero from his late return to high school through a diploma-mill military academy into big-time college sports. Ringer is a semi-satirical expose of the academic corruption that promotes unqualified students and makes them star athletes. It shapes up as a less idealized sports story than we might expect from the pulps, and that reflects Argosy's obvious ambition for a higher literary level, even as it offers more likely crowd-pleasing stuff elsewhere this issue. The opening installment is entertaining enough, though, and it promises to pull no punches, though McDowell himself compares his attitude toward college sports to that of Robert E. Lee toward the slaveholding South: its institutions are certainly peculiar, but he can't help loving it.

The real highlight of this issue is Ralph R. Perry's "Shark Master." Perry wrote raw pulp: packed with action, blood, thunder and rage. He worked in many genres and settings but seemed at his best in the South Seas and with tough seamen like his series character Bellow Bill Williams. In this story a man comes to a mysterious island to dive for pearls and avenge his brother, also a pearl diver, who was reported killed by sharks while attempting to harvest the treasures on the ocean floor. Our hero suspects that his brother was murdered, like several eminent pearl divers before him, by the trader who rules the island, its people, and the sharks offshore. The trader claims mastery over sharks: they swim and strike where and when he commands. That gives him extra power over the inevitably superstitious natives. "When they see me make the sharks obey, these blacks obey me like Hitler," the villain boasts in the story's nearest approach to contemporary relevance. This gives our hero two big mysteries to solve: how can the trader control sharks, and how might he have killed the hero's brother, whose specialized shark cage should have protected him from the sea predators? The revenge plot sets up several intense confrontations, most notably an early showdown as the drunken men exhume the brother's corpse in the middle of the night. There's a fury to Perry's writing and an inventiveness to the gimmickry with which he resolves the mysteries. It's great to see Argosy publishing old-school pulp like this at a time when it so often seems to chase vainly after prestige and relevance.

Robert Carse's second novelet in as many weeks is "Volcano," set during the last days before the famous eruption of Mt. Pelee. Like in last week's "Maximilian's Men," Carse imposes a romantic triangle on his period adventure. A ship's mate and his escaped prisoner, an engineer with Jor-El-like foreknowledge of the imminent disaster, become rivals for the affections of an aristocratic lady. Inevitably one will renounce love and life in favor of the other. Like last week's story it's entertaining enough but leaves a feeling that Carse is trying to force his pulp muse into a shape more appealing to Hollywood or the slicks with the romance angle.

The other stand-alones this week include William Edward Hayes's exciting "Comet on Wheels," in which one man struggles to prevent an out-of-control fuel car from colliding with a crowded passenger train; D. L. Champion's "Kiss the Gloves Goodbye," a curt, grim boxing story in which an old fighter's inspiring comeback proves less than met the eye; and Arthur Lawson's "Epitaph in Red," an Argosy Oddity in which an old-west codger reveals the secret behind his bushy beard and a secret about a young man's grandfather. This issue wraps up the reprint of A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan and continues W. C. Tuttle's Thirty Days for Henry. The former is a classic of its kind, I suppose, and the latter is what it is, if you like that sort of thing.

Next week starts a serial by Theodore Roscoe, brings back once more Bretwalda the magic axe, and introduces us to western author C. K. Shaw, whose name carries a secret!


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