Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 29, 1939

This might surprise you: three of the stories in this week's issue have to do with drugs, and two of them are set in the 19th century. You may recall that there's a dope-smuggling angle in W. C. Tuttle's Thirty Days for Henry, which wraps up this week. Tuttle's tale of the vaudevillian turned sheriff is the most nearly contemporary story of the three; Henry Harrison Conroy goes to Arizona because vaudeville is dying. It took a long time to die, admittedly, but it was happening sometime in the 20th century. Set sometime earlier -- there are no hints of the 20th century this time -- is C. K. Shaw's western novelet "The Wagon Whelp." In this one a son avenges his freighter father, who he suspects died by sabotage at a rival's hands. In turn, the rival tries to sabotage his victim's son by framing him for dope smuggling; one of his stooges has the young man haul a sack of beans into town, but has put a container of contraband inside. Everything resolves itself by the end, and not without the violence the genre demands.

Unless the editors spilled the beans in an earlier "Argonotes" page, I'd assume that few Argosy readers knew C. K. Shaw's secret. At least I presume it was a secret. That was usually the point of an author going by initials rather than a full name. There wasn't a consistent rule about this, but in this particular case C. K. stood for Chloe Kathleen Shaw. She started getting published around 1925, and her first credit in the Fiction Mags index, an issue of Action Stories, sets the tone. No Ranch Romances or Rangeland Love Stories for Shaw. She did a man's work. "Wagon Whelp" is her Argosy debut; she'd be published there eight times more before the end of 1940, but would stick to western specialty mags for the remainder of her career.

The other story with drug references is the first chapter of the new serial. Jack-of-all-genres Theodore Roscoe goes historical with Mother Damnation, an "Epic of Roaring Days on the Erie Canal." It's set about a generation earlier than Roscoe's Four Corners stories, though we're still in New York State. His subject is the feud between "Bible Bill," a pious and temperamental boatman, and the title character, a Junoesque saloon keeper who attracts crowds by diving into the canal in her red bathing suit. Bible Bill describes Mother Damnation's place as "this white-chimneyed outpost of hell." Roscoe's narrator, a young man working for Bill, explains:

That referred to the old days when certain unlawful dives along the canal used to paint their chimneys white so's the boaters would know where they could get a sniff of cocaine, maybe, or fence stolen goods.

Mother Damnation resents the insinuation. "I run a square game, here; serve drinks at  th' right price; an' I'll have you know there ain't no white chimney on top of it!" This serial is only a three-parter and I'm not exactly sure where Roscoe is going with it, but he always writes well enough to keep me interested.

The main stand-alone story is yet another entry in Philip Ketchum's saga of Bretwalda, the axe linked to the destiny of Britain. "Tribute to None" has a twist that freshens up the formula a little. The hero is a dissident in the reign of King John, but it's his father who wields Bretwalda, albeit under duress, in opposition to his own son. Eventually the lad gets his hand on the axe and uses it on one of John's more obnoxious underlings, and from there it's a hop, skip and jump to Magna Carta. "When the Dyaks Dance" is a preposterous piece of sentimental superstition from James Francis Dwyer, an old-time among pulpsters. He was 65 when this appeared and had been publishing since 1907. A lonely young white trader with a mother fixation falls ill in a Dyak village and is virtually adopted by the village's women, who not only seem to save him by performing a ritual dance but somehow summon a pretty white soulmate for him. Francis Gott gets a chance to play with a less common accent in his sailing story "The Fog's Whiskers." The central character is a rescued Newfoundland sailor who helps the true hero of the tale win a fishing competition with an ambitious rival. The main point of the story seems to be to put a Newfoundland accent in writing. It goes something like this: "Hannibal Spugs be mir name...Dey calls mir Han....Newfunlun' people be gud people!" I suspect many authors enjoyed writing such accents than readers enjoyed reading them. Finally, Robert Neal Leath contributes "Hell Child," which is no horror story unless the prospect of a spoiled child star scares you. The title moppet is the tyrant of the studio, guilt-tripping a long-suffering mother and playing dangerous practical jokes on the crew until a once-timid actor-turned-director puts his foot down out of love for the still-young, still-pretty mother. Before I go, I owe a shout-out across 75 years to George Lane of Rockford IL, who calls out Arthur Leo Zagat for the "petty racism" in his "Tomorrow" stories. "I read the Argosy for my mental 'dessert," Lane writes, "and it puts a bad taste in it to have jingo-journalism mixed with it." His comments may well provoke a controversy -- Argosy readers were an argumentative lot. I'll let you know if anyone comes to Zagat's defense.


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