Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, AUG. 19, 1939

I skipped reviewing the August 12 issue of Argosy because, well, it stunk virtually from one end to the other. The August 19 issue is far more interesting and entertaining across the board. Luke Short gets his cover-featured serial Hurricane Range off to a solid start, but I'll save a detailed discussion for another time. At the other end of the magazine, Charles Rice McDowell's sports serial The Ringer comes to an unexpected close as the hero ends up possibly crippled if not mortally injured in a car wreck on the verge of an adult career as a sports coach.  Toward the middle, even Jack Mann's The Ninth Life gets more interesting when Mann's hero "Gees" offers his heterodox opinion on the history of religions:

"It must be obvious that that slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt wasn't the work of the universal Power we are beginning today to recognize as the source and ruler of all life. The real God wouldn't go in for wholesale murder of his creations and bring mourning into thousands of homes just to let a horde of Israelites loose to go and do more wholesale slaughter in their promised land. Oh, no!
"By belief in their Jahveh, the collective belief of many thousands of people, and by sacrifices to him, these same Israelites created an actual Jahveh and gave him tremendous power. And you'll find lots of tales in the Old Testament of how the said Jahveh got angry and ran amok, as long as their collective belief and continual sacrifices kept him strong enough for manifestations."

The serial's premise is that the Egyptian cat-god Sekhmet is kept alive by the worship and sacrifices not just of the mysterious vamp Cleo Kefrah, but by those of a more mysterious, more malevolent other. It's taken three chapters for the plot to really come together but Mann's story may yet redeem its deadly-dull opening chapters.

The stand-alone stories are this week's real highlights. Philip Ketchum's "The Valiant Arm," the latest in his Bretwalda series about the axe linked to the destiny of England, has more than normal interest because it pits the latest wielder of the axe against none other than William "Braveheart" Wallace. It will surprise readers who know the Wallace story only through the Mel Gibson movie first to learn the truth about the Battle of Sterling -- it was a turkey shoot, the Brits picked off as they crossed a bridge -- and then by Ketchum's neutrality between the Scots and the English. His King Edwards isn't the monster of Gibson's film but really a generic monarch, neither good nor wicked, who happens to have an evil advisor, the story's real heavy, who plays Edward (never called "Longshanks") and Wallace against each other in hopes of winning Scotland for himself. Wallace himself is portrayed as a kind of romantic hero or antihero, first encountered in disguise as a blind minstrel who helps the hero early and more unexpectedly later. Ketchum weaves a web of what-might-have-been by introducing a heroine whom the villain hopes to pass off as the "Maid of Norway," an heir to the Scots throne thought dead, and who turns out to be that very person, one who could pacify Scotland and end the war if she didn't prefer her obscurity and our hero's company. Ketchum can't change history, after all.

"The Kiss of the Cobra" is Walter C. Brown's latest Chinatown story. As readers may recall, Argosy has two Chinatown specialists: Brown and Arden X. Pangborn, who writes the Wong Soo stories. Here's the difference: Pangborn writes conventional mystery stories about a small-scale Charlie Chan, an informal Oriental troubleshooter in his neighborhood. Brown, I think, gets closer to the transgressive appeal of the Chinatown genre, because he almost always writes about oppressed underdogs who get away with murder while leaving white cops baffled. He does it again here, as his underdog hero takes up a cop's unwitting suggestion that a pet cobra could be used against an oppressor. The hero figures out an alibi for his snake all by himself, and is safely off to China, albeit to fight the Japs, before the dumb cops are any wiser. While pulp Chinatown has the allure of sheer difference, its lasting appeal must have something to do with the idea that normal American rules don't apply there, yet some sort of justice is served. They're some of the most fascinating, if sometimes also the most repellent stuff you can read in pulps.

Donald Barr Chidsey returns with the novelet "Flaming Acres," the prolific pulpster's most outrageous story yet during our survey. At least it's outrageous by our 21st standards the way the movie Reefer Madness is. In this one an abandoned real estate project is used as a hideout for gangsters growing "Muggles ... Grifo, mari, moota" -- marihuana!

It is known in Africa as Cannabis Sativa, colloquially dogga, choras, Leainba, or, in Morocco, schira. Cannabis Indica, or Indian hemp, comes sometimes in the form of bhang ("cementer of friendship"), a coarse powder; sometimes as gunja ("the laugh mover") in little bundles like tobacco. The Arabic name is hasheesh.
There is also a Cannabis Americana.
The three kinds are essentially the same; yet such is the enchantment distance lends, that people who speak with bated breath of the fabled exotic hasheesh sniff and shrug at the mention of marihuana, which for all they know may be growing right in their own backyard.
For it's a weed. It is not tropical or sub-tropical. It does not demand mountain air or desert aridity. In fact it is not fussy at all, requiring no fertilizer. It will grow practically anywhere. It seeds itself, spreads, multiplies. It is no fancy cultivated growth like the poppy of the erythroxylon coca. It doesn't any more care where it springs than it carew whom it kills. If its principal name happens to be Mexican, this does not cause it to feel any respect for the international boundary. It does at least as much damage north of the Rio Grande as south of that stream. It grows wild. It grows along railroad tracks and in vacant lots. Oh, it's a weed; though unlike most weeds it is not merely ugly but dangerous as well.

This story comes complete with giggling gunmen and other specimens besides:

A pudgy thing with a charlotte russe face bobbed smirkingly. It was about twenty years old and looked as though a breath of fresh air would kill it.
"Come in, buddy! Come in! You want a smoke?"
There were four other critters besides this worm, three of them horizontal, two completely out of the picture. One dragged very slowly at a cigarette as though it hurt him. He stared at the ceiling. But the upright one was chockful of animation. He drummed his fingers on the table at which he sat, chuckled and sang. When he saw Fred he counced up and down happily.
"Oh goody-goody! Company! [...] Sit down, sweetheart, and I'll buy you a pill. How'd you cut your head? Ta-ta-ti-ta! Look, you take the two low parts and I'll take the high parts and I'll be in Scotland before you. I'll do the orchestra accompaniment besides. All set? It's the quartet from Rigoletto. At least I think that's what it is. You'll recognize it anyway, once we get started."

Add to all this a dramatic scene in which the hero is buried alive in a truckload of pot plants and Flaming Acres is right! From the vantage of 75 years later Chidsey's story may be more camp than pulp, but it's bound to entertain one way or the other.

Rounding out the issue is "Crying Hound," a hunting story by Jim Kjelgaard, and Richard Sale's short story "Benefit Performance." Following closely after Sale's railroad ghost story, you expect something similarly Twilight Zoney when a superannuated Civil War veteran has a mental breakdown after his great-grandson jokingly accuses him of assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe himself appears before the old man's deathbed to set the record straight, but Sale turns the tables by showing us that Abe is just an actor hired by concerned relatives to reassure the veteran, and that the oldtimer knew this all along. It's a cute note to close on for this week.

I'll have to skip another week simply because I don't have access to the August 26 issue, but this feature will return the following week with yet another Richard Sale story, an E. Hoffman Price tale of the Ethiopian resistance and plenty more where those came from.


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