Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 22, 1939

It's a stereotype that pulp fiction is politically incorrect. As products of a less enlightened, less egalitarian, less inclusive era, the stories in magazines like Argosy reflect the prejudices and sometimes the outright bigotries of their time. We really haven't had much cause to discuss this aspect of pulps so far, but this week brings us two stories in which Muslims figure prominently. They don't loom as large in pulp as Asians do -- later this year we'll see that Yellow Peril fantasies still sell well -- but Muslims in pulp share general characteristics of the non-Anglo-American world as Anglo-American readers imagined it. Above all, whether the foreigner is decadent (e.g. Chinese, some Europeans) or savage (Native Americans and aboriginal people in general), he is presumed to have a proclivity to torture, or a greater capacity or desire for cruelty than the chivalrous westerner. When the evil foreigner is a Muslim, his villainy hardly amounts to a critique of Islam, about which pulp authors are quite likely to be quite ignorant. These stories aren't about Islam in the way we might imagine an Islamophobic film or comic book today to be. There's little desire to blame Islam for specific Islamic offenses against the western world, if only because there hadn't been any worth noting for a long time back in 1939.

A story called "Crusader" was far less provocative 75 years ago than it would be today. The author is Robert Carse, a hard-boiled action-adventure writer who specialized in stories of survival and conflict in extreme conditions. He wrote a lot of Foreign Legion stories, Devil's Island stories, and the like, and he dependably delivers the appropriate level of intensity. In this story the Legionnaires are supporting players. The hero is a Scots soldier of the Black Watch stationed in Palestine, then ruled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. It opens on an alarmingly modern note as the hero witnesses the terrorist bombing of a bus. His unit pursues the perpetrators but he blunders into an ambush and is captured. It turns out that the Arab terrorists have an Italian adviser; before the outbreak of World War II Italy rather than Germany was the primary threat to peace in Africa, having footholds in Libya and Ethiopia. The Italian wants to destabilize Palestine by having arms smuggled in through French-ruled Syria. He lets the Arabs torture our hero to learn about British troop strength in strategic regions.

Donald Leith had locked his teeth against the racking agony of the torture. Razek was working with two firebrands now, in clever, darting kisses that knew how to rip the pain right up out of Leith's innermost senses. He shuddered. 
He must not speak, he knew. He must not say a word. But the agony was so great that it transported him into a weird state of dreaming, and the dreams filled all his thought.

Leith has a delirious and idealistic vision of the original Crusades. "But the ideal they had fought for still endured. There were men yet who believed Arab, Christian and Jew should live here in peace, be able to worship freely at the Temple. They were beyond the hatreds of sects and nations, were willing to die to keep alive the words of Christ." Carse invites comparison not with Arabs, but with Fascists who "believed in nothing except greed....When they won, the meaning of freedom, liberty and love would no longer exist...."

Finally Leith goes mad under the torture, at which point the Arabs stop despite the Italian's urging. I don't know if it's true that "It is against Mohammedan law to harm anyone insane," but pulp writers believed it. So Leith is released to wander into Syria, and into a Legion outpost. He slowly regains his memory and his sense of mission, but has a hard time convincing the Legion commander to take action against the Druse arms smugglers. "Cut out the foolish talk," the commander tells him, "The Crusades are all done."

"You're not man enough [Leith answers] to talk about the Crusades. The Crusaders were really tough. They came out here to fight for more pay than any of you will ever see. But at the end they fought for nothing except their pride as men. They figured that the women and children, the poor and the weak, should have a chance to live. So they stayed and defended town after town, and every man of the last outfit got killed. And now you --"

Finally the rank-and-file Legionnaires overrule their commander and join Leith in intercepting the arms shipment in the shadow of a ruined crusader castle. The good guys take refuge in the castle and Leith dreams once more of the Crusaders. The Arabs and smugglers are routed and the Italian is tossed into the castle's oubliette in "a good old Crusader custom." This isn't one of Carse's best stories; he usually isn't so idealistic, but people everywhere were getting caught up in a kind of crusading fervor as the menace of Fascism grew more ominous, and pulp fiction circa 1939 reflects that heightened earnestness and urgency.

Roy S. DeHorn's "Heathen Cargo" lacks that relevance; it probably could have been written twenty years earlier. It's about a ship transporting Moro Muslims from the Philippines to Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Moros were the Muslims Americans were most likely to have encountered in the early 20th century, our country having fought them (and subjected them to waterboarding) during the Philippine Insurrection immediately after the Spanish-American War. DeHorn portrays them as savages, while making fun of the white crew's ignorance of Islam.

"...But that's what comes o' monkeyin' wi' reeleegion. If you call this rag-head stuff a reeleegion."
"Sure it's a religion," snapped Captain Blair, "There's only about four hundred million Mohammedans in the world. You Presbyterians wouldn't be a drop in the bucket compared to them."
"Then it's a crazy reeleegion, this Mohammedanism," retorted Mac, "Beatin' there heads five times a day on them little carpets, chanting Allah-il-Allah, an' takin' a five thousan' mile trr-rip just to be going to church. Now I asky ye, what sort o' reeleegion is that?"

You'll notice that DeHorn writes in dialect, trying to render every ethnicity's (e.g. Scots) accent in writing. That's one of the most off-putting features of pulp writing for modern readers because it appears to stigmatize anyone who doesn't speak standard English as inferior. I have mixed feelings about it. I appreciate the attempt to represent the actual diversity of speech, and there's a kind of music to it when it's done well. But it's rarely done well because pulp writers too often depend on conventional comic-strip or vaudeville dialects rather than writing what they might have actually heard.

The voyage is complicated by the conflict between two Moro tribes. The conflict that divides the Muslim world divides the Philippines as well.

"If you think they're touchy with Christians," said Rankin carelessly, "you ought to see 'em fight among themselves. I've seen 'em stage a pitched battle in Marrakech that left a hundred dead and dying in the streets. The two big sects -- Sunnites and Shi'ites, you know."
"No, I don't know," said Captain Blair peevishly, "What are they fighting over?"
"Over some religious quarrel that goes a long way back, a thousand years or more. The Shi'ites claim the Sunnites murdered Husayn -- he and his brother Hosayn were grandsons of the prophet Mohammed or something -- and they've been fighting ever since."
The real plot of the story is the capture of the ship by a band of white pirates who covet the pilgrims' prayer rugs -- however well-worn they may be, they're collectors' items worth a fortune from the right customers. The captain must join forces with one of the tribal leaders, a former bandit in his homeland, to capture the pirates and reclaim the rugs. In addition to Scots, you get French and Swedish accents, plus an American Negro cook who nearly starts a riot by serving ham to one of the pilgrims in ignorance of Muslim dietary rules, and disappears for the rest of the tale. The dialogue virtually kills the drama, making it read very much like a comic strip, and not a good one, but the story retains a certain exotic appeal, if only on a camp level now.

Elsewhere this issue, Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock" continues its patient build-up to a range war in skillful style, while Jim Daniels goes into Perry Mason defense-attorney mode in the penultimate chapter of Norbert Davis's "Sand in the Snow." The new serial debuting this week, and getting the cover, is billed on the contents page as the "Greatest since Jules Verne!" William Gray Beyer, author of "Minions of the Moon," is billed as "a new and distinguished author." However, he's written a variation on the Buck Rogers theme, as a 1939 patient undergoing an experimental anaesthesia falls into suspended animation only to wake up thousands of years later. He meets up with Omega, a whimsical omnipotent alien, one of the last survivors of the indigenous civilization of the moon. There's a lot of wisecracking but no dragon and little real sense of the fantastic in this dud of an opening chapter, and there are two more installments -- thankfully minimal for a serial -- to go. This issue's short stories are Robert Griffith's "The Pearls of Fistiana," a would-be boxing comedy about a fixed fight gone awry, and Arden X. Pangborn's "The Wile of Wong Sun," in which the returning Chinese jeweler with the proverb compulsion helps a Chinatown youth get married while foiling a human-trafficking ring and again making the white beat cop look like an idiot.

Next week brings another Foreign Legion story as another of Argosy's star writers makes his debut on this blog, as well as the hopefully dramatic conclusion of "Sand in the Snow." Stay tuned for all that and more in the April 29 Argosy.


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