Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 29, 1939

Theodore Roscoe was one of the most versatile and divisive writers in the pages of the Argosy. In 1939 he had two vastly different series running in the weekly: his folksy-gothic chronicles of the upstate New York town of Four Corners and the tall-tale adventures of the old Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday, the latest of which is this week's cover story. Roscoe was also a pioneer of the zombie genre of horror fiction, with the 1934-35 serial A Grave Must Be Deep and the 1937 serial Z is for Zombie. I say he was a divisive author because, in my reading of "Argonotes" letters pages, his name comes in most often for criticism, or is mentioned as a reader's least-favorite author. Argosy readers were opinionated and the editors weren't afraid of criticism -- in this very issue one reader writes that Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had published The Synthetic Men of Mars as a serial at the start of the year, "ought to be in a psychopathic ward" for writing "pure tripe," -- but any individual opinion was most likely a minority point of view. You can tell the Argosy writers who were really unpopular because they only appeared once or twice in its pages. Nevertheless, Roscoe rubbed many readers the wrong way, perhaps because of subject matter -- not everyone welcomed "fantastics" or horror stories, or maybe because of something in his style I don't detect.

Roscoe is really a solid writer who can stage action well and create mood with care. I've read a 1933 story of his set during the Crusades with fight scenes that have almost a Howard-like intensity. The Corday stories are more humorous, though the real humor of them is usually saved for the final-chapter punch line. Corday in his old age is the narrator of his own tales, though he's usually introduced by an omniscient narrator in a framing device before he starts his story. Typically, Corday sets out to tell an utterly fantastic if not preposterous story about his exploits, then manages to back everything up with quite matter-of-fact explanations. In "The Wonderful Lamp of Thibaut Corday," for instance, he bets a bottle of Dubonnet that he can convince his English interlocutors that he had found a lamp with a genie inside during an African tour of duty and was subsequently transported to English soil. He tells of being enticed by an emerald-eyed beauty into breaking into a shiek's palace to steal the lamp of "Allah Deen." The deed done, an epic chase ensues, building up to the moment when Corday realizes that the girl isn't telling him redundantly to "rob" the stolen lamp but to rub it. Her accent kept him from realizing until then that she sought the lamp of Aladdin. Roscoe builds up nicely to the moment when Corday rubs the lamp and sees the genie, and the eventual explanation of what he actually saw is as nearly preposterous as the fantastic version. I won't spoil it since the story, and this entire issue, are available for your perusal at Unz.org, but I will say that that was one big lamp.

On the serial front this week, Norbert Davis concludes "Sand in the Snow" with a revelation I anticipated all the way back in the opening chapter when we were introduced to a millionaire who'd been disfigured in a car crash. I wasn't sure how that was going to fit into the story's two murder mysteries, however, but Davis puts everything together adroitly enough. Bennett Foster ratchets up the tension in the third chapter of "Rider of the Rifle Rock," as our hero gets pinned down on his own property by a sniper, and later meets an injured mystery man whom he saves from freezing just outside his place. Will the man be an ally or prove an enemy? While this is the best Argosy serial I've read so far (for this blog series at least), William Grey Beyer's "Minions of the Moon" (see illo above) remains the worst. It really lost me at chapter one and I confess to having only skimmed over this week's installment of insufferable whimsy.


The standout stand-alone story this time is Robert W. Cochran's "Sheep Dog," a survival story about a veteran sheriff whose pursuit of a fugitive through wintry wilderness nearly proves fatal long before he catches up to the killer. Cochran's laconic style reflects the hero's stoic urgency as he rescues himself, slowly, from a collapsing ice pond. The finish, after the near-frozen sheriff finally meets his enemy, is a little too convenient but Cochran's writing redeems it. Leslie T. White's "Semper Paratus" is a fish-out-of-water story of a Kentucky woodsman who joins the Coast Guard to forget, but chafes at the monotony of maritime chores. It's your typical pulp tale of a young man proving himself against doubters and learning the value of discipline, but there's enough novelty in the specific situation to keep it interesting. William Byron Mowery's "Angel Sharks" aspires to be a gritty story of traffic in illegal aliens in Florida, -- an "angel shark" is equivalent to a "coyote" on the Mexican border -- but while Mowery does a good job delineating his working-class hero he messes up by introducing a cartoonish villain, an angel shark who talks like a Shakespearean ham actor and kills the mood of the piece. Finally, Robert Ormond Case's "Make Hay in the Moonlight" belongs in a romance pulp, a lifeless farce concerning mistaken identity and the fate of a ranch. Here's an example of how tastes in pop fiction have changed in 75 years. At the end of this story one character reveals to another that she's not the person he thought she was -- and that's great because she's the one who really owns the ranch! From the current TV I watch, if that happened today the hero would go into an epic sulk over being lied to and would walk out on her, at least for an episode or two. We've gone from one extreme to another while missing the happy medium. The advantage is often with the old stories, but not this time. Still, Roscoe, Foster and Cochran, at least, make this an issue of Argosy worth reading, or at least worth sampling.

Next week a new serial begins, Donald Barr Chidsey returns, and a country doctor changes the course of the Civil War by outwitting Robert E. Lee.



dfordoom said...

I've read some of Theodore Roscoe's stories. Worth reading.

Samuel Wilson said...

Definitely. For starters, the entire Thibaut Corday series is back in print in a four-volume set from Altus Press, ad admirable publisher dedicated to getting pulp writers back in circulation. They're very affordable as e-books, if that's how you roll.