Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 6, 1939

Radio Archives is a leading publisher of vintage pulp fiction in electronic form. They have the right to reprint stories from Popular Publications, the publisher of The Spider and other hero pulps and the leading purveyor of the 1930s "shudder pulps" whose lurid, violent covers make them among the genre's top collectors' items. They've also started a "Best of Argosy" series, given that Popular bought Argosy from the moribund Munsey group at the end of 1942. The first volume of the series was a selection of George F. Worts's adventure stories about Peter the Brazen, i.e. the original man of bronze. The second and latest reprints "Minions of the Moon." Of all the generations of stories from Argosy, Radio Archives had to choose the serial I've described as a piece of crap for the last two weeks. What do they see in William Grey Beyer's mock epic, which concludes this week? Search me. To recap: a 1939 dude goes into suspended animation after undergoing an experimental anaesthesia and wakes up thousands of years later. Civilization has gone smash and reformed in odd fragments from different eras. Hence he encounters reconstituted Vikings -- literally, they talk Old Norse and worship Odin. More importantly, he encounters Omega, the disembodied brain who is the last survivor of the Moon's indigenous culture. Omega is a clear forerunner of The Great Gazoo; the attitude is definitely similar. Though he can possess human bodies when he pleases, Omega needs our hero to fight for him a battle against two Earthlings -- Russians, in fact, -- who have evolved super-brains like himself, albeit hostile and domineering, as Russians, some would say, have always been and always will be.

In this third and mercifully last chapter Omega requires our hero to win leadership of the Vikings by proving his hitherto-unknown prowess at axe-throwing, in order to lead their assault on the citadel of the Russian brains. The brains fight back by summoning an illusory army of Mongols, perhaps recalling that Mongols kicked Russian ass historically. This idea of people from different eras encountering one another in timeless circumstances must have been popular with writers and readers of "fantastics," on the evidence of this and Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time." But the gimmickry makes theses stories seem puerile to me. This is a comedy, after all, so maybe people just enjoyed the humor of Omega's insults and the hero's 1939-vintage snappy patter. I will admit that this chapter proved more interesting to read once Beyer let Omega opine about humanity's shortcomings.

"I know," agreed Mark, "And the logical inference is: Fifty billion humans can't be wrong. There must be a deity."
"Nonsense, my superstitious idiot. Among humans, majorities have always been wrong, and you know it. Cite one instance where a majority has been right. I dare you!"
Mark thought for a minute. "There must be one somewhere..."
"There isn't. That is why man is where he is today. Majorities rule and majorities are always wrong. The multitude always allows itself to be swayed by some loudmouth who promises a lot, but who really holds his own interests paramount. Now, now ... I'll admit there have been some really selfless men who did manage to get a following. Confucius, Christ, a few others... But the reason they ultimately failed lay not in their lack of merit, but in the crass stupidity of those they tried to help. A race who, in a fevered instant, could forget all the benevolent teachings pounded into them for generations and foolishly follow a madman into war. I don't know why somebody hasn't destroyed the race long ago. If it wasn't against my principles, I would have done it myself."

Remember that Beyer wrote on the brink of World War II, which most thinking people seem to have expected, anticipating a showdown with fascism if not also with Stalinist communism down the line. So anticipating, Argosy readers may have found Minions blackly comic when it simply seems silly now. The past doesn't always translate perfectly.

This week's cover feature is the new serial, a pre-publication winner of the annual Red Badge Mystery prize from the Dodd Mead publishing company. In last week's "Looking Ahead" preview section, the editors announced Hugh Pentecost as a new author, but he was nothing of the sort. Only 36 this year, he had already publishing in Argosy since 1926 under his real name, Judson Philips. While he'd published detective stories as Philips, most notably the "Park Avenue Hunt Club" series in Munsey's Detective Fiction Weekly, the author had evolved by the 1930s into a sports fiction specialist. He may have adopted the Pentecost pseudonym to avoid typecasting, so to speak, or in the hope of getting his work taken more seriously. His plan seems to have worked; as Pentecost, he became president of the Mystery Writers of America, was proclaimed a grandmaster in the 1970s, and continued publishing in the surviving mystery mags until his death in 1989. It all begins with "Cancelled in Red," which opens without any murders. Pentecost takes his time building up anticipation of a murder in future chapters, introducing the likely victim, a corrupt stamp collector, and all the potential killers he's victimized. It reads easily enough, but we won't really see where it's going until future chapters.

Our name-above-the-title novelet writers this week may be familiar now, and they will be before we're done. Richard Sale leads the issue off with "The Rebels are Coming!" in which a small-town Pennsylvania doctor matches wits with Robert E. Lee before the battle of Gettysburg. The doctor thinks he can delay Lee's invasion for a crucial time by convincing the Rebel general to march around his town to avoid an epidemic. It becomes an entertaining mind game as Lee suspects a con from the beginning yet can't dismiss the possibility that the doctor is telling the truth. Deeper inside, Donald Barr Chidsey returns with "The Lizard Man." The title character is no mutant or monster, but a gangster hiding out on a South Seas island, having learned his way around the mountains to the point that he seems to crawl across them like a lizard. This fugitive has grown homesick, and Chidsey makes him almost sympathetic for a chapter before having him kidnap a millionaire tourist. The story then becomes an archetypal tale of a virtuous servant of an unworthy master, as a much-abused secretary, formerly a social peer of his present boss, has to save the day while his employer whines and whimpers. It was disappointing to see the gangster prove no more than a plain villain after his introduction, but Chidsey knows how to keep readers interested and satisfied.

That's more than I can say about some of the other stories this issue. In fact, I'll let them pass without comment and close with another thumbs-up for the latest chapter of Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock," in which dark forces conspire to eliminate the serial's enigmatic assassin for a crime he apparently didn't commit. The suspicious circumstances of his demise -- shot while trying to escape with a smuggled gun with dud rounds -- points our hero toward the actual person out to provoke a range war. This serial concludes next week, while Chidsey and Sale return, as does Bretwalda the magic axe, and we take another visit to the Chinatown of the pulp imagination.


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