Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 3, 1939

Writing to "Argonotes," Don Wilkins of Chicago notes that in a recent issue the editor had wondered in print "why Phillips isn't more generally praised." Wilkins has his own idea: "I believe this is because his yarns while fairly interesting are juvenile college-sports stuff." The subject is Judson P. Phillips, and Wilkins, presumably, doesn't know that Phillips has adopted, perhaps for exactly the reason Wilkins proposes, the secret identity of Hugh Pentecost for the serial "Cancelled in Red," which concludes this week. It entertainingly solves several mysteries at once as characters are exposed as heels without being the actual murderer of the story. No juvenile stuff by 1939 standards, but there had to be a market for Phillips's normal output, since he gets this week's cover for his baseball story, "The Wingless Wonder." Phillips changed with the seasons, tackling football in fall and hockey in winter. He was one of the top writers in the sports genre, perhaps the most obsolete of pulp genres. Sports story magazines abounded in the pulp era, along with more specific mags dedicated to baseball, football, boxing, etc. There's no market for such stuff today, except maybe in juvenile fiction, though the genre survives in cinema, mainly in the form of inspirational-coach pictures. Sports stories date back to dime novels and the archetypal adventures of Frank Merriwell. I expected sports pulp to be Horatio Alger type stuff -- character-building material in which hard work and perseverance are rewarded with victories. "Wingless Wonder" isn't quite that. The hero is a veteran pitcher whose arm is breaking down, who's been advised by his doctor not to pitch for the rest of the season. But he can't let his team down during a crucial series, despite the entreaties of his wife. He does not prevail. His arm falters early, he gets shelled by opposing batters, and he's pulled for a reliever. But! His self-sacrificing performance motivates his teammates to go on a hitting tear, win the game and turn their season around. So my suspicion that sports pulp always has to have a positive ending is confirmed, but on this evidence the genre isn't necessarily as predictable, or as boring, as I thought. It was interesting to see the influence of other media in a subplot about a novice radio announcer getting his big break during this climactic series. Phillips clearly thought that it added a note of authenticity to mimic the typical patter of an announcer, and readers may have expected it since they most often "saw" baseball through the eyes and in the words of such announcers. Sports stories may not be what we think of when we think of pulp, but we'll be seeing more in this line as we work our way through the year.

Along with the conclusion of "Cancelled in Red," John Stromberg's "Wild River" takes a bleak turn as this installment portrays the hero's hopeless attempt to reconcile with an enemy, a man he accused of theft in the opening installment and who blames our hero for the death of his wife in childbirth. Stromberg writes a convincingly awkward scene as the hero tries to make up with his antagonist over drinks. The antagonist is at first wearily resigned ("Forget it kid. I just feel mean, I reckon."), but remembering only embitters him anew ("Get out of here before I kill you.") He'd tried to kill, or at least seriously hurt our hero earlier in this installment; the cruel irony is that he dies in an accident to climax the installment despite the hero's valiant effort to save him. Like I said, bleak stuff. It's too soon for responses to start appearing in "Argonotes," but I wonder whether readers' revulsion at its bleakness explains Stromberg's very short career in the pulps. Beginning this week is Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro," about two teenaged boys lighting out for the territory, so to speak, in a boat out of San Francisco Bay in the 1880s. Inspired by the exploits of a notorious mutineer, the boys seek adventure in the South Seas, but it's unclear after the first installment what sort of adventures they'll have. Readers are expected to identify with their adolescent rebelliousness, I suppose, and that isn't really too hard to do.

The other stand-alone stories this week include Crawford Sullivan's "S. S. Sesame," about a Capra-esque crew of allegedly-lovable eccentrics aboard the title ship; Jim Kjelgaard's "'I,' Said the Sparrow," in which a hillbilly poacher takes up bow-hunting so the local revenuer won't hear him, and helps a poor couple raise money trapping beavers; and Foster-Harris's "The Whiskerious Stranger," featuring his series character Mr. Weeble, a meek-looking man with (as you may have guessed from the title) a prominent mustache who sort of goes berserk when provoked. Philip Ketchum takes a break from his chronicle of Bretwalda the mystic axe with the western mystery "West of Water," but he'll get medieval again with next week's cover story.


1 comment:

Sai S said...

This series of reviews of individual issues of Argosy magazine is really interesting. Keep up the good work, and love the links to online versions.