Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPT. 23, 1939

Those medieval dudes on the cover this week aren't the advertised "Lords of Creation," however lordly they look. Look below and you'll see that they advertise Philip Ketchum's latest Bretwalda story, "The Long Journey." Ketchum advances his saga to the 14th century as the latest in his line of Wiltons returns to England from the wars in France to find his homeland in the grip of the Black Death. The cover illustrates one of the penitent processions he encounters during his long journey to find his wife and child, who are either evacuated or kidnapped. Inevitably there's a villain taking advantage of the chaos to build political power for himself. Less predictably, our hero has a mysterious sidekick, a Christ-like friar known only as "Friend" who exhibits strange talents at dramatic moments. Characters in the story speculate that Friend might well be the Lord of Creation, but he's more likely something Ketchum threw into his otherwise mundane epic to keep things interesting for himself. The Bretwalda stories aspire to bittersweetness, since the wielders of the magic axe are destined for great joy and great sorrow. The great joy this time is that the hero reunites with his wife. The great sorrow is that she's got the plague, and he's going to stay with her and most likely die as well, while their child is raised in safety to continue the line. Ketchum's variations on his themes help keep the series interesting for us as it enters the homestretch. We'll see the end of it before the year is out.

As for the co-cover story, the first chapter of Lords of Creation introduces us to two-in-one author Eando Binder. Sound out that first name and you get the idea. Eando combines the brothers Earl and Otto Binder. Otto is better known in some quarters as the main writer of Captain Marvel's adventures in the golden age of comics, while Eando's best known creation is probably the conscientious robot Adam Link. Lords is a work of naive satire in that the Binders really seem to believe that they're reversing a typical theme of "fantastic" literature. It's yet another sleeper-awakens tale in which a modern-day American revives from suspended animation several thousand years in the future. The twist in the opening chapter is that the sleeper expects to see a word of technological marvels and utopian civilization, and takes a stubborn long time to realize that the world of 5000 A.D. is actually stuck in a "Second Stone Age." A few wise men have mastered enough of our English language to communicate with him through crudely written messages, but the culture has reverted almost to a medieval level. The Binders expect this to shock readers, but my impression is that, as in our anxious time, fantasists of the 1930s quite often imagined a dark future. Things were pretty bad when Buck Rogers woke up, for instance, and in Argosy's last-such serial, Minions of the Moon, the sleeper awakens to find some humans reverting to Viking culture. The trend may have been different in the actual science-fiction pulps which may be the actual target of the Binders' satire. Lords may be ahead of its time in blaming the collapse of civilization on resource exhaustion, but the resource in question isn't oil but metal. Overproduction exhausted the world's ores, forcing humanity to return to wood, stone and animal power -- but once the Binders establish this misfortune, they tease us by closing with the sight of an airplane flying over the primitive future settlement. That's definitely a good way to keep us reading next week.

To round out the serials, the MacIsaac-Harkins dialect tale River Rogues meanders to its conclusion while Theodore Roscoe adds an international cast of suspects or victims to Remember Tomorrow, his mystery teasing murders in 1939 by undead casualties of the last Great War. It's still too early to tell whether Roscoe will keep it creepy or end up debunking it all. That uncertainty works when our hero, an American mystery writer, momentarily doubts his sanity when a German shows up asking directions to a military unit's position. He could be a ghost, but he's actually a tourist doing research on the battlefield -- or at least that's all he is for now. Written well before the second Great War broke out in September 1939, Roscoe's serial is certainly ominously timely, and it should also be fun to see whether he paints himself into a corner, and whether he escapes anyway.

The stand-alones this week include an unlikely crime romance from Donald Barr Chidsey, "Little Rat, What Now?" Bennett Foster's solid western, "Spurs for Sacatone," Richard Howells Watkins's sea story "Ticket at Twenty," in which a youthful first mate must thwart sabotage by his own captain, and Brice Purcell's weird tale "The Aztec Heart," in which the ancient Mexican blood keeps an otherwise sophisticated modern man alive after a fatal encounter in Europe so he can die the traditional way, sacrificed on a pyramid. Overall this one is a pretty entertaining mix of genres and settings with two strong serials and most of the rest quite readable. We'll have a new serial next week, and our first encounter in this series with the reigning master of Foreign Legion stories, Georges Surdez, along with plenty more besides.

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