Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPT. 9, 1939

At least one Argonotes letter writer has criticized Arthur Leo Zagat for the racism of his "Tomorrow" series of postapocalyptic adventures, which probably means that more feel the same way, but "The Bright Flag of Tomorrow," the third novella of the series, finds Zagat unrepentant. In this episode he's starting to fill in some details of geography and future history. The enemy that has conquered the United States is the "Asiatic-African Confederation," or "Asafrics" for short. It remains unclear whether the black soldiers against whom our hero Dikar fights are invaders from Africa or African-Americans who've gone over to the invader. As far as we know, however, our heroes are all white. We learn this issue that Dikar and his Bunch were evacuated as children to a mountain in Palisades Park in downstate New York. This surprised me because I'd assumed that these hardy specimens were out in the Midwest or further west. Dikar -- you may recall that the Bunch have all merged their old names into a single title, Dikar having been born Dick Carr, for example -- must decide once and for all whether to keep the Bunch secure on their mountain or to join the Secret Net, the American resistance he discovered in the last story. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue a resistance leader from a prison convoy taking him to New York City, where he will be executed and hung from the spire of the Empire State Building. No one's going to see him up there, I presume, but it's the thought that counts. Dikar feels responsible for his Bunch above all, but his mate Marilee urges him to take a larger view.

'Sure,' she assured him, 'Sure it will be the end of safety for us. But if we ever do anythin except make beautiful pledges to the Flag an talk about what we're going to do for the Flag and the Country for which it stands, there will be no more safety for us. Today or tomorrow or a year from now, the choice will always be the same, hide here on the Mountain in safety, or go down off the Mountain an say goodbye to safety. You've got to choose sometime, Dikar, an it might as well be now.'

Again, Zagat throws in an occasional "an" in place of "and" to remind us that the Bunch suffer, to some extent, from arrested development. That comes across most quaintly as the gang recites the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and in the significance attributed to one girl's doing so with her fingers crossed! That's Bessalton, who had been the mate of Dikar's traitorous rival, who was killed in the previous story. Marilee fears that she may prove a traitor, too, but Dikar sways Bessalton by making her remember the childhood trauma of bombing raids and narrow escapes, while the old-timers Dikar rescued last time turn her for good by teaching what I guess is Zagat's moral for his 1939 readers. America fell, they explain, because we did not bother helping other countries when they were attacked. Bessalton is a spokesperson for isolationism, urging the Bunch to stay on their mountain, but she learns that "when we decided to leave the stranger peoples to fight alone, we decided that we, too, would have to fight alone, and doomed ourselves to certain defeat." This persuades Bessalton that "The Mountain is not our home. America is our home. All America." And so the Bunch comes down from the mountain to kill a bunch of black and yellow men and rescue the captive patriot. Along the way they encounter some "Beast-Folk" -- hillbillies, basically, who've survived on their own without joining the resistance yet come around also to the mission of restoring America. Needless to say, "Anothier Stirring Adventure of Dikar and the Bunch Will Appear in the Argosy Soon."


Well, you can't top that, but this issue has some good serials and good stories. Luke Short's Hurricane Range is reliably good while the conclusion of Roy S. DeHorn's two-parter Men With No Master manages to make a protracted effort to knock down a heavy door with a primitive cannon surprisingly suspenseful and entertaining. Fred MacIsaac and C. W. Harkins' River Rogues is a bit harder to take, being written in a sort of hillbilly dialect and reading perhaps more racist, in its portrayal of black Americans, than Zagat. The best of the stand-alone stories is Samuel W. Taylor's "Don't Laugh Now," despite a plot that must have been old already. An eccentric scientist and public gadfly with a reputation as a practical joker brazens his way through an authentically perilous situation because he assumes it's all being staged as a practical joke on him. Old the idea may be -- how old I can't say -- but Taylor makes it work by making the main character sufficiently likeable and simply by writing well. Robert W. Cochran contributes "Hero, Remember," which involves a disgraced plastic surgeon, a fugitive, and a pretty female, not to mention romance, renunciation and redemption. Kind of corny but not offensively so. Finally, western writer Bob Obets makes his Argosy debut with "Red Stallion," a tolerably brief piece about a young cowboy falsely accused of abusing horses.

You might think that Arthur Leo Zagat owns the word "Tomorrow" as far the Argosy is concerned, but Thedore Roscoe will prove you wrong next week as he begins a serial about undead soldiers from those European battlefields which, as this issue goes to press, are reawakening with a vengeance. Robert Carse also returns with a tale of Puritans and pirates while Philip Ketchum writes a western as part of another diverse lineup of periods and genres.


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