The pulps were packed to the gunwales with the scum of the earth, too, and whether they were Mississippi river pirates or the pure-d Top of the Line Spanish Main Bounders, just about every adventure pulp spilled a dead man's chest of ink to recount their stories. Now it's our turn. We've sailed through some of the most likely magazines in our collections -- and some of the least likely, too -- and found buried treasure. Why not heave to for a spell and let us tell you about them?
:: Jerry Page and Jerry Burge
ay for His Excellency!" by Arthur D. Howden Smith appears in a 1935 issue of Adventure, and was reprinted in the April, 1951 issue, which is where I read it. In 1951, Popular was trying to save its line of pulps by going dignified. Small size (though not quite so degradingly small as "digest"), no illustrations, "literary" blurbs about the author, not the story, and dull covers illustrations. We all know how well that worked, too, don't we? But damned good stories, and a liberal dose of carefully chosen reprints to guarantee it.
The Picaroon, Captain Richard Paradene, has been joining with less reputable friends to raid the wrong ports and ships. When the authorities become suspicious, he devises a trick to make them think he's as opposed to piracy as they are. And they fall for it.
In the February 1942 Unknown, L. Sprague de Camp (under his penname J. Wellington Wells) reviews a book of fantasy stories that happens to contain H.P. Lovecraft's "In the Vault." In describing how Lovecraft mimicked the style of Edgar Allan Poe, de Camp draws a comparison with Howden Smith's impersonation of Robert Louis Stevenson. One story does not a literary career make, but given the limits of length and approach of "Way for His Excellency!" that's a fair assessment of what's going on here.
And it's not a bad way to go. The story is rich in color, detail, event, movement and action. The people who pass across its pages stroll, storm, glide, swagger, prance. Preen and dash. They laugh, snarl, threaten, promise, boast and speak riddles. Their hands are never far from the hilts of their swords. It's all described in flavorsome language, with dialogue that's crisp and amusing.
If the description of plot a few lines back struck you as slight, it is. But you know? It took me an hour of thinking about this story to realize it. Maybe it is second hand Stevenson, but it's wonderfully entertaining.
:: Jerry Page
irates! The romance of the sea! Full-rigged galleons flying the Jolly Roger! Grappling hooks, brutes with eye-patches and daggers between their teeth! Henry Morgan -- Captain Kidd -- Blackbeard! Loot -- treasure -- wow!
Well, "The Saint" by Max Brand (Adventure, August, 1937) has little of that, although it features as vicious a gang of cutthroats as one could hope for. Twenty-one of these brigands set out in a canoa (an oversized canoe) in search of a fat merchantman to loot. On the way, they pick up thirty survivors of a foundered English merchantman, and a little later the sole survivor of another lost ship, another Englishman who had for three days managed to retain his rapier while clinging to a bit of flotsam from the wreck. This is the "Saint" of the title, so dubbed because of his perpetual smile in the face of pain and hardship.
This motley crew encounters and -- largely due to the Saint's intelligence and fighting skill -- overwhelms a Spanish three-master. In the mid-17th Century there was small love lost between Spaniard and Englishman and the Saint is an Englishman who has a particular hatred for the Spanish, with more than sufficient reason. There is rich booty on board this ship, including a girl with an English name.
A lottery is held for the girl and the Saint "wins" her (the fellow who actually held the winning coin somehow turns up dead). The Saint assures her that his honor as an Englishman guarantees her safety and her eventual return to England. He later suspects a romance between the girl and a young Spanish don who has been gravely wounded in defense of the ship. But when the girl pleads for the Don's safety, she lets slip the fact that he is her brother. She herself is one of the hated Spanish! I don't have to tell you what happens next, do I?
Well, don't be too sure. The author's name is Max Brand -- a name often associated with stories that gave the reader more than he expects. This story is a lot of fun to read and the ending is satisfying although I would have been happy to keep on reading if Brand had kept on writing.
I don't suppose there was a sequel.
:: Jerry Burge
ou might think the first issue of Ziff-Davis's South Sea Stories would be a good place to find pirate yarns, wouldn't you? Well, apparently it's not. I haven't read the whole issue, but I've read some of it and I've looked at the others and there doesn't seem to be a pirate story in the bunch. How'd that happen?
Fortunately, there are some pirate articles, so I'll take a look at those.
The issue is dated December, 1939. One of the features in the book is called "True South Sea Stories" (it's apparently meant to be an ongoing series) and this installment, by Lyle D. Gunn, is called "Queen of the Pirates."
In the early years of the eighteenth century, a pirate chief named Chung-Yi became so successful that he threatened the Chinese Empire. In fact, he defeated the Imperial Fleet in battle. One day a young girl, Hsi-Kai, is brought to him. She is a prisoner and Chung-Yi is impressed by her beauty. However, when he swears that he will become her lover, she refuses to cooperate and before you know it, he agrees to take her as his wife. When he dies, she takes over the leadership of his pirate band. It's no small achievement for a young girl who started out as a captive slave.
The pirate force includes 70,000 men and 1800 war ships. Hsi-Kai successfully continues her dead husband's pirate raids and introduces the feature of going up rivers to raid inland as well. Her career is so successful that the Imperial government ends up asking her to become admiral of its fleet and installs her as a princess of the realm.
Gunn's article is well-written and interesting. I wish there were some references so I'd be more confident about the accuracy of his research. Who Gunn is, by the way, I can't say. South Sea Stories was edited by Ray Palmer and wasn't he always free and easy with house names? It could have been by just about anybody, including Editor Palmer or his assistant David Vern. It could even be by someone really named Lyle D. Gunn.
:: Ralph Casson
n a dark time before the last ice age lived the bravest, boldest, strongest and most handsome warrior of all time, according to Robert E. Howard, and his name was "Conan." Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" originally appeared in Weird Tales, May, 1934, but was reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader number 8 in 1948. The reprint quite possibly played a role in the resurgence in Howard's popularity; the story is definitely one of his best.
"The Queen of the Black Coast" opens as Conan leaps onto a trading ship, fleeing an army of guardsmen in Argos. Conan shouts to the bewildered captain of the ship that he shall "pay his way with steel!" The trading ship doesn't make it very far, however, before it meets up with the pirate ship of Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast herself. The trading ship is easily overtaken, although Conan himself is not. Conan, presented with an opportunity to kill Belit, decides to spare her life on a whim. Belit consequently falls in love with Conan, and she accepts him as her pirate King. From here we follow the two and their crew of black raiders through dangerous jungle waters on their search for a lost city. If there is a problem with this story, I haven't found it.
The ensuing adventure is a marvelous thrill-ride that leaves only Conan sane and standing, a lone hero on the shores of a distant land.
Robert E. Howard's writing has a sort of musical quality to it, a drumbeat-flow that begs to be read aloud. He writes in an almost epic style; always opening his stories in the middle of action, giving beautifully grand descriptions and painting his characters larger than life. The energy level in "Queen of the Black Cast" never drops below dynamic.
:: Kim Manning
Ron Goulart has remarked that if anywhere in history two people stood squared off for a fight, H. Bedford-Jones not only knew all the details but was ready to write a story about it. Bedford-Jones is believed by some experts to have published more pulp fiction than even Frederick "Max Brand" Faust. He was a mainstay at Blue Book and a fairly frequent contributor to Argosy and Short Stories, as well as a good many lesser magazines, from the teens until his death in the late 40s. Nobody short of C.S. Forester could match him when it came to describing sea battles.
So if you want to read a pirate story, it stands to reason that you want to check out Bedford-Jones. And sure enough, I found a few by him. The one I'm going to talk about is called "Sir Buccaneer," and was in the February 1st, 1932 Adventure.
"Sir Buccaneer" is Colonel James O'Brien. In 1693 he is plying the Caribbean in search of booty. The story opens with a Dutch ship becalmed on a windless sea, helpless to resist being boarded by pirates in, of all things, a Barbary galley. But the captain of this galley is not a Moor but Colonel O'Brien. O'Brien is a man of scruples and some certain nobility, as befits a Bedford-Jones hero, and before very many pages have been turned, he finds himself at odds with other pirate captains. He and his loyal crew find themselves defending their former prey against their own kind.
This is not a particularly complicated story but it is complex enough that further description of the plot and the relationships of the characters and tangled politics of that age would do no justice to it, and probably much injustice to your understanding of it. If you can dig this one up, don't let that scare you away. In a scant 23 pages, B-J tells a terrific story with all the elements you could hope for.
Bedford-Jones at his best produced the most consistently professional fiction in the pulps. He could turn a phrase with the best of them yet his prose never intrudes on the events he's describing. I am tempted to call his research impeccable, though to do so would be to claim a greater knowledge than I possess. It certainly seems impeccable to me. It is amazing that a man who produced as many pulp stories as B-J did could find the time to learn that much about history, geography, the sea and ships.
In the twenties and thirties his stories appeared in almost every issue of Blue Book and were almost as frequently in Adventure, Argosy and Short Stories, as I said. But he appeared elsewhere as well, wringing westerns, detectives, fantasies and adventure tales for scores of markets, including Triple-X, Weird Tales, Golden Fleece and Thrill Book. Among his pennames were Gordon Keyne, Allan Hawkwood, Capt. Michael Gallister and H.E. Twinells. In Blue Book you seldom found one of his stories with a pen name until he had at least three in the issue.
The sea battles in this story are well up to B-Js standards. The smell of salt in the air is joined with the acrid tang of exploded gunpowder. The floor under your feet seems to rock with the impact of cannon shell and ramming hulls. Wood splinters and men cry out, and steel rings on steel. To get any closer to the feel of battle, I suspect you'd have to be in one.
I'll settle for Bedford-Jones. "Sir Buccaneer" is one fine tale of pirates, Me Bucko.
:: Jerry Page
llan Vaughn Elston might seem n unusual writer to be turning out pirate stories and, in fact, you might quibble a little with me for calling "The Shanghaied Ship," a pirate yarn. But it is, however offbeat a one. It was in the December, 1933 issue of Adventure.
What makes it unique is that it's strictly a "modern" story -- that is, set in and based on events, political-economic events at that -- of 1933. But what really makes it unique is that it doesn't have any actual pirates in the traditional sense -- or maybe only one of them.
Confused? Let me explain.
Carter Pomeroy is one of seven passengers aboard the yacht of millionaire Porter Rice, wending its way to South America. The U.S. government has just ordered that all privately held gold must be turned in for paper currency and Rice, outraged by such effrontery, is taking a ton of gold coins, worth half a million 1930s American dollars, to a South American bank. Also on board the ship is the Great Garlow, a magician who has been entertaining the passengers with baffling magic. The Great Garlow announces that not even he, single handed, could steal and hide a ton of gold on board a yacht at sea.
Pomeroy, however, intends to do just that. And he's come up with a plan that would do justice to the boys and girls on Mission: Impossible. One afternoon he sneaks to the cabinet where the ship's bottled water is kept and slips a drug into it. The drug renders everyone aboard the ship unconscious. He waits until the last crewman is about to succumb and he tells the man he's just seen a launch pull up alongside the yacht. Pomeroy's story is that the Great Garlow was signaling the pirates from the deck. He then pretends to pass out and the crewman, not pretending, passes out as well.
As soon as the crewman is unconscious, Pomeroy gets up, goes to Garlow's cabin, throws Garlow overboard, opens the safe, moves the gold to a hiding place on one of the big lifeboats, leaving a single sack on deck where it will look as if the pirates had left it in their haste to get away. Because Garlow is missing, Pomeroy knows the crew will be searching for him, not the gold, and never look in the ten-gallon ration kegs in which he's hidden the loot. Pomeroy then drugs himself and goes back to pass out beside the still unconscious crewman. When he comes to, no one suspects him at all. Why should they? Pretty clever plan, if you ask me, and it all unfolds in Elston's expert hands with just the right amount of suspense.
Then Pomeroy learns that Garlow is famous for a trick he does where he's sealed in a coffin, thrown into the sea and escapes.
But no -- he was drugged, wasn't he? And had no warning, therefore no opportunity to prepare. And he did have to prepare, didn't he?
Elston is always one of the most satisfying crime story writers to be found in the pulps and the story lives up to the expectations of Elston's many fans. It's plenty of fun.
ecause historical fiction was so popular in the pulps, it was not uncommon to find stories featuring actual historical characters. Among the notables of history who showed up with some frequency were Cardinal Richelieu, Cleopatra, Nero and Aaron Burr. And, of course, Sir Henry Morgan, King of the Buccaneers, and one of the most ruthless, if not brilliant tacticians in the annals of war on the high seas. In charting our course through the flaking pages of pulp-bound pirate fiction, we encountered that rascal no less than twice. Unlike many who encountered him, we came away relatively unscathed.
"Galleons for Panama" by Phillip Ketchum concerns perhaps the greatest of Morgan's notorious accomplishments, the sacking of Panama in 1670. Spain and England have signed a treaty ending the war that legitimized privateering.. Finding themselves disenfranchised by the political maneuverings of their own government, the privateers joined together under Morgan to continue their attacks on Spain without the sanction of the Crown. Morgan assembled a fleet of 37 ships and led their crews up river and across land to the supposedly treasure-laden Panama. Ketchum's story appeared in the February 1938 issue of Argosy and was reprinted in Wide World Adventures No. 3 (Summer, 1938), which is where I read it.
Captain John Woodring is the captain of one of the ships Morgan has gathered for his expedition against Panama. Woodring has broken with Morgan. Fighting a Spanish man-of-war is one thing to Woodring, but` the ruthless way in which Morgan allowed his men to sack Puerto del Principe and Porto Bello turned Woodring's stomach. Woodring is in love with a Spanish woman and has reason to think she may be in Panama. He joins the expedition hoping to find her and perhaps save her from yet another pirate who is also searching for her.
This is not a bad story by any means, but like a lot of stories in Argosy during the thirties, it's a touch bland. The background is there but the characters are just figures made to move across an empty landscape. There is action and there is excitement, but it leads o an ending that's a shade too pat.
Jacland Marmur had been away from the pages of Blue Book for three years when he returned in the August, 1946 issue with "Pirate Blockade." The reason, of course, was World War II. He had served as an observer with various combat units in the Pacific. He had also produced two books, one of them stories of naval action in the Pacific (Sea Duty, 1944) and the other a novel called Andromeda, which was due to be published shortly when this issue appeared. "Pirate Blockade" was based on a legend Marmur encountered about a pirate who opposed Morgan.
The only thing standing between Morgan and the silver of the mines of Santa Maria is the fabled Captain Rafael Galdos. So Morgan blockades the harbor with his ships and takes prisoner Rafael's woman, Rita. Morgan, that master strategist, is so sure of himself that when he meets Rafael he describes the exact strategy it will take to defeat the pirates. It is a simple but direct strategy that cannot fail: but it will require one more ship than Rafael has. The deadline is at first light. With only hours, not even the fabled Rafael can build himself another ship.
"Pirate Blockade" offers an interesting solution to Rafael's plight, though I hesitate to say that Marmur quite makes you believe it. The story is well-enough written, with that touch of proper armchair dignity that occasionally seemed a major trait of Blue Book's policy. (I suspect Nelson Bond, H. Bedford-Jones and William Chester are the most fondly remembered of Blue Book's contributors because they usually avoided that characteristic.) I can't help wondering what this story would have been like in the hands of a writer a touch more flamboyant than Mr. Marmur, but it's still a pretty good story.
:: Jerry Page