In case you came in late, the pulps were generally all-fiction magazines printed in a 7” x 10” size format, using a cheap pulpwood paper except for the covers which were on a better grade paper that could usually take color printing. Cover illustrations were garish because the way most pulps were sold was this: they were crowded into some hole-in-the-wall newsstand which carried every publication possible, and among those hundreds of newspapers and magazines, those that didn’t have bright eye-catching covers tended to not get seen by potential buyers.
The pulp era ran from October 1896, when Argosy adapted an all-fiction editorial policy and pretty much established the format. Such magazines were cheap to produce and easy to distribute so that small publishers could make a profit in the business if they flooded the market with titles, and maintained regular schedules for their product. This joyride lasted into the 1950s, though by 1954 almost everyone knew the ride was over.
With so many publishers producing so many titles, as you might imagine, variety persisted. In the 1920s magazines began to specialize. Argosy published all kinds of fiction. But Detective Story published mysteries and Love Story published romance; Weird Tales published horror fiction, and Western Story published cowboy yarns.
Not that the obvious and simple categories were all that was published. With 200 or so magazines being issued at once in the heyday of the pulps, a lot of specialization came into play. There were the hero pulps, for example, that carried novels each issue focusing on the adventures of one character: Doc Savage, The Shadow, Jungle Stories (featuring novels about the jungle man Ki-Gor), Dan Turner Hollywood Detective, and so on. There were stories that specialized in fiction set in particular locales such as North-West Romances, Golden West, Sea Stories and even Prison Stories. Pulp magazines ran the gamut from Air Stories to Zeppelin Stories.
So with this installment of PulpRack, we decided to cut loose and take a look at a variety of story types. We’ll do that on a fairly regular basis from time to time, just to let you know what sort of variety we’re finding.
Marc C. DeLamater:
Best known for his work on Doc Savage, Lester Dent was also a prolific free-lancer whose craftsmanship was well-represented by “White-Hot Corpses”,
Dent’s characterizations are typically fresh, individualistic, even quirky. Foster Fade isn’t your stereotypically hard-boiled newspaperman, but a befuddled dreamer who loves to fish. Fade’s secretary, Din Stevens, is a blonde bombshell in the Jean Harlow-Mae West mold, yet she actually writes Fade’s stories for him. Captain O’Sloud is described as looking like Santa Claus, yet Dent inverts our expectations by having him pull a gun on Fade.
Gadgets abound in this story, such as Fade’s use of a panoramic camera atop the Empire State Building to locate the missing Din Stevens. Also, Dent uses an abandoned amusement park, complete with dinosaur rides as a bizarre backdrop coexisting along the fringes of everyday life in New York City.
Finally, Dent knows the importance of an effective hook for his story which opens with a fugitive’s hand literally dissolving into smoke. The fact that the eventual explanation is grounded in reality actually compounds the initial horror of the smoking hand, and serves Lester Dent’s purpose of merging the macabre with the mundane.
:: Marc C. DeLamater
Diana D. Jarvis:
Three men are trapped in a lonely beach cottage. A vine that is not a vine moves at the window. Unseen things in the fog make sounds not quite like bird cries.
How did they get into this predicament? There’s this drug, you see, that allows the usr to tap memories of previous lives—well, you’ll just have to read it yourself. As the saying goes, you had to be there.
“It” is Henry Kuttner’s “The Invaders” from the February 1939 issue of Strange Stories. Robert M. Price reprinted it in The Book of Iod volume 7 in Chaosium’s Cthulhu Cycle Books, so don’t whine to me that you can’t find it. The series was probably conceived as a merchandising gimmick for the “Call of Cthulhu” role-playing game, but Chaosium should still be commended for putting these stories back in print.
Kuttner in particular is not as well known to readers as he once was. That’s always been a mystery to me because the man was very good at what he did. “The Invaders” is only eighteen terse pages, yet Kuttner succeeds with the spookular atmosphere effect that Stephen King failed miserably at in “The Mist,” even though Kuttner was still a young writer learning his craft at the time. (I would be interested to know if King ever read “The Invaders” because there’s a familiarity that nags at me.) At any rate, put down the King and pick up the Kuttner. If you want terror instead of mere gross-out, Kuttner is definitely the way to go.
:: Diana D. Jarvis
It’s the height of the Great War. “Jim Paige,” a lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion who has served in Indo-China is now as close to the German lines in Europe as you can get. In fact, he might be right under them. His unit is mining the German position: digging tunnels far under the lines to be loaded with explosives in the hopes of blowing up the German redoubt.
There are complications. One of the reasons Paige is assigned to this job is that he has a degree in mining engineering. When he checks the figures, he realizes the captain in charge has miscalculated the slope of the mine and that the end of it is not where everyone thinks it should be. When circumstances dictate that the German position should be blown up now, Paige has to report to his colonel that the position is far short of their goal and will do no damage to the enemy at all.
The story, by Major George Fielding Elliot is called “The Spider,” and that’s one of the other complications. The work is being done by Ammanite soldiers imported from French Indo-China (Amman was later absorbed into Vietnam), and they’ve grown superstitious and fearful of reports of a giant spider that’s prowling the tunnels. So fearful they’re virtually useless as miners. Moreover, when Paige checks the explosives stored in the mine, he finds most of them missing. The Germans have discovered the French plan and tunneled into the mine. That can only mean that they intend to blow it up. And a cave-in has trapped Paige and his Ammanite soldiers in the tunnel.
Elliot was one of the best writers of military fiction around and this story is packed with both action and convincing military detail. Military mining, a somewhat different process than it is with today’s landmines, was called sapping and the men who dug the shafts and risked being discovered by the enemy while all but unable to defend themselves, were called sappers. It was hard, dangerous work, where anything could go wrong.
The story is in the October 15, 1935 issue of Adventure, the one just before the magazine’s big 25th anniversary number. Popular Publications owned the magazine now and it was edited by Howard V.L. Bloomfield, who was doing his damnedest to maintain the high standards set by the magazine’s legendary first editor, Arthur Sullivant Hoffmann. As with a lot of Adventure’s fiction, the plot and background are more important than the characters, but it’s still a good story. And you will learn a lot about a job you don’t hear much about these days.
:: Jerry Page
Diana D. Jarvis:
“Sitting glumly in a corner of the cab, Marty Craig, trainer of Rocky Grenville, light-heavyweight champion of the world, watched the streaks of water on the windows and cursed savagely the day he’d first seen the champion.”
William Heuman wastes no time ripping away the veneer of his “Polished Performer” in the July 25, 1946 issue of Short Stories, to show why Marty Craig is so glum.
Grenville is not only dumping the trainer and manager responsible for his success, he’s planning to run away with Marty’s daughter. Problem is, Grenville’s not the marrying kind as everyone except the lovestruck Emma knows.
This might sound like a standard plot, but Heuman’s treatment of it is anything but standard. Heuman does not subscribe to the nice guys finish last philosophy—his nice guys are smart and capable, which is a very refreshing change from the anti-heroes of today. Craig’s strategy is a brilliant example of applied psychology that will amaze you even if you can’t tell a left hook from a right cross.
:: Diana D. Jarvis
“Lady of the Cannibal Islands” by Beatrice Grimshaw, appeared in the August 1938 edition of Blue Book. Ostensibly, it is “the first of a colorful series about Jimmy-the-rag and Nor’west Jane and the other picturesque people far beyond the South Seas tourist routes.“ Let us pray that it was also the last of the colorful series. Apparently “the other picturesque people” means the two other characters in the story although I always imagined that once you got off the beaten path in the South Seas, you might find more than four colorful characters. Perhaps I’m taking this promise too literally but it is the sanest statement made in whole story and therefore I am drawn to stay there. But just like the characters in this story I must carry forward with my mission into the unknown even though it is obvious that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Before I go any further, let me put my disclaimer on this review. It is probably my fault that this story made absolutely no sense to me. I probably read it at a bad time in my life, or perhaps I am subconsciously remembering a time when some little girl named Beatrice gave me the “friend” speech. I certainly got enough of those that I could not possibly remember all the people who gave them to me, so this is as plausible a theory as any other for why I had such a problem with this story. Having said that, let’s press on.
Let’s start with the main character, Nor’west Jane. It is love that has brought Jane to this tropical backwater with only four colorful people. Jane’s husband has been crippled by some as yet unknown illness/accident and needs an operation to restore him to health. She has left him at home while she travels the wilderness in search of native peoples with which she can trade.
Now we will give it to Jane that she is in fact very plucky. Most women would sell Avon or take up some other home based business that would bring in the necessary income to pay for the needed operation, but not our Jane. Apparently she has found a rich source of income trading with peoples WHO DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY! There may have been a part of the story left out here. Perhaps she has found a neurosurgeon who will take payment in shrunken heads or exotic bird feces. I will allow for that, but she should have seen the flaw in her planning when she could not even afford to buy all the consonants in her nickname. A nickname which is never used in the story…EVER. Why exactly do they call her Nor’west Jane? Why in the story do they call her Island Jane? Could it be perhaps that someone was smoking a little too much Mary Jane? We may never know.
My frustration is increased by her use of “magic” in dealing with the natives. By magic, I mean that she has found a drug in the wilderness of the South Pacific which when mixed correctly and given to a human in the proper proportion, puts them into an entirely catatonic state such that no one can tell that the affected person is not dead. Jane immediately sees the usefulness of this, as it will help her in her quest to get money from the money-less. Good old “thinking outside the box” Jane. None of this taking the discovery to a medical community who at the time only had ether as a means of anesthesia. No making a gazillion dollars selling her new discovery to a suffering world in dire need of anesthetics that were more effective and less likely to kill you or explode. No; for our Jane, the only way to save her husband is to squeeze one more crocodile tooth necklace from some toothless aboriginal chief. One might half wonder if Jane didn’t perfect her wonder drug’s use on her paralyzed husband, or maybe that is how he got paralyzed in the first place. With go-getters like Jane, you have to watch for that stuff.
And while we are on the subject of the husband, who’s watching out for him? Did she leave this paralyzed person sitting in a hot bath while she pretended to go to the market? Is he sitting on the floor of some room of their house yelling “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? With no one there to hear him, or help him, will Jane return to the house only to find the picked over corpse of her husband? Perhaps a better nickname would have been “Bag of Hammers” Jane.
Another theory would be that the husband only faked paralysis to get old bag of hammers out of the house. Perhaps this whole thing was his idea in the first place just to get him away from the constant “I love Lucy” kind of sitcom situations living with this kind of mental giant might produce.
Then there are Box of Rocks Jane’s friends. Like her trading partner, Jimmy-the-rag. I don’t want to consider how a man gets the nickname of Jimmy the rag. Perhaps he had an active sampan detailing business before the great depression forced him under. Maybe he had previous mob experience and all the really good nicknames had been taken. But the way the rest of the story goes, I suspect some other better-left-unexplained gynecological reference. Perhaps that’s how he and “thick as a brick” met.
Then there is the guy named Lombard. Who, although he is not even mentioned in the opening reference for the story, happens to be the one whose point of view is used to tell the story. Maybe that is why he doesn’t know to call her Nor’west Jane. He apparently is an anthropologist that had met “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer” Jane and Mr. The Rag on his last expedition here to New Guinea. He apparently hired them to be his guide to the interior, which would tend to call his own intelligence into question. Perhaps the qualifications for anthropologists were not so stringent back then.
He comes upon them when he finds that Jane has been up to her naughty old tricks with the anesthetic that she carries around. This time, she has found one of her employees has been at the bottle and so being the good natured gal that she is, she drugs him and dresses him up for his own funeral. A good laugh is shared by all when the man wakes, realizes that he is dead and begins to run about in horror. Ha ha ha, good ol’ Jane.
The victim of this little practical joke is one Bat Jones and having gone through this abbreviated twelve step program, he is taken back into the group with full acceptance. He is necessary to the group because he is the fourth colorful person and also because he is the only one in the group who speaks the language of the cannibal people that Jane has decided to try and recruit for plantation work. Hmmm, eat pasty white people or pick produce all day under the hot sun. Should be an easy choice to make. And with a translator that you have just humiliated and terrified in front of his entire hometown, what can go wrong?
So off they go into the wilds of New Guinea, following merrily along after “not fit to pour pee out of a boot with instructions written on the heel” Jane. None of them suspecting the completely surprising turn of events where Bat Jones betrays them to the cannibals and they start heating up a coal pit. Of course, it’s Jane to the rescue. Fortunately for them all, one of the little people eaters saw the whole trick with the making the live person look dead and wants an encore before dinner. Dinner and a show, this Jane girl is alright.
This leads to an interesting exchange where the writer chooses to use clumsily accented and unintelligible English/Australian dialog to explain the unintelligible pigeon English of the cannibal. It’s like watching a samurai movie where the subtitles are in Chinese. But apparently they all understand each other and Jane manages not to kill J T Rag with the whole anesthetic trick. When the whole thing is done, the cannibals are so impressed that several decide to enter into servitude on the white men’s plantations and everyone enjoys a heaping helping of Bat Jones.
I dearly hope that there was a sequel to this story but that it was a John Willie story and showed up in an issue of Bizarre where all the characters are tortured to death after being used for some sado-maniacal purpose. But that’s just me.
Now that I give it some thought, I don’t recall seeing many stories by Caddo Cameron in any magazine but Short Stories. I do know he showed up in some of the Thrilling western pulps in the 50s, and he had the memorable (and memorably titled) “Six Feet and Horse-faced” in Adventure in 1939. Not many people seem to know about Short Stories these days, but it was one of the best of the general fiction/adventure magazines, and Caddo Cameron and writers like him are the reason.
Mostly he wrote novelettes and short novels, with the occasional serial, but I did turn up a couple of short stories, one of which, “A Pig and a Promise” was in the April 10, 1946 issue. This issue has one of the most beautiful covers ever on a pulp, A.R. Tilburne’s painting of a tiger for Dan Cushman’s Oakleg McQuarrie story “The Canton Trunk,” which has nothing to do with this review. But that is one gorgeous cover.
Jerry Simpson is a young cowboy in love with Betty Jones, whose father owns the Jones Mercantile Co., in the small western town near the ranch owned by Jerry’s family. Jerry’s a happy-go-lucky sort with a reputation for trouble, but not for causing it so much as being around when it happens. He also has a reputation for never breaking his word, except to himself. Jerry’s main rival for the affection of Betty is Charley Watson, a much more sober and responsible man than Jerry. Jerry suspects that Betty disapproves of his rambunctious behavior, so he’s sworn to himself that today when he goes to town, he will watch his behavior and not do anything that might make Betty compare him unfavorably to Charley Watson. Because Jerry intends to propose to her, and he also intends that she will say yes.
It doesn’t quite work out that way – she doesn’t say yes when he asks her the first time – but he makes a good impression and Betty is clearly impressed with his efforts to behave. So is Charley Watson, who comes up with a plan. I said Charley was sober and responsible, but I have to say that the old boy does have his moments.
There’s a pet pig running around town, and Charley wedges the poor animal’s head into a length of stove pipe, aims him at Jerry’s horse while Jerry is trying to mount, and then sends the pig across the street straight toward the surprised horse’s legs. The story’s illustration, by the ever reliable Pete Kuhlhoff depicts the results superbly.
When he has time to think about it later, Jerry appreciates Charley’s humor; the pig in the stovepipe joke is pretty funny when you think about it, and Jerry would have enjoyed thinking of it himself to play on Charley. But after he survives his several minutes wild ride on a horse that he thought he’d tamed pretty thoroughly, the raucous side of Jerry’s personality is what asserts itself first, and his pal the sheriff has to toss him in the town calaboose.
That’s no big deal, really. Later tonight Jerry will have to share the facilities with a number of Saturday night celebrants – it’ll be standing room only in that small jail. But Monday morning, the sheriff will let him out.
Except – uh oh. Jerry realizes something. What had most impressed Betty when he talked to her was his promise to walk her to Sunday School and Sunday preaching. If he’s in jail, how can Jerry keep his promise? And he’s sure not going to break any promise to Betty Jones.
This is a really nice off the trail little western. Cameron is a writer with the ability to adjust his style and tone to accommodate the needs of a story. There’s not too much exaggeration, and if the situation isn’t all that original, the telling of it is almost perfect. And how often do you find a western where there are no bad guys, no shootouts, no animosity between rivals – just horseplay?
No wonder Short Stories’ editor Dorothy McIlWraith wouldn’t let Cameron sneak out often to other magazines.
:: Jerry Page