An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"After King Kong Fell" -- Philip Jose Farmer (OMEGA, 1973)

There isn't a whole lot out there that I hold to be sacred.  My relationship with the woman I love, that's sacred to me.  And strange as it might be to say, King Kong is sacred to me.  The original 1933 film is, I would argue, one of the finest films ever made and one that I never cease to want to watch.  The 1976 remake is better left undiscussed, and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake could have been edited much more tightly, but the 1933 film remains an undeniable masterpiece.  And to tell the truth, it's the only movie I've ever cried during.  When King Kong dies, I break down crying like a baby.  I have a soft spot for self-sacrificing heroes, and that's exactly what Kong is.  Watch it some time -- he puts Ann (Fay Wray) down, makes a slight, sorrowful face at her, and then shifts position to draw the fire of the airplanes away from her.  He knows he's going to die, but he'll be damned if he'll let her go out with him.  And that sends me all weepy.  Which brings me to tonight's story, by Philip Jose Farmer.  I've kind of got a love-hate relationship with Farmer; I like some of his work, but the Wold Newton Universe thing kind of leaves me cold.  I don't feel the need for all these fictional characters I love to inhabit the same world and cross over into each other's adventures, but I digress.

"After King Kong Fell" follows Timothy Howller, a witness to the events of 1931, as he watches the 1933 film with his six year old granddaughter and regales her with having been there when it really happened, two years before the film was made, forty years after the fact.  Along the way, Howller gets lost in his memories of that fateful night -- reflecting on how beautiful his Aunt Thea was, recalling having wet his pants in terror as Kong broke the chrome steel shackles, of encountering both Doc Savage and the Shadow in his rush to the Empire State Building, though neither figure is referred to by name or title, just by iconic description.  His reflections flow into the aftermath of Kong's fall -- the lawsuits face by Denham and others, the breaking off of the engagement between Ann and Jack (on the insinuation that Ann had been raped by Kong during that night, and Jack wanting nothing to do with her after that), and the notion that as a culture we need a Kong.

This has been the first story so far in The Big Book of Adventure Stories that I didn't really care for.  I think part of it is the aforementioned sacredness in which I hold Kong.  And part of it is that I just don't think it's that well-written a story.  It proceeds from an interesting premise and parts of it are excellent, but large chunks of the prose just don't work for me.

Farmer takes a hard left turn in the middle of the story for a long rumination on whether it would be physically possible for a 20-foot gorilla to rape a 5-foot human woman, ultimately deciding that, as a six-foot gorilla's erection is only two inches long, Kong's member would be an erect 21 inches, and that even if he didn't succeed, he probably at least tried.  This digression just doesn't fit into the narrative well at all in my opinion, and with its references to zoologists and biologists by name, it comes across as if Howller has researched in depth the question of how big Kong's wedding tackle was, as perhaps Farmer did.  And to suddenly fixate on "did Kong rape her?" for a couple paragraphs like that just struck me as disquieting.

Kong's an animal, a fact that Farmer states explicitly.  And while I can see where his justification comes from (the scene in the film where Kong rips off part of Ann's dress and sniffs it), ultimately I have a hard time seeing Kong as viewing Ann as anything but a curiosity and perhaps a pet, the way Koko the sign-language gorilla kept a cat as a pet.

OK, getting off that because it's grossing me the hell out...

My other big issue with this story is how easily and readily Kong slips into the background and is forgotten, or at least, becomes forgettable.  Kong is, to use Farmer's own words, a myth for the modern age; he was a god on Skull Island, and as a 20-foot gorilla, at least deserves to be paid attention to.  But Howller's mind wanders too readily to how sexy and desirable he, at 13, thought his Aunt Thea was, how embarrassed he was about wetting his pants, his memories of seeing Doc and the Shadow up close, and of course his horror and shock upon discovering that his Aunt Thea was the woman Kong picked up and dropped upon recognizing her as "not-Ann."  Kong isn't the focus of the story; Howller is.  And Kong's a god whom I feel deserves better than that.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"A Gentleman of Color" -- P.C. Wren (GOOD GESTES, 1929)

Beau Geste is perhaps the most famous story of the French Foreign Legion.  It's been filmed several times, most famously with Gary Cooper in the title role.  But author P.C. Wren didn't stop there; he wrote two sequel novels, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal, as well as a short story collection, Good Gestes, from which today's story derives, and a number of other Legion-related novels not starring Beau Geste and his brothers.  Something right off the bat that I thought was real interested is that Otto Penzler, in his introduction to the story, is careful to mention that the story was written in another time, one less politically-correct then our own, and that it contains elements that may offend modern readers.  There was no such warning before "The Wings of Kali," wherein the hero threw piglets at Muslim assassins to drive them away.  So why the warning here?

"A Gentleman of Color" concerns itself with Legionnaire Yato, a small, wiry Japanese man serving alongside the Geste boys.  A talented barber, artist, and fluent in English, French, Russian and German, Yato is as
inoffensive and polite as they come.  This, of course, attracts the ire of some of the more loutish members of the Legion.  An attempt to toss Yato in a blanket fails when Yato finally stoops to defending himself, beating three men silly and breaking the arm of Klingen, a fourth bully.

Klingen, an incredibly vain man, won't take the insult of a broken arm lightly, and begins a long campaign of verbal abuse and mean-spirited pranks on Yato, without actually touching the man.  He reminds Yato frequently and loudly that he is a colored man, and therefore inferior to white men, if he's a man at all.

The final straw comes when Klingen realizes that Yato visits one house in town fairly frequently.  Figuring he has a girl there, Klingen decides the ultimate insult would be to seduce her away from "the yellow monkey." Klingen being Klingen, his idea of "seduction" is to force himself on the girl he finds there and leave her sobbing in pain and shame when he's done.

When Yato gets wind of what happens, he plans to avenge the young lady very carefully.  And when he's done, Klingen will be the "gentleman of color"...

It seems so odd to me; of the three Foreign Legion stories presented in The Big Book of Adventure Stories, two are essentially comedies.  "Snake-Head" hinges on the fact that old Thibaut Corday has mistaken the legend of Perseus for a retelling of his own strange adventure, while "A Gentleman of Color"'s strength lies in its embodiment of Ambrose Bierce's statement that meekness is "uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while" and the irony that the titular "gentleman of color" is Klingen after suffering Yato's vengeance, rather than Yato himself.  It's odd to me because I don't see anything inherently funny about the French Foreign Legion; I would expect most Legionnaire fiction to focus on the hardships and the fighting, not on M*A*S*H* style hijinks.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Suicide Patrol" -- George Surdez (ADVENTURE, August 1934)

George Surdez is perhaps best remembered as the man who invented "Russian Roulette."  The term first appeared in an eponymous story written by Surdez and published in Colliers' magazine in 1937, though Surdez describes a much deadlier version in which only one chamber is left empty before spinning the cylinder.  However, Surdez was also a prolific pulp writer in general, having published more than a hundred stories in Adventure magazine alone, many of them stories of the French Foreign Legion, such as today's story.  A longer one, this one actually took me two nights to read but I was too tired to do any writing last night, so here we are talking about it all in one go.

Legionnaire James "Jacques" Carroll of Fourth Company, stationed at Kasbah-Tadla, has a problem.  Well, two of them.  Two recent American recruits, Dacorda and Zerlich, seemingly
Cover courtesy Galactic Central
offer nothing but trouble.  Dacorda is quick to anger and prone to starting brawls, while Zerlich, an older man, is clearly not cut out for the Legion life.  During an engagement with an aggressive local tribe, Dacorda takes a tumble into a ravine, and Zerlich is first in after him -- not to rescue him, but to rifle through his belongings as he lies unconscious and bleeding, much to Carroll's consternation.

To make matters worse, during a barroom brawl Dacorda's rosary (referred to in the text as a scapular, though the description given is clearly of a rosary) is stolen, and Zerlich persuades Dacorda that Carroll is to blame.  Carroll, doing a little investigating, manages to retrieve the rosary and finds the identity of the thief -- Zerlich himself? What's going on here?

Somehow, the viewpoint character is the blandest of the bunch here.  Everyone else, it seems, has personality and quirks and things to make them interesting, while Carroll is just a joe schmoe everyman and it doesn't work for me.  Even characters who only get a couple paragraphs of "screen-time" feel more fleshed out and real then Carroll does.

The relationship between Dacorda and Zerlich is nuanced and fascinating, especially once Zerlich's secrets are revealed.  In some ways Dacorda comes across as the better man - as quick as he is to anger, he's quicker to forgive and holds no ill will against Zerlich for acting against him.  In a moment of seemingly-uncharacteristic wisdom, Dacorda explains that after what they've gone through during their short time in the changes people, and changes their perspective and what they hold as valuable.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rogue Male -- Geoffrey Household (1939)

Hello readers, Bill here, taking (as I said I would) a break from The Big Book of Adventure Stories.  Finding it easier and more convenient to read on my Kindle while my girlfriend was asleep during this past weekend (not to mention less likely to wake her) then to pull out The Big Book, I took the time to read Geoffrey Household's classic novel Rogue Male, having downloaded it for my Kindle on the recommendation of Sai S over at Pulp Flakes.  It quickly proved to be worth far more than the pittance I paid for it on Amazon, but I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Let's take a look at the book itself!

Our narrator, an unnamed British sportsman and big-game hunter of undefined social standing but circulating in the some of the highest of London's social circles, decides to take a trip into Central Europe, Poland and surrounding environs, for a little light hunting.  While there, he decides to take a detour into an unnamed country currently in the thrall of a totalitarian dictator (which is totally NOT Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, wink wink nudge nudge) for a little bit stronger a diversion; to see if it's possible to use his hunting skills to get close enough to the dictator to get him in his crosshairs.  He has no intention of shooting the dictator; just a little sporting stalk.

Immediately after centering his crosshairs over the dictator's chest, our narrator is found and beaten into submission by the dictator's bodyguards and secret police.  Finding his story that he was just pointing a gun at Hitler to see if he could a bit unbelievable, our narrator is tortured and the decision is made to throw him off a cliff and make his death look like an accident.

Surviving the fall but with one eye and both hands ruined, our narrator begins to slowly work his way to safety, pursued across Europe and even into the heart of England by the Gestapo.  Much like the fox fleeing the huntsman's hounds, our narrator is forced to go to ground quite literally, burrowing into the earth to hide from his pursuers.

Effectively buried alive, he contemplates the events that have brought him to this point, and realizes that ultimately he did intend to pull the trigger and end Hitler's life.  Emboldened by this revelation, he steels himself to fight back against his oppressors...

Rogue Male was exactly what I needed after an absolutely hellish week at work (that may be spilling over into this week as well).  The writing is light and airy, and easy on my tired brain after a long day at the office. This lightness is deceptive, however; the book is tightly plotted and the tension is so thick you could cut it with a hatchet.  The book absolutely grips the reader and holds them, spellbound, as the narrator's nerves are stretched to the breaking point and beyond.  Truth be told, the only thing that compelled me to put the book down at all was being too exhausted to focus my eyes on the words.  Were this a weekend where I'd had no other obligations, I think I would have sat down and read the entire thing on a Saturday afternoon.

Check out Rogue Male.  Seriously, it's just that good.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Snake-Head" -- Theodore Roscoe (ARGOSY, January 7, 1939)

Greetings, readers, Bill here.  Well, my lovely long weekend with my lady has drawn to a close; she's on her way home to Maryland and I'm left with an empty bed and my own lackluster cooking.  But she'll be back to visit again next month, and we're looking at mid-January for her to move in with me, so that'll be nice and gives me something to look forward to.  For now, to fill her absence, let's take a look at a bit of pulp.  I actually read today's story on Wednesday night last week after posting "The Soul of a Regiment," and have been sitting on it for a couple days.  After this story, however, we'll be taking a short break from The Big Book of Adventure Stories; my reading this weekend, done on my Kindle while Gina was sleeping, consisted of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.  Also, during a trip to our local Barnes and Noble this weekend, I discovered that War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches has finally returned to print, meaning my decade-long quest to find a copy in good condition that wasn't priced into the stratosphere has come to a close.  I'm not sure if I'll return to The Big Book of Adventure Stories after reviewing Rogue Male or if I'll dive into Global Dispatches for a bit.  We'll see.  Today's story, a humorous tale of adventure amidst the French Foreign Legion, originally appeared in Argosy in the January 7, 1939 issue; also appearing in that issue was Burroughs' The Synthetic Men of Mars, which I'm sure I'll cover here someday.

Thibaut Corday, a crusty old storyteller known for his tales of service in the Legion, may have finally been outdone.  Finding a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology on a cafe table, Corday is flummoxed to discover that one of the stories told within is a story about him! Oh, sure, the author changed the names of the participants and "exaggerated" events some, but everything is essentially as he experienced it ten years earlier.

Corday's unnamed companion tries to explain that the book collects Greek myths, thousands of years old, but Corday is insistent -- this "Perseus" character is him! He launches into an explanation, telling of how he found himself isolated and cut off in a box canyon, captured by vicious Kabyle tribesmen after he wounded their Sheik's son.  He's to be put to horrible death: a starved rat placed on his stomach under a copper bowl, and a fire lit on top of the bowl to encourage the rat to dig down into his bowels.

Just before the rat starts digging, Corday is granted a reprieve; a delegation from another tribe arrives, one which was to bring the princess whom the Sheik's son was to marry.  They announce that they were attacked and the princess taken to the cave of the Snake-Woman, a monstrous hag whose evil eye turns all who behold it to stone.  When none of the Kabyles are willing to risk facing the Snake-Woman to retrieve the princess, Corday, in a fit of inspiration, bellows out that he will do it -- in exchange for his freedom.  The Sheik, giving Corday an evil eye of his own, agrees, but explains that no one has ever lived to escape the realm of the Snake-Woman...

Yes, it's a retelling of the story of Perseus and Medusa in 1920s North Africa, and you know what readers? It's a damn fine tale, and one that works out great.  I love that we're given a Weird Menace that wouldn't have been out of place in the shudder pulps like Weird Tales, and then the story turns around and, via the unnamed framing narrator to whom Corday's telling the story, a sound, rational explanation is given for it all -- not that Corday believes too much of the rational explanation, despite being the one to kill the Snake-Woman in pitched combat.  Corday, an uneducated and simple man, is content to believe in what his own eyes tell him is true and leaves it at that.

The story's pacing is tighter than anything, with the reader barely given time to draw breath between incidents of high adventure; Corday drawn into a sniper's duel with the Sheik's son, Corday stretched out and beginning to feel the heat of the fire and the claws of the rat, Corday being lowered on a rope into Stygian darkness to face off against the Snake-Woman with only a scimitar and a mirror at his disposal.  Roscoe's prose really makes the reader feel the tension of the race against time Corday has found himself in as he struggles blindly to make it through the cavern system inhabited by the Snake-Woman (and her hundreds of hissing pets) in time to save the princess from petrification.

Altus Press has been reprinting the Thibaut Corday stories in a set of collected editions.  I'm intrigued enough by what I saw of the character here that they're definitely going on my wish-list.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"The Soul of a Regiment" -- Talbot Mundy (ADVENTURE, February 1912)

Well, readers, this will be my last post until Sunday night.  Tomorrow afternoon my girlfriend's flying into town and I'll be too busy celebrating our anniversary to do much blogging.  But we'll see; she's always been very supportive of my writing and in the past has been more than happy to relax and watch Parks and Rec or nature documentaries while I write.  As is, I'm sure I'll still be reading in the evenings; it remains to be seen whether I'll get ahead on The Big Book of Adventure Stories or pick up something else to read for the weekend, something longer, so I can cover all my reading for the weekend in a single blog post.  I did pick up Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male recently, as well as a reprint of The Maltese Falcon.  I've got some Burroughs and E.E. "Doc" Smith on my Kindle as well.  However, speaking of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, we should address today's story.  Talbot Mundy (real name William Lancaster Gribbon; 1879-1940) was an English con-man turned upright citizen after moving to America and being "nearly killed in a mugging"; he turned to writing in 1911, selling his first story, the non-fictional "Pig-Sticking in India" and soon becoming a major contributor to Adventure Magazine and Argosy, creating such iconic stories as King of the Khyber Rifles and the adventures of James "Jimgrim" Grim; today's story, "The Soul of a Regiment," originally appeared in the February 1912 issue of Adventure and can be read here.

Sergeant-Major Billy Grogram has his work cut out for him; he could have retired on a nice pension, but out of familial obligation, he opted to continue his career with the British Army in North Africa, and found himself tasked with training the First Egyptian Foot in the ways of being soldiers of the Crown.  His commanding officers are doubtful, even dismissive of whether such a feat can be performed, but expect Grogram to do it anyways.

And Grogram does his duty and does it well; he trains his men to salute and to march in step, to follow orders and present arms.  He buys fifes and drums and trains them in their use, the better to march to.  And he teaches them about the Colours -- the regimental flag under which they will march, representative of their regiment's honor -- and why they must be revered and treated as sacred by the men who fight under them.

The First Egyptian Foot disappear in the chaos that was the Seige of Khartoum, and are assumed to have died to a man in the fighting.  But rumors persist of a strange white man followed by a group of native musicians, slowly making his way north...

That might be the most spine-straighteningly British thing I've ever read.  I'd mentioned previously, in my post on "The Man Who Would Be King," that I'm fascinated and fond of the Victorian Era; I feel like with this story, Mundy made Kipling look like a slouching American.  Grogram's extreme devotion to duty seems almost parodic -- comparable to Frederic's dedication to duty in The Pirates of Penzance -- as, starving and beaten, he escapes slavery and struggles and begs his way north to lead his regiment (what's left of it) back to British territory, but you know what? It's goddamn bracing, especially the final burst of the story in which every deprivation stamped or carved into Grogram's body by his ordeals is carefully delineated and the reader allowed to wonder over what sufferings he must have endured that we aren't told about.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Nor Idolatry Blind the Eye" -- Gabriel Hunt (HUNT THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR, 2009)

It's sometimes easy to forget that pulp continues to be written to this day.  Oh sure, there's Indiana Jones, of course, and Clive Cussler's ubiquitous paperbacks can be seen as a successor to the pulp adventure stories of days gone by, but 1930s throwback pulp is apparently the real deal.  There are people writing Shadow and Doc Savage stories to this day, Tarzan pastiches as well, and of course dreaming up new characters from old molds.  One of these is the two-fisted adventurer Gabriel Hunt, created by (surprisingly enough) Charles Ardai, CEO of internet service provider Juno.  The star of a series of novels, dictated by Hunt to various authors, (a nice throwback to how the Shadow stories were told to "Maxwell Grant" by the Shadow) Hunt is an independently wealthy globe-trotter with a woman in ever port and a side-iron that doesn't seem to stay cold for very long.  Today's story originally appeared as a backup feature for the novel Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear in 2009.

Malcolm Stewart used to be a soldier of fortune and an adventurer.  But a few years ago his wife died and he crawled deep into the bottle, drowning his sorrows in whatever cheap booze he could lay his hands on.  When a job offer comes, he sees it as just another source of income for his binges.  But his latest employer, a Mr. Burke, wants him to work dry.

This comes as no surprise, as Mr. Burke's job is one of delicacy and care; Burke was an archaeologist who found what he believes to be the Biblical Golden Calf, despite the Bible's claims that the Calf was ground to dust.  For laying a hand on the calf, the cult guarding it cut off Burke's hand, and for looking at it they sliced off his eyelids and dumped him in the desert to go blind, mad, and die.  Through sheer luck, Burke survived, though in no condition to continue the quest for the Calf.  To that end, he wants to hire Stewart.

Not sure if he believes in the Golden Calf, Stewart does believe in the money Burke has advanced him, and has promised as payment in return for the Calf, but doesn't forget that one of the qualifications that got him the job was "nothing left to lose."

Once in the desert, Stewart discovers the temple and cult guarding the Calf is quite real...and lording over them, invisible but sonorous, is an entity that introduces itself as "brothergod to the Lord you worship, and have been since men first spoke of gods.  I am many-named: men call me Melech, and Molekh, and Moloch; I have been called Legion, and Horror, and Beast, in fifty tongues, and fifty times fifty, but men also call me Father, and Master, and Beloved." Moloch offers Stewart a deal; Stewart's wife will be restored to him, if he will but bow down, and worship Moloch as a "god of might."

And after all, Stewart has nothing left to lose.

This was wonderful.  It read like a more horror-oriented take on INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, with its desert locale, hidden, trap-filled temple and sinister guardian cult -- and even in that an older man who has spent years looking for the icon of religious significance at tremendous cost emotionally and physically is forced to ask a younger, more virile man to take up the quest on his behalf, as Burke does to Stewart, calls to mind Henry Jones Sr.'s lifelong obsession with the Grail and Indiana's desperate race to get the grail to save his life.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a Lovecraftian take on THE LAST CRUSADE, because I don't believe for a second that Lovecraft could have written a word of this; though it does remind me of some of Robert E. Howard's Mythos fiction, in which square-jawed, stalwart toughs are brought face to face with cosmic horror and escape through a mixture of luck and chutzpah.

While Moloch is presented in the story strictly in terms of a Judeo-Christian framework (and its introduction, quoted above, might be the best of its sort I've seen since the Rolling Stones released "Sympathy for the Devil"!), I can't help but suspect that this is a ploy; Moloch, as written, strikes me as something far older than Christianity, or Judaism, or possibly humanity as a whole, something that has learned how to adapt and adopt different personas with different eras to better ensnare the unwary.  Moloch is something like a cosmic anglerfish, a monster that uses its victims' own psychology and worldview against them.  And I love this.  I love the idea of a monstrous "god" that understands psychology and uses that knowledge to lure and corrupt.  Too many times I've seen Cthulhu presented as a slavering tentacled Godzilla, hungry for brains/souls, and I feel this does a disservice to Lovecraft's original concept of the Great Old One.  Moloch, in the tantalizing glimpses we're given in the story, is a Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep figure done right, as far as I'm concerned.

I can't speak for the Gabriel Hunt novels themselves, but I really enjoyed "Nor Idolatry Blind the Eye" and call it worth checking out.