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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Peace Waits at Marokee" -- H. Bedford-Jones (ADVENTURE, November 1940)

I hope you'll forgive me, readers (or reader, as the case may be), if I break from my self-appointed schedule of one post per day for a bit; I'm working eleven days straight this week, long hours, to complete a special project at work, and I'm currently eight days in without a break.  This will be followed by a three-day weekend during which time I'll be with my girlfriend, and as such won't be spending much time on the computer.  That being said, today's story is from the pen of H. Bedford-Jones, often called the "King of the Pulps" for his prolific output -- somewhere in the vicinity of 1400 short stories and 80 novels, but who's counting? Set during the Second World War in North Africa, "Peace Waits at Marokee" was originally published in Adventure magazine in November 1940 before being reprinted here, in The Big Book of Adventure Stories.

By some small miracle, gunner Jean Facini escaped death in a fiery plane crash, guiding the plane in to a blind landing, managing to extricate himself from the plane before it burst into flames.  As he watches it burn, another plane - an English bomber - comes to a crashing halt nearby.  Three men tumble out, and introductions are simple: ANZAC pilot Jock Erne, reserved photographer Lance, and Cockney gunner Hawkins.

Bandaging their wounds, the four men decide to set out for the English outpost at Marokee; three days' hike across the burning desert sands, but it's their one hope for survival.  However, what the three Brits don't know is that Facini is a Fifth Columnist; while technically a Frenchman, he's Savoyard French, and would like nothing better for the Savoy to be returned to Italian control.  And he knows that Marokee was taken in a surprise attack by the Italians two days ago...

I don't have a huge amount to say here; not because the story's not good or not interesting (it is, in fact, absolutely gripping) but because I'm not familiar enough with spy fiction during this period to comment knowledgeably about its place in that lineage.

And arguably, while ostensibly a spy story and a war story, there's little emphasis placed on Facini's Fifth Column activities or the war itself; it's a story about men from two sides of a conflict (albeit unbeknownst to most of them that this is the case) forced to put aside their differences and work together against a common enemy - in this case, the desert with all its hazards; heat, dehydration, sunstroke, scorpions, jagged rocks...

Facini is our viewpoint character, and rather than being simply a two-dimensional sneering villain, he's shown to be a relatively complex character that ultimately garners our sympathy and even admiration.  We're given enough to get an idea of what led him to side with the Fascists - dissatisfaction with French rule of his province and a desire, most likely fueled by nostalgia - not his own, as he's depicted as too young a man to remember a time before French possession of Savoy, but perhaps based on wistful reminisces of older family members as well, perhaps, as an idealized unified Italian state as envisioned by Garibaldi at the same time as the French annexation.

Given his output, I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot more from H. Bedford-Jones to come in writing this blog.  I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"The Soul of a Turk" -- Achmed Abdullah (ALIEN SOULS, 1922)

Achmed Abdullah was the pen name of Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff -- the son of Grand Duke Nicholas Romanoff, a cousin of the Tsar, and Princess Nourmahal Durani, daughter of the Amir of Afghanistan.  This makes him the most aristocratic author we've had on BPaLGM to date, though he was hardly an active member of the Russian royal family; his mother tried to poison his father over his various dalliances, leading to a divorce and young Alexander being raised by an uncle who opted to convert young Alexander from Russian Orthodox to Islam.  After graduating from Eton, he joined the British Army and served extensively in the Near and Far East, building an impressive knowledge of Oriental customs and cultures that later served him as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter.  Today's story, the first of the "Sun and Sand" section of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, was originally published in Abdullah's collection Alien Souls, published 1922.

Mehmet el-Touati is Turkish peasant, in late middle-age when the call comes, chanted by the green-turbaned mullahs in the mosques.  The Russian is threatening to destroy Islam, they say, and holy war - jihad or, as it's spelled in the story, jehad -  is declared.  Mehmet el-Touati, along with ever able-bodied man in his village, signs up to do his share to defend the Faith from the Russians.  They form the Seventeenth Turkish Regiment.

And they march, and they fight the Armenians, because they are told that the Armenians are in league with the Russians.  And they march some more, and when the Armenians are all dead, they're sent after the Syrians.  And the Greeks.  And along the way they pick up some Prussian military officials, and the mullahs tell Mehmet and the rest of the peasants that this is right and just and good, because the Prussians are a distant sect of Islam, and their Emperor Wilhelm will help them smash the Russian and save the Faith.  Metmet has his doubts, but Islam is in trouble and the Faith must be protected.

Then one day Mehmet el-Touati hears something not meant for his ears.  He hears the Prussian drill sergeant serving his regiment as brevet-major speaking with his aides.  He hears tell that the Russians have been smashed, and now the Seventeenth Turkish Regiment is to be thrown against the British and French on the Western Front.

Mehmet el-Touati thinks about this.  He doesn't care about the British or the Americans.  He signed up to defend the Faith from the Russian.  With the Russian defeated, the Faith is safe and he can return home to his family.  But he knows how the Prussian deals with deserters.

Mehmet el-Touati thinks about this, and makes up his mind the kill the Prussian.

This is a very different take on the First World War then I'm used to.  Being an American, in history class I was never given more than the bare-bones outlines of the war before America's involvement, especially beyond the Western Front.  "The Soul of a Turk" instead looks at a theatre of the Great War forgotten by American historians - that of the Middle East, through which the German Empire aimed to cut off Russian military access to the rich oil and mineral deposits of the Middle East.  The Ottoman Empire, which made up much of the Middle East during this time, was allied with the German Empire against the Russians, hence the Prussian attaches to the Turkish soldiery on display here.

With its emphasis on the drudgery and discomfort of war and the insignificance of the individual , in some ways "The Soul of the Turk" reminds me of All Quiet on the Western Front, which would not be published until seven years after this story was; I'm not saying All Quiet was inspired by "The Soul of the Turk" in any way, just that both authors were likely drawing on similar experiences to guide their writing, though in Abdullah's case, filtered through a distinctly Middle Eastern belief in kismet and the guiding hand of fate in all things.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"The Python Pit" -- George F. Worts (ARGOSY, May 6, 13, and 20, 1933) PART 2

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we'll be serializing George F. Worts' "The Python Pit" -- an exciting tale in the saga of Samuel Larkin "Singapore Sammy" Shay as he pursues his villainous stepfather across the length and breadth of the known world to reclaim his stolen inheritance.  To summarize the events of last installment, in a bar in Singapore, Sammy picked up a tip - beat it out of a lowlife known to be working for his stepfather, Bill Shay - that daddy dearest was heading for the island of Konga, with its untapped pearl beds.  Sammy's friend Lucky doesn't like the sound of this, as Konga has an evil reputation, allegedly inhabited by brain-eating cannibals.  However, Lucky does a 180 upon meeting Dorothy Borden, a young woman needing a lift to Konga, who claims the stories of headhunters are all exaggeration.  The trip passes with only two hitches -- Lucky and a deckhand keep seeing ghosts, and Lucky falls in love with Dorothy.

A mile off Konga's shore, Dorothy fires off five shots -- a signal, she claims to let her father know she's returned, and five shots are fired off on the island in acknowledgement.  Sammy, Lucky and Dorothy set off for the island in a small rowboat, leaving the schooner anchored about a mile off-shore.  

Struggling through the jungle at night to reach Dorothy's father's house, Sammy catches sight of a towering shadow thrown against the moonlit cliffs, and realizes in a flash that he's been set up.  The bartender who pointed out Bill Shay's second in command.  The second in command, pleading for his life, bargaining for his safety with Bill Shay's whereabouts.  They'd been working for Bill Shay all along, to send Singapore Sammy running off to Konga, where his villainous stepfather was laying in wait to finish him off once and for all.  Kill him to square away ownership of the money rightfully Sammy's due, as well as Sammy's good luck charm -- the blue fire pearl of Malobar, easily worth $15,000 by itself.  

At that moment, Sammy and Lucky are beaten senseless and taken by Bill Shay's gang.  Reviving in his stepfather's presence, Sammy endures seemingly-endless taunting as his smug, smirking stepfather mocks him for a dimwit, a lamebrain, a sucker and a meathead, too eager to fight his way through life to think his way through it, and as such damned to spend the rest of his very, very, very short life being outwitted by Bill Shay.  Very, very, very short because Sammy's to die that very evening -- the full moon is rising, and every full moon the native Kongans go a little screwy and decide they need to eat someone's brain.  

Sammy better get thinking...

Bill Shay is my new favorite literary villain.  His boundless sarcasm, his casual dropping of pseudo-Confucian wisdom mid-conversation, how utterly full of himself he is and how endlessly selfish he is, quick with a double-cross, quicker with a triple-cross, and a pioneer of the quadruple-cross.  In my head he looks like David Carradine, and it's a heart-wrenching shame that David passed away without appearing as Bill Shay in a Singapore Sammy movie.

He's also, refreshingly, a villain with back-up plans.  Case in point, the titular Python Pit is one of several dug into the trails around the house -- about seven or eight feet deep, and well-stocked with starving pythons before being covered over in loose brush to disguise them.  Bill Shay had them placed on the off-chance Sammy fought his way free of the cannibals, he'd fall into the pits and become snake-chow; a fate that Sammy very nearly succumbed to.

Even better, in the finest of pulp traditions, he's a villain who makes sure he's made good his escape before tossing off a parting shot; better to live to scheme another day then risk it all on getting the last word in.

The Python Pit itself occupies a relatively small portion of the book, and at first I was slightly mystified at it being made the title of the story; but it really is one of the most thrill-charged passages in the entire story, Sammy struggling against the steely-strong coils of the python looping around him and drawing tighter and tighter, his bones threatening to crack under the pressure and his lungs screaming for air.  It's the kind of nightmare action sequence that Pulp was made for.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"The Python Pit" -- George F. Worts (ARGOSY, May 6, 13 and 20, 1933) PART 1

George F. Worts' name should ring a bell - he was previously featured, under the pen name Loring Brent, with the story "The Master Magician," earlier in the book.  Under his own name, Worts also penned a series of stories following the adventures of Samuel Larkin Shay, alias "Singapore Sammy," a young man out to right a serious wrong done against him - his stepfather, Bill Shay, not only skipped out on his mother with her life savings, but with the will that would allow Sammy to collect his inheritance from his grandfather.  Sammy has spent the years since then roaming the world, searching for his stepfather's trail in hopes of confronting him and reclaiming what is rightfully his.  This story, "The Python Pit," was initially serialized across three issues of Argosy magazine, and I'm probably going to do close to the same here, because my day job is in the middle of overwhelming me this weekend and I just don't have as much time to read right now as I'd like.

"The Python Pit" finds Sammy once more on his stepfather's trail, his hunt for a man reckoned as Bill Shay's second in command interrupted by a barroom brawl that turns real ugly once a squad of Japanese sailors arrive, "[turning] the Sailors Delight into another Manchuria." Sammy narrowly escapes, lugging the barely-conscious form of his friend Lucifer "Lucky" Jones under one arm and dragging the unconscious form of the Malay lowlife by the belt behind him.  With a little "persuasion," Sammy finds his stepfather boarded a ship bound for the island of Konga, east of Celebes, last night! With the little sloop owned by Sammy and Lucky, they might just chase him down!

Lucky Jones wants nothing to do with Konga, however, adamant that the island's infested with cannibals and no white man who's ever set foot on the island has lived to tell the tale.  He changes his mind, however, when the two are approached by a young woman, Dorothy Borden, who wants to charter their go to Konga! She explains that the stories of headhunters and cannibals are simply sailor's tales, and she and her father have lived alone on the island for close to a year.  A chance encounter with a tiger has left her father injured and ill, and she needs a ship to carry her and the medicine he needs to recover to Konga.

Sammy and Jones agree to take Dorothy to Konga, only for tragedy to strike: Lucky Jones, reckoned by Sammy to be the hardest of the hard, the toughest of the tough, the meanest, fightin'est sumbitch to ever crawl out of an Shanghai opium den, falls in love with her, and becomes a weak-stomached, starry-eyed sap for her.  He moons around the ship calling her "Booful," making Sammy sick to his stomach.

The trip to Konga is further interrupted by sightings of "ghosts," first by Lucky, who spots a greenish-glowing, disembodied face rising out of the sea, and then by the deckhand, who sees a skinny shadow slinking along the decks with no one visible to have cast it.

Worts' writing, I'm finding, has a special poetry to it, a poetry of raised fists and thrown weapons.  Sink your teeth into this: "His throat was as dry as gunsmoke.  His heart had become a throbbing ache.  His muscles were striking for a five-hour day.  He brought the club crunchingly down on an upturned ear above his left foot, and the teeth disengaged themselves from his calf."

Absolutely beautiful.

I also like the "Beauty and the Beast" vibe on display with Dorothy here; and I'm thinking this must have been a running theme in pulp fiction at the time, because the same premise - the toughest tough guy in the world goes soft after one look at a pretty face - is on display in KING KONG, released the same year; not just in the general idea of Kong being in some way "weakened" by his exposure to Ann Darrow; but in dialogue, as Denham warns Jack Driscoll of the consequences of falling for Ann, and of course who could forget the "Old Arabian Proverb" that opens the film? "And the Prophet said, 'And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'"

Or maybe Worts just had lady troubles.  I don't know.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Shanghai Jim" -- Frank L. Packard (SHANGHAI JIM, 1928)

Perhaps best known for his novels following the adventures of Jimmie Dale, "The Gray Seal," a gentleman-thief who broke laws to enact a greater good, Frank L. Packard also wrote extensively about railroads, exotic South Seas adventure, and the seedy criminal underbelly of New York City.  Several of his stories have been filmed; most notably, his novel The Miracle Man was filmed to great effect as a silent in 1919 featuring the great Lon Chaney, Sr. as a "cripple" healed by the con artist healer to convince others of his power.  A remake was filmed in 1932 starring Silvia Sidney and Chester Morris.  Today's story eschews railroads and New York City dives in favor of the simmering heat of the South Pacific.  Originally published in magazine form in 1912, the story "Shanghai Jim" was first published in book form in 1928 in the collect of the same name.

Bob Kenyon has found three enormous, flawless pearls, and with them, he's told, trouble.  His partner in the pearling business, a lean, bearded New Zealander named Captain Watts is wary of the pearls, knowing that the nearest port, on the island of Illola, is a cess-pool of criminals and lowlifes who would cut his and Kenyon's throats in a heartbeat if they knew about the pearls.  Unfortunately, Illola is also home to the closest good, square dealer in and appraiser of pearls, a bearded man known as Old Isaacs.  

Once Old Isaacs gives his opinion that the pearls should be taken to New York at once to get their full value, Kenyon goes ashore on a different mission - he's looking for Shanghai Jim, the evil bastard who murdered his brother years earlier.  His hunt on land unsuccessful, Kenyon returns to the boat - and finds Shanghai Jim standing over Captain Watts' corpse, a bloody knife in his hands.  A struggle ensues, and when the authorities arrive, all they find is Bob Kenyon, bloody knife in his hand and the pearls in his pocket.  Now Bob Kenyon has to convince the authorities that he's innocent and that Shanghai Jim murdered Captain Watts -- when the authorities believe Shanghai Jim has been dead for years...

"Shanghai Jim" almost feels like two stories in one; Packard spends a lot of time building up and laying his cards on the table regarding the pearls and Watts' concerns and Old Isaacs' examination of them.  After this we get a short bridge with Kenyon wandering from dive bar to dive bar looking for Shanghai Jim, and then the second story picks up with Watts' murder and follows Kenyon's efforts to escape the frame-job Jim has pulled on him.  We also get something of a how-dunit, because there's some effort to understand how Shanghai Jim found out about the pearls.  Packard feeds us a whole catch of perfectly plausible red herrings to keep us on our toes, and he finally reveal is fantastic, albeit abrupt.  

If I had to find fault in "Shanghai Jim," it's the way the story just kind of throws things at us to see what sticks.  There's a romantic angle where the daughter of the British colonial administrator is Kenyon's ex-girlfriend, whom he lost over a tragic misunderstanding years earlier; they reconcile while sitting in the dark waiting for Shanghai Jim to show up, and this kind of had me rolling my eyes; the story just kind of bogs down in them telling each other what they perceived as having happened that fateful day, and what actually happened, and the tension that should be building as Kenyon waits for Jim, knowing that at any minute the police could burst in after him, just fizzles out entirely and never wholly returns.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"The Golden Anaconda" -- Elmer Brown Mason (POPULAR MAGAZINE, February 20, 1916)

Largely forgotten by the passage of time, Elmer Brown Mason (1877-1955) deserves rediscovery.  While far from prolific and with no novels to his name, Mason's adventure stories ring with an air of authenticity lacking from many author's works.  Employed as a government entomologist, Mason traveled the globe, writing stories set in places he visited.  Several of these stories starred the recurring guide and adventurer Isaiah Ezekial "Wandering" Smith, a man whose sole profession was to help any "who wants to go after something unusual in a strange place." As such, Wandering Smith finds himself, over the course of several stories, in areas ranging from the Louisiana bayous to the heart of the Amazon.  Unfortunately, Mason's writing career was cut short after being gassed in WWI; while he survived, he was left debilitated to an unknown degree and his sense of adventure left him - and his stories.  Today's story from The Big Book of Adventure Stories finds Smith deep in the Amazon with a Scotsman and some big snakes...

Professor Ritchie "Reddy" McKee - a short-statured biologist whose flaming red hair and argumentative nature might as well be a neon billboard proclaiming "SCOTTISH!" over his head - has convinced Wandering to form an expedition into the depths of the Amazon with him in pursuit of anacondas for American zoos.  The two of them, along with Wandering's cook, Mose and four Mestizo guides, are having a fine time of it -- until "Hiram Jones" shows up.

Claiming to be an orchid hunter, "Jones" narrowly escapes a band of enraged headhunters by jumping on to Wandering's boat with a story that he upset the locals by grabbing an orchid growing in one of their graveyards.  Wandering can readily see through the fake name, and has his eye on "Jones," expecting a lot more trouble from him to come.

Things start looking up once Wandering and "Reddy" befriend a local tribe and enlist their aid in catching anacondas by the dozens.  When Reddy starts asking about other snake species, especially the venomous Fer-de-Lance, the natives shake their heads, explaining that all other snakes were captured and taken to the "land of the dead" long ago.

The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to the land of the dead is paved with megalithic stone blocks carved to resemble an anaconda twelve miles long, and at the end, Wandering and Reddy are flabbergasted to discover a white girl, nude except for a golden anaconda coiled around her body, being worshipped as a goddess.  And when "Jones" finds her cache of rubies, things become very dangerous for our snake-hunting friends...

"The Golden Anaconda" is a real winner, and I'm eager to acquaint myself with more of Elmer Brown Mason's stories.  The atmosphere of the tale is electric, and you can practically smell the jungle around the characters.  The characters are appropriately larger than life (especially the diminutive Reddy) but still find themselves in awe of what they encounter in the jungle, lending a mythic air to the place that just feels right.

The story is narrated by Smith as if he's telling it to us over drinks, and I really appreciated getting inside his head, seeing what he's thinking and his struggles regarding what is "right" to do about "Jones."

I have a soft spot for the Jungle Goddess archetype, from Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard's classic She to Marvel Comics' Shanna the She-Devil, and the nameless woman appearing in "The Golden Anaconda" represents an interesting break from the traditional formula.  Instead of a leopard-skin bikini, she's draped in the shimmering coils of a live, seemingly-tame (but woe betide he who lays a hand on her) anaconda; instead of speaking imperiously or grunting in broken "Me Tarzan, You Jane" English, she's mute; and instead of feral or domineering she's girlish and sweet.  It's an interesting change of pace, and I like it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Off the Mangrove Coast" -- Louis L'Amour (OFF THE MANGROVE COAST, 2000)

Best known as a prolific author of western fiction (having produced eighty-nine novels and fourteen short story collections at the time of his death, with several further collections to be released posthumously, in one of which today's story was first published), Louis L'Amour wrote prolifically across a number of genres, right up to the end of his life - his final novel before his death, The Haunted Mesa, being science-fiction.  Today's story is not one of L'Amour's "frontier stories," nor something as far out as The Haunted Mesa; rather, a story of greed and betrayal, the lack of honor among thieves, set against the crystalline waters of the South China Sea.  One of his later stories, "Off the Mangrove Coast" was found several years after L'Amour's passing in a carbon paper box L'Amour had taken from an aluminum factory in Germany at the end of WWII.  It was initially published in 2000, having not sold to the magazines during his lifetime, in an anthology collection under the same title.

"Off the Mangrove Coast" finds our nameless narrator -- known simply as "Scholar," as he'd brought a few books with him on his journey -- on a stolen yacht in the South China Sea with three unsavory characters from across the globe; Limey Johnson from Liverpool, Smoke Bassett from Port-au-Prince, and Long Jack from Sydney.  They're sailing in search of a sunken freighter Limey Johnson claims knowledge of, drowned with $50,000 in the captain's safe.  Each man dreams of what he's going to do with his share, $12,500...or will it be larger? For as Scholar reflects, "who can say what can or cannot happen in the wash of a weedy sea off the mangrove coast?"

The sunken freighter located, it falls to the Scholar and Limey to dive down for it, they being the only two with experience in a diving suit.  Braving hungry sharks and the inherent dangers in diving in ten fathoms of water, Scholar finds the worst perils are awaiting him back on the ship as he learns who's looking to kill for his share of the treasure...and who will put their life on the line to protect him.

With incredibly taut pacing and a lean, pared-down style, L'Amour has hit this one out of the park.  Add in an exotic locale described evocatively without losing that lean style, a bloodthirsty shark, double-crosses and a ghoulish method of sending a man to his death involving aforementioned shark...this story was a real winner, one of my favorites of the book so far.

The biggest highlight of the story, for me at least, was the climactic fight between Scholar and one of the men (won't tell you who) looking to kill him for his share of the treasure.  Scholar has managed to arm himself with a harpoon, but is hampered by the fact he's still wearing a bulky rubberized diving suit with weighted boots, and his opponent is unhindered and armed with a boat-hook -- which has a much longer reach then the harpoon.  L'Amour gives us a detailed break-down of Scholar analyzing the situation and figuring out how to fight effectively in these conditions, without losing high-octane pace the fight requires to maintain the reader's sense of tension.  It's really a great piece of work.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Hell Cay" -- Lester Dent (written 1939; previously unpublished)

Well now, here's something a little different.  Lester Dent (1904-1959) is best known as the creator of the superhuman scientist and adventurer Doc Savage, having written 159 Doc Savage novels over the course of 16 years.  Dent also wrote an assortment of other pulp tales, starting with "Pirate Cay" in 1929, and in 1930, he wrote the first draft of what would become today's story, "Hell Cay" (no relation to "Pirate Cay").  Apparently Dent then put the story in a drawer for most of a decade, revising it for publication in 1939.  It never saw publication at the time, however, nor during Dent's lifetime (elements from it did, however, apparently see print in "The Frozen Buddha," a story he sold in 1930).  The story's appearance in The Big Book of Adventure Stories marks "Hell Cay"'s first appearance in print.  It also marks the beginning of the next section in the book, appropriately titled "Island Paradise."

Pete Carse is a man down on his luck.  A former circus strongman turned proprietor of an inter-island airline
Lester Dent, looking the part.
in the Caribbean, the airline's gone bust and he's offering his planes for sale.  "For sale," however, does not mean anyone can just take them, and one night Carse wakes up with a gun pressed against his back and a couple of goons under the command of a giant bastard named Largo trying to commandeer his sea-plane -- the better to smuggle off a scrawny, weather-beaten man they've got captive. Carse manages to wrestle a gun and drive Largo and his men away, leaving the scrawny man behind as they escape in one of Carse's planes.

The guy can do no more than identify himself as "Agile Sharp" and force himself to vomit up a scrap of paper, folded tight and wrapped in rubber, before dying of a gunshot wound taken during the scrap.  Taking the piece of paper, Carse finds a tiny map to a tiny island.

Finding the island proves surprisingly easy for Carse, eager to retrieve his stolen plane.  Once there, he finds Sharp's daughter Theresa, sunburned and eager to avenge her father's death; her companion Jool, a tough-talking giant of a black man; Largo and his gang; and a secluded lagoon filled with a couple hundred years' worth of derelict vessels, the rotting skeletons of their crews still sprawled across their decks.  Jool calls it the work of a devil, and Carse knows he's stumbled into something far greater than a stolen sea-plane...

As much as Dent maintained no illusions about the quality of his work, once famously describing his output as "reams of sellable crap," "Hell Cay" is pretty good stuff.  The plot's a bit threadbare, for sure, and I don't feel like the one-sentence explanation of why Largo was after Sharp in the first place really serves its expository purpose, but such is life, and such is pulp.

What I really liked in the story is the "Devil" at work in the lagoon.  I won't spoil it for you, readers, because it's something to be read and experienced for one's own self, but I will say it's simultaneously wholly believable and the sort of thing Pulp is for.  It's killed hundreds on this tiny, nameless island and it nearly claims our heroes as well.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"The Sea Raiders" - H.G. Wells (WEEKLY SUN LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, December 6, 1896)

H.G. Wells has widely been considered the "Father of Science-Fiction," having invented the alien invasion genre with The War of the Worlds; the time-travel adventure with The Time Machine; and created iconic mad scientists with The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Wells was also a socialist and utopian idealist whose fiction existed largely to explore, often in a very veiled way, the social problems he saw in Victorian England -- for example, The War of the Worlds was a reaction to British imperialism at the time, with an invading race treating the English precisely as the English treated those they encountered throughout the globe.  Wells also wrote, in addition to the above-mentioned novels, a wide variety of short stories that often continued themes and ideas found in his novels, sprinkled throughout with ideas that have become absolutely prophetic; the 1903 story "The Land-Ironclads" predicts tank warfare while the 1914 novel The World Set Free features an atomic bomb that may have inspired physicist Leo Szilard.  Today we're looking at a short story, rarely anthologized (I think the only place I've seen it besides The Big Book of Adventure Stories is in a massive old hardcover volume collecting Wells' short fiction in the public library I visited frequently as a kid) but definitely worth a read.  You can check it out here.

"The Sea Raiders" tells of an unusual occurrence in which a shoal of large, aggressive cephalopods, Haploteuthis ferox  (translating as "singularly fierce squid") enter English waters and begin attacking boats and people.  The story concerns itself with a single incident during which the squid are encountered and human survivors escape to tell the tale; specifically, a retired tea-dealer named Fison, taking a holiday along the coast, spots a flock of gulls and jackdaws fighting over something pinkish in the surf, surrounded by several large, dark rocks.  Deciding to take a look, he soon discovers that the pinkish thing is a half-devoured human corpse, while the "rocks" are in fact swine-sized squid that regard him evilly and continue eating.  Deciding, in that wonderfully stolid middle-class Victorian English way, that the body should be given a proper burial, Fison throws a rock at the squid, hoping to drive them away.  This angers the shoal of ferox, which give chase, pursuing Fison up the beach right to the foot of a series of sea-cliffs, only retreating when a pair of workmen join Fison in throwing stones at them.

Emboldened, Fison and the workmen, along with a couple others, get into a boat to pursue the aggressive squid, and soon find themselves in way over their heads, hacking and slashing with oars and boathooks as the swarming cephalopods attempt to capsize the boat.  They eventually manage to drive the squid the cost of driving them straight towards a boat containing an excursion party of upper-class women and children.  Upon returning to shore, Fison looks back and sees the excursion boat, bobbing lifelessly upside down in the waves, with no survivors to be seen.

After this incident, the Haploteuthis return to whatever unknown depths spawned them, never to be seen again...right?

I think part of why I love "The Sea Raiders" so much is its utter timelessness and plausibility.  For a story that was written 117 years ago, it's held up remarkably well; much of Wells' fiction has become fairly dated by this point, but "The Sea Raiders" feels like it could take place tomorrow.  And given advances in marine biology, we're now much more aware of the speed, strength and intelligence of cephalopods then were scientists in Wells' time, making the notion of large, aggressive squid preying on humans more frightening then ever.

While Haploteuthis ferox is a fictional species, it bears similarities to both the Humboldt Squid (Dosidicus gigas, found in Pacific waters off California and northern Mexico), which can reach body lengths of close to five feet and has a reputation as aggressive pack-hunters, and the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux, which frequently reaches mantle lengths of over six feet (their overall length being mostly tentacle).  I'm thinking Architeuthis is what Wells had in mind with his Sea Raiders; There had been numerous beachings of dead specimens in the twenty years preceding the publication of "The Sea Raiders," especially in Newfoundland and New Zealand, both of which were intimately tied to Great Britain at the time and as such incidents from those countries, such as finding giant squid washed up on the beach, would have found their way into London newspapers where Wells would have read about them.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Leiningen Versus The Ants" -- Carl Stephenson (ESQUIRE, 1938)

I'm fairly certain "Leiningen Versus the Ants" was anthologized in a textbook I had in some high school English class I took; it's not something that was ever assigned reading in class, but I had a tendency to finish reading assignments early and look for something else to fill the remainder of the class period, and I'm pretty sure I recall reading part of this story.  It has also been adapted to radio a number of times, and was filmed in 1954 as THE NAKED JUNGLE, starring Charlton Heston as the titular Leiningen with Eleanor Parker and William Conrad (who'd voiced Leiningen in two of the radio adaptations).  The story can be read in its entirety here.

Leiningen is the owner of a prosperous plantation in Brazil (what he grows is never specified in the story, though a reference to granaries is made; the film makes it a cocoa plantation) who has received word that an army ant swarm, ten miles long and two miles wide, is heading in the direction of his plantation, eating everything living thing in their path.  Leiningen, an analytical man, refuses to give up all he's worked for in establishing the plantation and sees the ants, not as an "act of God," but as a problem to be solved, and one he'd already put some thought into before establishing his plantation.  Rallying his workers to him, Leiningen makes his stand against the ants.

He opens flood-gates and fills a 12-foot wide moat around the property.  The ants begin throwing leaves into the water to create a pontoon, and when that fails, begin to bridge the water with the drowned bodies of ants pushed into the water to allow the swarm to cross.

Leiningen sprays the swarm with gasoline, both to set them alight and disrupt their chemical sensory organs.  And if he had an infinite amount of gasoline, this might serve to destroy the ants, but they keep coming and coming and eventually he will run out.

Finally, with his men fortified in the plantation house, surrounded by a last-ditch moat of gasoline that has been set on fire, Leiningen conceives of a plan that might rid not only his plantation, but all in the area of the menace of the ants.  But to do so, he's going to have to venture out among the swarm...

"Leiningen Versus the Ants" is a classic story of Man vs. Nature, and makes a pretty evenly-matched fight of it.  As noted above, Leiningen is a rational, analytical man; he plans meticulously and for all possible contingencies, having allowed for periodic outbreaks of army ants in selecting a site upon which to build his plantation and in the design and layout of the property.  All in all, he uses his glorious human brain to its utmost in defense of what he's worked so hard to achieve.

On the other hand, the ants are soulless creatures, driven entirely be instinct and the all-consuming desire to consume, reproduce and survive.  No, scratch that; the ants on display here - gruesome creatures the size of a man's thumb and equipped with both slicing mandibles and a nasty, venomous sting - aren't driven to reproduce; they're workers and warriors, they're driven to ensure the Queen can reproduce.  The ants besieging Leiningen's plantation are essentially robots or zombies in their utter enslavement to the will of the Queen, wherever she may be in the twenty square miles the ants cover.

With their utter implacability and the gruesome manner in which they swiftly devour their prey (not, in general terms, things like cows or deer or people, but larger insects, spiders and scorpions tend to be fair game), army ants are a staple of pulp jungle adventures; a man being skeletonized by hungry ants is referenced in "The Master Magician," earlier in The Big Book of Adventure Stories, and of course they formed the basis of the "gruesome death sequence of Pat Roach's lookalike" in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, as much as I, at least, would like to forget that film was ever made.

Speaking of film, as mentioned above Charlton Heston starred as Leiningen in the film adaptation, and truth be told I can't imagine anyone else in the role.  Reading Stephenson's description of Leiningen, all I can picture are Heston's steely eyes and the defiant set of his jaw.  Talk about great casting.

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The Seed from the Sepulchre" -- Clark Ashton Smith (WEIRD TALES, October 1933)

For those who are aficionados of such things, the "Holy Trinity" of Weird Tales authors are generally reckoned as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Beginning his career as a poet with a macabre and fantastic bent, Smith was encouraged to turn his hand to prose fiction by Lovecraft, with whom he maintained an extensive correspondence over the years (though to be fair, everyone Lovecraft corresponded with ultimately ended up with an enormous volume of letters having been sent back and forth).  Smith's work lacks the grim goriness of Howard or the bleak cosmic outlook of Lovecraft, and instead brings a touch of fantasy or whimsy to the darkness; while many of his tales were fairly straight forward stories of ghouls, ghosts and extraterrestrials, quite often his stories would take unusual turns or contain hidden jokes (for example, in "The Seven Geases," the subhuman Voormis dwell in caves on Mount Voormithadreth - which sounds an awful lot like a lisped 'Voormis' address'). Today's story is more of a straightforward piece of macabre adventure, and can be read here.

James Falmer and Roderick Thone, professional orchid hunters, decide to try their hand at another profession -- treasure hunters.  Hearing rumors of a crumbling ruin raised by forgotten hands, deep in the jungles of Venezuela, in which unimaginable quantities of gold and silver have been buried, they set off in search with two local guides.  Thone is laid up with fever a day's trip from the ruin, and Falmer presses on ahead.  He returns withdrawn and taciturn, initially only saying that he'd found the ruin but that legends of treasure were false.

As a fever grips him, Falmer becomes more talkative; he explains, frenzied and horrified, that in the great pit that served the people of that ruin as an ossuary, he encountered the dried remains of some monstrous plant, its roots and vines threaded through multiple human skeletons, apparently having sprouted from the bodies of the dead; brushing against it, he got a face full of some grayish powder, like spores of some sort.  And now the pain in his head is becoming unbearable, like something inside trying to get out...

At first glance, this is a fairly straightforward Weird Menace story with human protagonists struggling to survive against a killer plant.  But looking beneath the surface suggests that there's a lot more going on here.

First off, it's kind of really left to the reader to decide if there actually is a killer plant that roots itself in the human brain and then threads its vines through the entire body.  Both men are stricken with tropical fever during the story, and the killer plant could very well be the result of delirium and hallucinations brought on by disease, dehydration and who knows what else.  Is the plant rooting its way through Falmer or is he slowly dying of some nameless disease up a forgotten tributary of the Orinoco? Thone is our viewpoint character here, and he's bedridden with fever from the very beginning of the story - hardly the most reliable of narrators.

But, assuming the plant is real, Smith gives us some tantalizing hints about its nature - and then leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.  Falmer describes the ruins as resembling no civilization's he's seen, and as being like something from another world.  Perhaps they are.  Perhaps they were raised by inhuman hands in some unimaginably remote epoch of Earth's past, and the plant was something that came with them from some other world to Earth.

Or maybe they're not alien; maybe it's some strange development, some quirk of evolution deep in the jungle that had its chance, didn't quite make it, but left a viable seed pod, buried in the ossuary, waiting to be disturbed and dispersed to try again.  In a world where there are plants that smell like rotting meat to attract flies as pollinators and plants that trick prey into climbing into a vat of digestive fluids, whose to say a plant that survives by rooting itself in animal tissue and feeding on that is unrealistic? And after all, there's no reference to the bones the plant had been rooted in being non-human...but, to play devil's advocate, there's also no firm evidence to suggest the people buried in the ruined city are its original builders.

Now I'm just going back and forth and it's making my head hurt.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Sredni Vashtar" -- Saki (H.H. Munro; THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS, 1911)

Happy Halloween, readers! While I'd originally intended to mark today by taking a break from The Big Book of Adventure Stories and talking about Robert E. Howard's classic Southern Gothic tale of revenge and undeath, "Pigeons from Hell," I happened to look ahead in The Big Book and was delighted at what I saw was next.  I'd originally discovered the works of Saki (real name: H.H. Munro) at least a dozen years ago in a slim book in my grandmother's house; the book included today's story which, like many of Saki's works, satirized his native Edwardian England, with a macabre twist to it all.  When I saw that "Sredni Vashtar" would fall on Halloween if I stuck with The Big Book of Adventure Stories, I knew I had to leave Howard aside for the time being and talk about this story.  Short, sweet and gruesome, this story (and several of Saki's other tales) can be read for free here.

Conradin is a sickly ten year old boy, and according to the doctors, unlikely to live another six months.  He lives in the care of his cousin, Ms. De Ropp, whom he privately refers to simply as "the Woman."  Overbearing and distasteful, the Woman's ministrations strike Conradin as cruel, pointless, and likely the cause of his deterioration.  For her part, while she would never openly admit to disliking Conradin, she'll admit to feeling no displeasure at depriving him of things that might be "bad" for him.

Conradin has two "friends," both of whom live in a disused gardener's shed at the back of the Woman's property.  The first, dubbed Henrietta, is a mature hen; the second is Sredni Vashtar, a "polecat-ferret" kept locked in a hutch, discreetly purchased from the local butcher's boy.  In Conradin's lonely mind, Sredni Vashtar assumes the proportions of a diabolic god, and Conradin comes to worship the beast as an idol.

On the grounds that being out in the shed so much can't be good for the boy, the Woman has Henrietta removed and sold; upon noticing that the removal of the hen does not stop Conradin from visiting the shed, she realizes that something is locked in the hutch.  Assuming the hutch to contain guinea pigs, the Woman goes to clear them out, as Conradin watches in horror and dejection from the house.  But Conradin has been praying to Sredni Vashtar, and perhaps today's the day his prayers are answered...

"Sredni Vashtar," like its eponymous polecat-ferret, is proof of the power that can be contained in small packages.  In The Big Book of Adventure Stories, "Sredni Vashtar" clocks in at just three pages but it's a powerful tale that just sticks to you forever, you know?

The story is told entirely from Conradin's perspective, and he seems like a fairly hale and healthy boy (or at least, perceives himself as such), and it's hard to get a sense of him as sickly; I, at least, came away from the story with the nagging idea that Conradin's supposed sickness is an imaginary hobgoblin, created and enforced by the Woman to keep Conradin quiet, contained and inoffensive.  The fact that she forbids him the luxury of having toast on the equal grounds of it A) being "bad for him" and B) because it's too much trouble to make, I think lends credence to this idea that his "illness" is something she's created.  His satisfaction as he sits in the dining room, defiantly making himself buttered toast, while listening to the maid in the other room debating with the rest of the household staff how to tell him his cousin's run afoul of Sredni Vashtar seems like the medicine he needed all along.

While an iconic and popular tale, I feel like "Sredni Vashtar" lacks some of the twistedness that makes many of Saki's tales so much fun.  As soon as you know Conradin has an overbearing guardian and a pet ferret, you know she's going to meet a bad end by said ferret; compare with a story like, say, "The Interlopers," where just as things are starting to look up for the characters, things turn worse then ever.