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

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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The White Silence" -- Jack London (OVERLAND MONTHLY, February 1899)

When it comes to adventures in the frozen north, no name resounds louder than that of Jack London.  It's been over a decade and a half since I read The Call of The Wild, and it's still a story I can recall in vivid detail; London's prose is as stark and grim as the Yukon he so frequently wrote of.  Having completed the "Megalomania Rules" section of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, we've entered the realm of "Man Vs. Nature," and no author is better suited to lead the charge in that regard then London.  This short story -- profoundly short, filling just six pages -- is pretty typical London, concerning itself with the harshness of the frozen north and the imprint that harshness leaves on those humans wild-hearted enough to challenge it.  The story has, I believe, entered the public domain, and can be read in its entirety here, or as part of The Son of the Wolf, a collection of London's short fiction of the north, here.

"The White Silence" tells of three travelers: Mason; his wife Ruth, a Native American woman who has left her tribe to be with him; and a character known simply as Malamute Kid.  These three have been traveling together across the ice, and supplies are running low.  Their sled-dogs are turning vicious, snapping at each other and their masters, nearly wild enough with hunger to ignore the slash of a whip across their backs.  Their journey becomes harder when Mason is crippled by a falling tree, and their struggle to survive becomes that much more desperate.

I really don't have a whole lot to say about this story, other than to note that it's a brilliant author who can make the reader, curled up in bed under enough blankets to pin him to the mattress under their weight (as I tend to be when doing my reading), shiver in sympathetic chill at the descriptions of icy deprivations suffered by the characters.  "The White Silence" is not just a story about the cold, it's a story that's cold in and of itself.

Also of interest is the definite symbiosis between man and dog in the Yukon; neither can survive without the other in the White Silence; the story opens with Mason clearing ice from between a dog's toes with his teeth to prevent frostbite, while simultaneously discussing with Malamute Kid the somber fact that with food running low, they'll likely be eating some of the dogs before the journey's end.  It makes an impressive contrast, this scene of showing utmost care and devotion to his dogs while discussing the fact that some of them will have to die to keep himself alive.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"The Wings of Kali" -- Grant Stockbridge (THE SPIDER, May 1942)

If there's one enduring legacy of the pulps, it's the superhero genre.  Figures like Superman and Batman borrowed heavily from such pulp icons as John Carter, Doc Savage, The Shadow and Zorro, and these early figures formed the prototype for all future superheroes, with their secret identities, strange costumes and "rogues' galleries" of villains.  While The Shadow is perhaps the best-remembered of these masked heroes, rivaling him in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s was a similar character called "The Spider."  Real name Richard Wentworth, The Spider donned first a mask, and later elaborate, ghoulish make-up complete with fright wig, to terrorize the underworld.  For around a decade, The Spider fought gangsters, robots, monsters and assorted sundry supervillains.  The brain child of R.T.M Scott, The Spider was designed from the start to rival and challenge the Shadow's popularity.  Scott provided two Spider novels before being replaced by Norvell Page, a prolific pulpateer, under the pen name Grant Stockbridge.  The final story in The Big Book of Adventure Stories' section on "Megalomania Rules," dating from May 1942, is a Spider story recounting the masked hero's first foray into heroism, before he'd even created the persona of the Spider.

"The Wings of Kali" finds Wentworth in Benares, India, in a small, discrete nightclub called the Beano Club.  Here, he overhears a young woman by the name of Melissa James who has found herself in trouble.  Trouble in the form of Walter Bishop, an American consul official rotten to his core.  Hearing what Bishop is trying to pressure - blackmail, really - Melissa into doing, Wentworth intervenes, letting Bishop know that his vile scheme is known to someone besides himself and his intended victim.

Angry, Bishop leaves suddenly -- to arrange an assassin, Wentworth surmises, and he leaves a bracelet with Melissa to show him when he returns.  Bishop's eyes blaze when he sees the bracelet on the table, but his blood runs cold when a dagger (thrown by Wentworth, hiding in the shadows) embeds itself in the table.  Bishop flees, and Wentworth takes Melissa and heads in the opposite direction, explaining as they go that the bracelet belonged to a girl Bishop had murdered, and the dagger was the murder weapon.  The two take to the streets of Benares, Bishop's hired assassins hot on the heels...

Now here we've got some real PULP! Masked heroes like The Shadow and The Spider are what drew me to pulp in the first place, and "The Wings of Kali," written late in the Spider's tenure but set at the very beginning of his crime-fighting career, is a great example of everything that makes these stories great.  A villain whose evil seeps from his very pores, exotic locale, exotic "mooks" (nameless, faceless enemies who exist solely to be beaten by the hero on his way to their master) in the form of "Mahommedan Assassins," a woman whose sensuality puts her in peril (while what Bishop asks of her isn't explicit, it's implied he wants her sexually; he threatens to have her deported on grounds of moral turpitude if she won't comply)... and it's all packed in to a lean little package, the story filling just five pages (six, counting the editor's introduction) in The Big Book of Adventure Stories.

With this story, I do have to address something I haven't really been looking forward to addressing.  There are elements in the pulps that would be appalling to the sensibilities of the 21st century.  Many stories of this era are filled with elements that would be deemed racist, sexist, and variably offensive to various peoples.  However, it's unfair to judge these stories by the standards of today; times change, attitudes change, and what was acceptable then is not acceptable now.  It doesn't make stories that include racial slurs or "insensitive" elements inherently bad - it makes them of a previous era, and should be treated as such.

That being said, Wentworth drives away a group of Muslim assassins sent to kill him by reaching into the back seat of his car, pulling out live piglets, and throwing them at the crowd of would-be killers.  He explains that he'd been observing Bishop for some time, and knew that when the corrupt official needed someone killed, he hired Muslim assassins to do the job.  He also knew, he continues, that the assassins won't kill if they've been defiled by the touch of pork, preferring to retreat and purify themselves before resuming their bloody business.  Hence, throwing baby piggies at them.

I do not advocate needless cruelty towards animals, nor am I generally one to make a mockery of others' faith, but that act rockets this story straight up into the Outer Batshittosphere, and audaciously rocketing up into the Outer Batshittosphere is one of the things I love most dearly about Pulp.

I don't know that "The Wings of Kali" has been reprinted outside of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, but I'm linking to a line of Spider reprints for those interested in reading more of Wentworth/The Spider's exploits.

The Spider Pulp Doubles Series on Amazon

Monday, October 28, 2013

"The Man Who Would Be King" -- Rudyard Kipling (THE PHANTOM RICKSHAW AND OTHER EERIE TALES, 1988)

Ah, Kipling.  I admit a certain fascination with the Victorian era, especially with the spread of the British Empire through its colonial holdings (a fascination aided and abetted, no doubt, by lingering family stories of an ancestor who, while serving with the British army in India, learned how to swallow live frogs - a talent he used to con people into buying him drinks every night at the pub once back in England), and as such, the writings of Kipling have always held some amount of fascination for me.  I can recite "Gunga Din" from memory (and my love for the 1939 film adaptation always surprises people who know me only through my writings on horror films) and more than once in my life I've psyched myself up for a bad day at school or work with an inspirational morning reading of "If--". Today's story was quite memorably filmed in 1975 with Sir Sean Connery and Sir Michael Caine in the leading roles, and I was quite pleased at the opportunity to read it.  I offer you the story via Project Gutenberg, to enjoy as well.

The narrator of the story (or rather, the framing story), unnamed by clearly a stand-in for Kipling himself, is crossing through India, broke but with no loss of enthusiasm for life.  In this state, he encounters two men, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, two adventurers ("Loafers," they call themselves) whom he stops from blackmailing a minor rajah.  Some time thereafter, Dravot and Carnehan stop in to see him at the newspaper office he's found himself working at in India.  Dravot and Carnehan want a favor from the unnamed narrator; bearing him no ill will for having spoiled their earlier plans, they ask his help in researching the area of Kafiristan, an obscure corner of Afghanistan.  In so doing, they reveal a plan they've conceived: They intend to make themselves kings of Kafiristan.  Armed with Dravot's skill with languages and 20 Martini-Henry rifles (at the time, the best rifles in the world), they intend to befriend a chieftain, help him vanquish his enemies, and then overthrow him and forge a kingdom of their own.

The next morning, the narrator sees Dravot and Carnehan off as they leave for Kafiristan.

Three years later, Carnehan crawls into the narrator's office, his hair stark white, his face haggard and drawn, his sanity shattered.  Bolstered by a sip or three of whiskey, Carnehan tells the story of how they became kings in Kafiristan -- or at least, how Dravot became a king in Kafiristan -- and how it was all shot to hell in an instant...

I will be the first to admit this is hardly proper "pulp" in terms of time-period, but with its exotic locale and hare-brained winner-take-all scheme, and the horrific violence that breaks out when it all falls apart, it's a story that has the heart of pulp.  Men shattered by their experiences and cruel tortures inflicted by strange foreigners were staples of pulp literature, and Kipling's take on them here is masterfully chilling.

More impressive is the story's basis in fact -- James "Rajah" Brooke accomplished exactly what Dravot and Carnehan set out to do, and was referenced in the story; Brooke had made himself ruler of the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo and not only maintained his kingship, but cleared out nest after nest of Malay pirates, making the area safe for British commerce.  One of my favorite pieces of "new pulp" is Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, in which the question of where the line stands between what is "real" and what is "pulp" forms a major running debate threading through the action, and "The Man Who Would Be King," for my money, is a perfect example of that line.  In a world of real-life Dravots like James Brooke, William Walker and Cecil Rhodes, who's to say what's real and what's pulp?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Game" -- Richard Connell (COLLIER'S WEEKLY, January 19, 1924)

I was so excited to see this story come up next in The Big Book of Adventure Stories, readers.  I've seen at least six different film adaptations, ranging from the serious 1932 film, starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong (and which was shot at night on the same sets Wray and Armstrong were on by day shooting KING KONG!) to the cheesy 1980s sci-fi bimbo-rama SLAVE GIRLS FROM BEYOND INFINITY starring Brinke Stevens, and which was once famously condemned on the Senate floor by Jesse Helms.  And of course, by 2013, the theme of a wealthy man hunting other men for sport has become almost cliche.  I was excited to see how the original short story held up compared to the various adaptations and takes on the theme I'd seen, and let me tell you, Richard Connell's prose did not disappoint.

Sanger Rainsford, a prominent big game hunter from New York, is sailing to Rio de Janeiro with his friend Whitney in order to hunt jaguars.  One dark night, the two men are sitting on deck and find themselves discussing the upcoming hunt, with Whitney pondering what the jaguars must think of it.  Rainsford scoffs at this line of thought, and Whitney retires to bed.  Rainsford stays on deck smoking his pipe, until startled by a trio of pistol shots echoing from nearby Ship-Trap Island, causing him to drop his pipe.  Fumbling for it in the dark, he falls overboard, and when he realizes he can't swim fast enough to catch back up to the ship, makes for Ship-Trap Island.

On the island, Rainsford is stunned to discover an elegant chateau, and soon learns that the island is home to a pair of Cossacks (an ethnic group that's strangely become a theme around here...) -- the aristocratic General Zaroff and his deaf-mute servant, Ivan.  Zaroff is a big game hunter as well, and in fact is a great admirer of Rainsford's books on hunting.

Over dinner, Zaroff explains to Rainsford how over many years, he's grown bored with hunting, and finds no thrill in hunting big game animals any more -- but has found a new prey, "the most dangerous game." On Ship-Trap Island, Zaroff lures ships aground and hunts the people he captures from these wrecks for sport.  He asks Rainsford to join him in a hunt, and when Rainsford, appalled, refuses, Zaroff decides to hunt him instead.

Given a few hours' head start, Rainsford must survive three days without being shot by Zaroff or torn to bits by either Ivan or Zaroff's pack of hunting dogs.  If, at the end of three days, Rainsford is still alive, Zaroff pledges to put him safely ashore on the mainland with no ill will.  It will take all of Rainsford's cunning and intellect to survive...

"The Most Dangerous Game" is a brilliant exercise in "less is more."  The story doesn't quite fill nine pages in The Big Book of Adventure Stories (ten including the introduction), but doesn't need more than that to tell itself.  The writing is as lean and wolfish as Zaroff himself, unfettered with purple prose.

This sparseness of story-telling may be a turn-off to modern readers; it's a tale of suspense and tension, not of violence and blood-letting, and I think if readers come in expecting a battle royale they'll be deeply disappointed.  The emphasis is on the fraying of Rainsford's nerves as he struggles to survive in the face of Zaroff, an almost supernaturally-talented hunter, and his efforts to maintain a strong enough control of himself to fight back.

In fact, so little emphasis in the story is on violence that the finally conflict between Zaroff and Rainsford doesn't even take place "on screen" as it were; the second-to-last paragraph ends with Zaroff accepting Rainsford's offer of a man-to-man fight, while the last paragraph, only a sentence long, describes Rainsford settling in to rest up and recuperate after his ordeal.  The fight is left entirely to the reader's imagination, which is a bold move that I don't think would fly today.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Master Magician" -- Loring Brent (ARGOSY, February 25th, 1933) PART 2

I kind of feel like a chump now for splitting this story into two nights of reading and two blog-posts.  When I got into bed and started reading last night, I discovered that the remainder of "The Master Magician" took me no more than 20 minutes to devour.  I probably could have sat up and finished the story all in one go the night before if I'd but realized.  Oh well.

To recap where we left our hero Peter Moore last time, Moore and his friend Roger Pennekamp have realized that an old enemy, the magician and would-be dictator Zarlo, has returned to exact revenge on them for deposing him in the Philippines six years earlier.  With the three men who'd aided them already dead and several attempts made on Pennekamp's life, Moore and Pennekamp resolve to take the fight to Zarlo, wherever he may be holed up.  This resolve is strengthened when Moore's traveling companion, the thrill-seeking heiress Susan O'Gilvie, is kidnapped to lure Moore into Zarlo's clutches.  An impromptu seance, at Pennekamp's insistence, suggests the island of Soononga, more commonly known as Skull Island, is the site of Zarlo's hideout.

Traveling to Soononga, Pennekamp's ship is stormed by a boarding party of black pirates (my guess being that these aren't blacks of African descent, but rather dark-skinned Polynesians, given the location) and Moore is taken captive, along with sniveling American wimp Jason Whitelaw, who has come along in hopes of convincing Susan that he loves her and she'll hopefully love him back.

Brought before Zarlo, Moore is given a glimpse of the possible fates that await him -- the skulls of the three men who'd preceded him in dying at Zarlo's hand are on display with neatly-lettered placards describing who they were and how they died, and more ominously, Zarlo shows Moore "Ronga" -- a former American business man, regressed to a snarling, mindless beast by Zarlo's magic, more than eager to feast on raw human flesh.  Zarlo assures Moore that should Moore make any attempt to escape, Ronga will follow him like the best-trained of bloodhounds.

Before long, of course, Moore breaks free and, with Whitelaw showing what he's made of for a change, sets off to rescue Susan and give Zarlo a taste of his own mad medicine...

Wow, what a story! Action, adventure, romance, exotic locales, mysticism, monsters (one made from a human being, no less!), betrayal, and so much more crammed into so few pages, I can say in all honesty that "The Master Magician" is a story that grabs the reader by the lapels and doesn't let go until the ink's dry on the last punctuation mark.

The characters are rich and interesting, and nothing about them feels forced or unnatural.  From Susan's headstrong conviction that whichever possibility offers the most excitement must be the truth to Peter's horrified ruminations on what would happen if he, a man who just wants some peace and quiet, were to marry Susan, these all feel like real people.

I also liked Brent's committal to remaining non-committal on the subject of the occult, carefully presenting every seemingly-supernatural event as one that has a rational explanation...but maintaining an open-mindedness towards the notion that that explanation might not be the "correct" one.  Sure, it's likely that Zarlo kept Ronga an animal through keeping him drugged and under hypnotic suggestion...but maybe, just maybe, he did use his mystical powers to drive a man's soul out of his body, leaving only a brutal monster behind.

This story really slapped me upside the head and took me by surprise, and I'll say no more about it other than to advocate you really check it out.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"The Master Magician" -- Loring Brent (ARGOSY, February 25, 1933), PART 1

Here we are again, with another story - another that will be covered in installments here at BPaLGM - from The Big Book of Adventure Stories.  We've entered the section entitled "Megalomania Rules," and with it a world of madmen, masterminds and maniacs bent on proving their own superiority and lording it over the common man.  Such figures were a common trope of the pulps, including such noteworthy villains as Fu Manchu, Shiwan Khan, John Sunlight and many others.  This first story, "The Master Magician," is from author Loring Brent (real name: George F. Worts), and forms part of a series detailing the ongoing adventures of a man named Peter Moore, aka "Peter the Brazen," a wireless radio operator working the various freighters and cruisers around Chinese and South-East Asian waters, who finds himself again and again drawn into conflicts well above his pay-grade.

"The Master Magician" finds Moore lying low in Hong Kong, hoping to escape some heat from certain unsavory figures who'd like to see him floating face down in the harbor.  Unfortunately, stepping out for a breath of fresh air, Moore runs into trouble, when a figure in the dark hands him a tiny, tightly-folded piece of red rice paper.  Moore needs only glance at the writing on it - pictographs, really, five tiny stick figures, the three leftmost checked off - to know exactly what it means.

Bringing along his thrill-seeking socialite companion Susan O'Gilvie, Moore finds his way to the yacht of his old friend, Roger Pennekamp, who has, it turns out, come to Hong Kong in search of Moore -- Pennekamp had received a square of red rice paper marked with five stick figures as well, and has experienced three failed attempts on his life in recent months.

Putting their heads together, Pennekamp and Moore quickly figure out exactly who's gunning for them: Zarlo, a persuasive and sinister figure who'd set himself up as the power behind the throne in the Sultanate of Tuzpan in the Philippines years earlier, only to be swiftly deposed by Moore, Pennekamp, and three other men.

Though they'd only intended to throw him out of Tuzpan, the intervention of Moore and Co. earned Zarlo a savage beating from the locals, leaving the con-man near death and swearing revenge.  Moore realizes Zarlo's revenge is at hand -- the three other men who'd gone with him and Pennekamp to depose Zarlo having already been killed, and Pennekamp clearly the next target.

That night, Susan O'Gilvie is kidnapped out from under Moore and Pennekamp's noses by a group of Chinese sailors on an unmarked gray launch, slipping away with the wealthy heiress under cover of darkness.  Pennekamp, a strong believer in the occult, suggests an unusual means of finding where she's being taken; consulting a crystal ball he keeps with him.

Moore forces his misgivings about the crystal aside and the two men, plus Jason Whitelaw, a sadsack suitor of Susan's, turn down the lights, sit around a table and focus on the crystal -- and see a vision! The crystal reveals an island whose headland resembles a fleshless human skull, and from the vision Moore is able to identify the island -- Soononga, south of Borneo, more commonly known to mariners as "Skull Island."

So far, I'm enjoying "The Master Magician."  I feel like the story began right on the cusp between "before the action" and "in media res," balancing on a razor's edge of tension between "nothing has happened yet" and "everything is happening."  I also like that we have Moore acting on information that the reader is not privy to until it's explained to O'Gilvie, who for a span takes on the role of audience surrogate; sort of a Dr. Watson character, she's there in the meeting between Moore and Pennekamp to give them a reason to explain who Zarlo is and why he's trying to kill them.  Now that she's been kidnapped and Jason Whitelaw has joined Moore and Pennekamp to effect her rescue, I imagine he'll be taking her place for any such similar scenes of exposition later in the story.

The thing that really took me by surprise, at least briefly, was the locale of "Skull Island."  The issue of Argosy containing "The Master Magician" hit newsstands just five days before KING KONG had it's initial premiere (at RKO Musical Hall in New York City).  It would seem like just one of those bizarre coincidences that sometimes occurs, though islands with skull-shaped mountains on them do have something of a history in adventure stories, dating back (at the very least) to 1881 with Stevenson's Treasure Island.

This post covers the first four chapters of the story, and I'm looking forward to getting some more reading in tonight.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"The Seven Black Priests" -- Fritz Leiber (OTHER WORLDS SCIENCE STORIES, May 1953)

Here we are, having reached the last story in the "Sword and Sorcery" section of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, rounding out the collection with two of the finer fantasy adventurers to follow in Conan's fur-booted footsteps.  Fafhrd, a tall, northern barbarian equally adept with a broadsword and with a harp, and his friend and companion the Gray Mouser, thief and sometimes-magician, were the creation of author and sometimes-actor Fritz Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer, and the stars of an entire cycle of stories set in and around the environs of the mythical world of Nehwon ("No When" backwards).  Over the course of many adventures, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser encounter such strange and motley foes as devious wizards, conniving thieves' guilds (indeed, Leiber invented the concept of the "Thieves' Guild" as it exists in fantasy literature and role-playing games today), adventurers from Earth, maliciously intelligent rats, ice-witches, and even the weakened and dying Earthly gods Odin and Loki.

A couple years back I picked up the entire series all at once, collected in eight volumes and started reading through them; Leiber wrote these stories over a period of nearly fifty years, and I think I quit reading somewhere near the end, where Leiber started filling the stories with pubescent girls and sexual imagery that I wasn't real comfortable with.  I've never been one that needed to know the sexual proclivities of fictional characters nor the authors who wrote them, you know?

This time around, Fafhrd and the Mouser have found themselves crossing the high, frozen peaks of the mountain range known as the Bones of the Old Ones; the ship they'd been on had crashed on one side, and they decided to head for the Cold Wastes, Fafhrd's boyhood home, on the other side.

Along the way, they cross paths with a band of Kleshite (read: pseudo-African) priests, a long way from their homeland of Klesh.  The reader is given some insight (that Fafhrd and the Mouser are not) that the Kleshites have maintained this small priesthood in the mountains for generations, guarding and serving a shrine to their patron god-demon-elemental entity.  The seven priests assume (not totally incorrectly) that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are infidel defilers, looking to loot and despoil the shrine the priests have spent their entire lives guarding.  Certainly, after their first encounter with one of the priests ends in the Kleshite tumbling into an impossibly-deep ravine, the Gray Mouser becomes convinced that the priest was guarding something of value, and decides to search for it.

The shrine itself is a place of nightmare - a meager oasis of geothermal warmth in the snow, surrounded by rocky cliff-faces half-carved, half-melted into devilish shapes suggestive of human, or at least semi-human, faces, and it is within the "eye-socket" of one of these faces that the Gray Mouser finds his treasure: a polished diamond of ludicrous size (Leiber doesn't specify quite how big it is, but the way it's described I'm picturing something the size of a grapefruit), cemented into the face with a ring of tar.  With little effort he pries the diamond eye out and puts it in his bag.

With the idolatrous eye stolen, it's not long before Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves being stalked across icy slopes and through treacherous, snow-choked mountain passes by the remaining priests.  Our two heroes find themselves having to dodge immense snowballs sent rolling downhill at them, their thick cloaks peppered with the poisoned darts of the Kleshites...and possibly worse, in the Mouser's eyes, is the growing realization that each night, Fafhrd is communing, hypnotized, with something inside the diamond eye...

You know, I don't recall being that impressed with "The Seven Black Priests" when I first read it a year or two ago, but this time around I really got into it.  The way the real "villain" of the story is slowly unveiled, their unusual nature and the surprising scope of what this villain hoped to accomplish really grabbed me by the throat this time around (and I'm hoping I can entice you, the readers, into checking out the story for yourselves, but not revealing too much about what's going on!) and held on tight, right up through the final paragraph.  I will say that the story is deliciously vague as to whether the Kleshite priests are guarding what's in the shrine from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or trying to protect Fafhrd and Gray Mouser from what's in the shrine...

If I had to voice one complaint about the story it's that the Gray Mouser experiences a flash of insight that explains everything that's going on as it's happening, information flooding his brain in a sudden burst and allowing him to resolve the challenge he's faced with.  It's the same thing I didn't care for with "The Devil in Iron" -- this Denouement Flash of Insight that allows the hero to neatly resolve everything instead of actually figuring out what's going on and reacting accordingly.  I understand that there are deadlines and word-count limits that authors have to abide by, but I really am just not a fan of the sudden flash of insight.

Ever since my first exposure to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser back in college, when I picked up a reprint collection of Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola's comic book adaptation of a few of the best of Leiber's tales of the adventurous duo, I've considered them -- not Conan, not the Fellowship of the Ring -- the true progenitors of the "Adventuring Party" in fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.  Fafhrd and Gray Mouser get stupid-drunk with regularity, get into ridiculous shenanigans for the hell of it, treat adventures across worlds and into other dimensions as everyday occurrences, and quite frequently need all-powerful "Quest-Giver" characters -- in this case, the feuding wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes -- to motivate them to do anything.  Which is pretty much exactly like every adventuring party I've been a part of or DM'd for.

That being said, I think the narrowly-thwarted villainous plot shown here would make an incredible end-of-campaign plot twist in a D&D campaign.  Maybe someday when I've got more time to run games again...

Alright, so much for "Sword and Sorcery" -- join us again tomorrow when we begin the section of the book entitled "Megalomania Rules," starting with Loring Brent's "The Master Magician"!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The Mighty Manslayer" -- Harold Lamb (ADVENTURE, October 15, 1918) PART 2

As promised, here we are with the second half of my write-up of Harold Lamb's novelette "The Mighty Manslayer," a saga of adventure in Central Asia in the 16th Century.

Diving right in from where we left off yesterday, Khlit the Cossack, Mir Turek the duplicitous merchant and the young girl Kerula have been taken captive by the Chinese army besieging the Tatar city of Altur Haiten, under the command of General Hang-Hi.

Brought before Hang-Hi and his advisers, Mir Turek falls to his knees, babbling about recognizing the significance of Khlit's sword and the esteem he could curry by bringing Khlit to Hang-Hi and the Mandarins of China.  And no, I'm not going to tell you, readers, the significance of the sword -- far be it from me to spoil the thrill of discovery you will have from reading the tale for yourselves! What Mir Turek doesn't mention is the discovery of Ghengis Khan's tomb, though Fogan Ultai, not a captive but an honored guest of the general's, is more than happy to tell that story to Hang-Hi and his assembled staff.  Mir Turek is crippled, Khlit is made a slave building earthworks for the Chinese assault on Altur Haiten, and Kerula is made part of Hang-Hi's household staff.

Secretly reclaiming his sword, Khlit is press-ganged into service leading Fogan Ultai and several of Hang-Hi's most trusted advisers to the tomb of Ghengis Khan.  Managing to avoid the wafting poisonous fumes himself, Khlit quickly regains his freedom and opts to use it in support of his Tatar brethren.  Sneaking back through Chinese lines, he infiltrates the city and lays out a plan to the khans of the Tatars...

Nope! That's all the synopsis you get! You want to know where the story goes from there, pick up the book and read it for yourself! I mean it, most of his books are pretty nicely priced on Amazon and many have Kindle editions as well.  And I'm not getting any sort of kickback from Amazon for doing this (though I probably should set something up where if you buy stuff through links I post I get Amazon credit), I'm endorsing these books because I'm so thoroughly impressed by "The Mighty Manslayer" and think Lamb's work deserves to be read more widely.

A word of warning to readers with more modern sensibilities; Lamb's descriptions of the Chinese generals is politically incorrect, to say the least.  With phrases like "behind the slant eyes lurked the cruelty of a conquering race" and advisers making suggestions regarding pouring molten silver into a captive's ears to convince him to talk, it's a reminder that at the time this was written, the notion of a "Yellow Peril," in which Asians by their very existence threatened expansion and conquest, was still very much part of the cultural zeitgeist.  However, it's worth noting that at the same time, Khlit is of Asiatic descent and is clearly the hero of the story, and many of Lamb's heroes are Chinese, Indian, Mongol or Muslim.  That the villains of "The Mighty Manslayer" are Chinese does not mean that the author was unequivocally racist towards the Chinese.

The conclusion of the story presents an aspect of Khlit that I personally really enjoyed, his self-effacing nature.  Though highly-skilled and intelligent, Khlit is a humble man at heart and despite learning some pretty earth-shattering things, seeing some incredible sights and taking part in what is, by his own admission, the most amazing battle of his life, at the end of the story he resumes simply being plain old Khlit, wandering across the steppes with his sword at his side and his pipe in his teeth, waiting to see where life takes him next.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Mighty Manslayer" -- Harold Lamb (ADVENTURE, October 15, 1918) PART 1

Yes, Part 1.  Harold Lamb's "The Mighty Manslayer" is a longer story than "The Golden Snare" or "The Devil in Iron," and I didn't have the opportunity to read through the entire tale last night.  I'd like to do a post on BPaLGM every day, and so I've decided to break this story into two posts; later on, when I get a few novels in (for example,The Big Book of Adventure Stories concludes with the complete novel Tarzan the Terrible), depending on how much free time my day-job leaves me I may be reviewing it chapter by chapter.  Following a foray into swords and sorcery with "The Devil in Iron," we're back into strictly historical fiction today -- better known for his nonfiction, especially the biography Ghengis Khan: The Emperor of All Men and The Crusades, Harold Lamb also dabbled in fiction based on his research, with characters of his own creation interacting against a background of historical fact, most notably, Khlit the Cossack, whom we'll meet today.  Lamb also became a screenwriter at the behest of Cecil B. DeMille, who initially hired Lamb as a technical consultant when DeMille decided to adapt The Crusades for the silver screen.

"The Mighty Manslayer" (Adventure magazine, October 15, 1918, later reprinted in The Curved Saber, one of two Khlit collections published in 1969) follows Khlit, an aging ex-Cossack of the 16th Century who took off as an independent adventurer when faced with the prospect of a Cossack retirement, as he enters the city of Samarkand.  A pair of elephant statuettes catch his eye in the stall of the merchant Mir Turek, who is not interested in selling them - though he is very interested in Khlit's saber (unraveling the mystery of the saber is a subplot that is resolved over the course of Lamb's saga of Khlit) and offers Khlit a deal: Khlit can have the two elephants as a gesture of good faith if he will agree to escort Mir Turek and his entourage through the mountains of Central Asia and the Gobi Desert to the city of Karakorum.

Khlit is suspicious but agrees, in the process buying and freeing a young slave girl named Kerula whom Mir Turek has been abusing.  Along the way, Khlit's suspicions regarding Mir Turek and his primary henchman, Fogan Ultai, grow, especially once they welcome a gylong (a term, now out of date I think, referring to a priest or lama, though Lamb uses it in a way that seems to imply that Mir Turek and Fogan Ultain view the gylong as having some degree of knowledge or proficiency with black magic as well) into the party and have him start menacing Kerula (who has tagged along, having nowhere else to go).

Ultimately, Khlit discovers that the true purpose of Mir Turek's expedition is to find the lost tomb of Ghengis Khan and loot it of the gold and jewels contained therein.  Upon discovering the tomb, however, Khlit and Mir Turek are set upon by the Onon Muren -- the ghosts of the Great Khan's followers, sacrificed to ensure the secrecy of his burial's location -- and driven away.  Lamb makes it pretty clear here that toxic, possibly volcanic, vapors are leaching up through the ground here, and the characters are interpreting the beginnings of suffocation they're experiencing as being strangled by ghosts.

The expedition largely a bust, food supplies low and Kerula running a fever, it's suggested that the group make contact with the Tatar city of Altur Haiten to replenish their supplies and buy medicine for Kerula.  The city is currently in the midst of a siege by Chinese forces, but Fogan Ultai is adamant he can lead them through and into the city.  Khlit, worried for Kerula's safety, has no choice but to agree.  He has no idea he's being led into a trap until he's clubbed across the back of his neck, born down to the ground and a sack thrown over his head.

Hot damn, this is some good stuff! Lamb's complete Cossack adventures (totaling around 40 loosely-linked novelettes) were reprinted in a four-volume set in 2009, available on Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle -- I just threw them into my Wish List with plans to get them for my Kindle sometime in the next few weeks, paychecks permitting, because his prose is every bit as engrossing as Howard's, his characters are rich and believable, and the overall atmosphere is evocative and brings 16th Century Central Asia to life in vivid detail.

I was kind of surprised that Khlit was so easily led into the ambush at the end of what I'd read last night.  He'd been so suspicious of Mir Turek and Fogan Ultai for so long -- literally, months within the context of the story -- and then to follow Fogan Ultai, a conniving, sneaky bastard from the start, without a care in the world into a Chinese war camp.

Looking forward to reading the rest of the story tonight!

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The Devil in Iron" -- Robert E. Howard (WEIRD TALES, August 1934)

The first section of The Big Book of Adventure Stories is entitled "Sword and Sorcery," and the second story in the collection, "The Devil in Iron" by Robert E. Howard, is apropos, as the phrase "Sword and Sorcery" was practically invented to refer to Howard's visceral pseudo-historical adventure yarns, featuring such larger than life heroes as Solomon Kane, a Puritan swordsman and exterminator of evil; Bran Mak Morn, last king of the Caledonian Picts; and most famous of all, Conan the Cimmerian, a wandering swordsman, thief, and eventually king by his own hand who roamed the fictitious "Hyborian Age," a period taking place about 12,000 years ago.  "The Devil in Iron" is a relatively early Conan tale, seeing publication in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales.  It's never been one of my favorites of the Howard canon, but let's take a look, shall we?

Conan has risen to the position of hetman of the kozaks, an ethnically-ambiguous group of robbers, murderers, scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells, driven out of the established nearby kingdoms of Turan and Hyrkania (loosely corresponding to Turkey/south-eastern Europe and the Mongolian steppes, respectively).  Under Conan's command, the kozaks have become more organized and destructive then ever before, leading a pair of Turanian nobles to concoct a plan to lure Conan away from the safety of his people and assassinate him.

Unbeknownst to the Turanians or to Conan, the island chosen as the site for the ambush has recently become the home of a resurrected demon, a creature from an elder age clothed in the form of a man cast from iron.  Released from its slumbering prison by chance (a lightning strike opening its stony tomb and a fisherman removing the magic dagger keeping it asleep), the demon has set about recreating the ancient city that it once ruled.

"The Devil in Iron" is generally reckoned as one of the weakest of the early Conan tales, and I have to agree.  With a plot hinging heavily on coincidence and deus ex machina, and settings and character archetypes seemingly lifted from Howard's earlier "Iron Shadows in the Moon" (published in Weird Tales, April 1934, as "Shadows in the Moonlight"), "The Devil in Iron" also feels in many ways like a practice run for Howard's later (and much, much better) "The Servants of Bit-Yakin" (published in Weird Tales, March 1935, as "Jewels of Gwahlur") with its competing factions and forbidding, nigh-inaccessible island setting.

The biggest failing in "The Devil in Iron," I think, is that Howard barely deviates from presenting Conan as being exactly as the Turanians perceive him to be - a gluttonous, lecherous meathead easily lured to his death by the right blonde bait.  Other than recognizing an animal skin as belonging to the extinct Hyborian leopard and identifying a giant python as being a species long since extinct, Conan offers little to none of the surprising insight and knowledge he's gained as a wanderer, and for the most part he's too busy thinking with a more southern aspect of his anatomy to recognize the trap that's been laid for him.
Art by Boris Vallejo

The female lead, a Nemedian princess-turned-slave named Octavia is nothing really to write home about either.  Howard's female characters tend to fall into three camps: Evil witches, totally bitchin' swordswomen, or spirited women in way over their heads.  Octavia is very much the last of these.  While she has the daring and audacity to escape from the seraglio of one of the wickedest men in Turan, she quickly becomes a damsel in distress for Conan to sling across his shoulders in the face of the supernatural; however, kudos to her for regaining her composure in time to give Conan a metaphorical poleaxing with a well-chosen sarcastic comment at the story's conclusion.  He's still adding her to his list of conquests, of course.  He is Conan after all.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Golden Snare" -- Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (ADVENTURE, April 18, 1918)

A while back I picked up a big, luxurious collected volume of adventure stories, fittingly titled The Big Book of Adventure Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and published by Random House under their "Vintage Crime/Black Lizard" imprint.  It looked like it would be a good read, the cover illustration by Rafael DeSoto had topless Hawaiian women menacing a couple of white sailors (how'd they get those panthers to Hawaii?) and the price was right - plus, I'd previously read The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, similarly edited by Penzler and published under the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint when my father bought it a couple years back, and enjoyed that book immensely.

Since I'm not really 100% sure what I intend to do with this blog, I figured a good start would be just going through this book, re-reading the stories contained therein, and talking about them.  While a number of the stories in this book are from before the "Pulp Era" is generally reckoned, I figure "Pulp" is as much an attitude as it is a cheap grade of paper.  If a story from 1880 or from 1980 has the right swaggering moxie to it, I'm willing to reckon it as Pulp.

The first story in the book is "The Golden Snare," by Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, originally published in the April 18th, 1918 issue of Adventure magazine.  Bishop was best known for writing non-fiction books on the Mexican-American War and the development of the submarine, but in conjunction with Brodeur, a professor at Berkeley, he penned The Altar of the Legion, a novel set in Roman Britain, as well as a series of stories about Lady Fulvia, a young noblewoman at the time of the Second Crusade.  Her father, Count Arnulfo, rules the city of Rocca Forte in Sicily and her hand in marriage is highly sought-after.

In "The Golden Snare," Fulvia is aboard a galley returning to Rocca Forte following a successful pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Lucia di Celsi.  At dawn, Fulvia's ship is rammed and sunk by another ship; much to her outrage, as the coast was to be patrolled by her father's vassals while he was fighting in the Crusades.  Thrown clear of the sinking ship, Fulvia swiftly realizes that these pirates are in fact two of her father's vassals and their supporters.

Unsure whether the two traitors intend to take her hostage to force concessions from her father or to force her to choose one of them to marry, Fulvia swims to shore and takes refuge as best she can while she considers her options.  Naked, alone and unarmed, she has nothing but her wits with which to protect her virtue and her father's sovereignty.

I haven't read too much strictly-historical pulp fiction, and most of what I've read in that subgenre has been the work of Robert E. Howard.  While "The Golden Snare" lacks some of Howard's trademark blood and thunder, it's no slouch either.  There's a sequence in which Fulvia lures one of her pursuers into a trap and drowns him that gets the pulse pounding.

More interestingly, Lady Fulvia is an early example of a female protagonist in the Pulps, and as such she's a clear predecessor to the likes of Jirel of Joiry and Red Sonya of Rogatino.  Given how manly-man macho the pulps generally were, it's really interesting to see these really powerful, independent female figures who not only don't need a man to save them from peril, but openly dismisses the role of Holly Homemaker to go her own way.  In a time when women didn't even have the vote yet, women like Fulvia, Jirel and Sonya are beyond astonishing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Opening the Library

Hello, I'm Bill, I'm 26, have a BA in history and am far too deeply in love with all things "Pulp" then is to be expected of someone my age.  I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially the John Carter stuff, from a very early age (in 5th grade I did a book report on A Princess of Mars!), later got into Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and that whole gang, and I'll take swords-and-sorcery over Tolkienesque high fantasy any day, and Weird, atmospheric horror over the latest slasher movie as well.  Then I started reading reprints of The Shadow and Doc Savage when I could get them.  More recently, I've begun dipping my toes into hardboiled detective/crime fiction - I'll take Dashiell Hammett over Chandler, I think, and both of them are an order of magnitude above Spillane.

I've spent five years writing a blog reviewing horror movies, and I'm ready to change things up.  I'd like to bring what I learned reviewing movies, as well as my history degree (since lord knows I'm not using it for anything that pays the bills), to bear talking about the cheap, disposable literature I enjoy so much.  No high-fangled literary criticism here -- I don't have the background for it.  Just discussions of what I've been reading and what I think of it.

Say hello.  I don't bite.