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

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"Hell Cay" -- Lester Dent (written 1939; previously unpublished)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

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