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 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.

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