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

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.

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