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

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.

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