Thursday, July 23, 2015

Westerns, World Wars and Man-Eating Lions

One of the good things about the proliferation of ebooks is the number of stories from the Golden Age of pulps that are now being reprinted. Often, these are made available individually or in anthologies dedicated to specific authors or genres.

But there is a series out titled The Black Mask Pulp Story Reader, with each volume reprinting stories that originally appeared together in the same magazine. Of course, this often translates into them all being the same genre--but it's still pretty cool to see these tales brought back together this way.

But Adventure magazine--one of the finest pulps ever printed--was a bit more wide-ranging in its selection. Each story was adventure-themed, of course, but this still left room for a lot of variety.

One volume of the Pulp Story Reader brings us the October 15, 1935 issue of Adventure. The only story missing is the first part of a 6-part serial titled Huroc the Avenger. This is understandable. There's no sense in giving us just part of a tale. But the half-dozen complete-in-themselves short stories from that issue are all there.

Gee whiz, I enjoyed reading through this. Adventure always had high standards for the stories it printed--in earlier years, they featured writers such as Rafael Sabatini and Harold Lamb. Each of the tales reprinted in this volume has readable, smooth prose, interesting characters and some truly exciting action sequences.

We start with a Western. "Crossfire," by Robert E. Pinkerton, stars a wandering cowboy named Just Jones. When Jones encounters a courageous boy being pursued by outlaws, he pitches in to help the kid. Soon, he's involved in helping the kid's dad as well, racing to foil a gang of rustlers and prevent an innocent man from being lynched.

Then we jump to World War I. (Though, of course, it would have been called the Great War at the time of the original printing.) "Flight Leader," by Bourke Lee, is about a new bomber pilot who really wishes he were flying fighters--something he sees has more glorious. The final action sequence is downright thrilling and involves an examination of where a combat pilot's loyalties should lie--with the mission or with his squadron mates.

The next story zig-zags back to the Old West with "Nobody's Horses," by S. Omar Barker, where the government has put a bounty on wild horses. This seems cruel, but the horses have been eating too much of the grass needed for cattle. Despite this, one cowboy refuses to allow any horses to be shot, even if it means losing his own ranch by placing himself outside the law. It's an interesting story not just in terms of good story construction, but also in that there is no real villain. We root for the protagonist, but we realize the cowboys hunting down the horses are protecting their own livelihood.

We bounce back again to the Great War for a bizarre story titled "The Spider." Written by George Fielding Eliot (creator of Dan Fowler), the protagonist is an American serving in the French Foreign Legion on the Western front. He's an engineer, commanding a unit of Colonial troops from Southeast Asia. They're digging a tunnel underneath a German fortress, intending to plant explosives and blow the place up just before a big attack. But something is crawling around the tunnel and soon there's a murder.

At first it seems as if "The Spider" is a horror story. Then it begins to turn into a murder mystery before reverting to a war story and giving us a violent and tense climax. It's an odd tale, but odd in a good way.

"Brother of Lions," by Wynant Davis Hubbard, is Adventure's "fact story" for this issue. Written in an almost breezy, conversational style, it's a very effective tale of a cattle ranch in Rhodesia that was overrun by lions. The place is abandoned for a time, but eventually new owners move in and somehow seem to form a bizarre truce with the lions. I'm afraid I have no idea how strict Adventure was in making sure their true stories were actually true. But if "Brother of Lions" isn't true, it ought to be.

The last story is arguably the best. "Surprise Attack," by Perry Adams, takes us to the Khyber Pass, where a British soldier and a Sikh soldier come to blows and seem to now be life-long enemies. It might be a cliche that the two become friends when forced to team up during an enemy attack, but it works here. The final battle involves the two protagonists and a couple of other characters defending a hilltop while trying to signal for help with a heliograph. It is perhaps the most intense action set piece among all these stories. And that's saying a lot.

I was curious about the missing serial. Judging from the cover painting, Huroc the Avenger was a pirate story, but I wasn't able to dig up any definite information on it. It was reprinted as a novel in 1936 and is a little too expensive for me to buy through online used book dealers.  A search of library catalogs show only two in the entire U.S. have a copy. I'm hoping this one will one day be reprinted electronically. Based on how much I enjoyed the other stories from that particular issue of Adventure, I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy this one.

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