Tuesday, February 25, 2020

"The Shadow's Invisible Cloak"

The 49th issue of the Sanctum Books reprint of The Shadow holds a curious little treasure. Rounding out the issue, which contains The Shadow Laughs and Voice of Death, is an anonymous memo found in Lester Dent's archives. Entitled "The Shadow's Invisible Cloak," the memo seeks a naturalistic explanation for The Shadow's ability to turn invisible, a carryover into the pulps from the radio show.

At one page, the memo develops some serious chemistry as to the odd properties of The Shadow's cloak before diving into various strengths and weaknesses of the technique. Sprinkled throughout the memo is a constant reminder that just because a man might come across such a cloak, he would need to know how it was made in order to reproduce it. This provided both a warning as to the complexity of the chemical processes used and a convenient excuse if Walter Gibson changed his mind about the manufacture. The refrain also provides a clue as to the identity of the memo's writer.

Such a refrain appeared many times in the pages of Astounding, in the words of its celebrated editor, John W. Campbell. Not only was the style similar, but Campbell was also an MIT-trained physicist with a background in the physics and industrial chemistry needed to create such a conjecture. And Campbell had mulled over the idea of an invisibility cloak before, in his own stories "Out of Night" and its sequel "Cloak of Aesir." Thanks to his friendship with Gibson, Campbell ended up as the unofficial science advisor for not only The Shadow but many of the other hero pulps under John Nanovic's tenure as editor.

However, it was in 1944 when a Street & Smith editor forwarded "The Shadow's Invisibility Cloak" to Lester Dent. It is unknown whether William de Grouchey, Babette Rosemund, or the nameless female sub-editor who actually oversaw both The Shadow and Doc Savage was responsible. But the contents inspired the Doc Savage novel "Death Had Yellow Eyes". It also may have inspired an October 1944 issue of Shadow Comics which contained the first-ever meeting between The Shadow and Doc Savage. The two would team up again in the comics, but it wouldn't be until 2015's The Sinister Shadow before the Knight of Darkness and the Man of Bronze crossed paths in the novels.

All because editors are fans, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Better Than Bullets

Whether in life or in the pulps, old soldiers tell some of the greatest tales. And, in the pages of Argosy, from 1929 to 1939, there were none older that Thibaut Corday, an eighty-year old legionnaire of the French Foreign Legion whose beard has yet to run completely white. Written as told to Theodore Roscoe, the old legionnaire would recount twenty-one adventures in that time.

As for Roscoe, a trip to the Caribbean and North Africa in 1928 and 1929 inspired an interest in old voodoo tales and the French Foreign Legion, both topics he would explore in the pages of Argosy to great acclaim. Per Gerd Pilcher’s introduction to the Better Than Bullets collection, “reading an ordinary pulp story was compared to ‘reading in black and white,’ reading a story by Roscoe however as to ‘reading in technicolor.’” The countless encounters with Legion officer and veterans no doubt fueled the authenticity of Corday’s tales, and covered for the occasional lapse. After all, a good storyteller is concerned more with the appearance of reality.

Like many writers in the Forties, Roscoe would leave the pulp world, this time for the more lucrative true crime tales. Thanks to Altus Press (now Steeger) reprinting Thibaut Corday’s tales, readers can still find the old legionnaire in an Algerian café, waiting to tell his tall tales. And like so many old soldiers, his first tale, “Better Than Bullets”, holds more humor than war:
“You say, my American friends, that bullets are the best of weapons? But yes, perhaps. And with bullets I am a man the most familiar…Splendid for the fight. But—I recall a battle I fought in which I used never a blade or a single bullet…No soldiers ever fought with weapons more strange!”
With that, the old legionnaire begins a tale most familiar to any man in uniform—how a little bit of mischief blows up into something far worse, terrifying in the moment, but ridiculous in hindsight. In 1907, Corday's legion just completed a long march on little water and worse food. His partner in crime, a Yankee known as Bill the Elephant, sees farmhouses in the distance, and convinces Corday and Christianity Jensen to join him in a little “foraging expedition” at night.

Their raid finds a pair of piglets and fifteen bottles of wine. As the trio carouses, however, a gang of Moslem dervishes comes across them with murder on their mind and an inclination to linger over the task. Now the trio of legionnaires are trapped red-handed in the farmhouse, with nothing more than bottles, boots, bacon, and beehives to defend themselves. But will these things prove to be better than bullets?

It’s an amusing tale where the ridiculousness of the scenario is played straight, and a classic example of the military definition of serendipity: “yes, we screwed up, but it turned out better than if we hadn’t.” That fact doesn’t save the trio from two weeks of hard labor for breaking their commander’s orders, though, so the story ends in proper military fashion, with the guilty punished and a dash of self-deprecation.

Rather than speak of the Argosy prose style yet again, “Better Than Bullets” is vivid because of Thibaut Corday’s voice. Roscoe expertly captures the flair of a verbal storyteller in Corday’s first-person tale to the point where a reader can almost hear the legionnaire. This is a story that begs to be performed in audio, not read, to recreate the effect of listening to a master of tall tales over a cup of coffee. The descriptions also are vivid and tight within Corday’s voice, with the little descriptive tangents fitting where a café storyteller would naturally make such. No doubt, Roscoe spent time listening to storytellers in addition to reading them.

Argosy collections never fail to deliver, and Better Than Bullets is no exception, living up to the praise flourished in the ad-copy blurbs for the book. And so we shall return again to a simple cafe in Algiers to listen to an old soldier who still has streaks of rusty cinnamon in his beard. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Sword for the Cardinal

For the King or for Richelieu?--that question had to be answered at one time or another by every young 17th Century Frenchman.

But ill-advised political poetry might force that question, as Comte Guy d'Entreville soon discovers. For Cardinal Richelieu himself signed the papers sending Guy's love, Catherine, to a convent for smuggling subversive papers.

Allegedly. If one believes the Cardinal's judges.

Richelieu proposes an exchange: Catherine's freedom for the comte's service in the Cardinal's Guards. Guy asks for a day to consider, as he has been a sworn opponent to the Cardinal. The night that follows will test Guy's resolve as his old friends plot to kill the only man able to secure Catherine's release:

Cardinal Richelieu.

"A Sword for the Cardinal" is the first of six adventures of Guy d'Entrevillle and Richard Cleve by Murry Richardson Montgomery for Argosy. Montgomery is a bit of a mystery. Save for "The Means" in a December 1938 issue of Liberty, these rakehelly rides are the majority of his known fiction. Assuming that Montgomery is not one of the many pseudonyms used by pulp writers. Per his Argosy biography, he might be one of many pulp writers to vanish into the Hollywood machine when Congress, paper shortages, and a new generation of editors sent them packing.

According to The Argosy Library:
"Much-revered and enjoyed by thousands of Argosy readers, these fast-paced stories have never before been reprinted."
That explains the paucity of information about the series, the characters, and their author. But does "A Sword for the Cardinal" live up to the ad copy?

 It's a good start. The action is slick, with time and chance playing as big of a part as skill. It pays to be both good and lucky. And, like most pulps, "A Sword for the Cardinal" spends most of its time exploring the consequences of Guy's decision to turn his back on his political "friends" for the sake of his girl. Not all the resulting pyrotechnics are confined to action, either.

Comte Guy d'Entreville fills the same role as D'Artagnan, just for the Cardinal instead of for the King. He's young, foolish, brave, skilled, and proud-and of a higher station than Dumas' hero. But where The Three Musketeers villainizes Cardinal Richelieu, Montgomery portrays the Cardinal as a unifying force in France, clearing away the feudalistic barriers and privileges that leave France open to the machinations of Buckingham, Spain, and others. Although he has changed sides, Guy still fights for France--and his pride.

The highlight of the story is its ending. The Cardinal is saved, but deigns to dismiss Guy from his service. The rebuke to Guy's stiff pride is too much for the noble to bear. It is an insult to Guy to not be considered good enough to serve the Cardinal. His Catherine is freed, therefore he must serve the Cardinal as per their deal. In a roaring display of audacity, Guy forces the Cardinal to accept his service.

Just as planned.

It's the mix of honor, integrity, and pride displayed in such a gesture that sets Guy apart from the procession of historical Argosy heroes. Competency is expected, as always, but there is a flair to all of Montgomery's characters not normally present. But if your heroes are going to pitch musketeers into fountains over questions of honor, style and swagger are required.

On the technical side, "A Sword for the Cardinal" is standard Argosy prose: clear, clean, and still contemporary almost 80 years later. As always, best to have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy. Not only does the text expect a certain familiarity with the historical setting, but a bit of French is also present. And, most pleasantly, this is not Three Musketeers fanfic or pastiche. As for the poetry present, whether Guy's verses are befitting a poet or a poetaster, I'll leave to those more qualified. Although that question is one argued throughout the series, with Guy cooling the heads of his most vocal critics on a regular basis.

But I was promised the misadventures of a pair of rascals in the Cardinal's employ. And for that, we must read on.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Flowers From the Moon

Robert Bloch is best known for “Psycho”, of which a movie and a thousand imitations and memes were made. But he was also a staple of science fiction, weird fiction, and crime pulps.
I’ve read one of his crime pulps before, a smug little “you didn’t really think it was vampires” whodunnit for a more mainstream detective pulp. Now it’s time to give him a second chance–this time in the realm of the strange and the weird.
August 1939’s Strange Stories had two tales from Robert Bloch. “Pink Elephants” under his own name, and, as was common when an author had multiple stories in the same issue, “Flowers From the Moon” (hosted, among other places, at SFFAudio) under a pseudonym.
So, picking the less ridiculous-sounding title, I’m reading “Flowers From the Moon”, a tale of space travel…
…and werewolves?
Hopefully, this won’t be another shaggy dog story.
In the opening, Terry begins the tale racing in his car towards where a great aluminum spaceship is about to land. There, the doors open, and he is reunited with Edna Jackson, his love. Their meeting is interrupted by what is left of Terry’s rival, now a madman.
In a bestial rage, Charles rips the throat out of a nearby reporter. The captain of the ship shoots Charles, throws the beast man’s body into Terry’s car, and commands him to drive.
Once in the safety of the expedition’s lab, the captain starts telling his story. It was a smooth flight to the Moon, almost perfect, until they discovered strange flowers on the surface. Flowers that they brought back with them to Earth.
The scent is hypnotic, entrancing Terry to the point where his breathing matches a strange pulsing from the flowers. Then a baying howl rips through the lab, and the wolf that was Charles attacks and kills Edna’s father.
The pharmacological effects of the flowers turn men into beasts, and Charles isn’t the only member of the crew to fall under their effect. The Captain falls under their sway, and two wolves now menace Terry and Edna.
The poor doomed couple barricades themselves in a room, unable to leave without getting attacked. This standoff cannot last long, for Terry knows he is changing too. The story is a last confession before the final horror.
Well, that opening sure caught my attention. True to Lester Dent’s formula, Terry starts out in a heap of trouble, with strong indications of more coming. And the stakes escalate in roughly quarters, although “Flowers From the Moon”, like many a weird tale, relies more heavily on exposition than action to build its story.
From the previous story, I expected a purely naturalistic explanation for the weirdness at hand. Sure enough, Bloch’s description of how the flowers caused bestial changes in humans is almost mechanical. However, the uncaring mechanics of chemistry only add to the Gothic-styled horror. When Bloch plays the weird things straight, he’s effective and chilling. The horror is magnified by the twist at the end. And the clever mix of folklore and science is complementary and believable.
From a prose standpoint, Bloch is eminently readable and frantic. Rather than gilding the vocabulary, Bloch uses rhythm and short sentences to heighten the unease. It’s a subtle trick, but one later writers will abuse.
With this story, Bloch offers science horror without the stiltedness expected from the more mainstream science fiction of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Perhaps I’ll try “Pink Elephants” after all.