Sometimes, like when I read CAST IN DARK WATERS by Ed Gorman and Tom Piccirilli a few weeks ago, you’re just in the mood for a good pirate yarn. Although very different from the Gorman and Piccirilli book, J. Allan Dunn’s THE SIGN OF THE SKULL fits into the good pirate yarn category, too.
Originally published as a complete novel in the April 18, 1918 issue of the legendary pulp magazine ADVENTURE, the biggest influence on THE SIGN OF THE SKULL is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic TREASURE ISLAND. (I still have fond memories of Mrs. Wray, my fifth grade teacher, reading a chapter of TREASURE ISLAND aloud to the class when we got back from lunch every day.) The narrator and protagonist of THE SIGN OF THE SKULL is also a young man, although considerably older than Jim Hawkins. Justin Penrith is in desperate financial straits, so bad off that he’s been reduced to becoming (shudder) a writer, authoring penny broadsides about famous pirates, one of whom is about to be hanged in London as the story opens. Justin is in attendance at the public hanging, and he sees the buccaneer throw a ring to someone in the crowd just before dropping through the trap.
That ring becomes important later on, because (MINOR SPOILER, as if you haven’t already guessed) it’s the key to finding a fortune in pirate booty buried on an island off the east coast of Africa. (And yes, this is the sort of story in which the word “booty” is used often. If you read it, try not to snicker.) Justin becomes involved in a quest to find this treasure when he befriends a crippled youngster who has a rich uncle. Before you know it, they’re getting ready to sail off to Africa in search of the loot, but other people know about it, too, and try to stop them, leading to some adventures in England before the ship ever sets sail.
And once it does, you can be sure there’s more excitement, with hurricanes, mutiny, sea battles, bloody cutlasses, booming flintlock pistols, and pirates galore. Treachery abounds, and of course the plot has a few more twists to play out, including a very good one late in the book that I didn’t see coming at all.
Dunn wasn’t as good a writer as Stevenson and the prose is a little stodgy in places, but THE SIGN OF THE SKULL is solidly in the same tradition as TREASURE ISLAND and I found it very entertaining. Of course, it helps if you’re a middle-aged guy who can still channel his inner twelve-year-old. (I think I’ve just described a sizable percentage of this blog’s regular readers.) After ninety years or so, THE SIGN OF THE SKULL will soon be in print again, in an inexpensive reprint edition from our friends at Beb Books. If you enjoy tales of piracy and derring-do, you definitely should keep a lookout for it.
Joseph Wapner, R. I. P.
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