Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday Memories: The Canyons

When I was a kid, there were two grocery stores in Azle: Trammell’s Pak-a-Bag, in downtown at the corner of Main and Stewart Streets, where the blinker light was; and Rochelle’s Grocery, on the highway service road half a mile from the street where I grew up. Trammell’s was a good-sized grocery store for that time period and even had a butcher shop in the back, as well as an attached dry goods store next door. Rochelle’s was smaller but closer (in walking distance, even), so we went there when we only needed a couple of things.

When my mother wanted to do some serious grocery shopping, though, she drove the six miles to Lake Worth and went to the A.L. Davis Supermarket there, and of course, being a little kid, I usually got dragged along. The thing is, at that point my mother didn’t like to drive on the highway, which was a four-lane divided highway with a median in the middle and crossovers every mile or so, plus a two-lane, two-way service road on each side. So she drove on the service roads, which had less traffic, coming and going. (When I think about how little traffic actually was on that highway back then, compared to now, it seems a little crazy that anybody would feel that way, but as I’ve said before and no doubt will again, it was a different time.)

Coming back from Lake Worth, the service road on that side of the highway went right along the edge of the Fort Worth Nature Center for a mile or so. The Nature Center is a city park and wild animal preserve and is still there. The view from the service road along that stretch is pretty scenic, with thickly wooded, fairly steep hills dropping down to Lake Worth (the actual lake, not the town of the same name) and the Trinity River. When we drove back along there after going to the grocery store, I always looked out across that landscape with great interest, because it reminded me of scenery I saw in all the Western TV shows and movies I watched at the time. I could imagine John Wayne or The Lone Ranger and Tonto or Roy Rogers galloping around out there and having shootouts with the bad guys. In my head, I dubbed that area “The Canyons” and started making up stories about what went on there.

Little did I know that 60 years later, I’d still be making up stories about cowboys and bad guys. But that was one of the places where it started.

To add a little more reminiscing about the Nature Center, this is the area where the infamous Lake Worth Monster, a.k.a. the Goatman, was supposed to live. At one time there was a small rehab facility for alcoholics located there, or as we called it with the usual sensitivity of kids, the Wino Farm. A dirt road that was sometimes passable, sometimes not, led from the Nature Center along the shore of the lake and then followed the river for several miles across an area known as Mud Flats before finally connecting with the road that went across the spillway at Eagle Mountain Lake, just upstream from Lake Worth. I seem to recall that Mud Flats was a popular make-out spot when I was in high school, but I never took a girl there other than Livia, and that was after we were married and would get out and just drive around on Sunday afternoons because gas was cheap and we didn’t have anything else to do. (I can no longer even imagine having so much free time we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I should have been working harder back then.) When I got around to writing TEXAS WIND, Mud Flats was also the area where gangsters took my private eye protagonist to beat him up and dump him so he’d be scared off the case he was working on. (That didn’t work out too well for them.)

Jump ahead to the time when our kids were little, and we’d often take them to the Nature Center to hike the trails and look at the buffalo and prairie dogs who lived there. Those were very enjoyable trips, and when I drive by the entrance now, there’s always a part of me that wants to go look at the buffalo. Unfortunately, what was free back then now requires an entrance fee, and I’ve never paid it just to indulge a brief burst of nostalgia. Yet.

But I think about it when I drive by, and I always glance over at The Canyons when I pass them, too, and that little kid making up exciting stories in his head is right beside me, dreaming his cowboy dreams.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Popular Detective, July 1949

Bruno Fischer is probably the only author in this issue of POPULAR DETECTIVE who is still well-known at all. Pulp fans will recall Wilbur S. Peacock, Joe Archibald, and Morris Hershman (who is probably better known for the paperbacks he wrote later). One of the authors featured on the cover, along with Peacock, is William Degenhard, a name that's totally unknown to me. Just another example of the vast amount of once popular fiction that seems to have vanished forever.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Cowboy Stories, August 1936

That's a nice atmospheric cover on this issue of COWBOY STORIES. I don't know who painted it. Inside, the list of authors is more of a "Who?" rather than a "Who's Who". The best-known authors are probably Samuel Taylor and Cliff Walters. The lead novel is the only story listed in the Fictionmags Index for Matt O'Connell, which makes me suspect that may have been a pseudonym. There's also a story by Fridtjof Michelson, not a name to conjure up images of sagebrush and shootouts. Ol' Fridtjof managed to sell more than a dozen Western and adventure yarns to various pulps from the late Twenties to the mid-Thirties, though. And Alfred L. Garry contributes another installment in his long-running comedy Western series about Deputy Ham and Sheriff Egg.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Sky Raider - Donald E. Keyhoe

One thing that most people have forgotten or never knew is that a lot of popular fiction used to be serialized in newspapers. This was true up into the 1940s and maybe beyond that. I don’t recall seeing any serials in newspapers when I was growing up, but it’s certainly possible that such things occurred elsewhere.

THE SKY RAIDER was serialized in The Ottawa Journal and other papers in 1929. It’s the first novel by young pilot Donald E. Keyhoe, who started writing while he was recuperating from injuries suffered in a crackup in 1922. As you might expect, he specialized in aviation stories. THE SKY RAIDER is an adventure yarn about air piracy, with some elements of the traditional mystery thrown in as well. The protagonist, Dick Trent, flies for the Air Mail, a relatively new operation at the time. Dick’s not exactly a daredevil, but he’ll run some risks while he’s flying if he has a good enough reason.

The owner of this particular Air Mail service has a beautiful daughter, a ne’er-do-well son, and a government contract to deliver a quarter of a million dollars for the Federal Reserve. Dick’s best friend takes the run carrying the money. When he doesn’t show up where he’s supposed to, Dick leads the search. He finds the wrecked and burned plane and the body of his friend. The pilot wasn’t killed in the wreck, though. Dick figures out that he actually landed the plane for some reason and then was murdered by someone who met him on the ground. The money, of course, is gone.

The owner of the Air Mail service, the father of the girl Dick loves, is soon arrested for the murder and robbery, convicted, and sent to prison to await execution. Dick believes he’s innocent, and the rest of the novel is concerned with our young hero’s efforts to ferret out the truth and uncover the real killer.

For a first novel, THE SKY RAIDER is decently plotted. You’ll think you have everything figured out more than once, but Keyhoe manages to put some nice twists on the story. It’s not very well-paced, though, lurching along with some stretches that drag. Most of the time the writing is serviceable at best, reminding me of the prose in a lot of those Stratemeyer Syndicate books from that era.

It really perks up, though, when Keyhoe is writing about flying itself. You can tell he really had a passion for it. There’s a nice scene where Dick is comparing flying to riding in a train, and train travel definitely comes off second best. (I have a feeling that if E.S. Dellinger had been writing that scene, it would have been the other way around. It’s interesting that enough people in those days had an affinity for one or the other that both aviation and railroads had millions of words of pulp fiction written about them.)

Keyhoe had a long career writing for the aviation and air-war pulps, mixing in a few detective stories along the way. He also wrote the short-lived Yellow Peril pulp series, DR. YEN SIN. Then he struck gold in the Fifties with his supposedly non-fiction books about UFOs. I gobbled up all those flying saucer books when I was a kid, and I remember reading and enjoying the ones by Keyhoe. I’d never read any of his aviation stories until THE SKY RAIDER, though.

And even though it’s very old-fashioned and has its flaws, I also found it pretty entertaining. The whole novel can be downloaded in PDF format from the Age of Aces website, with the first installment to be found here. Age of Aces also publishes a number of collections of Keyhoe’s aviation pulp stories, as well as collections by other stalwarts of that genre, and I have a feeling I’m going to be buying some of them. All three of Keyhoe’s DR. YEN SIN novels are available from Altus Press and I’ll probably spring for those as well. In the meantime, you can sample THE SKY RAIDER for free, and if you’re looking for a novel that will transport you back into another era, it’s a good one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Northern Pursuit (1943)

I keep finding old movies that I’ve never seen, despite the prodigious amount of them I watched on TV when I was a kid. NORTHERN PURSUIT, made in 1943, is a World War II espionage adventure starring Errol Flynn as a Canadian Mountie battling Nazi spies and saboteurs, until a bad decision leads to him being kicked out of the RCMP in disgrace. Things go from bad to worse from there as, disillusioned by what’s happened to him, he’s recruited by the very spy ring he was trying to break up.

Okay, stop me right there if you’ve figured out the big plot twist. It’s certainly not hard to do, and the script doesn’t keep the viewer in the dark for very long, either. But as I’ve said many times before, it just doesn’t matter. The fun (and this movie is a great deal of fun) is in watching some top professionals go about spinning an exciting, entertaining yarn.

I wouldn’t say Errol Flynn is one of my favorite actors, but I’ve always liked him and his movies. Helmut Dantine is the head bad guy, and he’s as sleek and evil as you’d want him to be. There’s plenty of stalwart support from John Ridgley as a fellow Mountie, Gene Lockhart (a little miscast but effective as a Nazi spy), and Tom Tully as an RCMP inspector. Jay Silverheels, Tonto his own self, is supposed to be in the movie somewhere in a bit part, but I never spotted him.

The script is by none other than the old pulpster Frank Gruber, who really knew how to tell a story, and veteran screenwriter Alvah Bessie. It’s based on a story by another prolific pulp writer, Leslie T. White. I don’t know which of White’s stories was used as the source material, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was published originally in ARGOSY or ADVENTURE. And NORTHERN PURSUIT was directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed many pictures I liked a great deal, such as THE ROARING TWENTIES, DARK COMMAND, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT. He’s another one who really knew how to tell an exciting story. I mean, just look at the guy! That’s what a two-fisted movie director should look like.

Not that NORTHERN PURSUIT is perfect. I thought the final showdown could have been a little more dramatic, and then the very end of the movie, Flynn’s last line, is so oddly wrong and tone-deaf, especially considering all the good notes the movie’s hit up until then, that I can only suspect it was included at the insistence of some studio executive overly enamored of his own cleverness. It’s jarringly out of place, and if you watch NORTHERN PURSUIT I think you should just pretend it ended ten seconds earlier than it actually did. And if you like World War II espionage adventure movies, you definitely should watch it. I enjoyed it a lot.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: North-West Romances, Spring 1944

Here's another good Mountie cover on this issue of NORTH-WEST ROMANCES. I don't know who the artist is, but I know there are some fine authors with stories in this issue, with the biggest name probably being Dan Cushman. Two authors better known for Westerns rather than Northerns are also on hand, William Heuman and Archie Joscelyn, both of them writers I like quite a bit. Fiction House regular R.S. Lerch contributes a story, as well. Looks like a good issue of the leading Northern pulp.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, March 13, 1926

Most of the WESTERN STORY covers during the 1920s were on the sedate side, but here's one that has some nice action. I can't read the artist's name in the scan, but maybe someone among you can identify who painted this cover. Inside this issue are two stories by Frederick Faust, one as by Max Brand and the other as by John Frederick, plus stories by Frank Richardson Pierce, Hugh Grinstead, Ray Humphreys, Austin Hall, Reginald Barker, and Kenneth Gilbert, all regular contributors to WESTERN STORY.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Forgotten Books: Renegade - Ramsay Thorne (Lou Cameron)

Not long after Lou Cameron created the Longarm series for Berkley, he began writing the Renegade series for Warner Books under the pseudonym Ramsay Thorne. Unlike Longarm, on which Cameron was one of several rotating authors, he turned out all the Renegade books himself. The series was pretty successful, running for several years. At one time, I had all the books in paperback but never read any of them.

These days, the Renegade series is available under Cameron's real name in e-book editions from Piccadilly Publishing, so when I decided it was finally time for me to sample this series, that's the route I took. And I'm glad I did, because RENEGADE is one of the better books I've read recently.

The time is the early 1890s, the setting Arizona Territory not far from the Mexican border, as the protagonist, Lieutenant Richard Walker, is about to be hanged after a court-martial. Seems he took pity on some Mexican revolutionaries/bandits who were caught on the American side of the border and let them go, and in their escape, a soldier was killed. Walker escapes as well and manages to make it across the border into Mexico, where he's promptly captured by brutal Rurales and faces execution again.

Of course, Walker escapes again, and this time he takes a Maxim gun with him, which helps him come in really handy when he falls in with that same bunch of revolutionaries. He also befriends a French mercenary who has been in Mexico since the time of Maximilian's dictatorship. Walker quickly assumes a leadership role among the revolutionaries and gets a battlefield promotion to captain--Captain Gringo, as he's known by one and all for the rest of the book, as he helps the revolutionaries in their struggle against the notorious El Presidente, Porfirio Diaz.

That pretty much sums up the plot of RENEGADE, which is a very straightforward book. But what makes it worthwhile is the wonderfully profane, crude, politically incorrect voice in which it's written, as Captain Gringo beds just about every woman he meets, mows down scores of Rurales and Federales with the machine gun he carries, and leads a long railroad chase across Mexico as he tries to get himself and his new-found friends safely from the high deserts of the border country to the jungles along the coast. There's a ton of well-written action and some bawdy humor. Sure, most of it is over the top, but that hardly ever bothers me.

The only real flaws in this one are that it's too long and therefore a little repetitive in places, and after everything that's gone before, the last couple of chapters struck me as sort of anti-climactic. But for the most part, RENEGADE is great fun (although probably not something that will be to everyone's taste) and I really enjoyed it. I'm glad the whole series is available as e-books. I may not ever get around to reading all of them, but I have a feeling I'll give it a try.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Track of the Cat (1954)

As many times as TRACK OF THE CAT played on TV while I was growing up, you’d think I would have seen it by now, but that’s not the case. I’m always glad to come across a Western I haven’t seen, so we watched the DVD of it not long ago.

However, as it turns out, TRACK OF THE CAT is not a normal Western at all. Since it’s based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (THE OX-BOW INCIDENT), that’s kind of to be expected. Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, and William Hopper (Paul Drake from PERRY MASON, his own self) play brothers who don’t get along that well as they live on an isolated ranch in the California mountains with their parents, bitter old Beulah Bondi and drunkenly ineffectual Phillip Tonge. The youngest brother, played by Hunter, has been courting a girl (Diana Lynn) his mother doesn’t approve of, and she’s come to visit. Mitchum, Hunter, and Hopper also have an old maid sister, played by Theresa Wright. There are a lot of angsty undercurrents going on, and when a panther starts attacking the family’s stock and Mitchum and Hopper go out after it, that sets off a chain of tragic events.

I haven’t read the source novel, but there’s enough doom, gloom, domestic drama, and creepy subtext in TRACK OF THE CAT that while watching it, I kept thinking, “This is like Tennessee Williams wrote a Western.” I didn’t dislike it, mind you, but it’s the kind of movie that makes you ask yourself what the hell it is you’re watching. I was expecting a taut, suspenseful yarn, a man vs. nature action story with Mitchum battling the panther, but that’s not what it is.

The snowy outdoor photography by William Clothier is excellent, and director William Wellman keeps things moving along fairly well despite the talky script. The acting is okay, especially considering there’s not really a sympathetic character in the whole movie. Wait, I take that back. Joe Sam, a crazy old Indian ranch hand, is sort of sympathetic at times, when he’s not being creepy as all get-out. The really odd thing about that is Joe Sam is played by none other than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Little Rascals, who was all of 26 years old when this movie was made. It’s some pretty masterful work under heavy make-up.

So overall, I can only give this movie a qualified recommendation. It’s well made and interesting enough that I’m glad I watched it, but heavy psychological drama isn’t really my thing. If you enjoy that sort of movie and haven’t seen TRACK OF THE CAT, it’s worth checking out.