Saturday, July 07, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Western, September 1950

This is a pulp I own and read recently. The scan is from my copy. I don’t know who the artist is, but if you check the lower right corner, you’ll see that this is an Injury to a Hat cover. I’ve been reading issues of THRILLING WESTERN for years now and always enjoy them, although there are usually one or two stories in each issue I don’t care for.

This issue leads off (as most issues from 1940 to 1950 did) with a Walt Slade, Texas Ranger story by Bradford Scott, who was really the highly prolific and distinctive A. Leslie Scott. “The Sky Riders” is one of the last stories in the pulp series. There would be only two more after it. But a few years later Scott began writing paperback novels for Pyramid Books featuring the Walt Slade character, mostly originals but some expansions from pulp yarns. That paperback series ran even longer, all the way into the early Seventies. There’s a Walt Slade novel from 1968 called THE SKY RIDERS, and while I haven’t read it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s an expansion of this pulp novella.

This one opens with a very evocation scene involving a killing on a high natural bridge running between two sides of a canyon. Scott always wrote good action scenes and good descriptions of the settings, and both of those elements are on display here. Walt Slade, an undercover Texas Ranger who most folks believe to be the notorious outlaw El Halcon (The Hawk), witnesses that shooting, and his investigation plunges him into the hunt for a gang of owlhoots known as the Sky Riders because they’re usually spotted riding along some rimrock, silhouetted against the sky.

Anybody who’s read more than one or two Walt Slade yarns will know exactly what’s going on in this story and will pick out the hidden mastermind of the outlaws with no trouble. The geography of the region plays a big part in the plot, as it often does in Scott’s stories, and he handles it very well, resulting in some vivid scenes. Sure, the whole thing is formulaic, but I always enjoy Scott’s work anyway. It’s pure comfort reading for me.

I have the opposite reaction to the Swap and Whopper series by Syl MacDowell, which ran even longer than the Walt Slade series, starting in 1939 and continuing until 1952. Slapstick Westerns are a hard sell for me to start with. The Swap and Whopper stories feature a couple of saddle tramps, one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, who always wind up in bizarre situations. Part Mutt and Jeff, part Abbott and Costello, and well written enough by old pro Syl MacDowell, but dang, this series just doesn’t work for me. I’ve started dozens of them and finished only a few. The one in this issue, “The Talking Bear”, is not one that I finished.

Nels Leroy Jorgensen wrote scores of stories during a pulp career that lasted approximately thirty years, from the early Twenties to the early Fifties. He turned out detective, aviation, adventure, and war stories in addition to Westerns. I first became aware of him as a Western writer but later discovered that his work appeared frequently in BLACK MASK during the Twenties and Thirties, most notably with a series about a gambler named Black Burton (a series that wound up in BLACK BOOK DETECTIVE during the Forties). Jorgensen’s novelette in this issue, “Gunstorm on the Wagon Trail”, has a good title and the plot, about a couple of guys who own a freight company trying to get a wagon train full of badly needed supplies (including medicine) through a gauntlet of Mexican bandidos and Apache renegades, is interesting as well. I thought the actual writing was pretty bland, though, with lots of long paragraphs of the protagonist thinking about what’s going on. I finished the story, but it never really caught my interest much.

I’ve never read a story by Johnston McCulley that I didn’t like, and “Agency Injun” continues that streak. It’s a minor yarn about a cavalryman trying to prove that a friendly Indian didn’t commit a murder at an army post, but McCulley tells it well. This one has an illustration by the great Nick Eggenhoffer, too, which certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

I read a story by L. Kenneth Brent in an issue of THRILLING WESTERN last year and enjoyed it. His tale in this issue, “Gunsmoke Freeze-Out”, is even better. It’s a “small rancher vs. cattle baron” story, with the added complication that a rustler the small rancher testified against in court has gotten out of prison and is coming back to try to kill him. It’s a standard plot, but Brent’s writing is good and he creates some genuine suspense along the way. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his stories.

Like Nels Leroy Jorgensen, Harold F. Cruickshank had a pulp career that lasted from the Twenties to the Fifties. During that time he wrote several hundred stories, specializing during the first part of his career in war and air war stories before branching out into Westerns and sports yarns. He was a highly regarded air war writer, but I haven’t read any of those stories. In Westerns, he had a long-running back-up series in RANGE RIDERS WESTERNS about the settlers in Sun Bear Valley. I’ve read some of these (also known as the Pioneer Folk series) but never cared much for them. His novelette in this issue, “Branch Line to Hell”, is a stand-alone about a railroad surveyor who’s trying to survey a spur line over the opposition of a ruthless local cattle baron. It’s a good title, but unfortunately that’s the best thing about this story. Cruickshank’s writing just doesn’t appeal to me, and all the technical details of surveying and railroad construction are just confusing, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going on some of the time. I think maybe I’ve read enough of Cruickshank’s work, although I am still curious about his air war stories.

So far this issue of THRILLING WESTERN is batting .500. I’ve liked three of the stories and disliked the other three. But there are four short stories left.

I don’t know anything about Dupree Poe except that I’ve seen his name in various Western pulps. He sold several dozen stories to the Thrilling Group in the late Forties and early Fifties, along with a few to MAMMOTH WESTERN and the Ace Western pulps, WESTERN ACES and WESTERN TRAILS. His story “Hangman’s Tree” in this issue is a little unusual for the era in that the plot revolves around a rancher’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair with an outlaw who’s hiding out on the ranch and pretending to be a cowhand. This sets off a string of events that include a lynching, a visit by another outlaw, and the rancher’s near death in quicksand. (Quicksand, of course, is one of the things that improve any story, and if the greatly missed Bill Crider was still with us, I have a hunch he would agree.) Anyway, there’s also a good dog in this story, and that helps, too. “Hangman’s Tree” is almost too grim, but I wound up thinking that it’s a decent story.

Ben Frank is the pseudonym of Frank Bennett, an author who wrote under his real name for both the pulps and the slicks in the Forties and Fifties. He was more prolific as Ben Frank and is best remembered for a back-up series that appeared in many issues of TEXAS RANGERS featuring a cagey old-timer known as Doc Swap. He also wrote a comical Western about a deputy named Boo-Boo Bounce. As I mentioned above, with a few exceptions (Robert E. Howard and W.C. Tuttle come to mind), I’m not much of a fan of comedy Westerns. I don’t care for the Boo-Boo Bounce stories at all. The Doc Swap yarns are at least readable because they’re usually well-plotted. Frank’s stand-alone story in this issue of THRILLING WESTERN, “One Man Justice” features another old-timer and his attempt to bring to justice the man who tried to murder his son-in-law. This isn’t a comedy; Frank plays it completely straight and gives the tale a nice hardboiled, suspenseful tone, as well as a twist or two. This one took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I did, quite a bit.

Robert J. Hogan was the author of G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES, of course, along with a lot of other air war stories, but he also wrote a considerable number of Westerns. His story in this issue, “Badge for a Bandit”, uses the old plot of an outlaw trying to go straight. In this case, the young man has even become a deputy, but then his old gang shows up intending to rob the bank. I generally enjoy Hogan’s stories, but I never could work up much interest in this one.

The final story is “Heading Into Trouble”, a short, simple yarn about a bank messenger, a stagecoach driver, and a shotgun guard trying to get a stagecoach carrying a lot of money through a gauntlet of outlaws. It’s almost non-stop action, which is good, and the writing is okay. The by-line is the house-name Jackson Cole, which was often used when an author had more than one story in an issue. In this case, though, the style doesn’t strike me as being similar to any of the other authors in this issue. In fact, it reminded me of the work of Charles S. Strong, an editor at the Thrilling Group who wrote Western fiction under the name Chuck Stanley as well as detective and adventure yarns under his own name. That’s just a guess on my part, however. It could have been someone else who wrote “Heading Into Trouble”. Whoever did, I thought it was an okay story.

Overall, I’d say this is a below average issue of THRILLING WESTERN. The two best stories are the Walt Slade novella and Ben Frank’s story, and there are several I don’t think are very good at all. But considering the sheer number of Western pulps published, they can’t all be great. I’m confident that I’ll have better luck the next time I take one off the shelf.


Walker Martin said...

Thanks for this review of the September 1950 THRILLING WESTERN. Now that I think of it, this may be the longest and most detailed review of any specific western fiction magazine issue. I appreciate these reviews and I've recently printed out the six reviews that you wrote about specific issues of JUNGLE STORIES.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Walker. I really enjoy writing these up as I read various issues. Just wish I had time to read more. I'm working on that.

Hedgeguard said...

Interesting that you mention Harold Cruickshank's aviation stories as I just received the two volumes of his "Sky Devil" series from "Daredevil Aces" yesterday; I'll let you know what I think about them in a few days, if you'd like.

James Reasoner said...

I almost ordered those Sky Devil books but held off for now, so yes, please, let me know how you like them. I try to support all the pulp reprinters as much as I can.

Hedgeguard said...

Great. I'll let you know in a few days, then.

Hedgeguard said...

Okay, I've finished the first volume of the "Sky Devil" stories, and here's a brief assessment. Unlike most of the WWI air combat pulp stories I'm familiar with (such as Donald Keyhoe's "Vanished Legion" and "Jailbird Flight," William Barrett's "Iron Ace," Frederick Painton's "Squadron of the Dead," and -- my favorites -- Ralph Oppenheim's "Three Mosquitoes," all of which are novelet, novella, or short novel length (45 - 80 pages) -- the Sky Devil stories are all short stories, 20 - 23 pages in length; the result is that there are not the kinds of plot, character, or situational development in them that one finds elsewhere. The plot of each story I've read follows a single basic pattern: An initial Aerial Combat takes place which produces or reveals a problem (e. g., someone's captured, some Allied base is threatened, some new secret weapon is about to be unleashed, etc.), which in turn leads to a plan to solve the problem, which then leads to the second aerial combat in which the problem is resolved and, during which, the latest nasty Prussian ace (who is always "von" something Teutonic) is done away with (at least one per story, although there are two in at least one of the stories). In other words, the stories are fairly tightly held to a single line of development; no doubt, when one would have read only one per month per issue of "Dare-Devil Aces," their mechanical similarity probably wouldn't have been so noticeable, but when you read 14 of them over just a few days, they do begin to seem a bit thin in comparison to those stories by writers I mentioned earlier. Don't get me wrong: they are fun in their own way; I'd simply recommend reading them just one at a time with intervals in between.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks! This is exactly the sort of information I was looking for. I came across an e-book version of one of Cruickshank's stories from SKY FIGHTERS, "The Devil's Forest", and read it. It has the same sort of plot you describe, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't think it was as good as some of the other air war stories I've read. So while I'll probably get the Sky Devil boooks eventually, I'm going to try some of those other authors first. I have some stories by Keyhoe, who I've never read except for his later UFO books, so I'll give those a shot.