Friday, November 30, 2018

Forgotten Books: No Business of Mine - James Hadley Chase

The main weakness in the American-set thrillers by British author James Hadley Chase is that occasionally the settings and especially the dialogue don’t quite ring true. The very popular Chase, whose real name was Rene Raymond, comes up with a smart way to avoid this minor pitfall in NO BUSINESS OF MINE, a novel originally published in 1947 under the pseudonym Raymond Marshall. Even though the novel features an American narrator/protagonist, two-fisted reporter Steve Harmas, it’s set in post-war England and so Chase can write more about people and places he knows. And for that matter, Steve Harmas is a pretty believable American, too.

Harmas spent most of the war in London as a war correspondent, and he’s back now, a couple of years later, to write a series of articles for a New York newspaper about conditions in post-war England. While he’s there, he intends to look up an old girlfriend of his named Netta Scott. When he does, though, he discovers to his shock that she committed suicide just the day before by gassing herself in her flat. Harmas doesn’t believe she would do such a thing, so he starts poking into her life since he saw her last. Naturally, things do not go well.

The first few pages of this novel are kind of slow as Chase sets things up, but once Harmas discovers Netta’s death and starts his investigation, boy, things really rocket along after that! Almost right away, Netta’s sister winds up dead, too. Hearses are hijacked and bodies disappear! The morgue goes up in flames! Gangsters beat the crap out of Harmas! The cops warn him to stay out of their investigations or go to jail! A fortune in jewels is missing! Throats are cut, skulls are bashed in with fireplace pokers, and everywhere Harmas turns, somebody’s either lying to him or trying to kill him! Thank goodness there are a few beautiful blondes and redheads to comfort him along the way.

It seems that Chase went into this book with the goal of springing a major surprise on the reader every thirty or forty pages. He succeeds in doing that, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting some of the twists. That makes for an incredibly complicated plot, but as far as I can tell, it all holds together pretty well, although Harmas has to take the last fifteen pages of the book to explain everything. He’s a hard-nosed but likable protagonist, quick with his fists and with witty banter, too, and the book has a lot of other vividly depicted characters (mostly villainous) as well.

NO BUSINESS OF MINE is one of the most entertaining James Hadley Chase books I’ve read so far. It’s just been reprinted by Stark House in a double volume with another early Chase novel, MISS SHUMWAY WAVES A WAND, and if you’re looking for a tough, fast-paced, hardboiled action novel, I give it a high recommendation. I really enjoyed it.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Monday Memories: The Ski Jump

You can get a pretty good idea how long somebody has been around Azle by how they react if you mention the Ski Jump. If they have no idea what you’re talking about, they probably haven’t been in town long, since everybody hears about the Ski Jump sooner or later. But only those of us who have been around here since the early Sixties know why it’s called that.

First of all, despite the fact that the town is just west of Eagle Mountain Lake, there are no actual mountains anywhere around Azle, and certainly not any where anybody would be skiing. People do water ski on the lake, and for all I know there might be some ramps somewhere that they use for jumping. But that has nothing to do with the Ski Jump.

As far back as I remember, the street where I lived turned off the service road of State Highway 199, which was a four-lane, divided highway with a grass median between the eastbound and westbound lanes and also a two-lane, two-way service road on each side, also separated from the highway by grass medians. It was a nice highway for the time, but I recall, early on in my life, it ran for less than half a mile past the street where I lived and then abruptly ended at a crossover, except for the service road on our side of the highway, which curved to the left and continued on through downtown Azle. The state had built the divided highway that far and then stopped, I guess because they had to wait for more funds to become available.

Sometime around 1959 or ’60, construction began to extend the divided highway around downtown. Main Street, which had been Highway 199, would be designated Loop 344 (which it is to this day). However, some engineer came up with an interesting idea for the exit ramp to that loop. Instead of an exit to the right from the westbound lanes, after which traffic for the downtown loop would continue along that service road to an overpass or underpass, the two westbound lanes of the highway climbed an embankment, at the top of which they split. The right-hand lane continued on, while the left-hand lane made a very sharp turn to the left, onto a bridge that crossed over the eastbound lanes and then descended to merge with Main Street. Got that?

I have a hunch you can figure out what happened after this oddly designed left-hand exit opened around 1961. It was new, so people weren’t really familiar with it, and some of them were driving too fast, and there may have been alcohol involved at times (Highway 199, also known as the Jacksboro Highway, was infamous for the beer joints that lined it on both sides from downtown Fort Worth all the way to Azle) . . .

Yep, you’re right. Several times over the next couple of years, for whatever reasons, drivers suddenly found themselves at the top of that rise and couldn’t make the sharp turn to the left. Instead they crashed through the guard rail and their cars sailed through the air—like skiers coming off a ski jump—and landed either in the median or in the eastbound lanes of the highway, resulting in fatalities, many injuries, and much destruction. It was a mess.

So, realizing their mistake, the highway department closed down that exit, leveled off the embankment leading up to it, and laid down two regular lanes of highway on that side. They built a standard right-hand exit to the westbound service road a couple of hundred yards back. And since the bridge over the eastbound lanes was still there, they just extended it over the westbound lanes as well, over to the service road, where people who wanted to go to downtown Azle could turn onto it, follow it over the highway, and then swoop down to Main Street on the remaining part of what had already become known far and wide as the Ski Jump.

And even though the deadly design responsible for that name has been gone for almost sixty years, people around here still call that bridge the Ski Jump, although I suspect fewer and fewer of them do so, and many of the ones who do don’t really know why it’s called that. I’m sure there’ll come a time when nobody knows, and after that a time when nobody even calls it that anymore. But a lot of us will remember as long as we’re around, and now you know the rest of the story, too, as Paul Harvey used to say.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Startling Stories, July 1952

This is a pulp that I own and read recently, and the scan is of my copy. I probably own and have read fewer of the SF pulps than any of the other major genres (and I’m betraying some bias there by not considering aviation, sports, and love pulps to be major genres, although they certainly were, sales-wise). Not sure why it’s worked out that way, since I certainly enjoy a good SF pulp, and by and large, that’s what STARTLING STORIES was. But is that true for this particular issue? We’ll see.

The cover art on this issue is by Alex Schomburg, an artist whose work I generally like. This painting isn’t a particular favorite of mine, but I have to admit, that’s a pretty impressive rocket ship. Nice fins.

The lead novella is “Passport to Pax” by Kendall Foster Crossen. I’ve read a number of Crossen’s hardboiled novels featuring insurance investigator Milo March, published under the name M.E. Chaber, and enjoyed all of them. I tried to read his Green Lama pulp series but never was able to get into the stories. He wrote a considerable amount of SF, both novels and stories, under his own name and as Richard Foster, but as far as I recall, this is the first SF yarn I’ve read by him. It starts out as a hardboiled detective tale with SF trappings, as Personal Observer (get it?) Jair Holding is hired by the Association of Galactic Industries to find out who’s been sabotaging their business interests across the galaxy. The chief suspect is the planet Nike, in the Regulus System. There’s another planet in the system, the mysterious Pax, that’s been cut off from outside contact for millennia. Things get a lot more complicated from there, with Holding getting captured by bad guys and escaping several times. It’s all moderately entertaining but never seemed to develop any sense of real urgency in me. I ought to try one of Crossen’s full-length SF novels, but this novella didn’t impress me. It does have a couple of really good Virgil Finlay illustrations, though.

Next up is an early story by Arthur C. Clarke, “All the Time in the World”. It’s about a shady lawyer hired by a mysterious client to steal some specific books from the British Museum and given the means to do so: a gadget that stops time except for a small bubble around the user. Of course, things don’t turn out as planned. It’s a gimmick that’s been used many times, and especially considering the author, this is a minor story, but it’s well written and entertaining anyway.

William Morrison, the author of the short story “New Universe”, was really Joseph Samachson, who wrote quite a bit of science fiction under the Morrison name and then became a prolific scripter for DC Comics. (He co-created the characters Martian Manhunter and Tomahawk.) “New Universe” is a fairly clever little yarn about what happens with the supreme, all-powerful conqueror of the universe gets bored. The illustration for this one is by Ed Emshwiller, under the pretty blatant pseudonym Ed Emsler.

“The Best Policy”, by Phyllis Sterling Smith, is a short story about a group of Martian intelligence agents who come to Earth and possess the corpses of recently deceased humans, or in one case, a dog. It’s supposed to be a humorous tale but never amounts to much. I’m not familiar with Smith at all and can only tell you that she wrote just a handful of stories. The illustration is by some unknown artist trying to imitate Virgil Finlay.

A good Schomburg illo graces the novelette “Collision” by Raymond F. Jones. Jones wrote the novel THE YEAR THAT STARDUST FELL, which I read several years ago and really enjoyed. This novelette is the sort of blue-collar SF I like, as a space yacht belonging to a famous actress collides with a communications relay station between Earth and Mars and causes great destruction and loss of life. The manager of the station has to try to figure out what happened and defend himself against the station’s vengeful owners, in a set-up that reminded me a little of Hammond Innes’ classic adventure novel THE WRECK OF THE Mary Deare. This is an excellent story, very well-written and ultimately more about humanity than nuts and bolts. I really need to read more by Jones. Luckily, I own several of his novels.

I’m familiar with Miriam Allen deFord as a mystery author whose stories I recall reading in EQMM and THE SAINT, but she wrote fantasy, too, such as her short story in this issue, “Mr. Circe”. It’s about a guy who spends his life plagued by a certain mysterious power. The problem is that the big twist at the end of the story doesn’t work at all. Well-written, wryly humorous, but ultimately a big misfire.

The final story is “Courtesy Call” by Ross Rocklynne, a long-time SF author. This one is about a diplomat from another planet where everybody is always agreeable, but when he arrives on Earth, he’s taken prisoner and subjected to interrogation and psychological torture. The motive for the whole thing is really murky, the characters are unlikable, and it’s just not a very good story.

In addition to the fiction, there’s a column by Jerome Bixby listing all the SF fanzines currently available, and the lengthy letters column, “The Ether Vibrates”. In this issue, the readers are debating the controversial covers by Earle Bergey that graced issues of STARTLING STORIES and THRILLING WONDER STORIES, as well as the question of whether sex should ever be mentioned in science fiction stories. Man, those readers had some really strong opinions and didn’t mind expressing them emphatically and at length. Sort of like SF readers today, I guess. But I’m afraid that, as with most Facebook arguments of the same sort, I just kind of skimmed through “The Ether Vibrates”.

So overall, I found this to be a below average issue of STARTLING STORIES, with only two really good stories, the ones by Clarke and Jones, with the others being readable but not much more than that. If you own a copy of this issue, I wouldn’t get in a hurry to pull it down from the shelves.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Trails, January 1942

This issue of WESTERN TRAILS sports a Norman Saunders cover, and it's great as usual, packed with dynamic action. There are some fine authors inside, too, with J. Edward Leithead leading off with the evocatively titled novella "Haunted by a Pistol Past". As I've mentioned many times before, Leithead is one of my favorite Western pulp authors. Scores of his stories appeared in WESTERN TRAILS and its sister publication WESTERN ACES, as well as in numerous other Western pulps. Also on hand are Wyatt Blassingame writing as Van Cort, Gunnison Steele (Bennie Gardner), and Tom J. Hopkins, as well as some lesser-known pulpsters such as Hyatt Manderson and Raymond W. Porter.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Forgotten Books: Casca #1 The Eternal Mercenary - Barry Sadler

The Casca series debuted in 1979, and for years I saw the paperbacks all over the place and even owned a few now and then, but I never got around to reading any of them. In my continuing effort to at least sample some of the series I’ve overlooked, I recently read the first Casca novel, THE ETERNAL MERCENARY.

Despite never having read any of the books, I was familiar with the concept of the series: one of the Roman centurions present at Jesus’ crucifixion, Casca Rufio Longinus, is cursed with immortality and spends the thousands of years since then as an undying soldier, fighting in many wars in many places, always as a mercenary. The first book opens with him in Vietnam, badly wounded but already recovering from injuries that would have killed anybody else. While he’s recovering, he tells a sympathetic doctor about his life history, focusing mostly on the first couple of hundred years after he was cursed, when he fell out of favor with his superiors in the Roman army, was sent to work in the mines as a slave, was an oarsman chained to his oar in a Roman galley, and fought as a gladiator in the arena. Interspersed with these harrowing sequences are more peaceful times, such as when he meets a wanderer from the mysterious East and learns martial arts from him and even settles down for a while as a farmer and has a wife.

The story meanders around through all these elements and maybe goes on just a tiny bit too long, but Sadler’s style is so infectious and full of life—good and bad—that it kept me turning the pages quite happily. He does a great job of capturing Casca’s personality and makes him a very likable protagonist, despite the violence that seems to haunt the character’s life.

I have to wonder about Sadler’s influences: Casca is very similar in many ways to Wolverine, who made his debut in THE INCREDIBLE HULK five years before this novel came out; and the dialogue and relationship between Casca and his Chinese mentor Shiu is very reminiscent of Remo Williams and Chiun from the Destroyer series, which was hugely popular in the decade before the Casca series began. However, I have no way of knowing if Sadler was familiar with any of that, and all writers are influenced by all sorts of things anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that Sadler makes it all work in this book and comes up with something very entertaining and satisfying. I really liked this one, and I’ll be reading more of the Casca novels.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Flying Sparks - Jon Del Arroz

As a long-time comic book fan (but you knew that), I don’t find much to interest me in what’s coming out from Marvel and DC these days. So recently I’ve taken a chance on several crowdfunded comics projects, and the first one to actually show up is FLYING SPARKS, a three-part superhero yarn from Jon Del Arroz in a nice-looking and well-produced trade paperback.

No origin stories here. Del Arroz drops us down in the middle of the action with his protagonist Meta-Girl battling a villain. She’s pretty new at the superhero game, learning as she goes, and not surprisingly taking some lumps in the process. She doesn’t seem to have any real powers. Her abilities come from the various gadgets she uses, such as anti-gravity boots and a stun stick. These gadgets were invented by her mentor, Professor Fitch, who teaches at the university where Meta-Girl is a student in her real identity as Chloe Anderson. Chloe also has a best friend, Hannah, and a boyfriend, Johnny Benvinuti, who owns a coffee shop.

But there’s where the twist comes in. Johnny isn’t just a coffee shop owner. He’s also a criminal, a high-level fence who deals mostly in stolen art, although he seems like a fairly decent guy at heart. And unlike Chloe, he does have a superpower that gives him the ability to deliver potent electric blasts. So what we have here, in some respects, is a romantic comedy with superheroes. But there are some dark undercurrents as well, as mysterious connections exist between Johnny’s criminal activities and Chloe’s crime-fighting as Meta-Girl. Then there’s Meta-Man, an actual superhero who’s been around for a while, and a mystery concerning his connection with Chloe.

Del Arroz’s fast-paced script is excellent, funny and dramatic by turns, and he certainly sets up plenty of intriguing questions and potential plot twists. My only real concern about the story stems from the format. Since the sequel will be crowdfunded, too (I assume), we don’t know how long it’s going to be until it’s published, which makes me wish we’d gotten just a tad more resolution in this first part. I liked FLYING SPARKS well enough, though, that I won’t hesitate to support the next volume. I want to find out what’s going to happen.

I haven’t mentioned the art, which is by Jethro Morales. Well, it’s not entirely to my old-fashioned taste (I grew up on Kirby, Kubert, Infantino, Ditko, Neal Adams, etc., after all), but Morales’ storytelling ability is pretty good and some panels are very dynamic.

Overall, I enjoyed FLYING SPARKS quite a bit. It has an old-school comic book tone while still being contemporary in its dialogue and characters. I hope it’s not too long before the next volume, because I’m ready to read more about these characters and their world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Dear Eleanor (2016)

I had never heard of this 2016 movie, but it turned out to be a pretty good coming of age/road trip yarn set in 1962. Two 15-year-old girls, played by Liana Liberato and Isabelle Fuhrmann (never heard of them, either) take off across the country from California to New York on a quest to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. A year or so earlier, the mother of Liberato’s character was supposed to introduce Roosevelt at some talk but was killed in a car wreck on the way there. The daughter decides the only way to deal with her grief is to find Roosevelt and deliver the introduction her mother never got to. Her oddball best friend is more than willing to go along for the ride.

Of course, this being a road trip movie, funny things happen along the way and they run into eccentric characters, including a surprisingly sympathetic escaped convict (Josh Lucas) and a washed-up showgirl (Jessica Alba). Meanwhile, Liberato’s father (Luke Wilson), who’s had trouble dealing with grief himself, has discovered that the girls have run off and is on their trail. And when the girls finally wind up at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in New York, they don’t find what they’re expecting.

DEAR ELEANOR is a pretty predictable movie, but that doesn’t lessen its charm. The acting is pretty good all around, the script is funny at times and poignant at others, and the filmmakers do a good job of capturing the early Sixties era, touching on the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other assorted stuff that I remember from when it really happened. There may be some anachronisms in the film, but I didn’t spot them. Of course, I wasn’t really looking for them, either.

This isn’t the sort of movie we normally watch, but I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway. It’s clean enough, and has such an innocence to it, that it almost could have been made in 1962, with, say, Hayley Mills in the lead role, Patty Duke as the friend, and Dean Jones as the dad. Those of you of a certain age ought to get what I’m talking about. It’s a nice little bit of Americana, and I’m glad we watched it.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: G-Men Detective, September 1941

There's a lot happening on this cover of G-MEN DETECTIVE, and it definitely makes me want to read the issue. I don't know who did the art. I'm a little less enthusiastic about what's inside, since the Dan Fowler lead novel is by Charles S. Strong. I haven't read much by Strong, only a couple of his Western novels under his Chuck Stanley pseudonym, but I found them to be pretty bland. However, he might be a lot better with a Dan Fowler yarn. Maybe I'll find out someday. Meanwhile, there are some dependably good authors on hand, too, including the great John K. Butler, Norman A. Daniels, and Robert Sidney Bowen.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: All Western Magazine, May 1933

Well, that's got to be kind of a shock, when you're just riding along and this big ol' bird swoops down and attacks you. I don't really care much for this cover, but it's bizarre and eye-catching, I'll give it that. And as usual with ALL WESTERN, the authors inside are good ones, including Murray Leinster, T.W. Ford, W. Wirt, J.E. Grinstead, Anthony Rud, and William E. Barrett.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Forgotten Books: Brand Fires on the Ridge - Ernest Haycox

Being in the mood to read something by Ernest Haycox, I looked around to see if I have any more of the collections that reprint his pulp novellas. I’ve read several of those in the past and really enjoyed them. Sure enough, there on my shelf was BRAND FIRES ON THE RIDGE, a Pinnacle Books edition from 1990 that contains two novellas: “Brand Fires on the Ridge”, originally published in the August 21, 1929 issue of the pulp WEST, and “The Killers”, from the July 10, 1930 issue of SHORT STORIES.

The protagonist of “Brand Fires on the Ridge” is King Merrick, a young cowboy who’s gone off adventuring for the winter but now comes back in the spring to the ranch where he worked before as the foreman. He finds that job still available, but he’s lost the young woman he planned to propose to. Worse still, he’s lost her to his best friend.

But King doesn’t have time to mope about that very much, because the ranchers in the valley band together and hire him to put a stop to a plague of rustling that threatens to wipe them out. At one end of the valley, see, lives an outlaw family called the Brierlys. Their crimes have been tolerated because they never stole much from any one ranch, spreading out their larceny over all the outfits in the area. But now they’ve gone in for rustling in a big way, and they have an inside man working for them, too. It’s part of King’s job to find this traitor.

So King has plenty on his plate, including a beautiful redheaded cafĂ© owner, a couple of overlapping romantic triangles, and a mysterious old-timer. Even so, as with much of Haycox’s work, there’s not a lot of action in this yarn, although when it finally starts, it’s well done. Instead, you get emotionally complex characters, a lot of suspense, and some really fine, vivid writing.

This story was reprinted by Tower and Belmont/Tower under the title WIPE OUT THE BRIERLYS, and it must have been successful for them since it went through three separate editions with different covers.

“The Killers” is another entry in Haycox’s series featuring drifting cowpokes Joe Breedlove and Indigo Bowers. Joe is big and dumb-looking, but he actually has a keen brain. Indigo is a scrawny little galoot who’s really a very dangerous gunman. In this one, they’re getting ready to spend the winter in an isolated cabin when a stranger shows up and gets himself shot down on their doorstep by a bushwhacker. The killer gets away, but Joe and Indigo aren’t going to stand for that and set out on his trail. Their quest leads them to a hidden valley, two feuding clans, and a lot of trouble.

This one proves that while Haycox often preferred introspection over action, when he wanted to burn powder he could do so with the best of ’em. “The Killers” is more action-packed than any Haycox story I’ve ever read, with gun battle after gun battle. The pace is great, but there are still nice moments of characterization here and there, especially the ones that focus on the slightly world-weary Joe Breedlove. I don’t know how many of these Breedlove and Bowers stories there are, but I still have at least three of them on hand and look forward to reading them.

One other note about “The Killers”: it was reprinted in the 1960s Ace Books edition of SIXGUN DUO, a collection of two Haycox novellas. When Pinnacle released their edition of SIXGUN DUO in 1990, “The Killers” was replaced by another Breedlove and Bowers yarn, “Night Raid”. Why Pinnacle juggled things around in their editions, I have no idea, but now I’ve gotten to read “The Killers”, so I’m satisfied.

Like some other Western authors from that era—T.T. Flynn and L.P. Holmes come to mind—Ernest Haycox used very standard Western plots in his stories. There’s nothing in “Brand Fires on the Ridge” and “The Killers” that you haven’t seen in scores of other pulp Western yarns. What elevates his work, as with Flynn and Holmes, is the pure writing talent that shines through. These two stories are well worth reading and get a high recommendation from me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Fort Osage (1952)

I recall my dad liking Rod Cameron Westerns. Rod was no John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or Audie Murphy, mind you, but if one of his movies was on TV, my dad would usually find the time to watch it. I hadn't seen one in quite a few years, but the other day I watched a 1952 release called FORT OSAGE, a movie that to the best of my memory I'd never seen before.

Cameron plays a wagonmaster in this one, but it's not a wagon train movie. Almost all the action is set in Fort Osage, a Missouri town used as a jumping-off point for groups of immigrants heading west. Cameron has to deal with a couple of crooks (Morris Ankrum and Douglas Kennedy), a government agent (John Ridgley, playing a good guy for once), a beautiful girl (Jane Nigh, an actress I never heard of), and some hostile Indians including the great Iron Eyes Cody.

It's all a little talky, but the occasional action scenes are good, as you'd expect from an old pro director like Lesley Selander. Dan Ullman's script leaves few cliches unturned, but there is a really nice twist toward the end that turns one of the B-Western tropes on its head.

So how was ol' Rod? Not bad, as it turns out. He wasn't a great actor, by any means, but he looks great in this movie and definitely has an impressive screen presence. Watching it makes me want to watch some other Rod Cameron movies where he has better directors and scripts. Even with its shortcomings, though, FORT OSAGE is a fairly pleasant way to spend an hour and a half if you're a fan of old Western movies, like me.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Monday Memories: Livestock

I wrote about dogs and cats in a previous installment of this series, but those weren’t the only animals we had when I was a kid. Both of my parents came from a rural background, growing up in the country or in very small farming communities during the Depression, so having livestock around just came natural to them. Our large backyard was divided into three sections: the half right behind the house, which was the actual backyard part and had a wire fence running all the way across it; and the back part, divided into unequal sections by another fence running at right angles to the first one, all the way back to the creek. There was also a barbed wire fence all across the back of the property, along the creek. The larger back section on the left (looking at it from the house) was the cow pen; the smaller area to the right was the chicken pen.

Now, honestly, I don’t know if the property was divided that way when my parents bought it, or if my dad put up those fences to create those two pens. But it was that way as far back as I can remember. We didn’t always have a cow (more about that later), but we always had chickens.

This was the mid-Fifties, and the street where we lived wasn’t actually in the city limits at this time, so there were no restrictions or ordinances to worry about. If you wanted to have a flock of chickens, nobody was going to stop you. We had a pair of roosters and probably eight or ten hens. I named the roosters: Pete and Joe. (I had not yet entered my “oddly named pets” phase.) If any of the hens had names, I’ve forgotten them.

In the back corner of the chicken pen was the chicken house, where the hens had nests where they slept and laid their eggs. It was my job, at least part of the time, to gather those eggs. I didn’t mind all that much, although I was a little squeamish about all the droppings. But I don’t recall ever having any real trouble gathering eggs.

It did bother me, however, when my parents decided they didn’t actually need two roosters. I’ll never forget following my dad down to the pen where he grabbed either Pete or Joe, whichever one of the poor creatures he was able to catch, and promptly wrung his neck. Head popped right off. I was horrified. And then I had to help pluck the carcass. Maybe that’s why, for a long time, I didn’t care much for fried chicken. (Spoiler alert: I got over it.)

I also fed the chickens some and enjoyed scattering the chicken feed. In those days it didn’t take much to entertain us.

My other memory involving the chickens has to do with the chicken house. One time when we were down in Blanket visiting relatives, a huge windstorm came through Azle, knocked a big tree branch down on top of the little room on the other side of our garage my father used for his TV repair shop, and turned the chicken house over. It sat on a concrete slab but didn’t have a floor and wasn’t fastened down in any way. It was just four walls and a roof. But the storm didn’t damage it, just tipped it over, so my dad, my older brother, and some of my brother’s friends got behind it and just pushed it back upright. I’d never seen an actual building you could do that to.

Speaking of my brother, he was in high school at the time, took ag classes, and was a member of the Future Farmers of America. As one of his FFA projects, he raised a cow in our cow pen, which had a shed in it as well as an enclosed, attached room where we stored feed. The cow eventually had a calf, and we had fresh milk as well as a cute little calf to raise, which we did, until the time when (yes, you saw this coming, didn’t you?) they slaughtered and ate it! At least they took it somewhere else to have all that done, so I didn’t have to watch it. But again, not one of my favorite childhood memories.

Later on, we had a young bull we kept in that pen. I don’t recall why. This was late enough my brother would have been out of high school, so it wasn’t an FFA project. Since he was in college, or maybe even married by then, it became my job to feed the bull. I hated that bull. I hardly ever went in that pen without him chasing me. He never knocked me down and trampled me, but he butted me numerous times. He’d been dehorned so I didn’t get gored, but I still didn’t like it. Eventually, he wound up in the freezer, too. That bothered me a little (I’m soft-hearted, I guess), but not as much as the other livestock we ate.

In addition to all this, our next door neighbor was the ag teacher at the high school and the FFA sponsor, and his son raised hogs and sheep in the rear part of their backyard, which was fenced off like ours. For some reason, I loved those hogs and would go over there every chance I got to help slop them. I know, that doesn’t sound like me, but I really enjoyed working with them. Some of the huge boars were a little scary, but overall I never had any trouble with the hogs. The sheep, on the other hand, did not like me and I didn’t like them. One of the rams really had it in for me and came up behind me and butted me many times. I don’t think anybody else around the circle cared for having a hog and sheep farm in the neighborhood, but I liked it.

By the time I was in high school, all the chickens had died and we had no cattle. My dad decided to take down all the fences and make the whole thing a huge backyard. He tore down the cow shed and had a metal storage barn built. I think he sold or gave the chicken house to somebody who hauled it off to use it for the same purpose. I could still show you where the fences ran and where the shed and the chicken house were (I think the metal storage barn is still there), but as I’ve said before, somebody else lives there now. I doubt if anybody on the street has chickens now, since the city probably frowns on such things. When my dad was still alive, he did have a garden for a while in what had been the cow pen, but that was the extent of his agricultural activities. I was never really a country kid, but I got a taste of that life, anyway, both the good and the bad, and I’m grateful for that.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Tales, February 1939

There's really a lot happening on the cover of this issue of DETECTIVE TALES. Action galore, which I like. And I'll bet there's plenty of action in the stories by Wyatt Blassingame (one under his own name and one as by William B. Rainey), Bruno Fischer (writing as Russell Gray), G.T. Fleming-Roberts, D.L. Champion, Robert Sidney Bowen, and John G. Pearsol (better known for his Westerns).

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Lariat Story Magazine, March 1943

You could always count on LARIAT STORY covers for an eye-catching mix of powder-burning action, stalwart heroes, and beautiful gals. This issue is no exception. I don't know who did the art, but I like it. Inside this issue are stories by some fine writers, as well: Walt Coburn, Norbert Davis, W.F. Bragg, Eli Colter, J.E. Grinstead, and house-name Bart Cassiday, who was sometimes Harry F. Olmsted and might be here, I don't know. But I know LARIAT STORY covers usually make me want to write a story to fit the scenes on them. I'll bet I could work this into a book somewhere . . .

Friday, November 09, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Complete Mike Shayne, Private Eye - Ken Fitch and Ed Ashe

A number of years ago, I posted about the Mike Shayne comic book series published by Dell in 1961 and ’62. Dell was publishing the Mike Shayne novels in paperback, very successfully, and I suppose someone there decided a comic book version of the character might work, too. That didn’t really pan out, since there were only three issues. I’d heard about them for years but never came across any copies. However, they’ve recently been reprinted in a nice trade paperback edition by some outfit called Gwandanaland Comics, so I picked up a copy and finally read them after all these years.

Each issue is based on one of the novels by Davis Dresser writing as Brett Halliday: THE PRIVATE PRACTICE OF MICHAEL SHAYNE, BODIES ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM, and HEADS—YOU LOSE (originally published as BLOOD ON THE BLACK MARKET). By the way, nowhere in this reprint or the original comics is there any mention of Dresser or Halliday, and the copyright is by Dell Publishing Company. Any kid coming across these back in the Sixties who wasn’t familiar with the books would have thought Shayne had been created for the comics.

Each of the source novels has a pretty complicated plot, as was common in the Shayne series, and the comic book versions actually do a pretty solid, faithful job of adapting them. They’re toned down a little, but not much. You’ve still got murder, blackmail, adultery, and more murder. I can imagine a kid reading these and getting lost in all the twists and turns of the plots. Nor does the third issue pull any punches about Shayne’s wife Phyllis dying in childbirth, along with the baby, and leaving Shayne pretty much a broken man until a murder case pulls him out of that despair. Twelve-year-olds just aren’t the target audience for these yarns. (Well, unless you’re a weird twelve-year-old like I was, since I started reading the Shayne novels about that age . . .)

From what I’ve been able to find on-line, the first two issues were written by Ken Fitch, and the third one probably was, as well. The art in all three issues is by Ed Ashe. Both of those guys were journeyman comics pros with less than a hundred credits each, hardly top talent, but they did pretty good jobs, anyway. Fitch condenses the action down well, and there’s even a newspaper headline in the second issue that includes his name as an in-joke. Ashe’s Mike Shayne resembles the one on the Dell paperback covers, which also appears on the first two comic book covers. The worst glitch is the coloring in the first issue, which finds Mike Shayne with bright blond hair instead of red, while his reporter buddy Tim Rourke is the one with red hair. That’s switched around in the other two issues and looks a lot better. Each issue also includes a one-page text story and a four-page backup comics story, all of them minor stand-alone crime yarns.

There’s a reason these comic books are obscure. They probably sold poorly and not a lot of copies are still out there to be found. And while I certainly enjoyed them, there aren’t enough people interested in them to make them really collectable. Throw in the fact that Fitch and Ashe were no Lee and Kirby, and you can see why they haven’t been reprinted until now. (And now I’m visualizing a Kirby version of Mike Shayne. You know, that could have worked. Just think about how he drew Reed Richards and Johnny Storm in suits and hats in early issues of FANTASTIC FOUR . . .)

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Rope (1948)

Livia and I were talking about the Leopold and Loeb case the other day, because there was a reference to it on a TV show we were watching, and when I mentioned this movie to her, she said she thought she’d never seen it. So I said we ought to remedy that. But when we started watching it, I realized that I had described a completely different movie to her! I had gotten ROPE mixed up with COMPULSION, a 1959 movie about the same case that focuses on the trial of the two infamous killers. COMPULSION is somewhat fictionalized, but ROPE is even more so, taking just the basic concept of the Leopold and Loeb case and using it for a nearly real-time tale of how two young intellectuals murder a friend of theirs simply because they want to prove they’re smart enough to get away with it.

As directed by Alfred Hitchcock, ROPE is deliberately stage-bound and gimmicky. The whole thing takes place in the apartment where the two young killers, played by John Dall and Farley Granger, live, and Hitchcock filmed the movie in a series of eight ten-minute takes, playing tricks with the camera so that there’s only one obvious cut in the entire film. Other than that it plays like one continuous shot. Well, not really, because it’s pretty obvious where most of the actual cuts are, but give Hitchcock credit for trying something different, enough though it doesn’t succeed all the time.

It’s a pretty suspenseful movie, with stuff going on in the background that you have to watch closely, and there’s some good dialogue, but ROPE really only comes alive for me when James Stewart enters the story as the former teacher of Dall and Granger, whose philosophical discussions with them gave them the idea of committing murder in the first place. Stewart is one of my absolute, all-time favorite actors, and I enjoyed his work in this one. ROPE isn’t in the top rank for either him or Hitchcock, but it’s an interesting oddity and I enjoyed watching it again for the first time in almost fifty years.

And for the record, Livia hadn’t seen it, so that turned out okay. Maybe we’ll watch COMPULSION someday. But not too soon. A little of Leopold and Loeb goes a long way.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Popular Detective, June 1944

Cigars . . . cigarettes . . . bullets! (You know, that wouldn't be a bad title for a pulp detective yarn, and it would fit this cover.) I don't know who did this cover, but I like it quite a bit. Inside this issue of POPULAR DETECTIVE are stories by J. Lane Linklater, Joe Archibald, and three house-names, John L. Benton, Frank Johnson, and Michael O'Brian. Norman Daniels wrote under all three of those names, so he could have authored one or more of these stories, but there's really no way to know at this point. It looks like an entertaining issue no matter who wrote the stories.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, January 2, 1943

Another good cover on this issue of the iconic WESTERN STORY, and two of the best Western writers ever, T.T. Flynn and Peter Dawson (Jonathan Glidden) have stories inside. The Dawson is an installment of his serial "Trail Boss", the novel version of which was reprinted by Bantam, an edition I remember reading in junior high. Also on hand are several other enjoyable authors such as Archie Joscelyn, Victor H. White (writing as Ralph Berard), and M. Howard Lane. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

Forgotten Books: Colt Crusade - E.B. Mann

In 1966, Belmont Books brought out a paperback reprint of two of E.B. Mann’s short novels that first appeared in the Western pulps, THE AVENGER ( originally published in ADVENTURE NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES, April 1939) and COLT CRUSADE. The origin of that second novel is a bit of a mystery. As you can see from the cover copy on the paperback (that’s my copy, by the way, complete with price sticker, clipped corner, and bookstore stamp from the Used Book Warehouse in Rockport, Texas), the protagonist of COLT CRUSADE is known as the Smilin’ Kid. A little investigation turns up the fact that a story entitled “The Smilin’ Kid” was published in the Second August Number, 1929 issue of RANCH ROMANCES under the name J.A. Adams, who, at least according to the Fictionmags Index, never published anything else. E.B. Mann’s first stories were published in RANCH ROMANCES in 1928, which leads me to believe that he was actually “J.A. Adams” and “The Smilin’ Kid” is the story reprinted in paperback as COLT CRUSADE. Why Mann would have used a pseudonym like that, I have no idea, but that’s my hunch.

Bibliographic speculation aside, I recently read COLT CRUSADE and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Smilin’ Kid, whose real name is Kenneth Lamb, shows up in the town of Pinto and asks the local ranchers and businessmen to give him the job of sheriff, because he wants to clean up the area and put a stop to the rustling ring led by Pete Martin, a crooked rancher, and Manuel Sanchez, a Mexican bandit with a headquarters below the border. What motivates the Kid to take on this challenge? We never find out, which is the novel’s only real flaw. The Smilin’ Kid is a very entertaining character, but ultimately he’s a cipher. Maybe it’s just a love of adventure, in which case adventure has some competition from the beautiful daughter of one of the ranchers, since the Kid soon falls in love with her, too.

It’s a very standard plot, but Mann livens it up with a few minor plot twists and a lot of well-written action scenes leading up to an epic final battle that’s just great and reminded me very much of the Homeric final battle in Clarence E. Mulford’s HOPALONG CASSIDY. I haven’t read much by Mann, but this is easily the best of his yarns I’ve encountered so far. It might be too old-fashioned for modern Western readers, but I loved it.

By the way, there’s no scene in the novel that matches the scene on that RANCH ROMANCES cover. So maybe I’m wrong, or maybe the artist on the pulp just took a little dramatic license.

I didn’t read the other novel in the Belmont paperback, THE AVENGER, although I started it. But I realized right away that it was the source novel for the Johnny Mack Brown B-Western GUNS IN THE DARK, which I watched recently enough that the plot is still clear in my mind. From what I read, the movie is a very faithful adaptation of the story, too. So maybe I’ll let that memory fade and read the novel sometime later on, or maybe I’ll never get to it, but either way, I thoroughly enjoyed COLT CRUSADE and recommend it to anybody who enjoys a good old-fashioned Western.