Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Black Towers to Danger

When it comes to pure pulp adventure yarns, L. Ron Hubbard turned them out about as well as anyone ever did. I’ve long been a fan of oilfield fiction (I had relatives in the oil business when I was growing up and spent some time around the oil patch). Hubbard’s novella “Black Towers to Danger”, which originally appeared in the October 1936 issue of FIVE-NOVELS MONTHLY, is set in Venezuala and finds rugged, two-fisted oil wildcatter Bill Murphy locked in a war with a rival outfit headed by the beautiful Marcia Stewart, who Bill was once in love with. Marcia believes that Bill murdered her father (not a spoiler to say that he didn’t), and before this tale is over, he’ll also be accused of murdering a Standard Oil executive who’s visiting the country. Bill has to battle sabotage, an overzealous officer in the Venezualan army, and a drug-addled hired killer. The action hardly ever slows down, and when Bill lugs a tripod-mounted machine gun to the top of a tower and starts yammering away with it, I wanted to let out a whoop of excitement like a little kid watching a Saturday matinee serial. Eventually everything gets sorted out, of course, but not before lots of bullets and fists fly. “Black Towers to Danger” has a bit of a lighter tone than some of Hubbard’s stories, and I had a great time reading it.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Spy Killer

During the Thirties, L. Ron Hubbard wrote in just about pulp genre that existed. “Spy Killer”, from the April 1936 issue of FIVE-NOVELS MONTHLY, is a short novel of Oriental intrigue reminiscent of some stories I’ve read by H. Bedford-Jones.  Two-fisted American sailor Kurt Reid is framed for murder when his ship docks in Shanghai.  He’s helped to escape by a Chinese warlord who demands in return that Reid assassinate a mysterious Japanese spy.  Throw in a beautiful White Russian adventuress and the equally beautiful daughter of a British merchant, each of them with agendas of their own, a few double-crosses, the Japanese army, and Reid is up to his neck in trouble.  I don’t think this yarn is quite as good as the Westerns I've read by Hubbard, but it’s still pretty entertaining.

Arctic Wings

I hadn't read a Northern in a while and was in the mood for one, but this short novel by L. Ron Hubbard (originally published in the June 1938 issue of the pulp FIVE NOVELS MONTHLY) isn't a Gold Rush/fur trapping/frontier story like I expected. Instead it's an adventure yarn contemporary to the time it was published, featuring radium mining, payroll robberies, and Mounties who fly planes and engage in aerial dogfights rather than mushing around with snowshoes and dogsleds.

Bob Dixon is a flying Mountie who's feared by criminals throughout the north country because of his inflexible devotion to the law and his ruthless manner of carrying it out. His nickname is "Lawbook" Dixon. Nobody knows, however, that he's that way because he was psychologically abused as a child by his father, a martinet of a judge who constantly threatened Bob with the idea that he would become a criminal and come to a bad end.

It looks like this is the case when Bob appears to have shot down a payroll plane, murdering the pilot and the manager of the radium mine for which the payroll was intended and stealing the money. It won't come as a surprise, though, that Bob was framed, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to corral the real culprits and clear his name, helped along the way by a beautiful girl who runs a trading post just north of the Arctic Circle.

This may be my favorite of the Hubbard stories I've read so far. The writing is good, the plot is tight, and there's some nice suspense here and there. The action in the dogfights is easier to follow than in some aviation adventure fiction I've read. Overall I enjoyed ARCTIC WINGS quite a bit. It's a good solid pulp action yarn.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Devil's Manhunt

DEVIL'S MANHUNT is another collection of L. Ron Hubbard stories from the Western pulps, and not surprisingly, it's quite entertaining for an old Western pulp fan like me. Actually, these are stories from a particular Western pulp, since all of them originally appeared in FAMOUS WESTERN, one of the Columbia pulps edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes.
The title story, from the February 1950 issue, is yet another variation of Richard Connell's iconic story "The Most Dangerous Game". A young prospector in Arizona strikes gold but is captured by two outlaws who plan to make him work the claim until all the gold is exhausted and then hunt and kill him for sport. The desperate hero comes up with some clever ways to turn the tables on them and wage a fight for survival. This is a really nice tale with plenty of suspense and a satisfying ending.

"Johnny, the Town Tamer" is from the August 1949 issue, has as its protagonist a young rancher from Texas who rides into a Kansas cowtown to settle a score and recover some money stolen from his foreman the year before. It's a clever yarn, and with its Texan hero wreaking havoc in a Kansas town, aided by a big, bearded, buckskin-wearing sidekick, shows some definite Robert E. Howard influence.

Finally, from the December 1949 issue of FAMOUS WESTERN, comes "Stranger in Town", the tale of a young puncher framed for a stagecoach robbery and several murders who is pursued by a lawman with a sinister secret of his own. The showdown comes in the town where the fugitive has settled down.

These are excellent stories, more hardboiled and mature than some of the earlier pulp fare, and typical of the increase in quality of the Western pulps during the post-war years. Because of that, DEVIL'S MANHUNT is my favorite of the Hubbard Western collections I've read so far. It's well worth reading for Western fans.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Cattle King for a Day

“Cattle King for a Day”, a novella from the March 1937 issue of ALL WESTERN, starts with a similar premise – Chinook Shannon (great name) arrives in Montana to investigate the death of his grandfather and claim his legacy, the Slash S ranch. Gunmen try to stop him from getting there, but they’re unsuccessful. Chinook finds that his ownership of the ranch is threatened. His stock is all dead, killed by cyanide poisoning from the run-off from a nearby mine, and the bank is about to foreclose on the land the very next day unless Chinook can come up with $26,000 to pay off the debt. Hubbard throws some nice plot twists into this one, and I didn’t figure out exactly what was going on until the very end of the story. This is another entertaining story with some fine action scenes.

"Cattle King for a Day" is available in the collection BRANDED OUTLAW.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Green God

THE GREEN GOD is a recent collection featuring two of L. Ron Hubbard's pulp stories set in the tumultuous world that was China in the 1930s. The title story, "The Green God", is of some historical interest because it was the first Hubbard story to appear in the pulps, in the February 1934 issue of THRILLING ADVENTURES. It's a very fast-paced yarn about an American intelligence agent's desperate search for a fabulously valuable stolen idol in order to prevent riots from destroying the city of Tsientin.

The breathlessness of the tale actually sort of works against it. It might have been more effective if Hubbard had slowed down the action a bit and delivered a little more characterization. The hero is pretty much a cipher, notable only for his ability to absorb punishment. But the story is entertaining, no doubt about that.

"Five Mex for a Million", which appeared less than two years later in the November 1935 issue of TOP-NOTCH, is much better. The narrator, American soldier of fortune Royal Sterling, is on the run from the authorities for the self-defense killing of a Chinese official who tried to kill him, when he comes into the possession of a mysterious locked chest. What's in the chest? Why, a beautiful White Russian princess, of course, whose kidnapping ties in with an attempt to take over a big chunk of Mongolia controlled by her warlord father. Oh, and there's a connection in the on-going war with Japan, too, that could change the course of history.

This is pure pulp storytelling at a high level, packed with action and color. It would have made a great Thirties adventure movie starring Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott, and it's one of the best Hubbard pulp stories I've encountered so far. Taken together with "The Green God", it nets this reprint collection a high recommendation from me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

King of the Gunmen

KING OF THE GUNMEN features two Western novellas by L. Ron Hubbard, the title story that appeared in the July 1938 issue of WESTERN YARNS, and "The No-Gun Gunhawk" from WESTERN ACES, November 1936.

"King of the Gunmen" finds famous gunfighter Kit Gordon dying of thirst in the desert, pursued by a posse because he's been framed for a murder committed by an old enemy of his masquerading as him. When Gordon is rescued by rough-edged sheriff Rainbow Jackson, he conceals his identity from the lawman. The sheriff has problems of his own, a bloody feud between the local cattlemen and some sheepherders who have hired a small army of gunmen to come in and take over. The sheriff has sent for help, but all he gets is an ineffectual circuit judge who's been paid off by the sheep interests. The judge puts four local cattlemen on trial for murder, which leads up to a showdown between the two factions in which Kit Gordon will have to take a hand and reveal the truth about himself if he wants to help the star packer who has befriended him. Of course, the old enemy who framed Kit for murder is working for the sheepherders, too, which makes his decision even easier.

In "The No-Gun Gunhawk", Hubbard uses a plot he's used before, that of crooked vigilantes hanging victims on trumped-up charges in order to grab their land. What makes this yarn interesting is the protagonist Pete McLean, the son of a famous gunfighter who promised his dying father that he wouldn't become a gunman, too—despite being fast on the draw and accurate with his shots. When Pete runs afoul of the vigilantes (because he's been forced to change clothes with a fleeing owlhoot), his vow may be tested before he untangles the mess and helps the old rancher and his daughter who have befriended him.

Both of these are traditional plots, but Hubbard handles them well and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. There's nothing ground-breaking here, but they're entertaining traditional pulp Western yarns and that makes KING OF THE GUNMEN worth reading.