Monday, January 12, 2009

Pure Pulp by Controversial Figure

Branded Outlaw
by L. Ron Hubbard
Galaxy Press

Saying the name L. Ron Hubbard garners a "galaxy" of reactions. Many spit his name over his Cybernetics, others laugh about it, still some ignore all of that controversy and just read his writings. This review will take a tunnel view of the man and look only at his pulp publishings.

A couple of years ago, Galaxy Press, the outfit that publishes all of Hubbards works - and only Hubbard's works - announced to bookstores that they intended to publish the author's entire pulp output. Their plan was to create undersized tradebooks that carried like-genre stories (a lead "novel" and one or two short stories, complete with original interior pen-and-ink artwork where available) and offer them monthly.

Galaxy pulled that plan, tweaked it, and last September published five volumes, one of which was the western Branded Outlaw from the October 1938 issue of Five Novels Monthly. The next batch of four are slated to come out in January 2009 and will include Six-Gun Caballero. If experience teaches anything, these may be as hard to find as the first batch.

In searching for a way to start this review, I couldn’t quite find the right words. Branded Outlaw is a pulp story in the purest sense.

We’ve seen the story before, the plot, characters, good guys, bad guys, even the horses. That’s when I thought of the word: Obvious.

Which really isn’t a bad thing. It is a pulp, after all. And what we want from those old magazine stories is action, plenty of gunplay, good guys and bad guys who act like it, and at least a hint of a plot. In short: fun.

Hubbard delivers, with great satisfaction.

Lee Weston is returning home at the written request of his father. Dad writes that he’s having rustler problems with range hog, Harvey Dodge. Lee finds his father dead and his boyhood home burned to the ground. He goes gunning for Dodge but things go badly. Shot-up, he stumbles on a beautiful woman in the wilderness.

Galaxy's four color PR and sales brochure continues the plot synopsis ... "As fate would have it, [this is] Dodge's beautiful yet headstrong daughter, Ellen, [who] finds Lee's unconscious body and secretly nurses him back to health. But when Lee insists on continuing his plan for revenge, he gets himself into a heap more trouble - false accusations, a near lynching at the hands of an angry mob and the scorn of the only girl he ever [loved]."

You see how this is playing out …. Anyway, all works out in the end after lots of horse-chasing, gunsmoke, and blood.

A quote on the book jacket from The Entertainer says these stories are “…written by a man who helped form the style itself.” This is pure hyperbole. Zane Grey, Max Brand, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Walt Coburn, Steve Fisher, and others … those guys defined the best of pulp westerns. Hubbard merely dabbled in it, like so many other authors. But he did it well enough to create a body of work that, if not classic, is at least fun to read.

And let's not dismiss that last statement as a backhanded compliment. So much in today's market is not fun to read. In too many books characters are unnecessarily dark and moody; plots are conviluted to the point of nonsense; backstory fills page upon page with useless information; and PC psychoanalisis has replaced the good old fist fight. A well written pulp story is worth the acid-free paper it's reprinted on. Hubbard is a welcome addition to this growing industry. With the vast majority of his work available to be reprinted, Western pulp fans have years of good reading to look forward to.

On a personal note, though, I'm a bit offended by Galaxy's inclusion of what amounts to a dictionary of American slang from the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these words are well known, even the western slang. And what isn't immediately known becomes clear in the story. This takes up a bunch of pages, as does the lengthy preview of upcoming volumes, which could be devoted to another story. At $10 a volume, I'd rather Galaxy include another yarn.

However, Galaxy has offered subscribers a neat "premium." They had a deck of playing cards with cover art from the western pulps in which Hubbard's stories appeared. It may still be available.

No comments: