Sunday, June 26, 2016

World Star! 1938 Style

One of my personal goals in re-reading old pulp adventure magazines is to study the way writers of the first half of the 20th century described high-adrenaline moments.  One of the most frequent high-adrenaline incidents being the classic fist fight.  Let's take a look at a fight written by James Francis in the story Arms of the Flame Goddess, which was published in the April 1938 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine

Our hero and his allies, a stolid Dutch lawyer and the town sheriff, confront the towering and burly old leader of a sect of flagellants inside an isolated farmhouse.  When they accuse him of being a cult leader engaged in demonic practice, he attacks them

“For a long moment the man stared at me in such frozen silence that I thought he had not understood what I said.  Then suddenly he leaped at me, clubbed fists beating like pile drivers.  The came down on my shoulders and one smash of them beat me to my knees.  I tried to jump backward, but they found me again.  They pounded on my head and back of my neck.  Their blows rang my cranium till they filled it with shooting starts.
Paave and the sheriff weer after him now.  He drove his great knotted hands into their faces like rocks at the end of piston rods.  They staggered back, gasping through spurting blood.  They rallied and charged him again and he beat them like puppets.
They were gone now, taken to flight, and he whirled to where I was just staggering up to my feet.  He blasted me down again.  His fists were hammers of Thor beating the life out of a squirming pygmy of mortal man who twisted and groveled this way and that to escape from their punishment.
Finally he paused to get breath.  Like a mouse fleeing a torturing cat, I dragged myself, half crawling, half running, into some bushes.  He didn’t follow me.”
As a longtime fan of Louis Lamour, my fight scenes have always followed in his example.  They are blow by blow accounts filled with the technical aspects of boxing: footwork, defensive stance, balance, which hands do what, and what effect they have on the fighters.  It’s a literal account meant to convey the mechanics of the fight. We describe what the fighters do and what happens to the fighters.  One of the few things I have in common with Louis Lamour is that we have both spent time in the boxing ring.  No doubt my boxing skills pale in comparison to his as much as my writing skills do – the larger point here is that we both understand the intricacies of the fight, and as such write as fighters for fighters. 

Francis James on the other hand writes to describe the fight itself.  Although written in the first person, it manages to convey the overall sense of what the fight would look like to a bystander.  That’s a neat trick.  Notice how he conveys a sense of the heavy and indomitable destructive force of a big man’s fists with phrases such as, “like rocks at the end of piston rods,” and, “hammers of Thor”.  That’s some evocative language that really drives home the weight of impact.

In just four short paragraphs, James describes a fistfight involving four men that includes multiple attacks and retreats.  Conventional wisdom is that the pulp writers, having been paid by the word, wrote long winded stories full of embellishments in an effort to maximize their payday.  This passage suggests otherwise.  He leaves the details – how did the lawyer and sheriff attack the man, by grappling, hitting his back – up to your imagination.  You can fill those in for yourself.  It’s the difference between describing a bunch of individual trees that are near each other and describing a forest. 
That’s a valuable lesson –spend as much time describing the fight as you do describing what happens to the fighters.

There’s another valuable lesson in the quality of this fight scene.  It’s as fun and exciting as any I’ve ever read, and I found it between the covers of a trash dime magazine.  Maybe these aren’t such trash after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment