Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Python Pit

George F. Worts was a prolific contributor of adventure stories to both slick magazines and pulps. He was born in Toledo, Ohio and died in Hawaii in 1962 (some sources say 1967 or 1968). He is best-known for the Peter the Brazen stories written under the pseudonym Loring Brent. Under his own name he wrote a series of stories chronicling the adventures of Singapore Sammy, including the novella The Python Pit which appeared in the May 6th, 13th and 20th issues of Argosy in 1933.

Worts was a pulp writer who achieved every pulp writer’s ambition - to break into the slick magazines like Collier’s where real money could be made. He enjoyed great success during the 20s and 30s and half a dozen of his stories were made into movies.

Singapore Sammy is Samuel Larkin Shay, a young American who was cheated out of his inheritance (a vast fortune) by his step-father Bill Shay. Now Sammy, along with his pal Lucky Jones, makes a living as a trader in the South Seas. They have a fast schooner named the Blue Goose. Trading might be his living but Singapore Sammy has one driving ambition - to find his step-father and force him to restore his fortune. Then he intends to kill him.

Sammy has heard that Bill Shay is heading for the island of Konga, east of Celebes. No sane person goes to Konga. It is an accursed place, inhabited by ghosts, or cannibals. Or possibly ghostly cannibals. The waters around the island are infested with sharks of unusual savagery. On the other hand those waters are rumoured to be a fabulously rich source of pearls.

Sammy and Lucky are therefore voyaging to Konga, much to Lucky’s dismay. They’re not the only ones heading for Konga. There’s also a beautiful young American girl. Her father lives on the island and she needs to get urgent medical supplies to him. Despite his misgivings Singapore Sammy agrees to take her along. And sure enough his misgivings are fulfilled. Lucky falls in love with the girl! This is the worst misfortune that could befall an adventurous sea rover.

I’m not going to spoil the story by revealing anything of what they find on Konga except to say that there’s plenty of adventure involved.

Singapore Sammy is pretty much a generic pulp hero - an impulsive, two-fisted man of action but brave and noble. The story could also be described as a rather generic example of the pulp adventure story. This is true enough, but these are features, not bugs. A lot of people fail to appreciate that a rigid adherence to genre conventions is actually a plus if you’re writing genre fiction. The knack of writing good genre fiction is to stick to the conventions whilst still coming up with exciting and imaginative tales, and to make sure that your story has the right ingredients in the right proportions - in the case of adventure stories that means fast pacing, lots of action, a little humour, a touch of romance, narrow escapes from certain death, suitably villainous villains and beautiful but dangerous women. The Python Pit has all those ingredients and Worts knows how to combine them expertly. The result is entirely satisfactory.

Of course a pulp story written in 1933 is going to be rather politically incorrect, and The Python Pit certainly qualifies on that count. My advice is that if political incorrectness bothers you then you might be wise to keep away from 1930s pulp fiction. Part of the fun of pulp stories of this era is that when you read them you’re journeying back to a different world and you have to accept that world on its own terms. By his own lights Singapore Sammy is a brave and noble hero who hates injustice, it’s just that he sees injustice in 1930s terms.

Worts style is pure pulp. Don’t expect glittering prose. He was however a skilled writer who knew how to spin a fine adventure tale.

The Python Pit is one of four Singapore Sammy novellas included in a collection (called The Python Pit) published by Black Dog Books. It’s also included in the Otto Penzler-edited Big Book of Adventure Stories published by Vintage Books.

The Python Pit is immensely entertaining stuff. Highly recommended.

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