Saturday, May 21, 2016

Bellow Bill Williams in Argosy

I don’t know anything about Ralph R. Perry other than the fact that he was a pulp writer who produced stories for magazines like Argosy. His best-known creation seems to be Bellow Bill Williams, a tough much-tattooed pearler. The Bellow Bill Williams stories belong to the South Seas adventure sub-genre and that’s a sub-genre that is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

Even more than most adventure stories of the past South Seas adventure tales (and the closely related Tales of the Mysterious Orient sub-genre) conjure up a vanished world, a world that was swept away by the Second World War. It was a world in which a man who chose to do so could simply vanish. Once you reached a remote Pacific island or one of the cities of the Far East you were effectively out of the reach of western civilisation. Most importantly, you no longer needed to worry about the rules of western society. There were certainly rules you had to heed if you wanted to survive but they were different rules and for a certain type of man (and perhaps to an extent for a certain type of woman) that had a lot of appeal. These were of course communities of European and American expatriates but if you really wanted to escape you could, in the colourful phrase of the day, go native.

Whether this world of adventurers and misfits really existed or whether if it did it bore any relation to the world of the adventure pulps is another matter. What is important is that people believed such a world existed. Fictional worlds sometimes seem to be more real, and are certainly a good deal more interesting, than the real world.

Which brings us back to Bellow Bill Williams. He featured in a series of stories in Argosy in the 30s. Whether Terror Island (dating from 1933) is typical or not I can’t yet say - this is the first Bellow Bill Williams story I’ve encountered. What I can say is that it’s a whole lot of fun.

Bellow Bill Williams is hired by a blind man to find his son, kidnapped by a scoundrel named Clipper Clarke. The blind man is Nick Atterson, a bit of an adventurer himself in his youth and now a wealthy trader, and also a man for whom Williams has often worked in the past. Clipper Clarke is holding Nick’s son Tom hostage on a remote volcanic island. Clipper’s domain is defended by his loyal and extremely fierce Papuans and by a series of ingenious man-traps. No sane man would venture to set foot on the island the Papuans call Terror Island but Bellow Bill Williams is not a man to worry about such risks.

The story is a non-stop action roller-coaster ride with some nicely fiendish touches. The style is exceptionally pulpy, which is exactly how such stories should be. Bellow Bill Williams is a fine square-jawed action hero, as hard as nails but with a string streak of decency and fair play. Clipper Clarke is a very serviceable villain, cowardly but treacherous and cunning. 

The Atoll of Flaming Men appeared in Argosy in 1935. Bellow Bill Williams encounters a pearling lugger, apparently abandoned. On board are five dead men, with a diver also dead at the end of his lifeline deep beneath the surface of the water.

One of the dead men in the cabin, a European, has been tortured. The oddest thing is that of the five dead men only one has a visible wound to explain his sudden demise. And three of the men in the cabin, all Melanesians, have their faces smeared with a strange greenish substance which glows in the dark!

Bill tows the lugger to the closest atoll where more surprises await him.

The Golden Oyster is a treasure hunt story, published in Argosy in 1935. A professor trying to prove an arcane point about the Basque language has somehow stumbled across a story fold by a Basque cabin boy of gold from a Spanish treasure ship lying on the bottom of the lagoon of a coral atoll. Unfortunately Professor Griswold has foolishly allowed the secret to slip out and now there are assorted cut-throats after that gold. 

Bellow Bill knows the South Seas and he’s an old hand at adventure but in this tale he makes a serious error of judgment which could have disastrous consequences. Sometimes a man can be too suspicious!

Bellow Bill Williams is a giant of a man and most of his body is covered by tattoos. To say he has led an adventurous life would be an understatement. He doesn’t necessarily go looking for adventure - it goes looking for him. He’s every inch a man of action but although he carries a gun he is, by his own admission, an incredibly lousy shot. Fortunately he knows plenty of other ways to deal with evildoers. Unlike many adventure heroes he has no regular sidekick. He is a loner. He’s not a morose or a self-pitying loner and he’s not even particularly anti-social. He has simply chosen his own path in life and it’s a path best walked alone.

The style of these stories is pulpy in the extreme but the lack of polish is more than compensated for by tight pacing, plentiful action and some nicely imaginative touches of the the weird and the gruesome. Great stuff. Highly recommended.

I discovered the Bellow Bill stories through the True Pulp Fiction blog. These stories can be found at Ron Unz's website - Terror IslandThe Atoll of Flaming Men and The Golden Oyster

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