Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #8 – The Curse of Capistrano

capistrano2 By: Johnston McCulley

Appeared in: All-Story Weekly (August – September 1919)

Character/Series: Zorro

The All-Story magazine (which had published Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter novels) switched to a weekly schedule in 1914, becoming All-Story Weekly (and eventually Argosy Weekly in 1920). In 1919 the magazine featured the first tale of another character which would join Tarzan’s company as one of the most influential pulp characters ever.

Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’) is the eponymous ‘curse’ in the title and Capistrano refers to San Juan Capistrano in California which was under Mexican rule in the early 19th century. It’s easy to see the influence on Batman in this masked crusader for justice and his foppish, playboy alter-ego, Don Diego Vega. Don Diego is a wealthy but cowardly caballero in love with Lolita; the daughter of a local aristocrat who has fallen upon hard times. Her father, Carlos, is thrilled at the promise of a union between the two, but the feisty Lolita is infatuated by Zorro; the dashing bandit and hero of the people (having no idea they are one and the same). Also vying for Lolita’s hand is Ramón; a captain in the Mexican army.

When Lolita is left home alone for an evening, Captain Ramón  visits her and comes on a little too strong. Zorro appears and defends her honor. Ramón swears vengeance on both of them and writes to the governor that Lolita’s family are aiding Zorro. The Governor arrives and has Lolita and her mother and father thrown into jail. Zorro sets about rallying the local caballeros into a band committed to fighting injustice and their first task is to free Lolita and her family, thus thwarting the dastardly Captain Ramón and his oafish henchman Sergeant Gonzales.


Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920) – the first of over 40 movies to feature the character.

The story is a fairly simple swashbuckler and is essentially Robin Hood in Mexico with a liberal helping from The Scarlet Pimpernel. As well as being jam packed with sword fights, gun play and horse chases, it also has a good deal of humor largely stemming from Don Diego’s cover as the idle son of a rich man and his lack of interest in anything approaching adventure or romance. McCulley laid down the groundwork for generations of ‘masked crusader’ characters like Batman and The Shadow and created a timeless character who became synonymous with swashbuckling adventure from the early days of cinema to the present day.

Silent star Douglas Fairbanks purchased the rights to the story as the first production for his new company United Artists. The Mark of Zorro (1920) was so popular that McCulley’s novel was renamed and released in book form in 1924 and has remained The Mark of Zorro ever since. The character’s appeal has barely diminished on film and page with McCulley writing over fifty sequels and many authors and comic book writers picking up the torch after his death in 1958. The Mark of Zorro was remade in 1940 as a ‘talkie’ starring Tyrone Power and there have been countless film and TV appearances of Zorro from serials like Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) to the more recent movies starring Antonio Banderas.


Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones in The Legend of Zorro (2005)




Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #7 – Under the Moons of Mars

aprincessofmars-c3By: Norman Bean (Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Appeared in: The All-Story (February – July, 1912)

Character/Series: John Carter/Barsoom

More commonly known as A Princess of Mars or John Carter of Mars these days, this swashbuckling sci-fi adventure penned by the author of Tarzan almost single-handedly created the Planetary Romance genre (where action and exotic settings take precedence over science), as well as influencing generations of science fiction writers from Robert A. Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke.

While prospecting in Arizona, Civil War veteran John Carter hides in a cave from pursuing Apaches. Through some sort of astral projection, he wakes up on Mars (known locally as ‘Barsoom’). Being written in 1912, this version of Mars has breathable atmosphere, water and is inhabited by many colorful multi-legged creatures at war with one another. Due to the planet’s weaker gravity, John Carter has superhuman strength and is able to make great leaps into the air a la Superman.

Captured by a tribe of Tharks (tall, green-skinned creatures with tusks and six limbs), Carter gains their respect by slaying two great white apes and saving the life of Sola; his female guardian. When the Tharks shoot down an airship belonging to the red-skinned people of Barsoom, they capture Dejah Thoris; the beautiful princess of the city of Helium. Kept under guard by Woola – a ten-legged guard dog-like creature – and tutored by Sola, Carter learns more about Thark culture. He develops a strong bond with a warrior called Tars Tarkas and gradually falls in love with Dejah Thoris who is scheduled to be executed.

Carter, Sola and Dejah escape the Tharks and fall in with Kantos Kan; a red-skinned warrior who is leading a massive search party for the missing Princess of Helium. Helium is under threat by another red-skinned people called the Zodangans and, after many further adventures, Carter saves Helium by leading an army of Tharks (now under the chieftainship of Tars Tarkas) to victory over the people of Zodanga, thus forging an alliance between red and green Martians and becoming Prince of Barsoom.


Cover art for the 1970 paperback by Frank Frazetta

Norman Bean (a typo – it should have been ‘Normal Bean’) was a pseudonym for Edgar Rice Burroughs who wanted to distance himself from some of his more outlandish work as well as joke that he was, in fact, a normal guy and not a lunatic for writing this stuff.  Under the Moons of Mars was republished in hardback as A Princess of Mars in 1917 and Burroughs penned ten sequels although John Carter largely bows out of the series after book 3 with his children by Dejah Thoris as well as other characters taking over as the protagonists.

Under the Moons of Mars is very much a product of its time. Burroughs utilized contemporary science, most notably the theories of Percival Lowell, who postulated that Mars had waterways that were steadily drying out, thus dooming its ancient civilization. Presenting a dying world and the possibility of using technology to change the ecology of a planet, Burroughs left a huge mark on science fiction. We can see his influence in Frank Herbert’s Dune and in the terraforming company in Aliens (1986). By blending the exotic with elements of the Western and creating a feudal alien world where medieval values of honor and chivalry are fused with advanced technology, the Planetary Romance genre was born eventually leading to Flash Gordon and Star Wars (1977).

There was a movie in 2012 with the rather dull title John Carter. Although it took some liberties with the plot and blended in elements from the sequels, the film is generally well-liked by fans. Unfortunately it failed to do much business at the box office shutting down plans for a series. Many blame Disney’s marketing of the film for not playing up the pulpy side and failing to make it clear that this was written a century ago by the creator of Tarzan.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #6 – The Man of Bronze

By: Kenneth Roberts (Lester Dent)

Appeared in: Doc Savage Magazine (March, 1933)

Character/Series: Doc Savage

Both Superman and Indiana Jones owe a debt to this classic pulp character created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic of Street & Smith Publications. Hoping to replicate the success of their recent hit The Shadow magazine, the series was handed to Lester Dent who churned out over 150 Doc Savage novels between 1933 and 1949 under the house name Kenneth Robeson (changed from Roberts after the first issue). A too-good-to-be-true hero of almost superhuman strength, Clark ‘Doc’ Savage Jr. is a bronze (literally) giant with gold eyes and hair. An adventurer, scientist and detective combined, Doc was trained from the cradle by his father (a wealthy philanthropist and all-round do-gooder) in martial arts, medicine and surgery to follow in his footsteps of righting wrongs throughout the world. Living on the 86th floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan, Doc’s pad is penthouse and research lab combined. A high speed underground train leads from Doc’s apartment to a vehicle hangar on the Hudson River filled with trucks, boats and planes. Doc also has a ‘fortress of solitude’ in the arctic which he occasionally uses as a retreat to meditate and train his mind (hello Superman).

Image result for doc savage

The Man of Bronze being the first Doc Savage novel, opens in the wake of Clark Savage Sr.’s death from a suspicious malady. Doc is visited by Monk, Long Tom, Johnny, Renny and Ham; friends he met during the war who become his companions throughout the series, each a specialist in a particular field (archaeologist, chemist, attorney etc.). Doc discovers hidden papers pertaining to his inheritance; a concession of several hundred acres of land from the government of Hidalgo to his father. An assassin who speaks only ancient Mayan tries to kill Doc by sniping at him from a nearby skyscraper before jumping to his death telling us that not everybody wants our hero to get his hands on his inheritance. Setting off for Central America the companions discover a lost Mayan city populated by a people living in fear of the mysterious ‘Red Death’. Aerial dogfights, fisticuffs, princess-rescuing and killer sharks are all present and correct making this a quintessential pulp story.

A fairly tongue-in-cheek movie called ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’ was released in 1975 and is largely forgotten but there is talk of ‘The Rock’ himself, Dwayne Johnson taking on the role in the near future.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #5 – Twelve Peers

12peersBy: Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust)

Appeared in: Western Story Magazine (serialized) February – March, 1930

In the fictional town of Wham, Texas, Harry Destry is a hard-drinking, hard fighting, irresponsible lout who likes nothing more than brawling and chasing after his ‘best girl’ Charlie Dangerfield. When he is found spending large amounts of money and whooping it up in a saloon after the Express is robbed, he is immediately fingered for the crime and convicted by a jury of locals who despise him.

Serving six of a ten year sentence, Destry returns to Wham a broken man who will not even lift a finger to defend himself when pushed around. Distraught, Charlie breaks off her engagement to him. Thinking themselves safe from his wrath, the twelve jurors begin to relax. But they have sorely underestimated Destry and by the time they realise his meekness is just a sham, it is too late as he begins hunting them down, one by one.

This isn’t any old by-the-numbers revenge plot. Destry doesn’t just gun ’em down. He tricks them, lures them and exposes them for the crooks and cowards they are, proving that he has more brains than anybody ever gave him credit for. His stint in the slammer has also changed him morally. After killing one of the jurors (in self defence) he is overcome with emotion. He grew up with these men, went to school with them, and Max Brand gives us a thoughtful discourse on small town feuds and the futility of violence.

max-brandMax Brand was the pen name for Frederick Schiller Faust; perhaps one of the most prolific writers of all time. Under about 19 different pen names he wrote over 500 novels. Westerns were his main output but he also created the character of Dr. Kildare. 12 Peers has become one of his most famous novels. It was republished in paperback as Destry Rides Again and inspired several movies of the same name. The first came in 1932 and only loosely follows the basic plot. The more famous version came in 1939 and starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich but bore no resemblance to Brand’s novel. A remake of this called Destry appeared in 1954 and a short-lived TV series (also called Destry) followed in 1964.

Choosing a few quintessential pulp western stories is no easy task. There were over 200 western pulp magazines and literally thousands of stories put out between 1920 and 1960. Writers such as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Bill Burchardt, Frank Gruber, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short and Louis L’Amour all enjoyed great success in the pulps, and those are just some of the really good ones. Long-running series were constructed around characters like Walt Slade and Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, often penned by teams of writers under a house pseudonym. With series entries numbering in the hundreds along with all the great stand-alone novels that are now considered classics, picking a select few westerns that stand tall over the others ain’t easy!

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #4 – The People of the Black Circle


By: Robert E. Howard

Appeared in: Weird Tales (serialized) September, October, November, 1934

Character/Series: Conan

The king of Vendhya (the Hyborian Age equivalent of India/Pakistan) has been slain through foul sorcery. The neighboring kingdom of Turan has employed the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha to murder him and pave the way for their invasion of Vendhya.

Seeking vengeance on her brother’s murderers, the king’s sister Yasmina journeys to the province of Peshkari hoping to recruit the aid of Conan; a barbarian adventurer from the distant land of Cimmeria who has risen to a position of leadership amongst the wild Afguli hillmen. Before the offer can be put to him, Conan abducts Yasmina and rides off into the hills, aiming to ransom her for the lives of several of his tribesmen who languish in the dungeons at Peshkari.

Conan takes Yasmina to a village in the mountains but finds that the Afguli have turned on him. Forced to flee deeper into the mountains, Conan and Yasmina draw perilously close to Mount Yimsha and its dreaded sorcerers of the Black Circle.

conan 2

Illustration by Gary Gianni

More complex than the average Conan story, People of the Black Circle easily makes the top five stories of most Conan fans. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Conan yarn; an exotic setting, plenty of sorcery, an evil cult and a battle with a giant serpent. What makes it stand out is the large cast of characters and their conflicting interests but also the female lead. Howard’s writing is often criticised for being a little on the sexist side with most of his female characters falling into one of two camps; 1. the bratty, spoilt princess who finds herself in the wilderness and in need of Conan’s help or 2. the busty, tough-as-nails warrior woman who proves a match for Conan (this ‘Red Sonja’ type has become a staple of the genre in more recent decades). The Devi Yasmina refreshingly falls somewhere in the middle of these two categories. She is a princess but is strong-willed, takes no crap and the story is more or less based on her wish for revenge. She seeks Conan out.

conanConan has joined the company of Tarzan and Zorro as one of the few pulp heroes who have really stood the test of time. There were two Conan movies in the 1980s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a more recent version with Jason Momoa as the mighty-thewed Cimmerian, but Conan fans have yet to see one of Robert E. Howard’s original stories on the big screen.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #3 – Red Harvest

black_mask_192711By: Dashiell Hammett

Appeared in: Black Mask (serialized), November, December 1927, January, February 1928

Character/Series: The Continental Op

An unnamed narrator working for the Continental Detective’s Agency arrives in the mining town of Personville at the request of a newspaper publisher. The publisher is murdered before the Continental Op has a chance to meet him and he instead agrees to work for his father, Elihu Wilsson who wants to find out who killed his son.

Wilsson is an industrialist who previously used several gangs against the unions to cement his political control over the town. Since then, the gangs have more or less taken over and Wilsson wants the Continental Op to bring them to their knees.

Working on information passed to him by Dinah Brand – one of the gangsters’ molls – the narrator starts a gang war which brings a bloody ‘red harvest’ to the town. But when the narrator wakes up in bed next to the dead Dinah, holding the ice pick which was used to murder her, he finds himself floundering in a town so crooked he barely knows which way is up.


Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel melds the western and the gangster story perfectly in its depiction of a dusty Montana town soaked in blood and corruption in which the color of everybody’s hat is a shade of gray. There are no heroes here, not even the protagonist. Like Hammett’s later anti-hero, Sam Spade (protagonist of the more famous The Maltese Falcon), we rarely get a glimpse inside the Continental Op’s head and are left to judge the character on what he doesn’t say.

Cold, detached and laconic, he shows a dogged perseverance to get the job done. His actions perhaps mirror the author’s disgust at political corruption and its thuggery towards labor unions. Hammett was a strike breaker for the Pinkerton Agency in his younger years but as he grew older his politics leaned ever more to the left, eventually landing him in hot water in the McCarthy era (he did six months in prison in 1951 for refusing to name names).

Red Harvest defined the emerging hardboiled detective story and has been the basis for a number of movies, beginning with Roadhouse Nights (1930) which was only loosely inspired by it. The plot also bears a striking similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick Yojimbo (1961) which itself was remade as a western; A Fistful of Dollars (1964). There was even a sword and sorcery version of the tale set on a distant planet; The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984). Two movies in the 90s brought the tale back to prohibition era America beginning with the Coen brothers’ mobster masterpiece Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Last Man Standing (1996) which was an authorized remake of Yojimbo.


Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #2 – Tarzan of the Apes

allstoryBy: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Appeared in: All-Story Magazine, October 1912

Character/Series: Tarzan

John and Alice Clayton (Lord and Lady Greystoke) are shipwrecked on the western coast of Africa and are forced to build a shelter where Alice gives birth to their son. A year passes and Alice dies of a fever while John is killed by the king ape Kerchak. the infant is adopted by Kala the ape, and brought into the tribe where he is given the name ‘Tarzan’ meaning ‘white-skin’.

Tarzan grows to boyhood and regularly visits his parent’s dilapidated hut where he sees photographs that prove there are others like him and by studying his father’s books, he teaches himself to read. At odds with Kerchak (who has grown envious of Tarzan’s popularity in the tribe) Tarzan eventually fights and kills him and takes his place as lord of the apes.

tarzan 2

Illustration by Frank Frazetta

A party of strangers arrive including the professor Archimedes Q. Porter and his beautiful daughter Jane. Tarzan watches over them and saves them from several encounters with the jungle’s hostile residents. But another member of the party is William Cecil Clayton, cousin to Tarzan and the current Lord of Greystoke, who desires Jane’s hand in marriage.

Not much can be said about Tarzan that is not considered general knowledge. The character is the most famous to emerge from the pulps and Burroughs penned 24 sequels. Along with Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan is one of the most filmed fictional characters of all time but a truly faithful adaptation of this first novel has yet to be made. The current favorite with regards to authenticity is arguably Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) starring Christopher Lambert. tarzan