Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gerald Page on W.C. Tuttle

Pulp fan and science fiction and fantasy author Gerald W. Page wrote a lengthy piece on one of the forgotten pulp Western writers, W. C. Tuttle, on the PulpMags list some time ago. It was intriguing enough, so I asked Gerald (or Jerry, as he signs his posts) for a permission to post his essay here in Pulpetti. (I'll be publishing one of Page's older stories, "The City in the Syrtis", in my fanzine, Seikkailukertomuksia/Adventure Stories.)

In Finnish, there's one novel translated starring Hashknife and Sleepy. The novel in question is Diamond Knife (Timanttiloukku in Finnish, Kirjayhtymä 1968), which seems to have been published in a book form only in the UK (Collins, 1962). I don't know the original pulp appearance. Hashknife's name has been translated as Hakkelus.

There are also three stories in the Finnish pulp, Seikkailujen Maailma, one of them being a serial, "Katoavaa karjaa" in SM 11-12/1960-1/1961 (originally "Vanishing Brands" (originally Adventure, Jan. 1926). The serial stars Red Storm whose name has been translated as Palokärki Storm. The other two stories are "Lapsen ryöstö" (SM 12/1950; with marshall Jim Lane) and "Menneisyys herää elämään" (SM 9/1952) for which I haven't been able to find the original publishing info.

And here's Gerald Page:

W.C. Tuttle wrote westerns almost exclusively, and had at least five or six series going. During most of his career, you couldn't find him in a western pulp. He appeared in the general fiction magazines like Argosy and Short Stories.

His main series featured a couple of wandering cowboys named Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens. As I understand it, the series started in Adventure in 1917 as humor stories. But they transformed into a sort of easy-going action western typical of Tuttle. Our wandering heroes rode from place to place, always finding a town being overrun by rustlers or swindlers or bank robbers. They were prodded along by Bob Marsh, secretary of the Cattleman's Association, who would make use of them as range detectives - which they insisted they were not.

But Marsh knew that there were two great urges in Hartley's psyche. One, shared with Sleepy Stevens, was a desire to see what was on the other side of the next hill. But the other was an obsession to straighten out (he claimed he wasn't smart enough to solve them) any mystery he came across. The towns would all bear quite a resemblance to one another, as would the people they encountered. There would be an older sheriff, usually honest and with good intentions, though often in over his head. There would be a young man who was in love with a young woman, except that they were from families that their parents were feuding with one another. The sheriff would have a deputy with a sardonic, often somewhat dry sense of humor, who usually helped Hasknife and Sleepy get to the bottom of the mystery. Those deputies were so much alike that they seemed at times to transform the the series into stories about three men - one of whom changed his name but not his description or character, from story to story.

Because of all that, if you read a couple of Hasknife and Sleepy stories, you get the impression that there's not much there. But if you read several of them, it seems to me, you begin to detect small pleasures in the way Tuttle handles the formula. He has a fair, if unadventurous, knack for characterization, and his female characters can be quite original on occasion. At least they have the ability to occasionally surprise the reader by not being the same sort of cyphers female characters usually are in this sort of story. And though he doesn't write detective stories - his heroes usually guess the plot and a dying outlaw confirms it for them - he writes damned good little mysteries. These stories can be addictive and you quickly understand why they ran in the better pulps.

The Henry stories are even better.

Henry is Henry Conroy, a vaudeville comedian who comes across as being a lot like W.C. Fields. When vaudeville collapses, Henry finds himself stranded in a small town in Arizona. As a joke the townfolk elect him sheriff and as a joke he does a pretty good job. To go along with the spirit under which he was elected, he hires the town drunk as his deputy. The stories feature a lot of humor and for that reason, as well as the character of Henry himself, the formula sheriff vs. badguy stories take on a freshness that makes them seem more original than they are. I think a lot of people who hate westerns would enjoy the Henry stories. Those who like westerns would like them, too.

The Henry stories were set in the twentieth century, though much about his Arizona town seemed to have changed little from the nineteenth. Hashknife and Sleepy seemed occasionally to be working in a contemporary world, and occasionally to be definitely in the old west. You sometimes wondered if Tuttle actually knew what period he was writing about.

During the twenties and possibly into the thirties, Tuttle's main hero was a man with the unlikely name of Cultus Collins, a range detective and lawman who appeared in a number of short novels in Adventure, Short Stories and the like. Collins faded out. He reappeared in the 40s in a Hashknife and Sleepy story where he and Hashknife take down a gang of smugglers running drugs into the States from Mexico. I think that was Collins' swan song, though certainly not Hashknife's.

There was a series by Tuttle in the late forties and early fifties in Exciting Western about a couple of cowboys who seemed to be Hashknife and Sleepy played for laughs. I can't find a copy of Exciting Western to check their names right now. They were notably dumber than their horses and you wonder how the heck they could ever actually solve a mystery. There was also a series of short stories (Tuttle mainly wrote at around 20- or 25,000 words, a pretty good length for the kind of thing he wrote) in Argosy about a western town called Dogieville where the inhabitants would try out something such as a sport (baseball, foortball, etc.) or otherwise get involved in some comedy of errors in each story. At 5,000 words or so these stories are entertaining. But while Tuttle was often pretty good at lacing a "serious" story with humor, his attempts at outright humor often seemed strained. He didn't always write westerns, by the way. I've read two baseball stories by him, both about a pair of really stupid umpires working the minor leagues. They try much too hard to be funny and I don't recall them often succeeding. Ring Lardner and Robert E. Howard did it better.

I suspect a lot of modern pulp collectors, when they sit down to read a good story, pass up Tuttle. I suggest you give Henry a try - and if you can read two or three of them, Hashknife and Sleepy. Tuttle never takes himself too seriously and at least in the short novel length, never takes himself too lightly, either. He can be a lot of fun.


James Reasoner said...

Great post. I like Tuttle's work quite a bit, although there is a sameness to a lot of it. The two characters in the series that ran in EXCITING WESTERN were Tombstone and Speedy, I believe.

Juri said...

Yes, someone on the PulpMags list said that, but I forgot to add that info to the post.