Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, August 14, 2011
      ( 8/14/2011 11:00:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THE SEA CONCEALS A MONSTROUS, UNIVERSAL CANNIBALISM.” An action fictioner in the early years of the pulp magazines, H.D. Couzens is not a well-known name a hundred years later, a situation that the pulp revivalists at Black Dog Books hope to redress with King Corrigan’s Treasure, the first publication of Couzens’ short stories. Subtitled “The Collected Adventures of Billy Englehart,” Treasure gathers seven tales of South Sea escapades starring Couzens’ one recurring character, a canny and hard-bitten customer who sails the seas around Hawaii in the early 1900’s.

Couzens, who himself worked as an Internal Revenue agent on the then Territory of Hawaii, was familiar with both the region and the men who skirted the laws of the day. He brought this first-hand knowledge to his fiction, which captures its rough-and-tumble characters so distinctly that you barely notice the blanked-out swear words. The majority of these fictions appeared in Adventure, a long-running pulp where Couzens had quickly picked up a devoted readership. (His novelette, “Brethren of the Beach,” is one of the highlights of Black Dog’s earlier The Best of Adventure.) With the Englehart stories, Couzens came up with the closest to a Conan as he would in his too-short career as a fiction writer: a sturdy man’s man protagonist who survives a variety of hair-raising scrapes, including a shipboard encounter with an orangutan.

Within Treasure’s six short stories plus its title novelette, our hero takes on mutinies, pirates, cannibals, a ghost ship overrun with vicious beasts and sundry duplicitous fellow sons of the sea. The title piece, “King Corrigan’s Treasure,” best shows the grizzled salt in his element. Told from the perspective of a shanghaied young would-be adventurer named Harvey Winthrop, it recounts the battle of smarts and might between Billy and a vicious crew of treasure hunters that includes a malevolent doctor who has honed his interrogation skills torturing children on the “Model Prison” in Tasmania (“the most pestiferous hole the British Government ever maintained,” we’re told). Said doctor gets to demonstrate his skills in the story -- you don’t introduce a detail like that and not follow it up – but we never doubt that Billy won’t prevail.

But it’s not before Winthrop gets some hard lessons in the evil that men can do. Couzens doesn’t belabor the point, but at one level “Treasure” is as much about Winthrop’s schooling in the harshness of South Seas life as it is a treasure hunt. Not incidentally, our young man is the only character in the book to be provided a full romantic interest. The title treasure, we’re told, was once the accumulated property of a “hard-bitten, close-fisted, mean-souled Irishman, with no more conscience than a conger-eel,” and his comely daughter Anita, who’s been brought into the conflict by Englehart’s nasty rival Paul Anson, is the lass who catches Winthrop’s eye. That we’re not quite sure which side Anita is taking in the treasure dispute adds a complication to the story.

One thing we do know that is that self-described “trader, ‘recruiter,’ pearler and dabbler in various other forms of activity” Englehart has no time for romantic tomfoolery. Dames and sea – nuthin' but trouble, right?

Edited and introed by pulp scholar Doug Ellis (who seems to have a preference for the more straight-faced action pulps as opposed to the outré horror and s-f work that Black Dog also revives), King Corrigan’s Treasure provides a needed introduction to an engaging yarn-spinner who might have been better known if he hadn’t died too soon from tuberculosis in 1914. As with many writers who toiled in the not-entirely-reputable pulp fiction industry back in the day, Couzens’ bibliography is admittedly incomplete but packed with enough tantalizing titles to get this reader hoping for a second collection of his seafaring exploits. A second volume in the The Best of Adventure promises another single Couzens’ piece, “The Chang-Hwa Pearl.” Sounds like the kind of MacGuffin that Cap’n Billy would pursue.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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