If you haven’t been following along with this series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that’s available for all of us to read online, go back to the beginning and start here. Or, of course, just jump in with…
…“Red and Black” by Irvin Mattick: Yong Lo Was a Reptile with an Artist’s Soul (or so says the contents page)!
…and so says the first sentence of the story. I think that’s worth noting right away. If the first sentence of your story can also be used as a compelling tagline, you’re doing something right. This also seems to lend credence to my own assertion that “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it” is all the story structure you really need to know. Based on the first sentence at least, it seems that author Irvin Mattick is beginning with his villain, the reptilian Yong Lo.
First, though, who is this Irvin Mattick fellow?
Well, the blog Tellers of Weird Tales comes to the rescue again with a little background information on author Irvin Mattick, who died the same month I turned five (September, 1969). It appears he only wrote five stories in his apparently part time career as an author, two of which were published in Weird Tales: this story and “The Headless Spokesman” (November, 1925). The earliest story is 1923’s Detective Tales feature “The Mystery at Eagle Lodge” and the last seems to be “The Gold of Feather Canyon,” which was published in the August, 1926 issue of The Popular Magazine. Speaking, as I have just recently here, of authors with “day jobs,” according to Tellers of Weird Tales Mr. Mattick supported his wife and two children “as a linoleum salesman, a clerk, and a writer for a telephone company.” Here’s hoping that our own efforts keep us publishing for more than the span of three years and only five short stories, but this is yet another example of just how open the old pulp magazines were. For every prolific author who went on to greater glory there were dozens if not hundreds of authors who might better be described as “hobbyists.” I’m loathe to use that word for anyone who’s been published at all, but there has to be some explanation for why Irvin Mattick started publishing at age 31 then seemed to give it up at age 34 and lived to the ripe old age of 77, almost 78. Of course, he might have written a few dozen or even a few hundred other stories under a variety of pseudonyms, which was a common practice in the pulp era. A mystery in itself, eh?
So, then, on with “Red and Black”!
The whole snake metaphor for a guy who squeezes money out of people via gambling is fun but a bit tortured. I have a feeling that sold this story in 1925, but wouldn’t in 2019. Still, it’s charming as can be, especially if you keep in mind that the content of Weird Tales was intended to be fun. This is fiction for the purpose of entertainment, and there was nothing wrong with that in 1925 and there’s still nothing wrong with that in 2019. Nor, I submit, will there be anything wrong with that in 2125 or 2219. Don’t be afraid to have fun telling a fun story. There should be a component of play to writing fiction—especially genre fiction. Look for a post devoted to that subject in the weeks ahead.
Getting into Yong Lo’s clandestine casino drips with 1920s speakeasy chic, while at the same time it drips with what can at least be described as “cultural insensitivity,” describing Asian people as “yellow,” and the stereotypical accent: “Man want see Yong Lo.” I’m getting the feeling this is going to be an issue with this story, so let’s pause to remind ourselves that the study of pulp fiction is not meant—at least by me—to be some effort to dial back the already slow moving clock of social progress but to understand the cultural norms of the time and culture in which these stories were written and look at the writing itself for things like pacing, what I previously mentioned about a sense of fun and play in the writing, and so on. This is not permission to call Asian people “yellow” any more than the rest of these stories, or my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, should be seen as encouraging the sort of institutionalized sexism and casual racism evident in a lot—but, significantly, not all—of the source material.
Anyway, the narrator has passed us through the front and into Yong Lo’s casino using another device you might not get past a contemporary editor: the vaguely second person use of “you” in “First you entered a low, wobbly store that helped to demoralize Hop Alley.”
I’d have liked to have been introduced to a POV character by now—and this is before the end of the first column of the first page of the story. Let’s see that POV character make his or her way through the secret door, not the vague “you.”
On that score at least, this whole opening “scene” is almost a master class in what not to do. Though I love the evocative descriptions, here’s a full-on info dump that describes the secret casino and its master in great detail, but with no action. Nothing is happening to anyone or because of anyone—it’s just scene setting.
Don’t do this!
If you want to describe how fancy the roulette wheel is because you want to convey that this isn’t some seedy barroom but a high class joint, then have your POV character place a bigger bet than she can afford then watch in desperate anticipation as the wheel decides her fate. In that way, the wheel matters to someone, not as something. Stories are about characters—always—and about things only in how they interact with the characters!
And this keeps happening, with an arm’s length one-paragraph dissertation in the apparent voice of an unknown, “omniscient” narrator on the discovery by Butch Killian that Yong Lo is cheating. This needs to be an actual scene—conveyed through either Yong Lo’s or Butch’s tight POV, so we experience him experiencing this revelation—feeling his way through it, rather than the storytelling-via-bullet-points—this happened then this happened then this happened, etc.—that we see here.
For what it’s worth, right now, I really didn’t want to just complain about this story. But come on, Irvin Mattick, get it together, man!
At least, as we get into page 69, Yong Lo begins to reveal himself as the POV character, fading in in place of the narrator that’s been trash talking him so far. Hope springs eternal!
Kind of a fun bit with the letter revealing Lee Gow’s conspiracy with Butch Killian, even if it comes a little easy…
Hmmm… Looks like everyone is a bad guy in this story, and I respect that. Have you read R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen yet?
That said, it’s Lee Gow who has committed the one most unpardonable crime of all:
“Na—na—na—they find me. I kill white girl—I hide in cellar hole.”
What can I say? It took another seventy years for someone to get away with that.
Oh, and then we get to “the C word.” I actually wasn’t expecting that. Still, it’s in character for Butch Killian to say that, but would he say it to another Chinese person? Maybe, in 1925. Think about this sort of thing—language you hopefully don’t use yourself—as another example of letting your villains be villainous, like we talked about with Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. That word doesn’t make Irvin Mattick an asshole for writing it, it makes Butch Killian an asshole for saying it—and the story requires Butch to be an asshole, or as Yong Lo himself says: “Butch Killian big boob.”
The torture of Butch is pretty gross, but for our purposes look at how sloppy the POV is. With no thought whatsoever we get a glimpse of what Butch looks like, which only Yong Lo can see: “Butch’s neck turned black.” Then a description of sensations only Butch’s POV could provide: “Rushing noises swooped down upon him.” And both in a single paragraph. This passed muster in 1925 but even in short stories where we can give ourselves and each other more leeway on POV, getting into and staying in the habit of one scene, one POV will be worth the effort.
This scene gets pretty gross—an object lesson for those of you who think that gory fiction or media in general is some kind of new invention: “…his thighs seemed to take what belonged in his torso.”
Whoa—spoiler alert: everybody dies!
And that’s okay… everybody in this story deserved to.
I have my legitimate gripes with the writing but the story came together in the end with some wildly imaginative, almost crazy-gory aplomb. This was a rough one, but I think we learned from it. If anything we’re getting a great look at the up and down, good and bad nature of the stories packed into these old magazines.
Can’t wait to see what weirdness Weird Tales gives us next.