Frisco Beat: Robert Barbour Johnson

Autograph Hound Super-Sunday once more, and our maniacal John Hancock-collecting pal Brian Leno hauls out a new acquisition. If I remember right, he told me he’s been looking for a Robert Barbour Johnson for decades, but if the signature did come on the market he missed it.

Until now. A copy of The Magic Park from 1940 (if not the first, certainly one of the earliest histories of Golden Gate Park) surfaced, for only $35. I thought the price was ridiculously low, but then some previous owner stuck glued words on the spine, which kind of goops up the collectability.

The main angle Brian wanted was the siggie, though, and he sprang on it. “Inscribed, business card with initials, and then signed. Lord knows the money was right. I know RBJ isn’t the most collected author but I always wanted the guy that wrote ‘Far Below’ and now I got him.”

“Far Below” is one of the most famous yarns published in the pulp pages of Weird Tales, but Johnson — resident of San Francisco for many years — also wrote a string of circus stories for the prestigious pulp Blue Book. Among other Johnsonian activities.

I cover him in the history and guidebook The Literary World of San Francisco. Over the years, people have mentioned to me that they think Johnson is one of the most interesting figures I touch on. If you ever find a copy of that book, I believe you’ll agree.

I’ve got a signed The Magic Park, plus a long inscription by RBJ in a book of science fiction tales. You can’t tell from Brian’s pic, but the boards are green with gold stamping on the front. No lettering of any kind on the spine.

Brian tells me, “The business card is nice but it’s been glued to the book. From what I can see by straining my eyes all that was on the front was Robert Barbour Johnson.”

If you have trouble with RBJ’s scrawl, the card reads:

“Just wanted you to have one of the new book. Will drop in some other day. R.B.J.”

So now at last Brian joins me in the RBJ collecting club. But don’t think this haul will slow down his roll.

“I got Oliver Reed coming next week,” he says. “There was a guy that knew how to party.”

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Hammett: Another “Dead Yellow Women” (Heavily Illustrated)

Today Evan Lewis uncovers yet another newsprint serialization of an Op yarn, beginning November 29, 1942 in the Albuquerque Journal — almost 79 years ago exactly. 

The yarn in question is the excellent “Dead Yellow Women” from Black Mask, November 1925 — 96 years ago.

I’m continually amazed by the number of these newspaper reprints that have turned up. How many more?

Seriously, will it be dozens — even dozens of reprints for individual Op adventures?

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Rediscovered: On Library Shelves. . .

Got a note and a couple of pics from Tom Krabacher, academic, to let me know that “Great Tales has arrived in the academy!” 

If not earlier in other venues, John D. Haefele’s recent and monumental tome Lovecraft: The Great Tales muscles in and gets some library markings. Cool.

“It’s now,” Tom reports, “officially on the shelves and part of the California State University holdings. (And therefore available to scholars nationwide.)” 

Seen in this context, it kind of puts some of those other dinky little books on HPL into perspective, doesn’t it?

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Rediscovered: Dictum Morgmanius

Morgan “The Morgman” Holmes just noticed that I invoked his famous dictum on Art in my review of the George Sterling caveman book the other day:

Any work of art is made better by the inclusion of cavemen and dinosaurs.

He sent in this correction:

The Holmes Rule of Art is specifically: No work of art that cannot be enhanced with the addition of barbarians or dinosaurs — preferably both.

I was thinking, sure, different wording but the meaning is the same. . . .

Then I noticed.


He wants dinosaurs and barbarians.

Not cavemen.

Me, I like the caveman angle better, but it is Morgan’s dictum, so let the record stand corrected.

Kind of too bad that George Sterling didn’t keep at the fiction, work his way into the burgeoning pulp marketplace, and incorporate some barbarians and dinosaurs into the action — like Robert E. Howard.

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Rediscovered: Steinbeck, Classical Puzzle Mystery Writer

Brian Wallace pops in a link to a long article from the Los Angeles Review of Books covering a crime novel — with werewolves, kind of — John Steinbeck wrote at the start of his career.

It was 1930 and Steinbeck was writing this stuff, while Hammett was publishing The Maltese Falcon.

I think good old Steinbeck was lucky he couldn’t sell Murder at Full Moon, else you can more easily see the scenario by which he might have become just another Ellery Queen type instead of the author of Of Mice and Men (and company).

Some writers, of course, have gone slumming into knock-off crime novels without ruining their careers — I think of Gore Vidal with his mysteries written as by “Edgar Box.”

And it’s always interesting to see alternative courses various writers might have taken — I was just mentioning the other day that the San Francisco poet George Sterling probably could have swung a solid Tarzan imitation.

Hey, you never know, but it’s fun to get these sneak peeks into the What Might Have Been.

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Hammett: Yet Another “Clew”

For those keeping track, Evan Lewis has uncovered from the newsprint of yesteryear yet another reprint of Hammett’s Op yarn “The Tenth Clew” — this one from the Deseret News in 1942.

Plus he’s added a couple more installments to his coverage of the blurbs Frederick Dannay gave Hammett stories as they appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. You can hunt them down on his blog between the inaugural post and the new coverage of “Clew.” And there ought to be more to come.

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Rediscovered: FrankenHammer

To keep Autograph Hound Super-Sunday going, Halloween-style, how about a glance at a formal display from Brian Leno’s extensive collection of John Hancocks?

A couple of days ago Brian informed me: “Got up this morning and figured today would be the day I start listing, for my own benefit, all my signatures.

“Got to about 100 and sanity struck home — pure lunacy to even attempt.

“Just too many, Don. I would be writing for days — as Walter Brennan used to say, No brag, just fact.

Here’s Brian:

For me, Halloween is not Halloween without Hammer Horror, as in Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Hazel Court from The Curse of Frankenstein.

I was watching Frankenstein Must be Destroyed a couple of nights ago and at one point Cushing pulls out a surgical saw and starts taking someone’s skull off to get at the brain.

Hilarious. You can hear the saw blade grating on the bone. I’m pretty sure Leatherface got a few pointers from the good doctor.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , , |

Rediscovered: Vampira for the Holiday

Autograph Hound Super-Sunday — and on Halloween!

Does our resident Autograph Hound Brian Leno have anything to put on display?

A rhetorical question, really, because he’s done Halloween before, and I’ll bet on him doing it again.

Take it away, Brian:

Here’s Horror Host and immortal star from Plan 9 from Outer Space — Vampira — or Maila Nurmi.

Very apt for Halloween because around this time of year Plan 9 will be on TV so much most people will think it’s just a cheap movie.

Fun fact: Gold medalist Paavo Nurmi was her cousin.

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Frisco Beat: Wolf and Greek Go All Primeval

Our pal Morgan “The Morgman” Holmes has a dictum — either the product of his own profound deliberations or picked up over shots of whiskey in a seedy bar held together with vines and rattan somewhere on the outskirts of the Pulp Jungle:

Any work of art is made better by the inclusion of cavemen and dinosaurs.

Yes, any.

On occasion I wonder if Hammett should have tossed a Cro-Magnon or a stegosaurus into The Maltese Falcon, and haven’t doped out how he might have spun it to the betterment of the plot — but either certainly could really jump up a forced read-through of Proust.

Some other San Francisco boys, however, did get in on the caveman action. Jack “Wolf” London and the poet George “Greek” Sterling. (No dinosaurs, unfortunately.)

Recently Vince Emery sent along a copy of Sterling’s Babes in the Wood, first book publication of the poet’s sort-of sequel to Jack London’s Before Adam. In his years as a publisher Vince has knocked out a little bit of this, some of that, an eclectic mix anchored thus far by some intimate connection to the city of San Francisco.

I figured I should look into the original first, and as I poked through London’s primeval tale didn’t pick up any ghost memories of having read it years ago. The framing device was quite familiar, since it heavily influenced Robert E. Howard’s Sword-and-Sorcery yarns involving ancestral memories, such as “The Valley of the Worm.”

A modern man relives past lives in his dreams — in Before Adam specifically the life of a hominid facing a brutal and always dangerous world. The narrator only sees the life of this one time-lost ancestor, but in a touch that makes a writer a world-class figure while almost all his contemporaries are forgotten, in one vivid sequence he joins his ancestor in his dreams, and plunges back and back across life cycles toward the primordial mire. Lovecraftian pre-Lovecraft. A forerunner of what Clark Ashton Smith would do in “Ubbo-Sathla.”

Knowing the mechanics of yarn-spinning, London — while doing what he thought was a realistic portrait of the life of early man — threaded a love interest through the narrative, plus gave his hominid hero an antagonist within his tribe, the violent atavism Red-Eye. More primitive than the primitive.

Sterling stripped that template down to the bone, the love interest more casual, the past-haunted dreamer nowhere to be found. Episode follows episode, encounters with saber-tooth cats and cave bears and more, done well enough I occasionally thought that it was too bad Sterling didn’t try a Tarzan knock-off. He puts his toe into the grassy verge of the Pulp Jungle and swings his ape-men merrily through the trees.

Maybe it’s me, but I may as well note that both London and Sterling seem to be setting their tales in the landscapes of northern California, while using very early hominids as their foils — nothing as sophisticated as a Neanderthal appears. From what we know of the ever dynamic history of such tribes, I was keeping an eye out for anything that evoked Africa. For all I know they may have had abalone in Africa’s coastal waters, but all I could think about was Sterling during his famous stint in Carmel contributing to writing “The Abalone Song.”

The historical introduction by Vince Emery for many will prove the main attraction of this book. His recent research reveals much previously “lost” info on Sterling’s years in and around San Francisco, especially his jobs working for his uncle Frank C. Havens — they made the papers during a financial scandal. And it seems that Sterling used his office to set Jack London up with better homes in Oakland, as he began his career. Those early years in the Bay Area come up for major reevaluation, but the last fifteen years leading up to his suicide remain unchanged, Sterling as romantic poet and womanizer, one of the most famous San Franciscans of his day.

The coolest piece of info mentioned is that London interrupted writing Before Adam to cover the earthquake and fire of 1906, heading into the burning city of San Francisco for a few days. Gives that novel some extra smoky tang.

Vince did a pretty good job with the text, consulting three versions: Sterling’s holograph first draft in Bancroft Library; typed drafts (Sterling hated typing so someone else did those) with the author’s hand-corrections in the San Francisco Public Library; and the 1914 serial appearances of the episodes in Popular Magazine.

I only noticed roughly six typos, such as on p95 (last paragraph, line 2) no perched which obviously ought to be now perched. Or p150 (first paragraph), a women must be a woman. The textual detail that most intrigued me occurs on p120 (second line), in which mammoths assume the stage with “the enormous curved trunks of the males sometimes clicking together” — that’s got to be tusks clinking together. If I know anything about mammoths, and I do, it’s got to be tusks.

The most startling idea that struck me while reading these primordial episodes — and I’d never even considered the concept before — is that George Sterling was quite a sadist. He delights in describing the torture and death-agonies of one creature or primal man after another. If I noticed it — and I’m hardboiled and largely indifferent about such things — it’s pretty rough.

Back to the Stone Age stuff, indeed.

Posted in Dash, Frisco, Lit, News, REH | Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Mort: Floyd Salas

Just got word that Floyd Salas died Sunday the 17th at the age of 90. Tattoo the Wicked Cross, baby.

His companion of 38 years, Claire Ortalda, did the obit for Berkleyside — an excellent piece of writing, rounding up the major things you might need to know about Floyd. I don’t think you will find a better summation.

If you want something longer, try my piece “Collecting Floyd Salas” from Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine — yes, I go through the history of his books but there’s lots of Floyd personality stuff in it, too.

Floyd had enough personality for any ten or twenty people.

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