Monday, October 31, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Eight - The Horrible Truth

So last time our hero got the smart idea of trying to defy the plot of the story he's trapped in, only to watch helplessly as his forces committed a war crime and run into his love interest anyway, both of which have now given the story's "hero" all the more justification to come and kick his "villainous" ass.  The only consolation is that Mike has been able to use his position as el almirante to punish his rapacious marines with whippings and half-rations, though this does mean that he has the new problem of a potential mutiny to worry about.

Which isn't to say Mike's old problems have gone away.  The ominous Father Mercy enters...  the scene, I guess, the author doesn't explain where Mike is conversing with Fernando at this chapter's start other than that it has a door.  It's not Mike's cabin, since that's where Lady Marion is, though it seems adjacent to it.  Anyway, Father Mercy enters the room to be creepy.  He's still annoyed that Mike won't let him torture the English prisoners, but he's willing to forgive this if Mike lets the padre get his withered hands on "a heretic of - ah - special interest to me," Lady Marion.

I gotta asks, is this character type common to early 20th-century-pulp action stories?  The sadistic, vaguely pervy priest who wants to get his hands on some damsel and do nasty things to her for the sake of her soul?  Was this thing common in pirate thrillers featuring the Spanish?

Anyway, Mike threatens to break Father Mercy over his own rack, and when the padre threatens his commission over "one silly English heretic," Mike throws a pistol at him.  Fernando, whoever he is, warns that it's "madness" to oppose such a high-ranking member of the church.

"I have a fleet and he has a rosary," said Mike.  "I leave it to you to discover which one fires the heaviest broadside."

"I think," said Fernando, leaving, "that you'll discover that it's the rosary."

Guess it depends how fast you fire it.  Maybe if you loaded it into some sort of railgun... anyway, after Fernando leaves, Mike spends a moment sitting in this vaguely defined room and has himself a drink.  And then Lady Marion steps out of Mike's cabin, so they can have a scene heavy with belligerent romantic tension.

Marion's overheard the trouble Mike is in, but after the disaster in Tortuga, she thinks his punishment of his soldiers is all an attempt to impress her, but he counters that he had no idea she was even on the island.  Both accuse the other of being conceited enough to think he/she fancies her/him, but Mike finally concludes that while he can't deny his feelings for her, he has "no taste for playing the part of a bungling buccaneer," and is only keeping her around as a hostage, which ends with Marion storming out and slamming the door.

Once the exchange is over, Mike is horrified at how combative he was, and how he blew a good opportunity to smooth things over with Marion.

But his words could not be recalled.  He-

His words.  His words.  HIS WORDS!

Suddenly he shook an angry fist in the direction of the sky.  "Damn you Horace Hackett!  So I'm to wreck my fleet, am I?  So I'm to fall in love like a puppy with this English girl, am I?  I'm to bowl myself over by opposing the church and them I'm to be murdered by your bucko-boy Bristol.  Well, to hell with you and your damned typewriter!  You're going to get something more than you expected before this thing is done!"

Yep, for all his efforts to change the course of the story, Mike is still having words put in his mouth by a cosmic force committed to his downfall, something I'm sure we can all relate to.  And for all his defiance, he can sense that Hackett's focus has shifted away from him to some other scene, so even this act of rebellion is empty.

So there's nothing left to do to return to Nombre de Dios, town of the ceaselessly-screaming wildlife and automaton ladies who keep walking through the streets without ever reaching their destination.  An indeterminate amount of time passes, and Mike makes the best of his respite from the author's commands by sending ships on patrol for any sign of pirates, as well as warnings to the Spanish colonies that the English may try something in reprisal for Tortuga.  Other than that, Mike can only take comfort in the town's defenses that could surely defeat any pirate attack, even one led by the famous Captain Bristol.

But, one day Fernando shows up with a packet of messages for the almirante.  None of them are good - one commands him to stop raising panic with his talk of pirates, another is from the bishop of Panama demanding that Mike let Father Mercy escort Lady Marion to the city to be examined, and the last is from Mike's character's former paramour Anne threatening to use her influence over Panama's governor to punish him if he doesn't hand over this English girl she think he's been seeing instead of her.

Mike deduces that Fernando has been letting these letters sit for a while to increase the controversy around the mad almirante, but still refuses to the enclosed demands, since sending Marion to the bishop would only provoke Bristol's wrath.  He also has Fernando follow him into his manor to see how he's been treating Marion.'

"Trombo," said Mike, "inform the Lady Marion that we would like to see her here."

Trombo, like some hulking, hairless bear, waddled away.  In the distance sounded a slammed door and a heavy thud and then Trombo came back feeling a new bruise upon his arm, looking guiltily at Mike.  "She say 'no.'"

Mike turned to Fernando.  "She is my prisoner and nothing more.  Now do you understand my position?"

So Mike tears up the letters and sends... whoever Fernando is back to Panama to give word of what he's seen here, along with the message that his detractors are all "the best allies that Tom Bristol ever had."  And the narration's point of view briefly changes to Fernando, who is not looking forward to another trek across the Isthmus of Panama and all its rebellious Maroons.  Which implies that he's a thinking, feeling being nevertheless consigned to the fate of a secondary character in a forgettable pirate story produced by a procrastinating author, raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions which we'll have to examine later.

At any rate, Mike is fuming, especially when Trombo suggests he correct Marion's attitude with a good length of belt.  Our hero paces, cursing the people around them and their attitude of "Spanish superiority!", and who are "All so sold on a man's duty to the church!"  Yeah, churches suck!  Nobody should belong to one, or found their own!

The insult to injury is that there's a baby grand piano in the room with Mike, with the words "Steinway, Chicago" on it.  We belatedly learn that Mike read "Pittsburgh" on the cutlasses used by the buccaneers and "C.I.O." on the shipments of lumber being loaded into the galleons in the harbor.  And that's cute, but it doesn't work, Hubbard.

We can accept that anachronism of the piano in this setting, and even that Mike can see the Steinway logo on it because that's what Hackett is patterning the instrument off of, and Mike knows that.  But why would Hackett include information about the maker's mark on the cutlasses of the pirate extras?  They aren't anachronisms, pirates had access to steel weapons, so we can't say it's a subconscious thing, and Hackett would be an idiot for specifying that these pirates' swords were made in America.  And he has no reason to go into detail about the stamps on the lumber shipments happening in the background at Nombre de Dios.

So this bit of silliness makes about as much sense as Mike kicking one of the buildings and finding it's just a false front propped up by some beams of lumber.  Actually, this makes less sense than that, that would at least indicate how shallow and unreal this setting is, while this seems to imply the author is dumb enough to go out of his way to include an out-of-place detail.

Anyway.  Mike laments that he doesn't have the technical skill to build something like a Lewis machine gun to fight Bristol with, and gives the piano a good thump as he passes it, which turns into him banging out his frustrations upon its keys, until he calms and spends a good hour playing music.  He winds down and realizes that Lady Marion is in the room with him, wearing a proper amber gown provided by "author-magic" even though she was recovered in a torn dress.

And now we get our properly romantic moment, after the two love interests have tried to deny the extent of their feelings for each other.  Marion softly asks him to keep playing, and as he does so, explains that she overheard the conversation about the contents of those letters, and asks why Mike doesn't do the easy thing and let her go, either to Panama to save his own hide, or to St. Kitts to save hers.  He says he won't have her killed and can't trust any crew to take her safely to St. Kitts, though he also admits to himself that he's lying and can't bear to part with the only thing that makes him happy in this world.

But he does tell her a different truth, however - "You do not know it, but you are only the character in a story.  A lovely, devastating character, it is true, and one who is, I find, really alive."  She sits in patient silence as Mike explains that he knows how this story goes because he knows its author, and thus knows that he is trapped in the role of a villain, fated to die while Marion will be returned to Bristol.  Marion comments that she's seen Shakespeare and thinks that Mike might be carrying his "all the world's a stage" simile rather far, and wonders by what "strange necromancy" - at this point I think Hubbard just uses the word as a synonym for 'magic' - Mike can claim to know God's will.  Mike can only reply that Marion's true god "is not the god you suppose him," but gives up trying to convince her of the truth.

Mike concludes that he's fated to lose to Bristol and lose Marion, and Marion agrees that "no one man can change destiny."  And I guess that's the depressing message of this story?  No matter how hard you try, things will happen because some greater plot requires it?  We're trapped in our roles and can do nothing but wait and see as they're played out?  That sucks, even if you're not in one of Horace Hackett's pirate pulps.

Having become resigned to his fate, Mike decides that even if he's due to get killed, and even if Bristol will ultimately end up with Marion, there's one thing he's sure of:

"Milady," said Mike, gathering her to him and holding her tightly against him.  "I love you," he whispered.


She thrust at him and tried to get free, but his arms were strong and his lips, seeking hers, were gentle.

D'aww retracted, replaced with outrage.

And then her arms ceased their flailing and her hands crept up across his flat, straight back and locked there.  "Oh - my darling," she whispered.

And so Lady Marion also concludes that it's useless to struggle, though in her case it means submitting to a man's advances rather than a role in a story.

And you were doing so well, Hubbard.  Well, you were doing okay.  Better than you usually do, certainly.

Back to Chapter Seven

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