Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter One - The Greatest Story Not Yet Written

Well, let's get right to it, shall we?

Horace Hackett, as one of his gangster characters would have said, was on the spot.  About three months before, Jules Montcalm of Vider Press had handed to Horace Hackett the sum of five hundred dollars, an advance against royalties of a novel proposed but not yet composed.  And Horace Hackett, being an author, had gaily spent the five hundred and now had nothing but a hangover to present to Jules Montcalm.  It was, as one of Horace Hackett's heroes would have said, a nasty state of affairs.  For be it known, publishers, when they have advanced sums against the writing of a book, are in no mood for quibbling, particularly when said book is listed in the fall catalogue and as there were just two months left in which it could be presented to the public.

So let's see - if Horace Hackett is some sort of author stand-in, it's a remarkably self-deprecatory one, what with him wasting an advance and partying dangerously close to a deadline.  The last name might be a play on 'hack it,' an expression for finding success at something.  Names like Jules Montcalm and Vider Press could be parodies of existing publishers, but I'm not interested enough to read up on the early 20th century book industry.  And there's some annoying repetition with the "as one of his characters who had said" gag being used twice in one paragraph.  Not a perfect intro, but certainly more interesting than some steely-eyed, emotionally-stunted blond ubermensch preparing to cut down scores of bad guys.

Hackett, as subsequent paragraphs tell us, is a melodramatic but somewhat popular writer who churns out love stories and gangster tales for other publishers, as well as about one novel per year for Vider Press.  His Greenwich apartment's basement studio is filled with unfinished stories, unpaid bills, empty bottles of booze, empty packets of cigarettes, and knicknacks like Colombian saddle bags that have deteriorated until they can be used as rugs.  Hackett is trying to act unconcerned about this looming deadline, but he knows "that he had never been closer to getting caught."

Also, he's wearing a dirty bathrobe.  I think if I ever become a pulp writer and get an unexpected visit from my publisher, I'll take a moment to put on some actual clothes if I'm not wearing any at the start.

So we've got Hackett trying to talk his way out of getting caught loafing instead of writing, Jules Montcalm - whose real name is Julius Berkowitz, and I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with this information - going after Hackett like "a hunter who has just treed a mountain lion and is now training his rifle to bop it out of the branches," and there's also someone named Mike de Wolf sitting at a piano.  Mike's playing something quiet and moody, since he's already decided he's going to fail an audition the coming morning.  Surprisingly enough, he's our main character.

Montcalm accuses Hackett of not even having a plot thought out for his story, and Hackett can only "Heh, heh, heh" and look to Mike for back-up while he insists that he totally has a plot, something amazing, probably the best he's ever come up with!  Also, would Mr. Montcalm like another drink?

"The plot," said Jules.

"It's sparkling and exciting, and the love interest is so tender-"

"The plot," said Jules.

"-that I almost cried myself thinking it up.  Why, it's a grand story!  Flashing rapiers, tall ships, brave men-"

"I already said that in the catalogue," said Jules, hopelessly.  "Now I want to hear the plot.  I bet you ain't got any plot at all!"

"Mike!  Here I am telling him the greatest story ever written-"

"You haven't written it yet," said Mike, without turning his head.

And that's our dynamic for this chapter, Hackett trying to hype something he hasn't started yet, Montcalm pinning him back to reality, and Mike snarking from the piano.  It's not a bad dynamic, either.

Hackett repeats some more catalogue information about the story being set during the pirates' heyday in the Caribbean.  The hero is "A go-to-hell, swashbuckling, cut-'em-down, brawny guy" named Tom Bristol... huh, sounds strangely familiar...  Anyway, he's upper-class, of course, and a tactical prodigy, but so hotheaded that he gets kicked out of the service by an evil uncle, which Montcalm complains is what happens in all of Hackett's pirate stories.  Hackett gets indignant and defensive, asking if the publisher really thinks he only has one story in him, and starts talking about book sales before Montcalm gets him back on track.

And this is weird, isn't it?  This guy in a Hubbard story is doing things that Hubbard did throughout his career, recycle story elements and put a lot of emphasis on book sales instead of quality.  Yet I don't think Hackett is meant to be viewed sympathetically - hell, in a way he's the story's villain, but we'll see more of that later.

When Hackett gets to the part where Bristol ends up in the West Indies and falls for the daughter of a local merchant prince, Montcalm can already predict the blue-eyed blonde bimbo that Bristol will be paired with, only for Hackett to immediately contradict him and improvise a new heroine, a fiery redhead who can ride, shoot and gamble just as well as any man, and won't let just anyone claim her heart.  Montcalm is intrigued but moves on to questions about the villain, warning that after "Song of Arabia" Hackett is going to have to put some effort into the bad guy.  So Hackett starts talking about the Spanish admiral Bristol will have to defeat to earn his love interest's hand and a climactic naval battle, but Montcalm points out that this says nothing about the don himself.

Seeking inspiration, Hackett turns to the other man in the room.  Mike de Wolf is actually Irish, but one of the "black Irish," and Hubbard repeats the misconception that this hair color and skin tone is the result of interbreeding with shipwrecked survivors of the Spanish Armada back in the day.  The important thing is, Mike could pass for a Spaniard.

So Hackett spends a fat paragraph describing his villain/his buddy, his "narrow and aristocratic" features, how "his nostrils are so thin that you could see light through them," how he's graceful and well-manned but still a terrific fighter...

"There's your Spanish admiral.  A romantic!  A poetry-reading, glamorous, hell-fighting, rapier-twisting, bowing beauty of a gentleman, all perfume and lace and wildcat.  There's your Spanish admiral.  And he falls in love with this girl when he gets shipwrecked on the island where she lives and she doesn't know he's a don because he's so educated he can speak English without an accent-"

Mike had begun to glare.

"You leave me out of this."

So by the end of this unscheduled literary jam session, Hackett has put enough of a spin on his heroine and villain, and added a love triangle to the big conflict of his generic pirate story, that even Montcalm has to admit that it sounds pretty good.  The publisher does voice some concerns about its "color," but Hackett insists that he knows the Caribbean "like I know the keys of my mill," and launches into a rundown of how the story will progress.  But his friend is annoyed by how Hackett keeps referring to the Spanish admiral as "Mike" - not to mention Hackett's habit of leaving cigarette butts in half-finished cups of coffee and refusal to wash his bathrobe - and since Mike is already feeling indisposed, he quietly slips off to the bathroom in search of aspirin, unnoticed by the others.

Now, electricity can do a lot of things.  It can reanimate a bunch of dead tissue stitched together, it can give a scientist super-speed, and in this case - well, Mike is fumbling for the bathroom's light, activated by a metal string, and he braces himself against the sink to do so, and zap!

He made contact.  A blinding one!  The light short-circuited with a fanfare of crackling!

Mike's paralyzed for a few moments, convulsing and forced to listen to Hackett going on about his stupid story, until he eventually collapsed towards the bathtub.  He tries to steady himself, but his hands vanish before his very eyes, fading from the fingers down.  In fact, Mike's legs are gone, his shoulders are gone,

There wasn't anything left of him at all!

The room was wheeling and dipping.  He sought to howl for help.  But he didn't have any mouth with which to howl.

Michael de Wolf was gone!

He has no mouth, and he must scream.

So Mike's gone after a chance zap from an unshielded light bulb, and that's all the author will do to explain how this book's plot gets started.  Meanwhile Hackett and Montcalm eventually finish their talk and wonder where Mike went off to, before concluding that he probably got mad after being used in a story.  But at least it's a good character, and a good story, right?  So the publisher leaves, and the writer, still aglow with inspiration, sits down and begins to clatter away at a typewriter...

And that's our first chapter, an intriguing look at the creative process with some observations about the industry and a supernatural twist at the end.  Say goodbye to Montcalm and Hackett, we won't be seeing them again for a while, which isn't to say that the latter won't have an influence on the story.  Tune in next time to see where exactly Mike de Wolf has vanished to.

Back to the Introduction

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