I woke up this morning thinking about old-school historical potboilers. Yeah, I know. But you all know by now that my mind functions this way…
Actually, there’s a straightforward explanation for why I roused from my slumbers with visions of F. van Wyck Mason dancing through my head. I hit the pillow after scrolling through a Kindle series of novels set during the French & Indian War. They look… OK… but nothing that would trip my trigger. Apparently my subconscious mind niggled at this all night, because I woke up thinking about books I read in my teens when vivid historical fiction written mainly for a male audience was still a thing. For some reason, F. van Wyck Mason’s Wild Horizon was at the forefront.
Mason was the scion of an old (17th Century) New England family. He ran off to fight in World War I at the age of 17. He turned to writing pulp stories and then to historical fiction — a lot of it set during the American Revolution. Wild Horizon recounts the settlement of frontier Tennessee, and if I remember it right, it was a damn fine read that featured some frontier figures who are now mostly forgotten, like James Robertson and the long hunter Kaspar Mansker.
I also remember reading his novel about the buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan.
Another World War I veteran whose frontier fiction I read at a young age was Hervey Allen. I think his The Forest and the Fort was a little over my head back then. It was a bestseller in 1943, telling the tale of one Salatheil Albine (that name!), who had been captured and raised by Indians. The novel revolves around the 1763 siege of Fort Pitt during Pontiac’s War. I remember it being slow and confusing, but I was just a kid. I oughta track down a copy and take another crack at it.
Pondering over all this at breakfast, I remembered a novel that I picked up off a paperback spinner in a variety shop in Wrightwood, California, where my folks had a cabin. It was titled The Mohawk Ladder, which was entirely irresistible to me. I remember being initially confused that it wasn’t actually a frontier story — it was set during Queen Anne’s War in Europe in the early 18th Century, featuring American colonial frontiersmen with experience with the Iroquois, fighting under the Duke of Marlborough. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I remember that I absolutely loved it. I wonder if it would hold up today?
Turns out that this was the first novel (1951) of the astonishingly prolific Noel B. Gerson, who wrote more than 300 books under his own and a variety of pen names. Among the noms de plume was Donald Clayton Porter. Under that name he wrote the White Indian series of novels — which I ran through at a furious pace in my early teens on those weekends in Wrightwood. The opening novel is billed as “The Lusty, Turbulent Saga Of America’s First Frontier.” And so it is.
James Reasoner has a nice summation on his blog here.
It opens in 1685, several generations after the founding of the first English colony in North America. Settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony have established an outpost known as Fort Springfield in the valley of the Connecticut River, but they have to worry constantly about Indian attacks, and with good reason. During one such raid by Seneca warriors, a young couple named Jed and Minnie Harper are killed, and their infant son is carried off by the Seneca chief Ghonka, who adopts the boy, names him Renno, and raises him to be a great warrior.
That’s just the beginning of this novel, which follows Renno to manhood. Like Tarzan, he comes to realize that he’s different from those who have raised him. Also like Tarzan, he’s the biggest, fastest, strongest bad-ass in the jungle – I mean forest – and eventually allies himself with the English while still maintaining his ties to the Seneca. He fights on the side of the English during clashes with the French, who are also trying to establish colonies in North America, and starts a long-running feud with a Frenchman who’s so evil he practically twirls his mustache.
There were sexy bits. I remember that. It was a lusty saga, after all…
Lustiness was a big selling point for frontier tales. Many of the writers of historical fiction got their start in the pulps and — praise Crom! — never entirely lost their pulp sensibilities. The cover illustrations targeted their audience with prominent snowy bosoms and lurking savage menace.
I’ve explored Dal Van Every’s frontier histories (recently published in e-book format). Van Every was also a prolific writer of blood-and-thunder frontier fiction — solid history that played as potboilers. Brawling sagas and so forth…
It’s been 40 years since I’ve read any of these books. I’m certain that they are dated in their depictions of Indians and women, but I’m also certain that the quality of the writing is superior to the the current run of e-book historical fiction series. These guys were serious professional craftsmen who wrote well and knew how to tell a ripping yarn. I might just hunt one or two of these down and put ’em on the bedside table to see what they look like through 54-year-old eyes.