Thursday, June 28, 2012
Frederick Faust's Abrupt Endings
So, back to this re-post from the old Pulp Rack Web site:
Frederick Faust's Abrupt Endings
by Duane Spurlock
Frederick Faust's stories frequently seem to defy the traditional plot arc, in which a denouement -- or falling action that wraps up loose ends -- follows the climax. More than one reader has commented with a grumble about the abrupt endings of Faust's stories. With the body of his tale told, the author seems to have no interest in providing a typical sense of closure to his readers. Like a rocket that has expended all its fuel and then falls to earth, a Faust story speeds pell-mell to its climax, and then stops.
One explanation for this trait of Faust's storytelling is easy to apply: that the editorial demands of pulp fiction magazines did not require the artifice of closure.
This argument suggests that readers weren't interested in a neat, tidy, wrapping up of narratives, or that editors didn't want or worry about such things. There may be some weight to this theory, but I don't believe it is the ultimate answer. Of course, in some cases a lack of closure led to readers' demanding more of the story. A prime example is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, which ends with Tarzan giving up his rightful inheritance so that the woman he loves -- Jane Porter -- may marry the man he mistakenly believes that she loves. Of course, Burroughs wrote a sequel -- The Return of Tarzan -- in which everything ends as readers had hoped, with John Clayton (Tarzan) recognized as Lord Greystoke and married to Jane.
A second explanation that one may apply to the lack of closure is that Faust's lifestyle -- his extravagant spending -- demanded the furious pace he followed in writing his fiction, and he had no time or inclination for crafting tidy endings. After all, wasn't he writing for a popular audience seeking entertainment, not for a literary audience expecting aesthetic pleasures?
There is a third explanation for the lack of closure: simply that Faust was unable to craft such scenes. Look at the typical course his stories run -- the protagonist is always moving forward against hardships, toward a goal (known or unrealized), tacking a seemingly unending succession of obstacles, natural and manmade; Faust simply ends his story when its hero overcomes the latest difficulty that is most pertinent to the immediate narrative. We can assume that other obstacles will lie ahead for the hero -- any closing action that Faust might craft (that is, closing action that is true to the world of the protagonist and the narrative he has inhabited) would actually form the beginning of a new story, a new series of hurdles to leap over.
For examples, and to demonstrate that Faust's tendency toward this sort of ending was not limited simply to his pulp magazine stories, let's turn first to a non-pulp publication, to a couple of non-western stories that appeared in an untypical Faust market, Good Housekeeping magazine. Faust had two stories published there -- "Miniature" and "Level Landings" in the September and October issues of 1939, respectively. In "Miniature," the protagonist has found a solution to the trials he has faced the past recent years. But by the end of the story, he throws away this option, even with the sure knowledge that he will face greater difficulties in the future.
At the end of "Level Landings," the awakened hero realizes that the expectations for him -- to marry his sweetheart and settle down to a comfortable domestic life with no physical threats, no dangers -- will be utterly unsatisfying for him. He feels the pull of a life filled with excitement and adventure, and the reader leaves the story with the full expectation for the hero to dump his fiance so he may seek out the bright face of danger.
In neither story do we see the sort of closure that readers of contemporary popular fiction have come to expect. The stories end with no real happiness, no complacency, no happy marriages that signal the end of a comedy by Shakespeare, whose work Faust so loved. Instead, the heroes of these stories look forward to further trials and obstacles to overcome.
Let's turn now to Faust's pulp protagonists. Like Hercules working through his twelve labors, Faust's heroes move from one task or difficult situation to another. A story recounts a hero's particular labor, then ends. In the case of Faust's series characters, the next story in the series covers another labor, and then ends. Even if a character reaches the end of his labors to win some treasure or knowledge, there is no closure, for other challenges shall arise for such characters.
For instance, Faust's "Reata" must perform three missions for Pop Dickerman to repay a debt. Reata's saga is told over the course of seven stories -- those devoted to each of his missions for Dickerman, and then the stories that recount his labors to clean his name in the eyes of the authorities.
Each story about "Bull Hunter" can be seen as focusing on that character's overcoming some great physical or situational challenge until he finally wins the hand of Mary Hood.
The "Thunder Moon" stories focus on the character's many challenges -- to prove his manhood (in differing ways) to the Cheyenne and to the whites and to himself -- and each story examines the character's trials as he faces these challenges. At the end of the series -- "Farewell, Thunder Moon" -- Thunder Moon has turned away from his Cheyenne brothers to marry a white woman, but the reader knows that the warrior's psychic split as a white man raised among Indians will still bring him torment in the life that may follow the closing of the story.
Whether Faust was actually unable to write scenes of typical closure, this hypothesis -- plus the examples just given -- suggests a fourth explanation for the abrupt endings of his stories: that he was instead following a tradition of heroic stories in which closure is not an element.
The Heroic Tradition
Faust was an avid student of older literatures, and it's quite possible to see him working within that tradition -- just as he was so devoted to writing out-of-fashion, classically styled poetry.
To further describe my point about the older tradition that may have been Faust's model, I'll rely on a quote from John Crowley's Aegypt because it makes the point so succinctly. In this scene from Crowley's novel about stories and histories, a character -- history professor Frank Walker Barr -- neatly summarizes the sort of heroic literary tradition of which Faust's protagonists might be a part:
"It seems to me that what grants meaning in folktales and legendary narratives -- we're thinking now of something like the Nibelungenlied or the Mort D'Arthur -- is not logical development so much as thematic repetition, the same ideas or events or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances, or different objects contained in similar circumstances." . . . .
"A hero sets out . . . to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle or find a garden. Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden, repeated in different forms. Like a set of nesting boxes -- each of them however just as large, or no smaller, than all the others. The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form. The pattern continues until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem at last to have been really told. Not uncommonly in old romances the story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.
"Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions, or inherent in a story's premises -- logical completion as a vehicle of meaning -- all that is later, not necessarily later in time, but belonging to a later, more sophisticated kind of literature. There are some interesting half-way kind of works, like The Faerie Queene, which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it: never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind, and the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them, the flavor is already there . . . " (pp. 360-361)
It isn't so difficult to recognize in Faust's work elements of that older kind of literature, in which the adventures of the protagonist are the treasure -- for both the reader and the story's hero.
It is generally acknowledged that Faust's characters are larger than life in their personalities and abilities, are mythic in their proportions. As Faust collector and novelist William Nolan states in an article for the May 1997 issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine, Faust's "West was primarily a place of myth and fancy, an imaginary landscape people with demigods, wonder horses and legendary villains." (p. 41) So it isn't so difficult to understand how Faust -- an avid student of older literatures -- would cast his tales of action and adventure, of heroes surmounting challenges and crises in the mold of older traditions in which the niceties of the sort of "logical completion" that contemporary readers expect do not appear. Do not, according to the determination of the author, need to appear because the labors of the hero are all that is essential to the story: These labors prove and prove again the worthiness of the protagonist to be considered heroic.
Think again of Bull Hunter. Each of his stories recounts his facing some hardship; his saga ends with a sort of incompleteness -- "The Trail Up Old Arrowhead," the last of Faust's five stories about Bull, ends with Bull unconscious, clobbered by the conniving Hal Dunbar. Bull unknowingly is saved by Riley, with whom Dunbar had conspired to kill Bull. But Riley drives off Dunbar when he recognizes the truly heroic presence that fills Bull. Riley leaves as well after making sure -- from a hiding place -- that Bull will revive once Pete Reeves arrives.
There is no scene of marriage to beloved Mary Hood, no assured declaration of a "happy ever after" ending. But Riley reaffirms the lesson of the Bull Hunter stories when he essentially summarizes them to Dunbar:
"Here's a simple gent, lying here stunned. Well, it ain't the first time that he's beat the both of us. He's lying there knocked cold, but he'll be found by a partner, Pete Reeve. And he'll be brought back to Moosehorn, and he'll marry the prettiest girl we ever seen. How does he get all this? Just by being simple, Hal, and honest. . . " (p. 248, Leisure Books edition)
The last entry in the Thunder Moon series offers another example. In "Farewell, Thunder Moon," the adopted Cheyenne warrior's true family travels west and locates the lost son and his tribe. Thunder Moon/William Sutton is torn between the two worlds that call to his soul. He loves Charlotte Keene, a beauty from the white world, yet he cannot make himself abandon the frontier. Similarly, Charlotte is unwilling to give up on her love for him. So, in Chapter 14, she agrees to leave behind her civilized world and to live in the wilderness with her beloved.
In Chapter 16, Thunder Moon and his white visitors are set upon by Cheyenne warriors jealous of his accomplishments. After dispatching the would-be murderers, Thunder Moon realizes that his trust has been betrayed by men he considered to be like brothers to him. This betrayal severs all ties with his Cheyenne past.
There is no final scene of William Sutton and Charlotte Keene leaving the frontier together, no romantic fade out. There is only Thunder Moon's monolog, which effectively ends the novel and the series, summarizing the primary dilemma of the entire series and its resolution:
"The river was between me and my life as a Cheyenne. The river is between us, and I never can cross it again. There is blood upon the water. This night my friends have gone from me. I was a Cheyenne. My name was Thunder Moon. All the prairies knew me. But Thunder Moon is dead. Do you hear? The knife of Standing Antelope found the heart of that chief. He is dead. He will return no more. . . .
"I was two people in one. . . but now one half of me is dead. I am going home to my own people. I am William Sutton at last." (pp. 79-80)
It's interesting that in the passage quoted from Aegypt, Crowley's Barr mentions The Faerie Queene -- Robert Easton notes it as a favorite of Faust in Max Brand: The Big Westerner. And like Edmund Spenser's poem, Faust's stories of larger-than-life characters and mythically powerful animals hark back to "works of the older kind" -- tales whose structure depends upon incident and adventure; not upon plot arcs, development and denouement. As in "Level Landings," it is striving against adversity and overcoming danger that mark the hero. Settling down to domestic comfort -- the typical denouement upon which many hundreds of grade B westerns have faded out -- has no place in the rugged landscape drawn by Faust.
Crowley, John. Aegypt, Bantam Books (New York: 1994)