by Arthur O. Friel
348 pages, Wildside Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Say the words “pulp fiction” to someone and nine times out of ten, they’ll immediately think of the stylish, snappy 1994 movie by Quentin Tarantino. Before the film’s release, most people would associate the term pulp fiction with hastily written, disposable works of fiction whose heyday was during the days of magazines with lurid covers and titles such as “Adventure” or “Weird Tales”. Whilst the stories were of sometimes dubious quality, it would be unfair to dismiss all pulp writers in such a way. After all, if it wasn’t for the pulp magazines we wouldn’t have the works of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft.
Many writers from the era of the pulps have slipped into obscurity and although this might not be a great loss to literature, there are undoubtedly a number of pulp writers who deserve more recognition. I had never heard of Arthur O. Friel before I picked up a copy of this collection. From reading the introduction to the book by Darrell Schweitzer, it became clear that very little is known about the author of the eight short stories and one novella that comprises Amazon Nights. What is known about Friel is that he was a member of the American Geographical Society and took part in a number of exploratory expeditions into the Venezuelan jungle in the early 1920s. It is this first-hand experience of the jungle that gives the stories a sense of realism that is often lacking from other pulp adventures.
The stories are narrated by Lourenco, a rubber harvester (or seringueiro) and self-confessed “jungle-tramp”. Accompanied by his good friend Pedro, Lourenco wanders the Amazonian rainforest, ostensibly in search of new rubber trees to harvest but invariably stumbling across a different wild adventure in each tale. Amongst other encounters, they come across snake-worshipping cannibals, half-human savages and (essential in any work of pulp fiction) beautiful but dangerous women. Although the stories share the same jungle setting as many “lost world” adventures, Friel steers clear of outright fantasy. What may appear mysterious or magical at first is eventually explained by the rational approach taken by Lourenco and Pedro. Adept at jungle survival and comfortable communicating with the native tribes, they bring a modern perspective into the primitive world.
Friel’s knowledge of the flora and fauna of South America helps to shape the tales. It is the small details that serve to bring the jungle to life. Lourenco frequently compares characters to animals and from this starting point he weaves the tale around them. Unfortunately, this means that many of the short stories share a similar narrative structure, leading to a sense of déjà vu if reading the collection from cover-to-cover. It must be remembered, however, that these stories were never intended to be read together in one sitting. Each story would have been published in a different edition of “Adventure” magazine, perhaps months apart. Taking this into account, the sense of familiarity that the opening of each story brings is very useful, helping to ease the reader back into the jungle after a lengthy absence.
Those reading Friel’s tales with a more critical eye might find fault with the lack of development in his central characters. Lourenco and Pedro are pretty one-dimensional; Pedro being the strong, square-jawed heroic type whilst Lourenco is physically smaller, reflective and thoughtful though no less capable of handling himself in a fight. The stories follow a chronological order in the collection but the Pedro and Lourenco we see at the end of the book are no different to the characters we are introduced to in the first story. Once again, it should be noted that these stories are pulp fiction – the readers of “Adventure” expected thrills and excitement from their magazine, not detailed character development. The stories had one sole purpose – to entertain – and it is testament to the skill of Arthur O. Friel as a writer that they are no less capable of doing so today.
Amazon Nights is a rousing collection and Wildside Press should be praised for having the courage to reprint the stories of a near-forgotten writer. Whether describing a pitched battle against a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals or the eerie sounds of the rainforest at night, Friel’s prose is a delight to read and succeeds in transporting the reader to the timeless depths of the jungle.
Hereward L.M. Proops