Saturday, April 24, 2010

Robert Edmond Alter

Every once in awhile I find an old pulp story that has some real resonance because of its heritage.

Robert Edmond Alter died way too young at age forty of cancer. I saw a letter of his quoted in a piece following his death. He said that he'd spent twenty years writing about men of strength and determination and now he would have to be one of those men himself.

By the standards of Fifties and Sixties pulp he had a successful career. If he was not quite of the first rank his skills, when he was at his best, might have made you think otherwise. His two Gold Medal novels Swamp Girl and Carny Kill (with one of my favorite Gold Medal covers) still have serious cult followings and his short stories frequently sold to the upper end of the pulp market, especially Argosy.

The story at hand is To Catch A Big One, originally published in Alfred Hitchcock and available in the AH Collection Grave Suspicions.

In a page in I saw--or thought I saw--what he was doing. He was writing his version of Ernest Hemingway's famous story The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber in which a beautiful, bitchy woman mocks and finally murders her weak husband. One of Hemingway's best. Alter set his own story at sea and right away we see an interesting confluence of styles, the Hemingway tale crossed with some of the South sea sociology of Somerset Maugham crossed with passages that could have come from one of Charles Wiilliams' own Gold Medal novels set at sea. I'm not exaggerating any of this; all these influences are there on display. They make the tale all the richer. Alter had obviously been a serious reader.

But Alter makes all this his own. His underwater sequences are brutal and terrifying. The way he misdirects the reader from the real arc of the story is perfect. And he gives us an ending as dark as Hemingway's.

When Alter was bad he was bad indeed but he published so many good stories he deserves collecting. I hope somebody will do him--and us--the favor of producing a collection soon.


Tom Piccirilli said...

I love CARNY KILL, a true classic, it has everything you want and expect out of a Gold Medal novel. SWAMP SISTER is, if possible, even better. There's simply no other backwoods/swamp noir novel. Williams did it, Goodis did it, Gil Brewer did it, Thompson did it, but nobody did it better than Alter. He was a big influence on me when I wrote my own two southern swamp gothic novels A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN and NOVEMBER MOURNS. Kudos to you, Ed, for reminding all of us about him.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review and comments, Ed. This appears as the sort of book I'd like to read. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

Ed Lynskey

Anonymous said...

SWAMP and CARNY are both good reads. I enjoyed both, so a few years back sought out a few of his others. The aforementioned two seemed to be more the exception than the rule (at least of those I tried), but PATH TO SAVAGERY, a post-apocalyptic novel, was actually quite good. Not a perfect novel, by any means, but very entertaining, for the most part.

~ Ron C.

Wallace Stroby said...

I wrote a piece about SWAMP SISTER last year, as part of a look back at some of the mid-'80s Black Lizard reissues. Alter was kind of consciously exploiting the genre and satirizing it at the same time, I thought. Parts of it are very funny.

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