Friday, December 20, 2013

FFB: William Campbell Gault: uncollected short stories (online)

William Campbell Gault, the much-admired writer of mostly crime fiction by the end of his career, first made his mark as a sports-fiction specialist in the pulps of the 1940s and into the '50s...while also writing crime fiction, sf and no doubt other work (ISFDB apparently misunderstands the eventual agent Larry Sternig to have been a Gault pseudonym, as opposed to friend and occasional collaborator, in their early years together; Roney Scott was Gault's most famous penname).

As I've mentioned before here, I first read Gault's work in a couple of auto-racing anthologies, one (High Gear) all fiction, the other, The Great Auto Race and Other Stories of Men and Cars, a mixed group of short stories and nonfiction. Not too long after, I started finding the YA sports novels Gault wrote for his primary bread and butter by the end of the 1950s and through the next decade, until for some reason the market began to turn away from those (Bill Crider is probably correct in suggesting he was important in getting Gault to start writing crime fiction again, some years later). I read a few of those, and they helped give me further evidence that even though I wasn't all that interested in sports per se, that didn't mean great sports fiction wasn't worth looking into. (I preferred the short fiction he'd written for adult audiences, but the YA books were not too shabby.) And when, a few years later on (newly a sophomore at my second high school, the one with an impressive library for even a wealthy private high school), I was first reading Damon Knight's collection of critical essays and book reviews, In Search of Wonder, I came across his passage about how he had a positive antipathy to sports, and had found Gault's sf to be weak tea, but that the man was Hell on Wheels in the sports fiction field (where Knight was working as an editor at the Popular Publications line of pulps--Argosy, the Dime titles such as Dime Detective and Dime Sports, etc., and had duties across the range of magazines they published), the best he'd read, and that Knight liked everything about that fiction, except the sports element.

Now, what's a pity is that no one has ever bothered to collect Gault's sports fiction in any sort of best-of nor representative volume, in the manner of Bill Pronzini's Gault collection Marksman and Other Stories, collecting some of the best of his crime fiction. The sports stories remain buried in the back pages of the sports and general-interest pulps, and probably a few other magazines (Boy's Life? Playboy? Argosy after it went over to being the downmarket Esquire?)...but several are online these days, and you can enjoy at least the following, as I have had over this very busy week (where I've had no time to read nor reread any of Robert Barnard's work, alas...a man who was the same age as my parents when he died this year...).
Gault's initials typo'd.

Among those I've picked up over the last week:
"Sweet Chariot" from Argosy, 2 August 1941--a solid, early story of dirt-track auto racing. short and pretty sweet and swinging, indeed.
"A Colt for the Carlton" from Short Stories, August 1949--a longer and somewhat more complex story about aspirants on the less financially secure edge of the horseracing business. (Also, from the period where Dorothy McIlwraith was impressively editing both Weird Tales and Short Stories, though given the perceived manly audience for the latter, she was always signed as "D. McIlwraith" on the masthead.)

Romance and adrenaline go hand in hand (or hand on steering wheel and hand on reins) in these two stories, along with a easy mastery of the argot of the respective sports--I still need to look up a few terms from the horse-racing story, but it's not intrusive and one picks up what's necessary from context...Gault's prose is sometimes dismissed or at least underrated in some quarters, but he actually (at very least in most of his work I've read) is a lean writer without making a fetish of that, quite capable of turning a deft phrase and with an excellent eye for characterization in short focus. Ed, the jockey protagonist of "Colt," for example, is a young man of some emotional limitation, but not unaware of how to manipulate a situation non-maliciously, and not the kind of slightly-off-center character (without being at all a caricature) that the uninformed are likely to assume they could find in a pulp story...and neither of these stories is Gault at his absolute best, but are fine examples which reward the reading. As some more knowledgeable critics had noted, Gault is (at least) almost always good...and often better than that. (The first Gault crime novel I read was the version of the fine Don't Call Tonight in the Mercury Mystery issue above...reissued in book form as End of a Call Girl...not the kind of title his YA sports novels featured often...)

from WorldCat:

The great auto race, and other stories of men and cars 
Editors: Ruth Christoffer Carlsen (also illustrator); G Robert Carlsen 
Publisher: New York : Scholastic Book Services, ©1965.

The great auto race, by T. Mahoney
Old enough to drive, by S. McNeil
Wizard on wheels, by L.M. Nash
Rallye ride, by C.H. Rathjen
The hustling dream that ran on steam, by L.M. Nash
Won by inches, by M. Campbell
Greatest driver of them all, by Ken Purdy
The dream, by W.C. Gault

For actually book-length manuscripts for this week, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Unknown said...

I don't know how much influence I had, really. Both Gault and Harry Whittington gave me a little credit because I wrote to them and asked them to do interviews in a little zine called PAPERBACK QUARTERLY. And I wrote enthusiastically about their work. That was about all.

Todd Mason said...

It couldn't hurt! The itch and the (even small) money couldn't hurt either, of course.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks Todd, fascinating look at his lesser known work. I do have the MARKSMAN anthology but little else by hi, for shame - thanks very much for the links - definitely a start!

Todd Mason said...

I've downloaded and started some of the sf from the same sources, but Knight's assessment is correct--it wasn't his strongest field.