Title: Under The Black Ensign
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Publisher/Copyright: Galaxy Press, 2008
There’s something refreshing about reading classic pulp fiction. All pretentiousness and pretense of literary ambition is stripped away, and the story stands revealed in it’s sole purpose–to entertain the reader, to transport him or her to distant lands and other ages. Some swear by “literature,” citing themes and hidden meaning and looking down their noses at what they deem inferior, the publishing ghettos of “genre fiction.” Perhaps I’ve reacted a bit against that, but genre fiction is my bread and butter. I read because I love a good story, and if that story involves spaceships or elves or in this case pirates, so much the better. I’ll leave the Great American Novel to someone else–give me a good sci-fi classic.
Hmmm….that was supposed to be an introduction for the book, not a rant. Whoops. Anyway, L. Ron Hubbard was apparently the reigning king of the pulps back in the golden age of pulp fiction. Galaxy Press is re-releasing a bunch of his old golden age stories, usually with the original cover art.* This is the third such volume I’ve read, and there is a consistent degree of quality here. It’s not great literature by any means, but who cares? It’s incredibly fun, and as I noted above, that’s why I read. This particular volume I won through the Goodreads FirstReads program, in exchange for an honest review. This changes nothing in my review, except to ensure that it exists and in this case to move it up my reading queue when one of their editors asked when they could expect to see this go up. Always nice to see them take an interest….I have to admit a couple misconceptions on my part going into this book. My only context for the word “ensign” is as a naval rank. Thus, the title Under The Black Ensign to me implied that the main character would find himself serving under a pirate captain with an incredibly odd nom de guerre. Instead, I learned that an ensign is the technical term for the flag flown by a sailing ship to denote it’s nationality. Pirates typically flew a black flag with a skull (the “Jolly Roger” of fame), and thus the title.
Tom Bristol is not the mutinous type. Even after he has been press-ganged out of a tavern while on shore leave from his berth as second mate on a Maryland merchant ship and into service as a deck hand on a British man-o’-war, he works diligently if resentfully. But when a random accident sees him strapped to the main mast for a lethal dose of the lash just in time for an attack by pirates, Bristol gladly turns coat and joins them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go a whole lot better, and he is soon forced to kill a mutinous fellow sailor in self defense after rebuffing his recruiting efforts. The punishment for such an offense is simple and unbending–marooning on a barren island, with no hope of rescue….
Like I said above, this was incredibly fun. It was also fairly short–the story itself clocks in at only 84 pages, with the rest of the book filled out by an introductory essay on the golden age of the pulps, a closing biographical essay on L. Ron Hubbard, and a preview of the next volume in the collection. I didn’t read these extras, since I’d read the two essays before when reviewing Gunman’s Tally and I don’t do samples of books. The story manages to be engaging despite never really leaving you in doubt as to the final outcome of the tale, but in all honesty that’s what you sign up for when you pick up most of the classic pulps.
CONTENT: No profanity. No real sexual content or innuendo, aside from a female character remarking that her fate with the pirates wouldn’t have been pretty if they’d realized she was a woman. Plenty of violence, but nothing too disturbing.
*Not in this case, since this story wasn’t the cover attraction to the August 1935 issue of Five Novels Monthly. It might get a bit confusing for readers buying this pirate story if the original cover art was attached, given that the story the art was intended to sell was a western….I’m not sure where this cover art came from.