Monday, June 9, 2014

The Screaming Skull by J. Allan Dunn

Predictable pirate pulp
When the captain of a pirate ship is mortally wounded in a battle with the King’s navy, three of his crew members scheme to recover the treasure that he buried on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Thus begins J. Allan Dunn’s story “The Screaming Skull,” which was originally published in the October 1924 edition of the pulp magazine Frontier. This story is probably long enough to qualify as a novella, but it’s not divided into chapters. The plot is too thin to merit such extensive treatment, however, and it drags on far too long.

Although Dunn dresses up the story with the requisite spooky trappings of typical pirate fare, the plot is obvious and predictable from beginning to end. Dunn’s prose is a bit clumsy throughout. He needlessly delves a little too deeply into the thesaurus at times, and his sentences have a blunt choppiness to them that hinders the momentum of the story. The reader never really feels swept up in the action so much as merely dragged along for the ride. It all amounts to one tediously long wait to get to the treasure isle. There are a couple good, brief scenes of well-rendered violence toward the end, but what is meant to be the climactic surprise is not surprising at all. “The Screaming Skull” resembles one of those five-page stories you’d find in an EC comic like Two-Fisted Tales, but laboriously stretched out to fit a longer word count. Like such comics, the pictures Dunn draws—that is, the atmosphere he creates—is more appealing than the formulaic story being told.

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