This is a guest post by Jerry Robinette.
Festus Pragnell is an interesting, obscure writer from the mid-century pulps. His stories range from fairly conventional through slightly goofy to the truly weird. His work would have been perfect fodder for an illustrator like Basil Wolverton.
Take, for example, "The War of Human Cats", which originally appeared in Fantastic Adventures in August, 1940, and is available online here: www.unz.org/Pub/FantasticAdventures-1940aug-00090.
This near-future man-against-quasi-animal yarn is, by turns, engaging, goofy, surprising and oddly chilling at the end. And he does it all in 9,500 words.
“The Master’s Rage Is Terrible!”
Our story opens with protagonist James Montgomery being threatened with execution by The Master and his mysterious cat-like people who are sweeping across the U.S., wiping out hapless defense forces by their uncanny ability to see in the dark! (Pragnell spends a few paragraphs defending the idea of night-vision as an insurmountable advantage. It probably wasn’t very convincing for even a 1940 audience but why let that stand in the way of a good story?)
James is spared from execution and goes through serious changes as the plot works itself out. I felt sure I could see the ending coming twice, and both times I was wrong.
If everything you’ve read recently seems too smooth and polished, verging on formulaic, you might want to look back to a less conventional time. This story, or other Pragnell, would make a good place to start.
(Jerry Robinette is an intermittently-aspiring writer and fan of all things pulp-ish.)