When I first read “The Crater of Kala” by Joseph Montague, I honestly did not realize that this alias belonged to pulp fiction legend J. Allan Dunn. A quarter into the story, I began to wonder about the identity of the author whom had written such a quality sea adventure. Now, there is already plenty of information about Dunn readily available to anyone reading this article, so I won’t even bother to touch upon his life. Anyone interested in pursuing that route should click on his name.
The story was first printed in the American pulp People’s (1922 Dec 10) issue, running from pages 1 through 86, under his own name, J. Allan Dunn. Sadly, the lengthy novella did not cop the cover, so I won’t feature it in this article.
Oddly enough, it was bound by Chelsea House in 1925 under the alias, Joseph Montague. Perhaps some enlightened biographer will have access to Dunn’s letters and fill in the reasoning.
The jacket illustration depicts a young man and woman frightened-out-of-their-wits while a dark-skinned fellow appears to fend off some unseen terror with a shield and spear. The man is wearing a hat and shirt and apparently a tie.
While the artwork has zero to do with this story, the illustration does originally appear on the cover of the pulp People’s (v41 #4, 1923 March 1st) for J. Allan Dun’s novella, “Drums of Doom.”
“The Crater of Kala” was subsequently released in England twice, by the publishers F. M. Mowl. The first edition was released in 1934, priced at 9d net. Under the byline, the publisher notes: Never hitherto been published in this form.
The cover art depicts a hunched-over man, carrying a woman wearing (of all things) high-heels. Their clothes are ripped and torn. Plus, she appears to have fainted. In the background we have the suggestion of some exotic locale. The artwork is skillfully rendered by H. W. Perl, a relative newcomer (at the time) to illustrating covers. Sadly, the illustration hardly does the novel justice. At no time does this scene occur in the novel. Our heroine is a tough, no-nonsense woman, and certainly not given to wearing high-heels or a skimpily sexy suggestive outfit.
The next edition, a cheap edition priced at 3d, appeared either later 1934 or early 1935, and was also released by the publishers, F. M. Mowl. The artwork this time is classy or perhaps, respectably more serious in nature, depicting a man in white attire comforting a woman while a volcano is erupting in the background. I can’t quite make out who the illustrator is. The initials (bottom left) appear to be “N. C. W.” or “J. C. W.” with a long line striking down through the middle initial and splitting the date 1934 in half. It is this edition I possess and have read the following novel. The text runs from pages 1-125.
The story opens with Jim Waring playing cards and cheated by two others: Chalmers and Fowler. Waring is certain that he lost his entire fortune to some sneaky play on their part, but can’t call their game, so departs nearly broke. Aboard ship we are introduced to a professor and his daughter, whom is entirely cold toward Waring, focused purely on her father’s exploration and researches. Waring, being a young man, is naturally inclined to notice her but realizes that she isn’t remotely interested in him.
Fate intervenes: the ship inexplicably strikes a derelict and the Southern Cross begins to sink. Everyone survives and makes for the lifeboats. Waring assists the professor (Gideon Lang) and daughter (Dorcas Lang) with their research bags and paraphernalia, into a lifeboat, abandoning all chances of saving any of his own possessions. A slight mutiny nearly occurs among the survivors on their vessel, after a storm separates the lifeboats and the mate is found dead, having suffered a cracked skull, during the sinking of the ship. Tossing him overboard, Waring finds himself cracking the proverbial whip as the professor takes charge and gets the crew shipshape and rowing toward salvation.
They eventually are rescued and land at Papeete (French Polynesia). Waring is penniless but treated fairly by one of the locals as a war hero, having served during The Great War alongside one of their own people, whom died. Worshiped and congratulated upon his bravery and success both at war and upon the sea, he languishes upon the island and refuses free board to ship back to America. He refuses to give up on his dreams, and is determined to somehow make good.
He later learns that the Langs have chartered a recently docked vessel. The captain is given to be an insane maniac, and the crew…not trustworthy. He is advised by his French-friend to apply for a job aboard. Cleaning up and shaving, he is presented with fresh clothes, all white (as depicted on my edition) and applies to the professor for a job aboard the Ahimanu.
The professor has not forgotten Waring’s fight aboard the lifeboat to preserve their lives, and for kindly saving all his gear. He immediately accepts Waring’s proposal, however, he must board the Ahimanu and discuss the matter with the captain.
Rowing out to the vessel, he overhears angry voices, and watches as two bodies are thrown overboard. They turn out to be cardsharps Chalmers and Fowler. The captain caught them at their game and, tossing them overboard, has kept all the money they possessed! That includes the monies stolen from Waring (not that he may lay claim to it from the captain). Presenting himself aboard in a position of supercargo on behalf of the professor, the captain, Johnson, is bemused, as he had already semi-promised the position to ‘Slop’ Beamish.
Rather than make a professional decision, he decides to let the pair battle it out, physically. The fight is long and drawn out, well-described blood and thunder stuff, no rules applied, save for those applied sparingly by the captain.
Waring eventually wins, and Beamish is demoted. Despite all that, Waring smells a rat and realizes that his position aboard is mere courtesy. He’s certain that Johnson intends to play foul by the Langs. Remarkably, the Langs are hardly novices to this sly game, realizing entirely that Johnson is leading them astray at sea. The professor, among other things, is quite a competent seafarer and able to read a compass. Upon challenging the captain, the entire scene turns chaotic as the entire ship’s nefarious crew turns out and tackles or restrains our trio.
In typical fashion, they are released and told to behave themselves and the captain will go easy on them. In real life, Waring has no value and would have been killed. Instead, Johnson relays that he intends to hold the professor hostage for $100,000. After landing, Waring is to go into town, and following instructions, have the money wired to the local bank, or some-such nonsense.
Meanwhile, before this all occurs, Johnson ships into a wayward island of Kalaiki, where he intends to hold the Langs hostage. It is an abandoned island, suffering from violent volcanic eruptions, and was once long ago inhabited by some unknown lost race. The Langs and Waring make for a cave and live there for a time while Johnson and his men party it up big-time on their schooner.
While in the cave, they discover an old relic by the lost tribe: a large stone statue. Professor Lang is confident that it has a secret opening leading into a passageway not visible to them, behind the statue, and that will enable them to escape from the villains. They eventually make a timely discovery of the access-point and pry it open. Unable to discern on the inside how to close the contraption, they rapidly flee down the passage while Johnson and his enraged crew stumble into a seemingly empty cave. The rage only boils over when they discover the opening in the statue. To further Johnson’s ire, the two crew-members he brought along are too superstitious to proceed further and scamper away. Johnson, in a fit of insane rage, pursues the trio down the passage.
During this entire confrontation between Johnson and his men, Waring and the Langs are halted at the edge of a deep pit. Looking down, they espy a dark syrupy liquid. A rotten wood beam is found to cross the expanse. Risking life and limb, Waring crosses and assists the professor across. Making her way over, the beam crumbles and disintegrates. Dorcas lunges forward and falls short of safety. Simultaneously, Waring tosses his life aside and dives out, too. He snatches the girl from certain death, only likely to join her in that dark expanse of hell far below. Thankfully, the professor lands on Waring’s legs and keeps him topside, permitting the girl to climb up Waring’s body.
All three safely across, the beam gone, Johnson stumbles in and is irate at discovering the trio missing. He can’t see them on the far side of the opening! Shockingly, a long tendril climbs out of the dark wet mass below and wraps itself around Johnson’s leg, and begins to haul on him. Frightened to death, and realizing his predicament, Johnson whips out a knife and begins hacking at the arms of the octopus. He eventually loses and is drawn down to peril, to become food. Waring snaps off a shot and Johnson and the octopus are devoured in the Stygian depths below. Johnson has met his fate.
Reconciled with being stranded on the wrong side of the pit, they eventually discover an exit and an Eden on the inside of the crater! Sadly, weeks later, they realize that there is no escape. The professor makes notes about his discovery and plans to leave them secreted on the island, to be discovered long after their death(s). However, in typical fictional fashion, Fate again intervenes. The volcano rocks the island with numerous tremors, the crater is ripped apart, and a chasm appears. The three immediately climb the walls and run through the chasm, realizing time is short before it may close upon them, crushing the trio to death. As if that was not enough, chasing them is a boiling cauldron of scalding liquid hell, pushing up from the depths of the island. They must escape the inferno or be disintegrated in that acid bath!
They escape through the chasm and the hot water cascades out after them. Realizing the island’s predicament, they escape to the beach and discover that the schooner is still anchored. The two superstitious killers took a smaller boat and departed in that, unable to manager the bigger vessel with their limited, unintelligent skill-set.
Remarkably, the three handle the ship, adroitly dodging sunken reefs and make for the open sea. Dorcas Lang and Jim Waring fall in love, after their harrowing ordeal escaping the island, and the professor is shocked to learn of their attachment, but pleased, all the same, leaving us, the reader, with a happy ending!
I heartily recommend “The Crater of Kala” to anyone fond of sea-adventure stories. It is cumbersome and well-padded in places, but, made for a damn fun read.