“They called me [Hell’s Legionnaire] in the company. They couldn’t understand why I never had anything to do with women or liquor. They thought the devil was saving me for same vast purpose.”
Best known for being the king grifter of a genre known for its rats, L. Ron Hubbard’s literary career is overshadowed by his involvement with Scientology. Perhaps the casual reader might recall Battlefield: Earth or another of his science fiction tales. But Hubbard wrote fifteen million words in over 200 publications under 16 different names. Like many of his contemporaries in the pulps, Hubbard did not limit himself to one genre. Although science fiction would later define him, Hubbard wrote air adventures, sea adventures, Westerns, chinoiserie, and mysteries. But it’s to the once-popular Foreign Legion stories we turn to today, with Hubbard’s “Hell’s Legionnaire”, originally published in July 1935’s Mystery Adventures.
“Hell’s Legionnaire” begins in the thick of an ambush. In classic pulp fashion, Hubbard assumes readers are familiar with the brass and tack of the period and spares no time in the action to bring new readers up to speed on legionnaire jargon. Grab a dictionary or the glossary modern editors have appended to the end of the collection. Context alone is not always enough. After the dying is over, Ann is looted by the raiders.
What follows next might better fit the spicies and the weird menace genres. Ann is stripped then lashed by her captor, Abd el Malek, and is only saved from rape by the bugle of the French Legion. Or rather, a single deserter, Dusty Colton. Colton ambushes the camp with his automatic rifle, then frees Ann. But tickets back to America cost money, so Colton and Ann hatch a scheme to steal Abd el Malek’s fortune.
The return to the camp, however, goes poorly. Colton sneaks into the camp and comes face to face with Abd el Malek, who promises worse tortures than Ann endured. However, the bugle of the Legion sounds once more, and a gunshot cuts el Malek down. Colton’s auto-rifle cuts a path to safety. But it is not the Legion to the rescue, but Ann with the bugle–and a gun. They take the money from the camp and flee Africa for America.
“Hell’s Legionnaire” is Ann’s story, a nice bit of theme-and-variation that moves her from saved to savior in the span of three ambushes. And although Ann starts as loot that’s a little too accepting of ending up in the arms of whatever strong man who claims her, she ends up fighting for what and who she wants. Colton, unfortunately, is the disciplined device that moves Ann out of her passivity. But then, “Hell’s Legionnaire” is more a spicy than a Legion story, just with the script flipped to have a woman as the viewpoint character instead of a man.
Written early in Hubbard’s career, “Hell’s Legionnaire” comes off thin compared to the Argosy stories of the time. Both in style and characterization. The focus is on the action as well as the will he/won’t he kiss me flutters as Ann wiggles closer to Colton by the campfire. And for that, stock characters in an exotic locale suffice. The result, however, is a one-and-done read that’s merely average. An unremarkable starting point for a writer’s career, although one with promise in action. Hubbard, however, would soon break into the pages of Argosy with his adventure stories. And science fiction was just around the corner…