Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, June 6, 2023


 "Sergeant Shane of the Space Marines" by "John York Cabot" (David Wright O'Brien)  (from Amazing Stories, October 1941)

"Shane made his biggest mistake when he plucked his eyebrows for a girl"  (editorial blurb for "Sergeant Shane of the Space Marines")

Sergeant Shane did have bushy blond eyebrows and he was plucking them at the start of this story because Varda, the Venusian night club singer he fell in love with the night before had complained about them.  Plucking his eyebrows would not be enough to make him handsome; in truth, he was "as ugly as a Venusian mud fence."  He has a build like a weight lifter, and cauliflowered ears, wide shoulders, with long arms ending in big red paws.  To add to this physiogamy, Shane was five feet four inches tall.  He had a habit of falling in love often and not too wisely.

Shane and his friend Corporal Conk go to catch Varna's act.  They socialize with her between sets and have a few drinks, then a few more drinks.  Just when it's time for them to go before their liberty expired, Varna came up to them. frightened about two thuggish men who had been staring at her.  She feared they would follow her home and attack her there.  It is not in the cards for two red-blooded space marines to leave a damsel in distress, so they offer to escort her home.  Along the way, they have a set-to with the two thugs and Shane and Cork leave the thugs unconscious.  Varna takes them to a deserted warehouse, where two other guys pull ray guns on them while Varna securely ties their hands and feet with rope.  Of course it was a trap; space marines are brave and strong and noble, but they really don't have much in the smarts department.  Varna and her two accomplices hustle Shane and Cork into a spaceship and they take off to somewhere in the asteroid belt.

(We never learn exactly why Shane and Cork are kidnapped, only that Varna and her cohorts plan to extract damaging information from them, not realizing that Shane and Cork are just a couple of mooks who have no damaging information.) 

Remember the tweezers?  Shane had them in his pocket and uses them to s-l-o-w-l-y cut through his bonds,  Then Cork does the same.  They capture the ship, subdue the bad guys and head home, expecting a hero's welcome.  Unfortunately, their actions have screwed up an elaborate sting operation that Marine Intelligence had set up.

As with many of the stories in Amazing at the time, this one has editorial footnotes.  One decribes the science fictional metal "parbulium," found only on Venus; a second describes the "Chart Televizors," sort of a futuristic space Mapquest as might be envisioned in the 1940s.  Without these footnotes, the reader might never understand how Shane and Cork get out of their predicament.

David Wright O'Brien (1918-1944) wrote three stories about Sergeant Shane as "John York Cabot" for Amazing; this was the first.  All follow the rather juvenile template that Raymond A. Palmer established for the magazine when he took of its editorship in 1938; sales took pride of place over literary quality as far as Palmer was concerned.  O'Brien was a popular author for Palmer and published almost his entire body of work in either Amazing Stories or its companion magazine Fantastic Adventures.  He published his first sory in 1939.  A good deal of O'Brien's work was space opera and routine adventure, but many of his stories had a sly sense of humor.   The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that O'Brien could be a "sharp and creative writer."  A nephew of famed Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, he was said to average 50,000 words a month, publishing over 125 stories in his short career, both under his own name and as "John York Cabot," "Bruce Dennis," "Duncan [H.] Fransworth," and "Richard Vardon," as well as under the house pseudonyms "Alexander Blade" and "Clee Garson."  Some of his works were in collaboration with his friend William P. McGivern, with whom he shared an office. O'Brien died in World War II over Berlin on December 11, 1944; he was 26.

The vast majority of O'Brien's work can be found online in various magazines, including the October 1941 issue of Amazing Stories, at the usual sources; you can use his listing on to locate individual issues.


  1. I keep meaning to seek out the better work O'Brien was able to do in his short career. He might even have been able to mach McGivern's eventual career.

  2. Reading SF from the 1940s is fun. SF was just getting some quality control with ASTOUNDING and better writers producing stories for the genre

  3. I will always be puzzled on why these books were invisible to me. Were they mostly on spinner racks, at the library, at school?

  4. Well, Patti, David Wright O'Brien at least was completely out of print by the time you'd be visiting any spinner racks, has only had anything reprinted in book form in very recent years...your preference for non-fantasticated matter made going out of your way to find, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley books unlikely, much less Carol Emshwiller or other more sophisticated writers in the fields who'd probably engage you more, but didn't write much if at all for young readers.

  5. George, there were some good writers even early on, in the '20s magazines and earlier, but they weren't (often enough) prized for their skills, and E. E. Smith PhD had all those exploding spaceships and David Keller his neuroses. Jack Williamson and Leigh Brackett tended to be pretty good even in early work, however...