Pulp Consumption: Kings of the Wyld

What if there was a world where adventurers were treated like rock stars? Where bands of mercenaries had the kind of celebrity that our world gave groups like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, or the Beatles? And what happens when one band, the members gone grey haired and long in the tooth[1], decide to reunite for one last epic gig… err adventure. That is the premise of Nicholas Eames’ debut novel, KINGS OF THE WYLD.

Ganelon Kings of the Wyld

This is Ganelon.

The reason for the gig? The band’s frontman’s daughter is currently in a city under siege by the largest horde of monsters the world has ever seen. And the more “civilized” nations aren’t in a position to go lift it. Even the mercenaries, who used to make a habit of venturing into the wilds and killing monsters have gotten out of the habit. At the time of the novel, they are more likely to go to a big city and fight in the arenas, the monsters provided by wranglers. All this means is that humanity is woefully unprepared to fight against the horde, even if it means their lands will be targeted next.

As a result, Gabriel, the frontman, recruits the main character of the story, Clay “Slowhand” Cooper. Why him first? Because, even if he will never realize it, Clay might not be the flashiest or deadliest member of his band, but he was the heart of it, the one all the others would follow if he but asked. And because his own daughter asks if he would come rescue her if she was the one in trouble, Clay agrees to help his former friend, even knowing that it will almost certainly result in his death. What follows is a series of subquests to recruit the other members. Moog, the wizard, has gone into business selling magical Viagra. Matrick, the thief, managed to score himself a kingdom… but now his wife is trying to kill him. Finally, there’s Ganelon, the most dangerous man Clay Cooper has ever known, but who has been petrified for the past nineteen years.

The strongest part for me is that Eames infuses the entire novel with an irreverent humor, heightened by the very real pathos his characters go through. It’s a novel that runs full-on with its premise and isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself at times as well.

I do have some small quibbles with the book, probably the biggest of which is that Eames seems to have leafed through an old Monster Manual to come up with the monsters his heroes face. I would have preferred something a little less bog-standard fantasy than the typical giants, wyverns, goblins and orcs but maybe that is just me. I will say that his villains are unique, and you will never meet a more menacing bunny-eared foe.

All in all, I highly recommend this novel to fans of fantasy and hard rock, and people who dreamt of wielding an ax of either sort.

You can follow Nicolas Eames on twitter here.

[1] I’m not sure what the tipping point was for fantasy novels to start featuring older characters, their halcyon days behind them, but it is a trend I’m noticing. Other examples include RED COUNTRY by Joe Abercrombie and THE GRIM COMPANY by Luke Scull. Cameron did point out that older adventurers are nothing new, citing Allan Quatermain as an example. I don’t disagree but was thinking more in contrast with more recent work like The BELGARIAD and MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN where the main character starts as a callow youth and matures over the course of the work.

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Issue 4 Is Officially Released

Issue 4 came out in print last week, but the Kindle release goes live today, which means we’re officially live. We love these stories (as we loved all the stories in the first three issues), but this issue is momentous in that it marks the completion of one year of delivering a quality quarterly magazine that we are proud to produce. But if you need some more enticing, maybe the synopses below will wet your whistle.

“Commander Saturn and the Deadly Invaders from Rigel” by Richard Rubin. This yarn is a fun, retro look at space opera, in the vein of Buck Rogers. It comes with a wink and a nod to the genre and has a lot of fun while doing it. Two-fisted space action.

“Demons Within” by Karen Thrower. Bounty-hunting is a tried and true pulp storyline. In this tale, a demon is charged by Hell to track down renegade demons, but things get complicated when both the fugitive and the bounty-hunter jump bodies.

“Monsters in Heaven” by Steve DuBois. The afterlife is ripe for exploration, and this tale is no slouch. A famous traitor and a baseball great team up in the after life to battle the most feared barbarian of them all and the infamous mystic who serves him. Join Benedict Arnold and Josh Gibson as they match wits against Genghis Khan and Rasputin.

“A Brush With Death” by Benjamin Cooper. Detective Sloan just wants to go to the bar and catch the Yankees game. Unfortunately for him, his job involves solving murders. and he’s the guy you go to when no one else can figure it out.

“Granny May Saves the Day” by Freddie Silva. Everyone else calls Granny May MOB, short for Mean Old Biddy, but never to her face. But sometimes that’s just what you need when you’ve got an alien invasion on your hands.

“Regarding the Journal of Jessix Rutherford and Its Connection to the Beacon’s Tower Island Massacre of 1446 AR” by CB Droege. This epistolary tale formed from annotated journal entries shows just how far a man can be driven by the deaths of family and the promises of forbidden sorcery.

“The Lady and the Gunsmith” by Chad Eagleton. There’s a new firearm being developed by a Venetian gunsmith and more than one European noble is interested in obtaining it. The gunsmith is going to discover not all is as it seems when he tangles with one of Louis’ personal spies.

“The Sewers of Paris” by DJ Tyrer. Besieged by Prussian landcruisers, citizens have started going missing in the sewers and it’s not for the usual reasons. Can Camille Castaigne, investigator of the unknown, find the cause or will she too disappear into the sewers?

The cover, as with previous issues, is done by the fantastic Luke Spooner of Carrion House. You can find more of his work here: http://www.carrionhouse.com/

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Pulp Consumption: Swords Against Darkness

I originally became aware of the most recent SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS anthology from browsing Black Gate[1]. Unlike the same-named anthologies put out in the late seventies edited by Andrew Offutt, this anthology isn’t concerned exclusively with what’s current in sword and sorcery[2], but instead acts as a crash course in speculative fiction over the decades.

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The anthology starts with a classic Conan tale “The Tower of the Elephant,” and moves through the decades of sword and sorcery. The editor, Paula Guran, does not stick with a strict publication, or even composition chronology when ordering the stories, but does divide the pieces into broad categories: Forging and Shaping, Normalizing and Annealing, and finally Tempering and Sharpening.

To be sure, if you are already well-versed in classic sword-and-sorcery, some of the material will be quite familiar. In addition to Howard, the Forging and Shaping section includes work by C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Moore and Brackett, I feel, have recently been brought back into the public eye, but if you aren’t familiar with their work, then the two stories here suffice as an excellent introduction. Likewise, there is a Clark Ashton Smith story that well highlights how weird sword-and-sorcery can be.

The second section shows how the genre evolved in its second stage, especially in the seventies and eighties. With selections from such luminaries Tanith Lee, C.J. Cherryh, Karl Edward Wagner, and Mercedes Lackey the tales move away from the standard tropes established by previous writers, but at the same time laying the groundwork for the writers that would follow after them[3]. Also included in this section is the sole original story to be included in this anthology, “The Swords of her Heart” by John Balestra which reads like a classic 1970s sword and sorcery, despite being written in 2017.

The final section, Tempering and Sharpening, shows where the genre is going, at least for certain writers. Favorite stories from here are ones by Saladin Ahmed, Kameron Hurley, Scott Lynch, and Steven Erickson. In many ways, these stories are less constrained by their predecessors, more willing to show alternative views and give voice to viewpoints traditionally underrepresented in the genre. Ahmed’s story in particular is a delight to read, especially if you are familiar with his THRONE OF THE CRESENT MOON novel that it ties into. While the majority of stories in the anthology would most certainly fall outside what would be considered classic “pulp,” this is definitely an anthology worthy of your attention.

The fact that we’ve covered several of the authors on this blog is completely besides the point.

The full table of contents is as follows:

Knowledge Takes Precedence Over Death, by Paula Guran

“The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard

“Hellsgarde” by C. L. Moore

“The Dark Eidolon” by Clark Ashton Smith

“Liane the Wayfarer” by Jack Vance

“Black Amazon of Mars” by Leigh Brackett

“Ill Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber

“While the Gods Laugh” by Michael Moorcock

“A Hero at the Gates” by Tanith Lee

“A Thief in Korianth” by C. J. Cherryh

“Undertow” by Karl Edward Wagner

“Swords Against the Marluk” by Katherine Kurtz

“Out of the Deep” by Mercedes Lackey

“Epistle from Lebanoi” by Michael Shea

“Payment Deferred” by James Enge

“The Swords of Her Heart” by John Balestra

“Bluestocking” by Joanna Russ

“The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” Samuel R. Delany

“First Blood” Elizabeth Moon

“Where Virtue Lives” by Saladin Ahmed

“The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats” by Scott Lynch

“Goats of Glory” Steven Erikson

“The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear

“The Plague Givers” by Kameron Hurley

[1] Which, if it isn’t part of your regular reading habit, you are really missing out on.

[2] Yes, yes, Offutt included a Robert Howard piece in the first volume, but it was a piece that Offutt himself completed.

[3] I could see an argument for moving the Moorcock tale to this section, but Elric is such a foundational character in sword-and-sorcery that I completely understand why it was included in the first.

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Pulp Consumption: Psych

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Psych

One aspect of pulp both Matt and I haven’t really touched upon is humor. Pulp is often thought of as being a serious genre, and since so much of it is focused on grit, violence, and noir that makes a certain amount of sense. But even the noirest stories often included humor, and some stories published in magazines like Amazing Stories were definitely funny. It’s in this spirit I’d like to discuss the USA Network TV show Psych.

The show centers around main character Shawn Spencer (played by James Roday), who uses his keen sense of observation, eidetic memory recall, and pure intelligence to solve cases as a consulting detective, sort of like Sherlock Holmes. He was raised by his father, Santa Barbara police detective Henry (Corbin Bernsen), to exercise these elements of his mental capacity in the hopes he’d become a police officer as well, but Shawn didn’t want the restrictions that carrying handcuffs comes with, so he became a fake psychic instead.

The show is also of the buddy cop genre, with Shawn’s best friend since childhood, Gus (Dulé Hill), filling in the roll of best friend and coworker. Gus and Henry are the only two who know full well Shawn’s psychic readings are fake, but they frequently enable him because so much of what he does actually closes difficult cases.

The mid-2000s saw another show with a similar principle, The Mentalist, also on the air, but the latter is played straight and often lampooned by Psych. I think it’s mostly unfair criticism on the part of Psych’s creators, especially since I also enjoyed The Mentalist, but the humor in Psych is why I prefer it. The humor also makes it easier to binge watch, especially if there are children in the house. Shawn is a perpetual screw-up, and Gus and he are almost always in over their heads, frequently because of Shawn’s juvenile attitude and his relentless laziness, which often causes him to jump to incorrect conclusions based on just a few bits of evidence. That said if it weren’t for Shawn’s mistakes at first many of the cases he’s brought in on would likely go unsolved.

From a pulp standpoint the only thing really separating Psych from straight detective fiction is the tone. The kinds of murders and missing persons cases Shawn gets called in to help with are the same sorts as those Holmes, The Continental Op, The Shadow, and Perry Mason are all brought in on. The methods Shawn uses, his perfect recall, keen observations, deductive reasoning, and simply stumbling into answers are also the same. He operates with but outside the law, frequently resorting to breaking and entering and other such petty crimes.

For a long-running episodic television property it’s to be expected that there are hits and misses, but the show was popular enough the network greenlit a new movie which aired just a couple weeks ago, three years after the show’s cancellation. Apparently there are plans for more self-contained films in the future.

If you like crime fiction pulp but don’t necessarily always want the boundless pessimism noir tends to offer, then give Psych a watch. It’s on Amazon Prime Video now, so many of you have no excuses.

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Pulp Consumption: Justified

Long Hard Times to Come

JUSTIFIED was a law-and-crime show that ran for six seasons on FX, and starred Timothy Olyphant as US Marshall Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as the criminal Boyd Crowder. The show was based off characters by the late great Elmore Leonard, who, until his untimely death, had an Executive Producer credit on the show.

It would be too easy to say that Raylan is a cowboy cop… but with the boots, the hat (the hat!), and the general attitude, well, it fits. That said, many of Raylan’s actions where he deviates from standard procedure only gets him into worse trouble both personally and professionally. The show also doesn’t steer away from the issues that substance abuse, in particular alcohol, can have on a character. Raylan would be a typical white hat in any classic Western: quick on the draw, giving ultimatums to bad guys (memorably used in the very first episode), and operating within his own code of honor. At times, given that he is operating in the early part of the 21st century and not the latter half of the 19th, this often has negative repercussions.

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Timothy Olyphant (left) as Raylan Givens, and Walton Goggins (right) as Boyd Crowder

One of the most interesting facets of the show for me was that it realized it had two interesting character arcs to work with, and it wasn’t afraid to take time off from one to focus on the other[1]. Even though Raylan and Boyd are frequently set in opposition to each other, the show does diverge at times to show that not every criminal action was tied to Boyd, and that Givens did have a responsibility as a law enforcement officer that extended beyond Boyd’s criminal aspirations. Both arcs are highly compelling and complex. The show accomplishes this by focusing not only on the tensions between Raylan and Boyd, but each season contains a arc where some outside criminal force tries to make inroads in Harlan County, thinking the locals uneducated rubes. Without fail, the locals show that local knowledge and deep roots in Kentucky triumph every time.

The show also brings to the fore how vital secondary characters are to establishing a well-rounded show. Whether it was Ava (Joelle Carter), torn between Raylan and Boyd, or Art (Nick Searcy) as Raylan’s long-suffering boss, the people orbiting around the main characters provide a vibrant and more importantly, believable, community for these characters to inhabit. Also, all of the characters evolve in believable ways to the actions that take place around them. Characters grow, evolve, and yes, make some truly stupendous bad decisions, but, for the most part, you can understand why they’d make those decisions in the first place.

So if you are looking for a show to binge and want to see what happens when a great like Elmore Leonard gets transferred to a different medium, you could do a lot worse than JUSTIFED.

[1] Fun trivia fact: Boyd Crowder wasn’t supposed to survive the pilot episode, but Walton Goggins’ performance convinced the showrunners to keep him around. I can only imagine how different the show would be without him.

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Pulp Consumption: Lovecraft Country

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In theory, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff should be everything I want to read in modern horror – inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but rejecting his outright racism. Maybe it would have, if I’d stopped reading after the first section. Instead, taken as a whole, the novel was merely okay.

Lovecraft Country, published in 2016, is the story of two black families living during the Jim Crow era, when the racist attitudes of much of America supported such awful ideas as sundown towns and anti-miscegenation laws. The main character of the first section of the novel is Atticus Turner. As the story opens, Turner’s father, Montrose, has called Atticus home from Florida, where Turner settled after ending his active duty service for the Army in Korea. When Turner gets home, after being accosted time and again by the white establishment, including being shot at by a police officer for violating a town’s sundown curfew, he finds his father missing. He enlists the help of his Uncle George, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional analog of the real Negro Motorist Green Book, and his childhood friend, the strong-willed and resourceful Letitia, to head to Ardham, Massachusetts, his father’s destination. It’s a point of deliberate humor when Atticus first misreads the location as Lovecraft’s Arkham.

Pulp horror and science fiction permeate the world of Lovecraft Country, with much of the main cast being fans of works written by people like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. While they despise much of the racism that presented itself in those works, the fictional worlds those authors, and many others, created were big enough draws the characters could love the work while not forgiving or apologizing for the biases, much like Matt and I.

It’s no surprise, then, when Turner’s father is discovered imprisoned in a weird village where a cult of white necromantic sorcerers, the Order of the Ancient Dawn, is attempting to enact a ritual that will give them even more magical power than they currently possess.

It is this first section I fell in love with. The existential horror of being black Americans trying to travel from one state to another without being imprisoned or killed simply for the color of their skin is coupled with the existential horror of ages-old cults worshiping Elder Gods (though not Lovecraft’s versions) and possessing ancient magical texts.

As mentioned in the introduction, I ought to have stopped once the first section met its resolution. Sadly I did not, mostly because I was so enthusiastic about what I’d read. I really wanted the rest to match. However, as the novel went on I found myself drifting away from some of the characters, until the last section when I very nearly just stopped completely. Each chapter after the first is told from a different character’s point of view. Normally that would be fine, and many authors make use of this sort of limited omniscience to great effect. But the first section establishes a strong connection with Atticus, and I never felt as deeply attached to the other characters. That’s not to say there is nothing enjoyable about the rest of the novel, but none of it matches the heights of Atticus’ story of coming home and then attempting to rescue his father.

The book is comprised of eight novellas, each following a different character’s point of view. I’ve mentioned Atticus’ story above, which was fantastic. The stories of Ruby, Letitia’s sister who is given power to change her race in the fashion of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde; Hippolyta, Uncle George’s wife and main researcher for the The Safe Negro Travel Guide, an explorer who visits a weird far-flung world with strange stars; and Montrose, a man who winds up reliving part of the Tulsa race riots while conversing with ghosts, are also particularly well done, though never quite as good as the first. I’m less enamored of the stories of Letitia, the inheritor of a haunted house; Uncle George, who puts together a group of Prince Hall Masons to steal an ancient Book of Names; and Horace, Uncle George’s son, who is stalked by a possessed doll, a la Chuckie or Talking Tina. But they’re readable, if not terribly exciting.

The last chapter, “The Mark of Cain” isn’t really horror at all. The main characters, who up until this point have been fighting nearly hopeless battles and just barely surviving, suddenly become hyper-competent masterminds, like Ocean’s Eleven, and the ending reads nothing whatsoever like its namesake author, nor the novellas before it. I was supremely disappointed with this turn, especially since I felt like Ruff did such a good job capturing the feeling of Lovecraft while updating it for modern audiences. The last chapter just doesn’t fit.

Still, Lovecraft Country is definitely worth reading. If I had to rank it on a 5 star scale, it would be a 3 overall.

As a final note, earlier this year there was talk about HBO making a Lovecraft Country TV show with Jordan Peele, fresh off his tremendously successful Get Out, but there’s been no real chatter since May.

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Pulp Consumption: Hard Boiled

Okay, so HARD BOILED wasn’t my first exposure to John Woo’s style of film making[1], but if I have to name the one film of his I could not do without it is this, his swan song before he left Hong Kong to make movies in the USA.

hardboiled1

Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.

A quick synopsis of the plot- Tequila Yuen (Yun-Fat Chow) is the hard boiled cop of the title. He’s not great at relationships and he’s terrible at following orders, but put a gun in his hand (or even better, two) and he’s a God among men. Alan (played by Tony Leung) is an undercover officer trying to dismantle a ruthless organized crime gang from the inside. At first thinking that they are on opposite sides, the two learn to work together to bring down the ruthless boss Johnny.

Okay, so what makes it pulp though? Is it the action sequences, beautifully shot and which act as a high water mark for heroic bloodshed, a subgenre of action movies featuring high amounts of gunplay, meticulously crafted action choreography, and well, blood?

Is it the seemingly black-and-white characters that get mired in the grey of reality? Where one character who is clearly the heavy discovers there is a line he will not cross when his boss takes a step too far? Where Woo acknowledges the chaos that can result in a running gun battle and that friendly fire might happen and what toll that might take on a character? Is it the core threads of honor and respect that some of the characters hold on to with both hands?

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Here are the things that make the movie work for me:

  1. The stakes are clearly defined throughout the movie. Tequila wants revenge for his partner getting shot. Alan wants to bring down the mob so he can come out from undercover work. Johnny wants to make money by importing as many guns as he can.
  2. The action is palpable and beautifully done. As a viewer you get sucked in and the way the cinematography is done blows you away.
  3. There are a few quiet moments in the film, some brief time in introspection. Particularly of note is Tequila’s conversation with a bartender (John Woo himself in a cameo). These function as periodic breaks to give the viewer a chance to catch their breath and prepare for the next bit of action… as opposed to being a never ending sensory barrage.
  4. The lines are clearly drawn, despite some of the moral ambiguity. The old mob boss is of a more respectable nature, while the up-and-comer Johnny is obviously a more reckless and dangerous element. Despite some of the actions Alan is forced to take while undercover, he shows obvious regret while still acknowledging that the work he is doing is important.

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HARD BOILED would receive a sequel of sorts in 2007 in the form of the video game STRANGLEHOLD, with the added bonus of Chow Yun-Fat reprising his role as Tequila, but if you haven’t seen the original… well, what are you waiting for?

[1] That would be HARD TARGET where Jean-Claude Van Damme is a merchant marine going up against rich people who hunt the poor for sport.

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