Pulp Consumption: El Borak

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Another one of Robert E. Howard’s creations, Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak (Arabic for “The Swift”), is a Texan gunfighter and adventurer… only instead of his adventures taking place in the Old West, our hero finds himself in Afghanistan.

For the most part, the El Borak tales are strict action-adventure[1]. El Borak relies on his quick wits (and his quick hand with a gun or a blade) to get him out of the scrapes he finds himself in, typically against hostile tribesmen but also scheming politicians and rival adventurers. Gordon straddles a line between the barbarian and the civilized man, is not one to shy away from violence, but also with a keen understanding of how the Western world works… and why the West will always struggle in the hills of Afghanistan[2]. However, unlike some of Howard’s other characters, Gordon is a man of vengeance, but possessed of a somewhat gentler soul. He stops to bind wounds. He cares for his men. He is a leader, unlike many of Howard’s other creations, who, though they might sit on thrones, only rarely do we get to see them lead men.

One of the things that stuck out for me when reading is the level of detail Howard incorporated into his stories, and it reflected the amount of research he did into the setting as he was writing. Howard never travelled out of Texas, but he had enough resources at hand to craft a series of stories and to make the details surrounding the stories a key part of their attraction. So too, the setting functions as a frontier, but unlike the American West, a frontier and land with a history of never being conquered. Here a man fleeing civilization, fleeing the strictures of polite society, could remain always just out of reach.

So my recommendation is that if you are looking for stories that are more adventure oriented, but without necessarily the sorcerous trappings of Conan or Kull, you could do a lot worse than tracking down EL BORAK.

[1] The big exception is “Three-Bladed Doom.”

[2] Lest you think military adventurism in Afghanistan is a product of the 21st century, military campaigns have been launched into the region as far back as Alexander the Great

 

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Broadswords and Blasters Issue 3 Is Live!

The newest issue is now available for purchase in both Kindle and Print versions. Buy one for yourself. Buy one for a friend. Buy one for your neighbor. Buy another one for yourself to put in a different location–work, dinner table, couch, wherever. Note, we do participate in Kindle Matchbook, so if you buy Print, you can get the Kindle version for free.

While you’re at it, if you haven’t picked up Issues 1 or 2, go out and buy them, too!

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Pulp Appeal: Philip José Farmer

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Farmer died in 2009 at the age of 91. This image is from the Telegraph obituary.

As with Matt’s article about the Chronicles of Amber last week, no one could rightfully call Philip José Farmer a pulp writer. He definitely belongs in the movement known as New Wave, and was even published in Dangerous Visions, the defining compilation of New Wave short stories. The book was edited by Harlan Ellison, one of the most iconic members of the movement. That said, as with many of Farmer’s contemporaries, including Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Norman Spinrad, and Philip K. Dick, Farmer was deeply inspired by the pulps. In fact he was so enamored of the earlier fiction movement that he wrote some of the most well-known pulp pastiches, works like The Adventures of the Peerless Peer, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, Tarzan Alive, and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.

Like many of the New Wave authors, much of Farmer’s work deliberately incorporates political, social, and economic issues in reaction to postmodern views of war, love, and money. This is the time of the hippie movement, and free love appears to be the answer to all the world’s ills. Religions are seen as archaic and even counter-productive. Political control is nearly always the enemy, and there is a very specific desire for self-rule and economic and financial equality. Much of this is in reaction to what New Wave authors considered staid and boring tropes of pulp and golden age science fiction. They rejected silver flying saucers filled with strange alien species who lost pan-galactic battles to superior human colonial capitalist masculine heroes whose prizes were chaste feminine women-on-a-pedestal and new Earth colonies. By the time New Age authors were writing, there was admittedly a lot of that being published, but the reactionary rejection, while it led to some of the greatest science fiction ever written,[1] oversimplifies pulp much in the same way that contemporary music critics condemn “kids’ music these days.” While embracing the ideals of New Wave and 1960s/70s politics, Farmer somehow manages to thread a needle, simultaneously agreeing with the literary minded (Moorcock, et al), while managing to convey a deep love for and appreciation of pulp fiction. He never seems to disparage the pulps the way authors like Moorcock and JG Ballard do.

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I wish I owned this version, as I like Eckert’s Wold Newton expansion and am a fan of some of Resnick’s short stories.

While Farmer is perhaps far more famous for his World of Tiers books and his Riverworld series, it was his “biographies” and pastiches that first drew me toward him. Tarzan Alive is written like a biography of the famous English ape-man, and draws upon the rich well of material that Edgar Rice Burroughs created as well as the films and radio versions of the character. Farmer’s treatment of the character as being a real person, with the stories around him merely embellishments by authors, is a trope right out of pulp fiction. Burroughs used that conceit himself with his John Carter stories, and such devices date back even further to penny dreadfuls and Edgar Allan Poe, if not further.

In Tarzan Alive, and later expanded upon in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer created a complex interwoven narrative he called the Wold Newton Family. Writer Win Scott Eckert,[2] with the blessings of Farmer and his family, expanded that concept and created a whole patchwork of heroes from the pulps through to a few contemporary superheroes. The essence of Wold Newton is that there is a bloodline of characters who gained extraordinary powers through radiation effects that emanated from the real life meteor strike in Wold Newton, Yorkshire, England. The original characters include both heroes and villains: people like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty, Doc Savage, and AJ Raffles, among others. Through examination of crossovers of those characters with others, Farmer, and later Eckert, built up a huge family tree, both in the literal sense (Tarzan is related to Holmes, for instance) and figuratively (because Tarzan goes to Opar, and Conan has been to Opar, Conan is on the outskirts of the Wold Newton tree). I’ll stop before I turn this article completely into a Wold Newton fanpiece, but suffice to say the idea of interwoven characters from Victorian, penny dreadful, and pulp backgrounds has been enormously influential in popular culture, including Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Showtime’s recent series, Penny Dreadful.

6335034Although Wold Newton was a unifying factor in the background of a lot of Farmer’s works, those stories also work independently and are fun reads. The Other Log of Phileas Fogg runs in the margins of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, creating a secondary plot revolving around immortal alien species, Captain Nemo/Prof. Moriarty, and a hidden weapon of immense power. While there are crossover moments to other works, the story itself is quite entertaining even if you completely miss those allusions. Similarly, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer pits Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan together to stop a madman and his secret weapon. It has decidedly more excitement than a standard Holmes tale, but has a great sense of humor, especially in areas where Watson makes observations about the two main characters.

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I didn’t mention it in the article proper, but Farmer was a multiple award-winning author in his own right.

Farmer himself doesn’t quite fit into the neat box of pulp fiction, but his constant playing with the pulp characters, concepts, locations, and storylines marks him as someone pulp fans should spend some time with. I recommend starting with some of the more story-driven pastiches like Other Log or Peerless Peer rather than jumping right into Tarzan Alive or Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. The latter two require in-depth knowledge of those characters and an appreciation for the tone, which is decidedly in the style of biography, with long pages of family trees and explanations. If you feel up to the challenge they are excellent, but they aren’t for beginners.[3] Conversely, if you want to move past Farmer’s love of pulp, you could go into Riverworld or World of Tiers. Though I have read them (and own the Riverworld series) those don’t hold the same appeal for me.


[1] I am an unabashed lover of almost all things Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. There is some debate over whether these two really are in the New Wave, particularly Heinlein, but I believe those people stopped reading after Starship Troopers and never bothered to read Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, or The Number of the Beast (the latter two are past the New Wave time period, but are clearly in the same vein). As for Philip K. Dick, his examination of the nature of reality has quite literally changed how we view the world in a way that hadn’t been seen since Verne in the mid to late 1800s. And judging by the number of film and TV adaptations that have come out of his written work, the world simply can’t get enough of him. Who is the next Verne or Dick? Maybe Neil Gaiman, but that’s an article for another day.

[2] Eckert’s excellent essay, which used to be housed on PJFarmer.com, seems to have gone missing since I initially read it some 10+ years ago. There is WoldNewtonFamily.com, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have the same information as the older page used to. It’s a shame, but some of Eckert’s work is in print, including Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World, and Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, although they are priced pretty high for a casual reader.

[3] For the whisk(e)y heads or beer fans, it’d be like swapping out a Jack and Coke with Lagavulin or replacing a Bud Light with Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

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Pulp Appeal: Chronicles of Amber

Let’s get something out of the way, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazy isn’t pulp per se. For starters, the first novel in the series, “NINE PRINCES IN AMBER” wasn’t published until 1970, putting it more in line with the New Wave movement coming out of the sixties. That said, critics have drawn comparisons to the 1946 novella written by Henry Kutter (with perhaps some help from his wife, C.L. Moore) called the THE DARK WORLD, giving it at the very least a line back to the pulps.

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The cover for the original collected stories.

“… the Kuttner story which most impressed me in those most impressionable days was his short novel The Dark World. I returned to it time and time, reading it over and over again, drawn by its colorful, semi-mythic characters and strong action … looking back, Kuttner and Moore—and, specifically, The Dark World—were doubtless a general influence on my development as a writer. As for their specific influences—particularly on my Amber series—I never thought about it until Jane Lindskold started digging around and began pointing things out to me.[1]

The story starts out with a mystery. The protagonist wakes up, unsure of where he is, who he is, or how he got there. He finds a wallet, starts putting a name to a face, and slowly but steadily begins to piece together his identity – that of a world hopping Prince who was long ago exiled to our world, and presumed dead by most of the rest of his family. For our protagonist is none other than Corwin of Amber and, with his father presumably abdicated from the throne, he has a decent shot at claiming the throne for himself. There’s just the small obstacle of the rest of his family, some of whom are willing to work with Corwin, at least in the short term, but others who are opposed to the fact that Corwin is even still breathing.

The world hopping aside, much of THE CHRONICLES OF AMBER could be considered standard fantasy fare[2]. There are swordfights and monsters and an evil scheming sibling(s), though it might not be who you expect at first. What sells the series for me (other than the fact that I read it an impressionable age and therefore view it through an admitted tinge of nostalgia), is the narrative voice. Corwin, who is the one telling us this story, is at turns self-deprecating, sardonic, sarcastic, and self-serving. He is a character that upon meeting a wounded man on the road will carry him to a nearby keep. He will, on occasion, even admit his failings and his mistakes. He’s more introspective and reflective than many of the classic pulp heroes, but doesn’t suffer for it.

Zelazny also introduced to a wider audience the concept of Chaos and Order being balanced on polar opposites, and there needing to be a balance struck between the two. It wasn’t a new concept (see for example, Michael Moorcock), but he framed it in such a way as to provide a direct dichotomy to it, and with both sides having champions who were less than ideal.

The second series, Zelazny wrote in the ‘80s, and for me it doesn’t hold up as well. It follows well after the events Corwin narrates, and follows his son Merlin as he lives his life on Earth. Only someone keeps trying to kill him once a year on the same date. And he’s developing an advanced artificial intelligence, but it only works under certain specific conditions, none of which you would find on Earth. And he has a semi-sentient strangling cord he wears around his wrist. The series does answer questions raised in the first volume, but it also leaves more questions unanswered. Zelazny would answer some of those questions in short stories he wrote after the series concluded, and there was an attempt to write a follow-up series by John Gregory Betancourt. To say that it received mixed reviews is probably being too generous.

But if you have any interest in fantasy, and haven’t read CHRONICLES, you are truly doing yourself a disservice.

[1]  issue No. 5 of AmberzinePhage Press

[2] The first five books at least. The second five, written in the ‘80s and following Corwin’s son, Merlin, blend in more science-fiction.

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Pulp Appeal: Rafael Sabatini

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Swashbuckling adventures have been popular with the general public for hundreds of years. Tales of heroic sword fighters in pitched battle against unbeatable odds go back quite literally to some of the earliest works of written literature, surviving in the tales of Gilgamesh, books from the Bible, and the earliest works about Robin Hood. These works really hit popular stride in the 1800s, particularly after the success of Alexandre Dumas (pere) and his d’Artagnan romances. But as much as Dumas placed a stamp on contemporary versions of the swashbuckler, it is a later writer, famous at the time but often overlooked now, whose works refined the iconic profile of the swashbuckler–Rafael Sabatini.

seahawkSabatini was a native Italian who spent much of his youth traveling and attending school in Europe. He was a polyglot, attaining fluency in several languages, but most importantly English, because it is the language in which he composed all of his stories and novels. He has been quoted as saying this is because “all the best stories are written in English.” While I can’t go quite that far[1], he certainly contributed several works that rank among my favorites.

Sabatini hit fame in the 1920s with the publication of Scaramouche[2], the tale of Andre-Louis Moreau, a French lawyer who becomes a revolutionary. The title comes from the role in Commedia dell’Arte, as Scaramouche is a charming rogue who always has some sort of scheme in progress. Moreau finds himself both advocating for and fighting against the French Revolution at various points in his life. He is trained as a master swordsman and eventually uses those skills to enact revenge upon a nobleman who once killed a childhood friend. There are echoes of Moreau’s life story in that of Inigo Montoya, the Spaniard master fencer from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

Poster - Captain Blood (1935)_07With the success of Scaramouche, Sabatini was vaulted into the public sphere. Although he’d been writing and publishing seriously since the early turn of the century, he now found himself churning out at least a novel every year until much later in his life. This was also the heyday of silent films and early talkies, and Sabatini’s work reached even wider audiences in film. There were silent film versions of Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood, but it was the 1935 interpretation of Captain Blood that really sent Sabatini into the spotlight. It starred a then little-known Errol Flynn opposite starlet Olivia de Havilland, launching Flynn’s career. He went on to perfect his role as a swashbuckler in The Adventures of Robin Hood and a few other films before returning to a lead role in the third of Sabatini’s most famous works, The Sea Hawk.

RafaelSabatini.com, unrelated to the long-dead Sabatini himself, says, “Sabatini’s writing . . . explores political intrigue, religion, and the place of chivalry and honor, while entertaining with clever dialogue, deftly drawn characters and action sequences as vivid and thrilling as modern movies.” That’s it in a nutshell.

a02a5c7f9b96131bbb8a00e370ecc32cSadly, Sabatini’s didn’t have nearly as much luck in real life as his characters had. His son died in a car crash, and he and his first wife split. When he remarried, his step-son died in a plane crash. However, in at least one way his life was like his characters’ lives: he worked for a time as a translator for the British Intelligence Service during World War I. His fluency in several different languages was no doubt of use, and it helped him avoid conscription by the Italians, where he was still a citizen, while living in England.

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A large portion of Sabatini’s works are in the public domain[3], including Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood, as well as some other great but lesser known works like Bardelys the Magnificent (famous mostly because a 1926 film version was long thought to be “lost” until a print was discovered in 2006); a rather graphic and detailed history/biography of the Spanish Inquisition and Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada; and a biography of Cesare Borgia, which is worth a read if only to sort out the salacious portrayals of film and tv from the historical reality. Sabatini always seemed to be an inveterate researcher, so these two histories rang true when I read them.

If you haven’t read any Sabatini or watched the film versions of his work, it’s worth your time. Per usual, the novels are better than the movies, but Errol Flynn’s work in both Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk is a good investment.


[1] There is an awful lot of good literature that the world has produced, and the vast majority of it was not written in English. A serious reader would hamstring themselves if they stuck solely to writers who originally worked in English. Indeed, this is why colleges have so many courses devoted to World Literature.

[2] No doubt fans of the British rock band Queen will recognize the name even if they haven’t read the books or seen the various film versions. “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” is a line from perhaps their most famous song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

[3] There are about 20 books listed on Project Gutenberg, and the three most famous works (plus one other) have been recorded as audiobooks on LibriVox.

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Pulp Consumption : Brick

BRICK is a 2005 neo-noir film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a high school loner who ends up investigating the untimely murder of his ex-girlfriend, Emily. The action gets kicked off quickly enough. A phone call. A cry for help. The discovery of a body.

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What follows is an intricate web of deception, revenge, drugs, and rivalry all set against the backdrop of maneuvering through high school. None of the characters, not even Brendan, can be classified as completely innocent. Brendan holds to his own code of honor, not truly a criminal, but willing to act outside of the traditional bounds of morality to accomplish his goals. He’s also smart enough to know that it is isn’t the person who pulls the trigger that’s the real villain, but the person who makes sure that the victim is in front of the gun.

Some of what makes BRICK stand out is the slang the movie uses. Sure, it’s manufactured, but it is used in such a consistent manner and so well fits in with the story that’s being told, that it becomes an intricate part of the movie being told. Some viewers might be put off by the language, finding it a barrier to appreciating the rest of the film, but the way it is used it very nearly becomes its own character.

BRICK shows how the noir archetypes can be transported into different settings. You have the independent, driven private investigator in Brendan, the crime boss (who happens to live in his mother’s basement) in the Pin, the enforcer with an agenda of his own in Tugger, and the femme fatale (and arguably the true villain of the movie) in Laura. All of which is layered over the top of a high school setting with the cliques, clubs, and power struggles inherent to that setting. Sure, we never see anyone attend class, but, well, that’s not the point of the movie now, is it?

It is also refreshing to see a guile hero in the character of Brendan, someone who not only fights hard, but also fights smart. He fights dirty, he pits foes against each other, and in the end he’s… well, triumphant might be too strong of a word. But then, given that the girl is already dead and beyond saving, revenge is a close second to redemption.

In addition to a stand out performance by Gordon-Levitt, BRICK also features excellent performances from Noah Fleiss, Nora Zehtner, Lukas Haas, and a very special cameo from Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft).

BRICK also makes an excellent introduction to Rian Johnson who wrote and directed this film. If that name seems familiar, it’s because he is the director behind THE LAST JEDI as well as THE BROTHERS BLOOM and LOOPER. There are worse places to start.

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Pulp Appeal: Pulp Fiction

Pulp_Fiction_(1994)_posterTime to address the elephant in the room. It’s been quietly sitting in the corner for the last seven months, but today it is begging me for attention.

Say the words “Pulp Fiction” to most adults in America and they won’t think about Robert Howard, Tarzan, the Cthulhu Mythos, or The Maltese Falcon. For a large portion of the American consumer public “Pulp Fiction” means one thing – the 1994 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Hell, when you Google the phrase, the first three pages of results are about the film. It’s not until about halfway down the fourth page that something else[1] pops into the mix.

Pulp Fiction is not Tarantino’s entry into film, but it is the work that pushed him out into the public eye. The title begs the question: Is Pulp Fiction pulp fiction? Yes, most definitely. And why not? It’s an interlaced film of overlapping narratives that tell the stories of low-level hitmen, uncomfortable hunks of metal, down-and-out boxers, drug overdoses, and dead body storage and disposal. Tarantino has embraced the cheap paper stories of broken-down degenerate societies, murderers and conmen, gun molls and tawdry sex, and turned out a work that still has viewers asking “What’s in the suitcase?”

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PulpFiction_129PyxurzThe inability to definitively answer that question, it seems, bugs viewers as much as, or more than, the end of The Sopranos[2]. But the MacGuffin isn’t the point, any more than the Maltese Falcon is the point of its titular story. The point is that we get two complete narratives scattered among a smorgasbord of vignettes. In one a hitman decides to give up a life of murder-for-hire after miraculously surviving a shooting unscathed. In the other an old boxer fed up with throwing fights gets out of the fixed boxing game with a treasured heirloom and a girlfriend. All the rest of the film–the drug overdoses, the accidental shooting, the botched restaurant robbery, the weird sexual depravity–all serve as supporting notes to the two straight storylines. Broken out like that, the narratives are stories of redemption for unsavory characters, but since their tales are shown out of sequence, the overall effect doesn’t match that simplistic reading.

Tarantino has said that the film was his attempt to do a modern day version of an issue of Black Mask, the old detective serial magazine. He also wanted to pay homage to his numerous personal heroes and influences, people like Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Elmore Leonard, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roger Corman. Some of those influences are more obvious, such as in the snappy dialogue (Leonard), over-the-top action (Corman), action-tinged humor (Leone), and use of in-world music (Godard). He has continued to expand those homages over the years with follow-on films like Kill Bill, Grindhouse (Death Proof), and The Hateful Eight.

Pulp Fiction is rightly held up as a critical darling, including an Academy Award for screenplay and the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not my favorite film of his (that would be Reservoir Dogs[3]), but I can see why it still stands out for most people, even after Tarantino went on to produce the even higher grossing films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The richly complex, but strikingly simple, narrative mixed with uproariously funny bits of dialogue and some truly fantastic acting all gel together to make for an extraordinary film.

I’m sure I’m pretty much preaching to the choir in recommending Pulp Fiction to readers of pulp fiction, but if you somehow managed to skip past this film, you need to remedy that.


[1] Appropriately it’s a link to this essay on Vintage Library.

[2] For the record, I think Tony Soprano dies, and I don’t care at all what’s in the briefcase.

[3] Strangely, my two favorite Tarantino films, Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof, are his two lowest grossing movies (Not counting the short film compilation Four Rooms).

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