(Well, Kindle anyway. Print version should be up later this week.)
One of the biggest problems with taking submissions for multiple issues all at once is simply forgetting how awesome the stories we accept truly are. While the long term burden is lessened because of a robust and productive submissions period, we read so many stories in such a short time, that by the time an issue is being prepped six months down the road we have to refresh ourselves on what exactly we are publishing. The upside is that we fall in love with the stories all over again. We are truly blessed to have so many great submissions from so many talented writers, and this issue is packed full of them, including one returning author, and the rest of whom are gracing our pages for the first time, though you’ve likely seen some of their names in the other indie fiction magazines being published.
First up is Eddie Generous with his tale of a “Sunday Speed Trap,” the ensuing police chase, and maybe some ritual sacrifice to ancient Old Ones. E.F. Sweetman says “Hello from Garbage Island,” with her tale of ecological horror on the high seas. In Joanna Maciejewska’s “Yet Another Vessel” we encounter terrifying en-chanted artifacts and the kinds of psychopathic individuals who seek them out. In “Armageddon and the Way Out West,” Brian McNett introduces us to Doctor Thaddeus Armageddon and his helmsman Delrick Borograve and their exploits in the Wild West aboard the skyskip Devastation. We’re always game for a tale of artificial intelligence, mecha, and romance, which is exactly what Paul Alex Gray delivers in “Battle Borne Dreams Never Die.” Julie Rea takes us to the flooded future of 2202, where scavengers “Lela and Bat” comb through the remains of Philadelphia. Joshua Grasso’s “Barbarians in the Boudoir” sees the magician Hildigrim, previously imprisoned for black magic, paroled but only so he can help the Archduke avert a war with barbarians from a far distant land. Paul Starkey’s “Below Noon” is a tale of existential horror in the Wild West as a man comes to grips with the reality of Hell. Finally, we end with returning author Patrick S. Baker and the further adventures of the warrior hero Kauahoa as he takes on “The Cannibals in the Mist.”
If you’ve got fiction that you think shouts out for publication, don’t rest just yet. Get to polishing until they shine like the nine fine tales showcased in this issue. If you have ideas but not the words, then get to writing. No page writes itself (at least not competently—yet). If you just need a kick in the pants that a deadline will give you, then here you go: We open back up for submissions in October 2019. Don’t send us anything yet, but get ready because time flies when you’re having as much fun as we are putting out this fine bit of pulp fiction with modern sensibilities.
If this isn’t your first time with us, thanks for sticking around. It means the world to us. If it is, then we’ve got a back catalog of fiction we know you’ll love, so head back through the previous nine issues and catch up!
(Editor’s Note: R.A. Goli is an Australian writer of horror, fantasy, and speculative short stories. In addition to writing, her interests include reading, gaming, the occasional walk, and annoying her dog, two cats, and husband.Check out her numerous publications including her fantasy novella, The Eighth Dwarf, and her collection of short stories, Unfettered at https://ragoliauthor.wordpress.com/ or stalk her on facebook https://www.facebook.com/RAGoliAuthor/. Her stories have appeared in issues 1 and 9 of Broadsword and Blasters).
The Beastmaster is a classic sword and sorcery tale, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Andre Norton, released in 1959. The movie, released in 1982, stars Marc Singer as Dar (Dallas, 1986), Tanya Roberts as Kiri (Charlies Angels, 1981), Rip Torn as Maax (30 Rock, 2007-2009), and John Amos as Seth (Good Times, 1974-1976).
The movie begins with three dark-robed priests
entering a temple where a trio of witches’ chant as they scry into a cauldron. The
witches prophesize the death of the high priest/cult leader, Maax (pronounced,
Mayax), at the hands of King Zed’s unborn son. Upon learning of Maax’ scheme to
sacrifice his child to the god, Ar, King Zed banishes Maax and his priests.
Maax sends one of the witches to deal with the problem. She casts a spell and
transfers the baby from the mother’s womb into a cow’s womb, then slices it
from the bovine’s stomach. She brands the baby with the mark of Ar, but before
she is able to sacrifice him, a passer by intervenes, killing the witch and
taking the baby to raise as his own, because that is what you did in those
The man trains his adoptive son, Dar, to fight
and during a sparring session, a bear mauls another villager. Dar’s special
ability becomes apparent when he telepathically communicates with the bear and
sends it on its way. His father warns him that power such as his must be kept
Years later and now a grown man, Dar’s peaceful
life is shattered when Maax sends an army, known as Jun, to attack the village.
Dar is spared and wakes up with ‘eagle sight’. Dar remembers a conversation he
had with his adoptive father; should anything happen to him, his sword and
caber (throwing weapon), would be Dar’s ‘trusted companions’, and that he must
search for his enemies and seek his destiny. With everyone dear to him now dead,
he sets off on his quest for revenge, with the eagle; Sharak in tow.
Along the way, Dar befriends two thieving
ferrets, (Kodo and Podo), and a black tiger (Ruh). Now Dar has the eyes of the
eagle (though later he realizes he can also see through the tiger’s eyes), the
cunning of the ferrets, and the strength of the black tiger. By chance he meets
a beautiful slave, Kiri, and decides to follow her to save her from her
enslavement, but loses his way and comes across a tribe of half-man, half-bird
creatures who consume the flesh of men by trapping them within their large
bat-like wings. The bird-men worship eagles so when they see Sharak, they allow
Dar to pass unharmed. One of the creature’s gifts Dar with a medallion
depicting an eagle, which he will later use to call on their aid during the final
There’s a lot of rescuing in this film. First
Dar is joined by Seth and Tal (the King’s other son), and they save Kiri from
being sacrificed, then save the king from Maax. King Zed’s thirst for revenge
is too great and against Dar’s advice, he sends Dar away, then attacks the
priests, thus Kiri, Seth, Tal and Zed are captured once again. Dar arrives to
save the day again and finally kills Maax and the rest of the priests, only to
have to fight the large Jun army. He sends Sharak off with the medallion and
the bird-men join the battle.
The Beastmaster has our classic, well-muscled,
loin-cloth wearing, sword-wielding hero, magic in the form of witches casting
spells, and an enchanted seeing-eye ring, and the classic sacrificing people to
a god. It’s an epic quest for revenge.
I loved this movie as a kid. My favorite parts
were watching the antics of Kodo and Podo; who wouldn’t want a couple of ferret
travelling companions to do their bidding? I’d not watched The Beastmaster for many
years, I feared I’d be disappointed, having remembered the film through
child-eyes, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. While almost two hours long, it didn’t
drag, was full of adventure, had a dash of humor, a few sad moments, and also,
Dar in a loin cloth.
The filming locations were breathtaking,
especially the huge red sandstone formations of Valley of Fire State Park,
Nevada. Other locations included Las Vegas, Simi Valley, and Lake Pyramid,
California. Director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, 1979), considered filming in
Spain and Mexico, however both locations would have been too costly.
Coscarelli revealed a few fun facts during the director’s commentary. Dar’s sword was made especially for the film and was stolen post-production. Despite the many slayings, viewers will notice a lack of blood on Dar’s sword. Paul Pepperman (co-writer) explains that they wanted a PG family rating for the movie. I guess they were less concerned showing bare-breasted women on screen.
Approximately twenty ferrets were used to act as Kodo and Podo, and Pepperman, kept two of them. In the scene where the witch transfers the unborn child into the cow, she pours a magical blue liquid over the king and queen’s necks, rendering them unable to move. The blue liquid used was from emergency lights, similar to glow sticks. The original script had a black leopard as Ruh, but animal trainers insisted tigers were easier to work with and so dyed some tigers black. I personally think it’s cooler to have a black tiger.
Apparently Pepperman didn’t think the movie
would be a hit or have longevity, and he was right in one respect as it only
grossed around $14 million at the box office, but it has also enjoyed many late-night
re-runs on various cable networks and like all great 80’s movies, has become a
cult classic. If you love sword and sorcery, but haven’t seen The Beastmaster
yet, do yourself a favor and watch it. If only for the ferrets.
Editors’ Note: Julie Rea’s work has appeared in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Nude Bruce Review, BLYNKT, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches and writes about life in a wheelchair and other fascinating subjects. You can follow her on Twitter @phillylitgrl. Her story “Lela and Bat” will be appearing in issue 10 of Broadswords and Blasters. If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.
He, She, and It by the amazingly prolific Marge Piercy (a poet and memoirist in addition to being a novelist), is a cyberpunk novel set in the near-future. It was originally published in 1991 and won the 1993 Arthur C. Clarke prize for the Best Science Fiction novel.
The book explores ethical issues related to artificial
intelligence, anticipating ethical issues related to the rights of sentient
machines raised in the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica and the
current television series Humans. Woven through He, She, and It is
the tale of a creation of a golem to protect a persecuted Jewish community
hundreds of years ago. The golem’s position parallels that of Yod, a cyborg
designed to protect a twenty-first-century community threatened by one of the
multi-national corporations that controls most of the wealth in the future. Yod
is more than a protector; he is also a romantic interest to the protagonist,
Shira, and the two have an intensely sexual relationship. Yod acts as a father
figure to Shira’s child, but his instincts are maternal in nature. Yod’s
relationship with Shira provides much of the drama of the book.
Yod’s internal conflict is quite fascinating: his
sentience and his maternal and erotic instincts are at war with his other
programming, which is to be a weapon to protect the community. Ultimately, Yod
concludes it is morally wrong to strip free will from a sentient being.
Something with consciousness should be able to object to labors asked of it on
moral grounds. This point, of course, goes beyond the arena of AI.
This book rocks some feminist themes pretty hard. Almost
all the characters in the novel are women. The few biological male characters play
minor roles. And all of these women characters have extraordinary
characteristics. Shira and her maternal grandmother are sophisticated computer
programmers. Shira’s mother and her mother’s companion are pretty much bad-ass
ninjas intent on overturning the massive wealth inequality that leaves most of
the people on the planet suffering.
It is also notable that Piercy clearly had climate
change on her mind when she wrote this book; the environmental horrors
described are mostly due to the depletion of the ozone layer and nuclear
radiation, as opposed to consequences of carbon emissions. Nevertheless, Piercy
thirty years ago in this novel anticipated human society greatly adversely
affected by climate change and considered how those who are less well-off
suffer more in such circumstances.
As is maybe obvious by the above, the book is rich in
themes. Piercy doesn’t skip on detail either. Perhaps as a consequence, the
book is not a quick read. There’s plenty of action in the book, but the action
scenes come and go rather quickly; what seems to linger are questions about
what loving a cyborg means and other ethical issues.
Definitely worth a read.
Editors’ Note: Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at a small university in Oklahoma, where he teaches courses in British and World literature (the older, the better), as well as comics and popular literature. He has several indie novels available on-line and has recently published stories in Aphelion Magazine and the Exterus anthology, Magissa. He can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/grassonovels or his Amazon author page: amazon.com/Joshua-Grasso If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.
Clark Ashton Smith is a name that exists at the periphery of science fiction and fantasy lore, a name often evoked but rarely read. He is sometimes dismissed as an imitator of Lovecraft, at other times, as a writer whose exotic, hot-house prose often overshadowed his stories. Yet the titles of his numerous short stories are too tempting to leave to second-hand wisdom: works like “The City of the Singing Flame,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and “Ubbo-Sathla” remind me of long-lost AD&D campaigns and hidden, forgotten evils buried in the appendix of the Fiend Folio.
There’s some truth to this, as without Clark’s stories, so much of the modern fantasy mythos would cease to exist. Along with Lovecraft and Tolkein, Smith’s stories were mined for their outlandish visions of Atlantean worlds and unspeakable terrors. What others left behind was Smith’s unique language—he’s unparalleled as a crafter of prose in fantasy writing—and his ability to create tension and twist endings. Smith excelled at the short story, and a 10-page tale from Smith often contains more beauty, wonder, and mystery than many a thousand-page tome making lavish promises on its book jacket.
Smith emerged in the golden age of fantasy writing in America, at the same time as Lovecraft and many of the long-forgotten magazines devoted to weird and strange tales. However, he worked largely in isolation in California, ignored by the literary establishment and often rejected from the very magazines he read for inspiration and fellowship. Lovecraft, among others, recognized his talent and did whatever he could to promote his works (it helped that Smith often wrote stories in the Cthulu mythos—an early example of fan fiction).
weakness (or strength, depending on your inclination) was his similarity to his
closest literary precursor, Edgar Allen Poe. Like Poe, Smith thought himself
primarily a poet, and his prose is often drenched in fantastic imagery and
arcane—yet sensuously beautiful—wording. A typical example from his Gothic
fantasy story, “The Dark Eidolon” illustrates Smith’s trademark prose:
In the wide intervals between the tables, the familiars of Namirrha and his other servants went to and fro incessantly, as if a phantasmagoria of ill dreams were embodied before the emperor. Kingly cadavers in robes of time-rotten brocade, with worms seething in their eye-pits, poured a blood-like wine into cups of the opalescent horn of unicorns. Lamias, trident-tailed, and four-breasted chimeras, came in with fuming platters lifted high by their brazen claws. Dog-headed devils, tongued with lolling flames, ran forward to offer themselves as ushers for the company…
To be fair, this is Smith in his headiest, hell-for-leather mode, which he employed in his most exotic tales of fantasy. It frankly put some editors off, and his stories were often rejected for being too slow and not having the right “punch” for their audience. Like many fantasy writers today, Smith ended up self-publishing some of his stories, as he was only willing to compromise so much. He did, however, trim and re-write many of his tales, with the intention of restoring the originals in due time.
Yet even in his
most rhapsodic writing, his ability to play with the sounds of English and
twist them into pure sound is astonishing. Like the Middle English of the Pearl
poet or even Chaucer himself, Smith loves the fragrance of words and the
pungent play of alliteration and assonance. Look, for example, at this dazzling
sentence “Kingly cadavers in robes of time-rotten brocade, with worms
seething in their eye-pits, poured a blood-like wine into cups of the
opalescent horn of unicorns.”
While it paints a
wonderfully gruesome picture, it is less about sense than sound, with the “k”
sound of “kingly cadavers…brocade,” melting into the more soothing “s” sound
of “opalescent…unicorns” It’s a painting in prose, resembling the shimmering
medieval coloring of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, or the decadent orchestration
of Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (1908).
However, Smith was
more than colorful writing and arcane turns of phrase; his storytelling ability
is unparalleled among fantasy writers, often rivaling Tolkein in its ability to
create character and wonder in a few short pages. Many of his stories have been
either consciously or unconsciously borrowed by more famous writers, or pressed
into use for The Twilight Zone and The
My personal favorite is the truly haunting “The City of the Singing Flame,” which begins with a 19th century frame narrative: the narrator introduces a journal by a man who has disappeared into a dimensional gate. As he/we read the journal, we learn about a fantastic land where creatures from myriad worlds come to worship a strange flame, one whose music rivals the mythical sirens’ song. The journal writer and his companion catalogue the strange beasts drawn to this light, only to find themselves haunted by its refrain—to their doom. The journal-writer narrowly
escapes, only to live haunted by the music, and vows to return once more.
A simple tale, but
it shows surprising restraint in the language, and a deep understanding of what
divides knowledge from mystery. If the best horror movies rarely show the
monster—burying it in the shadows so we can see it clearly in our minds—so
Smith describes the wonders without making us see too much. As he writes of the
fantastic world beyond the portal,
the people of the city! How is one to depict them, or give them a name? I think
that the gleaming entities I first saw are not the true inhabitants, but only
visitors—perhaps from some other world or dimension, like myself. The real
people are giants, too; but they move slowly, with solemn, hieratic paces.
Their bodies are nude and swart, and their limbs are those of
caryatides—massive enough, it would seem, to uphold the roofs and lintels of
their own buildings. I fear to describe them minutely: for human words would
give the idea of something monstrous and uncouth; and these beings are not
monstrous but they have merely developed in obedience to the laws of another
evolution than ours, the environmental forces and conditions of a different
We can see these creatures through a dim glass, imagining much more than he ever tells us. Yet it fills us with wonder and a desire to know and see more. Fittingly, he soon draws the curtain on this tale as the journal ends and nothing more is known of the traveler’s fate. A novel would have to tell us more, explain everything to its gross anatomy. Only in a short story can he hint and suggest but never make the dream a reality. A thousand novels could be born of such a story, none of them equal to the original. Perhaps that’s the true legacy of Smith’s work—as an inspirer, rather than an end in himself. He’s like a mapmaker who drew far-off worlds without exploring them himself, but inspiring an entire generation of sea-farers who traveled the world.
I’m not just covering Pulp Modern’s latest issue because Matt has a story in it. Honest. In fact, although Matt and I have been friends long enough that we started this publication together, he’s not even the reason I picked up this issue. Nope, I picked it up because I wanted to read more Adam S. Furman, Rex Weiner, and C.W. Blackwell, all of whom have graced our own pages. I’m a touch jealous, but damn if these stories don’t deserve to be read. And not just those three, but all of them.
The issue starts off with editor Alec Cizak’s foreword. Other reviews have highlighted his discussion on imagination and done so better than I would, so I’ll just leave it to them. I did want to highlight his discussion on world psychology and how we in 2019 are entering the same headspace as people a hundred years ago. Without getting political, you can see this both in the governmental world and in the entertainment industries. Rapid changes in delivery and content have altered the way we produce and consume media, and megacorps are standing up much like they did until broken up by anti-trust decisions. I think Cizak is on point here, and the reason we have so much escapist art of late is that there seems to be so much to escape from.
In the first story, “A Pinto, a Hooker, a Gun” Rex Weiner takes readers to the Sunset Strip and the divorced sheriff’s deputy Skull Snyder working a homicide case involving organized crime, a femme fatale, and some convoluted backstabbing. It’s a ride.
Russell Thayer is next with “The Killer,” a noir starring Maggie, a nineteen-year-old waitress, as the heroine standing up to a couple of drug kingpin enforcers. This story is rich with implied backstory and now I want to read more about Maggie and Mrs. Valentine. I’ll be on the lookout.
C.W. Blackwell’s “Her Name Was Larceny” is pretty much exactly what it says on the label. A girl named Larceny gets busted for theft, but there is a lot more to her story than that. And it has my favorite dialogue exchange in the issue. “You killed two men in my county. What side are you on?” “Two and a half.” “What?” “I killed two and a half.”
Prostitutes feature frequently in crime fiction, but rarely are they the heroes of the stories. Diana Andrews, the protagonist of Albert Tucher’s “Modesty” is one of those rarities. In this story, a completely naked Diana gets swept up by some goons and encounters a homeless camp, with the most realistic version of a homeless person I’ve read or seen in years. Tucher does a great job here, and I’ll be adding his name to the ever-growing list of people whose work I need to read.
Next up is Matt’s story “The Price of an Offer Refused.” While it might seem like I’m just stumping for a friend, I have to say I’m super stoked for Matt. I first read this story awhile back in its draft stages, but its inclusion in this issue drives home how much I love the Ariadna character. And it’s a nice change of pace from the previous stories, all of which are hardboiled crime fiction.
Kokoro, the samurai protagonist of Scott Forbes Crawford’s “Heart of a Samurai” stops a group of men on a rampage and befriends a cute white kitten, but not all is at it seems. This cautionary tale is a classic example of the fallacy of “shoot first, ask questions later.”
If I’ve read a story by Adam S. Furman and didn’t immediately question my own self-worth as a writer, have I truly read a story by Adam S. Furman? Man, he’s good. And “Rosetta” is more of the same high caliber work I’ve come to expect from him. Why isn’t he famous yet? I mean, this opening line–”MIKH4IL drank the serenity of the starfields.”
“Odd Jobs” by Adam S. House is a classical horror tale, with echoes of the work of Roger Corman and Wes Craven, but that’s not meant as a criticism. I love Corman and Craven both. If you know your Scottish lore and the tale of Sawney Bean, you’ll get even more out of this story.
With another Celtic reference, this time to Irish folk hero Cú Chulainn, we have “Chulainn” by S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. This story is set during the American Civil War, and follows Patrick, a former preacher turned rebel soldier and his company’s ill-fated journey through his old hometown of Sumerville.
I neglected to mention the art pieces earlier, but Ran Scott, Dan W. Taylor, Alfred Klosterman did some great illustrations for each story. The cover by Rick McCollum is a suitably unsettling depiction of a plot point from “Chulainn.” And the four cartoons by Bob Vojtko are much-needed humorous little palate cleansers.
I have two minor complaints, and they are very minor. I wish the story genres weren’t chunked together as they are. It’s a stylistic choice to be sure, and while there’s a great variety of stories here, I’d prefer them being a bit more interspersed. The other is ragged right edges instead of justified text. Again, it’s a stylistic choice, but I prefer the text edges to be smoothed out as it’s easier on my eyes for some reason.
Overall, this is a really strong issue and Cizak has done a phenomenal job curating this selection of stories.
We’ve covered Switchblade before, and editor Matthew X. Gomez even had a flash piece published in Issue Seven, but that’s not going to stop us from covering their latest, Issue 9.
We start with a poem by Willie Smith taking us down to New Orleans in Voodoo Spider which crosses that line between noir and horror with the reader guessing which side of the line it’s on.
“Lucky Fuck” by Jack Bates follows a twisting, small town tale of car accidents, revenge, bitter recriminations and regrets. You’ll be left wondering if the main character is actually lucky, or just unlucky enough to keep from dying.
“Death Letter Blues” by Mark Slade could have used another round of editing, in this editor’s humble opinion, but is a twisted little tale of a man who lives in a reality adjacent to, but not fully in synchronicity with, this world. It’s self-delusion and violence in a tight little package and the right man in the wrong place.
Richard Risemberg waxes poetic in “Prisoners” and delves into how doing a thing for what you think are the right reasons can lead to problems down the road. Worth the price of admission for the language alone and how the experience of the past can lead to the tribulations of the present.
“Stanley” by A.F. Knott follows a life-long loser as he wakes up on the beach after a bender and as he pieces together the puzzle of the night before. A noir piece in the classic style where it starts bad and just gets worse the further down the rabbit hole you go.
“Black Flies” by Stefen Styrsky is the most ambitious piece in the collection, going back and forth in a “how we got here” kind of way. Falling in with the wrong person, pulling a crime that goes sideways, the way relationships can fall apart even when you think they are going strong… this is a crime story that has a bit of everything in it and sucks you in to the bad decisions that lead to the main character’s present.
Paul D. Marks brings us to “The House of the Rising Sun” and a New Orleans themed brothel in Hollywood and introduces us to Vivien who works there. A piece on unanswered dreams, bitter regrets, and what happens when a woman realizes that tomorrow is never going to be as good as today. A dark, bitter piece of fiction that goes down like cheap Scotch and that makes you wonder how many other lost dreamers are just going day to day.
J. Rohr is a writer we’ve featured before in Broadswords and Blasters. It is always fun to get a chance to read his work and “Unanswered Prayers” is no different following a man called Priest who isn’t a priest as he navigates an underworld he’s all too familiar with… trying to make amends for a previous life of inequity. A bit of a redemption story, but also what happens when a bad man tries to make good. Well worth the price of admission, and makes me want Rohr to have a full novel out already, or at least a collection of his short fiction.
“Squaring Up With Eddie” by Fred Rock is the first bit of flash fic in the collection. A story of a hit with a few twists, it manages to use the economy of language to set the scene and get out, a terrific amuse-bouche of fiction. I think I’d almost prefer Switchblade to intersperse these between the longer pieces, though it might be like a chaser of gasoline after Mad Dog, so maybe its best these come at the end.
“Bobby ‘Eggs’ and Grady” by Glenn A. Bruce is a somewhat convoluted crime trail of who knew what and when, and the ending left me feeling like I got kicked in the gut. It is a highlight reel of sudden violence and the cost it extracts on both sides of the law, and one I felt I had to read twice to get.
“Going to California” by John Kojack. I feel that fiction should, most of the time, at least, have a point. If I was to try and pin down one for this piece its that when a relationship goes south, it might be better to bail than try to keep the thing going. Otherwise you might find yourself outside a road side diner after a hold up, trying to decide your next best move.
Overall, the writing continues to be strong, the view points as seedy as you’d expect and my only complaint is for a bit tighter editing to move this from a good publication to a great one.
Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys good stories across many different genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and DMR Books Blog.
Chester Himes, an African American expat living in France, published his first crime novel in the United States in 1957 under the title of For the Love of Imabelle. This book was eventually re-named to its current moniker, A Rage in Harlem. This is the first book in what came to be known as Himes’ Harlem Cycle (alternately known as the Harlem Detectives series), that was awarded the French Grand Prix de la Litterature Policiere. The main protagonist of the book is Jackson, who resides in Harlem with Imabelle, the love of his life who he plans on marrying. He has a steady job at the local funeral home (owned by H. Exodus Clay) and by all accounts is known as an honest, hardworking, pious man, who is highly devoted to his lover. This being a hardboiled crime story, those descriptors are shorthand for Jackson being a sucker of the first degree. Or as Himes describes him, a “five cornered square.” Jackson gets roped in by a group of grifters using the con known as The Blow (you take the mark’s cash, then blow town). Ten dollar bills are “raised up” to hundred dollar bills through a phony chemical process involving an oven. With the encouragement of Imabelle, Jackson drops his life savings of fifteen hundred dollars into the con. At the point of the cash being “raised up’, one of the grifters, posing as a U.S. Marshal, storms the apartment, while simultaneously, the oven explodes, leaving Jackson in the lurch to take the fall (everyone else present, including Imabelle, has split). The fake Marshal shakes down Jackson for more money on the pretense that he will not arrest him, forcing the poor dupe to steal five hundred dollars from his boss, Clay. As a way to try and get out from the burden that he is under, Jackson enters a late night game of craps and ends up digging himself deeper in the red. As a last resort, with no one else to turn to, Jackson seeks out the help of his brother.
Goldy is Jackson’s twin brother who is known on the street as Sister Gabriel of the Sisters of Mercy. He is running an ongoing scam in which he impersonates a nun in order to fleece people of their donated alms while also charging people a dollar for a literal ticket into the Pearly Gates. Himes gives Goldy some great pieces of dialogue; he is constantly dropping either some misremembered or made up biblical quote. It’s hard to tell which; “By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire and by the smoke and by the brimstone which issued out of their mouths.” Goldy lives with two other female impersonators; Lady Gypsy, a fortune teller and Big Kathy, who runs a bordello (named The Circus). The three are known collectively around the neighborhood as the Three Black Widows. In addition to being a con-man, Goldy is also a raging heroin addict. While the two are physically identical in appearance, the brothers are the direct antithesis of each other when it comes to how they live their lives. Jackson and Goldy have nothing but disdain for each other; one because he is a square, while the other is a criminal. But when push comes to shove, Jackson knows that Goldy can help him in finding the whereabouts of his girl and get him out of trouble. Goldy is able to locate the grifters (Hank, Slim, Gus, and knife-wielding Jodie) through the services of Big Kathy’s bordello and finds out that they are wanted for murder in Mississippi. The intelligence that is gathered from The Circus is that the crew is hatching a new scam in order to lure suckers into buying shares of a non-existent lost Mexican goldmine. The pivotal part of this hustle, the part that really passes it off as legit, that gets Goldy’s spidey sense tingling, is that the crew has a trunk of gold ore on hand as proof to lure in potential investors. Coincidentally, it is revealed by Jackson, that this trunk of precious metal belonged to Imabelle’s ex and is now in her possession (wow, what are the chances?). With the pieces and players all laid out on the board, Himes punches down on the accelerator, blasting the plot forward. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel’s intricacies, but suffice it to say, with this MacGuffin in play, along with Jackson’s quest to get his girl back, tensions escalate into all out war between these rival factions. Matters become further complicated with the arrival on the scene of Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.
The through line of the entirety of Harlem Cycle lies with the dual protagonists of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. This team of African American detectives is assigned to the Harlem beat; they carry matching nickel plated, long barreled .38’s, and each man is known by his distinct catchphrase: Coffin Ed’s is “Count off!”, while Jones” is “Straighten up!” These partners are of the shoot first and ask questions later school of policing. They are a throwback of sorts, Old West gunfighters through and through. This pair would feel right at home administering prairie style justice in a frontier mining town. Even their warnings towards the small potatoes hoodlums they are arresting are direct and to the point, in Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry Callahan sort of way: “’Don’t make graves,’ Grave Digger cautioned.” Johnson gets taken out of action when he gets acid thrown in his face by Hank leaving it up to Coffin Ed to bring the murderous grifters to justice (Johnson returns in later novels, albeit bearing the acid scars on his face). Himes continually ratchets up the stakes of this deadly game of cat and mouse between the various players, until events reach a violent and blood soaked critical mass. And when this tipping point is reached, Himes does not shy away in depicting the real life consequences of violence. A fairly gruesome scene unfolds later in the book involving cutter Jodie.
The worldview that Chester Himes posits in this novel is quite a cynical one; the vast majority of the characters are out for themselves, everyone has an angle and is running a scam of their own devising. Even Jackson’s minister, the aptly named Reverend Gains, who is supposed to be the moral steward of his congregation, is living a life of luxury while his flock gets by from hand to mouth. It is very telling that the only honest man in the tale is dupe who is (willingly?) blind to the machinations of the woman that he loves. Everyone else in the story sees Imabelle for what she truly is; just another scammer trying to score. All the while, quietly looming in the background is Jackson’s boss, H. Exodus Clay, laughing all the way to the bank. Murder and death are good for business. This pervading cynical outlook is a traditional touchstone in hardboiled fiction and film noirs; the world and its inhabitants do not have your best interest at heart, they are predatory in nature. In addition to constructing an intricate plot, Chester Himes deserves credit as a lyrical wordsmith; his turns of phrase are elegantly constructed.
In setting a series within a specific time and place, coupled with his ample skills as a stylist, Himes” writing shares some parallels with what James Ellroy created decades later with his initial L.A. Quartet and continued to expand upon in his Underworld U.S.A Trilogy. Both authors have a distinct bebop, staccato cadence to their sentence structures. For example, “Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.” Or this, my favorite tidbit that sounds like a snippet out of The Big Nowhere or perhaps American Tabloid: “Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high- yellow heart.” In addition to stylistic similarities, I believe Himes and Ellroy are also simpatico when it comes to their shared philosophy of the world; you’re a predator or prey, a scammer or a mark. The choice is binary. Himes states; “[I]n the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.” That statement sums it up succinctly. Crime fiction doesn’t get any more hardboiled than that. I would encourage readers to track down and purchase the Penguin Modern Classics version of this novel. This United Kingdom edition sports a fantastic pulpy cover by Aaron Robinson with an informative introductory piece on Himes by Luc Sante, an author, professor, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. The Penguin Modern Classics edition is readily available on Amazon, for roughly the same price as the American Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard edition. Clocking in at a svelte two hundred and ten pages, you can rip through this little hardboiled gem in a rainy weekend.
 I might catch some flak for saying this, but I am of the opinion that what Himes did with his Harlem setting, Ellroy followed suit with his portrayal of Los Angeles. Certainly Raymond Chandler got there first, but Ellroy’s L.A. is bursting at the seams with a manic populous comprised of scammers, chumps, ambitious starlets, Mafiosi, cops on the take and several species of stone killers. Chandler’s city seems downright idyllic compared to that of Ellroy’s and Himes’. Philip Marlowe, beware!
 Luc Sante is the author of 1991’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Fans of crime fiction, folk history, or of old New York in the bad old days should check this out. This book is a chronicle of the movers and shakers of the city’s criminal underworld from 1840 to 1919. This work is a direct descendent of Herbert Asbury’s 1928, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. The two works bookend each other perfectly.
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