Pulp Consumption: Get Out

Get-Out-movie-song

By now I have to imagine anyone who loves horror movies has seen Get Out, so it’s probably preaching to the choir at this point, but if for some reason you’ve skipped over this film you are doing yourself a serious disservice. Seriously, stop reading now and just go watch the movie.

Are you still here? If so, I’m going to assume you’ve watched the film, so beware spoilers below.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

It would be stupid not to discuss the popularity of Jordan Peele as a comedy writer and sketch actor, especially where it comes to his frequent collaborator Keegan Michael Key (if you watched the Super Bowl, you saw Key in at least two commercial breaks, and I’m sure you recognize him from character actor roles all over the place).  If you’ve ever watched any of the Key and Peele sketch show, you have no doubt noted the comedic duo’s keen sense of comedic timing. The concept of the right thing happening at the right time to upset or subvert expectations and deliver surprises is the very essence of both comedy and horror, so it should come as no surprise that a brilliant comic writer would also be a brilliant horror writer. This is not to say every comedian would be a good horror writer or vice versa, but there is a very definite overlap in skillsets. Just consider the jump scare that is actually a cat instead of the monster. If you need further proof, go back and rewatch nearly any slasher movie[1], but play a laugh track instead of screeching violins.

Rather than go into a synopsis of the film and then discuss the meaning, we’ll cut right to the chase: the movie is about systemic racism, even at the hands of self-proclaimed white liberal social justice advocates. They trick, control, and usurp black bodies while simultaneously loudly declaring their anti-racist bonafides. It’s limousine liberalism at its finest.

Allison Williams as Rose Armitage

Allison Williams as Rose Armitage

I wrote earlier about Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and the Lovecraftian theme is also present here, but instead of Elder Gods, magical texts, and non-Euclidean geometry there’s magic, hypnotism, cults who buy and sell people, brain-body transportation, and the creeping sense of dread brought about by the strange behavior of servant staff, all black men and women, and the insistence by the white family that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies.

Peele, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, does a pretty good job of giving us details in the same way his characters learn them, although there is one sequence which contains entirely too much direct explanation/ authorial intrusion.

The end of the film, like Ruff’s novel, is the one major shortcoming I see. I understand why the studio pushed for a “happy” ending, with the main character escaping the clutches of a white body-stealing cult, much as I understand why Ruff chose to have his characters triumph over the ancient white cult of sorcery. Black characters don’t generally survive horror films[2]. In fact, it’s so standard a trope in horror movies that it’s frequently lampshaded, to the point of being explicitly called out in character.

The problems I see with both Lovecraft Country and Get Out isn’t the survivors who subvert a trope (indeed, I’m glad to see it), but that the conclusions wrap up too neatly. In the most iconic horror films, the final scenes are almost always ambiguous, with the heroes/survivors just barely scraping through. In fact, it could be viewed as a good thing: After all, Peele is turning the traditional horror tale on its ear a bit. Instead of dark-skinned primitive cults sacrificing white heroes to raise ancient horrors, it’s hyper-savvy technologically advanced cults of white aristocrats sacrificing black heroes to serve as literal body slaves. I just wish the getaway wasn’t quite so clean and tidy. Peele is smart enough that maybe the sequel can call attention to this fact and skirt around it. After all, not everyone in the cult is dead.

Minor faults aside, I definitely recommend this movie even if you have no interest in (or are blind to) the social justice angle of the film. It’s well-written, -acted, and -directed, and tells its story well. Although it is feature-length, the basic morality tale aspect of it should appeal to fans of shows like Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror, or, really, fans of horror in general.

As a fan of Jordan Peele’s, I’m very glad this film had the success it did and I look forward to seeing what he makes next. In addition to a possible sequel to Get Out, he’s attached to the Twilight Zone reboot for CBS All Access[3] and Lovecraft Country at HBO.


[1] Particularly Wes Craven films

[2] Although that definitely wasn’t always the case. In fact, in Night of the Living Dead, Ben (Duane Jones) is the only survivor of the night (though at the end he does die because he is mistaken for a zombie), and in Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, Peter (Ken Foree) is one of only two characters to survive the long night in the shopping mall.

[3] Cranky old man shouting at clouds – I hate everything about All Access’ business model.

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Pulp Consumption: Magnificent Seven (1960)

What do you get when you remake a classic samurai movie by Akira Kurosawa, only give it an all-star Hollywood cast and set in the old West? THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN[1]! Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, and a guy who saved Frank Sinatra’s life (sorry, Brad Dexter). It also saw the debut of a young German actor by the name of Horst Buchholz.  The incredible score was composed by Elmer Bernstein and is one of the most memorable scores in Hollywood history.

This movie bridges the gap between the earlier golden age of the Hollywood Western where the lines are clearly divided between good and evil, the good guys take their time to shoot guns out of their opponents hands, and the good guys walk away clean, clearly having accomplished their objective. This movie, while it does indulge in some of that (see the opening gun fight between Chris and Vin at the graveyard) for the most part the gunplay is deadly serious.

Image result for eli wallach magnificent seven

You don’t get much more all-star cast than this.

The movie doesn’t fail to manipulate the audience. What viewer watching it doesn’t pull for the obviously outnumbered seven? Early on, it is established that Chris will do the right thing despite the odds or prevailing attitudes when he agrees to bring a Native American to a graveyard over the objections of some of the white residents of the town. A town beset by a stronger force is obligated to search for outside help, not knowing if they’ll be able to find it.

Image result for eli wallach magnificent seven

Calvera isn’t a man to mess with

What also stands out for me is the amount of character development that the movie goes into. Whether it is Bernardo O’Reilly acknowledging his mixed heritage (or his powerful speech to the boys of the village that their fathers, the farmers, are true heroes), Lee overcoming his failed nerves to enter the fight, or Chico realizing the life of a gunfighter doesn’t hold the same appeal as settling down with Petra, one of the village girls. Even Calvera, the bad guy, gets some development. It turns out he needs to raid the village because his men are short on food. So rather than raiding because he is out-and-out evil, he does it because he cares about his men. Calvera also demonstrates a level of savvy not often seen by villains when he initially convinces the seven to leave the town. The seven (with the exception of Harry Luck, who was only after a payday) decide after leaving that they can’t leave a job half-done.

the-magnificent-seven-bronson

When Charles Bronson ends up being the comic relief… you know you are in a badass movie.

If you are looking for inspiration for your own stories, you can do a lot worse and not much better than the original Magnificent Seven[2].

 

 

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[1] Arguments can and have been made about whether it is as good a movie as Seven Samurai. That’s not the point of this article, and in fact both movies do certain things better.

[2] Yes, I am aware that there were sequels, but as a whole they pale in comparison. Likewise, the remake in 2016 fell flat for me for host of reasons, despite its stellar cast and hints of being a good movie. However, despite being cut short, the 1998 television series is fun if you can find it.

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Pulp Appeal: Ursula K. Le Guin

This article has been harder to write than I anticipated. That’s not just because Ursula K. Le Guin was an important writer, but because I realize that I have been remiss in my reading of her work.

First, she’s not a pulp writer. Her fiction is very definitely in the realm of socially and politically aware, deliberately composed to advance social agendas alongside the entertainment factor. I was not and am not always amenable to that. I tend to find much of that sort of writing to be polemical and I’m usually not interested in too much polemics when I’m reading for fun. That said, her work is important in the grand scheme of science fiction and fantasy, and for that she deserves accolades.

Le Guin’s work is unquestionably feminist. The modern intersectional feminist movement may not always agree because Le Guin’s earlier work had explicitly male characters exploring worlds where the patriarchy held firm control. They attempted to weave their way through those worlds without outright upending them. To some, this is an unforgivable sin and amounts to apologetics.

Paperback cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Paperback cover of
The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m not one to jump so quick on that. Authors are products of their time and the prevailing attitudes and mores of that time. This doesn’t forgive people like Lovecraft their racism, but judging the entire past based on modern moral standards reaches the height of silliness. For instance, at the time that Bill Clinton was elected President, his saxophone and sunglasses shtick was seen as progressive and representational of black minority voters. He was even called “the first black President.” You only have to look ahead 20 years and that seems positively asinine. In 20 more years there will undoubtedly be critiques of Barack Obama as betraying the black community. Indeed, such rumblings already exist.

But that’s simply revisionist history. At the time, those were major milestones, and a work like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is such a milestone, too. In that work she deals with the problems of gender roles, postulating a far future society where not only are the roles broken apart, but the actual sexes of the species are malleable as well. Other authors, including men like Robert Heinlein[1], Joe Haldeman, Samuel R. Delany, and John Scalzi, and women like Margaret Atwood, Anne McCaffrey, Octavia Butler, and Kameron Hurley have explored similar concepts with respect to people changing genders or the implicit problems with ingrained roles determined by those genders. While Le Guin was certainly not the first to do so, the mainstream success of Left Hand made sure many more readers were exposed to it than might have otherwise.

Paperback cover of The Tombs of Atuan

Paperback cover of
The Tombs of Atuan

Of similar importance, at least in the realm of Bildungsroman speculative fiction, are the Earthsea novels, though I confess to having read only the second one, The Tombs of Atuan. I was not particularly impressed, but I was also much younger. I’m going to take it upon myself to read the rest of them this summer during the college break.

The story of hers I’m most familiar with is also one of her shortest, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I use this story in both my short story literature and creative writing classes where we discuss both the craft elements of a religious or pseudo-religious parable and the ethics of a society in which suffering must exist in order for happiness to exist. The moral implications of such a society are often lost upon students at first. They feel like the people who stay in the society are evil and the ones who walk away are good, but the story resists such a black-or-white interpretation completely. In reality, the society Le Guin portrays is not so far-fetched, as those of us in first-world societies do enjoy almost all of the creature comforts and peace as the Omelans, and much of that is built upon people who do the hard labor and crap jobs[2] to which we are willfully blind. I’ll leave the rest of the English professor-y stuff for another day, but suffice to say I have spent a lot of time with this story, talking it over with students and professors and casual readers alike.

As a last note, we talk here at Broadswords and Blasters about works that influence our tastes and works that we are currently consuming. Not all of them are pulp, but each of them has shaped the way we think and read in different ways. I’m not always in a mood for socially conscious fiction, which is why I have shelves full of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels alongside my definitive pulp works by icons like Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room on those shelves for the other works, or that even the pulp works aren’t themselves political. Noir works are certainly political critiques of a failing justice system, corruption, and the moral gray areas of real-world encounters. And there’s certainly room for literary analysis of all works–pulp, social sf, high-tech sf, cyberpunk, noir, superhero, literary fiction, vampire romance . . .

It behooves you all to read widely, so that at the very least you know why you love what you love when it comes to pulp. Action-centered entertainment starring proactive protagonists and antagonists with agency doing big things in the face of danger, with moral costs and changes in physical and mental well-being at play, is all key to my enjoyment of the genre, and that isn’t likely to ever go away. But sometimes it’s good to take a break and read something with a bit more heft.


[1] Unfairly categorized as a right-wing authoritarian based only on his early work. Anyone who judges Heinlein without having read Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, Job: A Comedy of Errors, The Number of the Beast, or any of his other works from the late 60s until his death, is simply mistaken.

[2] This is essentially the entire purpose of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, and what host Mike Rowe most wants viewers to understand.

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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.

Image result for swords against darkness

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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