Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 1)

Alright readers of Broadswords and Blasters, it’s time for a full on nerd-out, and the topic is the Castlevania franchise. This article ballooned on me. In fact, it practically metastasized, so there will be a part 2 in next week. I guess you can say I’m a Castlevania fan. I even forgot until just now that my wallpaper on my iPad is fan art for Castlevania, with nearly every character from the game series history present in the piece. So…yeah. Also, you should listen to this playlist of some really awesome video game music as you read.

I first played Castlevania on the original Nintendo back in 1987. I was probably at my friend Michael’s house, as he was the only kid in the neighborhood I knew who had a Nintendo. I got my first Nintendo three or four years later. I didn’t have the original Castlevania in my library, but I did have the sequel, Simon’s Quest. To this day I’ll fight people over the importance Simon’s Quest had not just to the Castlevania series, but to video games in general. But before all that, let’s talk about why Castlevania even deserves to be discussed in an article for a pulp fiction magazine.

Look, it’s impossible to talk about horror, particularly pulp horror, without including a discussion about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the advent of the now-oversaturated genre of vampire fiction. Although vampires had existed in cultural histories for centuries, and although there had been novels before the Irishman tackled the lore, it’d be silly to somehow conclude Stoker wasn’t the progenitor of vampires as we conceive of them in the world today. Shortly after the novel was published there was a glut of Dracula literature. There were plays, other novels in the same vein, and even early films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu,[1] an unauthorized production of the original novel, which was almost lost to history as Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and nearly every copy of the extant film was destroyed. Luckily for history, the destruction was not complete and versions of the film survived.

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Christopher Lee

Bela Lugosi

In 1931 the most famous film adaptation of Dracula came to life with Bela Lugosi playing the undead Wallachian count. This version has become iconic for his widow’s peak and his accent, and the tropes it established are still around today (Hotel Transylvania is one example. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not). In the late 1950s what was old was new again, and Hammer Horror did a bunch of remakes of 1930s films, the most famous being Dracula but this time portrayed by Christopher Lee.

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While Lugosi may be looked upon as iconic, he only played the role in two films whereas Lee played Dracula in seven. It’s this latter portrayal that has a direct impact on Castlevania. In 1986 Konami made the first game, titled Akumajō Dracula (Devil Castle Dracula) for the Famicom Disk System, an add-on for the Famicom, the Japanese home computer system that was later modified and sold in US as the Nintendo Entertainment System. A year after its release in Japan, Castlevania hit shelves in America. This name change was to avoid the religious terminology, something Nintendo of America has done its best to keep out of games for much of its existence. (But they kept the crosses, holy water, and demonic elements of the gameplay…) Two other versions of the game, with two other title switches, were released on the MSX2 computer and as an arcade cabinet. The former, Vampire Killer, is named after the main character’s whip, and the latter, Haunted Castle, serves as a de facto sequel to Castlevania, though it’s not in the official game canon and is often forgotten (sometimes deliberately) because it’s just not very good.

As you can see in the image at the top of this page, the opening screen for the game is designed to look like a film strip and sets up the central conceit running through the rest of the game into and through the end credits. Essentially Castlevania is a Hammer-Horror-style film, right down to the names in the credits, which are deliberate tongue-in-cheek corruptions of real names. The game says Dracula is played by Christopher Bee, Death is Belo Lugosi, Frankenstein is Boris Karloffice, and the Mummy is Love Chaney, Jr. The screenplay is even “written by” Vram Stoker. It’s an obvious homage to anyone who knows these properties, and to pretty much anyone else who osmotically absorbed such information.

And that brings me to the plot summary, such as exists for an action-platformer, for the game. Simon Belmont sets out to rid the world of Dracula, as the undead count has launched an attack on humanity. After selecting start, the next screen has Belmont walking up to the gates of a gigantic castle in the middle of the night. From there Belmont makes his way through the castle under the player’s control, utilizing the aforementioned whip, Vampire Killer, which can be upgraded in length and strength, and a series of optional subweapons like a cross-boomerang, an axe, a dagger, or jars of holy water. At the end of each major stage, there is a boss battle where each boss is one of the standards from the Universal/Hammer horror films. There is a giant bat, Medusa, The Mummy (two of them, really), Frankenstein and Igor, the Grim Reaper, and Dracula himself, but he has two separate forms: the human-appearing count, and a demon.[2]

24055-castlevania-ii-simon-s-quest-nes-front-coverCastlevania 2: Simon’s Quest is a direct sequel to the first, and carries with it the same conceit of film homage. In this one Dracula’s minions are still around, despite Simon Belmont having killed Dracula, so Belmont has to gather the pieces of Dracula’s body from where he scattered them, resurrect the vampire again, and this time kill Dracula in the proper fashion. The gameplay while appearing similar in that it’s an action platformer, is actually significantly different. It’s more of a side-scrolling roleplaying game. The player has to actively gain currency, level up the character, purchase items, including whip upgrades, and go back and forth between towns and wild areas, much as is common in games like Zelda and Metroid. While there is much derision hurled at Simon’s Quest because of its cryptic clues and unclear dialogue translations,[3] it was a huge path diversion in terms of how the game was structured. The non-linear progression, multiple paths, and puzzle/clue nature of exploration founded the direction the game would take for most of the rest of the series. At the end of the game, depending on how quickly the player finishes, there are several different endings, ranging from dour and black and white to full color and triumphant, something that was also somewhat rare for the time period, but which went a long way to making video games more interactive, and also increasing their replayability.

Castlevania_III_-_Dracula's_Curse_-_(NA)_-_01Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse is the high point of the game series for me. It takes the linear progression of the first game, adds in some of the branching path ideas from the second while paring down on some of the roleplaying elements, and overall improves on both of its ancestors to make a superlative game. It also introduces more protagonist characters into the world of Castlevania. The game is effectively a prequel to the first two games, a common occurrence for part threes in the video game world. In this game you start the game as Trevor Belmont, the ancestor of Simon from the first two games. During this game players have branching path choices and can rescue three other people along the way, though each time the player rescues someone, they end up having to choose which person to keep around as the game only allows the player to keep Trevor and one companion. The people are rescued after first battling them, either to remove a curse or to prove Trevor’s worthiness as a hero. The characters are the pirate Grant, the sorceress Sypha, and Dracula’s son Alucard, in a direct rip-off/homage to the Hammer films. Each of these characters grants the player the ability to swap between them and Trevor, and has different skill sets to augment Trevor’s whip and subweapon abilities. Grant is much faster, nimbler, and better at jumping than Trevor and can climb walls. Sypha can use magical spells to freeze or burn enemies, but she’s slower and doesn’t jump as high. Alucard is perhaps the most powerful. He’s a dhampir, half vampire/half human, and can turn into a bat at will or shoot fireballs. He’s not as nimble as Grant, but can access areas no other character can simply because he can fly. Each of these characters provides the player access to even more branching paths, but the player can never see them all during one game session. They’d have to beat the game four separate times to see all the possibilities. One of the more popular endings is to keep Sypha around until the end, at which point she and Trevor become romantic. Keep this game in mind for next week’s article.

I’m not going to do this same deep dive on the rest of the game series here or else you’d be here reading for the next couple of hours. There are literally dozens of other games, ranging from Tiger Electronic LED versions to GameBoy, from Sega Genesis/Megadrive to Super Nintendo, from Playstation to Nintendo 3DS. There may even be a game in the future for the Nintendo Switch. At least, I bloody well hope so.

As a matter of fact, the reason I first started writing this Pulp Appeal was to talk about the Netflix animated series, which both Matt and I really like, but I’m at a good stopping point for now and will spend my next article tackling the show and wrapping up my opinions on Castlevania and its impact on me and its appeal for fans of pulp. See you in two weeks.


[1] It’s in the public domain, and below is an excellent, high quality restoration you can watch on YouTube.

[2] Incidentally, in the speedrunning community this demon form is known as the Cookie Monster. See for yourself why.

cookie monster

[3] The most famous criticism of Simon’s Quest comes from the YouTube series Angry Video Game Nerd. Simon’s Quest was the first episode of the AVGN series. In the episode, the nerd calls out the game’s obnoxious day-night transition and the cryptic clues, which are often factually incorrect as some of the townsfolk Simon talks to actually lie. The nerd’s seeming hatred for the game set the stage for James Rolfe’s character as a cranky, foul-mouthed, beer-swilling detractor of piss-poor video games. His over-the-top antics are not for everyone, but with 2.7 Million YouTube subscribers, DVD and Blu-ray releases of extended episodes, and even a feature-length movie, the nerd is a fixture in the YouTube community. I mean, he’s even considered important enough to have a Wikipedia page.

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Pulp Consumption: The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum

By Cynthia Ward

 

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum is the sequel to Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, which we previously reviewed here.

Overall, everything is bigger and broader in this follow-up novel. The scope of the adventure is expanded from the confines of a certain doomed ocean liner to the trenches of World War I. The stakes are higher as a famous British politician is taken captive. And the action is ramped up as the focus is less on intrigue and cloak and dagger in favor of more overt action and adventure. In fact, one of my main complaints about the first novel, that some of the action is delivered second hand, is addressed in this novel, as Lucy plays a much more active role than she did even in the first novel.

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum (Conversation Pieces Book 62) by [Ward, Cynthia]

Ward continues the series with calling out other pulp (and proto-pulp) properties. The main character is Lucy Harker, the daughter of Mina Harker and Dracula. The Holmes brothers make an appearance, albeit mostly off camera. There’s references to a Martian invasion, hollow earth expeditions, wolfmen, mechanical menaces and lost races of dinosaurs. There’s even a reference to the infamous thief Fantomas, and while that illustrious criminal doesn’t directly grace the pages of this particular volume, there’s plenty of opportunity for him to appear later.

All that is well and good, but where Ward’s work shines is in the development of the relationship between Lucy and Clarimal (better known as the vampire Carmilla). There’s the question of whether a love can be immoral when two people deeply care about each other. There’s also a sense of the tension between the old world and the new, as old superstitions and rites lose their efficacy and science becomes more predominant. Ward doesn’t quite answer the question as to whether the two can coexist, though the sense in her work is that there is a scale and science is weighing heavier than religion… a difficult prospect when some of the characters remember when religion ruled over all.

Suffice to say, if you are looking for a simple, quick, pulse pounding read, you may end up disappointed because Ward is able to layer in additional nuances to her work that are typically missing in classic pulp but that speak to the world at large. Despite being a historic fantasy, the questions posed in the Dux Bellorum are as relevant now as they would be during World War I.

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Pulp Consumption: The Shadow of the Torturer

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This is the copy I have in paperback.

First, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series of books may not be seen as pulp by many modern readers in the new pulp scene, but Dying Earth stories certainly trace their history directly through the pulp greats. There’s a direct line back from Wolfe to Jack Vance through CJ Cherryh, Lin Carter, and Poul Anderson, among others. And Vance absolutely traces back to Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique series, so while Wolfe’s writings in the early 1980s might not hit the bullseye where pulp resides, it’s definitely close to it in the overlapping Venn diagram of genre fiction.

Before I go much further, I have to come clean and say this is my second crack at Wolfe’s novel. The first time I tried to get through it was about 15 years ago when I was looking at books that inspired the Dungeons and Dragons creators when they were forming the game. D&D, being published first in 1974, predates Wolfe’s 1980 debut, but I got to Wolfe when I finished Vance and was hungry for more Dying Earth stuff. Wolfe wasn’t Vance, and I felt much the same as when I moved onto Lin Carter’s Conan after exhausting Howard: let down. As with Carter, the overall stories shared the rough outline of their predecessor’s, but they were clearly pale imitations. I realize now it’s less fair a comparison because unlike Carter, Wolfe wasn’t just picking up where his predecessor left off, but at the time it hit the wrong nerve. So I dropped the book onto a bookshelf where the rest of my D&D-a-like books sat and moved on to something else. 

Having now reread The Shadow of the Torturer (and being about 50 pages into its sequel The Claw of the Conciliator) I’m at a different place. In hindsight I still prefer Vance as a storyteller, but Wolfe is probably more technically skilled as a writer.

Wolfe’s novel is a first person narrative, ostensibly the written record of a torturer, Severian, as he comes of age on Earth as the sun is burning down in its death-throes. Severian is at best an unreliable narrator, so there are contradictions and loose ends which I’ll bet are never fleshed out (I’ll know for sure once I finish all four books, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion I’m right). The actual setting is Nessus, a gigantic walled city ruled over by the Autarch, an autocratic administrator at the head of a very rigid caste and guild system. The torturers, officially the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, carry out the Autarch’s wishes by torturing people deemed to be criminals or rebels. The torturers treat their occupation as a life-work and follow their duties with exacting detail, both to actually obtain information in interrogations and to inflict harm and eventually death upon their “clients,” as the guild members refer to their victims.

Severian is charged with accompanying a high level prisoner, a woman who is being held hostage for political reasons, which he does until it becomes her turn to undergo torture. Out of compassion Severian slips her a knife with which she commits suicide. As a result of this action, Severian is exiled from the guild. The rest of the novel follows Severian as he walks through Nessus to get to the outpost city of Thrax where he is to take up the role of executioner. As the book is older, the risk of spoiling is practically non-existent, but then there really isn’t a whole lot to spoil. He makes some friends and some enemies along the way and eventually ends up at a gate in the wall at the edge of Nessus proper. And that’s where this story really diverges from the pulp tropes of old.

While Wolfe is an entertaining writer, adept with description and dialogue, the story itself does seem to have an inordinate amount of philosophical navel-gazing, common to speculative fiction during and after John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding (now Analog). A certain amount of that can help with characterization, but Wolfe clearly had aspirations to literary greatness. Navel-gazing isn’t enough for literary greatness, but it does seem to be a prerequisite. There was definitely merit to Wolfe’s aspiration as he won some major awards multiple times, including the World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Campbell Award, and Locus Award. But there’s a reason he doesn’t have as wide a readership as, say, Stephen King or Jim Butcher (to pick two authors at random…nope, nothing at all to do with their books being within my eyeline while I was searching for examples…except that’s totally the case).

Wolfe’s awards are certainly well deserved from the standpoint of literary legitimacy, but if I’m honest, I did find sections of the novel to be a slog. I had to force myself through paragraphs of text I’m not sure added much, if anything, to the story beats. That said, the overall effect of the work left me wanting to continue reading the tetralogy, so in the grand scheme of things the critics and award committees are right: Wolfe is master craftsman and highly recommended for readers of speculative fiction. Just don’t expect much in the way of pulp pacing or action-fronted fight sequences.

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Cry Havoc! Submissions are Open!

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BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS is officially back open for submissions from now until November 30th, 2018! So send us your sword & sorcery, your horror, your noir, your Westerns, your Weird and your retro sci-fi stories. Mash-ups are perfectly acceptable. Dazzle us with your prose, but most importantly make sure that you entertain!

Official guidelines can be found here!

Want a sense of what we are/aren’t looking for? Take a look at what co-editor Matthew Gomez is looking for when he reviews submissions (hint: it’s the same kind of thing that Cameron is looking for as well).

Also, this will probably be helpful as it tells you the most likely reason your story will be rejected.

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Pulp Consumption: The Ballad of Black Tom

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Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom reimagines H.P. Lovecraft’s original story “The Horror at Red Hook,” notorious for being one of the most blatantly racist stories by the older author. “Red Hook” was originally published by Weird Tales in 1927, but it’s notably racist even for the time period. Additionally, Lovecraft himself wasn’t much a fan of the story. Some of Lovecraft’s proteges and biographers (Lin Carter the former and ST Joshi the latter) agree with his assessment. I don’t think there’s a need for me to agree with others, but I’ll just add in my personal dislike for the story, its narrative device (used to better effect in “Randolph Carter”), and the unchecked xenophobia, which is more than uncalled for.

Black Tom has won awards and was nominated for many others, primarily because it manages to add story beats that give the characters purpose. If “Red Hook” had been submitted to us, we’d likely have passed on it for multiple reasons–foremost the aforementioned racism–but even if that was missing, it would be because the action scenes are bland and the stakes are nearly impossible to discern. Simply put, readers don’t really care about the main character; Thomas Malone, an Irish-American police detective; nor the villain, Robert Suydam. What’s in play/at risk is impossible for the main character to prevent, and the villain’s motivation is lacking, at best. And that’s why Black Tom is as successful as it has been.

Suydam’s motivations, the calling forth of an Old One to hopefully remove humans from existence, are far better explained than in “Red Hook,” Malone’s knowledge and understanding of magic are heightened and explored in more detail, and finally, Black Tom, the African-American servant/slave of Suydam, is given his own storyline and motivation, rather than just being exploited by Suydam. His is Tommy Tester, a hustler who pretends to be a street musician in order to act variously as a transporter for magical items and books, and as a scammer using his position and knowledge to blackmail or extort money from people higher up on the food chain.

While almost everything about Black Tom is better than Lovecraft’s original, I do feel as though the mundanity and simplicity of LaValle’s language doesn’t carry the same appeal as Lovecraft’s more grandiose verbiage. I realize this is about personal taste rather than objective criticism (if such a thing exists), but when dealing with the scene-setting of pulp fiction, particularly that of Mythos-inspired literature, I vastly prefer the complex and perhaps archaic phrasing. Matt thinks the more stripped-down prose makes the story more accessible, but I’m just not a fan. There’s a time and place for short, direct sentences (Hemingway or Carver or Pinter), but it’s not when describing the ultimate evils ready to awaken and destroy all of existence.

I went back and reread “Red Hook” after about 10 pages of Black Tom because I wanted to see what I might be missing since it had been a long time since I read Lovecraft’s original, but LaValle really did his homework, so it wasn’t necessary to reread at all. LaValle’s story is simply better constructed, includes all the important details, adds new appropriate story points, and is all around a more entertaining experience. If you really want to have Lovecraft’s verbosity in your head, just read a different story (I recommend “At the Mountains of Madness”) and let LaValle tackle “Red Hook” for you instead. The Ballad of Black Tom is worth your time and money.

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Pulp Appeal: Econoclash Review #2

Econoclash Review #Two

Edited by J.D. Graves

Available via Amazon

 

Econoclash Review continues to impress with a grab bag of stories by some of the hottest indie talent around. To be sure, some of the stories were more miss than hit for me, but there’s enough in this slim digest to appease even the most discerning of pulp connoisseurs. That said, the tagline isn’t Quality Cheap Thrills for nothing, and these stories seek to entertain first and foremost and that they most assuredly do. But what exactly do you get you’re your money? Well… Continue reading

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Issue 7 Out Today!

Hey, guess what today is? I mean other than the first day of the rest of your life. Yeah, that’s right, we’ve got a new issue of BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS for you.

Broadswords and Blasters Issue 7: Pulp Magazine with Modern Sensibilities (Volume 2 Book 3) by [Gomez, Matthew, Codair, Sara, Barlow, Tom, Francis, Rob, Kilgore, Joe, Reynolds, Z., Serna-Grey, Ben, Young, Brad, Rubin, Richard, Uitvlugt, Donald]

Maybe we shouldn’t have woken it up?

Richard Rubin first graced our pages in Issue 4 with “Commander Saturn and the Deadly Invaders From Rigel,” and now he’s back battling the space pirates of Ganymede. If you like retro sci-fi at all (we’re talking old school Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon), you’re going to want to check out this tale of experimental cloaking devices, double crosses and deception.

Tom Barlow gave us “Jigsaw,” a dysfunctional couple’s descent into horror brought about by a mysterious puzzle.

Ben Serna-Grey penned the twisted surrealistic sci-fi dystopia “Choice Cuts.” When everything (and anyone) is edible, conspicuous consumption takes on a whole new meaning.

Rob Francis is back this issue (last seen way back in issue 1) with “Land and Money and Old Bones,” the story of Anthony, heir to his uncle’s estate, who finds out some inheritances might be more work than they’re worth.

Sara Codair gets our cover story with two brave ocean explorers who encounter “A Curious Case in the Deep.” A different take on a nautical adventure to be sure… and maybe the depths aren’t meant to be explored after all. Sara graced us with a story back in Issue 2, “The Soul Plantation.”
Z.S. Reynolds gave us “Between,” a tale of a West that never was and the brave women who protect the transcontinental railroad.

Joe Kilgore has the cautionary Western about being careful about the promises you choose to keep, “The Best Laid Plans.” It’s the kind of story that harkens back to spaghetti Westerns, with hard men and hard women both.

Brad Young stuns with “The Whisker-Wood,” a weird, twisted horror tale about a man’s descent into madness. You might not look at the weeds in your backyard the same way again.

We wrap the issue up with Donald Uitvgult’s “Harvest Moon,” a cosmic horror jidaigeki that creates a unique story of betrayal, falsehoods, and blood.

Issue 7 is available at Amazon in both kindle and dead tree formats. It is also available for Kindle Unlimited.

We are also currently running a sale on all Kindle versions of our back issues, in case there are any that you are missing. You can find a full list of our catalog here.

And as a reminder, we reopen for submissions on November 1. Picking up a back issue (or more) could give you a good sense of what we are looking for.

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