Issue 11 Is Live!

In our 11th issue we’re excited to bring you: Aaron Emmel’s story “A Protector on the Road,” his follow up to the story “Irini,” which we originally published in issue five. James Kane graces us with a story where sword and sorcery literally collide in the hardboiled fantasy “The Red Star Assassin.” A young woman is pursued into an antique shop filled with curiosities in Benjamin Chandler’s “The Living Texts of Sildeen,” but what can the proprietor do against a hardened killer? Our cover story is “Frail Memorials” by J.C. Pillard where a young man discovers that not only are ghosts real, they are an integral part of his new job. E.K. Wagner’s “See You in the Next Regime” is a sci-fi tale of love and war and betrayal. C.J. Casey gives us a Western world that ended in 1859 in “Fire and Wool,” featuring an investigation into a different kind of livestock raid. “Dust Claims Dust” by Erica Ruppert is a fantasy tale of war and forbidden love (yes, we’re seeing a sort of pattern here, aren’t you?) that left us with a bit of dust in our eyes. A band of desperadoes get their comeuppance when they fall prey to a killing curse in “A Touch of Shade” by Gary Robbe. Finally, “Dreaming of Chester” by Kevin M. Folliard is a great intersection of crime, horror, and science-fiction set on the Australian coast.

As always, many thanks to our contributors, and if you do pick up a copy, a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or even your personal space is always welcome.

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Pulp Appeal: The Ghoul (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums.  His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.

Cover image of The Ghoul issue 1, depicts the title character, a giant Frankenstein's monster in a trenchcoat with the moon or a spotlight illuminating him from behind.

I first encountered the works of Bernie Wrightson as a kid decades ago in the 1980’s. Back in those days, before I had access to a proper comic shop, my local supermarket carried shrink wrapped bundles of comics, usually (if I remember correctly) four to a pack. There was no rhyme or reason to the packaging of these bundles, it was purely luck of the draw; you could just as easily land an issue of Simonson’s Thor as you could Moench’s Aztec Ace. One Saturday, upon returning home from food-shopping and opening up the goods, there was a (battered and yellowing, decade old) copy of Swamp Thing number ten. “The Man Who Would Not Die” featured a cover of the Swamp Thing locked in mortal combat with the monstrous Anton Arcane, while in the background stalked his horribly mutated Un-Men.  One look at that image and I became an immediate fan. I was simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the detailed rendering of the monstrous imagery.   To be honest, I don’t recall many of the details of that issue except for Wrightson’s lush and consistent art style.  As the years passed, I was able to check out his work on Creepshow and (in my humble opinion) his straight-up masterpiece of pen and ink illustration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, all the while marveling at the fact that his already prodigious artistic talents increased exponentially since those early Swamp Thing days from the 1970’s. I recently had the opportunity to pick up IDW’s three issue collaboration between horror writer, Steve Niles and Wrightson entitled The Ghoul. This comic is a throwback to those earlier days, when horror and monster titles were ubiquitous on the spinner racks; a combination Monster Rally by way of a 1930’s detective pulp.

LAPD Detective Lloyd Klimpt is working a bizarre extortion case concerning Ester Atwood, an actress whose family has deep roots in Hollywood (going back to her grandmother, silent film star Polly). Klimpt has requested outside help concerning this strange case from the Feds, specifically the sub-department known as the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. The FBSI agent arrives by specially modified plane in the dead of night at a discreet airstrip in Burbank. Klimpt is bewildered when the FBSI representative, codenamed The Ghoul, disembarks from his transport; towering at eight feet in height, clad in a leather duster, with a slate gray, inhuman visage and a shock of black hair. This agent is obviously a non-human entity. Klimpt drives The Ghoul to his house (in a rented U-Haul, no less) to examine the Atwood case files; the Detective is suspicious that at any given point in time, the three generations of actresses look exactly identical to each other. Klimpt suspects that something beyond the boundaries of the natural world is at play with the Atwood clan. This is a time sensitive consultation, given the fact that the FBSI agent is on loan to the LAPD until morning. To complicate matters further, The Ghoul is in town on a secondary mission. It is Walpurgisnacht, the night when the creatures from the underworld make an incursion into our realm. After making a pit stop to equip Klimpt with heavier ordinance, the pair makes their way to the Griffith Park Observatory and get into a running gun battle with a pack of feasting demons. The Ghoul is able to pry information from one of the hellions about Ester Atwood and eventually the duo make their way to the family estate to confront the seemingly immortal creature(s) that are veiled in human skins.

Although lighter in tone in comparison to other projects penned by the author (30 Days of Night comes to mind), there are some genuinely gruesome scenes that are rendered in bloody detail by Wrightson’s masterful line work. Like Niles’ other series Criminal Macabre, there is some humorous back and forth verbal banter between this odd couple (it parallels the patter between Cal McDonald and his partner, Mo’lock). Along the course of their investigation, Klimpt and The Ghoul make contact with two individuals who are well versed in the supernatural that are able to lend a helping hand. Doc Macabre is the boy genius/ occult investigator who creates his own DIY, jerry-rigged monster fighting equipment. He comes off like a cross between Egon Spengler and Jack B. Quick, while the second is the chain smoking, whiskey swilling, Private Investigator Joe Coogan, who also happens to be a rotting corpse, a member of the living dead. These two ancillary characters have starred in their own respective three issue miniseries’, Doc Macabre and Dead, She Said, which were written and illustrated by the same creative team. It is my understanding that Niles and Wrightson were in the process of assembling their own little pulp flavored comic universe, with the lead characters from these three books acting as the foundation stones. Given the fact that these two creators were (almost) exclusive practitioners of the horror genre, one can imagine that this universe’s main focus would be on supernatural/ monster comics, with a large dose of crime fiction mixed in as well. The next phase of the Niles/ Wrightson pulp universe was to be a team book, consisting of The Ghoul, Doc Macabre and Coogan (and I suspect Klimpt as well, given the third issue’s finale). These characters were to combine their collective efforts in staving off an even larger supernatural threat.  Niles christened this crew, The Moorpark Rejects, sort of the IDW version of Night Force, The Midnight Sons or perhaps The Defenders; a misfit gang of monster fighters, of whom two of which are actual monsters. Sadly, this project never made it to fruition; half of this creative team, Bernie Wrightson passed away in 2017, leaving The Moorpark Rejects in a permanent state of limbo.

The backup feature in The Ghoul is a serialized prose story by Niles entitled “My Ghoul” in which, while on the hunt for the serial killer, Scabby McCain in Canada, The Ghoul encounters Millicent, a female member of his species. This meeting comes as a shock to the protagonist.  Throughout his long life, never once has he encountered anyone of his kind, let alone a woman. Niles drops more tantalizing hints concerning the murky origins of the FBSI investigator (and his female counterpart) along with creating a potential romantic interest for the character. The Ghoul is a fun, fast paced read. This book is a classic Monster Rally, with some police procedural and hardboiled elements blended into the mix. Readers who are fans of the Hellboy comics and films, the Cal McDonald mysteries, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, or Bronze Age horror comics from DC, Marvel and Warren, should feel right at home with this miniseries(1). This is a quality, albeit minor, piece from a master illustrator’s substantial body of work that left this world far too soon.

During their initial release, Dead, She Said; The Ghoul; and Doc Macabre, were published as color comics. In early 2018, IDW released The Monstrous Collection of Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson. This deluxe edition brings these three miniseries’ together in one volume in all their pulpy glory (along with a healthy dose of extra material spanning Wrightson’s career as an illustrator over the decades). This volume does away with the original colors entirely, letting the meticulous pencil and ink work take center stage, boosting the mood factor substantially. While not as polished as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or its sequel, Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! , the absence of the color scheme certainly plays to Wrightson’s strengths as an illustrator. The black and white interiors of The Monstrous Collection give off that classic Creepy and Eerie magazine vibe.

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Image result for submissions are open

Once again, your humble editors have taken leave of their collective senses and have decided to once more call for stories. If you read this and it is after October 31, 2019… our deepest condolences but the window has closed, the ritual is complete and we’ve said too much.

2,000 to 5,000 words. No exceptions. No serials. No novellas. No 500 word pitches for a story that exists only in ephemera.

Send it in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format. If you nail it to our front door, we will admire your dedication while the local constabulary cart you away. Those devotees to the forbidden .pdf will be sacrificed to some forgotten demigod of wrack and ruin and your submission will go unread. Those who send links that we must click in order to read your submission shall have their names stricken from the record and be mentioned no more.

Acceptable genres? A short list would include sword-and-sorcery, retro scifi, noir, detective, Western (weird and otherwise). What we want are stories that are heavy with action and filled with memorable characters. We hold a certain fondness for giant monsters, pirates, thieves of all types, blackhearted rogues, mavericks, and sword swingers. If your characters can solve the problem with nothing more complex than a conversation and a push of a button, your story is not for us.

When will we get back to you? Our goal is no later than November 30th. This will depend highly on the (admittedly tenuous) sanity of the editors and exactly how many submissions we become inundated with.

We pay $15… which, while not much, should at least get you a burrito most places. Maybe even a beverage to wash it down with.

All other guidelines are here!

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Pulp Appeal: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix title card
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix title card

Last week Matt tackled the 1982 film The Dark Crystal, one of the most impactful movies of my childhood, right up there with Stand by Me, Labyrinth, and the hundreds of action movies I devoured in the 80s and early 90s. I could easily overstate The Dark Crystal‘s importance in my life because as much as I am a fan, I’m not diehard enough to have sought out the various comic book and novelization follow-ons. I do have some Brian Froud art books because I like those, but I never felt like I needed more from The Dark Crystal than was presented to me in the film.

I still felt that way when Age of Resistance was rumored to be in production a couple years ago. I figured it’d be some CGI laden crapfest seeking to “correct” or “update” elements of the story that didn’t really need correction or updating. Then some trailers dropped, demonstrating that not only was this not some hackneyed bullcrap remake in the typical Hollywood fashion, but was in fact a true-to-form prequel that didn’t seek to upend what had come before.

Following on the heels of Stranger Things, which isn’t a remake of anything in particular but a loving homage to 80s action sf/horror movies with kid protagonists, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance seems to have captured everything that was great about intellectual properties from the time period while updating them for an audience used to more sophisticated visual and audio production. The original The Dark Crystal aged pretty well considering its nature as a puppet and matte painting vehicle, but that wasn’t going to fly in exactly the same way. The same is true with how Stranger Things uses practical effects augmented and supplemented with competent CGI rather than supplanted by them (Although I really like the Marvel superhero flicks, I’m not sure how well those will stand the test of time as the CGI will likely look outdated in 10-15 years). This seems to be a common theme with the best of the film properties coming out today, properties like John Wick and Mad Max Fury Road.

Rian, the one of the main characters of the show, voiced by Taron Egerton
Rian, the one of the main characters of the show, voiced by Taron Egerton

In any case, Age of Resistance is more than just a loving homage. It’s actually a prequel. I have complaints about prequels for properties where we as viewers know the end of the story, especially for a story like The Dark Crystal where we know that the Skeksis have all but destroyed Thra leaving only two known Gelflings alive and decimating the rest of the sentient life on the plant. There’s room to tell competent stories about what happened before, but filmmakers run the risk of being too hamstrung by later concrete facts of the story or else providing unnecessary or inconsistent details that undermine the original. I’m thinking primarily here about Rogue One and Solo, both from the Star Wars film universe. Rogue One did pretty well in theaters, but Solo[1] did not, and neither of them are exactly lighting strong fires for the fan base to rally behind. There are segments of the population who have glommed onto one or the other, but they don’t really overlap and those segments are also noticeably not the whole population that loved Star Wars. The Lucas era prequels had the same problem, but to a much lesser extent, and likely because we weren’t at peak Star Wars saturation in 1999 the way we are now.

Deet, one of the main characters, voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel
Deet, one of the main characters, voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel

Age of Resistance could have suffered from those same problems, but it manages to fight against that exceedingly well. This is partly because the time period during which the events of the story happen isn’t made explicitly clear. Unlike Rogue One or Solo, when Age of Resistance takes place isn’t clearly defined. The last episode doesn’t lead directly into the events of the film the way Rogue One leads directly into A New Hope, nor is it clearly during the lifetime of the movie’s protagonist, as in Solo. Although there are prophetic flashes that includes bits from the film, there’s no telling exactly how far into the future they are occurring.

Brea, one of the main characters, voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy
Brea, one of the main characters, voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy

So all this analysis aside, what is the series actually about then? At the start of the first episode the Skeksis are the rulers of Thra, and the subservient Gelflings are actually split into several different clans who all are subservient to one Gelfling queen, the All-Maudra. Unbeknownst to the Gelflings, who largely consider the Skeksis to be benevolent, or at least aloof, overlords ensuring safety and security, the Skeksis have actually been siphoning off energy from the Crystal of Truth in order to maintain their fantasy that they are immortal. However, the corruption of the Crystal has weakened it to the point where it no longer provides the life-sustaining energy the Skeksis need. So the Scientist has developed a new method of gaining energy, by exposing subservient living beings to the corrupted Crystal and draining the “essence” out of those creatures, which is then distributed as a sort of potion of life to each of the Skeksis. A group of Gelfling, led by one of the main characters Rian, stumbles across the Skeksis ritual chamber, and one of Gelfling, Mira, Rian’s girlfriend, is caught and sacrificed to the Crystal while Rian watches from hiding. He runs away and tries to warn the Gelfling leadership, but the Skeksis, who spotted him shortly after the draining, have already planned to undermine his authority by claiming he’s sick and deranged. Rian is left an outlaw from his own people and has to find a way to get them to believe that the Skeksis are actually evil.

That’s about as much plot as I’m willing to divulge here, spoiling essentially only the first half or so of the first episode. Suffice to say there’s a lot more going on with political machinations, explicit racism on the behalf of the various clans of Gelfling, and a deepening corruption that spreads even outside of the knowledge of the Skeksis themselves.

I deliberately didn’t look up any of the plot lines or actors or anything until after finishing the first season, so it was with some real surprise that I saw so many big name Hollywood actors associated with the project. For starters, Rian, one of three main focus characters, is voiced by Taron Egerton, fresh on the heels of his successful roles in both the Kingsman movies and as Elton John in the Rocketman biopic. Anya Taylor-Joy, who starred in my favorite horror movie in recent memory, The Witch, voices Brea, one of the daughters of the previously mentioned All-Maudra. The All-Maudra herself is voiced by one of my wife’s least favorite actresses (and one of my favorites) Helena Bonham Carter. 

Skeksi – The Chamberlain, voiced by Simon Pegg for the show

I’m just going to spit out the rest of the names of the excellent cast here because there are just too many to list all their characters and backgrounds. In this cast are *deep inhale* Nathalie Emmanuel, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Eddie Izzard, Caitriona Balfe, Toby Jones, Lena Headey, Alicia Vikander, Mark Strong, Natalie Dormer, Theo James, Jason Isaacs, Benedict Wong, Mark Hamill, Andy Samberg, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina, Harvey Fierstein, Bill Hader, Olafur Olafsson[2], Simon Pegg, and Sigourney Weaver as the narrator *exhale*. And those are just the names I recognize.

With that kind of acting star power, the Jim Henson Company as creators, and the budget of Netflix all behind the series, it would have been awful if the show had stunk. The good news is that the show not only doesn’t stink, but is in fact one of my favorite television shows of the last few years, standing alongside Stranger Things and the first and third seasons of True Detective. My biggest complaint is one I mentioned above – it’s a prequel, and one in which the end result of everything that happens is already a known quantity. So while I am excited for future seasons and watching the characters continue to grow and fight back against the corrupting influence of the selfish life-hoarding Skeksis, ultimately I know that the Resistance will fail and that the fate of the entire world will be left in the hands of two Gelflings, one male and one female, as they restore the shard to the Crystal of Truth, thereby uniting the Skeksis and the elusive Mystics into the spacefaring UrSkeks and restoring the balance of life to Thra.

Poster for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, shows the backs of the three main characters as they look upon the castle of the Skeksis.

[1] – Tangent, I vastly preferred Solo to Rogue One, because although some of the characters in Rogue One were cool, that’s it for them. The story wasn’t one that I felt needed to be expanded on more than what was explained in A New Hope, and all of the characters are dead now anyway, so what was the point of introducing cool new characters only for them to be completely irrelevant from that point on? I dunno. Just not my cup of tea.

[2] – I’m not sure how well The Widow did for Amazon Prime. I liked about 80% of it, but the resolution was weak and the setup and advertising promised a lot more behind the conspiracy aspects of the show than what was delivered. I’d give the show a solid C, moments of brilliance, moments of absurdity, averaging out to a simple mediocre. In any case, while the show itself isn’t something I have deep feelings for, Olafsson’s performance in it is fantastic.

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Pulp Consumption: The Dark Crystal

Image result for jen the dark crystal
The hero of the Dark Crystal.

“The Dark Crystal,” for anyone that doesn’t know, was a 1982 film by Jim Henson that follows Jen, the presumed last of the Gelflings, as he tries to fulfill a prophecy. The prophecy in question relates to the titular Dark Crystal, and how a Gelfling would be the one to heal it after it had cracked. The original split of the crystal, which happened one thousand years before the events of the film, caused two races appear on the planet Thra, the evil and scheming Skeksis and the peaceful to the point of doormats Mystics.

As a result of the prophecy, the Skeksis engage in a genocide against the Gelflings, including Jen’s family. As a result, he is taken in by the Mystics and raised by them until the day he is told about the prophecy. Along the way, he encounters another Gelfling orphan, Kira, who was raised among the peaceful Podlings, a small race that lives in constant fear of raids from the crab-like servitors of the Skesis, the Grathim.

Jen isn’t what you would consider the epitome of the heroic figure. He doesn’t know how to fight, he doesn’t really know what’s expected of him, and doesn’t have much in the way of useful skills (except for his flute playing, which does prove key to the plot). If it weren’t for him running into Kira, his quest would have been over almost as soon as it started. Kira is the one who can talk to animals, who knows how to fight back, and is overall more resourceful than Jen. All of that is attributable to her upbringing among the Podlings.

Image result for jen the dark crystal
Kira, the one who actually gets things done.

I think its fair to say that “The Dark Crystal” along with other ‘80s classics such as “Labyrinth,” “The Neverending Story” and “Legend” helped shaped an entire generation of writers and filmmakers. From the idea of the duality of the Skeksis and Mystics (quite literally one cannot exist without the other), to the idea that standing up against evil is worthwhile in an of itself, to even Kira’s simple declaration that Jen isn’t a girl when he wonders why he doesn’t have wings has seeped its way into the cultural subconscious. While there are aspects of it that, in hindsight, I don’t care for as much (I have come to loathe prophecies and the idea of raising Jen just to go fix the problem the Mystics can’t is highly problematic), overall the story is well crafted and there is a wealth of detail included in the world that exists as background material[1].

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The vile Skeksis. Seriously, I had more than one nightmare about these growing up.

 What is also interesting is that “The Dark Crystal” wholly relied on puppets, without the addition of human actors. While initially it can be off putting, it is a credit to Henson’s team how well the movie came together with the inhuman elements[2].

While “The Dark Crystal” is not what I would consider pulp, it is well worth looking at as a way to structure a story and imbue worldbuilding elements without resorting to a data dump.

And one of these days, I’ll get around to watching “The Dark Crystal: Resistance” as well.

[1] Yes,that includes the new Netflix series, but there was also a novelization and a comic book series that picked up where the movie left off. A full-length movie sequel has languished in development hell for years.

[2] Either that, or we’d all been preconditioned by “Sesame Street.”

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Pulp Consumption: Years and Years (Guest Post by Julie Rea)

Editors’ Note: Julie Rea’s work has appeared in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative MedicineNude Bruce ReviewBLYNKT, 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” was published in issue 10 of Broadswords and Blasters.

In HBO’s Years and Years, the show about the very near future by Russell T. Davies (formerly of Doctor Who and Torchwood), the problem is an acceleration of the forces that are currently tearing apart the real world. The show examines how this destruction impacts a British family, the Lyons: a grandmother, her several adult grandchildren, and their children. The opposition to the inhumanity the series depicts manifests in various characters: Bethany’s transhumanism, Edith’s humanitarianism activism, and the steadying hand of two matriarchs, the grandmother Muriel and her daughter-in-law Celeste. The members of the family are inspired to act in later episodes by the heroism of Danny Lyons, who will do anything he can to save his lover, Viktor. Viktor, a Ukrainian refugee and survivor of torture because of his homosexuality, is in constant peril as the increasing conflict in the world endangers the stateless most of all.

In the first episode of Years and Years, Trump is elected to a second term, and in the final days of his presidency (after Pence is elected his successor), he decides to preemptively strike China with a nuclear missile. Right and left-wing populism destabilizes Europe. This is the background to the election of Viv Rook as British Prime Minister, played with great vigor by Emma Thompson. Viv Rook’s demagoguery avoids some of the more unsavory elements of the Trump administration: she makes a name for herself not by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers but by saying on live TV that she doesn’t give a fuck about the welfare of the Palestinians. It’s not that she hates Palestinians necessarily, but rather her cares are limited to those issues that appear in her backyard. She wants her elderly mother to be safe, her bins taken care of, and doesn’t want to be scared of the world anymore. Take care of Britain first, before everybody else, is her thing. Her demagoguery plays off the discomfort people feel about the unraveling of everything from the Middle East to the climate. She doesn’t provide answers to the fate of the Palestinians or any other geopolitical issue; she does address British people’s discomfort with this suffering by urging them to look away.

To abet her mission of keeping the British people in the dark, Viv Rook introduces the Blink, a technology that cancels out people’s ability to communicate digitally–all phones and other digital devices are disabled within a certain range of the Blink. The Blink addresses a theme in the series regarding the importance of control of technology: in a society dependent on digital communication, The Blink allows the government to render the governed helpless with the flip of a switch. The question of whether control of technology can be wrested away from the government determines that outcome of the series.

The main driver of the narrative is the relationship between Daniel and Viktor. Their relationship is beautifully rendered, and the problem of deportation and citizenship status is so relevant to the real world, their relationship tends to overshadow other elements in the narrative.

There’s a lot to love about Years and Years. Viktor is beautifully written and acted by Maxim Baldry: he is a sweet, funny survivor of some of the worst the world has on offer. Russell Tovey as Daniel Lyons turns in a wonderful performance as a man who believes that being clever, brave, and persistent will allow him to protect the man he loves. Lydia West provides an amazing performance as Bethany, the great-granddaughter who embraces transhumanism and is the closest thing to The Doctor or Captain Jack in the series. West sells the idea of a teenager who is obsessed with uploading her consciousness to the cloud. As she grows older, she moves from illegal, dangerous surgical interventions to government-sponsored surgery, after which she is able to wirelessly communicate with digital devices around the world.

The pacing of the show makes it compulsively watchable: not every episode (thank God) ends with the nuclear annihilation of thousands of people. But the rise of Viv Rook will make the stomach clench of any watcher who has been especially alarmed by the state of the world from 2016 onward. The question of Viktor’s fate helps drive the narrative from the first episode to the last.

One issue with Years and Years is that the crisis depicted is so great, it takes a giant leap of faith to believe that somehow things can be all right without the intervention of a Time Lord to bring us all to our senses. Bethany’s transhumanism and her resulting enhanced abilities isn’t quite enough magic. Aside from the epilogue, in which transhumanism manifests in its most imaginative ways, transhuman abilities relate to the sharing of information. As cool as it might be to take a picture with a blink of an eye and send it to somebody with a pointing of a finger, it’s hard to see how this technology would lead to the triumph of right over might. We have video footage of the migrant detention centers in the U.S.; we know about the bad conditions, know that flu has led to death in the camps even as the government has refused to provide flu shots to the people there. In Russell T. Davies’s Torchwood series Children of Earth, as the world tears itself apart after aliens make a horrible demand, a character imagines The Doctor, that epitome of humanitarianism, turning away from the planet in shame.

A civilization to be ashamed of is what Davies explores in Years and Years, and unfortunately, there is very little separation between the world of the series and our own. One could argue that the heroic efforts of people like the Lyons make, as Hemingway writes in For Whom the Bell Tolls, this world “a fine place and worth fighting for.” Even though I binge-watched Years and Years and enjoyed it immensely, I would say I agree with Morgan Freeman in Seven, referencing that Hemingway line: “I agree with the second part.”

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.

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Pulp Consumption: Tough 2 (Crime Stories)

Cover image for Tough 2

One of the unexpected side benefits to starting Broadsword and Blasters was discovering the plethora of other short fiction being published, especially by small independent presses. One of those happens to be Tough, headed by Rusty Barnes. Tough is primarily an online journal, but supported periodically with an printed collection, and the second one has recently been released. While some of the names were familiar to me (Thomas Pluck, Alec Cizak, Chris McGinley, William Soldan), I came to the majority of writers fresh. Tough goes for a no-frills approach. No editor’s note. No writer bios. No illustrations to mark the stories. All you get is the text.

Michael Bracken kicks things off with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with a private detective, Morris, his tattooist friend, and the trouble a young woman brings into his life. The way Bracken weaves the detective’s work life in with the personal life worked well, even if at the end I felt almost as dissatisfied as Morris did. There’s a feeling that you are only getting a small piece of the overall story, but in that way it more clearly mirrors reality. Stories end when we decide we’re done telling them.

Thomas Pluck brings us “The Third Jump of Frankie Buffalo,” and Korean war veteran Frank. Frank’s got bills to pay and retirement he wants to enjoy, so when a couple of young bloods decided to rob an armored car, Frank signs on. Only there’s a snag when he gets stuck at a railroad crossing. Pluck weaves the current with the past, giving us insight into Frank and why he is why he is (and how he got the nickname Buffalo). It’s a nice sharp bit of writing, and Pluck shows how to tell a great story in a short space.

“Day Planner” by Matt Mattilla breaks apart the standard narrative by telling a story broken up into small discrete chunks as it follows the day of a young homeless man simply called The Kid. It follows his routine, how he tries to disguise that he’s homeless, how he uses a restroom to get clean as much as he can, how panhandles for money, how he has a cough and it’s bad but no money and no insurance means there’s no doctor. The tension builds nicely at the end when his daily routine is roundly interrupted by the unexpected, but it is left open whether he will break out of his daily routine or if it was merely a roadside distraction.

“Tally Ho” by William Soldan reads like a variation on Taxi Driver (and yes, that’s meant as a compliment). Gordon drives a cab and one night he picks up a young woman in distress. He discovers that she is a prostitute working out of motel, working in conjunction with her boyfriend/pimp. Gordon offers to help her get out of the life, offers her some of his savings so she can start over. Then he discovers it was all a scam. Gordon realizes he’s no Travis Bickle, however, realizes there’s no way he can go out in a blaze of glory, and well, some people don’t want to be saved and that the story of Taxi Driver might be as much of a fairy tale as anything told by the Brothers Grimm. The end twists the narrative in a great way and makes no mistake where the narrator finds Gordon on the hero/villain line.

“Beach Body” by C.A. Rowland features a woman and her husband walking along a beach, far from their usual Chicago life, and stumbling upon a dead body. Only, the husband knows the body because he was having an affair with her. Rowland explores the nature of infidelity, along with the virtues of discretion and careful planning and I will admit to not having scene the twist coming at the end where the only one I was left feeling sorry for was the victim left on the beach.

Nick Kolakowski’s “Viking Funeral” felt like a small piece of a much larger story. Two people (hard to call them friends), tied by bonds of having served in the military together, journey to the home of a fellow solider, dead now two years, to put his remains in the car he restored and set the whole thing on fire. There’s allusions to things done while over seas that might come back with a vengeance on the main character, but what and why is never really explored. Maybe it was me, but I felt like I was staring at a puzzle with a solid chunk of the pieces missing.

A road trip from Ohio to Florida is the set-up for Andrew Welsh-Huggin’s “Long Drive Home.” Marty works for Shayne, driving down to Florida to buy pills from small pharmacies using forged prescriptions, then driving back up to Ohio where they’re sold to addicts. Only Marty is used to working with two other men and Shayne never goes with. Marty has a sister with kids he’s trying to do right by, even if it means skimming from Shayne to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Alex had dreams of working at Walt Disney World as a princess, dreams derailed when she met Aunt Jodie and ended up having her body sold out of motel rooms. The story lines come together nicely at the end, with both Marty and Alex left to what comes next.

“Masonry” by Rob McClure-Smith features Cowan who is on his way to meet two men, Jalil and Prince. The question is “Why?” The sense is that Cowan is intruding on their turf and they want him dead, but they pick a relatively public place and its still daylight. Cowan isn’t going down without a fight, however. Again, this is one of those pieces that alludes to a bigger story that the reader isn’t privy to. In this case the focus is more on the action, but I was still left wondering exactly what Cowan’s motivation was and what he was involved with. The dialogue and sense of place was a real strength in the piece.

“Once Upon a Time in Chicago” by Tia J’Anae, features a woman with her lover, her plans for the future, and how a few bullets can change all of that. In such a short story, I got a real sense of Carla, her motivations, and her ability to sense an opportunity. While ultimately a selfish character, I couldn’t help but root for her and hope she gets what she is after.

“The Grass Beneath My Feet” by S.A. Cosby features a convict released long enough to go to his mother’s funeral. Along the way we discover why he’s imprisoned, why he holds a grudge against his mother, and the experience of the fleeting freedom of being out of prison for even a short period of time. It also explores how dehumanizing incarceration can be and what it can do to a person.

“No News is Good News” by Evelyn Deshane explores the violence experienced by trans individuals (especially trans women) and the overall difficulties faced by those in that community, be it from forced group sessions, to reading crime reports hoping that one of your friends isn’t next, to the jealousy when someone in the community is able to get more than you. The characters are shown in all their humanity and the narrative is never played for a cheap thrill. I haven’t read any of Deshane’s work before but will definitely keep an eye out for that name in the future.

“The Bag Girl” by Alec Cizak is a great slice of small-town crime and bad decisions where a local girl helps her boyfriend find marks that he can attack in the parking lot. Only his actions draw the attention of the police, making it that much more difficult for them to score cash they need to feed their addictions. It’s also a bit of a morality story in that people who are pushed into corners might not respond they way you think. Cizak’s writing, as to be expected, is gritty, and grimy and might have you paying more attention to the people you interact with on a daily basis.

“Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy” by Preston Lang features a stolen table, sports betting, and laureate poets. A case study in how actions cascade, one upon another, and how poetry (still) doesn’t pay. I found the characters engaging and humorous while at the heart of the story is how little it takes to push someone out of their comfortable life.

“With Hair Blacker than Coal” by Chris McGinley is a fantastic piece of Appalachian noir that blends in a decent amount of local folklore. Curley Knott is after two brothers who’ve been poaching bears, only when he comes across them, one of them is dead and the other might not be far behind. The question becomes “What killed them?” There’s a sense that moving deeper into the wilderness moves the characters into a different world, one where people don’t rightly belong. The reader is left wondering if there is a woman living in the woods with bobcats or if the sheriff imagined it, but in such a way that the story feels complete even with the central mystery left to interpretation.

“She Goes First” by Mary Thorson features the events surrounding the execution of Ruth Snyder, and the circumstances of how her photograph was taken at the moment of her execution. The focus of the story is around the wife of the photographer, her struggling marriage, with the circumstances of the execution acting as a backdrop. The story, if anything, highlights the ever day cruelty that can be life, even when there isn’t anything as horrible as a murder to frame it.

Tough 2 can be found at Amazon. It publishes a new story every week on its website.

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