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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Pulp Consumption: Bone Tomahawk

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.

As in many things in relation to pop culture, I am a late arrival to the party in viewing S. Craig Zahler 2015 film, Bone Tomahawk. [Editor’s Note: I’d never even heard of it until this review. You better believe I went right out and watched it!] Zahler is credited as the movie’s screenwriter along with directing the film (his directorial debut in fact). This feature has garnered lots of positive praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Billed as a Western Horror mash-up, the film’s plot revolves around a small band of men on a rescue mission to save some townsfolk from indigenous captivity.  The potential for horror creeps in when the band learns early on in the film that the kidnappers do not belong to any known existing Native American tribe. The Tribe with No Name are cave dwellers, referred to in the film as Troglodytes, who have no discernible language and prey on other human beings as a source of food. The Troglodytes make their home in a remote area on the Western Range known as The Valley of the Starving Men.  In a race against time, the rescue party hastily departs the town of Bright Hope in hot pursuit of the captives. 

The party is composed of four men. Sheriff Franklin Hunt, played by a grizzled Kurt Russell, is the group leader. Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), the husband of one of the kidnap victims, Samantha, is the second member of the party, with a broken leg slowing him down. The third man in the party is John Brooder (Matthew Fox) a pompous, dandified Indian killer who once courted Samantha and was rebuffed Rounding out the group is Chicory, an elderly back-up deputy, played by the scene stealing Richard Jenkins. Hunt’s deputy, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), is among the kidnapped, along with a slimy prisoner that was in his custody, Purvis, played by David Arquette in a brief appearance. The third victim is the previously mentioned Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), Bright Hope’s assistant physician. In addition to this wonderful ensemble, there are two memorable cameos: one is by cult film regular, Sid Haig, playing Arquette’s crime partner, Buddy. [Spoiler alert] He is dispatched prior to the opening credits roll. The other is by Sean Young, who portrays Mrs. Porter, the wife of the henpecked mayor of Bright Hope. 

Although marketed as a Horror Western, the more extreme elements of Bone Tomahawk are relegated to the final act of the film. The majority of the plot focuses on the four rescuers as they make their way to The Valley of Starving Men. At one point, their mounts are stolen, forcing the group to travel on foot through treacherous terrain. This is especially difficult for Arthur, given the fact that he has one functioning leg. It is during this journey that character interactions take center stage, providing insight into individual motivations. The relationship between Hunt and his associate Chicory (and I would go so far as to say Chicory’s interactions with everyone he engages with), adds a great deal of warmth and charm to this film. Even Brooder, the least likable member of the party, gets the curtain drawn back on his character, revealing some of the reasons why he acts the way he does. The film doesn’t condone the character’s comments or actions; it just provides the audience as to some clues why. 

Editor’s Note: – Please don’t judge too harshly the use of the Bleeding Cowboys font. Yes, it has been totally overused in the 12 plus years since it first hit the scene, but at least it’s not Papyrus or Comic Sans.

The horrific aspects of the film reveal themselves when the rescuers are taken prisoner in the Troglodyte cave complex. One scene in particular is pretty gruesome. A a prisoner is slaughtered and halved like a farm animal at the butcher’s. Although gruesome, the gore present in Bone Tomahawk doesn’t aspire to the levels of a Fulci or Deodato. It is pointed and direct; there is more gore scene-for-scene in Romero’s Day of the Dead than there is in Tomahawk. The Troglodytes’ features are chalk pale, sporting various body modifications, including grafted-on tusks and laryngeal bone pipes that emit nerve jarring howls, serving as the main Trogolodyte form of communication. Their weapons consist of bows and arrows, war clubs, and tomahawks, all shaped from repurposed bones: functionally utilitarian. I would contend that Bone Tomahawk has more in common with John Ford’s The Searchers than it does with any number of low budget splatter-fests. It forgoes the cheap jump scares and commits itself to sturdy character development at a gradual pace, with an eventual, slow burn payoff near the conclusion. Zahler has written two other works in the Western genre; the novels, Wraiths of the Broken Land and A Congregation of Jackals. I have yet to purchase and read them, but if these books are comparable in quality to Bone Tomahawk (as I suspect they will be), several hours of sleep per night will be lost in getting through them. 

Editor’s Note: The show is available on Amazon Prime Video right now, so if you already have a Prime subscription, you’ve got nothing to lose.

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Pulp Consumption: The (Original) Adventures of Ford Fairlane (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.

To me, the name Ford Fairlane was always associated with the 1990 Renny Harlin cult film, starring Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay and the actor who played Nightmare on Elm Street’s uber-villain, Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund.  That is until now. I had the opportunity to read Rex Weiner’s The (Original) Adventures of Ford Fairlane and I was in for very a pleasant surprise. This slim volume, published by Rare Bird Books, collects the two Fairlane shorts that were serialized in The New York Rocker and LA Weekly, respectively. The two tales fall squarely in the Black Mask school of crime fiction, in which private investigator, Ford Fairlane works cases pertaining to the music industry. To be a bit more specific, Fairlane’s beat is the world of Rock & Roll music.

The stories are broken down by cities. The first, “New York”, involves The Rock & Roll Detective working a case involving a rare, stolen Link Wray Danelectro guitar. He is hired to locate and retrieve it by its (famous) owner, when following a lead; Fairlane is set up for the murder of the lead singer of a German ‘computer band’, The Argumentative Types. As these things go in this style of fiction, the protagonist is on the run from the cops, trying to solve the murder, clear his good name and get the stolen guitar back. Along the way, he tangles with Shirley from Cincinnati, an attractive red, white and blue Mohawked punk rocker. The villains of the piece are the knife wielding henchman, Pointy who is in the employ of the neo-Nazi, Sphinx. Sphinx and his band The Fourth Reich, has a sonic super-weapon up his sleeve, the Orpheus Scale, that allows for supposed mind control. His plan is to use the Scale to take over the music scene, where electronic music will reign supreme. Muwahahaha!

“Los Angeles” concerns Fairlane on bodyguard detail of the lead singer Wanda, from the rockabilly outfit, Wanda and the Whips. Things go pear shaped when Wanda is abducted and her manager is murdered. Throw in Wanda’s Glenn Frey wannabe boyfriend, Strat Kaster, a brewing turf war between LA skinheads and South Bay punks and (of course) the police and you’ve got a breakneck little story that leaves the reader wondering who’s scamming who.

Rex Weiner is a talented hard boiled fiction writer who knows how to spin an entertaining yarn. Given the fact that these tales were originally serialized, he exhibits a mastery of the cliffhanger ending at the conclusion of each short chapter. Like Hammett and Chandler before him, Weiner uses locations and places to give his fiction a veneer of verisimilitude; locales such as The Mudd Club, CBGB’s, St. Marks Bar & Grill anchor these stories in a specific time and place. Granted, the world that is presented in The (Original) Adventures is mostly gone now, due to changing times and re-gentrification. This collection clocks in at a slim one hundred and thirty pages, much of which is dedicated to a lengthy introduction by Weiner himself, along with interviews with Andy Schwartz, publisher of The New York Rocker  and Jay Levin editor in chief of LA Weekly.  Veteran Hollywood filmmaker, Floyd Mutrux, who was attached to the initial iteration of the Fairlane film project back in the early ‘80’s, is interviewed as well.

It should be stated that the production values that Rare Bird Books put into this collection is exemplary. The paper stock is of a heavier gauge than most paperbacks, along with that too cool for school cover with Rex Weiner front and center, photographed as a young man, as the stand in for The Rock & Roll Detective, with flashing bold, neon green lettering. I’m glad I gave this book a chance. Now if only Netflix would re-boot (and re-cast) the Fairlane film using these stories as a template, you would have a compelling, gritty period piece set in the heyday of Punk Rock.

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 Appeal: Switchblade #10

It’s no secret that we enjoy Switchblade here at Broadswords and Blasters, and issue 10 is no exception. It features the usual short sharp fiction, each set apart by an illustration that really sets the mood for each piece. If there was a common theme to the issue is that diners keep popping up all over the place in the stories. I’m not complaining, but hey, writers, there are places other than diners (or bars) for people to meet up.

For Love or Money by C.W. Blackwell – Blackwell is rapidly becoming one of those writers who sells me on by an anthology he’s included in, and this short is no different. A married couple, united in crime, contemplate another job while in a diner. Except the woman has her own plans, and the guy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. If I have any misgivings about the piece is that it could easily have been the cap for a longer work.

Switchblade: Issue Ten by [Wilsky, Jim, Blackwell, C.W., Breaznell, Gene, Jayne, Serena, Beatty, Brian, Barcus, N.W., Goss, Christian, Towns, Jim, McNamara, Eddie, Friend, Timothy]
Crime fiction rarely looks this good. Cover model is Lisa Douglass… who was the editor for the Stiletto Heeled Edition of Switchblade.

The Nature of Nuture by Serena Jayne Cynthia likes rough sex and crime in about equal measure. But what happens when what passes for maternal instinct kicks in when a young boy catches her and her partner in the middle of crime?

Greaser Jack by Eddie McNamara An old man dying triggers the narrator’s memories of what happens when the neighborhood tough guy did a favor for him, showing him what it means to stand up fro yourself and picking a fight, even if it knows you are going to lose.

Bad Coffee and the Bomb by Jim Towns This story is easily the most Twilight Zone-esque piece that I’ve read in Switchblade, and as such it threw me off at first given that this zine tends to go for the more grounded stories. That said, a snow storm leads a man with a secret to a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere and a chance encounter with a man who can see all of time… including when the world will end But the question becomes, if he’s not around to see it, will it still happen? An interesting take on observer effect and how what we think is inevitable isn’t always.

Roadside Diner by N.W. Barcus Sheila runs drugs, cigarettes, and sometimes people over the US-Canada border ends up stopping at a roadside diner because her partner just can’t wait. Unfortunately, it turns out that diner is the honeypot for a gang of organ runners, and Sheila’s partner is their latest mark. So what’s a gal to do when she’s on her own? Well, Sheila might not be smart, but she knows how to be thorough… and the gang messed with the wrong woman.

Perry, the Red Haired Girl, and the Gangster by Christian Goss – Perry is after the best Reuben Sandwich he knows of at Langers, but he’s got to go through a rough neighborhood to get there, and on the bus. Along the way he meets a gangbanger who wants to make a sale (hey, diapers don’t pay for themselves) and a woman who’s big into Communism. You know, some days you really are better off walking.

Exit Schulz by Tim V. Decker – A hitter is involved with his boss’ daughter, only she’s stealing from her daddy. And yeah, the boss knows what they’re up to, and the hitter’s best friend gets in the mix too. So what’s a guy like that going to do when he’s asked to track down a thief and it call comes down to a gun? I especially enjoyed the local Maryland flavor thrown in to spice things up. It’s not every day I see a story name drop Dundalk.

Killing Raskolnikov by Gene Breaznell – A con fresh out of prison goes to work for a recycling gig, turning old books and other paper into new paper. The Russian woman who runs the machine is intriguing, and they bond over “Crime and Punishment.” But she knows something about the con, and that little secret could end up bringing them both down.

Throw the Fight by Beaumont Rand – Jackie’s a boxer, and her father is her manager. So when he tells her he’s got a sure thing and all she has to do is throw a fight, well, then she’ll get the doll her daughter so desperately wants, right? But everybody has wants, and not everyone plays nice in the end.

Can’t Win for Losing by Jim Wilsky – A armored car robbery that goes sideways, and a criminal who puts his trust in the wrong kind of friends. But when you make a lifetime of betrayal, why should anyone trust you at the end of the day.

Last Stand at the Rough Riders Roadside Old Town & Gun Fight Museum by Timothy Friend – A guy is stuck playing outlaw at a ratty roadside attraction, but hey, at least the girl that runs the souvenir stand is pretty and seems to like him well enough. Then it all goes wrong, where he ends up getting suckered as part of a plan to rob the owner. Some times being a quick draw expert isn’t enough to be a hero.

Switchblade #10 is available on Amazon here.

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Pulp Appeal: Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful main cast advertising image. From left to right, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Harry Treadaway, Eva Green, Reeve Carney, Timothy Dalton, Danny Sapani
Cover ad for an original penny dreadful from the late 1800s for "Spring Heeled Jack."

Penny dreadfuls of the late 19th Century were the direct ancestors of pulp fiction rags of the early 20th Century. The name is definitely British in origin, and the publications themselves were most popular in Victorian England, though they were sometimes brought in to America by travelers. The closest neighbor native to the US were the dime novels, though as the name suggests they cost a dime rather than a penny and were often full novels in length, whereas the penny dreadfuls were more like comic books in length, each one roughly a chapter of a larger piece, costing one British penny each. Like the dime novels and later pulps, penny dreadfuls were printed on the cheapest of the cheap wood pulp material. Sadly that means they don’t hold up much over time, and the ones that still exist need to be handled relatively carefully.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

Penny Dreadful is the Showtime/Sky series that attempted to bring to world audiences the same aesthetic of the classic penny dreadfuls of old. The main focus of the story arc traces Vanessa Ives, played by the lovely and talented Eva Green,[1] a woman cursed by the Devil for her lust as she fights against the forces of darkness gathering around her, ultimately led by spoilers–Dracula. Although she is the main focal character in the sense that the plot essentially revolves around her, the show is an ensemble that includes Sir Malcolm Murray (the father of Mina Murray from the Dracula novel) played by Timothy Dalton, Ethan Chandler (spoilers–a werewolf who was born Ethan Lawrence Talbot[2]) played by Josh Hartnett, Victor Frankenstein (yep, that one) played by Harry Treadaway and his Creature played by Rory Kinnear. That’s the main cast, but there are other major characters in Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) from Oscar Wilde’s novel, Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper) the Bride of Frankenstein, and Sembene (Danny Sapani), as well as recurring side characters including Dracula, Renfield, and Henry Jekyll.

If that sounds like a smorgasbord of great characters from the progenitors of horror and science fiction, that’s because it is. Penny dreadfuls of the day would have had similar types of characters, since many of them were reprints of famous Gothic and Victorian novels, and printed in such a way that there’d have been some serious lawsuits over intellectual property if they’d been published today with modern characters. As it is, the series characters are all in the public domain, so we can do what we want to them now.

This is essentially a superhero team of occult characters from historical fiction investigating and fighting back against evil forces amassing power in the back alleys and underground areas of Victorian era England. If that sounds at all familiar, it’s likely because you’ve come across Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hopefully that means you read the comic rather than seeing the movie[3], but in any case I certainly don’t think there’s any way this series’ creators were blind to Moore’s original comic series.

In Moore’s original he used Mina Harker (nee Murray) the original target of Dracula’s desires from the novel, Sir Allan Quatermain, Henry Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man. Other characters from the pulps move about the comics series as well, including AJ Raffles and Thomas Carnacki, and the whole thing is overseen by James Bond’s ancestor Campion Bond, a sort of M for British Intelligence, with James Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes as the main villain.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the comic series

So Penny Dreadful is essentially the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with the serial numbers filed off. That’s not as big a problem as it may seem, since the characters are all public domain and the basic plots are different even while the surface characterizations may be similar. Vanessa Ives fills in for Mina Murray, Malcolm Murray fills the Quatermain role, and Sembene is a stand-in for Quatermain’s companion Umslopogaas. The rest of the cast round out the squad filling in similar roles (The Wolf Man instead of the Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray instead of The Invisible Man and Captain Nemo, etc). The first time I saw the series I felt a little dirty, like the producers owed Moore more than just some writing or inspiration credit, but upon a repeat viewing I see that the differences are stark enough that they have legal (if not moral) leeway to tell their stories. It is still a little suspect, but I guess that’s okay since no one really owns those characters anymore.

(And, well, it’s not like Moore was the first to have this idea of linking old pulp heroes together. Philip Jose Farmer had the idea before that with his Wold Newton Universe, as I’ve talked about in our article on PJ Farmer, and even he wasn’t necessarily the first as the pulps themselves linked characters through crossovers and other references.)

The Penny Dreadful series may seem dry if you only watch the first few episodes, and the very Britishness of it may be off-putting for people who don’t go in for the kind of drama that comes out of Empire fiction, but I’d say that most fans of Doctor Who and anyone who’s read and loved the original novels the characters are based on would rally to the show. Sadly, Showtime is harder to watch on streaming services than some of the other premium channels (and has fewer subscribers in general), but if you have Netflix in the US you’re in luck now as the entire three-season series is there, but who knows for how long. The streaming industry is in for some massive shakeups later this year when Disney launches Disney Plus.

Be warned the series is not for children. Maybe older teens could watch it with supervision (it is TV-MA, after all), but that is really up to parents and their comfort with graphic nudity, lots of on-screen violence (including sexual violence), illicit drug usage, and all things occult. I probably wouldn’t let my teenage daughter watch it just yet, but maybe in a couple more years.

There is a sequel/spin-off in production now, shifting the setting from the original London to Los Angeles, which is set to debut probably sometime in 2020.

Side note: if you, like me, are a fan of tarot cards and their designs, the ones used in this series are simply gorgeous. They are sadly out of stock everywhere I looked, and I’m kicking myself for not purchasing a set five years ago.

Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards

[1] Eva Green first came to my attention (and probably most of America) with Casino Royale, the first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, but as good as she is as Vesper Lynd there, she’s even better here.

[2] Fans of Universal Pictures 1941 movie The Wolf Man will no doubt recognize this name. Lon Chaney’s version of the titular werewolf is named Lawrence Talbot.

[3] The movie is almost singlehandedly the reason behind Sean Connery’s retirement from the film industry. While there are aspects of the movie I like still (the casting is pretty good, some of the set designs and costuming are brilliant), the schlocky plot looks like the cheap shitty imitation that it is. You can be forgiven If you saw the film and mistakenly thought you were watching one of the mockbusters from The Asylum (Transmorphers, 2-Headed Shark Attack, etc, though I have to admit I like far more of the mockbusters than anyone should, and think many of them are more entertaining than LXG *shudder*)

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Pulp Appeal: Storyhack #3

Design wise, Storyhack continues to set a high bar. Full illustrations grace every story, with additional small cartoons interspersed within the stories. The full-sized layout of the magazine is a good choice, as is the double columns, leaving room for the designer to call out specific passages. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I wish the crime-based stories had a bit more edge to them, but then I’ve been spoiled by the likes of SWITCHBLADE and PULP MODERN. There is definitely more than enough here for a reader to sink their teeth into, and yeah, you might get a bit of pulp stuck between your teeth.

Claws of the Puma by Paul R. McNamee – A jungle adventure where an American journalist is investigating the struggle of local rubber famers against ruthless loggers in Brazil. The wild card in this case is the Puma, local wilderness hero. The Puma is heavily implied to be of European descent, though the how and why he decided to drop off the grid and hide out in the jungle is never fully explored. The biggest fantasy element is probably that there are still media outlets in the USA that would pay for a reporter to actually engage in investigative journalism… on her own. While the story was engaging, there were more than a few moments where I wondered how much more effective it would be from the point of view of the Puma, as opposed to the waifish blonde reporter.

Shoot First by Jay Barnson – A fine bit of urban fantasy involving a magical artifact and a double-cross. Barnson does a great job of developing the details of his setting without infodumping. The details with the magical bracelet is well done, as well as the twist as to how its side effects work. I feel there was a bit of a spoiler in the description where a fairly big part of the twist of the story is divulged. That said, the story was a fine bit of urban fantasy though more in line with the style of Charlie Stross’ THE LAUNDRY series as opposed to Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES.

Inside the Demon’s Eye by JD Cowan- a fantasy story about a man on a quest, though he cannot fully remember the details. In my opinion, the story decides to lean a bit too heavily on the NOTCatholic elements and would have been a better story if the writer had decided instead to make it an explicitly Catholic fantasy or had done more to make the religious aspects distinctly not Catholic. By trying to straddle the line between the two pieces, it ends up reading like a watered down version of both. Also, a chunk of the action happens off screen and it would have added to the narrative tension if there had been a shift in perspective to the secondary character.

Get to the River by Luke Foster – A park ranger is convinced there is drug smuggling going on in her park, but fails to convince her partner. Foster does a good job building the tension in this piece by alternating the current action with the events that led up to the current events of the story. As well, the twist of the story didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, though the red herring was implemented well. There was a sense of real danger in the piece, and there was an excellent sense of place with the nature park acting as much as an antagonist as any of the human characters.

Scourges, Spells and Serenades by Joanna Maciejewska – Easily my favorite story in this collection, it follows an archanist (one who derives magic through a pact with a demon) who teams up with a high mage to take down a local cult. To add to the drama, the archanist’s cousin is involved with the cult. The action in this is well done with the stakes suitably high. This is a setting I would love to see more of and expanded on, where even the side characters feel suitably deep and not mere cardboard stock trotted out to give the main characters someone to talk to. The setting also avoided the trap of seeming derivative, a common problem in fantasy stories.

Showdown at Stone Ridge by Jason McCuiston – A Weird Western tale incorporating both magic and steampunk elements. A veteran soldier slated to be hung for desertion is offered a pardon if he’ll investigate what’s going on at local mining town. Instead of being given a regular complement of soldiers, however it’s a contingent of captured enemy soldiers he’s forced to work with. Oh, and there’s the matter of the explosive device that’s been implanted in their heads to ensure compliance. Again the action is well done in the piece, but there’s a real sense that the only good people here are the ones without any real power, the ones that are being moved around a board by people far beyond their reach. This is another story I wouldn’t mind seeing further developed given where McCuiston leaves his characters at the end.

Master of Thieves by Aaron Zimmerman –  Two thieves in a fantasy setting are challenged by a woman to see who is the best thief between the two of them. The two characters are different kinds of thieves, and Zimmerman does an excellent job highlighting both their approaches to the larceny as well as developing intriguing puzzles for them to solve. There is an excellent sort of rivalry and the overall story is reminiscent of Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar stories, albeit lighter in tone than those.

The Dealer’s Tale by Jon Mollison – A woman is a blackjack dealer at an underground club. Her lover is the federal agent trying to bring down the organized crime ring that’s running the racket. The basic premise seemed a little off to me given that the agent is willing to put his lover (a civilian) in harm’s way. Her motivation also struck me as a bit too selfless, but there was a decent amount of tension building (will the plot be discovered, will her boss realize what’s she’s up to, will the local vamp throw a monkey wrench into the whole plan), to keep the reader engaged.

Full disclosure: Storyhack has previously published editor Matthew X. Gomez before in its second issue. You can find it here.

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