Pulp Appeal: Randolph Carter

weird_tales_192502Howard Phillips Lovecraft is a polarizing figure.1 His fiction lives on for us mainly because of the anthologizing and reprinting of his stories that was done mostly by August Derleth in the years after Lovecraft’s untimely death at the age of 46. While no contemporary can touch Robert Howard in the realm of prolific, Lovecraft was nearly his equal, publishing not just scores of horror2 stories but also nonfiction, poetry, and even some science, mostly astronomy. Because of his prolific and varying works, we’ve chosen to do as we did with Howard and Burroughs, and focus in on characters and arcs rather than try to nail a whole author in one swoop.

Which brings us to today’s topic: Randolph Carter. Carter is the eponymous main character of an early Lovecraft work titled “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and followed up with “The Unnameable,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, “The Silver Key,” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Much like with the Conan stories of Robert Howard, there has been a lot of haggling over how the Randolph Carter stories should be organized. There is publication chronology, and there are at least two major character-based chronologies: Derleth had his order and Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi has his. Some of the later stories have time travel elements which complicate the order even further. Regardless, apart from the last two stories, they can be tackled by a reader in any order as the episodic nature of the fiction allows for it.

“The Statement of Randolph Carter” was first published in 1920 in a small amateur magazine titled The Vagrant and was then reprinted in Weird Tales in 1925. It introduces the character of Randolph Carter, a middle-aged man, perhaps in his early 40s, who has studied some necromantic and occult texts, although not as deeply as his friend Harley Warren. The story is sort of epistolary in that it’s purported to be his statement to the police as he explains the disappearance of his friend in the Florida wilderness. From a literary standpoint, the story is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, and it’s a story I use in my college classes particularly for this reason.

“The Unnameable” is once again told directly by Carter, but it is his recounting of an attack on him and his friend Joel Manton by a nameless horror. Manton describes it in the last line “shocker” statement endemic to much pulp fiction and later ported over to such stalwarts as The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. In this story Carter seems to be quite a bit more sure of himself and his occult experiences, so it makes some sense as a sequel to “Statement.” That said, in this story Carter does not believe in the supernatural, something he clearly experienced in the early written story.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is closer to novella than short story, and it is often packaged together with both “Silver Key” stories to form a paperback collection. It is among Lovecraft’s longest works of fiction. In this story Carter is an expert in the occult, as he wanders through dream realms to talk with the elder gods about his vision of a marvelous sunset. It is one of Lovecraft’s more sophisticated works, and it mostly avoids the shock-value ending, although it is filled with typical Lovecraftian language and idiosyncrasies.

The two “Silver Key” stories do seem to be end-stage character development, as Carter has lost his ability to move through the dream realms he explored in Dream-Quest. The first story deals with his acquisition of a silver key that sends him out of his timeline but gives him back the ability to dream. The second is a direct sequel that picks up with Carter in a higher plane of existence. This particular story takes weird to a new level, as Carter meets more elder gods, loses his sense of self, gets trapped in an alien body, and shows up in that body at his own funeral. These two stories are complex in the way that was off-putting for many readers, including Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft’s publisher friend at Weird Tales, who passed on the stories the first time offered. They certainly require more character knowledge than many of Lovecraft’s other stories.

The character of Carter is pretty clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft himself, with “Statement” having supposedly come to Lovecraft in a dream. Carter is a writer, a dreamer, and an explorer of the occult and unknown, so it is fascinating that Carter essentially loses himself in the dreamstate. The way Lovecraft went–cancer, poverty, and malnutrition–as he spent his money on more writing (correspondence and letters to friends and other writers) has a tragic quality that maps closely on to Carter’s own death.

Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry work is all in the public domain, and he was rather free with his creations even when he was writing, allowing other authors to play with his creations and write their own stories. That may or may not have had an impact on his poverty and relative obscurity during his lifetime, but later generations, thanks mainly to Derleth’s book collections and Stephen King’s own testaments to the importance of Lovecraft on his works, have embraced the author. He was even recognized by the Library of America with a fantastic collection. You can’t go wrong with purchasing that particular book, but most of the work is free to read online..

1 You can hand me my understatement of the year award whenever you like.

2 Even his horror moves through different subgenres

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Print Proof Copies

Issue 1 Print Proof Copies

Any blurriness is because of my camera, not the cover. The covers are clear and look great in person.

We have print proof copies in hand. We appear to be on track for approving the print version for sale by May 1st. We also learned a few lessons by doing this essentially backwards through Amazon (KDP then Createspace) and will be implementing that fix with Issue 2, which you should expect in July 2017.

We have also sent out acceptances for Issue 3, and contracts for those contributors will go out shortly. We anticipate re-opening for submissions sometime this summer.

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Pulp Appeal: Conan the Barbarian

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Trying to pin down when I originally was exposed to Conan, the world-travelling barbarian created by Robert E. Howard, is tricky. It might have been watching edited versions of Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer when I was a kid. I clearly remember one summer in a library, devouring the paperback pastiches put out by Lin Carter and L’Sprague DeCamp and, at the time, feeling frustrated by the discontinuity between the stories.

One of the most telling features of Conan is the recurring theme of civilization versus barbarity. Reading the Conan stories, it is clear that Howard truly believed that barbarism, while not necessarily superior to civilization, would always win out in the end. Frequently, Conan is able to better more educated swordsmen through natural talent, strength and speed. Fancy swordsmanship avails his opponents naught. But even when facing against other barbarians, such as the Picts in Beyond the Black River or Bêlit’s corsairs, Conan prevails, though in the latter case it is only because Bêlit chooses to spare him. Still, the lure of civilization is always present for Conan. He could, given, the opportunity, always return to the wilderness, but time and again he finds himself in civilization until he finally finds himself King of Aquilonia, arguably the pinnacle of civilization for the Hyborian Age.

What still strikes me is the different kinds of stories Conan Howard penned. You have the palace intrigues of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the piracy of “Queen of the Black Coast,” or the frontier battle of “Beyond the Black River.” Conan was a thief, a pirate, a mercenary, a conqueror, and a king. He possessed a vitality that dwarfed others, but was equally able to realize when he should cut his losses and run, be it running from magistrates in Argos, or fleeing a horror in the catacombs of a wizard. As Howard recounted, he felt the Conan tales came to him as a person might recount the stories of their life, not necessarily in chronological order, but as they occurred to him. All of the stories, however, feature explosive action and rich, detailed settings that varied greatly from story to story. The Zamoran city in “The Tower of the Elephant” is a distinct place, full of thieves and rogues, but so is Zamboula, whose streets cannibals stalk for two legged prey.

To say that Conan is Howard’s most enduring creation is to court understatement, but not without help. He is iconic, in no small part thanks to the paintings of Frank Frazetta that, if they didn’t capture the literary detail of the character as described by Howard, did capture the imagination of viewers and help keep interested in the character alive. Likewise, while the merits of the various pastiches of Conan that have penned down the years vary widely in quality (and are often disputed as to what is the true canon of the character), without the effort L. Sprague Decamp and Lin Carter, there is the real risk that Conan would have languished, lost and forgotten, known only to a few aficionados of pulp literature.  Instead, Conan’s lasting appeal can be seen in the stories that continue to be told, the games (video and tabletop) that continue to be developed, and yes, even the films and television series that have been made featuring the bold Cimmerian. Howard’s creation has been a deep well, indeed.

Many of the original Conan stories are available on Project Gutenberg, arranged in a semblance of chronological order from his survival of a battle in the far North to his days as King Conan of Aquilonia.  

So what’s your favorite Conan story?

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Issue 1 Now Available!

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Issue 1 is now available on Amazon! 

We are really pleased with how this issue came out and have nothing but praise for the writers who contributed. So go on, check it out, and maybe leave a review when your done!

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Pulp Appeal: Tarzan

Tarzan_All_StoryStand at the edge of a cliff or tree branch, take a rope in your hands, inhale a deep breath, and then leap out, shouting out a big ululating “Ah AW EEEH AW AW EEEH AWWWW!” You probably know where I’m going with this, but just in case, you’ve just completed the Tarzan yell. You don’t need the cliff or the rope (Tarzan does), but just about everyone I know has mimicked this joyful exclamation while preparing to jump down from something, often beating their chests with their fists while shouting.

There are few characters of the golden age of pulp fiction with the range and longevity of Tarzan. Hell, there are few characters at all with Tarzan’s ubiquity.

A creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan has been around for over 100 years, and yet film-makers and writers are still mining it for new material, including last year’s The Legend of Tarzan starring True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard and Suicide Squad’s Margot Robbie.1 And who could forget the (almost 20-year-old) Disney cartoon with the really catchy score from Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins?

But it was Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic-swimmer-turned-actor, who put perhaps the most iconic stamp on the Burroughs character, at least in the realm of film. From 1932 to 1948, Weissmuller was the definitive Tarzan, starring in 12 films. He created the iconic yell, although there’s a big dispute over who actually performed the yell itself in the first film, Tarzan, the Ape Man. And his “Me Tarzan, you Jane” line2 has been used, abused, lampooned, and embraced by movie creators ever since it first showed up in 1932.

Of course none of this would have been possible if Burroughs hadn’t created the character in 1912. Tarzan first showed up in All-Story Magazine in a serialized novel later collected in 1914 as Tarzan of the Apes. Over the next 40 years, Burroughs produced 23 more novels of Tarzan and his adventures. Admittedly, most of them are derivative, formulaic, and even sometimes hackneyed, but fans kept clamoring for more so Burroughs kept writing them.

Tarzan is considered the archetypal man raised in the woods, but he’s pre-dated by Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and, much, much earlier, the mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. That said, Tarzan is certainly the best known character of the trope, and is, in a large sense, one of the most widely recognized characters in world history.

I’m not going to go into the Tarzan story, as if you don’t know the basics then I’d have to ask you which planet you were born on. Instead, I’ll just note I fell in love with Tarzan as a kid. I’ve mentioned before that my parents were Turner Classic Movies fans pretty much from the moment they first got cable in the mid-80s, and my first exposure was definitely the Weissmuller movies.

I believe my next exposure was the 1984 (though I most definitely didn’t watch it until the early 1990s) Christopher Lambert film, Greystoke, notable mainly for being closer to the sophisticated noble lord of Burroughs’ original stories rather than the broken-English-speaking wild man of the early film series. It is possible I read the book first, but I can’t swear under oath. The film is sort of laughable now3 and quite slow, but it was nominated for Academy Awards and had a pretty decent critical reception. I’ll still watch it from time-to-time.

Then came the Disney cartoon in 1999. I was in college, quite jaded and wholly unprepared to like the film (especially after the abomination called Hercules), but it is charming in its way. It’s not fantastic the way some of the more recent non-Tarzan Disney and Pixar movies have been, but the soundtrack is quite good, and since I’ve now written about it, I can’t get the damn song, “You’ll Be in My Heart” out of my head.

Tarzan is so iconic even other authors have tackled him in print, including Fritz Leiber (of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fame4), Philip José Farmer (whose fictional biography Tarzan Alive is the foundation of the Wold Newton universe), and even R.A. Salvatore (the creator of Forgotten Realms fantasy phenomenon Drizzt Do’Urden).

If you haven’t read the work that started it all, you have no real excuse, as the original book (and several of its sequels) are in the public domain. So beat your chest while shouting the “victory cry of the bull ape” and then get reading. I promise you it’s better than any film version you’ve seen.


1 Even the incomparable Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t save this film from a future in bargain bins.

2 This is a gross misquote, and the actual sequence is much funnier, as Tarzan gets progressively more excited, eventually pretty much punching Jane in the chest.

3 Lambert’s French accent is so grossly out of character that it’s only worse in one other role, Connor MacLeod of Highlander.

4 Explored in an earlier Pulp Appeal article.

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Issue 1 Now Available for Preorder!

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That’s right folks, issue one is now available for preorder. Featuring work by Matt Spencer, R.A. Goli, Michael M. Jones,  Dusty Wallace, Nicholas Ozment, Dave D’Alessio, Josh Reynolds, and Rob Francis. Cover art by Luke Spencer of Carrion House.

Get it here!

Tell your friends, tell your lovers, tell that random stranger sitting across from you on the bus.

Help keep pulp alive!

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Pulp Appeal: Kull

 

Kull the Conqueror.jpg

Kull, yet another creation of the inestimable Robert E. Howard, is easy to write off as simply a precursor to Conan when you realize that Howard worked on the stories immediately prior to debuting his more famous barbarian. It doesn’t help that the first published Conan tale was a reworked Kull story, which should be fairly obvious after you think about it. After all, he’s a barbarian who takes over a kingdom by deposing a tyrant. He’s a man of action, who likens opening Pandora boxes to birthday presents. Like Conan, he represents Howard’s philosophy of barbarism as, if not superior to civilization, then the natural state of society, with civilization being aberrant.

Kull and Conan exist within the same fictional universe, even if they are separated by thousands of years. Kull is an outcast twice-over. He is from Atlantis, here a young island nation of barbarian tribes struggling for survival. He pledges to become something more, and time finds him as king of Valusia, a decaying kingdom marked by Byzantine politics and factious nobles.

Although Conan also becomes a king, the majority of Kull stories (only two of which would be published in Howard’s lifetime) deal with the titular character as a ruler . . . and running away from his responsibilities as much as possible. Kull is frustrated by the restrictions of rulership and feels unfairly bound by the laws and customs of the court. Most famously, he overturns what he views as an unfair law, that slaves cannot marry free people, by smashing the tablet it is written on and declaring, “By this axe, I rule!”

Unlike many of Howard’s other creations, Kull is no loner, instead enjoying comradeship with the Pict Brule and his counselor Tu, even when those relationships were originally contentious, or in the case of Brule, outright hostile. This helps establish a power trio in several of the stories, and provides some of the tension Kull feels between his barbaric past and civilized present.

An item of interest is how many elements from Kull’s stories bled into other adaptations, mostly showing up in Conan stories. For example, Thulsa Doom was a Kull antagonist (and even then he only appears in a single story, “Delcarde’s Cat”) long before he posed the Riddle of Steel to Conan. Likewise, the Serpent People, an ancient race able to shift into a form resembling humans and infiltrating humanity by killing and replacing its leaders, would pop up as the Snake Cult in the Conan animated series that ran from 1992-1993.

And yes, there was a Kull the Conqueror film made, starring Kevin Sorbo, but the less said about it, the better. Honestly, the most (only?) interesting thing about that movie was that it was originally supposed to be the sequel to Conan the Destroyer, but as Arnold Schwarzenegger was unavailable, it was reworked into a stand alone film. And that’s really about all you need to know about it. Seriously, don’t bother looking any further into it. Your brain will thank you.

To be sure, the Kull stories do read as less polished than what Howard produced during his Conan period, but they mark an important milestone in the career of a literary giant and are ultimately worth reading for any proclaimed fan of sword and sorcery.

 

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