Pulp Appeal: Story Time with Crazy Uncle Matt

Past contributor and friend of the mag Matt Spencer has a brand spanking new anthology out this month, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on an ARC. The collection is a mix of horror and fantasy, and the stories occasionally blur the line between the two. His dialogue and narrative is often stripped down and raw, provocative and profane. Spencer is more Clive Barker than Stephen King, and closer to Robert E. Howard and Joe Abercrombie in his fantasy than a George R.R. Martin. If this is your first time reading him, it will be like getting hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. If you’ve read him before, well, you already have an idea as to what you are in for, don’t you? Continue reading

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Pulp Consumption: The Dark Crystal

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This is the DVD cover for the version I own.

A race of godlike beings is shattered into two separate, disparate species when a crystal is broken. As each of the creatures ages and dies, its counterpart in the other species also ages and dies, leaving a power vacuum. The gentler Mystics pass over power by singing their lamentations. The more malevolent Skeskis engage in ritual combat to establish control. In an effort to keep themselves from aging, the Skeksis also capture creatures and drain their life essences, including the clan of the main character, a male Gelfling named Jen. Jen is an orphan being raised by the Mystics, and as his Master dies, he is told he must find the broken piece of the crystal and reunite it before a cosmic congregation or else the two races will continue to degrade, leaving the Skeksis in control of the world.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Crystal, based on that description you might assume it was made for an adult audience based on an existing book property, but you’d be wrong on both counts. The original story was written by Jim Henson…yes, the guy who created the Muppets.[1] If Wikipedia is to be believed, Henson wanted to bring some of the darkness of the Grimm fairy tales back into children’s entertainment. If that’s true, I think he succeeded. It certainly worked for me, being one of the foundational films I watched in my childhood.

Henson brought on artist Brian Froud to help design the world through concept art. Froud was already well-established in the art world, but his partnership with Henson raised his profile a bit, and they ended up working together again on Labyrinth.[2]

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Kira (left) and Jen (right) are firmly in the uncanny valley, but not as unsettling as 1990s/early 2000s CGI creations (I’m looking at you, George Lucas!)

The Dark Crystal is more high fantasy in concept than it is swords and sorcery, but it has both of the latter in some measure. The Mystics are wizards, and the Skeksis use swords. The quest that Jen goes on is closer to Frodo and the One Ring than it is to Conan and the Tower of the Elephant, but there is still action and adventure in the story of an alien world and its inhabitants. Jen has to run from the Skeksis henchmen, giant crustaceans called Garthim; meet the astronomer and junk hoarder Aughra; make friends with another Gelfling, a female named Kira; ride on the backs of swift, stilt-legged Landstriders; fight the Skeksis; and, of course, adopt a little doglike creature called Fizzgig.

While discussions about a sequel took place for years, they never came to fruition. There have been novelizations, comic book interpretations, and some prequel books. There’s also an in-production prequel series that is supposed to be hitting Netflix sometime in the near future. There’s no release date yet, and just a small teaser trailer available now, but I’m looking forward to it.

The film was a box office success, but it didn’t do gangbusters. That’s partly because it was released in the Christmas season, but mostly because a dark fantasy with puppets is hard to market. The movie itself can even be pretty divisive. Critics were split on it at the time, and modern critics consider its status as a cult classic to be more about the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia than the actual quality of the movie. I think they’re wrong, but then I often find myself at odds with critics. After all, I co-run a pulp fiction magazine, and critics are frequently none-too-kind to the pulps.


[1] Interestingly, despite what some people now might think based on current marketing, The Muppet Show was initially a nighttime show aimed at adults.

[2] It’s relatively widely known that Froud’s son Toby played the baby boy who Jennifer Connelly accidentally magicked away to the Goblin King.

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Pulp Consumption: Big Trouble in Little China

What happens when a loud-mouthed trucker decides to help his friend rescue his friend’s fiancée, recently arrived from China? Well, you get Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 John Carpenter film that follows Jack Burton as a definite fish-out-of-water as he navigates Chinese mysticism in an attempt to rescue Miao Yin from the clutches of David Lo Pan, an mysterious figure in Chinatown’s underworld but whose true nature and powers Jack can’t even begin to comprehend. It’s one thing to go up against a street gang, but something else entirely when you are up against an immortal sorcerer and a trio of storm-related demi-gods.

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Wang Chin (the hero) with Jack Burton (the comic relief)

Along the way, Jack gets his truck stolen, they run into local lawyer Gracie Law and tour bus driver Egg Chen (who happens to be a fairly powerful sorcerer in his own right, but likes to play up the tourism part for the locals).

One of the great aspects of this film is that Jack only thinks that he’s the hero, when in reality he is the comedic relief to the real hero, Wang Chi. Even though Jack is ultimately responsible for Lo Pang’s defeat, it is only through the fact that Jack’s one party-trick skill comes in handy for beating him. Wang does the rest of the heavy lifting in the film, be it defeating the majority of mooks, going sword to sword against Rain (and beating him), and simply knowing who to go to what magic enters the equation. All of this acts as a great subversion of the typical white hero with the Asian sidekick. The movie also knows when to explain and when to just go with it. A whole story could surround why exactly the Three Storms are working for Lo Pan, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. They stand as incredible obstacles for the heroes to face, and allows them to rise to that challenge. It is a good reminder that not everything needs to explicitly stated to the audience, and it can still work within the course of the story.

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When these three show up, the movie takes a hard left into the weird.

The movie also addresses the wide variety of sources it is pulling from, acknowledging that Chinese mythology is such a hodgepodge that they can pick and choose what they want and leave the rest. There’s a moral somewhere in there about stealing from where you want and jettisoning what doesn’t work for your particular story, especially if you are going for a broad stroke adventure story that doesn’t need to get bogged down in reality.

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That’s about all the explanation you are going to get from this movie.

So, while the special effects might seem dated by today’s standards, it is definitely worth a rewatch if you haven’t seen it recently, and if you haven’t… well, what are you waiting for? And while there is talk of a remake starring Dwayne Johnson I somehow doubt it will possess the same kind of charm as the original.

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Pulp Consumption: The Big Book of Hap and Leonard

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A few weeks ago I picked up a Kindle collection of Joe R. Lansdale’s, appropriately titled The Big Book of Hap and Leonard. Matt Spencer wrote an article for us about the characters Hap Collins, a liberal former hippie who just so happens to be a crack shot and martial arts whiz, and Leonard Pine, a gay black Republican Vietnam Vet with a penchant for violence. The two characters may have different social outlooks on national issues, but they are peas in a pod when it comes to helping people–for a fee, of course.

I’m not going to rehash Spencer’s article, so it behooves you to read it first if you haven’t already. In all honesty, I’d never even heard of the characters, or Lansdale, until I read the initial article, and I have to say Spencer was totally correct. You really do experience ratcheting tension and feel a visceral connection to every broken bone and bloodied face Hap and Leonard suffer–or inflict.

In this collection of short stories, not a typical outlet for Lansdale’s characters more used to longer novels, you have a couple standard fares with the titular duo getting involved in pulp machinations that are over their head – including an insurance scam gone wrong when the Dixie Mafia gets involved, complicating what seems to be a simple assignment. These two stories (“Hyenas” and “Dead Aim”) are previously published novellas, but are here collected in one edition for the first time.

There are a few slice of life shorts like “Death by Chili” and “Not Our Kind” and a vignette titled “The Oak and the Pond,” which are glimpses into the characters’ lives outside of their big adventures, These are fun to read and provide some more character development than you might expect, but the stand-out for me among these shorter stories is “The Boy Who Became Invisible.” It’s about Hap’s childhood and Hap’s failure when his friend is bullied into invisibility before the friend briefly flashes back into existence in a terrible way. It resonates in general, but perhaps because I was the subject of such childhood bullying it hit home a lot more for me.

In addition to the Hap and Leonard focused stories, there’s a third person point of view story about Marvin Hanson, a private detective and erstwhile employer/friend of Hap and Leonard. It’s an interesting contrast from the usually first-person narration from Hap’s point of view. Also included is a comic book script for “The Boy Who Became Invisible” and an “interview” between Lansdale and his characters. The latter blending of character and creator is nothing new in the world of fiction, and is perhaps the low point of the collection, but the rest of the book stands tall enough to make up for this shortcoming.

The book is 309 pages long and is only $6 on Kindle right now. That’s a steal for any book, but purchasing is compulsory if you’re a fan of the characters.

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Pulp Appeal: John Carpenter’s They Live

They LiveA pair of mysterious sunglasses, secret messages hiding in advertising, a weird religious cult preaching about the overthrow of a government, and aliens? That’s John Carpenter’s They Live at its core.

The film, starring former WWE superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and character actor par excellence Keith David, is apparently loosely based on a 1960s short story called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” though I confess I wasn’t aware of this until doing research for this article. If you read the story, you can see where Carpenter cribbed the basic concept of aliens masquerading as humans in power, but the details in the film veer quite far from the source material.

Subliminal advertising had been discussed for decades by the time They Live came to theaters in 1988, but the idea of widespread messages hiding in mass media touched upon significant fears of 1980s America. Carpenter is no fan of Reaganomics or of the wealthy elite ruling class, and it’s clearly evident in the way he shows the power structure in his dystopian America. It’s no secret Carpenter is on the liberal left side of the American political system, as this movie makes super clear, but even if you’re not on the same side, don’t let that spoil your enjoyment. It works on both the satire and meta-satire levels.

Roddy Piper plays drifter by the name of John Nada[1]. Nada finds work as a construction worker for low pay and no benefits, and is forced to eat at a local soup kitchen. Later he watches a mysterious message breaks into a television broadcast and talk about a secret conspiracy. He then runs into a preacher who spouts some cultlike phrases about the same conspiracy. The church is raided by an armed secret police force, but not before Nada takes a pair of sunglasses, and that’s where he learns the conspiracy is real.

roddy-piper-they-live-8The technology in the sunglasses allows wearers to see the secret messaging behind seemingly benign advertising. Those messages say things like “Obey,” a phrase famously co-opted by noted street artist Shepard Fairey when he super-imposed it on a painting of Andre the Giant’s face.[2] When Nada turns the glasses to look at some rich people in the street, they’re revealed to be skeletal looking aliens masquerading as regular folks. One of them recognizes when Nada sees them for who they are and alerts the authorities.

From that point on the plot becomes a relatively typical Carpenter film with plenty of ridiculous gunfights, low budget explosions, cheesy dialogue, and quippy one-liners, the most famous of which Nada delivers in the lobby of a bank. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

(Content Warning – hilarious one-liner followed by 1980s gun violence) 

The movie would be a forgettable film if not for the one-liners and political overtones that raise it up to cult classic status. It helps that it was written, directed, and scored by Carpenter, who by this point had already established his importance to the film industry through Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It’s worth noting Carpenter did the music for most of his films, and as such was an inspiration to more modern writer/director/ musicians like Robert Rodriguez[3]  It’s also important not to underestimate the impact of Carpenter’s style of film-making, as many directors clearly take inspiration from Carpenter’s work, including horror directors like David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), sci-fi directors like the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), and auteurs like Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).

While the movie doesn’t get as much love as Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, or The Thing, it’s definitely worth watching. It’s cheesy at times, hilarious often, and it’s John Carpenter through and through. I wouldn’t say I like it better than the three films mentioned above (or Escape from New York, another great pulp classic we’ll likely end up covering at some point), but I think I’ve rewatched it more times than any Carpenter movie except Halloween.


[1] A nod to the nameless heroes of other pulp greats Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name, both of which we’ve discussed on the blog before.

[2] Fairey also designed former President Obama’s campaign poster “Hope.”

[3] Rodriquez is most famous for El Mariachi, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Machete, Sin City, and Spy Kids. While his films had more commercial success than Carpenter’s during their theatrical runs, they are also more like cult films than they are blockbusters. Side note: despite the flop status of his Planet Terror (half of the Grindhouse double feature he shared with Quentin Tarantino), I really loved it. But I also really loved the whole double-feature and the experience of seeing it in the theaters, and in that I appear to be in the minority. There’s no accounting for taste.

 

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Pulp Consumption: JIMBO YOJIMBO

What happens when you take a hillbilly samurai on the path of revenge and put him against the ruler of the world, a nigh-immortal chef who runs the ultimate fast food franchise? Why you might just end up with David Barbee’s bizarre novel JIMBO YOJIMBO. The premise is that the world as it was ended a long time ago, thanks to s a plague of frogs covering everything with slime. Bushido Budnick helped bring the world back from the brink, mainly by finding a way to serve up delicious frog legs. Along the way he did experiment on himself and others, not because he was all that interested in bettering them, but because he could. Along the way he founded the Buddha Gump company, an unholy matrimony of fast food, transhumanism, and religion. As it happens, Jimbo Yojimbo was part of the last rebellion against Budnick, only it ended with most of the rebels dead, including his father… and all with the help of Jimbo’s wife.

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Frog legs, crawds, and koi bois make for good eating.

With the help of the ghost of his father, Jimbo manages to escape the dungeons of Budnick (okay, so he has a cuttlefish grafted to where his face used to be, but that’s a minor concern when you are on the path of revenge. Along the way he’s going to have to face down his ex-wife, a band of gun fetishists, and an insane assassin created by Budnick ho gets high from licking frogs, plus the horde of genetically altered shrimp that makes up Budnick’s army. Oh, and Jimbo’s wife is still around and just happens to be Budnick’s fastest delivery driver.

There is more than enough action to sink your teeth into, though Barbee cleverly subverts several of the expectations along the way where characters you might expect to make it through to the end do not, and others who you might think are destined to fall… don’t. None of it is done cheaply, so that the narrative flows so that the ending is surprising even at the same time that it seems absolutely inevitable.

This is definitely a book that had me at turns cheering, cringing, yelling and hoping beyond hope that it would all turn out well… despite knowing the odds were long.

A special mention finally to the world building Barbee engaged in. The world, while it felt small, was dense with detail down to how the restaurants were designed, the food served, and how it was a master chef might come to be the most powerful figure in an end of the world scenario. If you enjoy samurai post-apocalyptic action served deep fried and with a side of mutant crawdads… this is the book for you.

 

Got a book, movie, or other artistic endeavor you think we should be covering? Drop us a line and let us know! We are also open to people writing guest articles for us. Payment? A digital copy of the issue of you choice.

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Pulp Consumption: Jules de Grandin

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Last month Horror on the Links, a collection of Seabury Quinn’s detective stories featuring Jules de Grandin, went on sale on Amazon for an amazingly low price. As a fan of Weird Tales and pulp fiction in general, of course I’d heard of Quinn, but his works are hard to find and have been out of print for awhile. The book starts with a little essay, as most of these collections do, which goes over the history of Quinn’s works and the rationale for why they’ve fallen out of favor while Howard and Lovecraft saw their fame grow. The fact is Quinn was more in demand at the time of the pulp heyday, and more of the magazine covers featured his works than either of his more famous contemporaries.

For those not familiar with the character, as I was not until reading this book, Jules de Grandin is a French doctor who has taken up residence in a Harrisonville, New Jersey. He becomes friends with an American, Dr. Samuel Trowbridge, a neighbor in town. Trowbridge is Watson to de Grandin’s Holmes. While de Grandin is often compared now to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, I think the better comparison is to Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Where de Grandin’s stories really diverge from the more literary ancestors and contemporaries is that many of the cases de Grandin investigates are actually of an occult nature, often including demon worship, vengeful spirits, or mad doctors with goals similar to H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau.

The stories are formulaic as all heck, making even the Poirot series seem positively eclectic. Quinn pumped out so many words each month it’s no wonder he had to resort to such repetition. He’d have made a fine television writer for contemporary detective shows, and I mean it both as a compliment and a criticism. Each individual short story is entertaining and hard to stop reading, so formula or not, they are fun reads. However, they are not what you would call enlightened.

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This story is my favorite of the collection.

Robert Howard gets accused of racism in his stories, and there is some evidence of it, particularly in “Beyond the Black River.” H.P. Lovecraft gets an even worse reputation, well deserved, for his virulent anti-minority sentiments. But for all the bluster about those authors, Quinn demonstrates some of the worst negative racial stereotypes I’ve read from the mainstream pulps of the era. His characters are unapologetic colonialists, which doesn’t have to mean xenophobic narcissists. (I call attention to Allan Quatermain who was a colonialist but not racist.) De Grandin, however, is both, and Quinn’s depictions of people from different cultures is painful to read. And the excuse of being of his time doesn’t work because even Lovecraft’s works aren’t as explicitly white supremacist. (Lovecraft’s personal letters are far worse than his fiction).

I have a hard time recommending people read the de Grandin stories because even though they can be fun, they have numerous flaws. Even outside the formula and racism, they rely on deus ex machinas, feature a main character who is a Mary Sue in every way, and as a reader you never really get the feeling that de Grandin himself is in any great danger. James Bond seems more vulnerable. I can understand the appeal, but I’d rather read Holmes, Poirot, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, or Sam Spade. That said, for the low price I paid for the collection (I paid 64 cents, including tax. It’s currently listed for $9.99) I feel like I got my money’s worth.

If you can pick up the ebook for a similar deal, buy a used print copy at a second hand store, or borrow it from a library, it’s probably worth your time just to read more of the historical works of pulp, but I wouldn’t go out of my way or pay more than a couple dollars for the collection. There are two other books in the series in print now with two more available for preorder. Maybe the stories got better as society advanced through the 30s and 40s, but I’m not in a rush to run out and read them.

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