Pulp Appeal: Zorro

Millionaire playboy whose identity is known to only a few puts on a black costume and mask to parade around at night, ensuring that justice and peace is maintained as well as possible in the face of corruption, political meddling, and law enforcement incompetence.image-w1280

No, not Batman. This is the story of Zorro, the fox, a thorn in the side of the early 19th Century Mexican government of California. But despite the parallels to the caped crusader, the story of Zorro more closely parallels that of the English hero Robin Hood and, more directly, that of Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Orczy about 15 years before the first Zorro story was written. Because of the existence of Robin Hood, you can’t really say that Johnston McCulley, creator of Zorro, stole the idea of the masked hero with the noble alibi from Orczy, but the parallels are certainly there. At the very least, you could say there was inspiration.

In any case, I suspect that nearly every reader of Broadswords and Blasters has heard of Zorro, as he is one of the most enduring and widest-known heroes of the pulp era, no doubt due more to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks’ portrayal in the very early silent film The Mark of Zorro1 than the original written work. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Zorro is the hero of Los Angeles, who fights to protect the California citizens from the corrupt gold-hungry power of the Mexican governor. By day he is a foppish nobleman, a Don, by the name of Diego Vega (later de la Vega), but at night he puts his prowess with sword, whip, and pistol to work, making sure that the people of Los Angeles are taken care of. And he famously carves a Z into his victims with three slashes of his iconic rapier.

Zorro was first serialized in 1919 as The Curse of Capistrano2. McCulley was notoriously inconsistent with details, including glossing over such important details as the fact that Vega was unmasked at the end of Capistrano and the villain dead, only to have Zorro’s identity protected and the main villain still alive in the very next story.

I think my first encounter with the character was in reruns of the Disney-produced tv series, and then the talkie remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power, with Basil Rathbone portraying the main villain. It’s safe to say that Rathbone is the real draw, but the film holds up as well as any black-and-white film from the 1940s. That is to say, if you have the patience for the directorial decisions and limitations of the time period, you’ll enjoy this version. It’s hard to provide the same sort of support for the Fairbanks’ originals, even though the swordplay is probably better.

And then there is the recent(ish) versions starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones at the heights of both of their popularity. They’re fun and scratch the Zorro itch pretty well, but strangely don’t hold up as well as the older films and shows. It’s partly because they seem to be more emblematic of the time period of their creation.

It certainly helps that the dashing costume exudes cool. The sombrero, black mask, black outfit, and flowing cape are clear inspirations for the Batman costume, and with good reason.

As an anti-government Mexican criminal who plagues the ruling class and protects the common people from corruption in government, you have to wonder if Zorro would play quite as well in the modern day political climate.

1 Because the movie is public domain, you can watch the Fairbanks original courtesy of archive.org. 

2 The original story is also public domain, and I encourage you to read it. In fact, you have two options – a digital version or an audiobook version.

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Pulp Appeal: Elric of Melniboné

Image result for elric of melnibone

art by Robert Gould

 

I can pinpoint exactly when I first came across Elric, the doomed albino sorcerer-king of Melniboné. I was a freshman in high school, and there, among the rest of the science-fiction and fantasy books in the school library were two collections of Michael Moorcock’s most famous creation. In retrospect, that is probably the best and worst time to be exposed to that particular character.

Elric is brooding and introspective, at the same time sickened by the traditions he stems from while simultaneously a product of them. Unlike other pulp heroes, who conquer and strive for a kingdom of their own, Elric is born into nobility and abdicates that responsibility. He is the product of a decadent race in their twilight years, having gone from a world-spanning kingdom to being reduced to a single island. He spends as much time entreating sorcerous entities as he does battling them, and his patron God is one of the Princes of Chaos, Arioch, who takes a very active hand in Elric’s fate. Far from a pillar of athleticism, Elric is dependent on certain herbs at first to maintain his strength, without which he is nearly helpless. Eventually, he gains the semi-sentient sword Stormbringer, which has two rather unsavory characteristics: it enjoys eating souls and it has the propensity for killing people Elric cares about.

In other words, in any other book, he’d probably end up as a sympathetic villain. However, Moorcock bestows an intrinsic humanity to this otherwise inhuman character that draws readers in. Elric questions the status quo, makes facepalmingly bad decisions (sure, give the throne to your cousin who only recently tried to get you killed), and betrays or kills anyone that is close to him. The fact that Elric is intrinsically doomed and flawed does not detract from his character. It is the very fact that he is flawed but strives anyway that provides much of the impetus of the book and encourages the reader to stay with him through his adventures.

It is perhaps too pat to say that Elric is a photo negative of another great pulp character, Conan. Where Conan is a barbarian, Elric is the very product of civilization. Where Conan conquers a kingdom, Elric abdicates. Where Conan is, ultimately, only reliant on his own natural skills and abilities, Elric is dependent on herbs, sorcery, and his vampiric black blade, Stormbringer. Whereas Conan eschews the gods, Elric is dependent on his. Elric’s stories,too, tend toward a greater scope than that of Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation. Elric is never after a single treasure, and his goals typically transcend simple survival. Both Elric and Conan, however, are explorers of their fantastic worlds, and both allowed their creators to craft vivid settings for their characters to interact with.

Elric is also the most famous incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, the concept that the same soul can be born multiple times and throughout the multiverse, always fated to fight for the balance between Law and Chaos. Moorcock’s introduction of a multiverse also lent itself to the interesting condition where Elric would find himself fighting shoulder to shoulder with other incarnations of himself, though his memory of such adventures would often fade once they were concluded. In fact, it is easy to point to Moorcock’s division of Law and Chaos (which are very much not the same as Good and Evil) and find echoes of it throughout pop culture, be it Roger Zelazny’s CHRONICLES OF AMBER or Game Workshop’s Warhammer setting.

While Elric came sometime after the golden age of pulp, it is impossible to ignore the impact of Moorcock’s writing on future generations of fantasy writers. And while he bridges sword and sorcery and high fantasy (with some definite dark fantasy in the mix), it is easy to see why Elric has maintained his lasting appeal with fantasy fans.

 

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Issue 1 Now Available in Print

Cover 1 twitterIf you have been waiting for the print version of Broadswords and Blasters, wait no longer! Right now you have two options – Amazon or Createspace. The magazine will also populate to wider distribution networks, but that may take a few weeks.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1545250308/

https://www.createspace.com/7078174

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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

Image result for conan the barbarian

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!

Cover 1 twitter

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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