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

 

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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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Issue 1 Cover Reveal

 

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Issue 1 is coming April 14!

Featuring:

“Skin Deep” by Nicholas Ozment
“Dead Men Tell Tales” by Dave D’Alessio
“The Executioner’s Daughter” by R.A. Goli
“Pension Plan” by Dusty Wallace
“Saturday Night Science” by Michael M. Jones
“Island of Souls” by Matt Spencer
“The Waters So Dark” by Josh Reynolds
“Thicker than Water” by Rob Francis

Cover art by Luke Spooner/Carrion House
Interior Art by Dean Spencer

 

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Pulp Appeal: Dashiell Hammett

Continental Op Cover

The Continental Op from Cameron’s library

Dashiell Hammett lived the life of a hard-boiled detective before he created one of his own. His Continental Op character was one of the most popular detectives of the 1920s pulp fiction era. Hammett’s work with the Op and other characters appeared alongside such notable writers and characters as Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, among scores of others.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, or even many of the people who came after, Hammett has the distinction of having been a private detective, which lends his stories even more gravitas than his stripped down fiction and inclusion of grime and grit do alone. The Continental Op, the character he spent the most time writing about, is loosely based on his own experiences working for the Pinkerton Agency before and after the First World War. The Op is never named, nor are any of the agents he interacts with in his dealings with the Continental Detective Agency. His most famous outing, the 1929 novel Red Harvest, was initially serialized in Black Mask, the quintessential pulp publication for hard-boiled detective fiction. In fact, Red Harvest was so influential Time magazine included it among its 2010 list of the all-time best 100 novels in the English language.

The Continental Op isn’t Hammett’s only creation, and not even close to his most famous character. For that you have to look to Sam Spade. Spade is the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, and when that story made the transition from page to screen, he was played to great acclaim by Humphrey Bogart1. Spade’s quest to uncover the plot behind his partner’s murder and the mysterious eponymous statue leads to so many betrayals and double-crosses that it’s sort of bewildering. The statue itself is mostly a McGuffin, as its role in the story is merely catalyzing and not terribly material. The film was popular, and so was the novel. The Maltese Falcon has also been included in a list of all-time best 100 novels in the English language, this time by the Modern Library Assocation.

The cold-eyed, hardened detective that Hammett wrote so much about, whether as the Op or Spade, is upended by the last of his famous creations, Nick and Nora Charles, the stars of Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man. The Charles’ are wealthy alcoholics who want nothing other than to enjoy life while getting soused. Since the stories are all set during Prohibition, it makes their drunken behavior fairly amusing. The relationship appears to be loosely based on Hammett’s own relationship with Lillian Hellman. While Nick Charles does have some of the detachment endemic to Spade and the Op, before the start of the novel he managed to get out of the detective business in time to save some of his empathy. The plot of the novel follows Nick being reluctantly pulled back into a murder investigation while his witty wife assists and sometimes gets in the way. The Thin Man appears on film2, along with several sequels, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and, in another nod to the quality of Hammett’s skills, was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, and has been routinely included in the American Film Institute’s lists of great films.

Incidentally, my first experience with Hammett’s work was The Thin Man series of films, as my parents are (pretty much have always been) aficionados of the Turner Classic Movies channel. The Thin Man and its sequels are frequently shown on the channel, and, while as a young kid I wasn’t old enough to really understand everything that was going on, the smarmy back-and-forth dialogue was certainly engaging. After I reached adulthood, I discovered the Continental Op through a library book sale, and after that I began to read Hammett in earnest.

Hammett pretty much stopped writing in the mid-1930s and became a radical left-wing political activist, officially joining the Communist Party where he was a member up until the Second World War. Despite suffering from tuberculosis, he managed to enlist and serve as a newspaper reporter in the Army. After the war he went back to political advocacy and was eventually investigated and then blacklisted during the McCarthyism craze of the 1950s.

While he may not have been the first3 to write a hard-boiled detective, Dashiell Hammett is perhaps the most influential mystery writer in American history. Yes, that’s a bold claim, especially as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is commonly considered the foundational work of detective fiction written in English. While Poe did set the gears in motion, leading directly to mystery as a genre in its own right (a feat celebrated by the eponymous Edgars, the yearly award for best mystery story) the popular image of a detective rests almost entirely upon the work of Hammett. Other writers who came after him, like Raymond Chandler, ensured that hard-boiled detectives weren’t a passing fad, but Chandler himself says that it was Hammett that started him on his authorial career.

1 Bogart also played Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.

2 The film is rather expensive to purchase digitally now, but luckily there’s a radioplay version available starring Powell and Loy.

3 That would be Carroll John Daly, who, at the time, was even more popular than Hammett.

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