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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Pulp Consumption: Transmetropolitan

The hot property of the moment in the nerdosphere is The Boys, because of Amazon’s adaptation currently streaming on Prime. I’m going to sit on it for a bit simply because I’m trying to adhere to the old principle of “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I will revisit that property in a couple of weeks, when I can try to be a bit more objective.

[While you wait for that, my short take is you should read the comics series.]

So, instead I’ll tackle an older comics property, but one that was also a satirical takedown of contemporary society: Transmetropolitan.

Cover of Transmetropolitan's first trade paperback. Spider Jerusalem, a bald man in a black blazer with no shirt wears mismatched sunglasses and holds a smoking cigarette while standing on a decrepit city sidewalk.

Warren Ellis, one of DC Comics hottest properties during the Vertigo era (and no slouch as a writer today), is no stranger to discussion between Matt and I, and has been mentioned in other articles, most recently in the discussion on the Castlevania franchise. Well, he’s back featuring for us again, as he was the creator and writer of Transmetropolitan. I can’t really sing his praises enough to justify more than a simple “Read Warren Ellis,” so that’s all I’m going to say about him. Read Warren Ellis.

Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist in a future US where gene splicing leads to humans taking on alien characteristics, where the future of news seems like yesterday’s history to us, where a heroic independent journalist tries to sink the censored narrative of a corrupt populist President whose goals are self-aggrandizement and personal gain. Spider Jerusalem is a Hunter S. Thompson analogue, immersing himself in the stories he writes about. He knows many of the main players in his stories personally. Some are old friends who’ve lost their way, but others have always been scummy lowlifes. Not that scummy lowlifes are necessarily antithetical to Spider’s personal friends list, as he certainly moves about the underclass with personal connections, but his tastes are decidedly more upscale, and the fees he charges for his writing elevate his economic status well above the average citizen.

If you read the Wikipedia page, the first sentence describes the series as being “cyberpunk transhumanist,” two buzzwords that still get bandied about today in popular culture. It seems like every day we move a little closer in the direction of the future described by Ellis and wonderfully illustrated by Darick Robertson.[1]

Picture of Spider Jerusalem shaggy-haired and bearded, stuffing a statue of a sumo wrestler into the trunk of a taxi.

The first collected trade paperback of Transmetropolitan seems like a string of one-off stories as Spider comes back into the world of journalism after a five year break from modern life. The first issue has him with long shaggy hair living a hermetic life in an isolated hut in the mountains, but a mishap with a shower leaves him completely hairless. That’s notsomuch a character trait that says much about him, as the rest of his existence is pretty well unclean, including drugs, alcohol, womanizing, prostitution, and general lifestyle habits that a prudish person might consider degenerate. If he wasn’t right about the politically corrupt machinations of the ruling class, you’d likely consider him to be an enemy of the state, which works to the advantage of those in power, leaving Spider on the margins.

That’s about where I’ll leave off story bites because it’s worth picking up the TPBs and reading on your own.

While the series is clearly an inheritor of pulp from a literal standpoint (comics following on from pulp magazines), the visual thematics are more akin to someone like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. That’s not to say the pulp connection ends at the printed medium, because the cataloging of the underclass as it deals with corruption, particularly by those in uniform, has clear antecedents in the hard-boiled detective works of the 1930s and 40s. Realistically, if you strip out the cyberpunk aesthetics, Transmetropolitan has more in common with Chandler, Hammett, or Gardner[2] than anything Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow have produced.

[1] Keep Darick Robertson in mind, because when I do finally write the article about The Boys, he’ll pop up again.

[2] Gardner is mentioned in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and has been mentioned by us in the past.

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Pulp Appeal: Blood Standard by Laird Barron (Guest post by Anthony Perconti)

(Editor’s 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.  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. )

Blood Standard is Laird Barron’s first official foray into the hardboiled crime fiction genre. I first encountered the author’s works several years ago, when I picked up an e-book copy of his Imago Sequence and Other Stories. Soon after, I polished off a longer work, The Croning, followed up by some of his novellas. Up to this point in his career, Barron’s preferred medium of expression has been within the confines of the horror and weird fiction genres. To pigeonhole Barron as merely a horror writer is to do the man a disservice. In addition to being a master craftsman in the discipline of the slow burn sense of dread within his tales, Barron has wide ranging literary influences that he distills into all of his works. To that point, there are several examples of what would be considered hard boiled protagonists within his body of weird fiction. Check out “Bulldozer”, “Black Woods Baby”, “The Men from Porlock” ”, “Frontier Death Song”[1], or especially Man With No Name to see how Barron blends these two genres seamlessly. With Blood Standard, the author stays within a single lane and presents readers with a modern work that could proudly sport a Vintage Crime/Black Lizard logo on it. With one small caveat; the numinous does creep into this novel, but it is relegated to the periphery. This tale works simultaneously as the protagonist’s redemption arc and an origin story; it is also a meditation on the capacity for humans to fundamentally change their natures, as explored through a fallen individual, with a vast propensity for violence.  

Isaiah Coleridge is a mixed race (Maori and Caucasian) mob enforcer for the Chicago Outfit stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. When his boss asks him to relocate temporally to Nome, to keep an eye on things during a working holiday, he runs afoul of the local mob satrap, Vitale Night. In an almost subconscious act, Coleridge does some bodily damage to Night when the man systematically slaughters a herd of walrus for their ivory while on a hunting expedition.  As can be expected, Night’s subordinates give Coleridge some payback, beating and torturing him upon the verge of death. At the last minute, his hide is saved when his capo (and unofficial uncle) Lucius Apollo calls off Night’s goons. During his hospitalization, Coleridge is given an ultimatum by Apollo; he is persona non grata in Alaska. He takes Apollo’s offer and is permanently exiled to one of the don’s holdings, a horse farm located in upstate New York; a fate slightly better than a slow, torturous death. Hawk Mountain Farm is run by the elderly African American couple of Virgil and Jade Walker, along with their troubled granddaughter, Reba.  Coleridge is hired on as a farmhand and is provided basic room and board. What drives the plot forward, the central mystery of the book lies with the disappearance of Reba. Being a teenager of color who has exhibited these bouts of disappearance before, the local police quickly lose interest in the case. This is the fulcrum that Coleridge is provided with, in order to make an attempt at changing his fate.

Barron’s portrayal of the character of Isaiah Coleridge is suffused with nuance. While not the most visually imposing of specimens, nevertheless, this man contains within him deep stores when it comes to taking and dishing out vast amounts of physical abuse. His strength seems to be hovering at the upper limit of human capacity, at least so in small bursts. When he first settles in at the farm, he is able to move an engine block for a short distance. According to one of his eventual friends and co-workers, Lionel Robard, he estimates that the piece of machinery weighs between six and seven hundred pounds. Another interesting facet of Coleridge’s personality that separates him from your typical garden variety thug is the fact that he is a lifelong student of world mythologies, a thinking man; “I have a fondness for the heroic dudes. Hercules, Thor, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, John Henry. That crowd.”(p.99) Blood Standard is chock full of allusions to humanity’s ancient myths; from an ornery old horse named Bacchus to a reference concerning the deepest, darkest cave, the Maori Cave of the Ancestors. These myth cycles inform Coleridge in such a way, that Barron is making the insinuation that this repentant criminal is bound for a greater (albeit violent), fate. While on a date with Meg (short for Megara), a local librarian and part time acrobat, she states that she dreamed about Coleridge in relation to Odysseus. “You put in at several islands. Upon each island, you paid homage to its king. Horrible, vile men who reposed on a throne of bones and whose sandals were caked in the blood of their victims…The palaces, the forests, the grass in the fields, everything around you blazed with fire. You left the islands floating amidst the black like burning jewels and sailed into outer darkness.”(p. 219) This dream (or perhaps, oracle) certainly seems like something pulled from a Greek myth. Mervin Coleridge, retired Air Force officer, current government spook and Isaiah’s estranged father reiterates as much as well. “Someone’s in a bind and you’ve got to save the day. Even at your worst, there was always a glimmer of nobility down deep, under all that shit you’ve covered yourself in.”(p.135)

Although Barron peppers this novel with a myriad of references to our mythic past, that is not to say that this book is a crash course in World Mythology, far from it. Like any good piece of hardboiled fiction, the antagonists, and there are several, make it tough going for our morally compromised hero. In his various attempts to locate the missing Reba, Coleridge runs afoul of several upstate underworld organizations including the white supremacist gang, The Sons of the Iron Knife, Teddy Valens and his group of mercenary contractors in the employ Black Dog and the big bads of the piece, The White Manitou, a Native American tribal gang who utilize extreme terror and torture tactics against anyone dumb enough to cross them. Not to mention local police who are on the take, FBI agents who to put it mildly, distrust Coleridge’s claim of having turned over a new leaf and at the books finale, a Sergio Leone like showdown against the revenge seeking gunfighter Mafioso, Vitale Night.

Like many a hardboiled hero, Isaiah Coleridge has some competent allies in his corner when it comes ferreting out the whereabouts of the missing teen. Mervin Coleridge is able to (begrudgingly) provide some snippets of intelligence using his shadowy government connections. Lionel Robard is an alcoholic Marine suffering from PTSD, from time served in Fallujah and Helmand. Robard is a scrapper through and through who has no qualms about bringing the fight to the bad guys. Rounding out his crew is Calvin Knox, an African American Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and surveillance specialist. “Three men connected tenuously by loose affiliation and camaraderie were headed directly into the belly of the beast on behalf of a young woman none of them called blood. I bore witness to a strange and wondrous event that felt suspiciously like a miracle.” (p.244) Throw in Meg into the mix as Coleridge’s budding romantic interest and you have an eclectic bunch of outsider supporting characters that to me, are reminiscent of Burke’s ‘family of choice’ from the long running series by Andrew Vachss.

Blood Standard grapples with the central question of can a person, who has a natural affinity for and lived within, a subculture of violence for several decades, fundamentally change? In many ways Isaiah Coleridge has much in common with the James Ellroy character of Pete Bondurant, from the Underworld USA Trilogy. Both are seasoned killers who are capable of dispensing vast amounts of bodily harm upon others when pushed over the edge. And yet, with Barron’s character, once he gets sent away from the mob lifestyle in Alaska, he starts exhibiting individual agency. Coleridge starts making decisions on his own behalf; he becomes the sole arbiter of when to dole out punishment, to what degree and when to abstain. And the most telling action of all, Coleridge makes the conscious decision at an attempt to become a more righteous version of himself, as an act of contrition. Not change his fundamental nature mind you, because like Bondurant, Coleridge is very, very good at bloodletting. “As ever, blood was the currency of my existence. Blood was the standard. It would always be this way. Men with guns, men with knives, men with evil intentions. My world, my tribe. My calling.”(p.263)

Laird Barron is a highly talented storyteller who has created a compelling character in Isaiah Coleridge.  Blood Standard is an excellent opening salvo in what I hope becomes a long running, financially successful crime series[2]. Pick up this novel and join Coleridge as he takes his first tentative steps on the violent, bloody and perilous road towards becoming a better man. And if it’s not exactly a hero’s path that he walks on, it’s close enough. Or as Virgil Walker states so succinctly; “Nobody ever truly changes. Not even the heroes in the epics.”(p.269)

[1]An audio version of “Frontier Death Song” is available gratis through the Tales to Terrify podcast (number 40). This is a perfect way to sample Barron’s work, without committing to an entire collection. But I guarantee once you’ve listened to this, you’ll track down and purchase more of his stuff. Wonderfully narrated by David Robison, this road story tells the tale of a man and his dog on the run from the Wild Hunt. This story displays many of Barron’s touchstones as a writer and is as good a place as any to get a feel for his type of short fiction. The stalwart protagonist, the inimical natural landscape (of Alaska) in conflict with humanity and the intrusion of the alien are all accounted for.

[2] The second book in the Isaiah Coleridge sequence, Black Mountain, was released in May of 2019 and has been added to my ever expanding To Be Read pile.

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