Pulp Consumption: John Wick

John_Wick_TeaserPosterThis is the first in a new series of articles to add into our rotation. After six months of weekly Pulp Appeal articles, it felt like a good time to add in a new, shorter article series, one in which we talk about pulp we’ve recently consumed. And serendipitously, I just finished watching John Wick Chapter 2.

John Wick, deftly played by Keanu Reeves, is a modern day action noir antihero. He’s heavy on the action end of things, but the basic conceit of the story is definitely noir. He’s a retired professional assassin who is pretty much James Bond if Bond was for sale to the highest bidder. This sort of antihero is popular in the modern media, what with video games like the Hitman series, movies that star Jason Statham (seriously, almost everything that guy has starred in from The Transporter to Fate of the Furious), and TV shows like Game of Thrones (Arya Stark and The Faceless Man).

In the first outing, John Wick is brought out of his retirement when an unknowing gangster steals Wick’s car and kills the dog his recently deceased wife gave him. In the second movie, right after Wick attempts to go back into retirement following the resolution of the first film, he’s dragged back into the field again by a sworn oath to a former ally. I’m not going to spoil the plots of either any more than that, but suffice to say these are some excellent examples of modern day action pulp. You should absolutely give them a watch. Be warned that the end of Chapter 2 clearly sets up the third entry, which is scheduled to start shooting sometime later this year.

RIP Michael Nyqvist, starring villain of John Wick and Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and co-star of the original Swedish film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al.)

Bonus video link – Honest Trailers satirical trailer for the first film

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Pulp Appeal: A Few Contemporary Anthologies

If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll no doubt have noticed that my posts have all been about older characters and writers, most of which are in the public domain. My experience with pulp has mostly been with the original era. However, there have been several anthologies since the beginning of the 21st Century that have caught my eye.

Chabon_1In the early 2000s Michael Chabon, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, saw a need to collect modern short stories in the pulp tradition. His influences in his earlier novels clearly included pulp authors, and Chabon said as much in interviews. The result of his push to bring about more appreciation for pulp literature was 2003’s McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Chabon collected works from pulp-y authors like Stephen King, Michael Moorcock, and more literary elites like Dave Eggers and Neil Gaiman, among others, and pushed out a collection of contemporary pulp literature the likes of which hadn’t been seen in awhile. I am particularly a fan of Gaiman’s “Closing Time,” with its ambiguity over who is telling the tale and its connection to the Diogenes Club, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a framing story, and such stories within stories are ones I find particularly entertaining.

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A year later Chabon published another collection by many of the same authors, with the focus more on 1950s ray-gun science fiction. Titled McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, the book does deliver on its promise. It does include a couple of great stories by Stephen King (“Lisey and the Madman,” an early version of what would eventually become the novel Lisey’s Story) and Peter Straub, but like its predecessor it includes literary heavyweights like Margaret Atwood and China Mieville. Atwood hates being included in the genre world and refuses to acknowledge her science fiction leanings, but it’s as clear here as it is in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Mieville, who embraces the science fiction genre, doesn’t quite fit into pulp fiction either. Even so, both this and the previous collection are worth reading.

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This cover art by John Picacio is one of my favorite covers in book history. Here’s a link to Picacio’s portfolio of the painting.

On the heels of Chabon’s collections, comic book writer and novelist Chris Roberson put out his own anthology in 2005 called Adventure Vol. 1. It was supposed to be an annual publication, but after the initial issue there was nothing else communicated by the publisher, Roberson’s own Monkeybrain Books, which is a shame as this collection, while not having quite the name recognition of McSweeney’s, does include a tale by Michael Moorcock and a few genre authors like Kim Newman and Lou Anders, whose names should be familiar to enthusiasts of scifi and fantasy. The first story is by Mike Resnick and is essentially a parody of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is amusing, but it doesn’t hold up well upon rereading. My favorite stories are Chris Nakashima Brown’s “Ghulistan Bust-out,” which marries contemporary soldier fiction with paranormal entities and a call back to Robert Howard, and O’Neil de Noux’s “Silence of the Sea,” the tale of an explorer in the vein of Allan Quatermain mapping out a distant planet, with call backs to H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

While these anthologies are already 10 to 15 years old, pulp didn’t recede in that time. In fact, it seems to have grown. We know we aren’t publishing in isolation, and as both producers and consumers of pulp, we’re super stoked that there is renewed interest in these kinds of stories.

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Pulp Appeal: Sandman Slim

https://i1.wp.com/static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/sandman_slim_richard_kadrey.jpg

Alright, admittedly, on the surface Richard Kadrey’s anti-hero James Stark might seem an odd fit for a pulp appeal article, what with him being a supernatural vigilante-type in an ostensibly urban fantasy setting. Scratch the surface though, and what you get is a high-octane version of that most basic of pulp tropes: the revenge story. Or in other words, they are the best damn B-movie novels[1] you can get your hands on.

The reader meets James Stark (the eponymous Sandman Slim) as he’s just escaped from Hell, having been trapped their by his former compatriots in a black magic cabal. Stark’s back and looking for blood, not just because of what was done to him, but because he found out his former girlfriend had recently been murdered… and the culprits were the same people that sent him to Hell in the first place. Stark’s seven years in Hell have made him tougher and meaner, having survived the gladiator pits and been promoted to assassin for one of Hell’s princes. What’s so pulp about that? Change the details to a con having recently gotten out of prison and coming back for revenge for having taken the fall, and you’ve got a classic noir setup don’t you?

Part of the unabashed joy of Kadrey’s writing is watching Stark act like a metaphoric wrecking ball, crashing through the meticulously laid plans of other characters. He’s a barbarian whose first instinct is always to hit back first, and lucky for our hero is able to take a punch/stab/wrecked Ducati/gunshot in return. He’s the outsider who scares everyone else even as they try and use him toward their own ends. Despite the nefarious factions arranged against him from Hell’s princes to Nazi-esque abominations birthed by the creation of the universe to zombies, none of them can withstand the sheer badass attitude Stark brings to the table.

The rest of the appeal comes from the supporting cast of characters, from the immortal alchemist Dupin to Stark’s girlfriend Candy (who causes nearly as much destruction as Stark), to Kasabian (a foul mouthed head and Stark’s business partner) to Brigitte Bardo (a zombie slayer who uses her career in porn as a cover). The characters transcend the cardboard stock that they might otherwise fall victim to, and Kadrey’s villains are the kind of amped up monsters you’d expect someone like Stark would have to run into.

Now ten books in, Sandman Slim shows no sign of slowing down, a fact I’m very grateful for.

[1] Kadrey also throws in enough references to B-movies to make it worth playing “Where’s Waldo?” with the references.

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Issue 2 Cover Reveal

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We’d be lying if we said we weren’t super excited that Luke Spooner/Carrion House did the cover for issue two of Broadswords and Blasters. The image you see is based on one of the stories, “Feathered Death” by Steve Cook.

We are still working on finalizing Issue 2 but plan to have it available for preorder by the end of the month and available for general order by middle of July.

In the mean time you can check out issue 1 here!

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Pulp Appeal: H. Rider Haggard

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Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.06516/

H. Rider Haggard was not really a pulp fiction author, having been a “respectable” author of Victorian literature whose first stories were published in literary magazines in the late 1870s. He was a lawyer but paid more attention to his writing, probably for the best as he was an excellent writer. So you may ask yourself why I’m talking about a Victorian author who was published in the slicks, whose work predates the height of pulp fiction as a trend. Like Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allan Poe, it’s because his work had an outsized impact not only on pulp fiction, but fiction in general.

His most famous creation, the English explorer Allan Quatermain, was introduced in the 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines. While there are earlier examples of Lost World fiction, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, King Solomon’s Mines is considered the father of the style and tropes that came later. The exploration of “darkest Africa” was a particular focus of adventurers at the height of Victoria’s reign at the end of the British Colonial Empire, and the reading public had a thirst for stories of such as well.

In the very first Pulp Appeal article, I wrote about Solomon Kane and his friend N’Longa, whose relationship is clearly founded upon that of Quatermain and Umslopogaas. That friendship doesn’t appear in the first Quatermain book, but there is another cross-cultural friendship that develops between Umbopa/Ignosi and Quatermain. In this novel there is ample evidence that Quatermain is more enlightened racially than his peers. It’s still colonial British literature, so it’s certainly not progressive by modern standards, but the tribespeople Quatermain encounters have agency, take actions on their own for their own self-interest, and run the gamut of emotional, intellectual, and moral development. There is certainly some awful stereotyping in evidence, particularly in the portrayal of the witch Gagool and King Twala, but Umbopa/Ignosi runs counter to such stereotyping. In many ways, he serves as a model for the character of Umslopogaas.

Haggard wrote a lot of stories and books, but he was most famous for Quatermain and Ayesha, a nigh-immortal woman warrior who ruled as “She-who-must-be-obeyed.” While Quatermain’s adventures have some supernatural magic, the stories of Ayesha are full-on fantasy. And if King Solomon’s Mines set the stage for most of the Lost World stories to come, She solidified it. As well, the positive portrayal of strength in women was seen as pushing the bounds of decorum, but today it reads as more quaint and sexist than it would have at the time. Still, between the positive and sympathetic portrayals of African tribes and the exploration of women in leadership and power, Haggard, like Robert E. Howard 30 years later, was far more than the racist-sexist tar critics try to coat him in. This is not to excuse the colonial apologism of Victorian literature, but to condemn it all and throw the baby out with the bathwater is misguided at best.

There were other Victorian adventure authors of the time, like Kipling and Conan Doyle, but they owe a lot to the ground Haggard trod first. And that’s leaving out later authors who carried Haggard’s influence forward, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Philip Jose Farmer, among others.

Last, but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Indiana Jones, who is as clear an analog for Quatermain as exists. There have been a few relatively recent attempts to bring Quatermain to film1, notably two films starring Richard Chamberlain (both attempting to parody Indiana Jones and both critical and commercial flops) and the recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen2, but their less-than-stellar execution (particularly LXG) harmed the brand more than they extended it. Luckily, other interpretations exist, like the graphic novel version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Alan Moore (and boy is he rightfully pissed at the film version), and the original books are all public domain as well as dozens of other books by Haggard.

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1 There were several older ones in the middle part of the 20th Century, but they were about as faithful as the more modern ones and not much better in quality.

2 If you’d like to watch an excellent show that is pretty much LXG with the serial numbers filed off, go hit up Penny Dreadful (on Showtime in the US and Sky in the UK).

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Pulp Appeal: Jirel of Joiry

C.L. Moore, stands out as one of the godparents of sword and sorcery and science-fiction, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her creation, Jirel of Joiry. Jirel stands out for several reasons as a character of the Golden Age of Pulp. She is a female character being written by a female writer, a rarity for the time. (While there were other women writing for the pulps at the time, a large percentage of them were writing hard-boiled detective stories, not fantasy). She is a creature of her passions, frequently overcome with rage that dictate her actions. She is also placed in a historic setting, in this case medieval France[1].

Jirel is a noblewoman, to be sure, but one that is more likely to don armor and meet her foes head-on then to sit behind her castle walls and busy herself with embroidery. In the sadly few stories Moore wrote featuring her, she is a character who takes her fate in her own hands, who strives against dark villains and triumphs, though not through skill at sword or physical prowess, but the characters sheer emotional power and will. Throughout all her tribulations, she maintains a rock-solid foundation of who she is, and she is no man’s woman.

One of the characteristics that strikes me the most is the settings Moore chose to set her stories in. Despite having the pretense of medieval France, Moore flings Jirel into supernatural settings, be it a parallel world through a magic portal (“Jirel Meets Magic”) or through a portal to what can only be considered a version of Hell (“Black God’s Kiss” and “Black God’s Shadow”). The unique nature of these settings, and the obstacles Jirel encounters are unique to the character, and never fall into the trap of imitation or pastiche.

As readers and writers of pulp, you can do far worse than checking out Jirel of Joiry.

The biggest downside is that there are so few Jirel of Joiry stories, with Moore having only penned six (and one of those costarred Moore’s other creation- Northwest Smith). But if anyone ever asks you, “Where are the women?” when it comes to the pulps, here is one ready answer.

[1] I view Howard’s Hyborian age as more closely related to pseudohistory as divorced as it was from any historic setting.

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Pulp Appeal: Hap and Leonard (Guest Post by Matt Spencer)

(Editor’s note: Matt Spencer is the author of several novels, including the acclaimed Deschembine trilogy, The Night and the Land, Trail of the Beast, and The Blazing Chief (forthcoming from Caliburn Press), as well as numerous short-stories and novellas. Find him online at https://mattspencerauthor.wordpress.com/, and on Twitter as @MattSpencerFSFH.

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If there’s a modern author who qualifies for heir-apparent to the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction, keeping the form alive and relevant today, it’s Joe R. Lansdale. Far from a one-trick pony, Lansdale seems at home writing just about anything, from adventure, mystery, horror, sci-fi, Western, to mainstream fiction. The man refuses to pigeon-hole himself, and goes wherever the hell the muse takes him.

 

He sure makes it hard to pick favorites, that Crazy Uncle Joe, especially from the body-of-work of such a prolific storyteller who’s resonated with me so strongly and had such a profound impact on my own work. If you were to put a gun to my head over the matter, I’d say his talent shines brightest in his personal brand of rural East Texas-style hardboiled crime fiction. And there nowhere better than with his two recurring heroes Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

First introduced in the short novel Savage Season (1990), this pair of Texas rough-housin’ good ol’ boys don’t fit the profile. Hap’s a white, skirt-chasing ex-hippie who spent time in jail during the Vietnam War. Leonard’s a black, gay Vietnam vet with an old-school conservative streak. The first novel opens with Hap’s ex-wife Trudy showing up from their old hippie days, to lure him back into a caper to recover a carload of bank-robbery money from the bottom of the Sabine River. From there, things go from bad to worse very quickly, through a scenario made of violent twists and turns and character relationships I won’t give away here. It’s no spoiler to say that Hap and Leonard live through it – the series is named after the eponymous buddy-duo, after all, and all of these stories are told from Hap’s first-person narration. Yet suffice it to say, Lansdale ratchets the action and tension and danger throughout the climax of the story, so hot damn, you feel like you’re right there, bleeding and sweating in the moment with these guys, almost scared to turn the next page, sharing their anxiety over whether either of them will make it out of this alive.

Lansdale has since written eight more novels of the duo, as well as numerous short-stories and novellas, consistently upping the ante every time. As Hap and Leonard grow older and more seasoned, settling into their life’s calling as semi-vigilante private investigators, Lansdale never seems to run out of ways to keep them on their toes.

Lansdale’s rough, witty workman’s prose reads extremely fast, painting people and places in broad, vivid strokes, so their dialogue fills in the rest, putting you there. Hap’s snarky, laconic narrative voice recalls that of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, with a down-home redneck spin, so any fan of old-school hard-boiled detective pulp should feel instantly right at home…but with a twist. See, while so much of our favorite old-school pulp yarns are tainted by outdated attitudes on race and gender and such, Lansdale confronts and addresses these social issues directly, through a thought-provoking modern lens, in ways that hurt. Lansdale’s own real-life background, as a Texas roughneck and as a Martial Arts instructor, lend the seedy situations and bare-knuckle two-fisted action-sequences an authenticity that’s impossible to fake. At the heart of it all lies the inseparable brotherhood between our two ne’er-do-well heroes. That’s what makes you care and keep turning the pages, even when shit gets so grim and gut-wrenching that you’re afraid to see what happens next. Hap and Leonard keep each other going with a rhythmic banter that rings true. They constantly jibe and rib at each other, in vulgar, hilariously offensive ways that only the closest, truest brothers-in-arms get away with talking to each other. They’re down-home hardasses who rely on their brains, hearts, and critical thinking skills, as well as their brawn and swagger. As with any iconic great adventuresome literary friendship, you’re likely to recognize shades of yourself and your own BFF in them, especially if you know what it is to get through some insane, dangerous times together.

Hap and Leonard have recently come to life on the small screen, in a Sundance TV series starring James Purefoy as Hap and Michael K Williams as Leonard, already renewed for a third. Here’s hoping the boys are here to stay with us, for a long time to come, ‘cause if you ask me, they’re the heroes we need right now.

For a great place to start, I’d suggest either the first novel, Savage Season, or the recent collection of novellas and short-stories, titled appropriately, Hap & Leonard.

 (Editor: You can also follow Lansdale on twitter, or find him on his webpage at http://www.joerlansdale.com/

 Interested in writing a Pulp Appeal article for Broadswords and Blasters? Drop us a line through our contact page and let us know what you’re interested in contributing.)

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