Pulp Appeal: MAXINE UNLEASHES DOOMSDAY

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski
You wish your cover popped like this.

Nick Kolakowski (Boise Longpig Hunting Club, Slaughterhouse Blues, Main Bad Guy, et al) dropped this bomb of a book in our laps with a mad cackle before leaping into a stripped down war buggy with a fifty cal mounted on top…

Okay, so that’s not quite true, but this is one hell of a ride of a book packed with gun fights, snow plow thefts, rogue AI, car chases and crime. It’s a twenty minute leap into the future when the world (or at least humanity) is shuffling a bit closer to the edge of extinction, where all the current problems we’re seeing now (rising sea levels, crumbling infrastructure, corporations at the expense of people) is turned up to 11.

Enter Maxine, a born-loser, born into poverty and crime and with no clear way out. Her mother is reliant on her drugs and welfare and her uncle lives out in the woods, a hillbilly gangster whose word carries further than his deeds. Maxine scrambles and claws and clambers, trying to make her life a better one starting with minor crime but then accelerating into harder and more daring escapades… though often with disastrous consequences. What’s most telling about the character of Maxine is her utter inability to stop going. Granted, it could be viewed that her inability to stop, her sheer unwillingness to bend, is what gets her into the most trouble throughout the book, but damn if she isn’t a more interesting character because of it.

While the world building is spot on, where Kolakowski excels is looking at how the future isn’t so different from the present we live in now. There’s still crime (violent and white collar, sanctioned and unsanctioned), people still fall in love, fall out of friendship, screw up and try to make amends. People carry the weight of their mistakes with them, and that often informs the next mistake they make. The characters that inhabit the book are flawed, dangerous, often broken people physically and emotionally, but they remain extremely human in their approaches to life.

This is a book if you enjoy The Warriors and Mad Max, if you don’t think people will automatically turn on their neighbors at the first sign of things getting rough, and if you think Alexa and Siri might be plotting the downfall of the human race. Honestly, I can’t recommend this enough.

You can grab MAXINE UNLEASHES DOOMSDAY direct from Down&Out Books as well as Amazon and other fine retailers.

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Pulp Appeal: The House on the Borderland (Guest Post by J. Rohr)

Editors’ Note: J. Rohr is a Chicago native known for his dark humor, and love of history.  He can be found online at www.honestyisnotcontagious.com dealing with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life, and on Twitter at @JackBlankHSH.

Horror isn’t always about blood, screams, and terror.  Sometimes it’s unsettling truths which conjure crushing revelations.  Blood washes away, screams fade, but knowledge is inescapable.  It’s almost cancerous.  In that regard, The House on the Borderland is certainly carcinogenic. 

As such, the only hope is that the source of its knowledge is unreliable, perhaps even mad.  However, when the only hope is for an insane narrator there is no hope.  Irrevocable revelations about reality have speared the mind of whoever is lamentable enough to learn:  the dust mites don’t control the universe.  This is an element at the heart of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.  However, like the cosmos, it isn’t the entirety, merely a disturbing facet; the more looked at the more it bends the world like a hideous lens. 

Published circa 1908, The House on the Borderland, starts in a vein familiar to any horror fan.  Two friends go on a camping trip to fish.  What at first feels like a plot derived from Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows soon twists into a surprisingly layered series of unreal events.  Yet, the contents are no less familiar, though this familiarity saves the story from an inadvertent fault in many past works.  The accidental staleness of a plot overused by every writer it inspires.  Here the story feels like discovering the origin of a genre rather than retreading a worn path.

The campers come across signs of a ruin beside an incredible chasm.  Amidst the ruins they find a partially destroyed manuscript.  It’s these pages which propel the rest of the narrative, though this story within a story adds a tantalizing layer.  After all, from there on out it’s possible to consider the growing unease of those reading about the area they’re in. 

The manuscript concerns a recluse living in a mansion with his sister.  His only other companion is a beloved dog named Pepper.  They purchased the place cheap thanks to the location’s sinister reputation.  An ancient structure, locals claim the Devil built it.  The recluse’s reaction: “I neither know nor care, save as it may have helped cheapen it.”  From there the skeptic is hurled into events beyond comprehension, birthing crippling dread in him and the readers. 

It’s hard to relate the exact events without spoiling the entire narrative.  Allow the following to suffice.  However, keep in mind these are just the bones of the beast.

Without warning, the recluse is swept off world in a frightening voyage to an arena surrounded by the tremendous looming visages of bestial horrors which seem statues but may be alive.  After returning home, the mansion comes under attack by a horde of hideous humanoid swine-things.  Their terrible cries assail the house and sanity as they attempt to break in.  Though the swine-things are seemingly defeated, a sense of their presence lingers, especially as the recluse searches for their source in nearby caves.  There it’s revealed the mansion is built atop a veritable bottomless abyss.  The recluse then takes another mind-altering journey wherein he witnesses the very death of the universe, and the graveyard of the stars. 

Once a contented skeptic, the recluse unintentionally witnesses entities beyond comprehension on an alien world.  Then, following a satisfying stretch of shotgun laced action, repelling the swine-things seems to reinvigorate the recluse’s sense of control over reality.  Only to have it striped away by witnessing the death of suns, and the terrible cemetery that seems to consume the corpses of stars.  Made small by the revelation of godlike beings the recluse reclaims a sense of strength blasting swine monsters only to be reminded even the sun is a pinpoint in the sky destined to die.

The story concludes with the campers finishing the read.  The manuscript ends midsentence.  In fact, mid-word.  Whether the recluse dies from suicide, a supernatural infection, or another monstrous entity is open to debate.  The case may be made for all three.  As such, it’s no wonder one camper immediately asks, “Was he mad?”  It’s the only safe presumption after reading what’s described as a “history of a man’s terror and hope and despair.”  Still, even if insane, the recluse’s story is no less disturbing because it contained an undeniable unnerving truth – the insignificance of humanity on a cosmic scale.

Yet, the two campers find it hard to dismiss the manuscript.  Unable to obtain more evidence, they’re left only with local rumors.  That a house existed, yes, but it disappeared when the area flooded, submerged by the sudden appearance of a lake.  As for the recluse, none knew him or his sister because they were, well, reclusive. 

The consequence is an insinuation of truth that can never be confirmed.  For in the absence of proof all is potentially true.  It’s just a matter of what one chooses to believe, and herein lies the most sinister aspect of the story. 

The House on the Borderland, similar to epistolatory narratives like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, constitutes a literary variation on cinema’s found footage genre.  The story is meant to be presented as true.  While the same could be said of any fiction, given the inherent suspension of disbelief expected of all audiences, epistolatory and found footage ask the audience to go further.  To willingly consider the material as documentary rather than fiction.  Yes, the safety of denial always exists, but isn’t that the same denial asking, “Was he mad?”

That said, if merely regarded as fiction, Hodgson’s novel is still a distinct treasure.  The action during the swine-thing invasion is as thrilling as any ever written.  It’s easy to picture the recluse scrambling desperately towards the sounds of windows smashed open, blasting a shotgun at hideous pig monsters.  The tension of exploring the caves is palpable.  Meanwhile, revelations of one’s smallness in comparison to the cosmos, are the kind of grinding slow burn annihilation that linger.  The real horror hitting hours, even days later as that new knowledge metastasizes, corrupting the reader it afflicts. 

It may sound anathema to book sharks, but I found myself often reflecting on a variety of other mediums while reading.  The House on the Borderland conjured memories of playing video games from the Amnesia series.  The hallucinatory voyages into cosmic destruction as well as the general atmosphere of the manuscript left me wondering how Panos Cosmatos, director of Mandy, might bring this to life.  I even wondered how the material might inspire musicians such as Devin Townsend, Sleep, or Carpenter Brut.  The point being, this book lights up a reader’s brain. 

It’s no wonder author Terry Pratchett referred to it as, “the Big Bang in my private universe.”

The House on the Borderland is a treasure for any fan of cosmic horror.  It’s a brick wrapped in gold foil bound to smash cosmic nihilism into a reader’s brain.  Because one can kill dozens of swine-things, but the sun will still burn out, the universe ends, and no one will believe you even existed.

Editors’ Note: In 2000 the book was adapted by DC Comics Vertigo imprint. The graphic novel mostly follows the novel, but the ending definitely does not. I’ll leave the quality of that decision to readers to determine, but I’m not a fan.

Cover of the Vertigo imprint graphic novel adaptation of The House on the Borderland
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Pulp Appeal: Hell Come Sundown (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.

Until recently, the name Nancy A. Collins didn’t register with me since the middle 1990’s. During that decade, her name crossed my path from two vectors. Being a lifelong reader of comic books, I was aware of her extensive tenure as writer on DC’s (then Vertigo’s) Swamp Thing title. The other avenue in which I recognized her was from the publishing house, White Wolf / Borealis. Being a fan of the works of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, I was blowing a considerable amount of my then limited income on the three volume collection of the complete Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (not the posthumous sequel), along with several of the fifteen volume omnibus editions of The Eternal Champion cycle. All of the Borealis titles sported a stylized compass logo on the spine, a pretty distinctive calling card on bookstore shelves. One of those books that I noticed several times, but was unable to pickup was Midnight Blue, a collected edition of Collins’ Sonja Blue stories.  Blue has some serious street cred as a character; it has been argued that this punk rock, half vampire/ vampire killer was the template for many an urban fantasy heroine throughout the Aughts. Jump ahead to 2019, while searching the Kindle store for Weird Western titles, I encountered Nancy A. Collins name again after all those years. And boy, am I glad I did; the story I purchased was Hell Come Sundown. This tale is a straight up Weird Western crafted in the Joe R. Lansdale tradition. Sundown doesn’t contain any steam punk flourishes or shades of sci-fi; this is the stripped down, hardscrabble setting of 1869 Texas with elements of the supernatural being front and center.

The story starts off on the McKinney homestead at dusk, where young Jacob is sent off to sleep by his parents. Jacob has been plagued by an entity that creeps out from under his bed during the waning of the moon. Tonight though, unbeknownst to his parents, Jacob has taken matters into his own hands in solving his monster problem. As the creature slithers out from under hiding spot, out from the wardrobe steps Sam Hell, The Dark Ranger, who has been laying in wait for the creature. Hell is dressed from head to toe in black, the only dash of color being his bloodstone bolo tie. His skin is dead white with glowing red eyes. The Ranger shoots the frog like entity, slowing it down some, when his partner, the Comanche medicine woman known as Pretty Woman enters the room and binds the creature, a nature spirit that attached itself to the tree from which the wooden planks of the room were derived.  Jacob, being a connoisseur of dime novels noticed the Rangers advertisement in an issue of Pickman’s Illustrated Serials and wrote for help; his professional motto is one wraith, one ranger. With the case solved and the threat neutralized, the ghost breakers depart.

In a flashback sequence, Collins relates the circumstances of how Texas Ranger Sam Yoakum, while making his territorial rounds in Golgotha discovered the town nearly abandoned. As he learns from the last surviving townsman, who has holed himself up in the church, that while digging a well, some men found a highly secured iron chest containing the mummified corpse of a conquistador.  The men removed a bloodstone amulet from around the corpse’s neck only to be attacked and drained of blood. The vampire conquistador, aptly named Sangre, creates a new host of vampiric followers who rip through the citizens of Golgotha. That night, Yoakum learns that the townsfolk have not abandoned the town at all, but rather are awaiting nightfall so they can feed.  Sangre turns Yoakum, but through the occult powers of the bloodstone, he is able to make his escape from Golgotha. Later that night, Pretty Woman finds Yoakum lost and wandering and comes to his aide as mandated by her vision quest. The story jumps back to the present where we learn that the pair of ghost breakers (Yoakum now goes by the name of Hell) has been systematically tracking down the infected residents of Golgotha and their lord Sangre for eight years across the state of Texas. The tale picks up steam when the duo follows the tracks of the monsters to a combination way station and trading post which has been abandoned but for one man. Here they learn from the old stable hand (named Cuss) that Sangre and his followers have taken the station proprietors, the Tuckers, along with the stage travelers to the ghost town of Diablo Wells, precipitating the final showdown between the vampire lord, his bloodthirsty followers and the ghost breakers. Sam Hell is a man who is trying to keep his monstrous side in check. Through the occult artifact of  the bloodstone (crafted by an Aztec wizard),The Dark Ranger is able to curb his appetite for human blood, instead feeding on smaller game that Pretty Woman then fixes for her supper. This internal struggle acts as the testing ground for Sam’s moral compass. Whether alive or (un)dead, Sam is a Ranger first and foremost; his main priority is in keeping his fellow Texans safe. That is why destroying Sangre and his minions is so critical, both to Hell and Pretty Woman. The Comanche medicine woman’s vision quest revealed a potential future of a land overrun by vampires, with the human inhabitants used as livestock if Sangre’s depredations went unchallenged. Collins states in no uncertain terms that this pair is a co-equal partnership, with the slight advantage going to the Comanche; Sam relies on the medicine woman to safeguard him during the sun blasted daylight hours of Texas, while Pretty Woman’s extensive knowledge of arcane lore makes her a formidable specialist in dealing with the occult. As byproducts of his condition, Hell has the advantages of preternatural strength, general immunity to physical harm and the ability to sense (and track) the presence of the supernatural.  He is also the ‘face’, the public relations component of the team, given the fact that frontier Texans of this era are distrustful of the Comanche. The Dark Ranger and Pretty Woman are written as a clear homage to Fran Striker’s creation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto; the author does a wonderful job of taking these pop culture inspired characters and dropping them squarely into a Weird Western setting. In addition to being one of the forerunners of urban fantasy, Nancy A. Collins also exhibits some pretty strong kung fu in crafting this pulpy supernatural horse opera. For readers who are fans of Joe R. Lansdale (naturally), Pinnacle’s Deadlands RPG, DC Comics’ Jonah Hex or Oni Press’ The Sixth Gun and its sequel, Shadow Roads series should give Hell Come Sundown a try.  And if Collins ever decides to pen the further adventures of The Dark Ranger and Pretty Woman, I’d be more than happy to purchase that dime novel.

Sam Hell and Pretty Woman are a dark reflection of these two pop culture icons.
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Issue 11 Is Live!

In our 11th issue we’re excited to bring you: Aaron Emmel’s story “A Protector on the Road,” his follow up to the story “Irini,” which we originally published in issue five. James Kane graces us with a story where sword and sorcery literally collide in the hardboiled fantasy “The Red Star Assassin.” A young woman is pursued into an antique shop filled with curiosities in Benjamin Chandler’s “The Living Texts of Sildeen,” but what can the proprietor do against a hardened killer? Our cover story is “Frail Memorials” by J.C. Pillard where a young man discovers that not only are ghosts real, they are an integral part of his new job. E.K. Wagner’s “See You in the Next Regime” is a sci-fi tale of love and war and betrayal. C.J. Casey gives us a Western world that ended in 1859 in “Fire and Wool,” featuring an investigation into a different kind of livestock raid. “Dust Claims Dust” by Erica Ruppert is a fantasy tale of war and forbidden love (yes, we’re seeing a sort of pattern here, aren’t you?) that left us with a bit of dust in our eyes. A band of desperadoes get their comeuppance when they fall prey to a killing curse in “A Touch of Shade” by Gary Robbe. Finally, “Dreaming of Chester” by Kevin M. Folliard is a great intersection of crime, horror, and science-fiction set on the Australian coast.

As always, many thanks to our contributors, and if you do pick up a copy, a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or even your personal space is always welcome.

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Pulp Appeal: The Ghoul (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.

Cover image of The Ghoul issue 1, depicts the title character, a giant Frankenstein's monster in a trenchcoat with the moon or a spotlight illuminating him from behind.

I first encountered the works of Bernie Wrightson as a kid decades ago in the 1980’s. Back in those days, before I had access to a proper comic shop, my local supermarket carried shrink wrapped bundles of comics, usually (if I remember correctly) four to a pack. There was no rhyme or reason to the packaging of these bundles, it was purely luck of the draw; you could just as easily land an issue of Simonson’s Thor as you could Moench’s Aztec Ace. One Saturday, upon returning home from food-shopping and opening up the goods, there was a (battered and yellowing, decade old) copy of Swamp Thing number ten. “The Man Who Would Not Die” featured a cover of the Swamp Thing locked in mortal combat with the monstrous Anton Arcane, while in the background stalked his horribly mutated Un-Men.  One look at that image and I became an immediate fan. I was simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the detailed rendering of the monstrous imagery.   To be honest, I don’t recall many of the details of that issue except for Wrightson’s lush and consistent art style.  As the years passed, I was able to check out his work on Creepshow and (in my humble opinion) his straight-up masterpiece of pen and ink illustration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, all the while marveling at the fact that his already prodigious artistic talents increased exponentially since those early Swamp Thing days from the 1970’s. I recently had the opportunity to pick up IDW’s three issue collaboration between horror writer, Steve Niles and Wrightson entitled The Ghoul. This comic is a throwback to those earlier days, when horror and monster titles were ubiquitous on the spinner racks; a combination Monster Rally by way of a 1930’s detective pulp.

LAPD Detective Lloyd Klimpt is working a bizarre extortion case concerning Ester Atwood, an actress whose family has deep roots in Hollywood (going back to her grandmother, silent film star Polly). Klimpt has requested outside help concerning this strange case from the Feds, specifically the sub-department known as the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. The FBSI agent arrives by specially modified plane in the dead of night at a discreet airstrip in Burbank. Klimpt is bewildered when the FBSI representative, codenamed The Ghoul, disembarks from his transport; towering at eight feet in height, clad in a leather duster, with a slate gray, inhuman visage and a shock of black hair. This agent is obviously a non-human entity. Klimpt drives The Ghoul to his house (in a rented U-Haul, no less) to examine the Atwood case files; the Detective is suspicious that at any given point in time, the three generations of actresses look exactly identical to each other. Klimpt suspects that something beyond the boundaries of the natural world is at play with the Atwood clan. This is a time sensitive consultation, given the fact that the FBSI agent is on loan to the LAPD until morning. To complicate matters further, The Ghoul is in town on a secondary mission. It is Walpurgisnacht, the night when the creatures from the underworld make an incursion into our realm. After making a pit stop to equip Klimpt with heavier ordinance, the pair makes their way to the Griffith Park Observatory and get into a running gun battle with a pack of feasting demons. The Ghoul is able to pry information from one of the hellions about Ester Atwood and eventually the duo make their way to the family estate to confront the seemingly immortal creature(s) that are veiled in human skins.

Although lighter in tone in comparison to other projects penned by the author (30 Days of Night comes to mind), there are some genuinely gruesome scenes that are rendered in bloody detail by Wrightson’s masterful line work. Like Niles’ other series Criminal Macabre, there is some humorous back and forth verbal banter between this odd couple (it parallels the patter between Cal McDonald and his partner, Mo’lock). Along the course of their investigation, Klimpt and The Ghoul make contact with two individuals who are well versed in the supernatural that are able to lend a helping hand. Doc Macabre is the boy genius/ occult investigator who creates his own DIY, jerry-rigged monster fighting equipment. He comes off like a cross between Egon Spengler and Jack B. Quick, while the second is the chain smoking, whiskey swilling, Private Investigator Joe Coogan, who also happens to be a rotting corpse, a member of the living dead. These two ancillary characters have starred in their own respective three issue miniseries’, Doc Macabre and Dead, She Said, which were written and illustrated by the same creative team. It is my understanding that Niles and Wrightson were in the process of assembling their own little pulp flavored comic universe, with the lead characters from these three books acting as the foundation stones. Given the fact that these two creators were (almost) exclusive practitioners of the horror genre, one can imagine that this universe’s main focus would be on supernatural/ monster comics, with a large dose of crime fiction mixed in as well. The next phase of the Niles/ Wrightson pulp universe was to be a team book, consisting of The Ghoul, Doc Macabre and Coogan (and I suspect Klimpt as well, given the third issue’s finale). These characters were to combine their collective efforts in staving off an even larger supernatural threat.  Niles christened this crew, The Moorpark Rejects, sort of the IDW version of Night Force, The Midnight Sons or perhaps The Defenders; a misfit gang of monster fighters, of whom two of which are actual monsters. Sadly, this project never made it to fruition; half of this creative team, Bernie Wrightson passed away in 2017, leaving The Moorpark Rejects in a permanent state of limbo.

The backup feature in The Ghoul is a serialized prose story by Niles entitled “My Ghoul” in which, while on the hunt for the serial killer, Scabby McCain in Canada, The Ghoul encounters Millicent, a female member of his species. This meeting comes as a shock to the protagonist.  Throughout his long life, never once has he encountered anyone of his kind, let alone a woman. Niles drops more tantalizing hints concerning the murky origins of the FBSI investigator (and his female counterpart) along with creating a potential romantic interest for the character. The Ghoul is a fun, fast paced read. This book is a classic Monster Rally, with some police procedural and hardboiled elements blended into the mix. Readers who are fans of the Hellboy comics and films, the Cal McDonald mysteries, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, or Bronze Age horror comics from DC, Marvel and Warren, should feel right at home with this miniseries(1). This is a quality, albeit minor, piece from a master illustrator’s substantial body of work that left this world far too soon.

During their initial release, Dead, She Said; The Ghoul; and Doc Macabre, were published as color comics. In early 2018, IDW released The Monstrous Collection of Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson. This deluxe edition brings these three miniseries’ together in one volume in all their pulpy glory (along with a healthy dose of extra material spanning Wrightson’s career as an illustrator over the decades). This volume does away with the original colors entirely, letting the meticulous pencil and ink work take center stage, boosting the mood factor substantially. While not as polished as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or its sequel, Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! , the absence of the color scheme certainly plays to Wrightson’s strengths as an illustrator. The black and white interiors of The Monstrous Collection give off that classic Creepy and Eerie magazine vibe.

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