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Spotlight on: Retro Pulp Tales edited by Joe R. Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale (editor), Retro Pulp Tales
There's a phrase that goes something like "Everything old is new again." That is certainly true of pulp fiction. Readers, once content with a prettily-worded book they could brag about to their friends, are now wanting to get back to the basics of storytelling -- fun tales of adventure. "Compelling stories, that's what people want," writes editor Joe R. Lansdale in his introduction to Retro Pulp Tales. "Writers have begun to realize that a good story well told is what works."
Pulp represents storytelling in its purest form, without all the pretentious "meaning" getting in the way of action and plot. And the numbers show that it is making a comeback, with Hard Case Crime novels and the two Thrilling Tales and Astonishing Stories anthologies from McSweeney's flying off the shelves.
But what is "pulp"? Technically speaking, it does not describe the contents of the tales as much as the cheap quality of paper they were printed on -- not refined or glossy, in fact barely suitable for holding ink. "The pulps" could contain anything from Westerns to men's adventure and war stories (both ground and air combat) to science-fiction, fantasy, or horror. Authors like Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and many other famous names all got their start in the pulps, where characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow were also born and thrived. Simply put, pulp fiction was plot-driven and full of excitement -- the kind of thing you didn't want your mother catching you reading when you were ten.
Editor Joe R. Lansdale (whose own work is highly pulp-influenced) attempts to recapture the tone and style of the pulps in Retro Pulp Tales. In it, he collects a dozen authors attempting to replicate the style of the stories that filled so many of their own formative hours. Each is preceded by an essay detailing the inspiration behind the story, how jacked they are to be a part of the anthology, and what they set out to achieve.
Lansdale's guidelines for Retro Pulp Tales were basic: "Write a story in the vein of the old pulps ... that takes place before 1960, and with the restrictions of those times." And I must say that the twelve authors included have done a fantastic job of following the rules (for the most part) while staying true to their own personal styles. I only wish Lansdale "hisownself" had weighed in with one.
James Reasoner starts the whole thing off with "Devil Wings Over France: A Dead-Stick Malloy Story" (which implies that there either have been or will be further Dead-Stick Malloy stories). In it, Dave Malloy (called "Dead-Stick" for his skill at landing planes whose engines have failed), while in the midst of a dogfight, is attacked by a swarm of bats and injured by one. Soon, others begin to show symptoms of what the medical officer calls rabies ... but rabies doesn't cause the lengthening of the sufferer's canine teeth. Reasoner combines aviation with the undead to the detriment of both; neither aspect was illustrated fully, though the story was entertaining enough as a whole.
Chet Williamson impresses with a tale put together "From the Back Pages." A tightly drawn piece, it is best read with little foreknowledge, so I will just say that Williamson uses the format of the pulps' letter columns to paint his fiction with a disturbing coat of realism. Al Sarrantonio dips into Ray Bradbury territory with "Summer," asking the question, "What if glorious summer never ended?" Well, for one thing, it would get hotter, and hotter ... and hotter ... so be careful what you wish for.
Dark fantasist Tim Lebbon digs up a giant in "The Body Lies." Excavating his basement for a spiral staircase, a man discovers ceramic pots that turn out to be the humongous teeth of a long-buried giant whom he has awakened (if somebody took a shovel to one of your teeth, you'd wake up, too) and whom he now has to feed. Finding a giant "sleeping beneath suburbia" is a fascinating concept that deserves more attention and "The Body Lies" feels like just the beginning of a rip-roaring yarn. I wanted more (and at the rate authors these days are turning short works into longer ones, it's a definite possibility).
I really liked Alex Irvine's "New Game in Town" until its jarring, supernatural twist at the end (probably an attempt to cement its pulp factor). Irvine's tale of billiards-to-the-death, involving a straightforward (if slightly crooked) cop, a Jewish gangster, and a midwestern farmboy, has the tone, the suspenseful plot, and the black-and-white characters down pat -- the oddball finale just kind of took the shine off.
Gary Phillips relates what happens during the "Incident on Hill 19," when a mixed-race group of GIs are sent on a reconnaisance mission. Phillips makes race relations too big a part of his tale, and tends to divide his characters into two camps: the ones who hate blacks, and the ones who treat everyone equally. Otherwise, there's not a lot of individual definition, and the story leads to the kind of conclusion that marred "New Game in Town," though the military detail is quite good. Also focusing on race, Bill Crider combines slavery with alien abduction in "'Zekiel Saw the Wheel" and still manages to produce one of the more detailed and realistic stories in the anthology by showing complete respect to all of his characters.
Stephen Gallagher's "The Box" is a simple tale of depth, both aquatic and emotional. It offers up just the right amount of backstory to go with its present telling of mysterious occurrences among students in a helicopter-ditching safety course, and how your past accompanies you wherever you go. A well-told story is enhanced by its weighty subject, told in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it all the more powerful.
All decent stories, but F. Paul Wilson's "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong" was the first one I read that I felt truly captured the essence of what Lansdale was looking for, and what Retro Pulp Tales was really about. (But what else can you expect from the creator of Repairman Jack (a Shadow-like figure himself and the best example of the pulp mentality operating in the modern day)?
"Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong" is a fully realized throwback to the heyday of the "yellow-peril" tale (similar to one he recently published in the Dark Delicacies anthology), featuring Chinese tongsters and a search for a missing girl. The fast-paced plot carries Detective Brannigan (attempting to redeem his reputation via this thankless investigation) through event after event until the final earth-shaking explosion. The appearance of a mysterious and powerful older gentleman adds to the texture of the story, which could easily be expanded to novel length (too bad no one would publish anything like that nowadays). Hatchets and bullets fly, and it felt like Wilson was channeling the king of the pulps, Shadow creator Walter Gibson.
For "Clubland Heroes," Kim Newman dips into his cast of characters connected with his "version of Conan Doyle's Diogenes Club I developed ... for my Anno Dracula novels." Catriona Kaye and Edwin Winthrop recur throughout Newman's work and here they come into contact with a sextet of superhero-types who call themselves The Splendid Six when the heroic half-dozen's next-door neighbor -- a litigious, disagreeable sort named Peeter Blame -- is found dead.
Pulling from the pulps on his side of the pond, Newman offers a tale unlike anything else in Retro Pulp Tales: a very British sort of mystery involving a preponderence of quirky characters and that typically dry English humor. And he manages to keep the pace up over thirty-six pages, nearly twice the length of any other offering. In terms of entertainment (and in spite of a pretty lame solution to the murder), "Clubland Heroes" is right up there with "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong," though they are likely to find disparate audiences. And so the two most perfectly pulpy pieces in this package hail from opposite sides of the Atlantic.
The final tale (and the one that inspired Timothy Truman's appropriately dramatic cover illustration) is "Carrion," Norman Partridge's attempt to write a story "that Robert E. Howard would enjoy" and "a little bit about the man himself." Unfortunately, his combination of walking dead, voracious buzzards, and a breathing house, featuring two protagonists who don't speak each other's language, doesn't really cohere into a form that fits together well. Its strange chronology only confuses things further.
So, that one wasn't so good -- but I knew I didn't like Partridge's fiction after I read Mr Fox and Other Feral Tales. Still, there's only one story in Retro Pulp Tales that I would call a complete misfire: Melissa Mia Hall's true-confessions tale of virginity lost to a space alien, "Alien Love at Zero Break." Hall tries to channel Gidget while giving her a Moondoggie from outer space, but has trouble both keeping up the pace and getting the reader to care about her characters.
Considering the odds of success for an anthology of twelve brand-new stories, previously untested by anyone except their editor, Retro Pulp Tales actually turns out to be quite a solid read. Two really great tales mixed with nine quite good ones, and only one real dud? That's a much higher percentage of quality than I was expecting, and indeed higher than many of the anthologies I've read recently (in fact, I can't think of one I've ever read that matches it). Despite not weighing in with his own short take on the pulps (plenty can be found in his own short story collections, like High Cotton and Bumper Crop), Joe Lansdale still managed to tickle me pink with Retro Pulp Tales, proving that he not only knows how to write a good pulp-inspired tale, but he also knows how to pick 'em.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.
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