This is easy for me to say, knowing as little as I do about pulp fiction. My hat’s off to folks like Cullen Gallagher, whose informative history of pulp appears at the end of this giant volume of new stories. I don’t even rank as an amateur in this discussion. But it’s hard, as a compulsive reader, not to pitch in my two centavos.
Pulp and Beat. Pulp, as Gallagher points out, is an aesthetic. It can show up in other popular art forms (film noir, punk rock). Its main message is “stop kidding yourself, we’re beat.” It gives the lie to any form of optimism.
Reading these stories, I have found new reason to enjoy the play on words in Cranmer and Ash’s title Beat to a Pulp. The word “beat” here evokes the meaning of the word as Jack Kerouac originally meant it – exhausted, beaten down. He was describing field workers in California. And he was embracing them and their hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence as being more fully authentic. (Never mind that he didn't know what he was talking about.)
This admission of defeat is at the heart of the pulp fiction in this collection. It’s an attitude typically charged with fierce anger, chilling anxiety, or wild hilarity. Given the working conditions and the low pay of pulp writers, it’s no mystery where this attitude originated.
That pulp flourished during the Great Depression seems no accident. Laissez-faire capitalism had already dragged the economy through several booms and crashes. It was a system that was always hard on ordinary folks, but the Big One about did us in. Pulp, along with the movies, offered an affordable escape from harsh realities and disillusionment.
Every period since then has had its anxieties. Still, most Americans snap back from jolts to their confidence, and sunny optimism prevails. Until lately. And not surprisingly, pulp has had a renaissance.
Dark vs sunny. Pulp is a walk on the wild side. It offers escape into a world where, ironically, there’s often no escape. It traps you in a locked room with your worst fears. Like the protagonists in Bill Frank’s “Acting Out” or Glen Gray’s “Cannulation,” you find yourself caught in a lose-lose situation. It’s a bad dream with no way out but a hopeless run for your life.
Pulp is honest. It is anti-heroic because heroics are futile. It just says no to happy endings.
Almost always. Sometimes cunning succeeds where heroics fail. And while feel-good endings are rare, justice typically prevails. Pulp dives into that gap between what is dark and sunny in us and comes up with cheap thrills that can be thoroughly enjoyable.
I’m thinking here of a couple stories: Kieran Shea’s “Off Rock” and Anonymous-9’s “Hard Bite.” The cheap thrill in both of them is the opportunity to identify with a killer. Each is about a prisoner, one on an asteroid, the other in a wheelchair. Each of them engineers a kind of freedom for himself that involves taking the lives of others. But the dead deserve their fates, and so justice prevails. Still, the killers in both cases are scarcely superior to their victims. Should things backfire – as they do in one case – we know it was inevitable.
There’s a similar set-up in Evan Lewis’ exciting pirate story, “The Ghost Ship.” Here the reader is immersed in a bloody melee as the merciless pirate captain slashes his way to the hold of a captured ship. There he hopes to find treasure. At some point, we discover, good judgment has left the man, maybe long before the story began. And for his cheering crew, justice is finally served.
So greed and lust for blood (dark) meet generosity and the love of safety (sunny), and there we are suspended between a nightmare and a waking world. And enjoying it. Blood and violence mark many of these stories. The word “blood” appears at least once in eleven of them.
Going, going, gone. Death is a nearly constant theme. Worth mention on this point is Paul Powers’ homage to Ambrose Bierce. His “The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce” parallels Bierce’s own “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” first published in 1890. And knowing the original story makes the parallels especially haunting. With the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer, it is as if Bierce predicted his own death, as a prisoner of war in Mexico.
James Reasoner’s “Heliotrope” finds another man lingering, he comes to learn, between life and death. His story, set in a hospital in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor has a vintage feel and reads like a 1940s radio play. Patricia Abbott’s wonky take on death, in “Ghostscapes,” involves several blithe spirits who need time to discover that being among the living doesn’t mean they are still alive.
Women. The women in these stories seem to spring full-blown from the unconscious of the writers, most of them male. Rather than modest and well-behaved, they are wild and sexual or downright spooky. Cash Laramie encounters a kind of Spider Woman in the Edward A. Grainger story, “The Wind Scorpion.”
In Nolan Knight’s “At Long Last,” a man with a windfall inheritance picks up a woman at a bar and gives her a good time, flashing his new wealth. King for a day, he goes back to being a loser when she robs him of all of it.
Seventeen-year-old Ryder is the girl-from-hell in Andy Henion’s black farce, “Anarchy Among Friends: A Love Story.” The middle-aged wife of a wealthy old man in Hilary Davidson’s “Insatiable” shares one of her swarthy lovers from time to time with her husband who has appetites of his own.
Suspending disblief. Generally, these stories take place in a closed universe, a dream world with a logic of its own. You have to suspend all your disbelief to accept them on their own terms. Chap O’Keefe’s “The Unreal Jesse James” mixes science fiction with western history, and the effect is whimsical. It doesn’t have connection points with the real world.
On the other hand, the portrayal of tropical parasites and cannibalism in Chris Holm’s “A Native Problem” casts a shadow that doesn’t quite lift when you turn its last page. Though set in 1923, the story reminds us of AIDS and other global diseases still waiting in the wings.
Garnett Elliott’s “Studio Dick,” set in post-war Hollywood, makes telling reference to anti-Semitism. Stephen D. Rogers’ “Pripet Marsh” cuts close to the bone in its portrayal of wartime savagery seemingly countenanced by the availability of high-tech weaponry. Today’s global black market in organs is evoked in the futuristic “Spend It Now, Pay Later” by Nik Morton. Human trafficking is, in fact, the subject of Frank Bill’s “Acting Out.”
So pulp entertains by playing on the shadow side of popular and officially sanctioned myths about the real world. It questions the validity of beliefs about hard work and getting ahead, going by the rules, being a model citizen, the sanctity of human life, human decency, family values, truth, justice, and the American Way.
So, yeah, it’s un-American. It’s not in denial about the human condition. And it’s a safety valve for all our known and unknown fears, as well as an escape from them. For a while we can let ourselves get beat to a pulp without getting bloody in the bargain.
Coming up: Old West glossary, #4