1.06.2004

at last: 'the next time' (aka 'for love of pulp')

Escapism was the pulps' main goal, and they used any method they could to achieve that goal. Colorful, outlandish and sometimes risque covers beckoned newsstand perusers to escape into the magazine. And the stories inside were equally as colorful, outlandish and sometimes risque.

Pushing Depression-era woes out of their minds for a short while, readers were able to escape into realms of science fiction, horror, fantasy, crime and mystery, sports, westerns, romance and adventure through the pulps.

--alt.pulp FAQ

I admit it; I'm a sucker for pulp fiction. I've been reading it for as long as I could remember, even if I didn't know it at the time. When I was younger, I didn't give a shit to know that Mack Bolan novels were a direct descendant of Doc Savage novels, or that Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series belonged in the same spiritual category as HP Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos. Because when I started reading pulp fiction, I only cared about one thing: kick ass stories that held my attention.

And now here I am at 29, sounding like my grandfather ruminating over 'the good old days', mired in nostalgia.

It's admirable to grow in your appreciation of literature, to expand your literary skills and to hone your critical responses to a text. As we grow older, we should refine our tastes, or we'd all be reading Dan Dare novels well into our elder years, not quite able to grasp the finer points of Proust or Hemingway. But sometimes....

I still yearn for kick ass stories. Sometimes, I just want to kick back with a good Conan story, ok? Sue me.

Which is why I was mighty pleased to learn that Del Rey Books has released a cheap trade paperback version of Wandering Star's beautiful The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, collecting fourteen of Howard's original Conan tales and illustrated by Mark Schultz (who also created Xenozoic Tales, aka "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs"), and including a hodgepodge of other goodies.

I'm pretty sure I own all of Howard's fantasy writing in one form or another, scattered through a couple hundred different books. But the beauty of this collection (and, I assume, its subsequent volumes) is that it presents Howard's Conan stories as they were originally written, and compiled in the order that they were written rather than to the whims of some lackwit shitheel's perception of their 'chronological order'. To hell with that! Here, we see the development of the character as Howard actually developed him in the course of writing.

I'm not going to go on at length about Conan or REH; many, many others have done so in my stead, as a quick Google search can attest. But Howard and his creations have played an important role in my life... and not because I was a scrawny 98lb. weakling that got beat up all the time while dreaming of becoming a mighty-thewed barbarian.

No, it isn't Conan-as-character that gets to me. It's the quality of Howard's writing and the passion behind it.

Pulp fiction represents a particular sort of feeling for me, rather than an historic era or tradition. To me, 'pulp fiction' as a term boils down to a certain atmosphere, a particular energy in writing that I identify with.

Much of what is called 'pulp fiction' was in actuality quite horrible. From generic plots to cardboard characters, pulp fiction revelled in purple prose and cliches (aside: dammit, how do you create special characters on a Mac???), to the point where much of it is unreadable today. Yet the speed and energy with which much of it was created shows in its writing, and those are traits that are sadly lacking in the majority of fiction today.

These are traits that I'd like to bring to my own writing, so I'm on a constant lookout for writing that is infused with the pulp tradition. And while it's rare, it isn't impossible to find.

Jack Vance is a writer that oozed the pulp sensibility. Best known for his Dying Earth and Lyonesse series, Vance is a seriously underrated author that deserves more attention. I heartily recommend rushing out to purchase Tales of the Dying Earth right this minute. His lush, evocative, stylish prose is perfectly suited to these stories set near the death of the sun, and at the end of civilization. Somewhere between science fiction and heroic fantasy, the Dying Earth saga is unique in its portrayal of far-future existence, and I would certainly place it above even Gene Wolfe's tremendous The Book of the New Sun; while Wolfe's series is the greater accomplishment, Vance exudes more passion.

And once again I'll have to cut short, as it's 2:30 AM and I can barely keep my eyes open....



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