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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Friday, March 28, 2014

Does Pulp Have a Future?

Judging from presentations at Left Coast Crime 2014, Most definitely!

When I was a kid growing up in an eight-by-thirty-five-foot Kitt mobile home, I never dreamed of a career in politics, athletics or show business. I didn't want to be a jet pilot, or a military leader -- or a construction worker like my dad.

I wanted something better: I wanted to be a writer like my idols, Ray Bradbury, A. E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Fritz Leiber. 

Not just any kind of writer, mind you: I cherished the hope of someday breaking into what were still known as the pulps -- cheap magazines printed on low quality paper with garish covers that somehow never really seemed to have anything to do with the stories they were supposed to illustrate.

My dream wasn't hard to understand. Both my parents were avid readers and our little trailer house was stacked with cheap paperback novels by writers like Erskine Caldwell, Raymond Chandler and Grace Metalious. Other kids cut their teeth on the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or Dr. Seuss; I broke in on True Crime, Inside Detective and Detective Dragnet.

We didn't have Black Mask, the magazine that launched the careers of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett: it was long gone by the time I was born. But if it had still been available, I am sure we would have had at least one copy somewhere in the house.

Later I started reading science fiction and horror stories, working my way through E.C.'s unsettling titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror from the comic book stands at local bus stations and grocery stores. Those were the literature that Dr. Frederick Wertheim swore was so full of latent homosexuality, sadism and violence that it was turning American youth into perverts, psychos and full-bore strange-o's!

I started out like a heroin junkie shooting my first freebie hype, sampling juvenile sci-fi like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and Andre North's Starman's Son, then working up to more complicated adult tales by Keith Laumer, Lieber, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and  Murray Leinster.
Eventually I discovered Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and the John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books.

I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club, where I absorbed hardcover adventure yarns for a dollar a pop.  Slowly I consumed virtually the entire catalog of Ballantine, and I took particular pleasure in the Ace Double Novel imprint, which gave you two stories for the price of one. To read the second novel in each double, all you had to do was flip the book over. The price? Only 35 cents.

Those science fiction novels featured strange planets populated with weird creatures and heroes battling alien hordes. The horror titles chronicled unspeakable evils and ancient gods so vile their names could not be uttered aloud. The fantasy tales offered the exploits of like King Kull, Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

I sat in public libraries in every community we lived in -- and we moved often since my dad worked in the construction trades -- Jonesing down these stories like a speed freak mainlining meth. But I wasn't satisfied to simply read them; I wrote them, too, using a cheap Royal portable typewriter to dash off little tales about post-Armageddon adventurers, giant insects, mutants, ghouls and human leeches.

I polished these tales as best I could and put them in the mail, hoping to find a home for them at places like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astounding (later Analog), Galaxy, Fantastic Stories of Imagination, Amazing Stories and If (Worlds of Science Fiction).

Not a single one was ever published, of course. All I got for my efforts was a collection of rejection slips signed by people that I idolized like John W. Campbell (whose story, "Who Goes There?" formed the basis for "The Thing") and Anthony Boucher, who excelled at all forms of pulp writing and now has a prestigious mystery prize named after him.

Life went on and I put my pulp writing dreams on hold while I spent four years in the Navy, got married, attended Cal Berkeley and began a career in non-fiction, writing for publications such as The Nation, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Inquiry, Ms., Omni, New Times (the New York magazine, not the Arizona newspaper) and others, eventually ending up at the Voice of the West in 1980.

I did eventually break into the pulps,
making sales in the late 1970s to Argosy, a magazine that had published C.S. Forester and Max Brand, and Saga, the old McFadden men's magazine, not the one from England.  

But my contributions to both magazines were non-fiction articles about prison gangs, organized crime figures and the Teamster reform movement. I didn't write a word of fiction for either.

Unfortunately, Argosy and Saga were two of the last remaining general circulation pulps. The science fiction and fantasy titles and detective fiction mags had been dwindling for years and were in the process of becoming extinct. In fact, Saga, which was printing my stuff relatively often, went out of business while it was considering publication of one of my articles. And Argosy went belly up after it had accepted a photo essay I had done about the Jeeper's Jamboree, a tough caravan through California's Desolation Valley sponsored by the makers of the original off-road vehicle.

Magazines were dying and the pulps were dying with them. So, unfortunately, was my dream of being a pulp writer.

So it was with delight last week that I discovered the advent of e-publishing has given pulp fiction a new lease on life.

More than a lease on life, in fact: it has resurrected the genre entirely like some shambling, crumbling half-decayed corpse from a 1950s-era copy of EC's Haunt of Fear!

I got the word at the Left Coast Crime conference in Monterey, California, while attending a series of panels on writing crime fiction, the genre in which I do most of my work. Stark Raving Group, an electronic publishing outfit in Southern California, is experimenting with pulp novellas, a fiction form that is shorter than a traditional novel but considerably longer than a short story or novelette.

"As the digital publishing industry continues to evolve, everything about books and publishing is changing," the group says on its web page. "Fast. Hard to know where the industry is going to end up. One thing though, people remain hungry for stories."

"That’s why we created the Stark Raving Group, a unique e-book, and more, publishing company focusing on mysteries, crime fiction, action/adventure, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror, women’s literature, romance and celebrity non-fiction. As you will see, we are truly the next generation publishing company."

Jeffrey Weber, Stark Raving's CEO, told me that publishing pulp-style stories is what Stark Raving is all about.  The company has already signed 60 authors to write for its imprint and is in the process of recruiting a mix of writers. Some, like Eric Van Lustbader (author of The Ninja and the continuation of Robert Ludlum's "Jason Bourne" line of thrillers), have been New York Times bestsellers; others are lesser-known specialists like Gary Phillips, who produces tough-as-nails black hardboiled crime stories reminiscent of the stuff penned by Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) and the late Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem).

Gary Phillips, one of the Stark Raving stable.
One of the slams on pulp fiction historically is the way it treats female characters and minority group members. In classic pulps, the femmes were usually fatales, while people of color were mostly arch-fields (think Dr. Fu Manchu) or exotics (Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan) or sidekicks. Not so at Stark Raving: the press's authors include women such as Mysti Berry and Sarah Chen and both give as good as they get in these Kevlar-coated crime yarns.

Pulp material is also being cranked out by a number of other writers who were present at the conference in Monterey. Chris Holm is the author of The Collector series, a noirish group of tales about the fight between the forces of heaven and hell that are written like Golden Age hardboiled crime novels.  
Chris Holm at a signing.
Johnny Shaw, the author of Big Maria and Dove Season, is banging out tough-guy prose with a comic edge in his full-length novels and in his anthologies, Blood & Tacos.

And what in hell, you may ask, is Blood & Tacos? I will quote Shaw's come-on at Amazon to give you a feel for the publication:
"There was a time when paperback racks were full of men’s adventure series. Next to the Louis L’Amours, one could find the adventures of The Executioner, the Destroyer, the Death Merchant, and many more action heroes that were hell-bent on bringing America back from the brink. That time was the 1970s & ’80s. A bygone era filled with wide-eyed innocence and mustaches."

"Those stories are back! The quarterly magazine Blood & Tacos is bringing back the action, the fun, and the adventure. Also, the mustaches."

Johnny Shaw: Blood & Tacos & Laffs!
While scoping out Blood & Tacos (I just bought my first issue and will be reviewing it here later), I discovered another pulp magazine, Thuglit, which is edited by Todd Peterson and others and offers "fresh stories that'll kick you right in the literary cojones…or whatever the Spanish word is for lady parts that wouldn't enjoy a kicking—literary or otherwise."

Thuglit's editor Todd Peterson, aka Big Daddy Thug. . . 
Shaw's Blood & Tacos is available in Kindle format through Amazon, its shimmering electronic pages rippling with mayhem and muscular prose. Thuglit (issue one of which contains a rollicking story by Shaw) is available in Kindle format and paperback. I am reading it electronically, but I am certain that the paperback version is printed on the same disgustingly cheap paper as the pulpy trash I grew up reading in my trailer's bunk bed.

Pulp is back and I may finally end up writing for a publisher that produces it! Now all some enterprising techie has to do is figure out is how to make an eBook reader that has a seedy, dog-eared look like a well-used copy of Black Mask. . . 

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