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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. . .

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taking it in the shorts, Part I

Edited by Todd Robinson
(Thuglit issues I, II, VII, IX)

[This is the first on a series of essays about the emergence of a new genre of pulp literature published primarily as e-Books]

I still remember the first two books I checked out of a library, back in the fifth grade as a student in Mr. Warner's class at Rifle Middle School in Rifle, Colorado: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (Eleanor Cameron, 1954) and Giants & Witches, and a Dragon or Two (Phyllis R. Fenner, 1943). 

I couldn't decide then which was better, but now, with the advantage of nearly sixty years of hindsight, it seems to me that Fenner's book of stories must have been superior: I can still remember her description of Baba Yaga's house walking around on hen's feet, the way the Russian witch flew in a mortar by beating it with a pestle, and the sound of her teeth gnashing (like pokers falling over on a heath).

I eventually moved on to better novels than the Mushroom Planet series and to better stories than those in Fenner's book, but I retained a love for a well-told short story for the rest of my life. Some of my favorite tales, particularly of the type that keep you awake at night with your hair standing on end, have been shorts: Algernon Blackwood's masterfully scary "The Willows," "The Automatic Pistol" by Fritz Leiber, "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce, "The Monkey's Paw" by H. H. Munro and "The Whispering Gallery" by William F. Temple.

Because of this, one of the things I most regretted about the death of the old pulp magazines was the seeming disappearance of genre short stories. Short fiction was once a mainstay of general circulation magazines, but today they have either gone belly-up or curtailed production drastically.

Colliers Weekly, for example, pioneered the short-short, the direct ancestor of today's flash fiction, and featured such popular writers as Willa Cather, Roald Dahl, Zane Grey and Ring Lardner; a competitor, The Saturday Evening Post, frequently offered short stories and novelettes by Ray Bradbury, Kay Boyle, C. S. Forester, Louis L'Amour and Rex Stout.

Only a handful of traditional mystery magazines are still being printed and most of the science fiction and fantasy monthlies have vanished into one of the alternative universes their writers used to delight  in creating. Until recently, I was under the impression that short fiction no longer appeared anywhere but in literary magazines like Utne Reader and San Francisco's own Zyzzyva.

But thanks to Left Coast Crime, the conference for writers and fans of detective fiction and other literature detailing human malfeasance, I have discovered that the short story is quite possibly doing better than it has at any time in the past. In large part, the renaissance is due to electronic publishing, which offers a quicker turnover time than the old "hot type" press and cheaper distribution than the fossil-fuel powered trucks and delivery vans used by traditional printing operations.

For someone like me who loves pulpy tales -- those strewn with violent men and duplicitous women, in which every cop is bent and every politician on the take -- a whole new field of pulp has sprung up. 

For the next few weeks we will explore some of these neo-pulp outlets and fill fans in on places where they can obtain short, gritty fiction similar to that that was ground out in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s for a penny a word by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Be aware: not all of the stuff that's being published reaches the old Black Mask level of excellence. But even the classic pulps often missed the target. In the titles we will be looking at, the level of artistry attained by the authors is generally quite high -- and the variety of subject matter, attitude and even historical period represented in the stories is broad enough to let the reader skip a yarn that isn't really a grabber and move on to something more to his or her liking.

Let us begin our examination by taking a quick look at Todd Robinson's immensely enjoyable Thuglit.

Todd Robinson, AKA "Big Daddy Thug," editor of Thuglit
Robinson began publishing his continuing journal -- which bills itself as "writing about wrongs" -- in the fall of 2012. To date, nine issues have appeared: Sept-Oct. 2012; Nov.-Dec. 2012; Jan.-Feb. 2013; Mar.-April 2013; May-June 2013; July-Aug. 2013; Sept.-Oct. 2013, Nov.-Dec. 2013 and Jan.-Feb. 2014. Each is available in a Kindle edition from Amazon for less than a buck. That's less than you would have spent for a double at Bertola's, the old family-style restaurant in Oakland's Temescal District.

To quote the sign that used to be on the side of the restaurant, "How can you miss?"

According to Robinson's prefatory notes accompanying Thuglit One, the magazine had previously been published for five years but had gone on a two-year hiatus from September 2010 until the new issue appeared in 2012. "Welcome," the editor said to new readers. "You're beginning a journey into the unwashed alley of crime fiction where the men are men, the women are women, the men are sometimes women, the women play with the big boys and everybody's intentions lean to the unsavory."

He isn't kidding. The first issue begins with a bark -- er, make that "bang."

"Lucy in the Pit," by Jordan Harper, a former advertising man and rock critic who lives in Los Angeles and scripts "The Mentalist," a cop show on CBS, has written a surprisingly sympathetic first-person yarn told from the perspective of a fighting dog trainer who is battling to keep his "tough little bitch, proud little warrior" from succumbing to the grievous wounds she suffered while whipping a bigger, meaner dog. 

Jordan Harper: his story is structured to suck you in. . . 
At the same time, he is trying to keep the dog's vicious owner at arm's length and prevent him from putting the dog in another contest -- one that will almost certainly kill her.

I'm not a dog fight fan -- far from it, in fact; To me, dog fighting is one of those repellent pastimes that makes me waver in my opposition to the death penalty (violating the public trust is another, but it's harder to stay angry at crooked authorities; there are so damned many more of them than dog-fighters that it's hard not to become inured to their misdeeds).

But the way Harper tells the tale sucks the reader in completely. It's a first rate story -- worth a hell of a lot more than the 99 cent price of admission, even if the rest of the pages in the magazine were blank.

Fortunately, they aren't.

Hilary Davidson, author of The Damage Done, which won a Crimespree Award and the Anthony Prize for best first novel, offers up "Magpie," an excellent story about a tough bitch of a completely different type: a woman who will lie, steal and cheat in order to keep her doctor husband from reuniting with his family and opening a practice in the impoverished rural community he originally comes from.  

Hilary Davidson, one of Robinson's Lady Thugs

And don't forget Johnny Shaw, the author of Dove Season and Big Maria and editor of the hilariously funny Blood and Tacos, a neo-pulp e-Mag that will be reviewed here next week. Shaw chips in with "Luck," a very funny yarn about a couple of border-area mokes who don't seem to have any.

Johnny Shaw: his characters Violence and Scrote are like Jay and Silent Bob tanked up on cheap whisky and meth.

You just have to love a pair of guys who are named "Violence" and "Scrote," right? If you get the impression from those names that they are sort of like Jay and Silent Bob, only tanked up on cheap whisky and methamphetamine, don't bother sending in for that correspondence course on how to be a private detective; you already understand clues well enough to run the FBI resident agency in Boise.

Since Thuglit One, Robinson has managed to maintain these high standards.  In ThuglitTwo, he gives us: "The Carriage Thieves" by Justin Porter, a yarn about a couple of turn-of-the-century knuckleheads who decide to steal a horse drawn bus to sell for scrap but make the mistake of rounding up the horses to move it from the glue factory -- on the other side of town; "Participatory Democracy" by Katherine Thomlinson, a grim yarn in which a volunteer for an up-and-coming politician gives him the kind of civics lesson they never dreamed up in the local high school;  "Spelled with a K" by Buster Willoughby, about a repo man who has a run-in with Satanists; and "The Name Between the Talons" by Patrick J. Lambe,  a tale about a guy who wants to be a police officer in the worst way -- and gets his wish.

And Thuglit Seven continues the string of hits with "Pegleg" by Ed Kurtz, a violent little narrative about a simple robbery that goes way bad; "The Last Job" by Justin Ordonez, in which an industrial spy gets himself in so far over his head that the best he can hope for is to lose it; "Two Sides of the Same Coin" by Christopher E. Long, a heart-warming story about a dope dealer addicted to his own product who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the woman who is strung out on him; and "Chum" by Michael Sears, in which a Wall Street options trader gets a chance to swim with the really big fish.

Mind that these are just a few of the stories I enjoyed in the three issues of Thuglit I've read so far.  There are dozens more where these came from.  

Admittedly, not every tale is terrific, but even those that aren't are thoroughly entertaining, full of violence, greed, lust and other twisted yearnings.

And 99 cents for as many as ten stories? That comes to only nine cents a hit.

As the sign on the wall at Bertola's used to say, "How can you miss?"

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