Joe R. and Keith Lansdale present another collection of stories recalling those hard-boiled cheap thrills from the first half of the last century. Hearken back with us now to yesteryear in Son of Retro Pulp Tales! (Subterranean Press).
Way before the advent of comic books or paperback novels, our geeky forebears got their fill of escapist exploits from those descendants of the penny dreadful, the cheaply printed, but oh so delectable pulp magazines. Starting with Argosy in 1896 and peaking in the 20s and 30s, the pulps or dime novels were a fecund morass which nurtured the genres of Science Fiction, Westerns, Crime Drama, Historical Romance, Mystery, and Horror as well as the Science Heroes that developed into the Superheroes we see conquering the box-offices of today.
I was born at least a generation and a half too late too experience the pulps when they came out, but they do figure in my memories as a very young reader. Visiting my Great-Aunt Vicky and Great-Uncle Bob at their used bookstore in Maine I would beg to spend the night in the attic. With a flickering Coleman lantern I'd wile away the hours devouring Pogo comics, the Heinlein juveniles, and the adventures of none other than The Shadow. My favorite lullaby was a pair of pearl-handled .45s blazing into the night. Even now Lamont Cranston/Kent Allard's terrifying laughter echoes through my fondest memories. But I digress, constantly.
This anthology of all previously unpublished work tears out of the gate with Joe Lansdale's "The Crawling Sky" The Reverend Jebediah Mercer from the novel Dead in the West is once again Hell-bent for leather hunting down eldritch horror in the East Texas badlands. Here the Rev gives an accounting for himself:
I am on a mission from God. I do not like it, but it is my mission. I'm a hunter of the dark and a giver of the light. I'm the hammer and the anvil. The bone and the sinew. The sword and the gun. God's man who sets things right. Or at least as right as God sees them. Me and him, we do not always agree. And let me tell you, he is not the God of Jesus, he is the God of David, and the angry city killers and man killers and animal killers of the Old Testament. He constantly jealous and angry and if there is any plan to all this, I have yet to see it.
...It is my lot in life to destroy evil. There is more evil than there is me, I might add.
How's that for a cover letter? Try reciting that over a few belts of whiskey at your local watering hole in your best approximation of a Nacogdoches drawl. The results can be quite efficacious. I need more Rev. Mercer stories.
The Weird West feel is also strong in "Quiet Bullets" by Christopher Golden, but owing more to Rod Serling or Ray Bradbury than H.P. Lovecraft. Golden takes us back to those simple innocent times of being ten years old and all the fear and confusion that entails mixed with the cozy chills a really good ghost story can deliver. The creepiness continues as we discover something terribly wrong with William F. Nonaln's "Perfect Nanny" and pull back the lid of what we think we know in Cherie Priest's "Catastrophe Box". Ms. Priest was inspired by a case of real-life psychic researcher Harry Price (1881-1948) but her conclusion goes way past mere table-rapping at séances or wimpy cold spots.
The wild times to be found in the pulps didn't have to rely on fantastic elements. Plenty of gritty two-fisted tales were inspired the the greed and savagery to be found in the all too real mean streets. "A Gunfight" is David J. Schow's homage to Donald Westlake, a breathless blow by bloody blow report of a hardened criminal's desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of the Mob. FPS games are rarely this exciting. Tim Truman, the artist who collaborated with Lansdale on the infamous Jonah Hex comic books in the late 90s and did the cover illustration for Son of Retro Pulp Tales also has a story here. Turning away from the rotten core of the Big Apple, "Pretty Green Eyes" is a piece of hard-boiled nastiness of moonshiners and corrupt strike-breakers in the old West Virginia backwoods of Truman's own family history. Although this is his first published all-prose fiction, no one familiar with his work will be surprised to find he hits every crime pulp note square in the jaw. "Border Town" also draws from it's author's roots. James Grady presents a snowbound Montana train station in 1938 with a woman on the run and rat-bastard Nazi spies.
Speaking of fascist monsters, we veer back towards the bizarre for Matt Venne's "The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the S.S.". I'll just let the over-the-top title speak for itself adding only that the final paragraph was surprisingly stirring. Plunging even deeper into the lurid ridiculous potential of pulp are "The Forgotten Kingdom" "The Lizard Men of Blood River" by Mike Resnick and Stephen Mertz respectively. Both these adventures of Lost Cities and Nearly Nekkid Native Princesses have tongue thrust full through cheek. Resnick's hysterical pun-spewing rogue, the Right Reverend Lucifer Jones was probably the class clown at the same seminary Reverend Mercer went to. It seems in this day and age we can't take the Great White Hunters or Jungle Explorers seriously any more — somehow I feel Shia LaBeouf is all to blame. I wonder if a serious reinterpretation of Allan Quatermain or the like can still be done. Maybe he's as off-limits as another favorite of mine, the sinister Fu Manchu. It seems a shame really.
There's only one story here with Rocketships and Bug-Eyed Monsters and that's this one humble offering from Harlan Ellison. Yeah, you read that right, Harlan Muthafuckin' Ellison!. If his story intro is to be believed, "The Toad Prince or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes" was originally penned in 1991 for a Bantam Books project that never saw the light of day. It's a wild take on the old fairy tale set in a seedy Mars colony with exploited native labor and an ancient artifact men and martians would kill for. A dark reflection of 1940s cosmic dreams that would not be out of place along side some of the "New" Space Opera of today. But what it really reminded me was the kick-ass thrills I got when I first read Deathbird Stories. This is pure balls out Ellison. I don't know if I'd want to be stuck in an elevator with him, but he writes a damn good story.
With four or five the stories being quite excellent and great fun to be had all the way through, Son of Retro Pulp Tales is way ahead of the curve and a mighty satisfying read. I wish Subterranean would come out with more affordable trade paperback editions, but that's just how they roll. In every one of these stories you sense the pure glee the writers had in shaping these cheap thrills from their own fond memories. This has the sense of wonder, adventure, and just plain fun that should never go out of style.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the agents of Shadowskeedeeboomboom as Chris Hsiang. He has the power to cloud his own mind and as yet lacks a boon companion. What a surprise.