Following on from our discussion What is New Pulp and why do we want one? , Andrez Bergen offers up a genuinely intriguing insight in to the varied definitions of New Pulp amongst a wave of writers all engaged in writing it. The excitement of pulp, its working class roots, and the digital revolution all play a part but the devil is, as always, in the detail. Andrez Bergen is a contributor to Pulp Ink 2 and the author of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat and One Hundred Years of Viccissitude.
Once I tell you this I expect you will shoot me down in flames, and fair enough too.
I looked up the word ‘pulp’ online at The Free Dictionary and scrolled past the ‘moist part of fruit’ to the following definition:
“A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.”
(I do have an excuse. It seemed somehow appropriate to consult here instead of a respectable place like the Encyclopædia Britannica, since I knew I’d end up disagreeing with the description – easier to do when it’s not a respected source. Slapping round T.F.D. is more palatable that indulging in fisticuffs with the E.B.)
I grew up on pulp, and my definition is miles away from the one given in T.F.D.
In school, I spent my days consuming Robert E. Howard and the novelizations of Doctor Who yarns by Terrance Dicks, Bill Strutton and their mates, while in the wee hours Hammer flicks and the Roger Corman riffs on Edgar Allan Poe, starring Vincent Price, shaped my nightmares. Then there was Marvel. Comics sourced from my older half-brother’s ageing ‘60s collection by writers Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, and artists Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Steranko and John Buscema.
By university, I moved on to Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and Dashiell Hammett – but had already grown up with Chandler and Hammett, via movie versions of The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). They remain two of my favourite films.
As far as I’m concerned, these are varying degrees of pulp.
Cinema offered the most I consumed, be it noir, horror, hardboiled, sci-fi, adventure, whatever. I loved The Thing from Another World (1951), Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion handiwork in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971).
So it should come as no surprise that I like to explore pulp and its various offshoots with my own writing – and I have a story that blends noir with silly schlock horror in the new Pulp Ink 2 anthology, out now through Snubnose Press.
The other writers involved here are a cross-section of purveyors of pulp and its related offshoots, part of a collection hammered together by Chris Rhatigan and Nigel Bird.
“I like weird shit,” Rhatigan told me for this overview, attempting to explain away the focus. “Modern pulp often hangs out in the bizarre.”
“I can’t think of anything else I’d write,” admitted contributor R. Thomas Brown, the author of Hill Country. “It’s the voice in my head, the way stories feel.”
Veteran writer Patti Abbott, who additionally has stories in Beat to a Pulp and Pulp Modern, says “Even when I published stories in literary magazines, there was a dark undercurrent. I guess we all appreciate a story where stories happen. In pulp or noir, something happens – and then something else happens. And so on.”
Cindy Rosmus, who has moonlighted as the editor of Yellow Mama, feels that “The best part about writing pulp is no P.C. hounds to squash your sleazy prose, no watching your f**king language, and no happy endings.”
“Pulp readers aren’t afraid of the dark,” assessed Katherine Tomlinson, an editor of Astonishing Adventures magazine. “Pulp fiction is a quick, hard screw against a wall, literary fiction is a weekend in bed with coffee and a bagel and the New York Times. Both are nice, but who has time for the crossword puzzle these days?”
Richard Godwin (Mr. Glamour) suggests that this is “genre-defying”, something that “keeps reinventing itself, allowing non-linear narratives. You can cross-breed it, and its kid looks good.”
“What I like about pulp,” agrees James Everington of Penny Dreadnought fame, “is its adaptability.”
Heath Lowrance (author of The Bastard Hand) put it another way: “It’s the hot blood of literature. There’s a sense of wonder about the best pulp fiction.”
“Pulp is fun to read,” says Joe Clifford (Choice Cuts). “While The Sound and the Fury may be a breathtaking work of genius, I’d rather sit down with The Killer Inside Me or The Long Goodbye.”
A theme that Eric Beetner (Dig Two Graves) is willing to expand upon – in suitably minimalist fashion. “In pulp, words aren’t wasted. Character comes through action rather than inner dialogue. I think it has been, and always will be, working class fiction.”
“Pulp casts an unflinching spotlight,” said Court Merrigan, also a contributor to Noir Nation and Big Pulp. “The grace under pressure, the cowardice. What to do when the cement shoes are poured?”
What’s changed the playing field for contemporary pulp is “the strong and growing online community,” assesses Rhatigan, the co-editor of Pulp Ink 2. Writer Brown agrees. “I imagine it’s the ease of getting stuff out now – eBooks, print-on-demand, the volume of material sold online.” Beetner says “I think now, in the digital age, we’re seeing the Internet equivalent of Black Mask and Ten Cent Detective magazines, so there’s been a resurgence not viable in book form.”
So, what is it about pulp?
For me, the depthcharging variety is integral, along with wild plots, cutting wisecracks, and the sheer bravado that ensues when poetry is conjured up out of the apparently mundane. It’s the knack of producing twists, turns, and cutting characters on a shoestring budget, of tossing formula out the window and dissing traditional genre structures.
“This supposedly inferior literary alleyway contains gems that are far superior to many of the things we are told we should read,” assessed another Pulp Ink 2 collaborator, Christopher Black, “especially amongst modern literary fiction – which is in danger of disappearing up its own plotless, witless arse.”
Clifford and Tomlinson see the revival in mildly opposing terms.
“Life is tough right now,” said Tomlinson. “Reading a pulp story allays those anxieties – who doesn’t enjoy that kind of vacation from reality?”
Clifford: “There’s no denying pulp’s bleaker world view speaks to the current troubles in modern society. Pulp is about the cynicism, or more specifically trying to do the right thing in the face of that cynicism… Pulp is tawdry and dark, but strangely comforting because you realize you’re not alone.”
Yes, pulp is impossible to characterize—bending as it does to suit new circumstances—but it’s been with us for decades in comics, movies, TV, pin-ups and dime-store novels, and now online. I’d call it a state of mind, except that someone like Philip Marlowe would shake his head in dismay. Call it instead a drink, an alcoholic beverage to be consumed with wild abandon. Pulp Ink 2 is, therefore, just the first round.