Monday, December 28, 2009

"Flight to Darkness" by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal 1952/New Pulp Press 2009)

As its title proclaims loud and clear, Gil Brewer’s Flight to Darkness is a monument of pulp psychosis—a turbulent, never-ending nose-dive into the depths of one man’s paranoia that, to his utter and horrifying dismay, repeatedly comes true. Nightmares manifest in his real life almost as fast as he can think them up which, considering the degree of his mental trauma, means that things turn bad awful quick for Eric Garth. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1952, we can thank New Pulp Press for giving the book its first reappearance in fifty-seven years. This marks the first release of their “Legends of Pulp” series.

Flight to Darkness opens on Eric’s last day at a California sanitarium where he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences during the Korean War. He dreads sleep because of a single, reoccurring dream in which he murders his wealthy half-brother, Frank, with a wooden mallet. His only consolation is Leda, a nurse who gives him plenty of close, personal attention. When Eric leaves the sanitarium, he drives off in a new car with Leda, his wife-to-be, in the passenger seat. She’s anxious to get married, but he doesn’t trust his sanity enough to commit just yet. En-route to Florida to reunite with his family, things literally turn south. Eric is suspected in a hit-and-run incident, and then his brother Frank shows up to re-institutionalize him. And then Leda stops visiting him at the hospital. Suspecting the worst, Eric plots his escape—only nothing can prepare him for the mess that awaits him back home.

As in Brewer’s excellent 13 French Street, the main character’s increasingly manic, warped consciousness infects every aspect of the narrative. The first-person narration entraps us in his fragile worldview, which is always on the precipice of shattering. Just like the claustrophobic house in 13 French Street, the physical environments of Flight to Darkness are manifestations of Eric’s psychological states. The movement of the novel is from the sterile, falsely calm sanitarium to the wild backwoods of Florida, with raging rivers and shifting earth that crumbles under their feet because of the torrential rains (a perfect symbol of the characters’ own insecurities).

Communicating the mental distress of his characters is one of Gil Brewer’s strengths as a writer. Physically, the novel alternates between stasis and motion: confinement in hospitals, jails, and secluded cabs, contrasts to the larger action of driving across the country, breaking out of hospitals, and car chases deep into the woods. While the plot shifts between these two modes, the internal narrative of Eric’s mental state continually pushes forward at an erratic rate. Even in the moments of relative still, there is never calm: rising tension, but never release (until the climactic finale scene, that is).

So where does this “flight to darkness” take Eric? Nowhere, really. Geographically it takes him around the world (if we mark the start of his journey during the Korean War and the conclusion in Florida), but psychologically he realizes much of what he already knew and feared before. Even when he first meets Leda, Eric thinks to himself “There she was. My fate stood right there in the door…A fate that was going to be mixed up with death, murder, money, and hell.” He knows she wants money, and it is his brother that has the money; the doctors’ concerns for his own stability are proved right (aided by some scheming frame-ups); his brother’s criticisms of his uncontrollability and penchant for wasting money seem right-on; and he even throws away (at first) a loving relationship for a second chance at a knowingly dangerous fling with Leda. This actualization of one’s own self-doubts is a reoccurring theme not only in Gil Brewer’s work, but also of many of the pulp paperback originals of the era, and one of the defining characteristics of noir literature.

As one would expect with Gil Brewer, Flight to Darkness is filled with snappy dialogue, creative and vivid euphemisms, and striking phrases. Here are just a few of my favorites:

“I cursed her. She was a complete savage, bursting with passion, lustful, wanton, wild. At first it was like drinking hot red wine. Then the whole world shuddered and rocked, with the trees thick and mingled with her hair and the smell of it with the sunny shade, a dark blinding explosion.”

“The open door of the sedan swung gently, to and fro. Wild and with unseen tears in the sunny afternoon.”

“My chest felt as though it was in a vise with somebody slowly turning the handle so my breath came shorter and shorter until I might not be able to breathe at all.”

“It was wild crazy loving and she said things only I would ever hear and half-recall as we tumbled headlong and viciously up through the blackness into the star-studded night.”

[Cover art by Kenney Mencher.]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Ticket to Ride" by Ed Gorman (Pegasus Books, 2009)

The eighth and final entry in Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain series, Ticket to Ride (Pegasus Books, 2009) finds the Iowan lawyer enmeshed in a web of local, national and international politics, all of which are converging right in the heart of Black River Falls. It’s 1965, different stances on the Vietnam War have divided the town, and the anti-war Sam McCain seems to have found himself on the unpopular side. Things start to heat up when Lou Bennett, whose son was killed in the war, crashes McCain’s anti-war rally and starts a fight with the charismatic young protester Harrison Doran. From there, things only get worse: Bennett is found dead the next day, and Doran is arrested under suspicion of murder. With the whole town convinced of Doran’s guilt, McCain begrudgingly agrees to defend Doran as a favor to a friend. Complicating things even further are McCain’s crush on Bennett’s daughter-in-law Wendy, and a skeleton in the family closet revels a web of secrets that Black River Falls would have preferred to keep buried and forgotten.

The reasons for Gorman’s reputation as a first-rate novelist are on full display in Ticket to Ride. As in The Midnight Room (released earlier this year and reviewed here), here he mixes suspenseful plotting with a humanistic sensibility that makes us sympathize with the characters, regardless of what moral/political side they are on, and what things (good or bad) they may have done. “Cliffie was supposed to be a cartoon,” our narrator says, “It pissed me off that he’d forced me to see him as a human being.” Character is one of Gorman’s strongest suits, and Ticket to Ride is brimming with lively characters, such as a Midwestern wannabe beach-bum surf rocker named Turk, and a pulp writer named Kenny (“One of Kenny’s best serious stories was called 'Grudge Humping on the Amazon.'”).

While the author’s sense of humor is more pronounced here than in The Midnight Room (McCain’s wry observations are an integral element of the narrative’s pacing), it would be a mistake to call this book merely “lighthearted.” As the book’s prologue illuminates, Gorman is investigating not just the murder of Lou Bennett, but also the larger cultural and political climate of the 1960s, which affected the small towns of America as much as they did the nation. It makes a fascinating comparison to our own times, in which much of the nation still remains divided on current political issues, and in which heated arguments and polarizing rhetoric can often muddle the possibility of constructive debate (as is the case in Ticket to Ride).

For all of its humor and cultural insight, for me Ticket to Ride is at its most effective when dealing with the emotions of its characters—wounded lovers trying to move on in their lives, and particularly McCain’s own struggle to come to terms with his father’s mortality and understand their own misunderstandings: “There were times I’d resented him…but these times were always forgotten in the respect I had for what he’d been through and the love I felt for all the patience and encouragement and love he’d given me. Hell, I’m sure there were times when he’d hated me.”

This may be the final Sam McCain book in the series, and while it happened to be my first, it most certainly won’t be my last.

And now for a few favorite quotes from the book:

“It was an afternoon of heat and lawn work and little kids cooling off with moms aiming hoses at them and teenage girls in bikinis sunning themselves on towels and hoping to put a fair number of men in mental hospitals.”

“But Molly’s fetching looks were misleading. She was like dating a character from an Ibsen play.”

“Turk had the looks and sneer of most teen idols. What he didn’t have was the talent. So he tried to compensate for it by mixing James Dean and Marlon Brando. We weren’t having a conversation. We were having Acting class 101.”

“I felt like an encyclopedia salesman who’d just been rejected for the sixteenth time that afternoon.”

“Decades of smoking, drinking, screwing, and being sick in various ways tattooed the air forever.”

“Time overwhelmed me sometimes, how one era appeared bright and fevered, only to dim with another new era suddenly there, bright and fevered, in this long, unending continuum.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Interview with Charles Ardai

Second in the Gabriel Hunt series, Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear (Leisure Books, 2009) was penned by none other than the mastermind behind the whole operation, Charles Ardai. The book finds the adventurer traveling across the globe as Gabriel tries to solve an ancient mystery of the Egyptian sphinx while keeping one step ahead of a ruthless Hungarian criminal. Ardai’s parallel careers as editor and writer for both the Hunt and Hard Case Crime lines make him a unique figure in the publishing world. Recently I had the pleasure of discussing how these two positions affect one another, particularly within the context of the Hunt series.

Pulp Serenade: From Hungary to Egypt to Greece, there’s a lot of geography, mythology, and history in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. What sort of research was required for this book?

Charles Ardai: Well, my family's from Hungary, so I've been there a couple of times, and of course, I live in New York, so that takes care of the first two locations in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. But for the rest I relied on the magic of the Internet. It's a wonderful thing: You want a map showing every detail of the landscape around the Great Sphinx or every road on the Greek island of Chios? Want a hundred pictures of the Sphinx from every possible angle and every possible time period? It's all just a click away. Things that might have required enormous labor to unearth are trivial to find now. But there's a flip side, too, which is that anything that's easy for you to find is easy for your readers to find, too -- so while in the past a novelist might have been able to get away with making things up, secure in the knowledge that almost none of his readers would know better, he now can be sure that if he gets some point of geography or history wrong, every reader can check him on it and call him on it. So with the enhanced ability to do research comes the obligation to do it, too. And I did. All the interesting historical details in the book are, in fact, true. (Though I fudged details here and there to make for a more exciting story.)

PS: With series novels, it seems that there needs to be a balance between keeping the character consistent from one novel to the next, but also allowing for enough change so that the character grows and keeps the reader interested. Was this something you were conscious of while writing?

CA: It depends on the genre and the level of realism you want. Sherlock Holmes doesn't change significantly from book to book; Matt Scudder does. Indiana Jones didn't change much from movie to movie. We met his lost love in the first one and his father in the third, but he didn't really change, per se. And I think it's in the nature of series adventure stories for the hero not to change a whole lot. You want there to be some interesting character development within a given book -- the character faces some terrible stress and discovers things about himself as he fights his way through it -- but when the next book comes out, he's more or less the same guy as he was in the last one. Now, if we wound up publishing not six books about Gabriel Hunt but sixty, I'm guessing we'd introduce some changes along the way, just to keep things fresh. But it's less critical in the first six books. Remember, for the first few books, you're still discovering who this guy is in the first place -- it's going to be pretty new and interesting even if he doesn't change a whole lot.

PS: Speaking of change, have advances in technology changed the adventure genre much since the days of Doc Savage? At one point, comparing his dead cell-phone to his trust 1945 wristwatch, Gabriel comments, “Sometimes, he thought, the old technologies were better.”

CA: The biggest change in the adventure genre is one that has nothing to do with technology, which is that there basically isn't an adventure genre at all these days. In the late 1800s and on through the pulp era (ending around World War II), you had enough tales of high adventure being written and published and read to constitute a genre. Then the genre morphed into something called "men's adventure," which was more military and less archaeological -- more Rambo than Raiders of the Lost Ark, to use a 1980s movie metaphor. And today there's very little of either. Clive Cussler is sort of adventure-y, and there's all the crypto-religious conspiracy stuff Dan Brown unleashed, but aside from the occasional Indiana Jones tie-in novel, the traditional adventure story has basically ceased to exist. That's why I wanted to create Gabriel Hunt, because I missed this sort of story and no one else seemed to be doing it.

Why is this? I'm not sure. I don't think it has to do with technology making the stories harder to tell -- sure, if you have cell phones some suspense scenes play out differently, but it's easy enough to send your characters to the deep jungle or the heart of Antarctica or a buried city where reception is nil. I think the bigger issue is that, unlike crime or romance (but like pornography, another genre that used to fill bookshelves and has been conspicuously absent for the last thirty years or so), adventure is a genre that's just inherently more fun to experience in a movie or videogame, or through some other kinetic visual medium, than on the page. What's more stirring, watching the truck chase in Raiders or reading about it? Seeing that giant boulder barreling down on Harrison Ford to the strains of John Williams' score...or reading about it? Seeing it will win out every time. (Whereas I'd argue that, for instance, what Cornell Woolrich does to evoke suspense on the page is more viscerally effective that what almost any film director has ever accomplished with visuals.) 

That said I do think there are things you can do on the page in an adventure novel that you can't do on the screen -- all the geography, mythology, and history, as you put it. Conveying a deep sense of the characters being enmeshed in a story that has its roots in bygone centuries. Getting inside characters' heads and finding out what they're thinking while being chased by those giant boulders.

As for technology (and I apologize for straying from the topic), I do think you lose something of the classical adventure flavor if you focus too much on things with bleeping digital readouts, or micro-tracking devices, or fold-out LCD screens -- that stuff feels more James Bond than Indiana Jones. You can use a tiny bit of it if you dirty it up enough -- but not much. Adventure is about sweat and grime, rope and leather, rust and relics -- not about buttons and screens.

PS: Whose life would you prefer: Gabriel or Michael Hunt?

CA: In real life? Michael's. In real life I basically *have* Michael's: I stay at home in a nice apartment in New York City, I talk on the phone and work on the computer in a room surrounded by books. I worry a lot, especially when people I love choose to do reckless crazy things, like flying off to the jungles of Botswana to do research (as my wife Naomi did for her book Empire of Ivory). I was sipping consommé from a porcelain cup while Naomi called me on a satellite phone to say, "An elephant just stuck its head into my tent." And I was very happy to be where I was rather than where she was.

PS: How does stylistic consistency within a series work, with so many writers involved each with their own distinct voice?

CA: It works because everyone has the same beloved references in mind -- all our writers grew up reading H. Rider Haggard and Doc Savage, they all grew up watching Republic serials and Indiana Jones movies -- and because they're all working from a bible I wrote, describing who the characters are, what sorts of things they would and wouldn't do, and what sorts of stores I wanted to tell. Then, when each manuscript comes in, I do a detailed line-by-line edit that not only eliminates glaring inconsistencies (Gabriel's sister can't be short in one book and tall in the next, though her hair color can change) but also results in a smoothing out of the divergent prose styles. I mean, you can still tell they were written by different people -- David Schow's use of language is as different from James Reasoner's, as you can imagine -- but they at least feel like they're writing about the same character. In this respect it's a little like a comic book or TV series. How many different writers have taken a crack at writing Batman comics over the years? Hundreds, probably -- but it's still Batman each time out. And on a TV show you generally have a writer's room with maybe eight or nine people around a table, each tackling a different episode or a different set of scenes, and then the showrunner polishes it all and puts it all together. From the viewer's point of view, it's a single coherent set of stories about a group of characters, but behind the scenes it's the work of a group of disparate writers.

PS: Has your work as an editor and publisher influenced your own work as a writer?

CA: I hope it's made it better. Certainly, exposure to thousands of bad manuscripts over the past few years has given me a greater appreciation for how hard it is to write a good one; and also, just at a practical level, has exposed to me just which scenes in the crime genre are tired and overdone. If I've seen something in a hundred submissions, I'm much less likely to write it myself. Which is one of the main reasons I encourage writers who want to get published in a genre to read a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- in that genre. A hundred books, two hundred...know what people have done, both good and bad, before you start playing around with it yourself. (Would you go to Carnegie Hall for an audition on the violin if you'd never listened to a few hundred pieces of classical music?)

PS: Have you thought about expanding the Hunt series to short stories? Perhaps some sort of pulp-inspired magazine along the lines of The Doc Savage Magazine?

CA: Actually, yes -- but it's tricky. I was planning to write a Hunt short story for an anthology of adventure stories Otto Penzler was working on, and I came up with a great plot, but what I found when I sat down to write it was that it's very hard to cram an adventure plot into 5,000 or even 10,000 words. Exotic scenery takes a certain amount of page space to describe, and a good action scene eats up a certain amount of words, and before you know it, your 10,000 words are gone. You can't do a proper adventure story, with multiple exotic locales and a backstory about an ancient artifact and multiple exciting action set pieces, in 10,000 words. I mean, you *can*...but it can wind up feeling rushed. And the alternative of doing a miniature story, with just one setting and one action scene, isn't entirely satisfying either. Of course, there are decades of great adventure stories to use as models, so it's obviously not true that it can't be done...but I think adventure as a genre just works best at novel length (as opposed to mystery, for instance, which in some ways works better at short story length; certain puzzle plots can support 5,000 words but not 50,000). Combine that with the fact that fiction in magazine form is dying (the audience for magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps a tenth what it was at its peak) and that, while there are hundreds of writers already producing mystery short stories, there are very few who are already writing adventure fiction, and you can see why launching a magazine of adventure short stories would be a risky proposition at best. But that doesn't mean it's not a tempting one.

PS: Any possibility of Gabriel Hunt making it up on the big screen?

CA: Yes. It's a definite possibility. One of the finest agents in Hollywood is currently discussing that very topic with a number of producers and studios, and I think there's a good chance we'll see something happen.

PS: What are your thoughts on the current state of the adventure genre? How does its popularity with readers compare with previous eras?

CA: I think I've probably covered this in my (off-topic) answer to your earlier question, so I won't rehash it all here, except to say that adventure stories have never diminished in popularity -- it's just a question of the form the storytelling takes. Every year Hollywood puts out a number of adventure films and TV series, and they generally do well at the box office, whether it's the period shenanigans of the "Mummy" movies or a child-oriented picture like the recent "Journey to the Center of the Earth" or a TV series like "Relic Hunter." Videogames like "Tomb Raider" are bestsellers (and in turn spawn films starring Angelina Jolie). "Jurassic Park" and "King Kong" are basically adventure stories. In comics, there's a new series coming next year that will team Batman with Doc Savage.

The one place you don't see adventure fiction much any more is in the aisles of your neighborhood bookstore, and that's a shame. The same people who enjoy a "Tomb Raider" game or film would enjoy a Gabriel Hunt novel if only they picked one up. And hopefully they will.

PS: What’s next for Ardai the writer? Will “Richard Aleas” be making his return anytime soon?

CA: Ah, Ardai the writer! Well, first Ardai the editor has to finish working on the next batch of Hard Case Crime books, including Donald Westlake's never-before-published Memory; and then Ardai the editor has to edit the sixth Gabriel Hunt book; but once those tasks are done, Ardai the writer can pick up his pen again. And what will that pen produce? I don't know yet. I do have an idea for another "Richard Aleas" book, a one-off not featuring John Blake but very much in the same spirit as the Blake books, but I don't yet feel I've quite figured out the right way to tell that story. So I don't think that one will be next. I could write the Hunt story I wasn't able to cram into 10,000 words as a novel -- that would certainly be fun -- but after working on six Hunt books in a year and a half, I think I'll be ready for a break. Which leaves a few other possibilities, including a fantasy novel I've been telling people about for more than a decade but still haven't written, and a screenplay Naomi and I have been working on that's just too good not to finish. No shortage of ideas -- just of time...
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