Friday, April 30, 2010

"Nudist Gym Death Riddle" by Jack Gray (Vice Squad Detective, 1935)

“Nudist Gym Death Riddle” is a hall of fame pulp title. Seventy-five years after it first appeared Vice Squad Detective in 1935, it still makes you stop and say, “Wow.” So, on those grounds, I’d say it is a pretty damn effective title.

The story is as over-written with pulpy purple prose as you can imagine, and the writing and pacing is undeniably sloppy, but what a wonderful, libidinous mess it is. Unrestrained tastelessness abounds as private eye Ace Lansing joins a nudist cult in order to find out what they are really up to behind closed doors… It all has something to do with blackmailing, but those sort of technicalities are minor compared to the detail in which writer Jack Gray describes the various members of the cult and their “goings-on.”

Ok, so the story sort of stinks, the gender and racial politics are outdated, and Jack Gray won’t be winning a Nobel for this, but I gladly read “Nudist Gym Death Riddle” from beginning to end. It was meant to shock and deliberately appealed to salacious tastes, and that is exactly what it does.

According to Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson’s Pulp Culture, Vice Squad Detective magazine barely appeared for one issue. Police seized most of the copies before they hit the newsstands because of the racy content. It was published by Graphic Arts, a company based out of Minneapolis, MN. According to Robinson and , the issue was released in 1934, but Galactic Central lists it as 1935 and cites an article from Author & Journalist. Because of the controversial content of the magazine, and the scant information available on the author (not to mention his bland name), it is probable that “Jack Gray” is a pseudonym.

For those curious, there is an original copy of the magazine for sale on eBay for $1800 dollars. Well, I won’t be bidding on that one any time soon, but Vintage Library is selling a reprint for a modest and more reasonable price. PulpGen also has a PDF of just "Nudist Gym Death Riddle" available to download for free.

Here is a list of the stories that appeared in the one and only issue of Vice Squad Detective:

“Secret of the House of Horror”
“Nudist Gym Death Riddle”
“Marijuana Vice Trap”
“The Bloodless Corpse”
“The Amazing Case of the Blonde Dope Queen”
“The Call Girl Murder Mystery”
“The Curse of the Rusty Roses”
“The Day Coach Death Puzzle”
“The Clue of the Hunted Vampire”
“Pajama Party Killer”
“The Four White Devils of Tien Tsin”
“The Beach Racket Murder”

All I can is, that’s one hell of a lineup. At least from the titles, anyway.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More Notes on Talmage Powell

Last week I posted some thoughts on six stories by Talmage Powell that I purchased from the Vintage Library. This week I dropped by the site again and got a few more. Here are some brief notes and synopses of them.

From Detective Three-Pack #2:

“Rub Out Inn” (Detective Tales, Oct. 1947) – Powell places more emphasis on anticipation than action—and the alchemy works wonderfully. A terrific story that takes over the course of a couple hours one rainy night in the backwoods of Georgia at Joe’s Eats and Cabins. As the proprietor watches as a young girl arrive with a much older man, he knows trouble is just around the corner. A couple of hours later, trouble arrives. This is a story written between the lines: Joe’s world-weary cynicism and the girl’s foolhardy desperation to escape (even when she knows that the road won’t lead anywhere good) is implied rather than spoken, showing Powell’s command of subtlety.

"Blood was running down the side of her face. Maybe, though Karambalis, she thinks the wetness is all rain. Maybe she doesn't know it's blood."

“So Little Crime” (New Detective Magazine, Nov. 1948) – A corrupt cop’s allegiance to the local mob boss is tested when his daughter finds herself in the way of a wanted man and some missing plans that would incriminate the mob. Powell puts an original spin on the “bad guy with a good heart” archetype: the cop, Carmody, shows little remorse about his illicit behavior. He has no illusions about what he is doing, evinced by his self-destructive drinking and alienating attitude towards his co-workers and family. Even at the end, Carmody realizes that he is beyond redemption, and has dug his own grave no matter what choice he makes. As I’ve noted in other stories, Powell has the tendency to end his stories before his characters hit rock bottom—the worse is still to come for them.

Overall another well-done story with a compelling lead character and an exciting narrative. My one criticism is that the end of the story feels rushed. Details come flying too quickly, as though Powell was cramming a longer story into a small space. Perhaps the idea was intended as a novella, or even as part of a novel, as there seems to be room for extrapolation. Even so, ending the story and wanting more isn't always a bad thing, as it can be a sign that the writer has succeeded in pulling you into their world, and this is what Powell has accomplished.

"He sat down on a high leather stool in the dim-lighted place and began drinking. For long minutes Carmody grinned and drank with all the cheerful determination he could muster. He was drinking like a man trying to kill himself."

“Killer Be Good” (New Detective Magazine, Dec. 1952) – Doug Townsend is an investigator for the District Attorney. He’s not really a bad guy, but he works long hours, fudges the books slightly to make a little more cash, and that doesn’t leave much room for his wife. He finally realizes all of this when someone shoots him point-blank in the head. What the killer doesn’t know is that he survived, and he won’t settle for death until he finds out who pulled the trigger.

The pacing is off on this one. Solid opening, and intriguing concept. But Powell takes his time, devoting too much space (nearly half the story) on building Townsend's anxiety, and then revealing both the red herring and the denouement too quickly at the end. At moments Powell’s drive is there, and I really like Townsend’s increasing self-loathing, but somehow the story lacks guts.

"The last prop beneath my world was shattered completely, I might possibly have accepted oblivion right then; but oblivion failed to come. If this were death, then death was far from oblivion."

Thanks to Galactic Central for the cover scans.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Women's Barracks" by Tereska Torres (Gold Medal 1950/Feminist Press 2005)

Women’s Barracks is dated.

But what do we mean when we call a book “dated”? The label suggests some sort of change in reception or perception, but I think it is more than just a value judgment. It is also saying that something is so tied to the time period in which it was created that it can’t be fully understood or appreciated outside of that context. Rather, for better or for worse, the time period says more about the work than the work says about the time. In my opinion, this is the case with Tereska Torres’ Women’s Barracks, originally published by Gold Medal books in 1950 and reprinted by CUNY’s Feminist Press in 2005 as part of their Women Write Pulp series.

Reading it in now, at first there didn’t seem to be much beyond the racy-for-its-time factor: the hetero- and homosexual lives of women involved in the Free French Forces during World War II. Like a gossipy diarist, the first-person narrator recounts the amorous adventures of the women she lived and worked with. Despite the wartime setting, the story is rather soapy, with most of the novel taken up with introspective observations that drag on with too much detail and too little action. “Show, don’t tell,” might be a cliché, but it would have improved Women’s Barracks considerably. We’re told so much about the characters, but little of it actually happens. The effect is a largely un-engaging narrative.

However, the CUNY reprint includes an interview with Torres by Joan Schenkar and an afterward by Judith Mayne. These additions made me see the book in a different light, and I wish I had read them before attempting the book on its own. Schenkar and Mayne detail the story behind Women’s Barracks, its relation to Torres’ own work with the Free French Forces (the book isn’t quite an “autobiography” but it is grounded in her own experience), as well as its publishing history. Despite whatever suspicions we may have about Gold Medal’s own prurient interest in the book, Torres claims that the sexual nature of the story was of her own doing, and she didn’t receive any pressure to “spice” it up. The book was not only highly controversial when it came out (even attracting the negative attention of a congressional committee) but also influential. As Ann Bannon (author of Odd Girl Out) remembered, “Tereska Torres’ Women’s Barracks showed me a writer who didn’t just write about women in uniform. She made me realize what they might have been doing with each other in their off hours and it took my breath away.”

Jay Walz wrote an article on the controversy, “Publisher Defends Lurid Paper Books,” which was published in The New York Times on Dec. 2, 1952. Walz summarized the defense to the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials made by Ralph Daigh, the editorial director of Fawcett Publications (who owned Gold Medal). As paraphrased by Walz, books like Women’s Barracks “went no further in sensuality and misdeed than did Homer, Plato and Shakespeare.” Daigh also saw the books as “reflecting the life and times of this generation. Such books should be published and made freely available.” Only three years into its existence, Daigh reported 43,149,063 total Gold Medal paperbacks sold—a high number that surely displeased those shocked and repelled by their offerings. The committee counsel, H. Ralph Burton, even went so far as to say that Women’s Barracks “contain[ed] passages he could not quote in a public hearing.” Other articles of the time report that Torres' book was even investigated in Canada.

Schenkar and Mayne make a convincing argument for the book’s cultural importance in that, as the first lesbian paperback for Gold Medal, it would pave the way for Vin Packer, Valerie Taylor, Ann Bannon, and many others. This background info doesn’t make it a better novel, but it does help put the book, and more importantly its time, in perspective.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Old Times' Sake" by James Reasoner (Ramble House, 2007)

Old Times’ Sake (Ramble House, 2007) collects seventeen crime and mystery stories by James Reasoner published between 1977 and 2001. Some take place in shadowy cities after dark, a few in the disarming placidity of the suburbs, others out West, and even one in Ancient Rome. Whatever the settings, though, three things are for certain: the stories are gripping and original, never settling for obvious, easy-outs; the characters are dynamic and rich with nuance and personality, regardless of if they appear on only one page or on twenty; and the writing shows not only Reasoner’s superb command of short-form fiction, but also his deep knowledge and affection for the pulp lineage which he carries on.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, the digest where most of these stories originally appeared, was never a “pulp” magazine proper, but it grew out of that tradition, and it is this spirit that Reasoner evokes but never merely mimics or parodies. There are private eyes, hit men, small town deputies, and mob thugs—but not as you remember them. As Nicholas Lake tells a client at the start of “Kemidov’s Treasure,” “But I don’t look like a private detective? Don’t worry, everyone says that. The world visualized private detectives as either sleazy little men in trenchcoats or Humphrey Bogart. I’m neither one.” He’s got a private jet, a panama hat, and a fondness for detective literature, but he’s also got scruples that can’t be bought, and a sense of dignity that seems to be rare in the worlds that Reasoner writes about. Scruples are something Lake clings to, and he doesn’t like it when others take advantage of them, especially clients.

Dignity, and the betrayal of it, is a reoccurring theme in these stories. The title of the collection, Old Times’ Sake, seems to refer to more than just Reasoners’ roots as a writer, but also the simpler times that early pulps sometimes (but not always) portrayed. In “The $100,000 Collar,” the crooks are more honest than the businessmen and insurance companies. The bond between private detective Delaney and the old burglar is one of mutual respect: they’re both true to themselves and are always on the level. They are dying breeds in a duplicitous world. The masterful title story, “Old Times’ Sake,” in which the limits of a friendship are finally reached, ends with the haunting line, “Memories just won’t leave you alone.” It would be a fitting epitaph to many of the stories in this collection, a simple truth whose resonance belies the mere six words in the sentence.

Part of Reasoner’s skill is the way he can break out of the standard crime paradigms and explore other settings while still sustaining the suspense and excitement his stories are known for. “Down in the Valley” is a dramatic prism, showing a story about immigration across the Mexican border from several shifting perspectives. There is Ramon, the immigrant in the back of the truck; Flood, the driver of the truck; Dave and the other police officers who have set up the dragnet; and the anonymous organizers who engineered the operation and who have no regard for human life.

Other highlights include “Graveyard Shift,” about a convenient store clerk's bleak odyssey from midnight to midnight; “The Old College Try,” in which a student learns the unpleasant truth about what he is really capable of; and “A Matter of Perspective,” in which two henchmen’s gruesome job for their boss ends on an unexpectedly comic observation, a reminder that Reasoner’s knowing, world-wise smile is always just around the corner—or, in this case, waiting for you in the next paragraph.

A few favorite quotes:

“It wasn’t much of a living, but it was all I had.” –“Old Times’ Sake”

“Just once, Ron started to say to himself. Just once… And then he bitterly accepted the realization that just once would never come.” –“The Old College Try”

“I know too well the emotions that fill the long nights: boredom and fear. Boredom because nothing different ever happens, fear that sometime it might.” –“Graveyard Shift”

“Well, he had more money now, but the whiskey and the women still weren’t always that easy to come by.” “Down in the Valley”

“I couldn’t answer the question, so I didn’t pull the trigger.” –“A Matter of Perspective”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Six Stories by Talmage Powell (Vintage Library)

Talmage Powell got his start writing for the pulps during World War II. He was a regular in magazines like Dime Detective Magazine, The Shadow, Fifteen Western Tales, Ranch Romances, Manhunt…the list goes on. By 1959, according to Tennessee’s Kingsport News, Powell already had over 500 stories in print—and he still had almost forty years of publishing ahead of him. In 1959, Powell also moved into novels, publishing two paperback originals: The Smasher (part of an Ace Double) and The Killer is Mine (Pocket Books), which inaugurated his series Private Eye, Ed Rivers. For a while he lived in St. Petersburg, FL and was part of a circle of writers that included Harry Whittington, Day Keene, Gil Brewer, Jonathan Craig, and Robert Turner. Whittington even remarked of Powell’s stories that they were “inimitable.”

While much of Powell’s work is out of print, Vintage Library has brought back many of his short stories. Of the two collections I purchased, Detective Three-Pack #1 was superior. All three stories included were originally published in Detective Tales Magazine: a wife hires a shamus presumably to prove her husband’s innocence in “Black Widow” (Feb. 1949); an old flame asks a mob boss find the man who framed her husband in “I Bleed For You, Babe” (June 1944); and a private eye considers becoming a hired killer for a former lover in “Barracuda!” (Feb. 1948).

These stories show Powell at his best: the writing is punchy, the twists turn in your gut, and he brings a certain originality to seemingly formulaic story ideas. At six pages each, there’s no lag time in the narratives. There’s a spark to Powell’s protagonists, an element of latent surprise that catches you off guard. Sometimes the narrators turn out to be the guilty ones, and even when they’re not, it isn’t clear they are going to do “the right thing.” In other words—they ain’t heroes, and they certainly ain’t role models, but as characters they are undeniably compelling.

Take a look at this line from “Barracuda!”:
“I knew I couldn’t escape this time. I might keep out of the hands of the police for a while by running like hell when I hit shore. But I knew I couldn’t escape this other thing, this hollowness inside of me like a piece of bare, rich ground that should have grown something but that had never been planted.”
There’s an unease about the ending of these stories, a deliberate irresolution. Even when death occurs (as it often does), it is never the real ending to the story. Powell’s characters bear witness to suffering long after “The End” is scrawled across the page. Sometimes they are the cause of it, and sometimes they are the victim, but always they watch as pain perpetuates without any solutions in sight.

The other collection from Vintage Library I purchased, Mystery Three-Pack, was more of a mixed bag. Powell’s reoccurring motif of an ex-girlfriend reappearing is at the heart of “What Happened to Lisa” (5 Detective Novels, Winter 1953), a solid “missing person” mystery with a few good twists; “No Bodies, Darling” (Dime Detective Magazine, Feb. 1952) shows shades of Woolrich’s “Rear Window” but never comes even close; and “Motive For Murder” (Smashing Detective Stories, Nov. 1955)—the gem of the bunch—is a carny story about a stunt that goes deadly wrong that one might expect from Fredric Brown.

Several other collections are available from Vintage Library, and I’ve already purchased two more. I also have an Ace Double that includes Man-Killer (1960) that I hope to review soon.

Thanks to Galactic Central for the cover scans.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Backstory: Ed Gorman on "Cast in Dark Waters"

When I was writing my review of Ed Gorman and Tom Piccirilli's Cast in Dark Waters, I emailed Ed and asked about the story behind the book: where the idea came from, and how the collaboration came about. Being a very generous guy and a heck of a writer, Ed gave me a response that was too damn good to keep in my inbox. So, with his permission, I'm reprinting his email.
"Though I grew up reading Robert Louis Stevenson and numerous lesser writers who told tales of the piratical seas, I never developed any special interest in writing about pirates until I read a long article that told me two things I hadn't known--that some pirate groups hired out as mercenaries, stalking horses for major European countries, and that a few groups of pirates established havens for themselves that had hospitals, churches and elected councils. I'm not sure when I developed the idea of pirates fighting vampires but I wrote a story of several thousand words and then asked Tom Piccirilli if he'd like to take over. Tom not only expanded it but brought his own particular style and touch to what we both knew was a wild pulp tale. Tom really brought it alive and I'm in his debt for doing that. He didn't however like the vampire idea so he made the menace something else.

Concurrent with all this I was talking with my then movie agent about a pirate proposal. She was of the belief that the Renny Harlin pirate movie would be a big hit and Hollywood, Pavlov style, would be salivating for more. Well, Renny Harlan's movie tanked and according to my agent nobody wanted to even hear about a pirate movie. As for pirates and vampires, I was ahead of the curve. There are now two bestselling YA series featuring vampires and pirates. If my lawyer wasn't in prison I'd look into a lawsuit."
Thanks, Ed, for letting me post this.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview with Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski, author of the recently released Expiration Date, was kind enough to do a short Q&A for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: Let’s say you go to your medicine cabinet tonight and find an expired bottle of Tylenol…where in the past would you want to visit? Or would you stay away from them altogether?

Duane Swierczynski: My luck, the bottle wouldn't contain Tylenol. It'd be expired malaria pills or something, and I'd spend the next nine to 13 days avoiding solid food.

PS: All the albums you mention in the book—Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, Styx—are these from your own collection?

DS: I wish. My dad owned a few of the albums I mention, but most of them are things I've picked up on iTunes. I can't remember the last CD I bought, let alone vinyl album. I do miss the covers. Thumbnails don't quite cut it.

PS: Mickey Wade is, much to his dismay, an ex-journalist. Your background is also in journalism—is it something you miss? Might you return to it in the future?

DS: I really don't miss it at all. I know I should pretend that I do, but I have my dream job right now. I could see myself doing a nonfiction project at some point, if the right idea presented itself.

PS: A day in the life of Duane Swierczynski: where and when do you do your writing?

DS: In my basement, during the day. I used to write late into the night, but since quitting my day job I've been able to devote the waking hours to writing, and spend evenings with my family. (Of course, sometimes a deadline means I bring my laptop to the living room couch...)

PS: Social networking–blogs, Twitter, Facebook–is something previous generations of writers never had to navigate. Is this just a phase, or are writers going to have to get used to this as a permanent part of their job?

DS: I don't see social networking as a job, honestly -- it's just fun, and a good way to stay in touch with like-minded people. If it felt like work, I'd probably stop doing it.

I don't think it's a phase; an increasing number of readers expect to be able to fire up Google and find their favorite writers within a few keystrokes. Meanwhile, I remember being 17 years old, and wanting to send a fan letter to Clive Barker. I spend days tracking down an address (for his UK publisher), then spend hours crafting the letter, and then waited (I think) months before a received a reply. But it was a personal reply, and my God did that make my year. It's a much different experience than just clicking the "like" button on someone's Twitter page.

Okay. I'd better stop before I start sounding like Old Man Swierczy...

PS: One of the first thing Mickey Wade tries to do in the past is bring back pulp novels. Where did you first discover vintage pulp novels, and what is your collection like today? Any prized pulps?

DS: Whodunit was my first supplier -- I wandered in there one day in my early 20s, ten bucks in my pocket. Owner Art Bourgeau sent me out with a handful of pulp novels that were a huge influence on me: Dan J. Marlowe's The Name of the Game is Death, an early Goodis novel, and some James M. Cain, among other picks. I don't stop in as often as I like, but Art's the best when it comes to steering you down some delightfully dark alleys.

I go through phases of paperback purchases; when the mood strikes me, my credit card trembles with fear. I think my prize paperbacks are my Fredric Browns, James M. Cains, David Goodises and Jim Thompsons. Nothing super-rare, but I've always bought them to read, not collect.

PS: How does preparing and writing a novel like Expiration Date differ from plotting and writing comics like Punisher and Cable?

DS: It's like writing songs for a solo act vs. an entire band. With my novels, it's just me and a beat-up guitar. With comics, I have to consider the needs of the label, balancing my song with the other songs on the album, remembering to let the drummer and bass player have fun, too. Both experiences are a blast, but they scratch different itches.

PS: Mickey Wade has a love/hate relationship to Philadelphia—as much as it frustrates him sometimes, it is such a part of his identity I can’t picture him ever leaving. Is your own relationship to the city similar?

DS: Yes... but I could imagine myself leaving. Just the other day, I likened Philly to a psycho ex-girlfriend. She used to be hot but now she does crazy things, and she's really let herself go, but something pulls you back, time and time again, against your better judgement...

PS: The story of Expiration Date is quite unlike anything else I’ve read—like a noir version of Alice in Wonderland. Were there any specific influences you had in mind while writing the book?

DS: Fredric Brown would routinely mash-up science fiction and mystery without blinking, as would another favorite oddball writer of mine: Robert Sheckley. I wish someone would start reprinting these guys again.

PS: Any updates on the Swierczynski takeover of Hollywood? Your bio in the back of Expiration Date mentions that several of your novels have been optioned for movies…

DS: The novels are still under option, but nothing new to report yet...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Talmage Powell on Words and Writing

Oh, the marvels of the internet. While doing research on pulp editor Fanny Ellsworth, I came across this fascinating interview with pulpster Talmage Powell courtesy of the Vintage Library. Here are some of his reflections on the craft of writing.
In the matter of style, if I have one some academic will have to define it. I never thought of it consciously. My personal method was to think first of a predominating effect I wanted a story to build to and achieve, both in structuring and in the writing, which influenced the choice of words. Characterization and atmosphere creation also determined the nuances and I've sometimes spent half-a-day hunting the precisely right word, more often than not experiencing defeat...

Pulp, it turns out, constitutes only a small part of my work, but it was perhaps the most important phase. It demanded writing discipline; it required the constant exercise of originality; it offered the opportunity to learn and employ techniques that are essential in any genre of creative writing. It was the exercise that provided the foundation from which I have remained in print for a half-century.
Read the full interview here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Girls in 3-B" by Valerie Taylor (Gold Medal, 1959/Feminist Press, 2003)

Annice, Barby, and Pat are The Girls in 3-B, three young women straight out of high school who leave their small home-town and move to Chicago. Sharing an apartment, they hope to find work and to escape their parents, their peers, and their past. In short—they want to grow up. While Gold Medal originally marketed Valerie Taylor’s novel in 1959 as lurid exploitation (three girls undressing on the cover was their obvious selling strategy), the book is actually a sincere and perceptive coming of age story that holds up quite well half a century later.

As Lisa Walker points out in her Afterward to the book (which was reprinted in 2003 by CUNY’s Feminist Press as part of their series “Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp”), Taylor’s ambitions are actually at odds with both the pervasive, conservative mores of the time, and even subverts the advertising politics of Gold Medal. Not all of the girls are as naïve as they seem—one of them is fleeing sexual abuse at home, while the others are not demonized for their own sexual awakenings—nor does Taylor give in to the promises of the cover art. Readers looking for licentious pleasures should look elsewhere. Taylor doesn’t put The Girls in 3-B on display for cheap thrills or voyeuristic fantasies. Instead, these three young women are struggling with economic independence and sexual identity in the era before Women’s Lib. There are certain concessions to the time period (which is to be expected) but, more importantly, the book questions the expectations demanded by 1950s America and shows that the young generation was challenging the norms.

Valerie Taylor herself was a political activist her whole life and was involved with many civil rights and feminist organizations. At least one battle she won on the page was the positive portrayal of a lesbian couple, something that was not possible nine years earlier in Tereksa Torres’ Women’s Barracks (1950) or even seven years prior in Vin Packer’s Spring Fire (1952), both of which were also published by Gold Medal. Now that the book is back in print (with the same cover art, no less, though it is reversed), we can now appreciate The Girls in 3-B for strides forward that it, and its author, were able to achieve.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“The city spread for miles, vast and impersonal. A huge honeycomb of buildings intersected with streets, alleys, parks. A human body was nothing, a small fragile thing capable of being hidden in a sewer or a broom closet. Both of them their human helplessness, pitted against the uncaring monster that was Chicago.”

“The cold wind, blowing through her thin dress and forcing itself upon her abstraction, was like a knife. But she walked on, stumbling over cracks in the sidewalk, ignoring traffic when she came to a crossing, half-blind and wholly deaf with shock and anger.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Cast in Dark Waters" by Ed Gorman and Tom Piccirilli (Cemetery Dance, 2002)

Released by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2002, Cast in Dark Waters is a collaboration between Ed Gorman and Tom Piccirilli that fluidly and creatively combines two genres: horror and sea-faring adventure. It also features artwork by Keith Minnion. Set in a dingy, 16th century Caribbean port, the story is about a female pirate by the named Crimson whose swashbuckling prowess and high-seas exploits have made her a legend in her own time. Her reputation has spread so far and wide that Trevor and Eileen Maycomb have taken leave of their home in the Virginia colony to hire Crimson to find their missing daughter, Daphna. The trail leads Crimson to an ominous island that is rumored to be haunted by vampires, but that doesn’t scare her as much as the possibility that one of the undead might, in fact, be her deceased lover.

A brisk 100 pages, Cast in Dark Waters is an undeniably enjoyable read, and it is clear that not only do Gorman and Piccirilli’s individual styles merge together cohesively, but that the two writers are also having a blast. A damp, grimy atmosphere settles on every page: bodies hanging from ropes; bar fights; muggy steerage compartments inside ships; foreboding jungles; and the rotting flesh of the restless undead. Bits of action alternate with scenes of nightmarish macabre, and the vampires aren’t the only demons adrift in this story: Crimson and the other characters carry with them plenty of their own personal demons.

If it is starting to sound like the whole book it is grim, it most certainly is not–there is much fun and excitement to be had in the book. Gorman and Piccirilli are perceptive writers who are equally sensitive to suspenseful atmosphere as to the darker aspects of their characters. However, they know how to balance these tendencies with both humor and action, as well as a swift-moving plot that keeps readers entertained.

The initial run of Cast in Dark Waters by Cemetery Dance was limited to 750 copies, and while it is out of print, there are still used copies available at ABE and Amazon, or you could ask your local independent bookseller if they know how to get a copy.

Also, many congratulations to Gorman and Piccirilli who were both nominated by Spinetingler Magazine in the Best Novel: Legend category for this year’s 2010 Spinetingler Awards. Gorman was nominated for The Midnight Room and Piccirilli for Shadow Season, both of which I reviewed here on Pulp Serenade. (I also interviewed both Gorman and Piccirilli about their respective books.) The other nominees include: Tower by Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen; The Complaints by Ian Rankin; The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston; and The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. All I can say is, that’s one heck of a lineup! Congratulations to all the nominees. You can vote for your favorite over at Spinetingler Magazine.

As always, a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

"There is no pain, only a consuming sense of eternity that's more hideous than anything she's ever known. His tongue snakes its way deep into the wound, and she shrieks and weakly struggles as her own blood splashes into her eyes and mouth. The cage of fangs grows around her heart."

"They wore only wet trousers that dripped and left puddles at their feet, and their ashen skin gleamed and glowed with sea water. Jaundiced eyes blazed. The warm night winds swept low and snapped against flesh as hard as bone."

"There are some things that can't be explained and shouldn't be lied about."

Cover art by Keith Minnion

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Expiration Date" by Duane Swierczynski (Minotaur, 2010)

Severed limbs. Missing fingers. Bodies flying out of windows. Gruesome revenge fantasies. And all with a deft, but bizarre, sense of humor. Check, check, and check. This is undeniably the world of Duane Swierczynski. However, Expiration Date, his latest novel, is also a bit of a departure from his past few books. Instead of the hallucinatory, frenetic pacing that characterized The Wheelman, The Blonde, and particularly Severance Package, Expiration Date is more of a slow burn—an incessant drilling into the fragile mindset of Mickey Wade, ex-journalist. Without funds or a place of his own to live in, he is not only forced to move back to his old neighborhood, but he moves into his hospitalized grandfather’s temporarily vacant apartment. Oh, and his mom keeps calling Mickey to remind him to visit his grandfather while he is in the hospital.

But revisiting his old stamping ground is only the beginning of Mickey’s remembrance of things past—way past, as it turns out. Finding a bottle of expired Tylenol in the cabinet, Mickey takes two and promptly blacks out. Like Alice, he enters the proverbial rabbit hole and emerges in 1972 on the day he was born. Seemingly invisible to all but a little boy, he can walk around and see his hometown of Philadelphia as it was almost four decades earlier. It also means he can see what his family was like before he was born, and perhaps he can finally find answers to the mystery surrounding his father’s accidental death in a bar fight when he was still a boy. As he begins to investigate, Mickey discovers that there is more to his father’s death than he was told, and that maybe there is a chance for him to change history. He also discovers that his grandfather was using the pills for the same thing. Unfortunately, Mickey also finds that he and his grandfather aren’t the only ones using the pills, or the only ones interested in his family tree.

Swierczynski has never been afraid to blend genres, and one of the joys of reading his work is seeing his inventive mind unleashed upon the page. Severance Package was part-office dramedy, part-slasher flick. Expiration Date can be described any number of ways: time-travel, urban history noir; sci-fi, drugged-out family trauma; action-fantasy genealogy. Any way you look at it, the marvel of Expiration Date is less the novelty of its myriad influences than Swierczynski’s ability to seamlessly integrate all of them into a cohesive whole. Nor is the book without Swierczynski’s characteristic humor—listening to dad’s records (Sweet and Styx), or trying to steal vintage pulps to sell in the future, or spending one’s last dime on cheap beer and peanut butter (Mickey’s secret to life)—or excitement. If the spine of the book bears the name of Swierczynski, it won’t sit around unopened by the bedside for very long…nor will limbs stay attached to their characters’ bodies.

As much as the story looks into the past, one of the most interesting things about Expiration Date is the way that it, and its author, are looking into the future. Swierczynski is actively involved in comic books, and both Expiration Date and Severance Package have included not only artwork integrated into the story, but also graphically designed text and pages that make the style and atmosphere of the story more visual. He also wrote the digi-novel Level 26 with Anthony E. Zuiker, which integrated a physical book with web-based video. Expiration Date is filled with sadly dated relics—Gold Medal pulps, print journalism, vinyl records—but Duane Swierczynski is carrying their heritage and memory into the future. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing where this author goes next.

And, as always, a few quotes…

“Did a beam of sunlight really just slice through my fingers like it was a light saber?”

“This, after all, was my pill-popping lost weekend. Just me, the pills, some peanut butter, sixes of Golden Anniversary beer and a bunch of LPs that used to belong to a dead hippie musician.”

“Like a beard, an overcoat could cover any number of sins.”

“But for now, really, Mickey, I want you to shut up and let me tell this the way I want to tell it before I strangle you with my pee tube.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jed Ayres Interviews Duane Swierczynski

Jedidiah Ayres' interview with Duane Swierczynski over at Hardboiled Wonderland is so damn good that I can't not plug it here on Pulp Serenade. If you haven't read any Jed's interviews before, then you've clearly been missing out. Read the interview with Duane about his new book, Expiration Date, and then read as Jed is questioned over at Conversations with the Bookless. Still want more? Yes, you do, so head over to Jed's Ransom Notes at Barnes and Noble.
Jed: That said, there is a risk in losing readers if they don't read across various genres. You may have written a brilliant noir SF epic, but try getting the attention of a reader who specifically avoids all things SF. Duane: So yeah, genre labels can be limiting. Ideally there would be only two sections of any bookstore: True Shit and Made-Up Shit. (And okay, maybe a few subsections of these two, like Made-Up Shit for Teenagers, True Shit for Toddlers, etc.) But I do appreciate and understand the need for genre labels. When I'm in the mood for a specific kind of story, and I sometimes wish the little description on the spine of the paperback would say BLOOD-SPLATTERED HORROR or TOUGH GUY STUFF FROM THE 1930s.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ed McBain on Words and Writing

"She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word" is a fond and humorous reflection on writing mystery fiction by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) that originally appeared in the New York Times on March 29, 1999. What McBain (whose real name is Salvatore Lombino) achieved in his career is astonishing. His publishing record spanned over half a century, including hits such as The Blackboard Jungle (1954), the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) (based on a story by Daphne du Maurier), and a mind-blowing 54 novels in his 87th Precint Series.

In his article, he talks not only about humanizing the police genre, but he also riffs on the many tropes used by authors in mystery fiction. Among the many themes-and-variations he discusses are: Private Eye, Amateur Detective, Innocent Bystander, Man on the Run, Woman in Jeopardy, Guilty Bystander, Cop Story, and the Biter Bit.

Here are McBain's opening two paragraphs:
There used to be a time when a person could make a decent living writing crime stories. Back then, a hard-working individual could earn 2 cents a word for a short story. Three cents, if he was exceptionally good. It beat polishing spittoons. Besides, it was fun.

Back then, starting a crime story was like reaching into a box of chocolates and being surprised by either the soft center or the carmel or the nuts. There were plenty of nuts in crime fiction, but you never knew what kind of story would come out of the machine until it started taking shape on the page. Like a jazz piano player, a good writer of short crime fiction didn't think he knew his job unless he could improvise in all 12 keys. Ringing variations on the theme was what made it such fun. Getting paid 2 or 3 cents a word was also fun.
You can read the whole article HERE at the New York Times website.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Pulp Writer's Diet According to Frank Gruber

We’ve all heard the tales before, about pulp legends banging away at the keys all day and all night, churning out story after story after story. Ever wonder just how they did it? Ever think it might have been something in the food back in the 1930s? Well, if you wanted to know what pulp writers were eating during the Depression, Frank Gruber can tell you. Here is a typical meal that he describes in his memoir, The Pulp Jungle:
So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your bowl. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto–tomato soup!

Cost? Nothing.

I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.
I suppose that would give someone motivation to write more, so maybe they could afford something else to eat. And, at least for Gruber, it worked, as he ended up becoming one of the most successful writers for the pulp market, and went on to have a long career in hardcovers, paperbacks, movies, and even television.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Bride Wore Black" by Cornell Woolrich (1940, republished 1968 by Ace)

Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black (originally published in 1940) is as swift and lean as the vengeful killer referenced in the title. Organizing the novel as methodically as the bride plans her payback, Woolrich titles the chapters after Julie Killeen’s intended victims, breaking each of them down into three separate movements: the establishing of Julie’s false identity; the murder itself; and the police’s post-mortem report. Both Woolrich and Julie strictly adhere to this systematic approach in order to introduce logic into an illogical world where chance and coincidence can deprive a bride of her groom on the steps of the chapel only moments after they said their vows.

For Julie, her mission is a way to make sense of the chaos, to discipline her emotional side in favor of rationality. By adapting Julie’s state of mind to his own prose, Woolrich tells us a lot more about Julie’s character than at first meets the eye. As readers, we are confronted with an abstract being whose psychology and emotional underpinnings are carefully concealed. Cold precision takes the place of any human characteristics. Each chapter brings a new role for Julie to play. Her shifting identities are the only thing we can cling to and, as the police make note, there is little consistency there. Lengthy periods of time lapse between chapters, of which we know nothing about. The only clues to her character are the cryptic, fleeting last words she says to her victims. Even the police can’t figure her out, and Woolrich seems reluctant to give us readers anything more to go on, as though to reveal too much about Julie would be to betray some trust between the author and his character. However, this ambiguity, and the steady but driving pace of her mission, is what makes Julie such a compelling character to follow.

By reversing the typical noir paradigm and having the femme fatale be the main character, Woolrich not only makes us sympathize with a character who is often placed in the role of the villain, but he also creates a story in which there is no place for heroes. We turn the pages not with anticipation of dread or moral outrage, but with empathy. With two of the murders occurring in-between the lines, and several other ones rendered in sparest descriptions possible, Woolrich limits the morbid attractions of the narrative. The Bride Wore Black isn’t action packed or thrilling or even horrifying—instead, it is elegiac. It is filled with the same insatiable melancholy that characterizes much of Woolrich’s work—a bitter feeling that can’t be remedied. Even by the story’s end, there isn’t the satisfaction that wrongs have been righted, that any of the characters have gotten what they wanted or even what they deserved. The decided irresolution of Woolrich’s narratives is not only one of his most defining characteristics, but one of his chief contributions to noir. Nothing sums up the noir worldview better than, “All’s well that ends badly,” and in the works of Cornell Woolrich, that is just what you get.

In a Time Magazine profile, "That Old Feeling: Woolrich's World," Richard Corliss wrote that, “Even Woolrich’s fans complained about his novels’ impossible set-ups and implausible resolutions. They were like a cocktail party full of double martinis, or an night of wild illicit sex: it’s great while it’s going on, but in the morning you feel sick, confused or angry.” In a way Corliss is right. In the final chapter of The Bride Wore Black, Woolrich has no qualms about withholding crucial pieces of narrative information from the audience, or pulling the rug out from under them with frustrating coincidences. But that seems to be the point that Woolrich is making: in this (or, at least, his) screwed up world, things like this sometimes happen. You can’t plan them, and you can’t plan on them happening, either. Maybe his characters are the victims of some cosmic cruel joke; maybe they engineered their own downfalls; or maybe it is just bad luck. For the reader, there’s no pleasure in guessing the twist ending before you get there because Woolrich gives few (if any) hints. Woolrich is less concerned with the finale than he is the journey to get there—the black path of fear (to borrow another of his titles) that his characters must walk, and which we must accompany them on every step of the way.

And what a bleak, melancholic path it is.

A few quotes from the book:

“You don’t know what it means… You deal in arrests, to you it’s nothing. You can’t possibly know what goes through you, when you’re in your room, secure and contented and at peace with the world one minute, and the next someone suddenly comes for you to take you away. Takes you down through the building you live in, in front of everybody, takes you through the streets—and when they get you there you find out you’re supposed to have—to have murdered a man! Oh, I can’t stand it! I’m frightened of the whole world tonight.”

“It seldom pays to change trains in the middle of a trip—you’re liable to fall down between the two of them.”

“Her attitude shriveled him like a June bug in a match flame.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Crimefactory Interview with Keith Rawson

The second coming of Crimefactory is now in its second issue. Once again, its lineup is enough to make Ellery Queen (or any other magazine) drooling with envy. 126 pages filled with people like Craig McDonald and Charlie Stella (who interview each other about their new books), Reed Farrel Coleman on his roots as a writer, Jimmy Callaway on William Lindsay Gresham (of Nightmare Alley fame), stories by Patti Abbot, Kieran Shea, Ray Banks, and Stephen D. Rogers (who recently stopped by Pulp Serenade on his blog tour for Shot to Death). And there’s a heck of a lot more. But, before you get your ass over to Crimefactory, check out a recent conversation I had with one of Crimefactory’s editors, Keith Rawson. An original and uncompromising writer in his own right, Rawson has made numerous appearances here on Pulp Serenade with own twisted tales. Stories like "What I Lost Along With My Keys" and “Marmalade” are as noir as they come.

Pulp Serenade: You’ve been a busy man lately—BSC Review, Spinetingler, Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips not to mention your own stories. And now Crimefactory. How do you even find time for everything?

Keith Rawson: It’s time management more than anything else. I have days set aside when I work on certain projects and I don’t deviate from those days unless it’s something out of the ordinary like a video interview I have to conduct, or a family holiday or event. Plus, when you get into the habit of writing every day, it does become addictive and if I skip a day, I feel guilty about it. But you know what, I’m having fun. I love it that I have so many forums like BSCreview and Spinetingler available to me to promote crime fiction. 

PS: What was the impetus for reigniting Crimefactory with your co-conspirators Cameron Ashley and Liam Jose?

KR: It all started on Twitter. Cam and I had known each other for awhile from appearing in various online zines like A Twist of Noir and Plots with Guns and the two of us would goof around a lot on Twitter and then one night Cam started updating his status as Crimefactory. I knew Crimefactory’s history and owned a couple of back issues from the original run. It was an impressive publication and I asked Cam what he was thinking about doing. We started Direct Messaging and then e-mailing about possibly reviving the magazine, but doing it online instead of as a print publication. We were both really worked up over it, so we started working on the revival. Of course, we both wanted the blessing and assistance of the publisher of the original magazine, David Honeybone, before we went full bore into the project. At first, David was very excited about the revival, but then he started getting discouraged due to some personal issues and backed out of participating in the magazine. Dave dropping out of the project was pretty devastating for Cam (who could blame him?) and we almost didn’t move forward. This would’ve sucked because I’d already lined up all of the fiction contributors for issue 1 and most of issue 2 (Steve Weddle and Frank Bill had even sent their stories in already). Luckily, Cam got over it pretty quickly and we were in business.

With Liam coming on board, I’m pretty sure Cam grew Liam in a test tube by combining the DNA of Salvador Dali and a 1970’s pornstar…but where ever he came from, he’s been a real boom for the magazine. Liam has a fantastic eye for design and layout, and the man has become the key component to Crimefactory.

PS: The war of e-readers is still going on, and since Crimefactory is available in several formats (PDF, Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader), I was wondering what your take on the issue is. Do you own an e-reader? What format are most people getting Crimefactory in?

KR: You know, I think the whole e-reader wars are pretty exciting. It’s got people talking about and buying books and other electronic content like Crimefactory. Personally, I think it’s a great time to be apart of publishing, especially if you’re a small independent who wants to increase their reader base. I don’t think e-readers will ever replace traditional books (at least I hope it doesn’t) but it does open a lot of new doors.

I don’t own an e-reader. I have an iPhone and have all of the e-reader apps on my phone (I use Kindle the most because of the range of content available) and actually use it quite a bit.

And it shouldn’t be t a surprise to anyone that the free PDF is the way most people read the magazine. With the debut issue, the site received close to 500,000 unique visitors over two months—if you listen to Patti Abbott she’ll tell you that she’s responsible for half of the visits—and we’re trending towards the same amount of traffic since the release of issue #2.
The Kindle editions are selling well, but we’re not exactly making mega bucks off of it. The real benefit of having an e-reader edition is that the content will never disappear. As long as Amazon and Smashwords (who we distribute the nook/Sony reader edition through) are around, people will be able to go to these sites and download the back issues even if the website is no longer in existence (which isn’t going to happen for a very long time.)

PS: Considering the success of Crimefactory, this question seems unavoidable. Have you thought about expanding into print at some point, or are you planning on sticking with digital formats?

KR: Well, I was trying to keep it under wraps, but Jed Ayres let it drop that we’re working on an anthology with New Pulp Press. The project has got me pretty damn excited. I really like Jon Bassoff (Publisher/editor of NPP) and I think the press has the potential to really shake things up in the publishing world. I’m not going to go to deep into our contributors list, but we have some great writers appearing in it and much like the magazine, we’re trying to have a very international flavor to it and mix both experienced, well known authors and less established, newer writers

As far as becoming a regular print publication, I considered it for a couple of weeks as we were finishing up the final edit of issue 2, but then I decided to leave it alone. Don’t get me wrong, I have tons of respect for what Crimespree, Hardboiled, and what Steve Weddle and John Honor are going to be doing with Needle magazine (I’m also very proud to be part of the debut) but I don’t think print format is for Crimefactory. So for the time being, I think we’ll stick with being an electronic publication.

PS: One of the things I love about Crimefactory is its lineup—it’s a very democratic mix. You have people like Craig McDonald and Reed Farrel Coleman next to up-and-coming writers, our new favorites of tomorrow. What is the process like for collecting all the content for the magazine?

KR: When I started recruiting contributors for the magazine, I had an overall vision that I wanted to mix well known writers with newer ones. As a writer, there was no greater thrill for me when Anthony Neil Smith published issue #7 of Plots with Guns and I found out I would be publishing along side Scott Phillips and Stephen Graham Jones. The Walkaway by Phillips is in my top five all time favorite crime novels, and Stephen’s thriller, All the Beautiful Sinners, is a flat out masterpiece of the genre in my opinion. I nearly flipped my wig! Little pulp writing me is appearing with these two incredibly gifted, renowned novelists. And when I started searching out contributors, I really wanted to provide the same feeling to other new writers.

Now, as far as searching out contributors, well, if I read and enjoyed a writer’s books or stories, that writer got an e-mail from me inviting them to submit a story to Crimefactory. To my surprise, 90% of the writers I contacted said yes, 9% said no because of scheduling issues and novel deadlines, and an elusive 1% were just dicks and never responded. But I’ll still e-mail the dicks again, because I like what they’re writing. With features, I’d really like to see the number of these types of submissions increase. I love noir and hard-boiled scholarship and what we’ve run so far has been really innovative and well written, but we need more of it!

PS: On Facebook, we were talking about how certain website archives have recently closed and lots of stories were lost. The presumption is that once it is online is there it is there forever, but this clearly is not the case. Is this making you rethink the website (or even how to archive your own stories online)?

KR: Yes. Now, it is true that nothing online ever disappears, but data does degrade. My overall thinking lately has been to use organizations like Amazon and Smashwords to archive stories. With as wide spread as the Kindle application has become—you can download it to your PC, Mac, iPhone, and other smart phones, plus the reading devices themselves—I’d like to see more writers utilize the e-book tools available to them to make their collected stories online as an e-book. And they don’t have to charge for them—for instance, with what I’m trying to do with the Pulppusher stories and features—along with archiving them on the Crimefactory site, I’m going to compile them into a free e-anthology so that the stories, in one form or another, will be available for the reading public.

PS: You mentioned an all fiction issue coming up—anything else you can leak about that?

KR: Yeah, we’re calling it issue 3 and a half and will appear in June. We’ve got a ton of really great stories appearing in it. That’s all.

PS: Now that you are doing a lot more editing, do you see it influencing your writing styles or habits at all?

KR: Oh yeah. It used to be I would do nothing but churn out story after story (I still kind of do) and not really be too concerned with little mistakes. But, as I’ve come to find out, the little mistakes make a huge difference on how a story reads. So with the current crop of pieces I’m working on, I’m checking and re-checking all the little things before submitting them. Of course, I’m only human and mistakes are bound to happen.

PS: As for Rawson-the-writer, what’s up next for him?

KR: Oh, you know, writing novels and trying to sell novels. Writing stories and trying to place them. Writing reviews and interviews for Spintingler and BSC. Posting to the blog occasionally, working on Crimefactory. 2010 started off great and I’m anticipating that it’s only going to get better. At least I hope so?

PS: Lastly, what books should the rest of us be adding to our To Be Read piles right now? Any top picks for 2010 so far?

Damn, there are a lot of them.

With stuff that’s already come out in 2010, everyone should read Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. I really enjoyed Print the Legend by Craig McDonald, very fast paced and McDonald’s most complex novel to date. A Choice of Nightmares by Lynn Kostoff, which was recently reissued by New Pulp Press, has been a big favorite of mine this year, equally funny and menacing, plus Kostoff is a hell of a writer.

Now as far as upcoming novels:

Expiration Date (which isn’t upcoming considering that it was released March 30th) by Duane Swierczynski was a fun read. I’m fairly convinced that Duane is absolutely incapable of writing a bad book. Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella, great period piece, Charlie’s really got the 70’s down pat. Jonathan Woods’ debut collection, Bad Juju and other tales of Madness and Mayhem has really impressed me. Killer by Dave Zeltserman. Wow. I’m not kidding, great fucking book. The Wolves of Fairmount Park by Dennis Tafoya. Tafoya is the next Pelecanos and I don’t say that lightly. Great writer. A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefield. Sophie’s the real deal, very fluid writing style.

Oh, and so many more…Honestly, some days I wish I could do nothing but read.

And as far as top picks, see all of the above.
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