Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pulp Review: The Living Shadow


The origins of the Shadow are an interesting, and appropriately twisting gyre of early cross-media promotion.

Once upon a time, Street & Smith published a pulp mag called Detective Story Magazine. On July 31, 1930, Detective Story Hour premiered on the radio for adaptations of stories from the magazine, and to shill other Street & Smith publications. The narrator of the show was a mysterious voice known only as The Shadow (a clever piece of marketing itself).

It worked, but not exactly as expected. The Shadow's sinister charisma had audiences going to the stands to buy magazines, but they weren't asking for Detective Story. They wanted The Shadow. Which didn't exist.

Street & Smith were smart enough to see a demand hungry for a supply, and hired up-and-coming mystery writer (and former reporter, stage magic afficionado, and crossword puzzle writer) Walter B. Gibson, to create a character whole cloth out of nothing more than a voice.

Under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, Gibson would go on to write 300 Shadow novels, so it worked out pretty well.

Shadow Magazine Volume 1, issue 1 appeared on stands in April of 1931, featuring The Living Shadow, Gibson's first published Shadow story.

What follows is pulp as hell.



We meet suicidally depressed Harry Vincent on a bridge in New York. He got a letter from his old girlfriend back in Michigan dumping him, and so like a bitch, he jumps.

Fate intervenes in the form of the Shadow, who yanks him back onto the bridge and offers him a deal: Harry's financial woes are forever taken care of, but he has to obey any and every command of the Shadow's. Or they could go back to the bridge and Harry goes over the railing again. Harry's life belongs to the Shadow now, and decides his old life is dead anyway, so he eagerly agrees to become an Agent..

It doesn't take long. Harry is introduced to another Shadow Agent, intermediary Claude Fellows. Harry is sent into a nearly fatal disastrous investigation of a fence operating out of a tea shop in Chinatown. Re-shuffled to a murder investigation in Long Island that's got the police stumped.

Mystery! Investigations! Misdirection! Disguises! Murder! Car Chases! Fistfights! Deathtraps! Crossword Puzzles! About the only thing it doesn't have is estrogen. Margo Lane wouldn't appear in radio until 1937 and in the pulps until 1941.

Anything else would give away the plot, and it takes some very clever turns.



What's more important is that it establishes the Shadow as a character: He has a mysterious drive to punish evil-doers and is fabulously wealthy. He says that he can spend the lives of his agents if he wants to, but goes to great lengths to help and protect them in danger. He is a master of disguise beyond normal physical limitations. He can travel convincingly through shadows and its never made clear if its supernatural or not. He has his trademark laugh. These last bits move the story from a master detective with enough prep-time hax to make Batman blush (makes sense, since Batman's the bastard son of the Shadow) into supernatural fantasy.

What's even more amusing is that at one point, Harry Vincent is instructed to tune into the radio at a specific time and channel to hear his next orders from the Shadow. It is a blatant nod to the the Shadow's real-life radio presence and a brilliant piece of cross-media marketing.

Imagine being a loyal listener of the show and finally reading the Shadow's print stories only for it imply that at any time, you, yes YOU, could hear instructions from the Shadow to help him in his crusade on crime. Really tickles the tympanic membrane, doesn't it?



As an introduction, The Living Shadow succeeds, such that Street & Smith would publish it again in hardcover the next year and there would be numerous reprints over the years. Its not the Shadow and his mythos fully developed, hell, the Shadow's identity as Lamont Cranston or Kent Allard isn't even established yet. Yet there's enough there to be unmistakably The Shadow, and its fun as hell.


Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pulp Review: Black God's Kiss


Its such a common narrative among modernist Sci-Fi/Fantasy pundits to say that the genre was always a boys' club and that women are only now assuming their rightful place at the top of the field. (There's probably an io9 article about the subject right now.)

This is bullshit because it erases women who were writing at the top of their game to great commercial and critical success almost a hundred years ago. Catherine Lucille “C. L.” Moore being among the best and brightest of that group.

An Indiana native, Moore made her first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1933. In 1934, she made the cover story of Weird Tales' October issue with Black God's Kiss. It's weird.

Jirel is the tall, fiery, red-headed, yellow-eyed warrior commander of Joiry, a castle somewhere in France that has just been captured by the arrogant and dashing Guillaume. He takes something of a fancy to her spirited defense of the castle and cavalierly kisses her.

Imprisoned and seething with wounded pride and rage, she escapes her cell and with the help of Father Gervase, she sneaks into a dark, forbidden part of Joiry Castle where a dark tunnel will lead her to a dark place where she might find the means of her revenge.

Gervase's pleas fall on deaf ears. Jirel will have her revenge, even at the cost of her soul, and she descends into a bizarre Hell that isn't like the kind described in Dante.



It would be a crime to spoil what follows, but it entails physical peril, moral peril, spiritual peril, and some very difficult decisions and repercussions.

Jirel is an incredible female heroine: strong and flawed, skilled in battle but with so much growing up left to do. Her battle prowess isn't what can help her, though, and she must use her judgment to reach the end of the story, which arguably moves it away from Sword & Sorcery (where cutting a bloody swath through one's enemies is de rigueur) to the kind of weirdness that marked the beginning of Merritt's The Moon Pool. There's no mistaking that Moore is a female author, though, and her perspective adds another layer to the experiences of young Jirel that wouldn't be found in Robert E. Howard's work.

Less action-packed and more weirdness & wonder, Black God's Kiss is an incredible introduction to an incredible character written by a Grandmaster of the genre who is leagues better than the modern SF/F writers (male or female) who've forgotten her legacy. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Burroughs, Merritt and Howard and deserves to be a household name.

Respect due.

Essential Reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pulp Review: The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (pt 1)


The poetically unimaginative but accurately titled The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is a book of short fiction from 2008 that collects a massive number of short stories from arguably the best writer of the Pulp Era. 

I've been reading the collection on and off for several months now, and while there's a very good reason why Conan is Howard's most enduring creation, this book provides an excellent survey that hammers home just how damn good he was as a writer.

Some of the stories are better than others, with some I would call essential fantasy reading, but there isn't a single one I would say is “bad.” The theme being horror, that's what you end up with: spooky tales, the genesis of the Weird West genre, monster hunters, and eldritch abomination slayers. Action and imagination are the cornerstones of Howard, and every single genre he puts his hand to spins something enjoyable.

Rather than dwelling on a single story, I'll review them in smaller chunks because while they've all been enjoyable, some have more meat on their bones than others.

In the Forest of Villefère (Weird Tales, August 1925)
A traveler named de Montour is passing through a forest on the way to the village of Villefère. He meets a fellow traveler, Carolus le Loup. With a name like that, he's obviously a werewolf and attacks de Montour when the moon rises. A slight tale, but atmospheric with explosive action at the end.

Wolfshead (Weird Tales, April 1926)
The sequel to the above story, this time a new narrator travels to Africa and the fortress of one Dom Vincente da Lusto, a trader and slaver who has carved himself a small empire there. Among the guests there is de Montour, who is himself a werewolf now and tries to lock himself away from others when the moon rises, but of course that doesn't work 100% and a couple people in the castle start dying. Then one of Vincente's courtiers starts a slave revolt as a power play against him and it ends in some literal explosive action. The slavery issue (which makes sense given that its set during the Age of Sail, also Dom Vincente isn't a very good man in the first place) will be a turnoff for some but the action is top notch and an early example of a “heroic werewolf” in fiction. De Montour's desire to lock himself away during the full moon notably prefigures Larry Talbot from the Wolfman movies.

The Dream Snake (Weird Tales, February 1928)
On a warm summer night down South, an old man named Faming explains his horrific dreams of being hunted by a gigantic snake. Every night its the same dream, only the snake gets closer. A short and simple creepy tale.

Sea Curse (Weird Tales, May 1928)
Now we're getting somewhere. The first of the “Faring Town” stories about a small coastal town that suffers from weird incidents. This is about two drunken scoundrels and pirates named John Kulrek and Lie-lip Canool. Kulrek did wrong by one of the girls of the village, and when she died at sea, her old mother, Moll Farrell, places a curse on the two. I'll say no more, since the payoff is fantastic.


Monday, August 07, 2017

"Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time"



Over the weekend I watched John Ford's 1956 Western masterpiece The Searchers. And in calling it a “masterpiece,” in the first sentence, I'm already recommending it. Its great. Watch it.

Its about a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's farm in Texas to settle down after some probably violent and illegal adventuring after the war. He's a proud man, but damaged, and wants to settle down with his loving kin. Except his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, who would play Captain Pike for the pilot episode of Star Trek before his untimely death in 1969 at the age of 42), who's part-Indian and well-meaning, but kind of a hot-blooded idiot.

The two ride out with a posse of Rangers investigating missing cattle, find signs of the Comanche, and then the Edwards family back home is slaughtered in a raid. Except for the little girl, Debbie, who's taken by the raiders.

This sends Ethan and Martin on a desperate, five-year search for the girl that also turns into a meditation on the nature of vengeance and the toll it takes, both on those that seek it, and the people surrounding them.

Its gritty without being graphic, and doesn't shy away from some pretty harsh themes. The Comanche under a chief named Scar are brutal raiders, but Scar has his own motivation that makes sense without making him too sympathetic. He's also obsessed with blind vengeance. For their part, Ethan and Martin do some pretty rotten stuff too when faced with some tough decisions, and people end up dying because of it.

But what really hammered home the genius of Ford as a director, is the raid on the Edwards homestead. The movie spends the first fifteen minutes or so establishing Ethan's family and hometown as a nice place filled with good and occasionally quirky people. The character actors play their parts well and while they're painted with broad strokes, they're likable. Which is important, because around the 20 minute mark, it all goes down.

The posse establishes that the Comanche are on a murder raid, looking to kill some settlers. Two farms are singled out as possible targets, and the party rides to the closest one first.

It ends up being the wrong one.

What follows is one of the most effective horror scenes I've ever seen in a movie. Its not a spoiler because its the instigating event of the entire movie.

Its evening at the Edwards farm. The sunset casts a reddish glow and one by one the family starts to realize that all is not well. Each time that realization spreads, the tension ratchets up, first with the parents trying to keep calm and lay low, then accelerating when the older daughter, Lucy, realizes what's going on and screams, prompting her mother to slap her to shut her up.

They know.

They know what's coming.

So in their last minutes, they send their youngest daughter, Debbie (played by the Wood sisters, Lana as the younger version, Natalie as a 15 year old) to a hiding place away from the house. Only its not a great hiding place, and we get our first glimpse of Scar as he walks up to her, looks down, and blows the signal.

Fade to black.

The scene tells you everything you need to know about what's going to happen. Their reactions, their resignation, their despair. You don't need to see it on screen because the violence of the moment is in your mind, and I can guarantee that its going to be bloodier than anything the Hays Production Code would've allowed.

Its genius.

I'm not going to bother finding the clip and linking it, because you need that first twenty minutes of setup to provide context. Its probably not my favorite John Ford/John Wayne film (which is maybe Stagecoach, but I need to see more).


Highest recommendation. Watch this movie.