Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here is a confession that will surprise absolutely nobody who knows me: I love old pulp fiction. Particularly the adventures of the Shadow and Doc Savage, currently being reprinted in very nice editions by Anthony Tollin's Sanctum Press. Obviously, I only know the books from reprints, and I haven't read too many of those.

A lot of what passes for "new pulp fiction" comes across to me as poorly-written fan fiction. Particularly with the print-on-demand options available through places like, it just seems too easy for a pulp fan to churn out a dull, overwritten story about characters called "Prof Brass" or "The Silhouette," sell them for $20 a pop, and call themselves pulp writers. Fortunately, there are new stories that pay tribute to the old pulps without sacrificing quality or imagination.

A particular favorite of mine right now is the Gabriel Hunt series, created by Hard Case Crime editor and publisher Charles Ardai. The series, credited to Gabriel Hunt, is being written by multiple authors, with Ardai writing the second volume, Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. So far, both Hunt books feel like contemporary adventures with their feet planted in the pulp tradition.

In Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear, Hunt finds himself on a quest for a mythical creature. Ardai skillfully blends elements of adventure and the fantastic, balancing them in a style reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies. It's not an out-and-out fantasy, nor is it a real-world adventure. In this way, it effectively captures the genre-bending spirit of the old pulps, while still feeling fresh and contemporary.

The Hunt books are fun and fast-paced, action-packed without sacrificing character. (Yes, Guillermo Del Toro's Strain, I'm looking at you.) In this installment, we learn more about Hunt's family and background, in addition to his quest. The information is smoothly integrated into the adventure, instead of feeling like a forced break in the action just to insert exposition. The villain is colorful and just a little over-the-top, but it works in the world that Ardai and his fellow authors are building. The action sequences are fairly easy to follow, and the story is pretty unpredictable.

It's not a perfect book; Ardai inserts a cameo appearance by himself and his wife that--to me--stuck out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, he also includes a second, weird-tales adventure story in the book, completely unrelated to Gabriel Hunt. It's fun, and makes the book feel even more worth the money.

I also read Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory by Tom Sniegoski, featuring the pulp crimefighter from the pages of Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics. It's less twisty and antic than the Gabriel Hunt books. Because it's a spin-off from the comic book series, it's also a bit light on character development. The character of the Lobster is a complete man of mystery in the comics, and the comics are rightfully where the details should be revealed. Having said that, I still had fun reading this book. Sniegoski did a great job fusing the masked hero genre with the sort of weird, Lovecraftian horror that features in Mignola's comics.

Finally, I read Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom by Tim Byrd. This is an exception to my earlier comments about writing characters that are classic pulp heroes with the registration numbers filed off. Doc Wilde is absolutely a stand-in for Doc Savage (or, perhaps more accurately, his son). The difference is, he isn't the main hero. Instead the book focuses on the young Wilde siblings, Bryan and Wren. Like the Gabriel Hunt books, it tells the sort of fantastic, over-the-top adventure that the classic pulps specialized in, but in a style completely appropriate for its audience.

Byrd is writing a story designed to excite and inspire young readers, and he understands that he won't do that by writing a story that reads like it was written sixty years ago. The story is as full of gadgets and weird monsters and action as a Doc Savage novel, but feels contemporary and up-to-date. Pulp fans will probably squeal like little girls at the in-jokes--because that's the indication of a quality story, of course--but pre-teen readers will get a kick out of this, too.