pulp

Novels…1st lines.

“Three o’clock in February. All the sky was blue and high. Banners and bunting and people bunched up between. Greetings and sadness.”

“I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol.”

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.”

“Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary.”

“Music school? Are you kidding? I learned to play the sax in Pontiac Reformatory.”

“When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze’s skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant – ‘Riboyne Shel O’lem!’ – she let out a great geshrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.”

“There is no warning of daylight here.”

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The Noir Template: One Mistake

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In Noir, it’s the eyes that give it all away. Here in Detour (1945), that faraway look of protagonist Al Roberts shows that something bad has happened, and something even worse waits on the horizon.

All it takes is one mistake.

Detour is one of the greatest fatalistic Noirs, a sublime, gritty cheapie that holds no punches. Go watch it.

The Noir Template: Booze

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In the dark lands of Noir, what better way to suppress guilt than with a stiff dose of booze.

Here we have Dan Duryea drowning his sorrows in Black Angel, 1946, directed by Roy William Neill.

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But booze is not always the answer.

Watch Black Angel. It’s got a great performance by Peter Lorre, and one of the few times that Duryea plays against type, actually kind of a good guy.

David Goodis and his Blonde on the Street Corner

Goodis%2C+Blonde+on+the+Street+Corner%2C+LionOne of the lesser novels in the Goodis canon. Not much happens here, and while I was frustrated with its bare-boned approach, I soon realized that is the point Goodis was trying to make. ‘The Blond on the Street Corner’ is a book about stasis, boredom, big dreams gone to shit. Set in the usually downtrodden Philadelphia, four layabouts try to find work during the hard times of the Depression. But instead of writing and striving for the epic narrative — Ayn Rand’s rags-to-riches, or Steinbeck’s loving ode to the misfits with hearts of gold — Goodis weeps out this little novel (at 150 pages) that reads like a minimal discourse in loser-speak and street-corner prose. Poorly-written at points, dare I say, lazy and repetitive. But in free-wheeling spurts of eloquent desperation, there is the usual brilliance associated with Goodis. In some strange way, I imagined this as a black & white sitcom about depression-era losers, ghost-written by Sam Beckett, staged by a young John Frankenheimer, and with a set designed by a skid-row misanthrope born & bred in the tenement burbs outside of Philly. Floors are bare, walls are cracked, jackets are torn and pockets are weighed down with a penny and not much more. In the end, the cast of character’s dreams skitter and twitch, and then resume their static state. Even sex-starved blondes hang their heads in defeat, and that usually doesn’t happen in the stable of Goodis’ femme-fatales. It’s a dismal world not worth taking advantage of. The message, just give up now so it hurts less later. Read the other Goodis novels before this one (‘Street of No Return’ or ‘The Burglar’), and then give this one a chance. It’ll cement your view that Goodis is one of the most misanthropic authors out there this side of Selby Jr. and H.P. Lovecraft.

A Noir Triptych: Jazz for the Genre

Elements of Noir maneuver through territories of the desperate, the melancholic, the heartbreaking and the violent. Here’s a trio of jazz mixes I made that touch the nerve and bring a soundtrack to the gritty, existential pulp — a focus here, at least in a pictorial sense, of elegant, yet damaged goods. (click on the images and give a listen)

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Gracy Kelly, Elements of Noir, Spoonhead, 8tracks

 

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dolores del rio, someone to watch over, spoonhead, 8tracks

 

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joan crawford, somewhere in the night, spoonhead, 8tracks

New Visions of Old Horrors: North American Lake Monsters

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Literary and Genre. For years and years, these two schools (or better yet, identities) of fiction have barked and cursed at one another across the great divide; argued on what the merits of literature should be, the quality of prose, and the elasticity of category and definition. They’ve bitched aplenty, trying to suppress the other with claims of pretentiousness, barbarism, putting up gated communities on hallowed grounds, and whoring prose for a paycheck. But in today’s culture of remixes and remakes, perhaps the great divide is shrinking, and as a result, this abrasive discourse between literary and genre is gradually becoming tempered, perhaps even unnecessary. In a publishing industry that doesn’t have the marathon legs it once had, maybe more readers and writers are recognizing that a story is just a story. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this battle will never end, and potentially flare up to Romulus vs. Remus proportions. Either way, right at this very moment, there’s some great work masterfully blurring the lines. After reading a book like Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, it’s evident that genre and literary can co-mingle, co-habitate, or even get drunk together, exchange passions and wake up in the morning with no regrets whatsoever. In the end, Ballingrud is doing what great writers should. And that’s not giving a damn about boundaries or rules, sculpting something that resonates, but at other times, stings. Now….

This is a collection of horror. Yes, there are monsters, but they are grotesque catalysts, symbolic terrors, to illuminate the human condition where heartbreak, bad decisions and guilt propel each bruised narrative. Ballingrud is not putting a new wig on an old trope and calling it new. Werewolves, zombies, vampires and aliens are all present (even a decomposing fresh-water beast rotting along a lake’s shoreline) – and while they are used to create unease, and more importantly, dread, they are not here to solely shock the reader. No cheap thrills in this collection. Ballingrud resonates the horror elements, and occasionally takes a rusty blade and severs a nerve – however nothing comes across as gratuitous. ‘North American Lake Monsters’ is so damn well realized. It is up on par with the great collections of Lucius Shepard (‘The Jaguar Hunter’), Dennis Etchison (‘The Dark Country’), John Cheever and Paul Bowles.

‘You Go Where it Takes You’ leads off the collection, reading like some strange hybrid of Raymond Carver and Clive Barker. About the desire to shed your skin and re-create your identity, it is a quiet nightmare of a tale, where the invisible chains of a working-class ‘pinch you pennies and hope for the best’ life suddenly snap in a boldly haunting way. One is left to wonder of the open road ahead, and what revelations, or horrors, will be encountered. It is a tale that is both heartbreaking and surreal. ‘Wild Acre’ uses the werewolf symbol, but delicately obscures that element in favor of telling the story of a dissolving marriage (a common theme here) in a small town losing hope amidst another economic downturn. ‘The Crevasse’ (co-authored with Dale Bailey) brings the action to the Arctic, and it is the most widescreen of all the works here; a well-paced tale of cosmic horror that not only reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, but also of Jack London dipping his pen into the stirring, unknown cosmos. The pinnacle of the collection is ‘The Monsters of Heaven’. A couple suffer the death of their only child, and desperately trying to regain hold of their lives, fall into a scenario like no other. Alien beings are being discovered all over the country. They are being called angels because of their wide-eyed, luminous appearance. The main character takes one of these crippled beings into his home, and what happens next is truly bizarre — high on the charts of ‘What the fuck?’ brilliance. Rounding out the collection is a zombie tale, ‘The Good Husband’. At points strangely heartfelt, other times grotesque, this tale feels like an EC Horror comic being penned by Denis Johnson; or a revision of the old ‘Don’t Go in the Basement’ theme, where an odd pulp sentimentality flavors this narrative and makes it one of the more depressing entries in the collection.

I really look forward to what Ballingrud offers us next. In the end, call the book what you want. ‘Literary’ ‘New Weird’ ‘Horror’. But you’ll close the book feeling as though there’s not quite anything like ‘North American Lake Monsters’. Weird tales for the haunted, desolate heart, these stories won’t soon be forgotten.

 

 

Lucius Shepard, R.I.P.

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Lucius Shepard

1947-2014

If you’ve never read Lucius Shepard, perhaps now is the time to pay some gratitude and pick up one of his books. Any collection will do really. You won’t be disappointed. Besides sharing a few messages via facebook, I never really knew Shepard. But I believe I did through his prose. He was a journeyman in his short stories, novellas and few novels – not only in setting and location, but also in genre. For example, his collection ‘Beast of the Heartland’ shows the multiplicity in abundance, and it feels as if Shepard was hellbent on not being labeled as a writer chained to a specific style, a specific mode. ‘Sports in America’ reads with the blue-collared desperation of a George V. Higgins novel. ‘The Sun Spider’ is a take on the ‘space opera’, equipped with the dazzling sense of the epic, wildly dancing within the cosmos while never losing touch with the characters that tell the story. ‘Beast of the Heartland’ is a brutal, sad take on the boxing story — think Robert Ryan in the classic film ‘The Set Up’, and add in the haunting, psychedelic images that Shepard could do so well. In some circles he was called a science fiction writer, but he was much more than that. He could break your heart, chill your spine, show you the wonders of the world, and make you feel rightly small in a never-ending universe. Imagination, the man had a massive one. Whether inside the Dragon Gruille, or deep in the Amazons where old gods awakened, there seemed to be no limit where his mind would venture. You can could compare his work to Marquez, Greene, Conrad, but really, he was all his own. ‘No Man’s Land’ ‘How the Wind Spoke to Madaket’, ‘The Jaguar Hunter’, it is impossible to pick a favorite. He was that fucking good.

He will be sorely missed.

Forgotten Novels of the 80’s Horror Boom (4) DARK SEEKER

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Los Angeles. 1986. Mike Tyler has forgot to bring his pills with him. The night feels dangerous, and one wrong turn will unravel his life into a never-ending nightmare. He must get home. Streetlights blaze a nocturnal blue. From a neon-lit street corner, a prostitute lingers and catches Mike’s attention, her eyes turning to obsidian stone, and sharp teeth forming within the tear of her mouth. ‘The Host’ is always with Mike Tyler. And not only is it coming back for him. It’s coming back for all his old friends, who back in college were all part of the Wyle Group — a research lab that tried to discover the hive-mind through a drug connecting their inner visions as one. But in the end, only turned them in savage killers that opened the door to an unseen force beyond the darkness. The Manson Clan meets Philip K. Dick’s ‘ A Scanner Darkly’. Okay, folks. Sounds like it has potential. C’mon, a late-eighties horror paperback that touches on the Manson murders, military-tested hallucinogenics, broken families with broken dreams, drug addiction and the Los Angeles homeless. Especially paired with the lurid cover – eyeball in a mouth full of razor fangs; a crooked dream-stretched window in the back; and the fat emerald green font raised from the surface in proper Tor Horror fashion. After reading the first chapter, I could hear a synth-drenched score, like one from Tangerine Dream, playing along with each page. I was hooked and had no idea where this book would go. But as I got halfway through, I realized there was a problem with Dark Seeker. That it achieved its paramount buzz with its set-up, but fell short in the actual execution. Not was much happening – there were teases of things on the edge of sanity bleeding through, there was drama, as well as a comedic episode with a talking corpse, but horror? —not much of it. I asked myself where was the novel’s Charles Manson conjuring up demons from a fractured, drug-induced generation of drop-outs, burn-outs and wilted flower children? Where are the monsters? The psychological twists that should have my jaw hanging in dismay?

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Author K.W. Jeter was friends with Philip K. Dick, and I thought this novel may touch upon the madness of the universe, complete with the cosmic twists and turns, reality un-stitched and turned on its ass. Unfortunately, the main problem is that the mold is more ‘thriller’ than mind-fuck horror. I think the focus goes on the the supporting cast instead of the main players. I wanted to be knee-deep in the muck with the Wyle Group, wanted to see what they saw during the murders, and what they saw as the drug crept back into their seemingly normal lives years later. That’s where I wanted to be. By no means a bad book, just not really horrific. What I did come away with from this book was the use of ‘reflections in a dark eye’. For example, Jeter writes of people seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of others. Once or twice is okay, but as I encountered more of these, I felt I was reading the equivalent of a Lucio Fulci film – extraordinary close-ups of eyeballs. It got too much.

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The ending? Well, it’s memorable. Some may find it refreshing, others may find it the equivalent of a cheap shot. There are strengths to the book, and the main one is Los Angeles itself. Fully realized, Jeter describes the endless roadways, the underpasses, the street corners and movie theaters with much color, much dread. There’s a scene where the orange sun breaks dusk and illuminates a commune of homeless taking shelter in a highway underpass. It is absolutely gorgeous. Otherwise, for West Coast horror of the eighties, perhaps the work of David Schow would be a better, more gruesome fit. And if you seek a story of ‘experiments gone wrong’ (in the mind-hive manner), I’d recommend Ramsey Campbell’s Incarnate, a hallucinatory masterpiece that touches on many of the threads that Jeter brings into this novel.