OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Pulp Literature Magazine #24
Published by Pulp Literature Press, Langley, British Columbia, Canada, autumn of 2019.
Publisher: Jennifer Landels, Managing Editor: Melanie Anastasiou, Acquisitions Editor: Jessica Fabrizius, Story Editor: Genevieve Wynand, Poetry Editors: Emily Osborne and Amanda Bidnall.
Cover art: “Vimy” by Steve R. Gagnon.
Note: I have not reviewed the three poems of the 2019 Magpie Award for poetry: A Short History of Space Travel by Susan Haldane, Whiskey Breath by Jack Waldheim, and The Last of the Iron Lungs by Roxanna Bennett, because to say anything at all is to reveal too much. However, all three are quite good and among the reasons why you should read this issue of Pulp Literature.
The Man in the Long Black Coat: Bekker – by JJ Lee
John “Baby Face” Heck is a 15-year-old so large and intelligent the U.S. Army accepted him as an adult and that’s how he wound up in Germany at the end of the war. Being a kind of super-idiot-savant with an ability to speak myriad languages, he is recruited for a special mission to investigate a cave the occult branch of the SS is still interested in, defeat or no defeat.
Heck is the point of view character, but the “Hero” may well be Bekker, a somewhat ambiguous character or “Man of Mystery” who has a Waffen SS rank but claims not to be a Nazi. He implies he is more of an agent for a secretive group seeking to counteract Himmler’s specialists’ dangerous interference with forces best left undisturbed. In the real world of P.O.W. interrogation I don’t think Bekker would be assigned full marks for candour or sanity, but this is a work of somewhat comic horror-adventure fiction and his explanation fits the situation perfectly.
Superficially I am reminded of the game Castle Wolfenstein and any number of comic books, and in particular the remarkable 1983 film The Keep in which the S.S. battle an occult beast in a castle in Romania and are forced to accept the aid of a Jewish historian. As I understand it the film is deliberately repressed and unavailable because the Director is ashamed of it. No wonder, since the audience is expected, more or less, to identify with the S.S. as they combat an unspeakable evil. I saw it when it first came out and was impressed with the visuals and the overall direction, though I confess I rooted for the monster. I mean, it was killing off the “good guy” S.S. one by one and that didn’t strike me as a bad thing. However, it’s been so long since I saw it I may be missing or misremembering whatever subtleties were present. Point is it was and remains a very controversial film.
In this story it is absolutely clear the Nazis are indeed the bad guys and that Bekker is primarily a continental gentleman-scholar, albeit it somewhat ruthless, dedicated to fighting evil in all its forms. He also possesses a wry sense of humour. How Bekker makes use of Heck makes perfect sense in the context of the story but is also rather funny. In fact the story, despite a considerable level of mayhem, has many touches of humour which make it fun to read.
To sum up, I found the story entertaining and am quite looking forward to promised further episodes wherein Bekker migrates to America and confronts Lovecraftian deities.
Feature Interview – Pulp Literature interviews JJ Lee.
A short but interesting interview. I particularly liked Lee referring to himself as “Pre-punk” rather than “Post-punk,” which I take to mean he is old-fashioned in his reading/writing interests and proud of it. Not everyone has to be 100% modern in the writing trade. I like good old-fashioned stuff when I come across it, be it a Lovecraft pastiche, a homage to Sherlock Holmes, a continuation of H.G. Wells’ work, or whatever. Old and new, I like both. All part of the joy of the genre.
The Extra: Frankie Ray Goes to Hollywood – by Mel Anastasiou
In this second episode, Frankie and Connie, two aspiring teenage actresses, flee the disastrous audition in Vancouver, B.C. by driving south to the promised land, Hollywood. Much to their surprise, they find the legendary Hollywood Producer King Samson hitching a ride as he, too, flees from the consequences of the audition. They pick him up. Fortunately he doesn’t recognise them.
This selection focuses on the verbal interaction between Frankie and Connie as the drive South. Reminded me of the sort of conversations I used to have with my best buddies when I was a teenager, talk expressing naiveté, cynicism, hopes, and worry all intermingled. Very credible and entertaining. Then several other characters are literally picked up and we begin to find out more about them.
The scenes are not static, things happen, but basically the setting is largely unimportant and mere background. What is being examined in detail are the characters. No doubt the setting will become relevant and extremely interesting when Frankie and Connie reach Hollywood. Not the Hollywood of today, but Hollywood at the height of its fame, when stars were king(ly puppets) ruled by Moghul giants, and the illusions on screen were nothing compared to the illusions presented by studio PR flacks. Am looking forward to Frankie and Connie unleashed!
I wonder if Mel has read the definitive book on the subject? No, not Hollywood Babylon. I refer to Hollywood Rat Race by Ed Wood Jr. (Yes! That Ed Wood Jr.) Contains chapter headings like “I’m ready to be discovered,” “How to live in Hollywood without money,” Sex—Hollywood and you,” and “Nudie Cuties.” Entertaining, hilarious, and sad enough to convince aspiring young hopefuls to forget about acting as a career choice.
Here’s a sample: “You’re confronted by an old roué who hasn’t made a film since the early 1950s, but still calls himself a producer … Here you are actually in the office of this famed personality. You’re in his clutches for the time being, but it won’t last long. He’ll give you his apartment pitch—or perhaps he has a “casting couch” right there in his office. You give in, or you don’t give in—either way, it’s all over in a few minutes.”
What perils await Frankie and Connie in tinsel town? Can’t wait to find out!
The Lord of Lawn Ornaments – by Tyner Gillies
Jonathan Caron, former Warlord of Wallachia, ancient in years, lives in a rundown house in a rundown neighbourhood in America. Turns out, being an immortal vampire isn’t anywhere near as exciting as it sounds. Life is boring. He admits he has become boring. Even his familiar is bored with him. Being undead sucks.
I like the nifty touch that he obsessively collects lawn ornaments for his seedy lawn. His excuse is that the pink flamingoes and green porcelain froggies enable the vampire couple to “blend in” and thus escape notice. Leave it to his dead girl friend to point out they are the only ones in the neighbourhood displaying such abominations. Far from hiding in plain sight, they are shouting to the world “weirdos live here!”
And indeed, someone notices. John doesn’t want to be chased out of town by a mob brandishing pitchforks yet again, so takes action to negate the threat. To his astonishment, the matter escalates into unanticipated territory. Much is at stake, but at least he is no longer bored. Desperate, perhaps, but not bored.
This story is kind of a self-motivational essay on how to make the most of being undead. Never too late to loosen up the stiffened corpse of an un-life, you might say. Fun story. I enjoyed it.
The Red Tiger – by Chuck Lim
“On July 1, 1923, Canadian Parliament enacted the Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited entry by any ethnic Chinese into Canada. The law further required anyone born to a Chinese father to register within a year or else be deported. In its wake, Canada’s Chinatowns were left as squalid bachelor communities. Courageous family men who had come from China with the hope of eventually sending for their spouses and children were resigned instead to living out the remainder of their lives sad and alone.”
Jack Fan runs an Emporium in Vancouver’s China Town. A younger man, Red Tiger, inquires about a plot of land Jack has for sale on the edge of the mountain-side community of Pitt Meadows. Red can’t afford to pay much rent, but offers to share income from whatever he can manage to grow from the land he clears. Better than nothing in the hard times of 1937. The deal is made.
Red Tiger is hardworking and soon something of a success. Jack becomes fond of the younger man, begins to think of him as a surrogate son. They grow close. It’s almost like having a family. For the first time in many years, Jack begins to feel content and happy. Surely nothing will go wrong?
The Chinese were present in Vancouver right from the beginning, back when the city was known as “Gastown” after “Gassy” Jack, the first saloon keeper. (There’s a statue of him, standing on a beer barrel, located in the oldest section of the city.) The Chinese were, and are, a huge presence, with a rich, local tradition.
Thus it was with considerable pleasure I read this story. It feels like a glimpse of the past from an insider’s point of view, with some aspects taken for granted that seem surprising now, other events revealing how people coped with their community problems back then and how individuals despite these problems managed to find accomplishment and success every once and a while. The ambience seems very authentic, very accurate. Like reading an autobiography by someone who was there.
The ending is a surprise, rather unexpected, yet fully in keeping with the desperate measures taken to circumvent the extreme prejudice of the day. All boils down to a matter of survival, which is a bit sad, but what choice is there?
The Map According to Me – by Susan Pieters
Mrs. Jones is lost and stops at a gas station to ask directions.
This story is so short it is almost impossible to say anything about it without giving away the whole point of it. I’ll just say that said point is a brilliant piece of observation that never occurred to me before. Have the horrible feeling it is quite true. Apparently I am quite right to feel obsolete.
Yellow Paint – by FJ Bergmann
A woman who likes to pick up paintings cheap and resell them at an outrageous profit discovers a damaged work of fantasy art in a pawnshop. She buys it and takes it to her drug-addled artist friend Cyril to get it repaired. Both soon discover it not only depicts fantasy, it facilitates fantasy. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Cyril is determined to find out.
Much of the story revolves around the painting such that there is much discussion of how it was painted, with what pigments, and what choices need to be made in touching up the proposed repairs. I found this rather pleasing, as if I were present in an artist’s studio overhearing shoptalk. Lends an air of authenticity which thoroughly grounds the tale in the real world, at least for starters, before it takes off into the wildly improbable. Given the premise, the ending is perfectly satisfying. I think this story would make an entertaining short film or TV anthology episode. It’s very visual.
Cabin Fever – by KT Wagner
Mrs. Hannish is a mail order bride. That’s how she wound up living in an isolated cabin deep in the woods of British Columbia. Her husband decided she wasn’t worth it, took back the wedding ring, and gave her two Hudson Bay blankets in compensation. He was going to return her to civilization but she fell off the horse and hurt herself badly. So he lit off alone to summon help. She figures he just abandoned her. Another man came along, but not a good man. Once again she is reduced to praying for rescue. Trouble is a pack of wolves are literally at the door. It’s just one menace after another. What next?
I know people who fantasise about living alone in a cabin in the woods as the path to paradise. I think they’re stark, raving mad. Which is what happened/happens to a lot of people cooped up in a snowbound cabin over the course of a long Canadian winter. Cabin fever be a real thing.
What makes this version uniquely interesting is the sheer resourcefulness of the woman coping with one extreme situation after another. She suffers. She complains. But she works real hard at surviving. She doesn’t just wait for rescue, she figures out how to take advantage of being rescued. A very resourceful woman, indeed! Who knew that cabin fever might turn out to be the solution to the problem it creates? Very tidy story, complete unto itself. Excellent resolution.
Black Glass – by Adam Fout
Millions of years ago aliens left artifacts on the dwarf planet Ceres, namely identical blades of obsidian, plus some etchings depicting the aliens which reveal they lacked the physical attributes of tool users. Odd. Now an underwater explorer is trapped in a cave at the bottom of Earth’s Mariana trench, a cave wherein floats a perfect example of the alien blade fetish, a blade that seems to be shifting into active mode as if it were some sort of machine, or a God.
Okay, this is the particular sort of concept-driven SF I especially like, the discovery of an alien artifact and the mystery of its hidden purpose. In most such stories the function of the artifact turns out to make perfect sense once its secrets and the alien motivation behind its creation are discovered and understood.
But what if the underlying concept is literally too alien to be understood? What if all you can discover is the “what” but not the “why?” Dare you risk activating it? What if the consequences are utterly unmindful of your existence, yet impact you regardless of whether you want it to or not? This makes for an extremely interesting, albeit frustrating, story. A pattern of sorts is revealed, but not a clear cut explanation. There is a resolution, but not a solution. We are right to feel humble before a power beyond our ken. I found this story fascinating.
The Bumblebee’s Daughter – by Robin Malcolm
Sabine Derossier spent her childhood in the village of Tignes in the French Alps. In later years a dam was constructed whose reservoir swallowed up the entire town. Now the reservoir has been drained for the very first time, to carry out necessary maintenance on the dam. Tourists flock to see what’s left of the “lost” town. Sabine has come back, with a shovel over her shoulder. She hopes to find what’s left of her family house and, if she can, dig where her dying mother told her resides something she needs to know about. An older man, one who had taken refuge in the town during the war, falls in with her and offers to help. They are strangers, but not for long.
France is a country with many stories yet untold. Even the full truth of WWII has yet to be revealed. This is a melancholy tale showing how the past can impact those who thought they knew and understood what the past was really all about. Memory is the real ghost in this story, especially memory recovered after it had been forgotten. Most poignant. Moving.
The Shepherdess – by JM Landels
A 15-year-old shepherdess discovers she can make more money selling scented lanolin than she can sewing or chasing after sheep. She loads up a small handcart with her best selection and begins walking toward Paris in the hope she can make a good living there. Unfortunately, a carriage full of dandies runs her into the ditch. A possibly criminal rogue by the name of Henri escorts her to the closest Inn for the night. Conditions are abominable. Her subsequent fate the next morning is potentially even worse. What’s an innocent young girl to do?
As often happens when I read to review, I was reminded of another story, The Stout Gentleman, by Washington Irving (famous as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle), a hilarious account of an overnight stay in a British Inn (Irving spent many years in Europe). His attention to detail is superb, and a trifle frightening. How on earth did travelers put up with such conditions? Well, of course they did, they had no choice. Part of the charm of the story in its day was the readers’ knowing recognition of what Irving describes, and the pleasure they derived from the amusing slant he put on what was normally taken for granted. If anything, the unpleasant aspects of the story are even more remarkable for today’s readers, though, truth to tell, there were times during my month-long trip to Europe in 1970 when I wished I was staying overnight at a place half as good as what he described.
The inn described in The Shepherdess is nightmarishly Dickensian in its sordid details, far worse than what Irving talked about, and not just for human travelers, it wasn’t good for the horses, either. Any you think it was fun to travel in a carriage on dirt highways? The description rivals the hideous discomfort of stagecoach travel in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
Keep in mind everything about the setting is liable to be well-researched and absolutely authentic. For one thing, J.M. Landels is an “equestrian swordswoman,” licensed to teach, and is a definite asset here in Hollywood North whenever actors need to know enough about swordplay, and horseback riding, not to accidently kill themselves. She knows horses. She knows swords. Ain’t nothing made up when she writes about those subjects. She’s an expert.
Even better, the story is but the opening pages of Landels’ novel La Bergère, in which our young shepherdess is rapidly drawn into political intrigue in seventeenth century France. I eagerly look forward to more accounts of derring-do amid appalling living conditions. I like accurate historical novels. I really do.
Lots and lots of good and varied stuff to peruse in this issue. You can’t go wrong if you pick it up.
Check it out at: < Pulp Literature #24 >