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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Wally Conger and I chat on FB about our common interests in books, movies, and TV/streaming shows. We’re even co-Admins on a FB group dedicated to hardboiled/noir, and another one about Solar Pons. He’s also a big fan of the extremely talented James Scott Bell, so I was really happy when Wally agreed to write an essay about that author’s pulp series starring Bill Armbrewster! Take it away, Wally:

Hollywood and hardboiled noir will be forever intertwined. And James Scott Bell, a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award, writing teacher, and creator of at least four entertaining thriller series of books that I can think of (including the delightful Kick-Ass Nun stories), has recently underscored that fact with his ebook Trouble Is My Beat: The Bill Armbrewster, Hollywood Troubleshooter Mystery Novelettes in Classic Pulp Style.

Admittedly, that’s a mouthful of a title, but it’s good marketing. It describes exactly what this gem is. The year is 1945. The war’s just ended, the boys are marching home, and Hollywood is grinding out movies faster than Rita Hayworth is plowing through husbands. Bill Armbrewster is the “troubleshooter” for National-Consolidated Pictures — in other words, he works to keep the studio’s image, and the images of its “people properties,” squeaky clean.

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Carving Out Destiny: Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Carving Out Destiny: Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

There came a time when the destiny of Men and Gods was hammered out upon the forge of Fate, when monstrous wars were brewed and mighty deeds were designed. And there rose up in this time, which was called the Age of the Young Kingdoms, heroes. Greatest of these heroes was a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.
His name was Elric of Melniboné…

from the Prologue to Stormbringer

That cover, more than any other, depicts the absolute coolness of swords & sorcery and what I like about it. Michael Whelan’s painting for the 1977 DAW edition of Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer (1965) is the first time in over two hundred essays I haven’t put the first edition cover first. You can talk about heroism, barbarism vs. civilization and whatnot until the end of the day but, ultimately, this is what I dig. That depiction of Elric, runeblade held high, Horn of Fate trailing behind him, under the storm-wracked heavens, says more about what brings me back to the genre than any book-long disquisition ever could. It’s just so stinking cool. Its appeal is purely and mind-blowingly visceral.

When I was in my mid-teens, all my friends and I devoured these books relentlessly. As soon as one of us finished one series we plunged right into the next. The gradual realization that all of Moorcock’s S&S stories were linked in some crazy pattern made our reading even more compulsive. Many, many elements in his books wound up in roleplaying sessions. I ended at least one universe in a very Moorcockian style.

I did a quick count of how many Moorcock books I’ve read and got over thirty. Some of them, particularly the assorted Eternal Champion books (Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum, etc.), I’ve read numerous times. I’ve probably read all six Corum novels five or six times. I have definitely not reread any other S&S books, neither Robert E. Howard’s nor Karl Edward Wagner’s, anywhere near that number of times. Moorcock’s books have done more than any other’s to build the framework of what S&S writing is for me if by no other measure than number of pages read. There’s more creativity when it comes to characters and world-building in almost any of his slim DAW yellow-spine books than nearly any monstrous tome I’ve bludgeoned my way through.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

I did six Back Deck Pulp installments. If you don’t know what that was – I had a great back deck at my former house. I would sit out there and read a lot. Mostly pulp stuff, but other things too. And I would take a pic of the book/or rarely, on my Kindle); trying to include some of my yard, or deck, and my leg or knee (hey – it was just a thing). And I’d talk about what I was reading. Usually sharing info about the author.

They were fun little things to share what I liked reading. And often it was a plug for an upcoming A (Black) Gat in the Hand post. I’m in an apartment now, with a small concrete slab back porch. With winter, and then the brutal heat of June, now behind us, I’m getting out there to read a little more. So, Back Porch Pulp makes its debut as Back Deck Pulp’s successor. Enjoy!

JACK HIGGINS

Back Deck Pulp has been re-branded. Back Porch Pulp. I read a $1.99 Jack Higgins ebook, “Comes the Dark Stranger.”

I have 49 Higgins books on the shelves: I’m a fan. That one was ‘meh.’ Predictable and not that exciting.

I’m a big fan of his WW II historical fiction stuff. And the first dozen Sean Dillon books.

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Random Review: “A Conglomeration of Bees” by Kiel Stuart

Random Review: “A Conglomeration of Bees” by Kiel Stuart

Beyond the Last Star
Beyond the Last Star

Beyond the Last Star was the fifth and final anthology put together on SFF.net, a one-time website that served not only as the webhost to numerous science fiction authors from 1996 until 2017. In addition to webhosting, SFF.net also ran a bulletin board analogous to USENET or the GEnie boards out of which it grew.  The community that existed at SFF.net not only put out a series of anthologies, but also compiled and submitted the infamous Atlanta Nights, as written by Travis Tea, as a sting operation after PublishAmerica stated that “the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction.”

Kiel Stuart’s story for the final SFF.net anthology, “A Conglomeration of Bees” has a wonderfully nostalgic feel to it, a story that inhabits the same world as Ray Bradbury’s tales of growing up in “Green Town.” The story is set in a small town that could be anywhere in the United States although Stuart defines it as Sag Harbor, Long Island.

The focus is on Kate Demarest, who sold various random items off the front porch of her house.  Her day started out normally, including a visit to an antiques shop, when she heard rumors or a swarm of bees moving through town in the shape of a man, apparently walking around and emulating tipping its hat. Although Kate hopes to see the bee-man, with a sense of trepidation, she also has her own business to run, no matter how slow it is.

When dealing with a regular customer, Mrs. Sedgwick, who is sure that Kate is hiding the items she is interested in, Kate’s day is enlivened by the appearance of a mandrill, who enters store on Kate’s porch and begins to rummage through the miscellany she is selling. While Mrs. Sedgwick is disturbed by the creature, Kate treats it as any other customer, knowing that there is a bonus in that the mandrill with cause Mrs. Sedgwick to leave.

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Cemetery Cats and Sinister Catacombs: The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX, edited by Karl Edward Wagner

Cemetery Cats and Sinister Catacombs: The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX, edited by Karl Edward Wagner


The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX edited by Karl Edward Wagner (DAW 1981). Cover by Michael Whelan

The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX was the ninth volume in DAW’s Year’s Best Horror Stories, copyrighted and printed in 1981. This was the second volume edited by horror author and editor Karl Edward Wagner (1945–1994). Michael Whelan’s (1950–) artwork appears for a seventh time in a row on the cover. I continue to be very impressed with Whelan’s artistic diversity of subject and mood. Though the scenes depicted almost never have anything to do with the contents, they are highly evocative and truly draw you to the book.

As with Wagner’s previous volume, all of the authors of The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX were male. Six were American, four were British. Wagner included four stories from professional magazines, three from books (one collection, two anthologies), and three came from professional fanzines. This volume holds the fewest number of stories we have yet seen for a DAW’s Year’s Best, because more than one of the stories here was close to novella length. We continue to see some returning names: Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, T. E. D. Klein and Harlan Ellison. But there are several first-timers as well.

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Random Review: “Reborn” by Ken Liu

Random Review: “Reborn” by Ken Liu

Cover by Richard Anderson
Cover by Richard Anderson

In 2014, David G. Hartwell, at Tor Books, edited to second anthology of stories which were based on a specific painting. He provided a piece of art created by Richard Anderson to multiple authors and asked them to write stories inspired by the art. The first of the three novelettes to appear in The Anderson Project is Ken Liu’s “Reborn.”

The world of “Reborn” is one in which humans are living in an uneasy relationship with the alien Tawnin. The story opens with the arrival of a Tawnin ship, returning some of the Reborn, humans who have been altered by the Tawnin, back to Earth.  A crowd has gathered for the event and Josh Rennon, a policeman working with the Tawnin, as well as one of the Reborn, is on the scene to see if he can spot anyone who is less than happy with the Tawnin’s residence on Earth.  When a bomb explodes, he is able to apprehend someone who appears to be connected with it.

Although the story begins to take on the tone of a police procedural, Liu is interested in following up on several different threads.  Rennon is in a relationship with Kai, one of the Tawnin, and Liu explores what their relationship means, from a physical as well as an emotional and intellectual point of view. In some ways, both Kai and Rennon are new.  As a Reborn, some of Rennon’s memories have been excised from him while the Tawnin take the view that just as their cells are completely replaced every few years, so too are their memories, and so a Tawnin today is a completely different individual than the person thie was a decade earlier.

The procedural potion of the story also continues and Rennon begins to discover that his suspect appears to be part of a larger conspiracy.  As Rennon tracks down the threads that appear during his interrogation of the suspect, he comes across the mysterious Walker Lincoln, who appears to be the key to this particular terrorist cell, even if there doesn’t seem to be a record of Lincoln.  Nevertheless, Rennon insists on following up on any leads, which makes his colleague Claire, as well as Kai, concerned about where the investigation is taking him.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Tracer Bullet Takes the Case

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Tracer Bullet Takes the Case

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

I have had a Roger Torrey essay in mind for a couple years. And I thought I was going to write it this past weekend, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I’ll still be doing one this summer (he tells himself), using a short story from Black Dog’s excellent collection, Bodyguard. But today is not that day!

Calvin and Hobbes rivals Fox Trot for my all-time favorite comic strip. Bloom County barely holds off Dilbert for the third spot. Of course, the magic of C&H captivated millions over the years, and still does.

I have all of the non-repeating collections. Having bought them as they came out, I didn’t get that massive hardback collection. I even have the one from the exhibit here at Ohio State in Columbus, OH back in 1995. I didn’t see that one, unfortunately.

Calvin is a six-year old kid, and he has a stuffed tiger named Hobbes. Hobbes is alive when it’s just Calvin around. He’s a normal stuffed animal when someone else is (I only noticed one panel with an animated Hobbes, and someone else there…). Calvin is constantly getting into trouble with Hobbes.

There were some recurring characters, like Spaceman Spiff. There were two or three series’ with Calvin imagining himself as the classic hardboiled private eye, ala Sam Spade. He is Tracer Bullet.

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Random Reviews: “The Wonderful Conspiracy” by Spider Robinson

Random Reviews: “The Wonderful Conspiracy” by Spider Robinson

Cover by Vincent di Fate
Cover by Vincent di Fate

Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.

I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing.  This week, I rolled 40,770 which turned out to be Spider Robinson’s short story “The Wonderful Conspiracy.”

One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a personal point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.

The Wonderful Conspiracy is the final story of Spider Robinson’s first Callahan book, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and it has the appropriately maudlin nostalgia of a bar nearing closing time. Robinson has set the story on New Year’s Eve when the bar is mostly empty, save for employees Mike Callahan and Fast Eddie, as well as inveterate drinkers Long-Drink McGonnigle, the Doc, and Robinson’s narrator.

Although “The Wonderful Conspiracy” has many of the signature tropes of a Callahan story, including the series of puns and breaking of glasses, it is a lower energy story, just five men sitting around talking. Set at the end of the year and in a bar that is practically empty, the discussion between the men turns introspective, led by Long-Drink.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Two weeks ago, we followed Robert E. Howard out of our usual mean streets, and into the Shudder Pulps. Two-Gun Bob was our tour guide again last week, as we wandered into Spicy Adventures territory. Howard is a great guide through the pulps, and this week, Kirby O’Donnell takes us to the Adventure Pulps.

Robert E. Howard sold his first story in 1925, with “Spear and Fang” appearing in the July issue of Weird Tales. One of Howard’s first characters, written as a young teen, was a Texas gunslinger who roamed the wilds of Afghanistan and neighboring areas. Francis Xavier Gordon, who would be better known as El Borak (The Swift) was Howard’s attempt to get into the higher paying, prestigious pulps, like Argosy, and Adventure.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be an unassailable market for Howard, and he did not get his first adventure story published until late 1934. At the peak of his writing skill, he would, sadly, be dead in less than two years. And it wasn’t a more developed El Borak that got Howard into the market. It was a very similar, less complex character named Kirby O’Donnell.

My REH friend Dave Hardy has written two excellent articles on El Borak and Howard’s gunslingers of the Near East. The definitive essay on the topic is in the Del Rey El Borak and other Adventures collection. And you can find the other here at Black Gate, in our Discovering Robert E. Howard series.

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The Sillliest Stuff I’ve Ever Read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

The Sillliest Stuff I’ve Ever Read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

HIPPOLYTA

’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.

THESEUS

More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear?

If you take the time to skim over the history of criticism of William Shakespeare’s sublime A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca. 1596), you might lose your mind. Early commentary seems to have centered on the appropriateness of depicting imaginary beings such as the fairies while more contemporary scholars (say, over the last fifty years) have seen support, as well as opposition, to such things as patriarchy and the “hegemonic order.” All sorts of dark sexual allusions are intimated by several authors.

It’s not all like that, with much focus on metatextual aspects like artistic creation, dream versus illusion, or metamorphosis. Some of this is interesting, some of it ridiculous.

Oh, there are things being said about art, love, and perception, but little of that matters much to me, and none of it matters to the pleasures of the play. For my tastes, the most accurate comment  about A Midsummer Night’s Dream is from Thomas McFarland, who described it as “dominated by a mood of happiness and that it is one of the happiest literary creations ever produced.”

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