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Category: Pulp

IMHO: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SWORD & SORCERY AND HEROIC FANTASY

IMHO: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SWORD & SORCERY AND HEROIC FANTASY

Weird Tales featuring “Devil in Iron” by Robert E. Howard, art by Margaret Brundage (~1934); Conan the Conqueror by REH and Lyon Sprague de Camp, art by Frazetta (~1967);  The Road of Kings by Karl Edward Wagner art by Matt Stawicki (1979); Kothar of the Magic Sword by Gardner F. Fox, art by Jeff Jones (~1969)

The Evolving and Cloned Barbarian

Conan, King Kull, Cormac, Bran Mak Morn — names that conjure magic, characters often imitated, but never duplicated. These creations of Robert E. Howard (circa 1930) started the Sword and Sorcery boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Then there are the barbarian warriors inspired by Howard — “Clonans,” as one writer recently referred to these sword-slinging, muscle-bound characters. A fair observation, but in some cases, not so true.

I prefer to think of these “Clonan” tales of wandering barbarian heroes as “Barbarian Solo” adventures because the majority of these characters are lone wolves, without sidekicks or even recurring companions. This is a big part of their appeal, in fact, and in their own way, they are reminiscent of many cinematic westerns. I’ve read many, if not most, of the early Conan pastiches, including the novels based on Howard’s other creations. Karl Edward Wagner’s, Poul Anderson’s, and Andy Offutt’s portrayals of the Cimmerian come within a sword’s stroke of Howard’s original vision. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, in commodifying the character, arranged the long, informal saga of Conan in chronological order and, by extenuating these adventures with dozens more, made of Howard’s creation a long-form series similar to the episodic success of a television show on a prolonged run of diminishing returns. For some readers, however, the advantage of this development is that it provided a sort of character arc as Conan grows from a youth to an older man.

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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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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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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ “The Gin Monkey”

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ “The Gin Monkey”

“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)

There will be more pulp Robert E. Howard this summer, but this week, it’s back to the Mean Streets I’m actually (semi-) qualified to write about. And I do know my Norbert Davis; and Dime Detective! This is my seventh Davis essay. And I’ve written two book introductions, with more coming. I’m doing what I can to drum up interest in the massively under-appreciated pulpster.

Black Mask originated, and then dominated, the hardboiled pulp field. In early 1923, Carroll John Daly brought Three gun Terry Mack, and then Race Williams to the page. In October, Dashiell Hammett (writing as Peter Collinson) introduced the more-developed Continental Op. Black Mask would focus on the newly created sub-genre, Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw would become editor, and the magazine would dominate the mystery field for the rest of the decade. The field was emulating, and looking up at, Black Mask.

Dime Detective hit newsstands in November of 1931. The pulp would become Black Mask’s most enduring competition. In fact, Black Mask would be bought by Dime Detective’s publisher and the latter would outlast the legendary magazine. Stories would be parceled out between the two magazines, and there wasn’t much of a difference, other than which characters could be found in which one.

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

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spicy 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)

Last week, we followed Robert E. Howard out of our usual mean streets, and into the Shudder Pulps. Well, Two-Gun Bob is our tour guide again this week, as we wander into Spicy Adventures territory. I’m kinda liking this REH theme, and I’ll see if I can’t follow up with a story from the boxing pulps, and maybe an Oriental adventure (which is not what we think of from that title, today).

In the early Pulp days, girlie magazines were known as ‘smooshes.’ The Great Depression hit them hard – just as with all the other pulps. And, they were under attack from civic and morality groups, as well.

In April of 1934, pulp publisher Harry Donenfeld, with editor Frank Armer (Donenfeld had previously bought out that struggling publisher, then hired him) created the Spicy Pulp formula with Spicy Detective Stories. Under the Culture Publications masthead, it took the type of hardboiled crime stories in popular pulps like Black Mask, and Dime Detective, and added in the racy elements of the smoosh mags. Picture Sam Spade leaving no doubt that he bedded a scantily-clad Brigid O’Shaughnessyy in his apartment.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Weird Menace 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)

My area of expertise is the hardboiled/Pi genre. But today, we’ll jump over to the ‘shudder pulps.’ In 1933, Popular Publications (Harry Steeger) switched the ailing Dime Mystery over to a new, weird menace format. This started a short fun of success for that pulp sub-genre. Popular jumped in with both feet, shortly after launching Terror Tales, and then Horror Stories. As the tone shifted from weird, eerie, menacing elements to torture, depravity and sadism, a public outcry arose against these shudder pulps and the sub-genre died in the early forties.

Robert E. Howard, always looking for new markets, succeeded in placing “Black Talons” in the December, 1933 issue of Strange Detective Stories. “Fangs of Gold” (a Steve Harrison tale) followed there in February of 1934. Another Harrison story, “The Tomb’s Secret, was in that same February issue, under the pseudonym, Patrick Ervin.

Assuming he was actually getting paid (something that happened with irregularity from Weird Tales), this was a good market for Howard. “Dead Man’s Doom,” the next Harrison story, was slated for the March, 1934 issue. And then, the magazine folded. The story wouldn’t see print until 1978 as “Lord of the Dead” in the Sukll-Face paperback.

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A Lush Visual History of Science Fiction: Futures Past by Jim Emerson

A Lush Visual History of Science Fiction: Futures Past by Jim Emerson


The first two issues of Futures Past, a Visual History of Science Fiction, edited and published by Jim Emerson

Way back in the 90s, before most of you young whippersnappers were born, Jim Emerson had a very fine fanzine called Futures Past, covering the birth of modern science fiction. He published four issues, each covering one year of SF history, from 1926-29.

In 2014 Jim resurrected his fondly-remembered zine as a 64-page digital magazine, with gorgeous full-color pages. The first issue covered 1926, the year Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories. Futures Past Vol. 1 illuminated the Birth of Modern Science Fiction, covering all the highlights of science fiction publishing in magazines and books.

A Kickstarter intended to fund full-color print versions of the new version in 2014 wasn’t successful. Undaunted, Jim funded the project himself, and earlier this year I was surprised and very pleased to receive a print copy of Futures Past, Volume 2 in the mail. Covering the year 1927 and the Dawn of the SF Blockbuster, this 144-page publication is a love letter to a forgotten era, when a brand new literary genre was being born in the pages of pulp magazines, books, and on the silver screen.

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Vintage Treasures: Planets Three by Frederik Pohl

Vintage Treasures: Planets Three by Frederik Pohl


Planets Three by Frederik Pohl (Berkley Books, 1982). Cover by Gregg Hinlicky

I admire Frederik Pohl. He had a nearly 75-year career in science fiction, from the early stories he published as a young teen in the 1930s all the way to the Hugo Award he won in 2010 for his superb early blog, The Way the Future Blogs, at the age of 90. He was an astute and prolific fan writer, an agent, and a legendary editor, winning three successive Hugos for Best Editor for his work at IF magazine in the 60s.

His first love was writing, of course, and it’s not hard to sense some frustration at his mid-career lack of success, especially as he watched his fellow Futurians and friends enjoy stellar careers, including Isaac Asimov, Donald Wollheim, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, and many others. Asimov, whom Pohl had known since they were both teenage fans in Brooklyn, had such name-brand recognition that virtually everything he’d written was still in print in the 70s and 80s — certainly not the case for Pohl, whose early output languished in obscurity in moldering pulp magazines.

Then came Gateway.

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Vintage Treasures: The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard

Vintage Treasures: The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard


The Gods of Bal-Sagoth (Ace, 1979). Cover by Sanjulian

I didn’t discover Robert E. Howard through Conan. In fact, it was decades after I started reading fantasy before I read my first Conan story (“The Tower of the Elephant,” for the record.)

No, it was Howard’s rich fiction collections from Ace Books in the late 70s and early 80s that really introduced me to the master of 20th Century sword & sorcery. They were filled with enthralling tales of blood-stained history, dark adventure, and unexpected horror, like “Worms of the Earth,” “Pigeons From Hell,” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”

And those gorgeous Sanjulian covers!

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