Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Quick Peep at the Spicy Pulps

Starting to look into the spicies via the Blood N Thunder guide. Looks like I'll have to add Spicy Mystery to the most influential pulps list. It started the weird menace craze that damn near caused the government to kill the pulps. Weird menace also drove the kids into comics.

Part of the reason the spicies remained popular with authors is because they PAID. Not just on time, which was a novelty, but well--as in 5 cents a word at a time where 1 cent a word was professional rate. The problem is, in markets limited to innuendo and indirect description of undress, only a score of authors could write within the rules.

Guess how many of those were Weird Tales authors writing under pseudonyms.

Three, including R.E. Howard as Sam Walser . (As I said, at least the spicies paid, which wasn't always the case with Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright.) Add three more WT writers willing to write spicies under their own name, including E. Hoffman Price and Henry Kuttner.

That said, the rest of the field wasn't quite up to the same quality. The catch was being able to write suggestively without resorting to tab A into slot B depictions of the act, and few could deliver.

Anatomical descriptions were out, as was complete nudity and any details of the act the heroine submitted to. The women could disrobe voluntarily or have their clothes torn from them, but some scrap of cloth had to remain. The idea was to have a strong sexual element without being obscene or vulgar. That said, right now, many YA, LNs, and romance novels would be too explicit for the spicies.

But with (the barest hint of ) sex selling, the rest of the story not surprisingly fell by the wayside. Many of the spicies chose exotic settings as to offer more convincing opportunities for the ladies to be in undress. Unfortunately, the exotic settings and plots don't compare to the descriptions found in the hero pulps and Weird Tales. Everything was a thin excuse to get to the ellipses, where the real action occurred in the readers' minds.

To no surprise, with the restrictions of the spicies compare to outright girlie or "smoosh" magazines such as Stage and Screen Stories and Tattle Tales, which both featured far more revealing covers, writers made up for lack of titillation with a penchant for peril, which became impending torture, which became weird menace. Afterwards, the spicies burned out as stronger thrills and more explicit images became easier to acquire. But for five years, the Spicy was queen.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Monday, November 19, 2018

Uncanny: How Marvel's Spicies Saved Science Fiction

Pulps and comics are kissing cousins. Not only have comics plundered the pulps for heroes, stories, and franchises, in many cases, comics and pulps were owned by the same publishers. For instance, Street & Smith's Chelsea House imprint ran comics of most of their pulp books. But Marvel holds special ties to science fiction. Not only does The House of Ideas continue to provide opportunities for science fiction writers to work in comics, it set the stage for the Campbelline Revolution through Marvel Science Stories, a nine issue pulp that ran between 1938 and 1941.

Like Marvel's predecessor, Timely Comics, Marvel Science Stories was part of the Red Circle imprint, published by Martin Goodman, who would later become a cousin by marriage to Stan Lee. Red Circle books covered the gamut of westerns, detective stories, weird menace, and adventures, but they appealed to a baser instinct than most of their competition. That's right, Red Circle dealt with the "spicies", those salacious stories of sin and sadism that seem so utterly quaint in today's age of Game of Thrones.

Originally, Marvel Science Stories adhered to the growing fannish standard of science fiction. But as editor Robert O. Erisman learned, sex sells:

Williamson was not the only one in science fiction to despise Marvel Science Stories. Fandom's impressions were generally negative, if not outright hostile:

"I was just about to write you a letter of complete congratulations when my eyes fell upon Kuttner's "The Time Trap". All I can say is: PLEASE, in the future, dislodge such trash from your magazine."--William Hamling

"For some half a dozen issues or so, a magazine I won't name" published "spicy" stories about "the hot passion of alien monsters for Earthwomen. Clothes were always getting ripped off and breasts were described in a variety of elliptical phrases" for its "few readers" before "the magazine died a deserved death" -- Isaac Asimov

Some of this is just fannish snobbery, as Williamson explained. And Marvel's sister magazines "Dynamic Science Stories", "Uncanny Stories", and more fell along the same pattern, with similar disdain for the quality. "Historians identify only three stories of quality: Nelson S. Bond's "The Message from the Void" (published under the pseudonym "Hubert Mavity"); L. Sprague de Camp's "Ananias"; and Manly Wade Wellman's "Insight"."

But what Marvel Science Stories represents is the first new science fiction magazine since the original rush of science fiction stories. "After 1931, when Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories was launched, no new science fiction magazines appeared until August 1938, when Abraham and Martin Goodman, two brothers who owned a publishing company with multiple imprints, launched Marvel Science Stories." It kindled publisher interest in science fiction and fantasy as a genre, leading to the creation of Unknown, Planet Stories, and more. And to compete in this new boom market of science fiction, Astounding hired John Campbell...

So, if it was not for the publication of Marvel Science Stories by a smut peddler of its day, science fiction would have continued to stagnate in the mess caused by Hugo the Rat's predations. After all, as Gus Grissom said in The Right Stuff, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Storytelling and Communication

Over the weekend, The Frisky Pagan put on an impromptu writing clinic over at his blog, The Emperor's Notepad. And when he ponders, he ponders deeply. Of particular note are his first three days.

On the 9th, he tackles what he calls "Deep POV"--or a strict, character-locked version of the limited third-person point of view:
I believe that what defines [deep POV] is something that doesn’t appear in any of its definitions, it’s something that is implied but not acknowledged, an unintended consequence: killing the narrator as an independent character and observers. In other words, no text will be written unless it’s perceived or processed through some character’s (deepish or not) POV. I don’t believe deepness is really the point here; it’s that the narrator disappears as an independent character.
On the 10th, first-person narrators:
I became very aware of that when I found myself reading a story, I think it was a short story but it could have been a novel, an urban fantasy I believe, with a first-person, past-tense narrator. The narrator was in the middle of a car chase and did all sort of cool stuff, very detailed cool stuff, and I thought, this is it, that’s what is wrong with these stories: there’s no way anybody could remember all that. 
All these first-person narrators have an eidetic memory. They keep pointing out the people’s shoe colors, or that they were fiddling with their cuffs, or that their own eyebrows arched at a precise microsecond… And this is supposed to be someone telling you his personal story, his life, perhaps years later after the fact? It’s not, of course, it’s just a traditional third-person narration with the pronouns switched.
And on the 11th, the traditional method vs. the traditional wisdom of story openings:
Now, I’m not saying this will make me throw out the book, but you notice the difference, right? All the older books start by setting the scene, the setting, even the plot… contemporary fiction starts by telling you someone you know nothing about leans to one side of his chair.  
Although modern fiction tries to imitate movies, if this were a movie, this is not how the movie would start. A movie doesn’t start with a close, very close shot of someone smiling and leaning on his/her chair. It starts with a wider shot of the television set, establishing the scene, telling you it’s not a live interview, THEN you focus on the characters.
In response, Misha Burnett joins in teaching the clinic:
What Emperor X got me thinking about, though, was that there is another side to the fictive conversation. Voice is determined not simply by who is talking, but by whom is being talked to. 
Imagine that you are relating the story of an accident that occurred at your workplace. You are going to tell the story very differently to the police, to your boss, to a coworker who was off that day, and to a friend who knows you, but has never been to your work. 
Even assuming that you tell the absolute truth in all instances, the way you tell the story, which details you include or leave out, how you describe the actions and personalities of the people involved, the order in which you describe the events, all of these things will be determined by the person listening to the you tell the story. 
Hence the “Invisible Character”, the Listener.
Taken together, the blog posts reaffirm the ancient wisdom of communication, that the act of communicating requires a speaker, a message, and an audience. Given that writing has such a separation between the speaker and the audience, it is no surprise that many writers forget about the audience altogether. Many literary novelties are written for the speaker's sake--such as three codas to a story written in the three persons of point of view--and not for the effect on the audience. The faults tackled in these blogs all boil down to writers forgetting about the audience and focusing on the flash of writing, like a metalhead speed freak who can shred through guitar riffs but cannot play a song.

Check out all the articles, there's more gold to be gleaned.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Rest in Peace, Stan Lee.

Beloved comicbook creator Stan Lee has passed on. In memory, here is one of Stan's rants, against "comic books". May he get his wish, and let us all enjoy our favorite Stan Lee comicbook in his memory.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts

In Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts, the celebrity chef and his co-writer, Joel Rose, combine three of Bourdain’s obsessions, food, storytelling, and the legends of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, into an anthology homage to EC Comics’ classic horror comics. Despite the five recipes in the the extensive appendix, food here is a garnish, little more than a thin thread running throughout each of the tales of Japanese monsters. In the spotlight is the Japanese bestiary of horror, youkaikappaoni, etc., set loose in more familiar haunts to the reader. And in the best traditions of Japanese wordplay, the title, Hungry Ghosts, is not just an allusion to the food and horror themes, but a reference to a specific type of spirit found in Japanese legend.
It takes more than themes and gimmicks to bind together a horror anthology. Here, Bourdain and Rose rely on the popular Edo-era storytelling game called 100 Candles (or Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai), where participants would gather in a dark room illuminated by 100 candles. Each participant would tell a harrowing tale before extinguishing a candle. Once complete, the storyteller would glance into a mirror to check if they were still human. As the light fades in the room, the stories grow more disturbing. Summoned to this particular test of courage, hosted by a wealthy Russian kingpin, are eight of the world’s best chefs, each with their own Weird Tale.
As mentioned, the nine ghost stories are familiar to Japanese folklore, showcasing youkai (monsters and spirits) of all kinds. Favorite youkai from Kwaidan appear, including the flying heads of the rokurokubi and the snow woman. Each Japanese monster gets shifted in setting to a more Western one, following the tradition of horror and weird tales in moving from the familiar to the strange. The result, paired with the excellent art, adds to the haunting creepiness of each story. And final panel twists turn even the melancholic tale of the snow woman into implied horror. Standouts include “Deep”, a story of kappa and hazing, “The Starving Skeleton”, a story of selfishness and spite, and the traditional “The Snow Woman.” Finally, the hungry ghosts appear, wrapping up their story and the book with a hellish feast.
It is these hungry ghosts, the jikininki of Kwaidan, that reveal the underlying theme of this anthology. Driven by intense emotion into animal frenzy, the youkai of Hungry Ghosts invariably prey on men and women who have allowed their urges to turn themselves into animals. The Seven Deadly Sins are showcased here, luring the proud, the glutton, the lustful, and the wroth to their destruction at the hands of monsters. Given Bourdain’s involvement in the recent #MeToo movement, several of his tales dealing with revenge against sexual predations might appear linked to current events. The vengeance meted out in each story is timeless and always tied into the actions of the doomed, not to the whims of 2017 politics–else “Deep”, the kappa’s tale of male hazing in the kitchen straight from Bourdain’s earlier autobiographical works, would not have been included. Unfortunately, “Deep” also reveals a weakness in Bourdain’s comic books. For such a well-traveled author and television host, his three comic books invariably rely on the same set pieces found in Kitchen ConfidentialMedium Raw, and The Nasty Bits.
As a showcase for the art of many of the best horror comics artists, Hungry Ghost features a number of divergent styles. Save for the ukiyo-e influence on the ghostly narrator who, like the Cryptkeeper in EC Comics, opens and closes the book and the manga styling of “The Snow Woman,” the art styles are Western, with traditional American comics, bandes dessinĂ©es, and even newsprint design elements. Rather than glory in the shock of blood and violence, Hungry Ghosts instead keeps the most frightening bits off panel and in the mind’s eye. While a couple stories rely on the gruesome for horror, such as “The Salty Horse”, the artists rely on a number of effects including color palette, contrast, and even panel design to heighten the emotional impact of this book.
With the sheer number of Japanese terms thrown around, it is easy for a reader unfamiliar with the culture to get lost. Fortunately, Hungry Ghosts offers an appendix explaining the 100 Candles game and each of the monsters found within. The charcoal depictions of the youkai are excellent, mimicking those found in classic Japaness youkai books, and in some cases are more terrifying that the depictions in the graphic novel. For the foodies, Bourdain offers five new recipes not found in any of his other cookbooks. With the exception of Tokyo ramen, these all reflect Bourdain’s roots in French cuisine. Those foodies looking for a take as unique on Japanese dishes as Hungry Ghosts is on folklore should instead try David Chang’s Momofuku. Finally, Joel Rose gives a memorial to Anthony Bourdain, revealing that the obsessions with Kwaidan and EC Comics were Bourdain’s.
Foodies might be disappointed with Hungry Ghosts, as the stories are about the ghosts instead of the food. But for those looking to recover a bit of the dark moody danger of folklore, fantasy, and horror from a world increasing making the monstrous familiar, Hungry Ghosts is a welcome collection of weird tales.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Pulp Era Writing Advice from Stan Lee

In 1947's Writer's Digest, Stan Lee, then editor of Timely Comics, writes in his "There's Money in Comics":

One point which I can't stress too strongly is: DON'T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR READERS! It is common knowledge that a large portion of comic magazine readers are adults, and the rest of the readers who may be kids are generally pretty sharp characters. They are used to seeing movies and listening to radio shows and have a pretty good idea of the stories they want to read. If you figure that "anything goes" in a comic magazine, a study of any recent copy of Daredevil Comics or Bat Man will show you that a great deal of thought goes into every story; and there are plenty of gimmicks, sub-plot, human interest angles, and the other elements that go into the making of any type of good story, whether it be a comic strip or a novel.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Beyond Honor

David Weber's Honor Harrington series started from the simple conceit of Horatio Hornblower in Space and grew into one of science fiction's few pillar series, critically and commercially successful in a time where most science fiction readers are turning towards the classics instead of the contemporary. Over nineteen books, the crucible of constant war tempered the charismatic Honor Harrington from a tentative ship's captain on her first command in peacetime into the fiery Salamander of Manticore, the fearsome fleet admiral found fighting where the battles raged hottest.

While many space navy adventures tend to follow the adventures of a Captain Kirk-expy, Honor Harrington, as significant as her shipboard prowess may affect history, is but one woman in a cast of hundreds that bring both a political and a human scope to the actions on the battlefield. Clearly demonstrating how politics, technology, and war influence and affect each other, Weber places his heroine in the center of many revolutions drawn from historical analogues, including the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the naval Dreadnought revolution, and the crusade against slavery. Furthermore, Weber blended Hornblower with modern command practices, ending a fascination of many Hornblower copycats with insubordination and Churchill's description of the Royal Navy's traditions as "rum, sodomy, and the lash." Honor Harrington is a true science fiction epic, spanning the Salamander's full command career and a quarter of the galaxy, through triumph, setback, hubris, and tragedy.

In Uncompromising Honor, Weber brings his epic to a conclusion. Weighing in at 961 pages, this final doorstopper will give military SF readers much to chew on. But when the final page is turned, two questions remain for the naval science fiction fan: what's next for the Star Empire of Manticore, and what to read next? Only Weber knows the answer to the first, but for the avid reader searching for more in the vein of Honor, consider a trio of suggestions.