Vintage pulp fiction has never really gone away. Vintage crime made a comeback in the 80’s and 90’s with reprints through Black Lizard, faded a bit then reappeared through publishers like Mulholland Books, who have announced reprints of Jim Thompson’s novels, and Hard Case Crime, who not only have done reprints of classic crime novels, but have published new pulp crime by the likes of Stephen King, Christa Faust, and Ken Bruen.
But there’s one type of pulp novel we haven’t seen as much of: the action hero pulp.
I’m talking about those Golden Age pulp characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Phantom. They’re still out there, but they haven’t gotten much airplay. Disney’s The Rocketeer came out in 1991. Indiana Jones stopped getting any real traction before Harrison Ford started moving around like he had Parkinson’s. There hasn’t been a new Doc Savage outside of comics for over twenty years. Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime did a series of pulp adventurer novels with their Gabriel Hunt series a couple years ago. Beyond that there isn’t much.
In the last few months, though, these sorts of pulp heroes have started popping up more and more in all their two-fisted, gun-toting, rocketpack and gas-mask wearing glory. Are we seeing just another blip on the radar, or might we be seeing something more?
Dinocalypse Now! is a tie-in novel and first in a trilogy by Chuck Wendig, for Evil Hat Production’s Spirit of the Century game. Set in the nineteen-forties, it involves six heroes, members of the world’s elite Century Club, as they fight an world-wide invasion by the genetically enhanced ape, Gorilla Khan and his army of mind-controlled dinosaurs.
That short description doesn’t do the story justice. What at first sounds like an over the top premise, and believe me it does get wonderfully over the top, is actually a book that outshines the pulp stories that served as its inspiration. Watch the original Flash Gordon serials some time. Or The Phantom Empire with Singing Cowboy Gene Autrey as he goes up against the scientists and robots of The Scientific City of Murania led by the evil Queen Tika, and you’ll see what I mean.
This book’s got it all. Jetpacks, fist-fights, daring escapes, swashbuckling action, snappy dialog, bitter rivalries, even unrequited romance. And of course lots and lots of man-eating, mind-controlled dinosaurs. Hell, even Atlantis makes an appearance.
Throughout it all, Wendig miraculously manages to keep the story grounded. No matter how insane the action gets, it’s placed so solidly in this pulpy adventure world that you never question things like a talking, homicidal ape who’s pulled together an army out of the Pleistocene to take over the world.
In a more serious vein is Adam Christopher’s Empire State which mixes Golden Age superheroes with weird science and hard-boiled detective fiction. Private Detective Rad Bradley finds himself at the center of a bizarre conspiracy in his home city of The Empire State, a place that looks almost but not quite like Prohibition era Manhattan.
As it turns out that’s because it’s an alternate universe based on, well, not our New York, exactly. Christopher’s New York has science heroes and villains like the Skyguard and the Science Pirate, secret government organizations headed up by pompous explorers and staffed by shadowy G-Men.
Like Dinocalypse Now!, Empire State owes a lot to those Saturday matinees where you could see two serials, a newsreel and a feature for a nickel, but brings in some well realized twists that make it something more than your average pulp offering.
And then we have the dark and powerful Housework, by comic writer Doselle Young (The Monarchy). Originally a short story in the superhero anthology, The Darker Mask, which came out in 2008, Young is putting it out as a print edition under his own label of Ink & Eye Press and has plans to put out more.
In it a black housekeeper, Birdie McIntyre, discovers the secret identity of Misery City’s premiere hero, The Alienist, while working as a housecleaner at his mansion. Birdie’s world is a rough one: racism, crime, poverty. When her friend Ruby gets in a gangster’s way and winds up dead, Birdie takes things into her own hands and steals a weapon from The Alienist to become an instrument of vengeance against Misery City’s criminal underclass.
What sets Housework apart from the previous two, aside from its darkness, is that it’s a creator owned work that’s going into print. Unlike a lot of self-publishing being done in the digital realm today, great effort has been put into making a physical, if particularly short, book. It has stunning artwork by Ron Randall and a retro pulp book design by Gretchen Ash.
Rounding this out is a work that harkens back to the earliest days of the pulp hero. No, not Disney’s John Carter, which tragically left off the “Of Mars” from its title which might have saved it from the death notice the movie-going public has already handed it.
Instead, I’m talking about Jane Carver of Waar, by Nathan Long. This homage / parody of John Carter of Mars features punked-out biker chick Jane Carver on the run from the cops after accidentally killing a man. Escaping to a cave in the hills above Tarzana (Yes, Tarzana is a real place and named after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other, more famous, creation) she finds a strange device that transports her to another planet full of four armed tiger people, purple humanoids and lots and lots of violence.
It’s an adventure story by a man who’s a self-proclaimed Sabatini fan (look him up) and it shows. It’s full of swashbuckling action and swinging swords. Long has done ten tie-in novels for the Warhammer fantasy gaming franchise under his belt and those skills are in full force in this novel.
Are these the hallmarks of a resurgence in Golden Age action hero pulp? Maybe, maybe not. I’d like to think so, but it’s too early to tell. For my money I can’t get enough of this sort of thing.
If we’re lucky we’ll see more. I’ll be over here keeping my fingers crossed.
Stephen Blackmoore is a writer of pulp, crime and urban fantasy with a fondness for cheap drink. As a writer he strives to be a hack. Hacks get paid. He’s not sure if hacks talk about themselves in the third person, though. That might just be a side effect of his meds.