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Intro to High Pulp

Anthony Neil Smith


Pulp blows.

Or at least, that was the point originally. Fast, entertaining, but disposable literature. So it got the reputation as being shit. Formula shit, sentimental shit, not worthy of much respect.

Some of the big guns broke out of pulp and made names for themselves--Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, to name a few. They're considered good writers today by any standard, not simply "good pulp guys, better than the usual."

But pulp has always been more than lowest common denominator fiction. It is primal, emotionally draining, and exciting because it takes people in outrageous situations and shows how they react. If we wanted to talk formula, let's look at cozy mysteries: "Oh dear, the Colonel has been shot. Dreadful. Let's round-up the manor guests." Sure, right. But it seems to me the more common reaction to finding a cold dead corpse is to freak out or yell "It wasn't me! You've got the wrong guy and you can't prove a thing!" Pulp forces us into reaction. Love it or hate it, it moves you somehow and doesn't have to explain itself.

Pulp is cheap.

Those writers in the thirties were cranking out pieces for a penny a word. That led to a lot of unnecessary words (although they were entirely necessary if you had to pay rent) in thick, cheap tabloids that cost a dime. The more stories they wrote, the more they got paid. The result is fiction that doesn't stop, doesn't contemplate. It roars past like a train. You either catch it or you fall under the tracks. In the worst cases, the speed meant cliché on top of tired cliché. In the best cases, though, the writers had the foresight to take a different track, subvert and pervert the clichés until they had something original, something close to a natural, hyper-sensitive world where every word was louder, harsher, every punch more painful, every dame a schemer and every Joe a down-on-his-luck working man who tries to climb out of the gutter by getting in over his head.

I believe it was noir writer Eddie Muller who summed it up by saying, "In noir fiction, you're fucked on page one and it only gets worse as you go."

Pulp is exploitative.

It tackles sex and money and violence, all the things of daytime TV, and wraps it in a tasty package. It doesn't redeem itself. It doesn't let us fool ourselves into thinking these characters are going to be okay. And it is never, ever, politically correct. It mines our prejudices, fears, kneejerk biases, and forces us to look at them without apologies. A magic mirror for the ugliness we can usually hide. When we're reading pulp, though, we don't mind rooting for the bastards because for a moment there, we can empathize.

Pulp is dirty.

Clean pulp? Why in the hell would you want that? But I've met a lot of crime readers who want the fedoras, the dead bodies, the tough guy talk, and the femme fatales, but they don't want the stabbing, the shooting, the "fuck"s or the fucking. If that's you, stop reading now and go find yourself a mystery about innkeeping or something.

Pulp writers were always skirting the edges of what was allowable in their culture, and as the decades rolled by, they were able to push the boundaries pretty wide. Some say that we see so much sex and violence now that it's difficult to shock people anymore, but just look at what causes some of the controversy in our entertainment--a bare breast flashed for a fraction of a second? Desperate Housewives? Howard Stern, for god's sake? Seems we're still a bit more cloistered than most care to admit. Where do pulp writers look to next for the ingredients for future shocks? As long as people think of new ways to hurt each other, betray each other, and fuck each other over with mucho titillation, they'll be just fine.

So what is "High" Pulp?

Who says people can't experiment with language and storytelling in the pulp genre? Our best writers have been doing it for quite a while now, but publishers and readers have been a bit slow catching on. Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn turned a few heads several years ago, a literary noir novel that deconstructed hard-boiled language through a Tourette's afflicted private eye. Beyond that, James Ellroy and Ken Bruen write bare bones prose that comes at you like a montage of images and dialogue, doing away with the formality of description. It can happen anywhere. It does. If you care about the characters, you'll stick around regardless. George Pelecanos gave us several novels in which the characters were more interested in telling us about their record collections than in committing crimes. And they were good books, almost documentary-like, maybe even minimalist noir. I'm saying that the formula is busted. Some people still pick it up and tinker with it, repair it now and then, but for the most part, great pulp writers absorbed the basics and have now moved on to find more interesting ways to tell you their stories.

That's what this issue is all about. The stories had to give me a certain feeling. They had to make my eyes go wide, make me say "Wow, I've got to tell someone about this." I wanted these pulp stories to reflect contemporary times instead of nostalgia for the Forties. I wanted them to come across with strong unique voices, the characters giving us the story as only they can do it. I wanted them to be addictive, exciting, full of writing that slaps you silly and makes you like it.

In the primetime of pulp magazines, readers would leave them on trains, in cabs, in bus stations, for someone else to find and enjoy. That's what I'm doing for you now. I'm leaving this issue at our cyber bus station because these stories are too good for me to keep to myself. Besides, the writers would beat the living hell out of me if I tried to do that anyway. I'm really afraid of them all.

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