Friday, August 18, 2006

Writing Pulp Fiction

By C.S. Thompson

There aren't many firm rules in the art of writing. This is not because the art is a simple one, but because it's so complicated. There are a million ways to get a story wrong- bad dialogue or unbelievable characters, pacing that doesn't feel quite right, an unsatisfying resolution, and many others. And there are almost as many ways to solve those problems, or to sidestep them when you can't solve them. Any attempt to reduce the art to a set of simple rules is bound to be artificial, because the reality of storytelling is so fluid and variable. But one thing is for certain- it's a lot easier to get it wrong than to get it right. So how can you teach yourself something that's so difficult? How can you learn the craft of writing?

I've written several published books, including two fantasy novels and a number of horror and crime stories. I never went to college for writing, or took any workshops on the subject. I never had a writing "mentor." I just read hundreds and hundreds of books, and practiced writing every day. My goal was to absorb the technique of my favorite writers and make it my own. The books I read were from a number of different genres- everything from folktales to ancient philosophy. But some of my favorite reading was the fiction of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, men who wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and earlier. I always considered myself an apprentice to these writers. They taught me how to write.

When Dorothy Parker met Dashiell Hammett, author of pulp classics such as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, she dropped to her knees to show her respect. The writer laughed. Authors who write about private eyes and femmes fatales don't usually get that kind of treatment from the literary mainstream. Magazines such as Black Mask, Amazing Stories and Weird Tales were sold for pennies and printed on cheap paper that turned yellow and brittle within a few years. The stories inside these magazines were supposed to be as cheap as the paper they were printed on- lurid fantasies of violence and sex, bug-eyed monsters from Mars, and ancient horrors. The authors who wrote these stories were considered hacks, desperate and even morally corrupt individuals who churned out sensationalistic garbage for pennies. No one expected literary greatness from the pulp magazines. Fifty years after the demise of the pulps, the prejudice is still with us- "pulp fiction" is a synonym for literary trash, stories written for commercial reasons or for juvenile audiences. The assumption, of course, is that Art is found elsewhere- no doubt in the latest insufferably hip novel/memoir.

Of course, novel/memoirs about vaguely incompetent twenty-somethings have been with us for only a few decades, and the entire tradition of the literary novel is only a few centuries old. Pulp fiction, on the other hand, is just the latest manifestation of a much more ancient tradition. People have been sitting around campfires telling each other amazing stories since the Stone Age. When Edgar Rice Burroughs brings us the story of John Carter of Mars- a swordsman transported to a mysterious land to battle horrific monsters and rescue the princess, gaining himself a kingdom in the process- he is really only retelling a story that was probably ancient when Homer was born. Pulp fiction was popular because it tapped into something primal in us- the place inside us from which myths are born. The part of us that believes in magic.

There were many different types of pulp magazine. Black Mask carried stories of gangsters and detectives, Weird Tales covered fantasy and horror, and there were other pulps for every sort of niche audience imaginable- cowboy stories, jungle stories, even engineering stories! The common denominator in all these stories was adventure. Pulp stories were exciting and fast-paced, even shocking. They were meant to provide a quick jolt of escapist entertainment, to be eerie or amazing or lurid, but always thrilling. If you have the ability to suspend your disbelief and enjoy something for its own sake, then most of the pulps would entertain you. Even a bad pulp story is usually fun, which is more than can be said for most other types of fiction. But the best of them were far more than that.

The very best pulp fiction contains all the ingredients that good fiction should have- complicated and three-dimensional characters, tight plots and clever dialogue, moments of psychological insight, beautiful prose. But there is also another ingredient that sets it apart, that marks it as a true representative of that ancient tradition of storytelling. I think of that special ingredient as mythic resonance. What is mythic resonance? The feeling that you're somehow in the presence of magic, whether horrifying or wonderful or both at once. This feeling of wonder goes far beyond mere entertainment, evoking the same primal emotions as the Viking Sagas or the Arthurian legends. People crave that sensation of magic, of imagination unconstrained, of Myth made accessible. That's why the pulp magazines were so incredibly popular. In the heyday of the pulp story, everyone read fiction. The magazines themselves were available on every street corner, vying for attention with bright colors and jaw-dropping pictures. The magazines employed a virtual army of artists and writers, all of them working on tight schedules for low pay- but they were working. In the era of the pulp magazine, it was actually possible to make a living as a writer or an illustrator, and not just for a privileged few.

That era is long gone, killed off by the arrival of television and the comic book. But the tradition endures. The original pulp genres have become industries in their own right, churning out bookshelves of detective novels, sci-fi and fantasy in every Borders and Barnes and Noble. Very little of it evokes that sense of wonder, that mythic resonance. It's not an easy thing to evoke. Very little of it captures the pure fun of the original pulp fiction either. There was a kind of innocence about those magazines, a wide-eyed, childlike quality that couldn't easily exist in our society now. The writing is a lot more professional now in many cases, and many of the weaknesses of the old pulps have been left behind. You won't find many horror novels with the open racism of H.P Lovecraft, or science fiction stories with the simplistic glorification of violence of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But there's still a lot that we could learn from those old stories. If you're interested in writing any sort of adventure fiction, whether fantasy, horror, science fiction, western or detective stories, you could do a lot worse than to apprentice yourself to the pulp masters. These writers knew how to create a fun story, a story that would keep the pages turning. They also knew how to evoke that sense of wonder, or in some cases, horror. They knew how to create mythic resonance. If you apprentice yourself to them as I did, reading constantly and writing constantly, you might pick up some of what they knew. You might become a pulp writer yourself. There are worse things to be- believe it or not!

So, what's the first step? The first step, of course, is the reading. You must learn to write by osmosis- exposing yourself to enough quality examples of your craft that you absorb its principles without intellectualizing them, so that you develop the ability to write a good story almost instinctively. If you've read any of the following then you probably already know why I'm recommending them. If you haven't read them, you're in for a treat. Most of their books are the kind you pick up once and then go without sleep until you finish them.

Edgar Rice Burroughs- Burroughs was one of the first of the pulp writers, penning tales of larger-than-life heroes in exotic locations for magazines such as All-Story. He gave us the character of Tarzan, the orphaned son of an English aristocrat, raised by apes in the jungles of Africa and later re-discovered by civilization to resume the title of Lord Greystoke. The whole idea was a little preposterous, but that didn't matter. Burroughs made Tarzan completely believable through his writing, creating a character that could be a cultured Englishman or a Noble Savage depending on the circumstance. In Tarzan's Africa you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a lost city of some kind, and Tarzan has adventures in all of them- including an outpost of ancient Rome, a city of lost crusaders, a colony of the Aztecs, and even more bizarre cities such as a holdover from Atlantis and an empire of miniscule "Ant Men" who shrink Tarzan down to their size. In one story he journeys to the lost world at the center of the earth and does battle with dinosaurs. No matter what surreal situation he finds himself in, Tarzan is unfailingly honorable, courageous and chivalrous, a true hero in every sense of the word- but he is also a savage, an "ape man" with the killer instinct of the animals that raised him. He stalks his enemies with the chilling and methodical ruthlessness of a jungle predator, and his famous cry of triumph is not the silly yodeling of the Tarzan movies but the eerie howl of an implacable hunter. To those who are under Tarzan's protection, he is a knight in shining armor. To those who would threaten his beloved jungle or the people he loves, Tarzan is vengeance personified.
Burroughs' other famous character is John Carter of Mars, a seemingly ageless Confederate soldier who is transported to Mars in what can only be described as a shamanistic vision, after being wounded by hostile Indians in the American West. Waking up on Mars he finds himself in the territory of the Green Men, four-armed giants who roam the dry sea beds of the dying red planet. The green men are utterly ruthless, sadists who laugh only at the sight of suffering. They exist in a state of constant warfare with other tribes of their own species, as well as the more civilized but equally warlike Red Men of Mars' few surviving cities. After killing a green warrior in single combat, John Carter is accepted into their horde, but he falls in love with their red prisoner Dejah Thoris, a princess of the Martian city-state of Helium. John Carter and Dejah Thoris escape from the green men, but their attempts to return safely to Helium take them far afield, as Dejah Thoris (like all Martian women) has an amazing talent for getting kidnapped.

Burroughs' stories are essentially all the same- an improbably virtuous and formidable ubermensch, who combines all of the virtues of both civilization and savagery, must rescue a pure yet haughty princess from one lost city after another, defeating one pathetically vile villain after another as he goes. These are not sophisticated stories by any means. Burroughs seems to have had only one real talent as a writer, but he had more of that quality than anyone else who has ever written and that's what redeems him. That quality is sheer unbridled imagination and wonder. You find your jaw dropping repeatedly as you read these stories, and a Burroughs novel is rarely read in more than one sitting. Opening a Burroughs book is like strapping yourself to a rocket. Dialogue, characterization and plotting should all be learned elsewhere, but to learn how to write a thrilling story, read Burroughs. He'll make you want to be a hero.

Robert E. Howard- On a similar but rather darker note, we have Robert E. Howard, creator of King Kull and Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and his most famous creation, Conan. Howard was an eccentric misfit who never left his small town in Depression-era Texas, eventually shooting himself in the head when his mother died. He had a grim and paranoid view of the world, and this mindset is reflected in much of his fiction. Solomon Kane is a Puritan swordsman, a mysterious wanderer who battles dark creatures and corrupted humans. Kane is a manifestation of the wrath of God, grimly determined to destroy evil wherever he finds it, whether on the moors of 16th century England or in the jungles of Africa.

He is described as a pale man with a cold expression and the eyes of a fanatic, dressed in black from head to toe and armed with sword and pistol. He is certainly Howard's most original character, and very different from Howard's other creations such as Conan or King Kull. The Kull stories, however, are strangely poetic, evoking a mythical Atlantean age before the birth of Conan, a dawn time in which Picts and Atlanteans struggle for suvrival, vying for dominance with the Valusian lizard-men of a still earlier epoch. Howard wrote for Weird Tales, a magazine that prided itself on its unusual content. The exotic worlds of King Kull and Solomon Kane fit the bill, but the savage tales of Conan were his greatest creation. If your only familiarity with the mighty Cimmerian is from the movies or comic books, or even from the dozens of pastiche sequels, then you have never really met the man. The original Conan was not a wenching, brawling idiot, able to solve problems only with his outsized muscles (though he did do plenty of wenching and brawling). He was instead a brooding adventurer, fluent in many languages and familiar with many cultures, a mercenary and wanderer. Conan was a strong man in a hostile world, a world of unrelenting and horrific violence, a kind of Hell. The thing that made Conan so amazing was that he could survive and thrive in such an environment. In the classic story "A Witch Shall be Born," Conan is crucified in the desert and left for the vultures, only to bite out the throat of one of the scavengers when it gets too close. The pervasive pessimism of the original series has never been matched in any of the later interpretations. It seems that not many people got the point that Howard was making- that even the mightiest hero is surrounded by enemies, and his greatest hope is not to survive but to take as many as possible down with him. Read Howard to learn how to create characters that seem larger than life.

H.P Lovecraft- Howard's friend and correspondent H.P Lovecraft had an even darker vision than he did. There are no heroes in Lovecraft's world, not even doomed heroes. His protagonists are bookish and cold-blooded, academics and would-be scientists for the most part. They are usually men of reason in a world without any, skeptical past the point of common sense about the true nature of the horrors they're dealing with. In Lovecraft's view of the universe, mankind is transient- a momentary island of blissful ignorance, living in the midst of a universe of madness. The true forces behind this universe are the Elder Gods, incomprehensibly vast and powerful alien entities such as Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath, and their "great priest" the squid-like Cthulhu, who dreams underwater in the lost city of R'lyeh until summoned forth by the cult that worships him. No one else has ever created such a horrifying fantasy world, a place in which the darkness is not a temporary phenomenon but a permanent condition. This is not a world where killing the vampire will restore the small town to innocence. In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Lovecraft's protagonist explores a degenerate seaside village where the locals are only half-human in the first place, as a result of inter-breeding with a race of underwater monsters. In "The Colour out of Space," a Massachusetts farmer is transformed into a brittle and disgusting atrocity by contact with a living color from another planet. In Lovecraft's most famous story, "The Call of Cthulhu," an ancient cult awakens the Elder Gods in an effort to destroy the world. Lovecraft's characterization and dialogue are both sorely lacking, but his imagination was truly unique, and his ability to evoke genuine horror was unparalleled. The Lovecraft style should never be imitated, but his ability to make the skin crawl can teach you a lot.

Clark Ashton Smith- Another writer for Weird Tales (along with Howard and Lovecraft), Clark Ashton Smith was a famous poet as well as a pulp writer. He wrote lyrical and ironic tales of weird beauty and sardonic humor, stories in which brains always win out over brawns. In the Smith version of the sword and sorcery tale, the evil sorcerer invariably outwits the well-intentioned but moronic barbarian. Clark Ashton Smith is a welcome and intelligent counterbalance to writers like Howard and his imitators. His rich prose style and sense of irony can add depth to your own storytelling. Start with City of the Singing Flame.

Raymond Chandler- "Down these mean streets, a man must go." Raymond Chandler created the enduring stereotype of the hardboiled detective as a cynical modern Galahad, a wise-cracking two-fisted character addicted to bourbon, dressed in a trenchcoat and a battered fedora. The dialogue in Chandler's stories is absolutely brilliant, consistently sharp and insightful. His plots are so complicated they confused even him, but in these mysteries "whodunnit" is of little importance in the first place. What does matter is the character of Marlowe, the only man of honor in a rotten world. In the words of an anonymous author on film noir: "That is the noir character. Alone, a loner in a world he knows he can't fix. Alone in a world that has turned bad, full of betrayal, deceit, dishonesty, crime, and vice. Maybe it always was bad. Yet, he keeps his own personal code of honor. It is the only useless thing left for him to hold onto." These are elegaic and melancholy stories of a fallen world, and of one man's heroic refusal to live down to that world's standards. Imitating Marlowe and Chandler has produced a lot of mediocre detective novels. For the few writers who can learn from Chandler and yet transcend him, Marlowe is a true archetype, a modern myth.

Dashiell Hammett- Hammett's Sam Spade is the other classic hardboiled detective character, often confused with Marlowe because Humphrey Bogart played them both. But Sam Spade is cut from a different cloth, a cynical and almost amoral character who plays all sides against the middle in the pursuit of justice. In Hammett's groundbreaking novel The Maltese Falcon, he used an unusual technique to show us Sam Spade's fundamental ambiguity. We are never told what any of the characters are thinking, forcing us to guess at their motivations through their actions. We don't find out what game Sam Spade is really playing until everyone else does. The Maltese Falcon proved that pulp writers could be as innovative and experimental as their highbrow counterparts.

This is just a brief introduction to the world of pulp fiction, but if you decide to explore it for yourself you'll find that one discovery leads to another, providing you with both years of entertainment and an invaluable education in storytelling. The two most important ingredients in a writer's apprenticeship are reading a lot and writing a lot. If you read the works of the pulp masters, you'll have the first part of your education well in hand.


Gabriel said...

This really helps alot because I'm an aspiring novelist and I already have a comic up.

Joe said...

Just wanted to let you know how lucky I feel to have found this essay. An intelligent and well-thought-out appreciation of pulp fiction! I found myself wishing you'd gone on to cover other authors as well, or that I could get your take on some decidedly non-pulp writers like Cormac McCarthy (the old stuff, not the Oprah Book Club stuff), whose blatantly literate and yet undeniably entertaining novels first awoke my own passion for adventures in writing, and led by a long winding trail to my discovery of the authors you cover in this article, and more. Bravo, and best wishes for the future of your own fiction writing!