Pulp Beacons

Maddd Science

I dashed off the phrase "pulp beacon" as the idea for an email topic like six months ago, so I forget if I read it anywhere or came up with it myself, but it's a pretty good summation of my favorite thing: A nonfiction exploration of a pulpy category of genre fiction.

Basically, a pulp beacon needs to be slick, fun, and accessible by itself, while offering a subgenre blueprint that drives its audience to start checking out long-lost movies or books.

It's a beacon because it draws the attention of a new, often younger audience that would otherwise never have appreciated it. And the 2020s might be a great time for these beacons, thanks to the general decline of the gatekeeping genre-snobbery that was the reason these pulp genres have lost the cultural cachet that the nonfiction histories are returning to them.

I kinda consider my 70s Sci-Fi Art blog to fall into the pulp beacon category, although I would need to turn it into a book to really break into the public consciousness with it. Other examples from this year include a couple great documentaries: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, available on Shudder, and Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, available on Netflix (Which is highly entertaining. Forget finishing this email, you should just click through and watch that). I also have a brand-new copy of Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 sitting next to me as I type.

But the best example is one I've raved about a lot in the past: Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction. Let's take a dip into Book Twitter for a fascinating thread from a rare book librarian about the shockwave that the book left. It drove up prices of horror paperbacks on the secondary market, but that's a good thing, as it ensures that the works are more likely to be preserved for posterity.

Twitter thread on book market prices and cultural value
Rebecca Bauman, Twitter

No one seems to be complaining about six- or seven-figure prices on Shakespeare folios. The “I want it therefore it should be cheap” school of collectors’ demand for low prices fundamentally undervalues the work they claim to love. There is so much cool stuff out there that you can be a collector at any price point. If you’ve been priced out of the Paperbacks from Hell market (and honestly, MOST of that stuff is still under $10), find something that hasn’t been “discovered” yet.

Bauman also covered the impact of Paperbacks from Hell in an article for Fine Books magazine.

Collecting Paperbacks from Hell: How Horror Authors Bewitched Collectors
Rebecca Bauman, Fine Books

Errickson and Hendrix both acknowledge that the blog and book have increased interest in the field and encouraged more sellers to price according to demand. “I do feel a bit bummed that PfH priced some of these vintage titles out of reach for non-collectors (and for me too), but truth is, that’s only if you’re buying online. I can’t recommend library sales and funky out-of-the-way used bookstores and thrift stores enough for finding old horror paperbacks cheap,” said Errickson.

And the book's success has led to a thriving line of horror reprints out from small press Valancourt books, as sure a sign as any that the history book has revived interest in the actual pulp genre itself:

The Road to Paperbacks from Hell is Paved with Pulp Fiction
John DeNardo, Kirkus Books

A lot of the horror fiction from the '70s and '80s is really high-quality and was undeservedly forgotten. Books like Robert Marasco's Burnt Offerings, Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, and Michael McDowell's Blackwater are bona fide classics, and not just '70s classics or horror classics, but classics, period. These are books that have stood the test of time and stand up next to modern classics by better known writers like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King. And then, alongside those lost masterpieces, there's also this huge output of horror fiction that doesn't aim for literary greatness—it just tries to be fun, and often it succeeds in a big way. Our first PAPERBACKS FROM HELL reprint, Gregory A. Douglas's The Nest(1980), for example: it's the story of giant mutant killer cockroaches loose in a Cape Cod community. It's wonderfully gruesome and over-the-top in a really fun way that you don't often find in today's horror fiction.

Here's a fun loose-limbed pitch for a multimedia publication all about my favorite topic, genre nonfiction. Alasdair suggests an IndieGoGo as the funding source, but the idea actually sounds like a decent fit for the brand-supported media model, which I wrote about over here. You'd just need to find a company interested in connecting with a genre-fiction audience that loves analysis, which should be out there somewhere. Granted, the recent death of the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog highlights the feudalistic problem with that model.

My Genre Non-Fiction Fever Dream
Alasdair Stuart, alasdairstuart.com

Genre non-fiction is a petri dish. It’s the lab where stories are broken down, looked at from every angle and reassembled. It’s the Cartogpraphy room where critics guide us around the rough spots or towards the stories we need at the times we need them. It’s a bustling engine room of creativity that features some of the best critical minds I’ve ever encountered.

I've kicked around a similar idea for a genre nonfiction publication for a while. Mine would have been a more meta version, a podcast that solely interviews authors of nonfiction that's about fiction, and digs into how they approach the work. Might be a little too niche to take off, I dunno. And, uh, it wouldn't financially support anyone other than me, it must be said.

Unrelated to anything, I recently reread and enjoyed this 2013 article from The Atlantic that takes a look at 20th century sci-fi cover art. I actually think the article misses a few things: There's no mention of Richard Powers's surreal covers, even though his popularity in the 50s is almost definitely what led Penguin books to pick older surrealists like Max Ernst for their covers in the 60s. Oh, and it disses the Stanley Meltzoff 1963 cover for The Puppet Masters, which art historian Vincent Di Fate called a "masterpiece," but I disgress. Man, why do I like this article? Let's just move on.

Another interesting pulp beacon: This comic book collector app.

Nerdy Jobs: The Easiest Way to Hunt Down Rare Comics
Dana Forsythe, SyfyWire

"There is a lot of territorial thinking in comic collecting, that you have to earn your stripes in order to have the bevy of knowledge that allows one to identify what's valuable by rote but to me, that's just selfish thinking," Coglianese explains. "The only result that comes from that type of thinking is newer collectors getting ripped off and possibly discouraged to the point of walking away from the hobby."

I saw Knives Out on opening weekend, and loved it about as much as the zeitgiest does. It felt like a golden-age murder mystery, complete with an idiosycratic detective worth his own series. That said, here's another perspective that I hadn't considered -- one that reminded me of this similar response to The Perfection, which I've mentioned in a past issue. Recalibrating pulpy genre tropes into socially aware fiction is my favorite thing, but centering the systemically disadvantaged isn't enough if the story doesn't understand their perspective and experience. Maybe Rian Johnson can get a writing partner for the next one?

Why I Left ‘Knives Out’ With Emotional Whiplash
Monica Castillo, New York Times

The problem with using shock or repetition to drive the point home is that it can signal to those who are meant to feel visible that the creator doesn’t actually have them in mind. That alienation can make us feel like outsiders, but we’re in the audience, just like you, and this art can be made for us, too.

That said, Knives Out was otherwise totally my thing, and actually served as the fiction version of a pulp beacon itself, given that I watched the 1982 dark comedy mystery film Deathtrap immediately afterwards, when I learned it was a big inspiration behind Knives Out. It's great! Go find it!

Most book clubs are doing it wrong
James Somers, jsomers.net

The standard way to run a book club is to have everybody finish the book before meeting to talk about it. You have one meeting per book. The discussion goes on for one or two hours before it runs out of gas, and then the group picks the next book, and you agree to meet in another month or six weeks.
You would never run a class this way, because it practically minimizes the value that each participant gets from being in the group. The problem is that there’s no time to cash in on anyone else’s insights.

I don't know when I'll get around to reading The Name of the Rose, but I already have the perfect soundtrack for it. What is it, you ask? Why, nothing less than The Name of the Rose Background Ambience Generator! I love that something this specific exists and is also good. An actual scholar of 14th century Italian music shows up to praise it in the review section!

I actually hardly ever listen to background noise generators: The ones that sound like coffee shops just trigger my low-grade social anxiety, like one of the fictional people murmuring in my ear is going to try to talk to me. But listening to a few 14th century gregorian chants feels pretty safe. Like, I'm still around people, but their monastic vows of silence will keep em quiet.

Next Time on Maddd Science: The Writing Process

Header image: “The final frontier,” by Daniel Williams, who you should follow on Instagram at the user-unfriendly handle danielwilliams6098.

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