After the dawn of the 20th century, popular fiction could be found at the corner newstand by a nation eager for the tales. Each issue was printed on cheap, pulpy paper that was soon synonymous with the lurid style typical of the contents. The pulps have a well-earned reputation for purple prose, but there was gold amongst the dross.
Fine adventure stories from other genres were printed in pulps like Adventure, Weird Tales, and Planet Stories, but unfortunately, many of these authors remain neglected or marginalized. Today's readers might expect to find nothing but legions of square-jawed heroes, wilting damsels, and tentacled monsters, in the old magazines, but there were also skilled, inventive writers plying their trade, evoking thrills and chills without formulaic plotting.
Lorelei Of The Red Mist
By Leigh Brackett, hardcover, 496 pages, Haffner Press, list price: $40
Leigh Brackett is known for co-writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep and for scripting famous westerns, along with the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. But she had been writing gritty science fiction characters painted in shades of gray since the 1940s. Some of her best is collected in Lorelei of the Red Mist (including the titular story, co-written with Rad Bradbury). If you look past gaudy titles like "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" and "Thralls of the Endless Night" you'll find hard-luck working stiffs drawn with noir sensibilities. Her dialogue crackles. She effortlessly conjures a dying Mars that has never been — one haunted by fading civilizations and men and women desperately clawing for a chance at better lives, or a rocket to freedom.
Who Fears The Devil
By Manly Wade Wellman, paperback, 340 pages, Paizo Publishing, LLC, list price: $15.99
On the cover of this collection, John the Balladeer, bearing his silver-strung guitar, walks through a dark forested valley, stalked by a skeletal beast. It works. When Wellman chronicled the first story of Silver John for the Magazine of F&SF in 1951, he created a wandering musician traveling the hollows and hills of the Carolinas, wielding his songs, his wit, and his innate goodness against forgotten secrets and supernatural horrors. The tales are rich with atmosphere and hung with jeweled, folksy prose. He sets the scene in just a few lines, as with John's narration in the story, "Nine Yards of Other Cloth:" "I'd fled from before her pretty face as never I'd fled from any living thing, not even evil spell-throwers nor murder-doers, nor either from my country's enemies when I'd soldiered in foreign parts and seen battle as the Bible prophet-book tells it, confused noises and garments rolled in blood." The settings and the people are quickly brought to life without ever sounding quaint or forced.
The Best Of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands
By Robert E. Howard, paperback, 544 pages, Del Rey, list price: $16.95
Robert E. Howard might always be linked to his character Conan (and to Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of the character as a stoic, muscular killing machine from the 1982 film). But not only was Howard's Conan more complex than shown on celluloid, Howard was a writer of greater depth than critics are often willing to admit, and this collection showcases some of his most memorable work. The historical "Lord of Samarcand" paints a bygone era with astonishing prose poetry even when it concerns the fall of kingdoms and the dooms of men. "The Shadow of the Vulture" brings us Red Sonya, who goes armored, though not in a chainmail bikini, fighting shrewdly to defend Vienna from the Turks. Other tales surprise, delight, or haunt us, from the pulpy fun of "By This Axe I Rule!" to the somber horror of "Pigeons from Hell."
All three of these collections offer adventure with a capital A, but none are cardboard cut-outs. Some of the tales are dark, many are brooding, but though they be decades old, each beguiles with the siren call to strange lands to witness heroic deeds.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls, and is managing editor at Black Gate magazine.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Amelia Salutz. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.