Back to the Pulps
By Cheryl Morgan
When I interviewed Chris Roberson of Monkey Brain Books last year (Emerald City #112) one of the projects he was most enthusiastic about was Adventure, a series of anthologies which, so the blurb goes, is intended to represent, "The rebirth of the classic pulp magazine in book form." That, of course, is a little bit of a hostage to fortune, because now anyone reviewing the first book in the series is going to be as much interested in whether it meets the stated objective as in the quality of the stories. I’m going to try to steer a middle line.
Here first are a couple of stories I really liked, but which I thought were much more Interzone than Astounding. John Meaney’s "Lost Time" is a bitter-sweet SF tale about a scientist stranded on an alien planet when her shuttle is wrecked. It is full of flashbacks to her past life, because she is expecting to die. Paul Di Filippo’s "Eel Pie Stall" is a surreal story about another dying woman, except this one is in London and we get to follow her into the afterlife. These are both good stories, but not what I expected of Adventure.
"Four Hundred Slaves" by Michael Kurland is unexpected in a different way. It is a straight up Roman-period mystery story. It is nicely written, though very predictable, but it has no action in it at all. "Ancephalous Dreams" by Neal Asher gets closer to the idea. It reminded me a lot of the little SF stories that Marvel used to publish in their Tales of the Watcher series. A convicted criminal is asked to participate in an experiment involving mysterious alien technology. He finds it an, er, life-changing experience. Great story, but again not much action.
Roberson himself, of course, knows just what he wants. His "Prowl Unceasing" is a tale of the young Abraham van Helsing fighting weretigers in Sarawak in the company of an Indian sea captain called Dakkar (yes, it is that Prince Dakkar). Kage Baker also comes close to the right thing with "The Unfortunate Gytt", which involves running around Victorian Scotland digging up treasure. However, there are two small problems with the story. Firstly it is a Company story that doesn’t say it is a Company story. Rather like Iain Banks’ Inversions, you may be totally confused if you can’t work out what you are reading. Also the heroes leave for Edinburgh from Paddington station. Sloppy.
It takes the old hands to get the job done right, and my personal favorite in the book is "Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in ‘The case of the French Spy’" by Kim Newman. As you might guess, this is more Enid Blyton than Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it is certainly an adventure. And Newman, as ever, is very funny. Our hero and his two pals spend their summer vacation in a Devonshire seaside town, solving mysteries. This description of their office introduces the characters quite well.
Dick had installed his equipment — a microscope, boxes and folders, reference books, his collection of clues and trophies. Violet had donated some small fossils and her hammers and trowels. Ernest wanted space on the wall for the head of their first murderer: he had an idea that when a murderer was hanged, the police gave the head as a souvenir to the detective who caught him.
Violet, by the way, is nicknamed ‘Vile’ by the boys. It helps them forget that she’s really a girl and they should not be hanging out with her. She is, of course, way too clever for her own good, and prone to enthusiasms. It used to be folklore. Now it is dinosaurs. Which brings her into conflict with Daniel Sellwood, a dissenting preacher who has made it his business to destroy all of the "evidence" that Satan has planted for the false and blasphemous idea of evolution.
As it turns out, Sellwood comes from a whole family of people with enthusiasms. An ancestor of his, Jacob Orris, spent his time protecting the local area from Bonaparte.
Orris’s patrol was like Sellwood’s Church Militant — an excuse to shout at folk and break things. Orris started a campaign to get "French beans" renamed "Free-from-Tyranny beans", and had his men attack grocer’s stalls when no one agreed with him.
Now what, you might be asking, does all this have to do with French spies? Well, there’s this secret smugglers’ tunnel, and there’s this legend about Orris having captured a French spy who was wearing some sort of special suit that enabled him to swim underwater. You know; flippers, gills, bug-eye goggles, that sort of thing. And you could tell he was French because the said funny things like… Well, that would be telling. Let’s just say that at the end of it all a brutal murderer comes to a nasty end.
Michael Moorcock and Mike Resnick also contribute thoroughly pulpish stories. "Dogfight Donovan’s Day Off" is a thoroughly thrilling tale of brave fighter pilots in WWI. It has a zeppelin in it, and you can’t have an anthology of adventure stories without at least one zeppelin. "The Island of Annoyed Souls" is a story about Lucifer Jones, which I suspect Resnick fans will immediately recognize as likely to be very silly. It provides a very different twist on the story of Dr. Moreau.
There are war stories and westerns too. Chris Nakashima-Brown’s "Ghulistan Bust-out" tries to revise that old idea of making sword and sorcery characters look silly by adding guns, but all he manages to do is make his story look silly. Lou Anders contributes the first installment of what might turn out to be a very interesting post-apocalyptic western, "The Mad Lands", but it is a bit early to judge as yet.
The book contains six other stories, none of which grabbed me sufficiently to get me to comment on them (or in some cases finish them), but given my usual dislike of short fiction I think Adventure has done pretty well. I’d buy the book for the Kim Newman story alone. And I understand that Monkey Brain is to publish a Newman collection next year. I can’t wait.