Cheap Thrills

I love this book, Cheap Thrills by Ron Goulart. It came out in 1973 from Arlington Press. Does that house even still exist? It’s a history of the pulp magazines, and it features no illustrations, no reprints of the loud, bright, nightmarish covers we all know so well, just words. It is Goulart’s history of the era based on interviews with the people who created the pulps from the 1920s through the early 1950s. The chapters are divided into topics per genre—“Heroes for Sale,” “Thank You, Masked Man,” “Dime Detectives,” “Tarzan and the Barbarians”—you get the idea. There have been plenty of books published since 1973 about the pulps; Robert Lesser has apparently cornered the market on promoting the wonderfully sexy and violent cover paintings that promoted these monthlies during the Depression, and Lee Server’s Danger Is My Business, from 1993, is breathtakingly well designed, with good background and historical information, lots of reproductions of interior black-and-white illustrations, and plenty of photographs of the great writers of the period. And I still think that Tony Goodstone’s coffee table volume The Pulps, which was everywhere in the early 1970s, especially once it was remaindered, served as a kind of lodestone to attract attention to that period of popular writing.

But Ron Goulart interviewed the publishers and editors and writers and artists. And one of the best parts of this book for me is the section of excerpts in the back taken from conversations with the pros who worked on these magazines. This is Ken Crossen:

I was married in 1936 and answered an advertisement for a job. I was hired to work on Detective Fiction Weekly. The Munsey Company was an interesting place when I went to work there. Although Frank Munsey was dead it was run in much the same fashion that he had, since he was known for evaluating the worth of a manuscript by how heavy it felt on his hand.”

Continue reading

“Out West”

In an article in the December 15, 2009, Los Angeles Times, David Ng writes about a museum exhibition that is likely the first of its kind. “Out West” looks at the history of gays and transgender persons in, well, the Old West. The play on words in the title is a hoot and surely hits the right note, although officials at the Autry National Center, where the exhibit is being held, went to some pains, according to Ng, to come up with the right title. Tedious, academic-sounding proposals such as “Gay and the West” and “Equality and the West” were vetoed, thank goodness.

As an example of what is offered in “Out West,” Ng recounts the story of One-Eyed Charlie, “a stagecoach driver known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger,” with a reputation as “one of the best drivers in the wild West.” Following his death in 1879, however, it turned out that Charlie was actually Charlotte—Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. “The discovery of her true gender became a local sensation,” says Ng. “And her story still fascinates U.S. historians, some of whom believe that she was the first woman to have voted in a presidential election, long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.” Continue reading

Cult Fiction

This is the type of book that I’m always happy to find and add to my library, a painless general reference or handbook that is enormous fun to peruse and worthy of losing oneself in for an afternoon or the better part of a day. I found it at the Barnes & Noble bookstore by me. Twelve ninety-nine for a thick little paperback—more than 350 pages—with a black-and-white photo of Albert Camus on the cover. It is copyrighted 2005. The Rough Guides series is done in England and distributed by Penguin Books. The back cover of this gem advertises the Rough Guides on Cult Movies and Superheroes; inside, further volumes offered include Cult TV, Cult Football (meaning soccer), and even Bob Dylan, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali, for crying out loud. When I first saw it, because of its modern design, I thought this little book must be a Taschen publication.

Books such as these are as addictive as lists of the ten best this or ten worst that. I picked it up impulsively because one of my former agents years ago suggested, rather dismissively, that I am myself a cult author. I’m not so sure that I have attained even that status—being a guy with a bunch of out-of-print books identifies my station a bit better—but I am happy to be included by at least one person in such a repertory company of “genre benders, beats, gurus, drunks, junkies, sinners, and surrealists.” I’ve never been a junkie and I’m no surrealist, but I’d like to think that I’ve written a few pages here and there that have been worth reading on occasion. Time will tell. Or maybe it has already told. Still, many of my readers whom I’ve talked to agree that they got their money’s worth from my paperbacks.

The usual suspects are here—Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Willeford, Arthur Rimbaud, Hunter S. Thompson, Proust and Mishima, John Kennedy Toole and Ursula LeGuin, Cornell Woolrich and Charles Bukowsky, H. P. Lovecraft and Elmore Leonard. Some of my favorite writers also are catalogued, including Leigh Brackett and Nathanel West, as well as authors that I’ve become aware of only by chance—for instance, John Fante. (I had the collection of letters between Fante and H. L. Mencken put out by Black Sparrow Press, but it was destroyed in the infamous basement flood of September 2001 that ruined dozens upon dozens of bankers’ boxes of books, correspondence, videotapes, and sundry other items that I had foolishly stored in the cellar. I regret the loss of that book and many others, as well as of all my correspondence with such people as Robert Bloch and J. Vernon Shea and my early correspondence with Dick Tierney, Joe Bonadonna, Fred Adams, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Charles Saunders, and many others.) Anyhow, to give you the flavor of the grand talent that this Rough Guide celebrates, it mentions the passage in one of Fante’s novels, The Road to Los Angeles, in which the author’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini, “massacres a group of crabs he imagines have mocked him, while railing against a world that has ignored him.” And haven’t we all been there? Continue reading

Some Tools for Building Stories

I’ve written my share of fiction off and on over the years, and as a result, I’ve developed a few ways of building stories—tools of the trade, as it were. These have worked for me more often than not. So for any of you who are interested in trying your hand at building stories, or who have tried and met with the seemingly endless frustration that comes with such exercise, herewith, some pointers. See if any of these are of practical use.

To learn to write, copy other writers. Literally. I did this with Jack London stories because, years ago, I read that Jack London used to copy out or type out Rudyard Kipling stories. That’s how Jack London got a handle on how to write. So I tried it, too. What I discovered was that, by doing this, I was able to watch the story take shape in slow motion as I typed. No matter how slowly you read, you type a lot more slowly than that. Sometimes, it was almost as though I could sense why Jack London chose this word rather than that one, or went in this direction rather than the other.

I didn’t do this to an extreme degree; I typed out perhaps half a dozen of his stories. But it was sufficient that a professor at Kent State University, whom I met in the 1970s, commented that in my early stories, I sounded kind of like Jack London. When I told him what I’d done, he was amused.

Another good idea: Take a book you like by a writer you admire and tear the book apart. Literally, if you have to. Make an outline of that book the way you learned to do outlines in high school. Tear out the passages that describe characters and their backgrounds and tape them onto notebook paper. Retype the dialogue to see if you’d do it the same way. You’ll get inside that story like nobody’s business and very soon feel confident about building your own stories. Everybody starts at ground level, so tear that writer’s story back down to the ground and then rebuild it. Continue reading

I Don’t Know What I Think Until I Write It Down

That statement may sound odd, but it’s true. Maybe it’s true of other writers, as well, that they don’t know what they have in them until they write it down. I’ve never asked. But I say this because, when I have ideas or notions or concepts or philosophical uncertainties, I try to craft them into stories. Not all stories get going this way, but when something starts out as an idea, ghostly and more an urge or a dream than an opportunity, it helps me focus on the problem by turning it into something dramatic and thus live it out, as it were, on paper.

To do that means to develop a conflict and personify the idea as characters. My tendency in writing stories is to craft plot-driven narratives with iconic or archetypal figures. No doubt some ideas don’t lend themselves well to this type of storytelling; probably there are ideas that would be better expressed in other ways, as songs or as paintings, as poems or as mimetic slice-of-life stories. Maybe this is why I hit dead ends at times when I write: I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, trying to express an idea that is basically a song into the long form of a novel. Are there such ideas? This may explain the built-in tension in some of my stories. Perhaps I am trying to put two colors together that were never intended to complement one another. That tie will never go with that shirt. That idea is a brown leather belt; it was never meant to complement a pair of black wingtips.

Still, one thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that, in a very real sense, I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it. Continue reading