Friday, July 24, 2015

Anthology review: Black Pulp

How to begin with this? Well, before talking about the interior content, I'd like to discuss how I came about purchasing this. As usual I was scanning through Amazon, hunting for good bargain bundles, and I stumbled across this. It most definitely caught my eye, but I wasn't positive how to feel about it at first. I'm just gonna come out and say it, but anytime someone uses race as a marketing point for me, I get suspicious. I know, I know, I'm an ignorant idiot. Just that in my experience those are usually preachy stories rather than fun, which is what I'm after.

Then I took some time to think about this particular collection, because when I reflected back on the history of pulp, marketing an anthology with black protagonists wasn't necessarily all that uncalled for.

For those of you who don't know, pulp writing started out in the early 1900's and tapered off in the 1940's. During those times, being a black person wasn't a trip to Disneyland. America was still very much dealing with prejudices and overcoming segregation and other issues regarding race. Needless to say, publishers weren't going to be keen on printing stories with black protagonists, and for the most part stuck with usual archetypes. Especially during the Depression Era, I have difficulty imagining publishers trying to be diversifying at that point. So basically, black people got the literary shaft for the most part.
I'm sure there were exceptions, but they were just that: Exceptions.

The thing about pulp is that it is meant to be fun across a wide spectrum of people. It's not meant to be exclusive to just one audience. There's something about it that makes it popular and appealing across many different people. The action pulp in particular still manages to have a voice even today when competing with video games, movies, comics, and other media. Being a lover of pulp, I resolved that it was my duty as a fan to at least give this anthology a chance. I owe it to myself and others to see if there were some pulp gems hidden away in here.

Lo and behold, there were!
To my unspeakable relief I didn't come across a single preachy story, which is one of my greatest fears when grabbing a book. Nope! These all knew what they were: Imaginative and fun. We have a pretty good selection here, and although I've not yet read all the content, I've sussed out some pretty darned compelling stories that I'm glad I got into. Some of these stories just sizzle with skill!
What I really found compelling and what I appreciated was that these stories address much of the social stigma attached to the characters' ethnicity in different time eras, but it only served to strengthen them and wasn't used as a bludgeon for social commentary. Each and every one that I read handled this with finesse and made me fascinated and sympathetic. That's not something you see a lot of these days. The story came first, and many of these authors knew their craft.

Some... just didn't grab me. One in particular made me bail because it missed a huge opportunity to have an amazing description of a character transforming into a werewolf, but summed it up in a very blase' manner in just one sentence. Talk about underwhelming. But I'm not going to focus on that. I'm going to focus on the stories that really jumped out at me and made me want to keep going!

First one on the list is Six Finger Jack. Our protagonist, who surprisingly is nameless throughout this story, so I'll just call him Joe for now, tells us of his escapade in assassinating the gangster Six Finger Jack to collect some money for a crime boss.
Normally stories with a murderer as the main character turns me off instantly, but this one in particular is quite compelling. Joe here isn't doing this murder for fun. He's in a rough town with rough people, and he wants out. Collecting a bounty of one hundred grand is perhaps the best chance he has to get out of this dirt hole and start a new life without constantly worrying about being stabbed or shot. The writer makes him surprisingly sympathetic in this manner. Sure, he's not a good guy by any stretch, but you understand where he's coming from. And I'm the guy that always plays Mass Effect with all Paragon points.

The murder itself is only about half of the story. The other half is dealing with the gangster paying the bounty, Big O. This guy is legit spooky. He's like Jabba the Hutt mixed with Al Capone. What makes Big O spooky is that he won't just off you if you screw with him. No, he'll end you in frigging awful ways. He apparently has a cement fetish, as his primary method of disposing of annoyances consists of burying them alive in cement on property he owns. If you're claustrophobic, you will want to keep some distance from this fella!

Sadly, as is so often the case with crime groups, Joe gets stiffed on the payment after a rather harrowing fight in which he himself almost dies, and is left destitute. He's not quite pleased with this, and makes the mistake of voicing his desire to off Big O. Big mistake. Hearing of this, the big bad Hutt has Joe captured in his car and shoves his vehicle in a pit that was going to be an in ground pool. Guess what happens from there? Yup. Cement truck backs up, and buries our protagonist inside. Very eerie way to go.
Like I said, none of the people here are really good guys, but I was surprised at how taken with the main character I was. That thar is some skill!

Next up is Mtimu, and this one really struck an awesome pulp vibe. It starts off in the African jungle and we get a fantastic example of someone's point of view to something totally alien to them, in this case Mtimu seeing a biplane making a very poor landing on account of the engine deciding to call it a day early. This intro was fascinating. We see something that the reader clearly has knowledge of, but the observer doesn't, and does a fantastic job of doing things through his perception of the world. It does a marvelous job of not only starting the story, but revealing a great deal about the character.
We know what he's seeing, but he doesn't. So dangit I liked that.

We then meet the pilot, an African American woman, Enid Brown, who is a pretty darned good pilot putting up with the nuisance of crashing in an unfamiliar environment. She's a pretty stout young lady, not a run of the mill damsel in distress. She just doesn't know how to deliver a decent throat punch when trouble comes. I wish more women knew how to fight these days. Anyway, this has a very Tarzan vibe to it, as she gets attacked by a leopard and from the shadows Mtimu emerges and whups it's arse, throttling the thing, and helps Enid out.

Surprisingly, he knows some English and speaks with a Southern accent, although he isn't American. His backstory is actually pretty cool and has a backstory just as awesome as Tarzan. And Mtimu is a beast master too! There is a group of unusual apes that he interacts with, higher up the ladder than most, but I'll get more into that later.

Our villain is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, he is indisputably a bad guy that you want to see die, and he isn't a push over, so we root that much harder for our leads when this guy looms in. He uses the popular sleep darts to capture both Mtimu and Enid early on, puts one in a cage, and at first puts on a nice guy act when talking with Enid. Clive Bailey is reputed to be an amazing tracker and hunter, complete with pith helmet, capturing animals for zoos and circuses around the world. Impressive credentials!

However, his evil plan doesn't make much sense as it moves on. He wants to capture Mtimu as a bit of an oddity, a reputed jungle-man and a test of his skill. But then he wants to mutilate Enid, remove her tongue, and dress her up as Mtimu's mate so he can increase his fame even further. This don't make much sense, as he's obviously corrupt enough to do the same to someone who isn't well known. I mean, sure, she's convenient, but you'd think he could do that up with anyone he came across. At the same time, it's also very well established that this guy is crazy, and crazy people are prone to doing stupid things, so I'll let that slide. In the end he is what he needs to be: A dangerous and despicable villain that we want our leads to brutally kill.

And when this guy starts pulling crap with Enid, Mtimu pulls out the stops, summons his animal friends, bends the bars of his cage like licorice, kicks all sorts of arse, and whisks our damsel off to safety. While simple, I actually really like Mtimu. You get what his deal is, and his simplicity and innocence makes him rather charming and endearing. And when crap starts you want him to take the gloves off and go to town. And that he does!

Mtimu was overall a pretty solid story and I found myself wanting to read more about him. I wanted to see this ebony warrior ghosting through the jungle righting other wrongs, fighting beasts and conquering villains. The fact that I placed him on the same tier as Tarzan for guys I like should be telling!

Rocket Crockett and the Jade Dragon is the next one up, and wow was this one fun. Crockett is a smooth jet pilot fighting in the Korean War conquering both Korean planes and various women alike. Normally I really don't like characters that are players but... this guy is just so confident! The writer really gets across that this guy is awesome and he knows it, but doesn't come across as arrogant. He just knows that he's good and doesn't sell himself short. I get a Lando Calrissian vibe from him. He just has this charismatic swagger that ya'll can't help but admire.

The plot revolves mostly around him getting swept up in a strange political conflict revolving around a dragon statue carved from pure jade with extraordinary influence, and this is one fight he can't solve with the blazing guns of his jet or his best friend downstairs.

This one is just plain fun. The writing style has a wonderful flair that really gets Crockett's character across and really gets you into the mood to see him kick some arse. He's frigging magnetic like that! If anyone plans to make a fist-fighting womanizer character that readers will like, look at this as a template!

The Lawman is a tribute to one of my favorite folks from the Old West, one of the greatest bounty hunters and waddies of the era, Bass Reeves. For those of you who don't know, Bass Reeves was one of the most hardcore and amazing people to ever set foot upon the rugged frontier of the American West, having rounded up an estimated three thousand criminal arrests in a time and place where everyone had a gun and killing a black man usually didn't raise an eyebrow. The fact that he was one of the few lawmen that wasn't killed in the line of duty alone makes him one of the best men of that era in my opinion.

Ahem, anyway, forgive my drooling fanboy-ism. This is a very worthy tribute to the old bounty hunter, showing his rise to the position, several of his fights, and watching his first child come into this world which comes close to being a tear jerker. The fight scenes are some of the most pulse-pounding I've ever read. I had to re-read one of them, but to my shock it was only two pages! It felt WAY longer than that! It was like the writer took the climax of a Western movie and condensed it into just a few paragraphs and yet felt like you lost nothing. That's amazing. How did he sodding do that? I wanna learn how!

So as you can tell, I'm very enthusiastic about this particular story. Bass Reeves doesn't get nearly as much attention as he deserves. I think I'll write an article on him at some point, but for now, pulp ahoy!

The last one to really get my attention is probably the best, that being The Hammer of Norgill. This one really threw me for a loop. Best way to describe it is for one of the greatest American legends pulls a John Carter of Mars and gets mysteriously transported to another realm after his death.
If you haven't heard of Bass Reeves, then you have better heard of John Henry, the man who beat the machine. If you haven't, then I'm not even sure I want you around.

We start off watching the legendary showdown, John Henry trying to outperform the steam contraption that threatens to take the jobs of hundreds of honest workers. Some things never change, huh? The thing you'll notice instantly is the writing style. It is one of the most superb, energy-charged, and poetic writing styles I've ever laid eyes upon. More than any other story here it embodies the pinnacle of pulp style. My eyes glazed over and I drooled at how good it was. And it doesn't let up at all!

As the tale goes, John Henry wins the match, but the strain put upon his body is too much and he dies in his wife's arms, having secured the future for her and the fellow workers at the cost of his own life. But this time the tale doesn't end there. By means unknown he wakes up! But not upon the Earth we know, but some strange land with strange people. We have no clue how he gets there, or what it is. Is it another planet? Another dimension? Some magical realm on another plane? We don't know! But see what I mean with the John Carter thing?

John awakes in an alien environment, but to his astonishment sees what looks like an angel bending over him. Some strange things take place, with him mysteriously learning how to understand the language of this being and others, but they both end up captured by a tyrannical race of cat-like people who crush the lives of others beneath their heels.
John again wakes up, but this time in a jail cell and in chains. Oh no. Bad idea. This is most displeasing to the juggernaut, and in spite of his captors insisting most fervently with ranged cattle-prods for him to stay put, he breaks his chains and insists back that he see she who had ministered unto him earlier.

Oh her? She's up in the fighting arena being tortured horribly of course, for daring to spread false doctrine and dare to oppose the ruler of the land. John, called Ham-ur by the locals, seems to fit an eerily specific legend and is reputed to be the one who will set the subjugated races free of their bondage. Those in charge think he is some impostor and don't take him too seriously. So his two guards? They decide since he's not such a threat, cuz, y'know, he just broke chains like cheese, might as well show up where his only friend on this planet is getting tortured with weapons that discharge Sith Lightening.

He gets up to the fighting arena, hoards of onlookers watching either in horror, or for the bad guys, delight, as the poor winged woman who acted out of hope is now being mercilessly tormented. John thinks that this is quite enough, and because he is pretty much a tank clothed in flesh, crushes his two guards with his bare hands and looks around for weapons to use to carve his way through his other enemies to commence his rescue. And what does he find laying on the rack of weapons? He forgoes the swords, spears and axes for... a pair of huge hammers! Yes, you read that correctly.

We are then treated to one of the most glorious battle scenes I have ever beheld in any medium of entertainment. We behold John Henry wielding a pair of massive hammers as he fights off throngs of strange beings with the type of bombastic writing flair that would make Robert E. Howard weep tears of envy. I certainly did! There are no words that I can write that can adequately convey just how magnificent this action scene is. It's one of the greatest things I've ever read. Ham-ur of Norgill, save us all!

Phew... Okay. I think I'm done now. As you may have gathered, I really like this story. It's easily the best in this entire anthology and would grace the pages of any collection. This alone makes the pack worth buying. We get to see John frigging Henry liberate an entire realm loaded with oppression and become a legend in two different cultures! If anyone doesn't want to read that, then I don't want to meet them.

In conclusion, I am SO happy that I bought this bundle. There is some fantastic talent in here and it should be read by any fan of pulp. Not only do some of the stories match the high bar set by some authors back in the day, but some of them surpass that bar! If you want some good stories, then please buy this anthology. It is worth every penny. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll read Hamur of Norgill again!

You can purchase right here!

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