Thursday, September 24, 2020

Endless Adventures Ahead!


One of the major reasons I wrote the Pulp Mindset is because nobody reads anymore. That is even the first sentence in the book description. The fact of the matter is that reading is a dying hobby, reserved for the small few fortunate enough to be introduced to it at the right age, and a certain type of elitist reading obscure second person present tense "fantasy" books about the dynamics of gender theory over Joss Whedon dialogue. In other words, few normal people read anymore. No one in OldPub even begins to understand the problem in order to fix it.

As we've covered a few times on this blog, things weren't that great in the book industry by the 1990s. By that time, horror was being phased out, fantasy tales were solely aping Tolkien and D&D campaigns, and space adventures were fading out of relevance by the time George Lucas announced special editions to his ancient movies. Before the explosion of Harry Potter to come in the early '00s, kids didn't have much reason to pick up a book, and schools gave them less reason to look them up as a hobby due to the dross they assigned.

However, there were exceptions. If you're reading this then you are certainly aware of what this refers to. Reading wasn't yet completely dead. Today, we are going to talk about one series--the one I believe has the most relevance to what most recent movements to get kids to read again are familiar with. This is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series. This was a mammoth of a franchise decades ago and still has nostalgic cache today. Every member of Gen Y and younger member of Gen X indulged in this series at one time or another.

For those unaware, Choose Your Own Adventure was a series of over 250 books (184 main series and many side-series and spin offs) all written in novella length. They were all pulp adventure stories in different settings from historical settings to space to mythological to spy to mystery and everything in between. The series ran from 1979 to 1998 (there's that year again) and were staples of every library and kid's reading collection at the time. As far as getting children to read there were few series more successful at it than CYOA was.

What made these books work were that these adventures were told in a way that made the reader have to take part in the action. It made them exercise their imagination and engage with the storytelling. Every story in the series contains narrative forks, and you are required to choose which you would take. Your choices directly effect what path you take and what ending you will get. What this means is that the book contains many different versions of the same story where anything can happen, and does. It's a way to make kids who might not find the prospect of reading too exciting more involved in the proceedings. It's no wonder these remained popular even after the rise of video games in the '80s and '90s. It showed you could still do a lot with prose fiction.

If you're thinking this series is similar to the concept of role-playing games, then you are very observant. That is where the series got it's start.


"CYOA has its roots in game theory and role-playing simulations. In 1976, R. A. Montgomery was running Vermont Crossroads Press, a small publisher known for its innovative children’s list, when he was approached by Ed Packard with a manuscript entitled Sugarcane Island. Montgomery, who had been involved in the design of interactive role-playing games in the early 1970’s for both government and industry, recognized an RPG in book form and quickly agreed to publish it. He christened the gamebook series “The Adventures of You." When Packard opted to publish his next book with Lippincott hoping for wider distribution, Montgomery wrote the second book in the series himself. Journey Under the Sea was published in 1977 under the pen name Robert Mountain. Publishers Weekly wrote at the time that the series was “an original idea, well carried out.”

"In 1978, Montgomery sold his interest in the press, but retained rights to The Adventures of You. He brought the gamebook series to Bantam Books, who was starting a new children’s book division. Montgomery signed a contract for six books in 1978, and invited Ed Packard and another former VCP writer, Doug Terman, to contribute books to the new venture. Bantam renamed the series Choose Your Own Adventure."

That's right, one of the most important ad popular children's book series has its foot in RPGs. That may seem a bit strange considering the current state of both subcultures. I would go so far to say that RPGs have otherwise harmed fantastical literature by making them focused on transposed game campaigns and little else. But CYOA didn't do that.

The series was written in second person (one of the few successful uses of it, I might add) but the narrative would unfold like any other book would, only diverting to allow the reader (the one who is "playing" the main character) to choose the action they would take at specific narrative forks. This manages to add flavor to the narrative without making it seem as if it is just a bunch of things happening randomly by dice roll. Book aren't games, and the writers of CYOA understood that. The game influence ends were the storytelling begins. This is why it remains the most popular series of this style of book even now.

Bantam was also clever with the way they advertised the series. First by flooding book fairs, handing free copies to everyone who looked their way, and even created teaching guides. They also numbered the books and gave them a trading card like design, because kids like to collect things. They would later do this to future middle grade books. Bantam went all out on this series in a way you won't see today. They did what publishers are supposed to do--advertise and promote. And not only did they do it: they succeeded.

But a gimmick is still just a gimmick, ultimately. The series wouldn't have taken off if it was merely a bunch of simple choices for he reader to make at narrative forks. A gimmick can only hold a person's attention for so long, but a series that lasted nearly 20 years with over 250 books must have had more than a trick to hold reader's attention for so long. After all, they were still successful in the age of the arcade, blockbuster movies, and Saturday morning cartoons. When people say no one reads anymore because of too much competition, well, that simple wasn't the case throughout the 1980s into the '90s when the greatest toys ever made were being produced on the regular. Yet this simple book series thrived in that time regardless. That alone is a major success.

So what made CYOA so popular? Beyond the gimmick, something had to keep bringing readers back for near 20 years and over 250 books. I suppose if you've read enough posts here then you can probably guess what that might be. 

Here's a hint:


Yes, this exists


It's a series of pulps for kids.

As stated above, there were no "genre" limitations on what could be put out in CYOA. Much like the successful Goosebumps which came years after its creation, the appeal comes from the wild concept that allows the story to go in any weird direction it wants. Kids want escapism as much as everyone else. It isn't like the dreary formulaic pap of modern young adult fiction or OldPub's rapidly closing chain bookstores are carrying anything that bring in new readers. But these books did, and they did it for a long time.

Essentially, Choose Your Own Adventure is the children's version of Weird Tales. When you open an issue of Weird Tales you never quite know what you're going to get out of it, and these books were much the same. It's no wonder they still have so much nostalgia attached to them.

But how are they like pulps otherwise? As an example, let me list out fifty random titles from the series. That is a good enough chunk to get the point across. Put it out of your mind that this is part of a line and just soak in what they are each called. This should help understand just what makes them so similar to a older tradition.

Remember, these all ran from 1979-1998: 

  • The Cave of Time
  • The Mystery of Chimney Rock
  • Your Code Name Is Jonah
  • Deadwood City
  • Inside UFO 54-40
  • The Forbidden Castle
  • House of Danger
  • Underground Kingdom
  • Hyperspace
  • Prisoner of the Ant People
  • The Phantom Submarine
  • The Horror of High Ridge
  • Mountain Survival
  • Trouble on Planet Earth
  • The Curse of Batterslea Hall
  • Vampire Express
  • Treasure Diver
  • The Dragons' Den
  • Secret of the Ninja
  • Rock and Roll Mystery
  • Invaders of the Planet Earth
  • Space Vampire
  • Knights of the Round Table
  • Exiled to Earth
  • You Are a Millionaire
  • Revenge of the Russian Ghost
  • The Worst Day of Your Life
  • The Cobra Connection
  • Treasure of the Onyx Dragon
  • Smoke Jumper
  • Skateboard Champion
  • Magic Master
  • Silver Wings
  • Superbike
  • Outlaw Gulch
  • War with the Mutant Spider Ants
  • Last Run
  • Cyberspace Warrior
  • Ninja Cyborg
  • You Are an Alien
  • Sky-Jam!
  • Tattoo of Death
  • Possessed!
  • Shadow of the Swastika
  • Master of Kendo
  • Killer Virus
  • River of No Return
  • Ninja Avenger
  • CyberHacker
  • Mayday!


As can be gleamed from the above, the CYOA series not only didn't have a strict genre rule, it also didn't strive to "teach" kids and instead let them live out adventures instead. Which is what they wanted. Of course some books would have messages or points to them, that was always the case, but what mattered to the audience was the adventure. This series lasted so long and was so popular because they could do pretty much whatever they wanted.

This is what fiction should be, and what it once was about.

From personal experience I can definitely say these books were everywhere in the 1990s. My fifth grade teacher would give students stars based on what we read, and the CYOA were worth half a star each (due to their length) but kids still read them anyway to accumulate points. Anywhere you went that had a pile of books sitting around, there would be one or two of these familiar slim paperbacks sticking out of it. Even more than Goosebumps, this series was something everyone read, even those who didn't like horror. The impact was hard to ignore, even for my peers. And this was already after they had been out for well over a decade.

You see, it isn't that kids won't read, or engage with old things; it is that they won't read, or engage with old things that aren't exciting. All human beings love adventure, and if they are not given one they will find someplace they can indulge in it. Hence we n one reads anymore. The adventure is gone.

It should be mentioned that this crisis in reading only exists because those in charge of the industry ceased publishing material normal people would want to read. You can do a search for videos on youtube and find all sorts of nostalgic pieces of Gen X and Y adults going on about this series and how much it boosted them up and how fondly they remember it--but many of these same people don't read anymore, or only read old books. In fact, some even collect CYOA now because of nostalgia and the concept, but they have no interest in reading newer books. How can that be the case? Wasn't the series a success? Didn't it make people want to read?

Well, yes, it was and it did. But you might have noticed the dates above. The series ceased being published in 1998, the nadir of culture. Aside from Harry Potter (and its hangers-on, which, let's face it, were read by women, not kids) there was no move to get children interested in action or adventure again. The "Young Adult" demographic became synonymous with soap opera drama focus for horny middle-aged women while middle grade and younger books focused solely on a Peggy Charren-level of Edutainment and propaganda to mold kids into the shrieking pleasant people you see all over social media and in comments these days. Why don't kids read anymore? There isn't anything they want to read, because OldPub deliberately stopped giving it to them. They wanted to "teach" them instead. You have your answer as to why the audience left.

And yet, CYOA still has clout. To bring it back around again, in recent years there have even been game adaptions of old CYOA books such as House of Danger and War With the Evil Power Master. They were successful and, as far as I can tell, well liked. The influence of this series remains intact, even despite ending over 20 years ago. Though it is nice to see the relationship between gaming and writing also is as strong as it was when it all began. Even if each has had negative influence over each other, the truth remains that there is positive aspects to their relationship. This series and its enduring popularity is proof of it.

The secret is adventure, it's action, and it's excitement. You have to instill an excitement for the world around you in your reader. You need to show them there is more than waking up early on Monday and praying the week ends quickly, because there is. That's what adventure is all about and that's why it's so beloved.

Choose Your Own Adventure did that, but for kids. It is fondly remembered so long after ending for a reason, while the edutainment works of the same time period are not. Non-creative people like Peggy Charren should not be allowed to influence creative people or mess with their audience as we can currently see what their input offers. It isn't much. They have no place in this arena, and that becomes more obvious as time goes on.

This success that allows a series to last around two decades, and then be remembered long after, is the result of giving the customers what they want. And yet the old industry insists on not doing that. Is it any wonder NewPub exists at all? It was simply inevitable.


The First 60+ Books

It is fascinating to see how much has shifted over the last 20 years since the Choose Your Own Adventure line folded and reading is on life support as a hobby. While it is still remembered (even getting reprints and games based off of it) it looks like it might outlive the very industry that spawned it and allowed the concept through the door. Very odd, but at this stage, not totally unexpected. OldPub is done and over.

Nonetheless, there was a time when they did try and we'd do our best to remember that for the future. We're going to take what they've forgotten and move forward with it, as it is supposed to be done.

The future is excitement, action, and wonder. Get in, kids. The adventures are endless.




Saturday, September 19, 2020

Signal Boost ~ Prince of Shadows (The Covenant Chronicles, Book 3) by Kai Wai Cheah

Find it Here!


The long-awaited third book in pulp auteur Kai Wai (Benjamin) Cheah's Covenant Chronicles is out today! If you've been waiting for this then you don't need me to tell you what it's about, but for those who are new you are in for a treat.

Mr. Cheah is one of the hardest working authors out there today, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with the amount of spirit and energy he has. This third book has been a long time coming, so be sure to check out the series for some good old fashioned military sf.

The description is here:

THE OLD GODS ARE COMING BACK!

When a black op goes awry, the Nemesis Project pulls deniable operator Luke Landon off the line. But while mortal authorities want him to stand down, the gods aren't done with him yet.

Pressed into a secret war between infernal and divine powers, Landon is thrust into a new campaign. The elder gods are returning to do battle with the Unmaker—and they are choosing agents to carry out their will.

In Japan, a goddess has chosen a shrine maiden as her soldier. The shadowy Organization, the secret rulers of the world, have her in their sights. Without official sanction or backup, Landon and his allies must go rogue to save her.

Landon has always been prepared to lay down his life. But this time, he may just have to give up his immortal soul.

PRINCE OF SHADOWS is the third volume of The Covenant Chronicles, the supernatural Mil-SF series by Kai Wai Cheah, Hugo-nominated author of Flashpoint: Titan.


You can find Prince of Shadows to purchase here. Check out the third book today!



Thursday, September 17, 2020

It's Eating You

"Do you think you, with these guns you got in your hands, do you think you can shoot anything you don't like? Well, what if what you don't like is inside you? How you gonna shoot it?"


With Hollywood's death spiral currently unfolding before our eyes, those who enjoy cinema are a bit out of luck if they're in the mood for new movies to watch. That is a shame. However, there are decades of films yet to be seen by everyone, and many movie buffs are taking advantage of that fact. Streaming and torrenting are a reality now, so just about any film you've ever wanted to see from and time or place is available at the tip of your fingers.

Just one click is all it takes and you can watch anything that's ever been made. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it is. Some of them you won't even find via official channels and, one everything goes digital, will eventually be censored or flushed down the memory hole. The past must destroyed in order to shape the future, after all.

There are certain movies Hollywood wouldn't want you to see or know about these days, and we're going to talk about one of them today. This is a movie you've probably never seen, and if you have you probably only heard of it in passing or offhand, but never gave it much of a shot. This is a film that deserves much more attention than it gets.

I am referring to 1985's The Stuff directed by Larry Cohen (It's Alive!, God Told Me To, Q), which is a smaller, unknown film from the golden age of B-movies. It released right in the center of said golden era. Despite that, unless you're an '80s film buff you've probably never heard of this one, and that's a shame. The fact is that it's more relevant today than when it was first released, but not fully in the way you might think, and possibly not in the way the director intended. Unfortunately, Mr. Cohen died a few years ago so there is no way to ask him about his real intent.

In The Stuff, railroad workers discover a white foam and cream-like substance coming out of the ground. One of them tastes it, like an idiot, and finds it delicious. Not too long later, due to forces well beyond the scope of this movie's plot, the material ends up being sold on store shelves as a pseudo-ice cream and branded The Stuff. Everyone who tastes this food loves it. How can they not? It's tasty, it has no calories, and it gives you incredible energy. This is the exact thing we've been waiting for! Needless to say the Stuff quickly becomes a sensation.

However, there is more to this Stuff than meets the eye. One boy swears he's seen it move, though nobody believes him. Elsewhere, former fed turned industry saboteur, David "Mo" Rutherford, is hired to investigate this meteoric rise of new junk food by the negatively affected ice cream industry. What each protagonist finds ends up turning out to by much worse than they first thought it would be. The Stuff is alive, and it has sinister motives of its own.

By this point you're probably guessing The Stuff is a typical '80s horror movie, and you'd be partially right. There are a lot of horrific happenings to be seen on screen, and there is an obvious bit of satire that you certainly already caught. However, it is mainly an adventure story when it all comes down to it, based on old 1950s horror B-movies.

Going a bit further, there is something to The Stuff that is rarely discussed. While there is a satire element at play, it goes a bit deeper than you might think. 


"See this hole here? It's getting bigger and bigger, isn't it? So you better eat that, or you're gonna eat this."


The obvious element here is the satire of consumerism. It wasn't that uncommon for the 1980s to parody the absurd buy, buy, buy, nature of the era. Eat, devour, and swallow, everything we give you, but don't actually think about anything you're actually eating. We know this is a bad thing, and it was treated as such back when it was a growing problem in the 1980s, but what The Stuff actually ends up saying is that the root cause comes from something deeper than being tricked by slick corporate advertisement. The Stuff is able to thrive in a world were the hollowness of modern life is trumpeted as normality. The pit in your soul that you can't quite fill exists because something is missing. And what comes in its place? Well, it's what allows subversion to thrive. The main theme of the story is about how humans will consume anything to fill that hole inside of them.

The Stuff represents subversion, not consumerism. This film is actually about this poison and how it destroys a functioning society with empty promises, all stemming from a spiritual vacuum. We all know rampant consumerism exists because of a need for something higher and more fulfilling than what the world offers us, and the Stuff is the poor substitute for what you actually need and crave. But the Stuff doesn't care about you--it attracts you with dopamine hits and high promises before it ends up turning you inside out.

The worst part of the Stuff, is that every one of its victims welcomed it in. They will take anything to fill that pit in their soul, even if it is willing to kill them to do it. It's a higher cause, isn't it? That's more than modern life offers. This is what makes the Stuff far more dangerous than most threats in a horror movie. It actually will give you what you want.

You see, this isn't quite like Invasion of the Body Snatchers where your neighbors are involuntarily being replaced with strangers. Nothing is being forcefully taken--at first.

In The Stuff your neighbors are consuming because it gives them a good feeling, a perfect, healthy high, one they will fight for the death for, even though it is subverting their own lives and warping their insides, turning them to dust. They are fine to give themselves over to some higher cause because the high they achieve from obeying it is the best they can hope to get. This is all they have, and the promises of the Stuff are worth dying for.

To drive the point home, there is a obvious parallel with communism in the movie. Some have tried to state that both the original Body Snatchers and the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street were parodies of the red hunting going on in Hollywood at the time (even though the writers have said they were not), and at first glance you might be mistaken for thinking this is the same. There is, after all, a good bit of satire ad goofy humor in the movie. But it goes a bit deeper than to say The Stuff is parodying McCarthy. If anything, it's the opposite.

You see, the film is actually about subversion as a whole. It is not shown how the megacorp got its hold on the Stuff to sell it, but the process is mentioned in passing a few times. This might have seemed unbelievable back in the '80s, but seeing how many megacorps actually hate you these days makes it far clearer how something like this could happen. Greasy palms, back alley dealing, and buttering up the right government stooges allowed the untested substance to slide by with minimal checking or deep study. There are no known chemicals or diseases, so what's the problem? It's not like it's being sold as medicine! It isn't poison, so what's the big deal?

But it is poison. The Stuff is used as a weapon in order to get what the megacorp wants. It is even shown how these megacorps devour mom and pop businesses along the way to consuming what they want, which is iron fist control over the Stuff. They are subverting the entire system and the normal supply and demand process in order to get that high they want: mindless profit. They are filling a hole themselves.

However, the secondary effect is that the Stuff they are putting out to be eaten by the masses is turning into something that will usurp the entire system that got them rich to begin with. Those who consume the Stuff become a slave to it, devoted to its very whims. Stuffies won't fraternize with their own family members unless they too accept this pleasant high into their lives, but all they want is that feeling. If everyone is a Stuffie than everything will be alright. The megacorp has no idea what it has unleashed. Anything that gets in the way of the high is to be destroyed, and that includes the ones who let them in the door. Everything must be consumed.

To make the message clearer than a freshly washed window there is a moment in the movie where our heroes meet up with a retired Colonel who lives off the grid with his own platoon of soldiers. He is distrusting of the entire political system. He is spurred into action to help our heroes destroy the Stuff because Mo deliberately draws parallels to communist espionage in government to the way the Stuff is currently operating to destroy the system. This conversation before the climax of the movie really needs to be seen to be believed, because it is not one they would allow in a movie today. To drive the obvious intention home, the Colonel calls the consumer puppets "Stuffies" which is why I used the term above earlier. No, I didn't make that up. This is what the movie is really about.

It takes our heroes going to the Colonel and getting his soldiers together to storm the plant and take it out of operation. Mo and his friends simply can't trust anyone else to help them fight the subversion, and it turns out to be the right call. The Colonel then uses the radio stations he owns in order to broadcast his warning against this subversive infiltration across the country: Stop eating the Stuff because it is deadly and turning your insides upside down! Hurry up before it's too late!

You might be thinking that there is an obvious outcome here, especially if you've seen modern movies in this vein. Clearly no one is going to listen to the conspiracy nut warning them about what gives them fuzzy feelings, and the entire country, then the world itself, is going to be consumed by this unknown substance. This is a horror movie, after all, and what better way to drive home the point that it is all futile then by showing the Stuff winning over our empty material nature.

But that isn't what happens.

Instead, the message goes through and doubt seeps into the populace. There are riots and the masses eventually turn on the Stuff. Stores are blown up, factories demolished, and containers are burned in bonfires on the street. The people come together and turn against the Stuff. The scourge is eradicated. All because they listened to the crazy retired gun nut veteran who lives off the grid and was right about the subversion taking over. You really can't make this up.

To put a capper on it, Mo then travels to the home of the billionaire that funded this entire mess. You see, even though he was stopped, it doesn't matter. This fool will re-brand the Stuff and start anew, even though the last batch almost wiped out the world and would eventually consume him. He doesn't care what he sells, even if it will end up killing him, so Mo does the only thing he can do to stop this. He force-feeds the billionaire the Stuff at gunpoint. Only after the fool's own appetite is satiated on the same garbage he sold the masses will he understand just what he has done. The police arrive shortly after and our heroes walk out triumphant. The menace was defeated.

The final scene shows a black market sale of the Stuff, implying that as long as man craves something to scratch his itch this new drug will always be around. Emptiness asks to be filled, and the Stuff still promises to do it for you. Only when you defeat the deeper problem will the Stuff be truly eradicated for good.

And that's the end.



"Are you eating it, or is it eating you?"


The Stuff wasn't very successful at the box office, due to many reasons surrounding its troubled release, and it still doesn't have much in the way of a cult following today. The movie doesn't have the best effects or grossest horror, though they are effective at what they are trying to get across. Most just see the general concept and write the movie off as typical. Reviews were mixed at the time with some such as the Chicago Sun Times giving it a low score stating it had a lack of plausibility and no movie to house the ideas it had. This isn't quite true.

Being that The Stuff was very clearly a throwback to 1950s horror didn't help, as these were rarely successful at the time. See Tobe Hooper's underrated remake of Invaders from Mars for proof of that. In fact, aside from a handful of swears, you could put the movie in black and white and most people wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't from that distant decade. Mr. Cohen was very successful with his aesthetic and works for the movie.

The story itself is straightforward, which it needs to be since it is about subversion overturning the normal. The main character speaks like a snake oil salesman yet he ends up being the most honest man in the movie due to having a nose for liars. It is the normality of heroism that saves the day against the poisonous nature of subversion. The monster itself, the weird element, is never explained even after it is defeated at the end. All of this are marks in its favor as a true successor to the Weird Tales legacy. The Stuff definitely follows a tradition older than itself.

Technically it might not be the greatest movie, but as far as execution, ideas, and general entertainment value, The Stuff is easily one of the most overlooked B-movies from an era where they were at their best. It's a shame it is so passed over, because it has quite a lot of value and has dated surprisingly well despite its existence as a deliberate throwback to a now-forgotten age. It is in fact probably more relevant now than when it came out. In an era where subversion is seen as an unquestioned synonym for good, it speaks truth against it.

In this day and age the worst thing you can be is well. Healthiness is unhealthy. Wholesomeness is unwholesome. But there are still those out there who believe in something more than the mire of modern life. The Stuff celebrates the good at the expense of evil.

Eventually this will all pass and the truth will reclaim its place again. Just like in The Stuff, the junk that consumes you will one day fall by the wayside. Then what will you have left to show for yourself? Hopefully more than a dried out husk of a skeleton. Truth always wins, in the end. Be sure you are there to meet it.




Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Odd Odyssey


Permit me, if you will, to take you back to the past--don't worry, it's just for a visit. Remember the way things once were, and can never be again. It'll all make sense shortly.

Things have changed a good deal over the past few decades. I've cataloged much of what I've noticed on this blog alone, but there remains just as much I don't quite understand or know about. Life is a journey, after all. The actual reason for these changes is obvious by now, those in charge of western culture decided they no longer wanted art and entertainment that uplifted or inspired the audience, but instead needed material that would bring them down and poison them against imagination. Those that can't look up can't imagine a better world than the one they are in. What's worse is that this happened more or less over a single decade, the '90s, and most people actually did notice--they just don't know what it is that changed, or why. Perhaps they were too distracted living their lives, who knows? The fact of the matter is that there is a reason '90s nostalgia has been around since the beginning of the 2000s and has never really gone away.

It will also never go away.

Of course, we can't just say culture detonated in the '90s, but more that it was spared destruction for about two decades from a tiny space battle movie that made it big unexpectedly in the late '70s. This caused an independent explosion of adventure that the Greatest Generation did not ignore. They saw their grand-kids enjoying this stuff, and they worked overtime to deliver the best they were able to. They funded what the audience wanted. The best toys, the best movies, the best comics . . . you name it. The best of the best was created during this time, because that was the creators' jobs. But then they retired during the '90s, and their successors took over. These new people at the switches had no more use for giving the audience what they wanted--now they would give them what they needed. And that is where we have been since.

The 1970s are still looked on by movie snobs as the peak of cinema, destroyed by the aforementioned filthy space movie that opened the theaters of the 1980s to juvenile pap. This is of course ignoring that the 1970s were dead, spiritually, and morally, which makes many of those 1970s "classics" more worthless than the juvenile goofy space movie. It actually has a moral point, regardless of what you think of it. 1970s cinema, as a whole, did not.

If your art isn't about instilling a greater sensation in your audience aside from hopelessness and misery then chances are you are a making propaganda. These pieces might be crafted impeccably, using the right camera moves and clever dialogue, but they're being used to peddle poison. And that subversion took a long time to happen, so you can understand why they were angered so easily by a filthy space movie that was supposed to be disposable trash. This is how fragile this era of "classic" cinema was.

It took 20 years from that nasty space movie, but by 1997 the powers that be had finally wiped adventure and action off the map to get things back on track again. Poisoned with irony and self-seriousness, these newer creators were given extra aid due to the disaster of 9/11 to make misery normal again. They got so good at it they eventually managed to subvert the very same goofy space movie that broke them to begin with, and make it another arrow in their quiver.

This is their victory dance. They took everything from you, so now enjoy the misery. How many times do they have to teach you this lesson? Be miserable and do as you're told so they can teach you how to not be miserable. Yes, they hate you and want you under their thumb. This is why giving them money is counterproductive. They want your soul, not your pocket-change.

It wasn't that things got bad again in the late '90s, it was that bad was the natural state the industry had concocted after the 1950s and '60s. We merely had a 20 year reprieve because of one costly mistake they couldn't have foreseen in allowing one corny space battle movie to be made. They won't let that happen again, and that is why mainstream entertainment from Hollywood to OldPub refuses to give you the hope and adventure you crave. They can only subvert and can no longer create. That era you are pining for is over, and never coming back.

This was planned by those in charge by doing things such as deliberately crushing the mom and pop video market (including family run businesses), buying up independent studios and publishers, and conforming every neighboring industry to whatever Hollywood wanted the industry to be, customers be damned. Their stranglehold ended up strangling their own cash-cows, and they don't even care.

Remember, the Rural Purge in the 1970s did not improve ratings, it had the opposite effect. And yet they trained audiences to think it was an improvement for television, left you swimming with smart programming, and created an industry objectively superior to what came before it. Why were they so eager to imprint that lie into you? It obviously isn't because they want your money. If that was the case they never would have done things like the Purge or allowed the ACT to even exist, never mind giving these destructors awards for killing an entire industry.

But they did all that, didn't they?

Really gets the noggin joggin'.

Now, whether it is because of Cannon Cruisers or my posts here, I don't know, but I have been receiving messages and e-mail from gracious readers giving me suggestions for entertainment to cover. They typically, and wisely, choose content made during that brief window from the late 1970s to the '90s when pulp was king again and exciting art awaited everywhere you turned. You'd be surprised at how much of it there is, because I sure am. I've been looking into some of it and I can tell you: it is guaranteed you haven't seen it all no matter who you are. As I've done some digging from those suggestions from my readers, I've noticed the pattern mentioned above showing up time and time again. These stories just stopped being created overnight in 1997. Things changed so abruptly in one moment that it was outright odd that no one noticed at the time.

From about late-1976 to around the fall of 1996 the majority of popular entertainment, regardless of demographic, was action and adventure in nature. By the end of the '70s the nihilism seeping in since the '60s had been shaken off, but the basic framework of these stories remained unchanged. High concepts, good vs evil, and fun adventure, were the selling points of just about everything created in this 20 year span. And sold they did.

But in 1996 and into 1997 there was a very sudden and strong shift from adventure to soap opera drama. As I said, this change was awkward. It was as if the people making Party of Five and Twentysomething decided they should be in charge of adventure series. The focus entirely changed. None of this was natural, at all.

Should you peruse any list of action and adventure TV shows you will seem the instantly evaporate and completely vanish in 1997. After that point you will find piles of hour long dramas with excessive focus on interpersonal relationships and broken characters, but nothing in the traditional adventure mold about discovering the unknown and clear good fighting clear evil. And then after 9/11 even that style of adventure fiction died out. Though it moved into novels for awhile, effectively chasing that audience away, too. Either way, it was a brief period better left to the mists of time.

The one hold out in these changes I have found were a handful of kid shows from Canada. As said in earlier posts, YTV was one of the last holdouts for this older form of adventure entertainment. These types of series continued a little longer before Nickelodeon and the like swooped in to change the face of the station, choking these shows out by 2001. That also just appears to be the year of western entertainment's final death rattle. A lot of things came together to make things what they are today.

But we've covered that before in other posts.


(1991-1994)


All that said, I decided to take a bit of a detour into this long forgotten era, before soap opera convolution and degeneracy swallowed adventure whole. I did this by looking at a series I hadn't seen since I was a kid. This is going back far.

I've spent some time watching the Canadian family series, The Odyssey, which is available for free on Encore+'s youtube channel. The show had a pilot episode in 1991, then ran for three seasons of 13 half-hour episodes from 1992-1994. Watching this series today feels like visiting another planet in another galaxy. The old system can never make anything like this ever again, and yet this series is completely inoffensive and straightforward.

For one thing, it has a very basic concept. An eleven-year-old boy named Jay wants to get into a club, so he is told to bring something of value to the treehouse in order to be allowed entry. He ends up finding his long-missing father's spyglass and decides to use that for admission, despite the protests of his friend Donna. He gets into a scuffle with Keith, the tough kid in charge of the club, has an accident and falls out of the treehouse. This puts Jay into a coma.

Normally, this would be the plot of a typical drama series today as every character gets into interpersonal drama surrounding this event and we need to know who ends up with who, for whatever reason. However, instead Jay wakes up in a strange pseudo-fantasy world where everything sort of matches reality, but ultimately doesn't. It turns out his long-thought-dead father's spyglass has some sort of magical property and can actually guide him out of this place--back to a world he can't quite remember. He goes off on an adventure with two new friends, who suspiciously look a lot like Keith and Donna from his world, and heads off into this strange, surreal land.

There are only three seasons of thirteen episodes each, and each season has an adventure of its own, somewhat changing in tone with the age of the cast. It starts very much like an eleven year old's fantasy world and by the end matches more the fantasy of a thirteen-year-old struggling to grow up. The quest for home in season 1 takes a turn in the middle, season 2 explores these characters and places we just met while looking for a better solution out of their predicament, and season 3 deals with the fallout of everything that happened. It's quite a tight ship at 39 episodes of half-hour shows and the opposite of how things are done today. They don't ever really tell you what the world is, but they do offer theories far more interesting than the now common and beyond-tired and overused parallel universe explanation, nor does it appear this world is a figment of Jay's imagination due to several hints given. Would the series be done today the mystery and wonder would be torn out and everything would be explained to the letter. For a small family show from Canada there was a lot of effort and thought put into it.

The Odyssey is low budget, even for its time, but it uses what it has well. The show was filmed in British Columbia, Canada, in the early 1990s which gives it a particular feeling and atmosphere. For those who have lived in small towns and suburbs, who have walked back-roads in the country, and remember general life in the west in the late 20th century, this series will give you a strange sense of deja vu. It's a world that doesn't quite look like this anymore. Adults are adults, kids ride their bikes and read comic books, normal is good, and the real world is cherished because it is a place where everything makes sense. It's the world the main character knows he belongs in. It's a whole other world than the one we're dealing with today.

This setting works well in keeping a mysterious tone and delivering a new adventure every week. This series is for younger audiences from back when that meant something. There is no degeneracy to be found, no cynicism, and no pandering to the lowest common denominator. It's just an adventure show. Think series like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and most Canadian kid content from this time. There was a lot of surprisingly family friendly series at the time from Danger Bay to The Littlest Hobo, aimed at kids and family audiences, and they didn't need to be hour long slogs or focus on soap opera drama to do it.  They expected the kids to be smart enough to understand what was going on and didn't need to talk down or pander to them. The Odyssey is a bit like LOST, only without constant mystery boxes are being dragged on for an interminable time. It's about the adventure. Again, it feels like a whole other world then what exists these days.

Despite all that, the series isn't perfect. The first two seasons more or less tell a complete story, but the third meanders a bit as if they didn't quite know where to take it. But it is still worth seeing as a look into the early '90s when kids were still allowed to be kids, and their entertainment didn't have to be about lecturing them or pandering on social issues like they quickly became in the '00s. Each season is also only 13 episodes and half an hour long so it isn't much of an investment, any warts can easily be forgiven. The acting for the kids is also high school play level for the most part, but since its mainly a kid world we're dealing with that gives it its own charm, especially considering the plot and the adventures the cast goes on.

The Odyssey ran from 1992-1994 (the pilot came out in 1991) and it certainly feels like a product of its time, but it's also a time that no longer feels like it happened at all and might have just been a collective dream we all had. This also gives the series a bit of an edge that it didn't have when it was on television. The Odyssey represents travelling to a fantasy world that isn't quite like ours in an attempt to make our way back to reality again. The part no one could have predicted is that the reality Jay is fighting for no longer really exists anymore and is as fictional as the world he is stranded in. The series comes off a bit differently for those who lived in the early '90s looking back on it now.

We truly do live on another planet.


The Danger Bay cast (1985-1990)

We've talked many times about how 1997 was cultural ground zero, and many have argued against it, but it is inarguable when it comes to television. The landscape from the late '70s up to about 1996 all shared very similar traits with each other. 

As mentioned above, the subversives had finally seized control and banished adventure into the netherworld. All family shows either became loud and moronic cartoons, pandering "school" drama shows that propagandize "real issues" real kids never actually deal with in real life because they have actual problems, or create programming specifically designed for each individual member of the family. Degeneracy is celebrated, normality is mocked, and the good is warped in a way that celebrates misery and hopelessness at the expense of any real happiness. None of this is meant to unite, it wedges the family and their interests apart. It's been like this for near a quarter of a century now, and the audience for it no longer exists.

What replaced them after 1996 were just cheap copies with less to offer. Don't believe me? Then ask yourself why those who watch these newer shows will talk your ear off about character relationships and funny dialogue but will mention little to nothing about the actual adventures they go on. Because the focus was changed from the focus on the exterior to the interior. You can't make adventure insular, so they made them into soap operas instead. Who is going to have sex with who became more important than stopping the villain from destroying the world, no different than what grandma used to puzzle over when she tuned in to General Hospital every day. The mundane became elevated over the wonder. Normal people are no longer "interesting" enough to follow on the journey. We need hot messes that may or may not want to be fixed to be the leads in our adventure stories now. This hatred of the norm has since embedded itself in our stories and has been there for over two decades. It's no wonder so many cannot diagnose the problem.

Is it any wonder we're all so miserable all the time? We've rejected true escapism for "realism" and the mundane. 

All that remained of adventure stories were glorified soap operas that were twice as long as they needed to be that focused more on mundane inner things like going to school or worrying about sex than the outer journey of exploring the unknown. The only ones still doing that, ironically enough, were the Canadian family shows that went on a bit longer than everyone else did. They finally gave up the ghost in 2001, and I think we all know why even they stopped, at that point. Hope, creativity, and excitement, are not things the 2000s were known for. Hence why there is no 2000s nostalgia, and it will never really become a reality or larger movement. There's nothing to be nostalgic for.

The constant need to reboot these old things is the result of several problems going back in western culture. All those problems of the 2000s still exist today. You need more than "better" products to have a proper nostalgic movement. They might try to remake some of the entertainment from that time, but that's as far as they can go. There is nothing else to bring back.

It is easy to see that Hollywood isn't remaking these things because they have fond memories of them; they wouldn't be altering and warping them under the guise of "modernizing" the works so heavily if they were. They are trying to remake the wholesome in their own image as broken and decayed. This is why every one of these unsuccessful reboots that have popped up over the years contains only the shell of what you love, but under the skin is pure rot of the kind that reminds you why no one wants these creators' new stories. They are reduced to Trojan-horsing this garbage into your mind now. This is how far they've fallen.

They have to use nostalgia because tricking you to drink their poison is the only option they have left. They can't create anymore, because they've taught themselves not to for so long. They've run out of gas using the same trick for over twenty years, so now they have to use old properties as puppets to sell you their "creative" ideas.

And this doesn't work. While some might have swallowed the pointless Battlestar Galactica reboot a while back, even though it deliberately went against everything the original did, the main audience for these things has since caught on to what is happening. Where the fanatics are finally catching up with, normal people already see this game for what it is. That trick isn't going to work again. Things aren't the way they used to be even five years ago, and audiences are no longer willing to put up with trash wrapped in a pretty bow. They demand more, and if Hollywood and OldPub aren't willing to give it to them (and they're not) the audiences are just going to walk away from them. They already have, and the pain is being felt.

This is what makes the rise of things such as NewPub so exciting. It is a return to the audience first mentality that has long since been lost by the old guard i their quest for impossible utopianism. We're now on an odyssey of our own, just as Jay was, to find our way back home. We're going to find what it is we lost, and make it great again.

What will we find when we get there? I don't know, but it's sure to be an adventure.



Saturday, September 5, 2020

Signal Boost ~ Labor Day Blowout!

Find it Here!

Welcome to the weekend! Are you in the mood for cheap (or free) books to keep you company? Be sure to check out this sale run by author Hans Schantz and find the book for you!

The description is here:


"Celebrate Labor Day Weekend by topping off your library. Select from over eighty titles each priced at $0.99, including more than a dozen that are absolutely free.

"The selection includes top science fiction, fantasy, and adventure authors like Deplora Boule, C.J. Carella, Paul Clayton, Travis Corcoran, Larry Correia, David Drake, Eric Flint, Declan Finn, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, Robert Kroese, Jon Mollison, John Ringo, David Weber, David J. West, Michael Z. Williamson, and a wide range of other established and emerging talent.

"Note that pricing is set by the authors or their publishers, so please confirm before you buy."

The full listing can be found on Mr. Schantz website here. There is no shortage of selection so be sure to take your time going through it!




Thursday, September 3, 2020

Escape to the Streets of Fire



I've been blown away with the popularity of the success of The Pulp Mindset. Not just in sales but in how much discussion that has been popping up online about the burgeoning state of NewPub. It's gratifying to know that it has spurred on more people to talk about pulp, the state of the industry, and what exactly makes a good story beyond a formula. There are far more folks out there interested in the subject than I realized, and they won't settle on inane things like "Mystery Boxes" to explain how storytelling works.

Just recently I was fortunate enough to be tagged into a twitter thread by author Daniel J. Davis. He had just finished reading my book, The Pulp Mindset, and had decided to apply his theory of what pulp was using two of his favorite movies, Escape from New York and Streets of Fire. Both of which, I might add, are easy 5/5 movies (which is the score I gave them on Cannon Cruisers), but there is a very clear difference between the two pictures even though their setup is the same.

Mr. Davis mentions setting and general morality, and how things differ from non-pulp works. In essence, it is about how things have changed in adventure storytelling in just a short time. Even though Escape from New York is the older work and feels distinctly '70s, Streets of Fire has a more timeless feel and is less dated than the higher budget movie made years earlier. Just why is that? What is it that makes them so different?

The entire twitter thread is compiled here, but I wanted to highlight one part of his very insightful analysis that we will be focusing on today.


"Two heroes with similar personalities. Nearly identical missions. But what ultimately separates them is thier moral core. Tom Cody is a better man than Snake Plissken will ever be.

"And THAT is why Streets of Fire is pulp. And Escape from New York isn't.
"


As can be gathered, especially from The Pulp Mindset, is that I have been thinking about this subject for quite awhile.What is it that makes a work have that flavor the pulps had? It's more than mindless action, because the pulps were about more than mindless action. There is always that higher sense of morality and wonder to consider.

And that is a big part of their differences.

Escape from New York actually does check a lot of the boxes to what makes pulp what it is. It is action focused, it wants to wow the audience and take them to another world, and the main character drives the plot forward in his attempt solve the problem. It has a lot of the right pieces in the right places. But it definitely does fall short in the pulp category in two ways, as Mr. Davis mentioned in his twitter thread above. 

The setting, even though it is the future and fictionalized, is limited in the fact that it is based heavily on a real world location and can only have so much done to it. New York City exists in real life and we know its boundaries and what it's like, if even tangentially, and that is part of what gives the movies its identity. In a story built around discovery and horror in an unknown place, this does kind of dilute the possibilities as to where this particular story is allowed to go. This does hurt Escape from New York's scope, at least a little.

It isn't that you can't make a pulp story set in a real location, but when the story's main appeal is that the location is fashioned around uneasiness and the danger of the unknown, using a real place is counterproductive. It does take away same of the wonder and excitement.

On the other hand, Streets of Fire can take place anywhere at anytime. It doesn't really matter where the setting is, and the fact that it doesn't have a concrete location succeeds in making the city more foreboding and mysterious when we are lost in it later on in the story. We literally have no idea about this place, what awaits in the shadows, or why the world even is like this. It's a fable, and that means wonder comes before anything else. All we have to tie this wild setting down is our relationship to the main character, another thing that both unites and separates the two movies.

While they are both actin stories, one contains more wonder than the other does.




Yes, the setting is one thing, but how about the main character? As I go through much fiction of the past forty or so years in western culture I can only come to the same conclusion that Mr. Davis does above. The main character is what truly solidifies a work of having a pulp heart or not.

As mentioned earlier, Escape from New York has a lot of the hallmarks of pulp, but it still ends up coming across more pulp-inspired than pulp, at the end of the day. Meanwhile, Streets of Fire seems to easily achieve its place as a pulp tale without question. Why is that?

It is because of basic storytelling. You see, the main character is the audience's view window into the world. It is through them that the audience is given a guided tour of what the writer has to offer and it is also through the protagonist the writer filters what wonders the audience is allowed to experience. In other words, the protagonist is the moral anchor of the ship that is the story. We are entering this story through their eyes, after all. 

It is very simple: Tom Cody represents the romanticism and awe of the world we have inside of us, even when he is bitten by cynicism. He overcomes his obstacles and becomes a real man, a hero, by the end of Streets of Fire. His adventure makes him a more complete human being.

Snake Plissken never really becomes proper a hero throughout Escape from New York. He helps people but it's mostly for personal reasons, and the whole plot kick-starts because he has to be forced to participate in it. Snake was a member of society who was screwed over and put in chains for it, is nihilistic and uncaring, and no longer has any love for the world he lives in. He might very well be justified in his feelings, but if the world ended tomorrow Snake would just shrug his shoulders and accept Armageddon with open arms. He only overcomes problems in the story because they get in his way. There are no moral stakes around him succeeding or failing in his quest aside from death. There is no spiritual dimension.

This is because Escape from New York is a very modern and cynical movie, one that could only exist in the pit of despair known as the 20th century, and in the 1970s in particular. Because of its lineage as a 1970s action movie there is a cloud of despair ad hopelessness that hangs over the proceedings. o matter what you do, it simply does not matter.

In a story, there are frequently two motivations for characters to do anything, a material and a spiritual incentive. The first are the tangible goals stated in the plot: "Get the President" in Escape from New York, and "Get the girl" in Streets of Fire. Where the spiritual incentive comes in is the secondary reason they are going on the quest. Snake doesn't have one; it's either get the president or die. Cody's is initially just as simplistic (get the girl and get paid) but as the story goes on we learn that his motivations go a little further than that and become something higher by the end. Snake does find those to help him in his journey, but in typical '70s fashion they all die and mean nothing to the quest and Snake ends the story just as down as he began it. His "reward" is empty. 

Now, I don't want it to sound like I think Escape from New York is a bad movie. It's very much not, and compared to most '70s action movies it is nowhere near as hopeless in outlook. There are also a few things that allow some light into the tale. Snake actually is a good guy--he tries to help every innocent he comes across without expecting anything in return, he takes out villains because they are villains, and he clearly has a moral code he will not break.

The issue is that the 1970s universe it was made in refuses to reward any of that goodness and it ends up meaning nothing by the end. What you're left with is a story of a broken hero in a broken world which won't let him have even the smallest of victories. In fact, Snake's one gain by the end of the movie, his freedom, is punctuated by an act of petty (but deserved) revenge. It's a satisfying ending, as far as the story goes, but it doesn't offer anything beyond that tiny victory. At the very least it's not as empty and meaningless as Taxi Driver given that it doesn't end with the cinematic equivalent of a wet fart and a shrug.

Streets of Fire has Cody punished for his mistakes to which he works to correct them and set the world right again. By the end he has overcome his demons and is left in a better spiritual state than when he began. The material gains he made mean little in comparison to his true victory in the end of learning what real love is. He can now go out into the world and do good for both it and himself.

Of the two, it is clear that Tom Cody gets more out of his quest, and his ending is a far more timeless one not locked to its era.


Hollywood seems set on bringing back the 1970s


A lot of this can help explain the popularity of anime, especially in the modern day west where no one in the mainstream knows what heroism is and write constant Mary Sue protagonists without even a hint of self-awareness.

As an example, in Trigun, Vash the Stampede's battle is not only with his genocidal brother but coming to terms with himself as an alien being and the existence of sin. By the end of the story, both are conquered at the same time. In Cowboy Bebop, Spikes battle with Vicious is also an attempt to put the past to bed, which he does by opening a future to the city Vicious had ruined. In Megalobox, Joe's fight is to prove not only does he have value, but so does mortal life. They all have a moral dimension beyond the one listed in the plot description.

Now, can you say the same for recent Brand X space movies? What higher cause or motivation does anyone have in these other than "good things are good and bad things are bad" doggerel? No one has any ambitions that go beyond stopping bad guys from being bad, and no character beyond juvenile jokes. There is nothing to them under the surface. There is no higher goal. This is something even Snake Plissken at least hinted at wanting to have, even if he didn't achieve it. Here, it's not even acknowledged as something that exists at all. These movies are pure modernism: nothing but thunder and noise, signifying nothing.

Pulp stories were made for a wide audience, meant to instill hope, wonder, and a sense of adventure, to every single person that read them. Sure, they ran in cheap magazines, could be ramshackle and creaky, and might even follow a similar formula to other tales, but they always achieved their goal of entertaining the audience and lifting them up even if for a few minutes. Without the spiritual edge of wider things beyond the scope of our narrow views of life, it just isn't true pulp. Even the simpler tales aimed at something higher than the emptiness of modern life.

So, I would agree with Mr. Davis' assertion that Escape from New York, while pulp-inspired and a great movie, doesn't quite hit the moral qualifications needed to be pulp. Though it does try, and it gets full credits for that, which is more than I can say for similar types of movies being made today. A remake would certainly lack even that.

Unfortunately, the West is trapped in chic-Baby Boomer nihilism of the sort they championed back in the 1970s. We're back to pretending this deep and artful again. They've taken things from eras where this higher motive was and have twisted them to be weapons against those who were touched by them in the first place. The destruction of Brand X space movie is the most clear cut example of this hatred of hope. If you enjoy those movies then you enjoy death and despair over life and hope, which is the opposite of the original's intent. You are praising a lie and an inversion. This isn't depth; it's hypocrisy.

The endless obsession with subversion must go from art before anything changes in the old system, but that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

But you don't need to wait for them.

There are plenty of creators in NewPub, and the independent circuit in other mediums, fashioning brand new stories of hope, excitement, and wonder. The Pulp Revolution has come, and it has changed everything with its straightforward goals. While the mainstream continues to dig its own grave, NewPub only grows and gets stronger. The old system is on the way out, and the new is ready to deliver what you want again. It's about time things are put right again.

With the gates being wide open it might be harder to find something that personally tickles your fancy, but it will also be much easier to get something of equivalent (or higher!) quality than what the decaying mainstream system is putting out today. This is the most exciting time its ever been to be an artist and to be a consumer of art, simply because of the possibilities ahead of us. They really are never-ending.

And, unlike before, that gate won't be shut again by usurpers and subversives. Pandora's box has been jammed open, and it can not be closed again. Welcome to the revolution!

The streets are ablaze with adventure. All you have to do is walk them.




Saturday, August 29, 2020

Ghosts Never Die


Not too long ago I read and reviewed the book Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. It was a look at the horror boom in pocket paperbacks from the 1970s through to the early '90s and illustrated just how badly OldPub screwed the pooch on an entire genre that was as wild as it was weird. Inside the book, Mr. Hendrix highlighted some of the more obscure works to come of the era and managed to illustrate, if not fully by intention, just how much a pulp mindset influenced these works and allowed them to do whatever they wanted.

It was a fascinating read and something I am sure to return to in the future. I highly recommended Paperbacks from Hell back then, and I still do now. Should you have any interest in genre fiction them it is a blast.

A funny thing happened not long after the publication of that book. There became a craving for these forgotten novels lost to time and due to poor curation of OldPub's back catalog. Valancourt Books then created a whole line centered around this era, based on Grady Hendrix's work, highlighting the classic covers (and even creating whole new ones in the old style when applicable!) and the shorter, punchier, pulp lengths showed just how different an era this was from today. Currently, the line is at 13 releases, and appears to be very successful as when the second wave came out they claimed it was the most popular thing they ever did. Here's hoping to its continued success.

I even reviewed one of the books in the line, Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale, and thought it was an absolute blast. If you have any love for the horror genre, or of vampires, then you absolutely should seek it out. It is a crime that this was allowed to fall out of print for so long. It also makes me hopeful that the rest of his works will be made available again, but this is definitely a step in the right direction. If nothing else, this line of re-releases should be commended for digging up forgotten gems like Nightblood and allowing those of us who missed it back at its initial release a chance to rectify that mistake, and those who weren't even alive an opportunity to visit a completely different world. And I don't just mean a fictional world.

But Valancourt Books can't release everything from back then, nor should they be expected to. That is simply an impossible task, not to mention that some of those works can actually still be found for a good price in used shops and online. Unlike the pulp works from before the 1960s, these are relatively newer and can still be acquired in decent shape and in plentiful number. I myself have found a few and I didn't have to go nearly as far out of my way as I had to do to find certain pulp works. So at least they have an ease of availability to them.

Today, I wanted to talk about one book in particular that struck my fancy that contains some of the strengths and weaknesses of the horror genre from that time period. I wanted to do this to highlight the difference, not only from the pulp era that preceded it but also from where the genre would eventually end up to where it today. There is quite a gap, and we can bridge it right here. So without further ado, let us jump into this mass market paperback from hell.

Back in 1985, author Stephen Laws wrote his very first novel, Ghost Train which came out during peak popularity of the genre. I chose to read this one after I found a description of it in Paperbacks in Hell, and the cover looked so striking that I just had to give it a chance. There isn't much information about this book online, for whatever reason, so I was more or less going in blind. In other words, it was very much like finding the book on a spinner rack back in the day and picking it up with little more than a recommendation and being intrigued by the description. This made it a pretty good sample of what it would be like to read it back then.

So what is Ghost Train like? Let us finally get to it.


The original cover

The description is as follows:


Something monstrous is riding on the King's Cross train.

Something is stalking the corridors, preying on the passengers. And very soon, when it has fed on enough souls, it will embark... on the world.

Mark Davies knows that horror. It attacked and threw him from the train. Ex-policeman Les Chadderton is obsessed with the murders and suicides on the East Coast mainline. His wife had been among the victims.

Together they must board the Ghost Train and face their own fears made real, travelling on a one-way ticket on the Nightmare Express...


The book is around 375 pages and is divided into three parts with the middle one being the longest, and the last containing the final climax. It's very tightly structured for what it wants to get across, which makes sense because the story is straightforward. It was Laws' first book in a career that spanned many more well known works to come such as Spectre, The Wyrm, and The Frighteners. He would go on to be quite the successful horror author not long after his debut during the peak popularity of the horror boom. However, I haven't read those ones, and this is my first experience with the author, so let us continue with Ghost Train.

First, the strengths. Ghost Train's horrors are suitably spooky and disturbing, and when there is action it is very fast-paced, clear, and sharp. Laws, even for his first book, already knew what people were here for: they wanted good people to overcome evil threats and they wanted the tale to be told as clear cut as possible. There is much of that pulp flair in this book, with each part escalating in threats until the final face-off on the titular train which ends in a supernatural battle of wills on the living demon train. That isn't a spoiler since it's basically in the title of the book. This is what you're signing up for when you open it up. Nonetheless, the setup is simple and obvious, but the execution is what makes it work. It's a testament to Laws' budding skills at the time that it kept me returning to the book to see just where this would all end up.

For a horror novel from the 1980s it is not quite in the Stephen King mold of "well-detailed and described evil against flat, doomed protagonist" that the era was known for, even if it is undeserved. There were plenty of works that didn't fall into that niche. Instead this is a tale of good against evil where good deserves to win, and evil deserves to lose. It's straightforward, but it works as it should. And it succeeds. Mostly.

What Laws has that King doesn't, at least in this book, is a clear moral vision. The heroes are normal people attempting to battle their own demons as well as the one before them, but they are not despicable bastards you want to see die, or couldn't care less if they did. You don't hate them, in fact you want them to succeed. This is the way it should be.

The evil in Ghost Train is presented as primal, a force brought about by pre-Christian ignorance of spirits brought to today and doing battle with a post-modern ignorance of Christianity. The evil could easily be defeated if anyone really believed it existed, and used the tools they were given to fight it, but we'd gotten too lazy to really even understand that evil exists. This is the crux of the book--that evil is allowed to flourish due to the slothful nature of modern man. It's only by getting past that barricade can we even hope to stand a chance. 

There is a typical modernist Anglican priest in the book that represents this idea quite well, much better than the one King used in 'Salem's Lot, because his faith is irrelevant to the problem at hand. Good isn't a faucet that can be turned off in the face of evil, it's still there and it still works whether you understand it or not. As it should be. It's something I wish more horror books still did, especially from that time period where concepts were so wild and weird. The greater the horror in your story, the great the good should be to combat it, thereby raising the stakes and the entire story in the process. It's just a win/win for everyone involved.

Laws gets a lot right for his first book, which makes it doubly annoying when he gets something wrong. And there are some notable flaws that I just can't overlook.

As mentioned before, there are three parts to the book, each escalating in threat to the finale. This promises good pacing, and there is good pacing . . . at times. The fact of the matter is that for a 375 page book there are around 100 pages that could be excised entirely to make this a better, almost all of which are contained in the first two parts. Were it trimmed to 275 pages and closer to a pulp length work it would jump up an entire level. The book, unfortunately, dilutes itself because of a length it just shouldn't have and can't sustain.

Even worse, the most egregious examples of fluff all take place very early in the book which can turn off a lot of readers. There was far too much that should have been culled in the editing process. I know I was getting tired of slogging through repetitive and slow material and, if it wasn't for the general concept and choppy build up, might have put the book away. Considering what it takes to make me shelve a book that's saying something.

The first part is titled Mark and is mainly about the first protagonist. We start with our reveal of Mark Davies as he awakens from bad dreams that have come to him ever since he was thrown from a train not so long ago. The story starts by telling us everything about him as he is recovering and seeing his therapist. At the same time the plot is interspersed with small stories of bizarre happenings around the same train where people are both attacked by odd shadows or suffering from bouts of unexplained insanity. The very beginning actually isn't a bad start, and it gets to the action quick while setting up stakes before you've barely begun to breathe.

But then it keeps going and repeating itself.

After the opening there are long, interminable stretches of the same thing happening over and over. For 100+ pages. Mark has a bad dream, sees his therapist, sulks with his wife and daughter, some random person might be killed by the train, and repeat. The only real important diversion in this slog being a small story as a child when he was with his friend Robbie and they discovered an evil person. This event comes into play at different points later on. If you take that tiny story, make it the prologue, and cut most of the repetition that came after the beginning, it would go a long way to making the story more powerful and less choppy.

This problem is highlighted further with the second part entitled Chadderton, named after the second protagonist just introduced. His backstory is revealed instantly and quickly and is only ever touched on afterwards when necessary to the plot later on. Compared to Mark it is a drop in the bucket, and yet somehow he still attains the same level of depth as the man we were with for over 100 pages. It almost makes you wonder why the second part is even called Chadderton since he barely has, or needs, the focus that Mark had in the first section.

This just makes what happens in the first part seem even more pointless since so much of it just wasn't necessary, especially when only Mark and Chadderton are integral to the second and third parts and no one else that was introduced earlier aside from some villains. If Chadderton can get by with a quick backstory, and he does, there is no reason Mark needed so much space for himself along with so many characters that just simply didn't matter. Aside from the first victims that establish the tone and the threat, the rest were just needless filler. And that's the biggest problem with Ghost Train--it needed a harder edit and a pulpier focus to match its stronger parts.

The second section's problem is more cosmetic compared to the first. Those earlier chapters with random one-off characters killed by the train? They still keep happening, even long after we've already established the threat. Not to mention they come after long stretches in part one where we randomly stopped seeing them, thereby making it feel like padding to make the book longer. There are several unnecessary cutaways to one-off characters that feel superfluous in the second part that dilute from the urgency of the main characters' discovering this unfolding threat and learning to trust each other. It's a shame because when the story focuses on the two of them it is some of the strongest material in the book. We already know the threat is bad, we do not need to be shown it every second chapter, especially when there are a group of villains already demonstrating it.

The third part is practically flawless in how it allows everything to come to a head, though the characters that aren't Mark and Chadderton have a problem of not feeling necessary to the plot. Some are unceremoniously killed almost as if it didn't matter that they were even there in the first place. If you have a character in the story they should exist for a reason. There are at least two that might as well not even have been there since they add nothing to the plot.

The only other fault I can offer is that the story doesn't end so much as it stops. The climax of the plot is riveting and intense, but then the story keeps going a bit longer before a realization is made before an unnecessary hint is given that perhaps everything isn't settled, even though there's no reason it shouldn't be. It's an attempt at an "Is it really over?" ending that has no purpose being there when it should instead be about the character making up for a past mistake and winning in the end. We don't learn about what happens to a couple of characters that weren't on the train, nor the fate of a ghostly being that pops up briefly for a few scenes, or just what ends up happening to the train itself after the chaos subsides. The story just stops in an unsatisfying manner as if the editor decided it was finally long enough to let the writer end it.

Again, however, it is difficult to be too hard on a first novel when you know the author went on to do much more that people loved afterwards. I'm also not sure how much of this was simply not caught by an editor because they wanted fat books to sell for higher prices instead of letting pulpy works be what they are meant to be. It's a mystery.

I say this because when Ghost Train works it works very well. With a more ruthless editor the book would have been slimmer, punchier, tougher, and a lot more memorable and possibly more popular. But as we all know, pulp was a bad word in OldPub at the time and continues to be one up to the modern day. And now they are feeling the result of abandoning an entire style of writing. Stories should just be what they are, pulp or not.

As a result, Ghost Train is just good, but could have been more. It has a clear moral vision, accurately depicts horror, and knows that action is important. That is more than you can say for NewPub books released these days. When it works, it works very well.

You just have to know what you're getting into.


The most recent cover

Despite the downs in my experience reading Ghost Train, the ups were enough to make me want to read more from Stephen Laws, especially since I know he will improve as an author. But warts or not, I still had a good time with the book and would like to read more. That is the mark of a good story, even when flawed.

I also am interested in continuing my journey through the paperback fountain that is 1970s/80s horror, since both this and Nightblood have raised the bar from what I had been constantly told the genre was at during the time period. The experience is very much in line with the lies I had been told about the pulps, and so far they seem to be maliciously libeled and unfairly slandered, just as the greats were. The only question is in how many more times am I going to have to make this discovery of overlooked gems? It's getting a bit old learning that all the past things you were taught were garbage turn out to be better than the modern slop you are told is good.

Thankfully, these books are a lot easier to find than most of the pulps were, and I've already found a few for myself to read in the future. There is more than enough to go around. Now I just need to find myself an old fashioned spinner rack to put them on in order to make the entire strange experience complete!

Ghost Train is a good read, but not a great one. Nonetheless, I still recommend finding these types of '70s/'80s horror books when the opportunity arrives, especially if you are an avid writer or reader of pulp style fiction. They have a lot more to offer than you've been told they have, and they contain much the genre does not offer now, especially in the mainstream where they have been diluted to little more than thrillers with a ghost killing morally grey people instead of the human stabbing morally grey people mainstream thriller material offers. The old works are an entirely different universe from what you get today.

You'd be surprised at what these paperbacks from hell offer, and it is more than you'd been told. My recommendation is to give them a shot when you can. You never know what gem you might find hidden out in the minefield of old horror. It's a treasure trove.

But that's part of the fun, isn't it? It's a wonderful and weird world out there with surprises at every turn. Maybe what is out there going bump in the night isn't a monster at all, but something far more? Who knows? It's possible.

There's only one way to find out.