Friday, March 27, 2020

Hack Some Stories!

Quick post!

StoryHack #5, featuring my story Black Dog Bend, is free on amazon! It's going to be this price only until Sunday, so you better jump on it quick. You've got stories by Jon Mollison, Dominika Lein, and many other great authors in this issue, too! It's a good time. 

You can get it here. And after you've read it, you can check my post on the blog about this very story! If you sign up for StoryHack's newsletter you can get issue #0 for free, too. That's quite a bit of free adventure to go around. Now is the best time to exercise that imagination of yours-- good times are coming back. It won't be like this forever.

Go into the weekend in style. The adventure goes on forever.

See you next time, and be safe!

Of course, our #1 anthology is still available for free, too. Spread the love, and enjoy 200,000 words of free fiction!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rules for the Lawless

The Revolution is Here!

Due to the recent success of the Pulp Revolution's free anthology officially making #1, it is time to look back at just how far we've come [The anthology is also available in print for dirt cheap here]. It's been a long road.

But it's not over yet.

It has been two years since I made this post on the Pulp Revolution, and I wanted to do a bit of an update. Two years is enough time to take a bit of a look back and gain perspective on where we are now. What has changed in that time, and what have we learned?

First, I want to reestablish some of the first ideas that came out of the early rumblings of the Pulp Revolution. That's right, we're going back to the glory days of 2016 and 2017, even further back than my post. It's easy to forget just how much energy there was at that time to try and understand just what was being discovered. Late 2016/Early 2017 was about the time the idea got solidified, and the writers soon began furiously typing their tales of adventure and the unknown.

It's time to take you back to the past.

At the end of 2016, the first to hit at a formula as to what gives pulp its identity was author Misha Burnett with his Five Pillars of Pulp. We will sum them up below:

Action: The focus of the storytelling is on what happens. 
Impact: These actions have consequences. 
Moral Peril: Consequences are more than just material. 
Romance: Pulp heroes are motivated by love. 
Mystery: There are many potential unknowns—the setting, the true identities of other characters, the events that led up to the current crises. Something is going on and neither the protagonists nor the reader should be quite sure what.

You can read his full explanations in the above post, but we will talk about them as a whole. These pillars allowed much discussion to take place very early in the movement's life, and gave much to think about.

Allow me to go over them briefly to describe why they are important.

The first pillar is self-explanatory. Action, movement itself, is essential to a pulp tale. The story must get in, get out, and say everything it can in as few words as possible. Because pulp writers had to hook the audience quickly they had to pack as much as they could into magazine guidelines. Even though they paid by the word, if a writer didn't cut the flab editors would just print another story in its place. Sharpness is essential; sluggishness is death.

The second and third are intertwined with each other. If the story is brief and quick, the stakes need to match this fast pace and give readers a quick and dirty reason why they should care. The fastest way to do this is by targeting the protagonist--the character the audience must care about no matter what. There are two layers of conflict, one that assails the protagonist on the inside and one on the outside. They don't need to be perfectly congruent in intensity, but it is enough to show that the character is alive and full of the red blood needed to carry an adventure. He is human, and that is a good thing.

This ties into point four which is about love. What Mr. Burnett is referring to is not simply romantic love. That is the go-to, but it is not the only kind of love there is. While the action is hot, and the impact is high, the main character needs a motivation on par with the blitzkrieg occurring around him. What other motive is pure enough than love of the world around them? Girlfriend, buddy, town, planet. The world is a place worth saving, which means it's a place worth loving.

Heroes should be worthy of respect. If the audience can't respect them then there is nothing in the story for them, is there?

She persisted!

This also means that the antagonist must represent the opposite of this love. In some capacity they must want to destroy.

Since the antagonist should be the opposite of the protagonist he should be taken to the farthest end of the scale that is possible. He should be unlike the hero in every respect that counts.

When you have a villain, he naturally needs to be the worst that the story can offer. He needs to oppose the protagonist, and in every way that counts must be his complete opposite. This dichotomy naturally leads to black and white morality. Neither character has to be a perfect representation of either, but they each must represent one side to the best of their abilities. This means the villain must represent a hatred towards the world, and the hero must represent some good in the world. In other words, the hero must love the world and those in it, and wants to preserve the place he lives.

Romance is the celebration of all that is good. When a villain tells the hero how much alike they are they reader should roll their eyes and know that it is a blatant falsehood. Antagonists don't understand romance: they loathe the world worth saving.

In an action story you have to be fast. Action works best when it is sharp, dynamic, and over in a flash. It takes the audience by surprise and leaves them wanting more. We've dealt with how that is important, but not how to make it important on a larger level. This goes with the last pillar on the list. Beyond motivation and setting, how do you create a sense of scale?

Mystery is an ingredient we need more than ever for the simple reason that mainstream fiction has little of it left. One hesitates to even be able to find an example of it done well in modern mainstream fiction. Everything must be explained, or explained away, and no reader is tasked with exercising their imagination to do any sort of heavy-lifting. It's all spoon fed. While fiction shouldn't make the reader do anything, the form's advantage over visual mediums is that it relies on imagination in order to deliver its full effect. Writers that don't take advantage are blunting the impact of their stories. It's the best weapon they have!

And imagination is frowned upon in the Oldpub world. It's about checking the right boxes. The best fiction is about imagination first--not pleasing the right people.

This hatred of imagination goes hand in hand with the walling off of genres to neuter and take the fangs out of fantastical fiction. Everything needs to fill a correct checklist to be considered part of specific genre, depending on who decides to stock the shelves on whichever store they wish to be put in. No other genre has this issue, because no other genre has tried to fit wonder into neat little boxes t get headpats from self-appointed masters of fandom or their corporate overlords. You can see how wonder has died many times over the 20th century. It's expected, at this point.

Mr. Burnett brushes into this a bit in part of his post:

I have deliberately avoided any references to genre in what follows. This is because I don’t think it is significant to the Pulp Aesthetic. The guidelines can apply to Detective Fiction and Westerns just as readily as to Science Fiction or Fantasy. The Pulp era made no such hard distinctions, while some magazines specialized in a particular form of genre fiction, most were open to anything thrilling and exciting. Pirates rubbed elbows with cowboys and spacemen and barbarians from the bygone past in the pages of adventure magazines.

The Pulp Archivist himself sums it up here. We're already living in a pulp world--we just don't realize it. It's just the natural state of things. You can currently only do some things, you once could do anything, so why don't you do everything?

No one is blocking you, anymore. So how do you remember what it was like to be free? You have to look to the past where Oldpub had it more than they do today.

Pulp has no limits, and it has no rules. The above pillars are not so much a rule-set as they are a natural consequence of writing a pure adventure. Those are things that are just going to happen, whether the writer intends it or not. If you want to write an exciting story those things are just going to come natural to them.

It's just the way it is.

Corona-Chan's peak

It's not so much a formula as it is simply the way it works out. Story craft came to this point because your ancestors perfected it and knew how to appeal to the most amount of people without having to pander. It exists because it works.

In order to fool with the formula you would have to either be taught subversive rules against it, or deliberately attempt to overturn them yourself. You would have to put your ego first. There was no "pulp formula" in the days of the pulps because every writer instinctively knew these truths to be self-evident. Readers didn't want subversion, and they weren't yet taught to hate their past, so they just enjoyed the adventure.

This falls in line with what editors of the past have used for their own guidelines:

“Primarily there must be real emotion in our stories; in addition to the physical conflict, they should have emotional drama. A story, for example, on which conflicting forces are at work, in which the hero has strongly conflicting desires, where he must make a choice that will reflect his true character, his most vital interests and desires require one course of action, but a debt of honor demands sacrifice of his own free will. And while he is sorely tempted to protect his own interests, his better nature triumphs.”

Is it really revolutionary to use common sense? When writer's workshops clamor for failed formulas and ideas that the common reader has no interest it, then yes. Yes, being normal is a revolution. Relating to your neighbor is taboo.

It's not about the pulp format or paper style, but what it implies to choose to be pulp. Back in the day you were pulp or you were slick; you were for the majority, or you were for the chosen few. There was a choice for those who wanted to write. The publishing world has since chosen to be slick, and has abandoned the pulp. Half of the target, and the majority of the audience, has been abandoned. Because of this few people have cause to read anymore. This is what the revolution was actually about. It's a revolution of common sense.

But Mr. Burnett wasn't the only one to discuss what made pulp what it was. There was also the human sunbeam, Jesse Lucas--one of the editors behind the PulpRev Sampler. He constructed his own seven traits of pulp. Here they are, listed below:

1. Pulp Revolution is not New Pulp
2. Pulp Revolution is not a Puppy movement
3. Pulp Revolution is a Superversive movement
4. Pulp Revolution does not care what you write
5. Pulp Revolution is trying to rehash the good parts of the pulp era
6. Pulp Revolution seeks to polish forgotten gems as well as produce our own
7. Pulp Revolution rejects sycophantism and triumphalism

Check the link if you want a more in depth explanation of each. I will instead try to sum up the entire point of his seven traits.

To go with above, the Pulp Revolution is about rediscovery and reapplication. It's not about writing to formula, market, or to litfic professors. It's about taking what worked, can work, and will work again. It's about rejecting what replaced the good and true and chased normal folks away. It's about putting ego in the backseat behind story craft and writing for people instead of cliques. It's about going back and taking it all forward.

This is about asserting the Good and True exists, is worth fighting for, and is far beyond our petty day to day squabbles. It's about wonder.

One can look over the trends of the 20th century to see how everything slowly rotted away by bad caretakers who cared more about the here and now than what would come after them. This very blog is full of such stories-- even linked a cavalcade of them above.

The "Don't Trust Anyone Over 30" movement of the 1960s was just one part of it--the 1970s was the decade of hedonistic death. Anything left of what we were given was forcibly choked out by the time disco ruled the radio. It was about you and your worst vices, not about you in relation to everyone else. It was not about connections, but about my, myself, and I.

Not only did wonder take a backseat to pleasure, but so too did amoral posturing take the place of heroism. If you want to know why that Brand X space opera that came out in 1977 was such a surprise megahit it is because such things were long thought dead and gone. Big publishing and Hollywood decided heroism was over. We'd evolved past it--now it was time to live in the "real" world of hateful and hopeless misery. No one was allowed to be a hero anymore. It was kid stuff. The world was dead, it was only a matter of time before you were, and you just needed to accept it. This era is with us again today.

Funny to see that this exact poisonous attitude is what ended up killing said Brand X space opera's new movies in recent years. It is as if they were deliberately sabotaged in order to send a message. Heroism isn't real, and every hero you thought you had was a phony because that's life! It's a meaningless series of random events and then you're dead. So stop having hope, stop having an imagination, and keep your head out of the clouds.

There's nothing worth fighting for beyond political policies of the Good Guy Party, so there are no heroes. There are only revolutionaries for the status quo. This is all backwards and inverted, but that is how it goes when you upturn your roots for ego.

The love for heroism is just one thing lost in the morass of the 1970s. It was a hopeless time, and has justifiably been forgotten today.

This loss of perspective is best shown in this exchange from Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force, a movie which tries to show the difference between an anti-hero (IE a selfish do-gooder) and a real hero. This came after Harry Callaghan was accused of being a villain in Dirty Harry by critics. Why is he taking justice into his own hands?

It turns out he took justice into his own hands because everyone else forgot what justice was. And though the movie ended in typical grim '70s fashion, the overall point was fairly clear. Audiences loved it and it led to a boom in action movies not long later. Critics, however, didn't want to be reminded that justice is real.

Clint Eastwood then starred in Magnum Force, the sequel. This movie is intended to show the difference between an anti-hero (what the critics thought Harry was) and a hero who upholds justice (what Harry actually is), and it does this extremely well.

The following exchange explains it clearly.

God is dead, heroism is dead, society is a free-for-all, and yet Justice remains? No, I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. An anti-hero is no hero. He's just using it as excuse to feed his own ego. It is pure 1970s wankery, and is a concept that has far outlived its usefulness. There's nothing clever or fresh about the concept of anti-heroes, they're nearly half a century old, at this point. And yet we're still told to this day how great and original they are.

As explained above, Magnum Force was a response to Clint Eastwood's previous Dirty Harry in which he was accused of being a fascist character. Even back then "fascist" was a word that had lost all meaning. What Harry represents is the last stand of heroes in a world that has forgotten the good and the true, and merely operates on the momentum of dead men whose influence is scrubbed away more and more every day.

And this is the same with every other form of fiction. If you don't have clear good and evil then it only comes down to who has the bigger gun in the end. And if your definition of good and evil are mere caricatures of what you learned in public school, cobbled together out of nowhere not based on any real standard, then it's not going to ring true. As sales for modern books can attest: they don't ring true. Because they aren't true.

This path is a dead end. Chain bookstores are on the way out as it is. No one reads anymore, and less are reading every day.

What's the solution? It's to go back. It's to assure everyone that reading isn't what they were taught it was because of the miserable books they were forced to read in government mandated prison campsschool. It's to show them that there's a whole world out there they've been missing. Wonder brightens anyone's day.

To do this, we have to go back. We have to go so far back that we have to find the last time reading appealed to a mass of people on a wide scale. And wouldn't you know it? It's the golden age of pulp fiction: the very fiction that inspired all their favorite movies, TV shows, and video games. But because so many have been "educated" to write fiction as anti-pulp and anti-consumerist as possible, it requires a louder approach to get attention. It requires a revolution.

So how has this revolution been working out? Very well! Every writer who fell into the Pulp Revolution years ago and are still coming into it now has gathered steam, is seeing increasing success with every release, and is reaching more and more readers every day. The road less traveled turned out to be the one everyone wants to wander down. It's only a matter of time before the revolution becomes what it should be: standard.

This is a long way to show that the Pulp Revolution still marches on years later. It's not about tooting our own horn, but to show that this is the way forward. The old ways are better, and will lead us to a better future. The future is bright, and the clouds are parting.

Onward we move, and we can only do but one more thing.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Grey Skies in the Wasteland

Find it Here!

I apologize for the lateness of this week's post. It's been touch and go recently, and I have been scrambling to keep up.

Things have been a bit sticky out there. I don't think I need to explain why that is. You know. However, things are not all bad, and there is a break in the clouds coming. Sit tight and the grey skies will soon break. Until then, those of us in the pulp revolution have something for you.

Spearheaded by author David V Stewart, a bunch of us writers have gotten together to create a free anthology for you to read during these trying times. Over 200,000 words of fiction awaits you in this new anthology from 17 different authors.

It's called Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love: Infectious Tales of Fantasy & Suspense Designed to Spread the Pulpdemic. Yes, that's the real title. Humor is big with this group, especially of the off-kilter kind. But the stories are serious. Well, most of them.

As the title might say, this is a bit of a wacky project. There is no overall theme, no set length for the stories, and no unifying genre. You have flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, and even a full novel inside! What brings them together is the focus on entertaining you, the reader. There are new stories, obscure stories, and reprints of overlooked stories. It's a true grab-bag of goodies.

A bunch of the authors got together on Wednesday night to discuss the project, among other things.

You can watch it here:

My included story is Someone is Aiming for You, the first in my recent book of the same name. If you haven't jumped in yet, enjoy this preview of the full length work. I wanted to get this out to as may folks as possible. It's a noir action story about a man named The Seeker who is up against insidious forces hiding in the city of Summerside. Did I mention there is magic? But this isn't your Mom's Urban Fantasy. What lurks in the corners of the dark city isn't of wands and pixie dust, but far blacker stuff. Read it for free today!

However, the author list is quite impressive going even beyond my entry. This is how you know the book is high quality. We all made sure to put in top notch stories for the readers. There is no skimping due to the price.

The description:

Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love is here to rescue you from the existential horror of indoor life, by offering you a glimpse into other worlds of wonder, whimsy, and warped humor. 
Tales of high adventure, escapist fantasies, and thrilling stories of suspense await within, from some of the keenest and most rebellious minds in pulp fiction, with a foreword by the infamous Daddy Warpig. 
With 200,000 words of exciting fiction, most never before published, including two full books and two full novellas, Corona-Chan is serious about spreading the disease LOVE!
Read it today! 
The complete catalog of collected chronicles:

“Quarantine” by artist Jesse White

"Anacyclosis" by Brian Niemeier

“A Song of I.C.E. and Fire” by Jon Del Arroz

"In the Forest of Wast" by Alexander Hellene

“Exiled in the Desert” by John Daker

“Iron and Steel” by KP Kalvaitis

“Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan

"Immortal Thunder" by Matt Wellman

“Bringing down the Mountain” by Nathan Dabney

“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn

“Going Native” and “Warrior Soul” by J. Manfred Weichsel

"The Battle of the Turasa Nebula" by Yakov Merkin

“An Eye for Eligos” by Alexandru Constantin

"Adventure Constant" (full novel) by Jon Mollison

“Star Support” by Val Hull

“The Age of Petty States” by Rawle Nyanzi


"The Crown of Sight" by David V. Stewart

Check it out today! It should be on amazon for free soon and I will update this post with the link when it is. [UPDATE: it is live! For now it is for free at book funnel. So please get it for free there

In other news, I can now officially announce something else new. I have officially become part of yet another anthology!

Preorder Here!

Remember the Planetary Anthology? My story, The Cold Heart of Ouranos, is in the Uranus volume, and can be found here. But that won't be the only story I have in the series!

For the next five months, Tuscany Bay will be re-releasing the old Superversive Press editions of the old anthologies (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter), some with new stories, before coming back around for the final three volumes. Out last will be Sol, Neptune, and Saturn.

I can now announce that my story, Judgement Sun, will be in the upcoming Sol Planetary Anthology from Tuscany Bay! This one won't be out until the end of the year, but preorders are out now for it and some of the authors in it are names you will get excited for. 

My tale is one I worked hard on. I can't wait for you to read this story. It is one of my favorites that I've written and I was hoping it could come out in this anthology. Thanks go to Richard Paolinelli and Tuscany Bay for resurrecting this series!

As said before, much praise should go to author Richard Paolinelli for rescuing the project and bringing it to fruition. Both authors and readers have really enjoyed these projects are are happy to see them continue, I am merely one voice in a crowd. By 2021, this years in the making project will finally have been completed at 11 volumes. I look forward to seeing what the final list of contributors will look like when it is finished. Guaranteed it will be surprisingly large!

But that isn't everything.

The newsletter treat I promised at the start of the year is on the way! My editor returned edits to me and I am about halfway through the notes. The cover art I commissioned is being made as we speak. By April I should have news for subscribers on what it is and when it'll be out. The best news? It will be free! My readers only deserve the best, and I wanted to give them a treat for sticking with me for so long now.

This going to be a doozy, so sign up ahead of time!

That is all for this week. I apologize for not having a larger more involved post, and for being a bit late, but my mind has been preoccupied with current happenings and personal issues unfolding from said happenings. Next week should be back to normal for the blog. Until then, enjoy this free book with a swath of excellent stories.

There's still plenty of adventure to be had out there, and more is on the way! The grey skies are going to break, just wait it out.

What's coming will be better than you can imagine!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Horror Heaven

Today I would like to talk a bit about horror fiction. It isn't brought up much on this blog because my knowledge on the subject isn't too vast, but I have been reading a bit about it recently and would like to share some observations. This is because horror, like just about everything else, isn't doing so hot these days. Though I suppose that isn't much of a surprise.

Horror used to be a force to be reckoned with back in the day. Even before it was a staple of the pulps it went back far into Gothic and Poe and into the classic fairy tales. But it was in the 20th century with its heavy reliance on visuals and the newly emerging cinema scene that it truly became a behemoth. When the horrors can be seen it tends to add a layer of realism to the proceedings. No wonder that it grew so large in such a relatively short time.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, and into the early '90s, the genre which had once been a staple of the Gothic flavored Weird Tales, and other such creepy places, had blown up thanks to the advent of books and movies such as The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen. Evil was here, it is visceral, and it was going to get you! Considering the '70s were such a time of despair, it makes all too much sense that this sort of horror would appeal to the audiences. These movies helped show there was a sinister force in the dark hoping to make you miserable. It gave context for what made no sense on the outside. Anyone back then could relate to them and how they were filtered through the strange times around them.

I never grew up caring for horror. It might have been because the most popular form of horror when I was a kid was the slasher movie, which is a subgenre I still don't like all too much. Horror that focuses on gore is almost as bad as an adventure story that focuses on graphics sex: it's hardly the point of telling a story to begin with. I want to be unsettled at a world gone wrong that needs to be righted, not read long passages intimately describing torn flesh and broken bones before having an ending where everyone dies pointlessly.

That's all just gore and senseless violence. Horror is more than that.

What a good horror tale should do is a serve as a warning. The best of these stories focus on a character (hero or villain) breaking a taboo or rule and the consequences that spring from it. Everything is no longer as it should be because of this disturbance. The genre serves as a way to show what happens when what works and what is right is thrown away from that which doesn't, and results that spin out from that decision a character makes. It's about the importance of rules in a strong society, and how breaking them leads to destruction. All the best horror does this in at least some fashion, even if not obvious.

Horror needs heart. That is what gives it its power to shock and surprise.

As a result this makes it less of a genre and more of a theme. Horror can invade an adventure, it can appear in a mystery, and it can show itself in a romance. It can be any length from flash fiction to tome. It can come and go at the author's discretion. In other words, it is very flexible.

In fact, it was once tied together with what is called science fiction and fantasy in a mega-genre mashup where the author could emphasize any part of this behemoth they wished in order to tell their stories. The purest form of genre fiction bounces between elements of each to tell their tales of wonder. Not to mention there are the dark fantasies of fairy tales and myths from centuries upon centuries ago. But I've already gone over this before.

Fairy tales and legends also relied on rock solid morality. How can it not? It relies on the audience sharing an understanding of right and wrong that transcends what happens on the page or screen. Morality is what makes the difference between good and bad horror, and it is why so much of it no longer hits the mark. Author Misha Burnett once said the author's look on good and evil is what ends up changing the entire work. I agree with him.

He says:

"The main problem that I see with Stephen King in particular and modern horror in general is an inability to write a Good that deserves to conquer Evil. 
"The modern horror protagonist is, at best, less bad than the monsters. In the more splatterpunk side of the genre, the protagonist is not even that–he’s just the one who ends up with the bigger gun at the end of the day. 
"This is not to say that a horror hero must be a saint, but simply that the things for which the hero is fighting–the security of his home and family, the safety of the population in general, or even just his own life–should be acknowledged to be not just his own preferences, but objectively worthwhile. 
"Moral relativism nerfs horror. If Joe is trying to stay alive and Blargdor is trying to kill him, the author should take a stand and say, “Joe is right to want to live and Blardor is wrong to want to kill him.” 
"Instead, modern horror writers rely on increasingly gruesome depictions of violence and cruelty to try to awaken the reader’s sense of moral outrage. 
"It is from that sense of moral outrage that the horror genre gets its power. A hurricane can kill people and destroy property on a great scale, but a hurricane is not a monster. (Granted, you can write a ripping yarn about people trapped in the path of a hurricane and struggling to survive, but it’s not horror.) 
"To be monstrous, the antagonist must be not merely hazardous, but also wrong. Wrong in an objective sense–Something That Should Not Be. 
"It is in the deliberate fostering of a sense of injustice that a writer invokes true horror.
"Killing a monster has to more than personal survival, it must be in itself a morally positive act. 
"Injustice, however, requires an objective standard of justice to be measured against, and that is something that few modern horror writers are willing to portray."

This is why those stories of the 1970s broke out so big. It also had to do with the rising knowledge of satanic cults (believe it or not, they exist) and hangover from the tumultuous 1960s. People wanted to know what it was that was under the floorboards and hiding in their backyard. Who were the ones disturbing things and destroying the status quo? Why had things gotten so crazy?

These are questions horror can answer, and they can do it with imagination and wonder. You can fond solace in the unsettling.

Due to the success and rise of horror, pulp storytelling began to make a comeback in the 1970s. Much has been written about the sword and sorcery boom (horror is all over those) and even darker sf (the new wave was still on and had its own horror bent), but outside of the horror aficionados no one else really talks about horror's big boom. That might have to do with how little of it sticks with mainstream audiences these days, and hasn't for a while.

I know horror built itself a reputation as being about blood, guts, and dismemberment, something it was never really focused on before the 20th century, but that is only surface level. The best horror is about more than that. It must have been big if it lasted up until the early '90s (hmm) while fantasy and science fiction had died out sooner, and the classics fell out of print during this same period (more on this later). How did horror last so long?

'80s Horror is still looked back on as fondly as action movies from that time. Clearly there was a renaissance that stuck with audiences.

But then, like everything else, it flatlined in the '90s. Now horror is relegated to specialized indie publishers and random short story anthologies. You won't find much from Oldpub these days. They are all in on thrillers, and have been for over a quarter of a century. But for awhile horror was the cock of the walk.

One book that went into this explosion was Paperbacks from Hell by author Grady Hendrix. This is a work covering that strange period of horror fiction between the '70s and the early '90s up to when Oldpub began to die and flushed out its classic genres and midlist. It's a highly engaging book, and well worth reading, if you can find it.

I personally read the kindle version. Either way you find it, it is worth the read.

The book in question

I have to say I was surprised with the scope of this book! The author does not skimp on details. Himself a fan of obscure paperbacks from the time period, Mr. Hendrix didn't really know much about them before beginning the book in question.

"The books I love were published during the horror paperback boom that started in the late ’60s, after Rosemary’s Baby hit the big time. Their reign of terror ended in the early ’90s, after the success of Silence of the Lambs convinced marketing departments to scrape the word horror off spines and glue on the word thriller instead. Like The Little People, these books had their flaws, but they offered such wonders. When’s the last time you read about Jewish monster brides, sex witches from the fourth dimension, flesh-eating moths, homicidal mimes, or golems stalking Long Island? Divorced from current trends in publishing, these out-of-print paperbacks feel like a breath of fresh air."

What Mr. Hendrix experienced is called "wonder", and it was a staple of the pulp-inspired fiction he was reading. It is about more than a mentally ill nihilist stabbing innocent people in back alleys and empty apartments. You don't get this sort of thing out of your common thriller.

You can see the same love of over-sized and large ideas from the pulps in his description, not unlike Jeffro Johnson writing about Appendix N in his own work. In today's stale Oldpub market of checkbox fiction, looking to the past is like being transported to a whole new dimension. It is a window into a world that literally does not exist anymore.

It is an intriguing development seeing so many people eager to look to the past to understand the decrepit state what they love is currently in. There has been quite the change over the last few years, and I don't suspect it will change any time soon.

Myself being one that grew up scrounging for anything good to read, it is always an annoyance reading these sorts of genre history books. If Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hendrix had been around when I was younger I might have been a much more voracious reader in my youth. I simply never found anything like these books when I was a boy which added a distaste for reading I never wanted. It is curious how many others were chased from reading due to these same issues.

But at least we can take these lessons forward now.

"The book you’re holding is a road map to the horror Narnia I found hidden in the darkest recesses of remote bookstores—a weird, wild, wonderful world that feels totally alien today, and not just because of the trainloads of killer clowns."

Being written before the politically correct '90s will do that. You simply aren't "allowed" to do that anymore. Even the worst fiction from that time is at least interesting due to avoiding needless rules that were tacked on by those who wished to control discourse and the flow of language by dismissing opponents with empty buzzwords instead of arguing or discussing anything. And because the work was so popular, editorial interference did not appear to affect it to the same level as, say, men's adventure. It was free to do what it wanted.

But now they all share the same shelves in used book stores. That is, if the shop carries them at all. And books outside of their designated shops? No chance of that. The drugstore paperback rack no longer exists.

"Though they may be consigned to dusty dollar boxes, these stories are timeless in the way that truly matters: they will not bore you. Thrown into the rough-and-tumble marketplace, the writers learned they had to earn every reader’s attention. And so they delivered books that move, hit hard, take risks, go for broke. It’s not just the covers that hook your eyeballs. It’s the writing, which respects no rules except one: always be interesting."

Welcome to the pulp revolution. This is what we want. I do not presume that Mr. Hendrix would want to be part of such a thing, but his excitement in discovering lost treasure is what started that very movement to begin with. We all wish to recover this strange energy lost to time in trying to please everyone and thereby ultimately satisfying no one.

We want it all, and we're going to make and take it!

However, while genre fiction was beginning to split into narrow categories and dwindling sales, horror remained rather locked in to where it needed to be. There was no John W. Campbell or his cronies trying to tamper and place rules on something that had none.

Mr. Hendrix shares an interesting tidbit about 1960s horror:

"But if horror movies and television shows were stuck in the ’50s, horror publishing was trapped in the ’30s. While mainstream publishers were on fire with books like Truman Capote’s chilling true-crime shocker In Cold Blood, Jacqueline Susann’s titillating Valley of the Dolls, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the horror genre was taking its cues from the pulps of yesteryear. These books rarely even used the word horror on covers, instead offering “eerie adventure,” “chilling adventure,” “tales of the unexpected,” and “stories of the weird.” Even the work of Shirley Jackson, the empress of American horror fiction, was sold with covers that made her books look like gothic romances.
"It’s not that people weren’t buying books. After crashing in the 1950s, the paperback market surged back less than a decade later when college students turned Ballantine’s paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings into a zeitgeist-sized hit. Bantam Books reprinted pulp adventures of Doc Savage from the ’30s and ’40s, adding lush, photorealistic, fully painted covers by James Bama. And there was an early-’60s “Burroughs Boom” when publishers discovered that twenty-eight of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books had fallen into the public domain. Suddenly, thirty-year-old Tarzan and John Carter of Mars novels were hitting stands, with new covers painted by Frank Frazetta and Richard Powers, alongside Conan reprints.
"Yet for all that activity, horror appeared nowhere on best-seller lists. Horror was for children. It was pulp. If it was any good, it couldn’t possibly be horror and so was rebranded as a “thrilling tale.” Horror seemed to have no future because it was trapped in the past. That was all about to change, and already there were signs that something was stirring. They were found in the romance section of the bookstore."

So you're telling me Weird Tales was still so popular even more than a decade after its shuttering? That is odd. I was told it had little to no effect on genre fiction by those writing genre fiction history books, if they felt it worth mentioning it at all. But this is quite an interesting nugget of information. Just as nothing was sold as "science fiction" or "fantasy", nothing was sold as "horror" either. It was all "adventure" and "weird" fiction.

Nonetheless, these books had Gothic covers because Gothic was an invaluable part of the horror experience for centuries, and it still is. The danger of the soul crossing invisible, but existing and real, boundaries is simply more in depth than simply being killed. This is the "weird" that makes weird fiction so very interesting. This is how Gothic romance stayed alive so long after Weird Menace quite nearly killed horror for good.

It is easy to forget, but as Ron Goulart mentioned in his History of the Pulps, Weird Menace was an embarrassment. It stripped the mystery and wonder of horror to focus on violence and debauchery instead. It didn't last. Much like Splatterpunk itself didn't, though that came along much later.

Remember that the original Splatterpulps, Weird Menace, were such a flash in the pan and so hated that almost none of it was reprinted even now over half a century since the death of the pulps. Even horror aficionados have never gone on record wanting it back or begging for reprints. This is the sort of junk that kept horror held back as being looked at as "for kids" for a long time. Just as the pulps were looked at as kid stuff, even when a quick read of any would reveal that was not the case, horror suffered the same fate.

When scolds tell you what you like is amoral junk with nothing of value beneath the surface there is little point in setting about to prove them right. It never ends well, but it is simply a lesson we have to learn again and again.

Still, the stigma stuck for decades.

With the death of the pulps in the 1950s, paperbacks had to be the ones to carry these wonder stories over into this new era. It only stands to reason that this form would continue well into the 1970s. Weird Menace was dead, but Gothic chills remained. How do you carry that to a new audience raised on an even steadier diet of visual media? You have to work on the image. This decade is when horror showed it could be a cultural force.

One last point on Gothic romance before I move on. I once said that the pulps tied together modern genre fiction with classic writings. Mr Hendrix agrees:

"Between 1960 and 1974, thousands of these covers appeared on paperback racks as gothic romances became the missing link between the gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the paperback horror of the ’70s and ’80s."

Just remember the next time someone mentions the pulps were an aberration that needed its influence wiped out. They were anything but an anomaly.

This is a tradition that stretches back before the hopeless and empty modernism of today's fiction. The roots are deeper. It is far more classical focused, and obsessed with higher things. It all links together to form a much bigger picture.

This is where wonder comes from.

"Gothic romances seeded readers’ imaginations for the horror boom that was on the horizon. Brooding, shadowy mysteries were relocated to the domestic sphere, turning every home into a haunted castle and every potential bride into a potential victim. The blood of the resilient gothic heroine would flow in the veins of ’70s and ’80s heroines fighting to save their souls from Satan, or were-sharks. And were-sharks were coming. Because over on the other side of the bookrack, pulp fiction was getting interested in the occult."

The occult obsession in pop culture is not one dwelt on much, for obvious reasons. It's uncomfortable. But starting in the 1960s, interest in satanism (whether ironic or not, it really doesn't matter) grew to a fever pitch. Cult activity began to be a reality from Charles Manson and the strange happenings in Laurel Canyon up to the forming of the Church of Satan. The hippie movement's government ties and secret experiments provided fodder for stories from those just trying to figure out what was going on in this wacky decade.

There was more to it than the Beatles and what the television allowed you to see, and the public was starting to understand as much.

The 1970s carried this fear forward in an awkward way. Drug use and urban decay only exacerbated and the kooky cult activity began to be seeing eerie results from the Son of Sam and the Carr brothers that continued all the way up to the 1980s with the Chicago Ripper Crew and even the 1990s with The Kroth. There are more real stories than these including the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez and the seemingly random matriarchal murder by Jonathan Cantero. 27 members of the Order of the Solar Temple were found dead within hours of each other. There are many such examples that sprung from the 1960s to the current day. These were real things that were happening, no matter what the sex perverts with CIA ties who formed the False Memory Foundation told you. Things were happening that made no sense, and people wanted to make sense of it.

This rise in disturbing activity meant the populace needed answers. Where did all this evil come from? How do you make sense of it?

Enter horror.

Horror is a good place to help make sense of it all. We can use the disturbances of the supernatural to allow us a lens to see this odd world around us. Things might be bad, but there are forces at work higher (and lower) than you understand. Somehow, despite the strange chaos, there is a point to it all. But are you brave enough to see it through?

This is what made horror so big. At least, it worked that way for awhile.

As society became more and more disheveled and broken down, horror became more interested in evil for evil's sake. Movies that exist solely for showing dumb people dying, books that go into graphic detail about cooked human flesh and over-descriptive blood drinking, and stories where the villain gets everything they want and wins in the end with no consequences became more and more common. That's not horror, that's just a bunch of things happening for no reason ending with nothing mattering at all. That is the opposite of giving purpose, and it is what lead to the genre's downfall.

Horror eventually succumbed to cultural rot just like everything else did. It was not for anything but the glory of death and the hatred of hope.

By the '90s publishers switched over to thrillers because they no longer needed the supernatural. If you require mindless murdering and spilled guts then why do you need mythical monsters and ancient evils to perform it? Much easier to cut out the middleman and entice Hollywood studios to buy your book to make movies with lower budgets. You can also write an easier formula if you don't have to be creative in thinking up kooky monsters or events. Just stick it in the flaccid "real world" that the boring types love so much.

What do you need horror for anymore?

And there was no answer for this. If horror is just about mindless carnage then why can't the supernatural be stripped out of it? You can get just as much savagery with a crazed loon like Ted Bundy than a demon witch summoned from the fourth dimension to steal a hated sister's baby. If all you want is spilled blood then you don't need wonder any more. And they didn't.

That this change happened so quick and so easily that no one noticed for decades afterwards should prove how off the rails horror had gotten so suddenly. I was as if they turned around and realized that the horror shelves were now barren. Where did it go?

What made the occult terrifying wasn't that it would murder you: it was that it sought to subvert and destroy normality by spinning everything backwards on on its head and infecting the innocent in its wake. In a climate where normality was slowly dying, no one could tell the difference between the good and the bad, and therefore horror lost its bearings. See how many modern horror stories are about "tortured outsiders" or horror nerds instead of normal people facing disturbing and outlandish events in their lives. "Normal" people are regularly spat on instead. It no longer became about appreciating the rules that kept the normal as it was, or about celebrating the common man, it became about hating normality and looking up to the disturbed instead.

The point of the Weird Tale had long since been forgotten, and in its place was a wacky, cartoonish inversion.

Horror isn't supposed to hate people: it's supposed to love them. That is what makes conquering that which threatens them exciting. We want things to be set right again, and we want the horrible monster to fail. That is why horror loves rules so much: it wants people to follow them. If you don't? This is the mess you get in its place. You lose everything, and it's so much worse than merely losing your life.

This is partially why horror started from a religious POV. Higher things, rules, and clear defined stakes. Horror needs a structured playpen where it can then be free to play within its walls to its heart's content. Since it's about rules it only stands to reason that it needs them to function properly. Everything does.

When it lost the rules, everything else followed.

As a result of this nonsensical change, by the '90s publishers had begun to dump aspiring authors, cutting off careers before they could even get off the ground and began pushing into thriller territory instead. They no longer needed horror, because horror had written its own self out of the picture. And nothing has changed on that end since the early '90s.

This change was exacerbated by the fact that the big boys in Oldpub bought up every independent throughout the 1980s. Per Mr. Hendrix's book:

"Small horror imprints had flourished in the ’70s, but in the ’80s the big publishers gobbled them up. Penguin acquired Grosset & Dunlap and Playboy Press, setting off a trend that snowballed into an extinction-level event by decade’s end. Once they had eaten the little guys, big publishers flooded the market with their own paperback original imprints, like Spectra, Onyx, Pinnacle, and Overlook."

When they decided horror was dead that meant it was dead. There was nothing you could do about it. The supernatural and the weird was "over", and now it was time for "realism" to shine. It has been "shining" since.

But there was more to it. A sledgehammer was taken to the industry that ended up irreparably harming books as a whole. The midlist, and potential industry growth in the process, was hobbled over night. The industry would never be the same again.

The Thor Power Tool Co. case is responsible for this change. Here is a description of the case from the book for those who might not be familiar with it.

"There was nothing the ’80s respected more than blockbuster success, and only brand names—V.C. Andrews, Anne Rice, Stephen King—would survive the decade. Blockbuster books permanently changed the publishing landscape, and it was all thanks to power tools.
"The Thor Power Tool Co. case of 1979 radically changed how books were sold. This U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the Internal Revenue Service’s rule that companies could no longer “write down,” or lower the value of, unsold inventory. Previously, publishers pulped about 45 percent of their annual inventory, but that still left them with warehouses full of midlist novels that had steady but unspectacular sales. The pressure to sell quickly was off because publishers could list the value of the unsold inventory far below the books’ cover price. After the Thor decision, these books were valued at full cover price, eliminating the tax write-off. Suddenly, the day of the midlist novel was over. Paperbacks were given six weeks on the racks to find an audience, then it was off to the shredder. A successful book now had to sell blockbuster numbers. And manufacturing blockbusters took a team, starting with the blurb writer, who created the breathlessly enthusiastic marketing copy for the back cover. Then the marketing department came up with flashy gimmicks to help each book stand out in a crowded field. Publishers gave out porcelain roses, perfume, and garters bearing the names of their latest romances."

Bye, bye, midlist. Now it was all about chasing the dragon of cheap cost for maximum profit in a short time frame. It was time to focus on being safe and finding hidden algorithms in public taste. Eventually that meant softening content to cast a wider net. Nothing is safer and more predictable than the thriller genre.

In case you haven't realized, Oldpub is still focused on thrillers to this day as their bread and butter. They have never shifted gears since. Nothing has changed in over 25 years.

And that is why we are where we are.

This loss of identity is one horror readers have been lamenting for some time. Here is a recent video from In Praise of Shadows talking about this loss of identity in something that used to have a very obvious one. It's not a very long video, so please give it a watch before continuing. There are many good points he brings up.

Apparently more authors and smaller publishers are noticing this dearth of content in the older horror vein. Newer authors have begun deliberately going back to the classic horror well. Companies like Valancourt Books have begun even offering special reprints of mass market paperbacks using Paperbacks from Hell as a brand.

This series takes old pulp horror novels from the above time period and reprints them using either the old covers, or covers not too dissimilar from what would be printed back then. As a result, they have created a classics line of obscure books highlighting exactly what the modern fiction world has been missing for some time. It's a mini-revolution.

This is a masterful move that gives focus to a neglected era of book publishing. Perhaps more readers can now see what they missed out on. The line is currently in its second wave with more to follow. There is some interesting material in there.

One such novel from this series is Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale, a writer who got his start on a choose your own adventure style series before getting the chance to write his own. This was an author with potential who worked his way up. He wanted to write the same sort of horror stories he and his brothers grew up on, and for his first big book pulled out all the stops.

The result s a story that would never see print today outside of Newpub:

From the book

Martindale's story of being an author is heartbreaking, as it is one of an author in the wrong place at the wrong time. He did his job, but that wouldn't be enough. He would never get the support he deserved to reach an audience he should have had.

Because Nightblood was published in 1990, he had a rough go of it and the same happened with the other three of his four standalone horror books. Horror was being faded out, even in 1990. He had a two book deal, including Nightblood, but never had the chance to write a sequel for it. His next novel was dumped on store shelves without promotion, and that was that. He was on his own.

Thankfully he had another two book deal with another publisher, but they were no better. The books were given bad covers and quietly released without any push in 1993 and '94. He was left floating in a stream without any paddle. He wrote the best books he could, but it was too late to matter. They decided horror was done. Publishers wouldn't do their jobs.

By 1994 no one wanted to do horror anymore, and he had nowhere left to go. He quit being an author and moved on to other things in frustration. What else could he do? There were no other options at the time if the publishers decided you weren't writing the correct books. So a promising career was cut short by editors and money men who decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The 20th century sure was the century of the editor above all else when it came to writing.

The men in charge decided that horror was out, so it was out. Who were you to disagree? The genre was dismantled almost overnight and those who like horror, and those who wanted to write it, simply didn't matter anymore. Stories of wonder, light against dark, and wild ideas of the supernatural, were out. Now it was about sterilized fear and rewrites of true crime fiction instead. Those wild and free ideas were finished.

The 1990s had decreed that imagination was outdated.

The re-release looks just like the original

Now even heavyweights such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz primarily write in the thriller vein and are given promotion as such. No one else will ever reach their level, no matter what they write. That door has been shut, locked, and the key thrown away. Whatever is left from when the genre was at peak popularity is all but gone from the old publishing world now.

Should there be a horror revolution, it's going to need to return to its roots and start from there. The age of Oldpub is over, and now it is the age of those with a PulpRev spirit: those who will break genre boundaries and bring back the focus and purpose that has been lost over the years. In other words, horror needs an attempt to move past the dead end state of fiction by returning to where it went wrong and taking a right turn instead. Lean into the wonder and the imagination. What else do you have to lose?

It's not about pretending the last however-many years didn't happen, it is about keeping that bad path in mind while forging ahead on better paths instead. This is how you move on: you learn from the past to move towards a better future.

Horror points to heaven, where the horrible and the unjust show where the good and the wondrous lie instead. It isn't meant to be about navel-gazing or mindless self-indulgence, but about connecting with readers and showing shared standards we can all believe in. Evil is evil, good is good, and one is definitely preferred over the other.

We're on the right track. The slow death of Oldpub and the explosive growth of Newpub shows just as much. Things are changing, and it's about time.

The '20s are going to be an interesting decade, and we're only just getting started! The revolution is here, and it isn't stopping anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Signal Boost ~ "The Last Archon" by Richard W. Watts

Find it Here!

Today we see the release of the final book in the first wave of Heroes Unleashed books! It is author Richard W. Watt's The Last Archon, the first in his Atlantean Knights series.

It is getting an early release on the Silver Empire website where you can find the description as such:

The man who thought he would live forever is running out of time. 
For three thousand years, Deckard Riss has been alone. Ever since his home sunk into the sea with Atlantis, he has been the last of his people. The final Atlantean knight, the last Archon. 
Then fate forced an apprentice on him, and now the pair of them police the streets of Atlanta, magicians in hiding as superheroes. 
Now there are whispers of Atlantis on the wind, another sorcerer at work. This unknown dark wizard sacrifices superpowered teenagers in grisly ritual suicides. And Deckard’s magic, once so easily accessed, starts slipping beyond his grasp. 
If he doesn’t have his powers, he can’t stop the rending of reality to allow monsters into our world. If he doesn’t have his powers, he is nothing. 
Deckard only has to hold on for another year. Just one more year, to train his apprentice to take his place, and stop the end of the world. And he’s not sure he can do it. 
Will his apprentice step up to save the world, or will he drive the boy away with his secrets? 
Doctor Strange meets HP Lovecraft in this new Heroes Unleashed series about wizards, prophets and superheroes in Atlanta. 
Can Deckard find the mysterious sorcerer, stop the portal from opening, and prepare his apprentice to take his place before his time runs out? 
Read The Last Archon today and find out!

The adventure begins here.

Co-written with the mysterious and elusive Thomas Plutarch, each Heroes Unleashed series has offered something different for the reader of exciting hero fiction. I am a part of this group, and my Gemini Man series is a portal hopping adventure of wanderers, warriors, and adventure. The second book is on the way!

But what else awaits the future of Heroes Unleashed beyond the original five series? You will have to wait to find out, but I can promise even more magic to come.

We're just getting started!

And don't forget that Silver Empire's book club can net you all these new books for a good deal! You can enroll here.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Perfect Dark: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made


One of the genres that doesn't come across so well these days is cyberpunk. It has just gotten a good deal less imaginative than it once was, relying on leaning on the way the modern world looks without much else to say or do. Where it was once a possible look into where the modern world might head, it ended up becoming a flat and muted dystopian present without much in the way of the blood and dirt cyberpunk needs to justify itself.

But it didn't used to be this way.

Take Perfect Dark, for instance. A video game from the year 2000 on the Nintendo 64 at the end of the console's lifespan, it remains one of developer Rare's highlights even two decades removed from its original release. This is a game that nailed the cyberpunk feel of a familiar yet alien future where things aren't quite right. Even twenty years later the game still looks futuristic enough to be a look into our future.

However, it is the gameplay that makes it what it is. Even on the N64 it was ahead of its time, and remains so now even as the genre has since sunken to having the ambition of a doorknob. What makes it one of the best games ever made is its ambitious nature.

Finding Perfect Dark today is not so easy, though.

After its original release it didn't get much in the way of attention. The game has since been re-released by Microsoft on both the Xbox 360 and in Rare Replay for the Xbox One which fixes the framerate, gets rid of the fog and blur, and otherwise leaves the core game alone. It no longer needs the N64 expansion pak just to access game modes. If only more companies would learn to upgrade their early 3D games this way.

But I'm getting off the trail. What is it that makes Perfect Dark special? For that we need to go back to the genre's start.

In 1993, another of the best games ever made was released. DOOM more or less took over PC gaming, helping to turn it into a force for creativity at a time when consoles and the arcades were unstoppable. It was a genre more or less based on playing out the final shootout from Death Wish 3. Being that action movies were still big in the early '90s, the genre exploded in popularity. This led to the rise of the First Person Shooter, which soon became one of the staple video game genres in mere years. The 1990s were their creative peak, and Perfect Dark came at the tail end of this high, before their dip a generation later and their creative bottoming out right after that.

In a first person shooter, your goal is to navigate a 3D space to either find something, or reach an exit, and you use your guns to blast your way through anything that stands in your way. It's a very simple formula that relies heavily on level design and shooting mechanics to make it work. Without those, the genre just doesn't work.

However, by 2000 there were already many wrinkles in the genre from the pseudo-RPG of Strife to the cinematic scope of Duke Nukem 3D. Even though they changed things up, they never lost the focus of the genre in question. What all these games had in common was a heavy emphasis on exploring large levels filled with tough enemies to hold the player at bay. This is what makes the genre stand out from the crowd.

Eventually the FPS would lose its way by the time Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out and sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Every game had to be like that: highly scripted hallways with little in the way of player interaction with the environment.

But before the first HD generation the focus was on hardcore gameplay and testing the player. Rare's shooters for the N64 were no different. Where now one complains of consoles "ruining" the genre, Perfect Dark had none of the worst concessions modern developers put in their games. You could carry an arsenal of weapons and gadgets, you could get lost in the levels, and there was no hand-holding whatsoever. It stacks up to the best.

The game deserves its reputation as a classic FPS.

From the remaster

In GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, Rare added a superspy-twist to the proceedings by adding in a good bit of stealth, and accomplishing objectives (which change depending on difficulty level), as well as a cinematic presentation around the levels. Perfect Dark followed up on this by having voiced cutscenes between levels, bigger stages, a more robust multiplayer (with bots!), and far more inventive weapons and gadgets, with a bonkers story. It was a proper sequel to GoldenEye, and outdid that mega-seller in every way that counted.

Perfect Dark is a first person shooter starring super-spy Joanna Dark, as she gets embroiled in a convoluted plot involving corporate conspiracy that ends up spiraling into dealing with the existence of aliens. You sneak around highrise skyscrapers, hidden factories, cyberpunk backstreets, and alien ships. It's completely over the top and insane, but what is important is that is a followup to the phenomenally popular GoldenEye 007 for the N64.

Perfect Dark pushes beyond even that.

For those unaware, GoldenEye 007 is a game based on the movie of the same name in the James Bond superspy franchise. In that game you are tasked with being James Bond and working out missions from, and based on, the movie of the same name. You go through challenging stages swarming with enemies and obscure objectives that test your mettle. It goes without saying that the game was a massive hit. No other game at the time was as good as allowing the player to play a character as well as GoldenEye did. This then set the James Bond franchise to have a long-running video game series of its own, but none by Rare.

However, while I enjoyed GoldenEye at the time, and still think its campaign is very well designed, I think Perfect Dark is the far superior game. It is an unpopular opinion, but it's one I will stick by. I don't rate anything on nostalgia, but how well it succeeds. Even without its re-release, Perfect Dark was just an improvement over GoldenEye all the way around.

Without the license surrounding it, Rare had to be creative and come up with its own world and characters, and they did it in spades. I'll get to just why that is, in a moment. Suffice to say, they went all out and created a game many are still waiting for a proper sequel even now. There is a very, very good reason for that.

This is still Rare's best game even years later, in my eyes.

The music is perfect, too

First, I have to say that Perfect Dark is very ambitious.

If we take a look at the gadgets and weapons, we have an alien sniper rifle that fires through walls, a gun that makes the victim sick, a rifle that turns into a proximity mine when thrown, a crossbow, throwing knives, different types of mines,  grenades, and my personal favorite, a laptop that turns into a gun that then turns into a turret when thrown against a wall. You can also fistfight and knock fools senseless, if you want. Not to mention that every single weapon has an alternate firing mode, technically doubling the amount of weapons that can be used. Modern FPS games wish they had as much variety.

Then there are the many different modes. I can't remember the last time an FPS offered so much to gamers. It might have been the last Timesplitters game--which was developed by ex-Rare guys. There is much for both single player and multiplayer.

Not only is there a co-op mode for two players, but there is also a counter-op mode. In this one the second players takes control of weaker enemies and must take the player down before they complete the mission. When the second player dies he respawns as another bad guy on the map, thereby evening the odds. For a Nintendo 64 game to do this is awe-inspiring on its own, but that it works quite well as a mode is even more impressive.

This is in addition to the 4 player split-screen multiplayer that also allows all manners of bots to compete. You have a plethora of maps from parking garages, to alien temples, to Area 51 sites to cyberpunk factories. Also included are some of the best maps from GoldenEye. On the N64 the slowdown of all this content allowed the game to chug, but the remake fixes all this to make it smooth no matter what you wish to play or do. With friends and bots, the sky is the limit in Perfect Dark. GoldenEye does not even come close.

In addition to that, there are many additions to single player beyond the 9 base missions (split into 17 levels) including bonus missions once the game is completed.

Of course, playing the missions on higher difficulties also changes and adds objectives, thereby opening up the maps more and altering the experience a good deal.

You can wander the Carrington Institute from the main menu which is a hub before those became more standard for FPSes. You also unlock classic weapons from GoldenEye (renamed, of course) by competing and getting good scores on the firing range in said hub, and wander around Joanna's headquarters for fun and for Easter eggs.

The game is stuffed with things to find and do.

The first stage

All this is buoyed by the fact that the core gameplay just feels smooth to just play. Joanna slides around catlike, making sneaking around fun. Her playful attitude makes her a likeable protagonist that you want to hang around with as she goes on adventures

The AI is good enough, and silly enough, to know how to react to the player's actions from rolling out of the way of fire, to running for alarms, to having dramatic deaths with cheesy one-liners that make you feel unstoppable and like a superspy. Every shot you fire has weight, as they always either prevent an enemy from firing back, cause them to drop their own weapons, or die in an over the top manner. You always enjoy shooting in this game.

The atmosphere of Perfect Dark is perfect cyberpunk from immaculately clean office buildings and offices, to chrome-plated factories, to dirty and decaying backstreets and hidden underground tunnels. The incredible synth music sells it, too. The cheesy voice-acting gives the entire affair a b-movie feel without having to rely on the hallway and scripted design of overly serious modern shooters. If you play this one you will be guaranteed an experience like no other.

It really is a shame Rare only made a small handful of shooters. Aside from the Timesplitters series a few years later, which is not quite the same as these, nobody made games like they did at their peak. It is tough to nail ambition and enjoyability in equal measures, but they did it here.

However, I wouldn't recommend playing the game on an N64 today, just as I wouldn't for most 3D games of that era. The 32-bit console generation's 3D games have aged horribly and are really tough to play today. They all suffern from some combination of tons of slowdown, blur, fog, or sluggish control. Perfect Dark is no exception to this.

I would instead recommend finding the remake 4J Studios made for the Xbox 360, re-released in Rare Replay for the Xbox One. As said before, it is the remake all 3D games from that era should have: leave the core gameplay alone and simply polish and eliminate performance issues. This is the one you want to play, and is the way the original would have been without hardware limitations.

Because as it is, Perfect Dark is an excellent first person shooter, and in my opinion is one of the best. It's actually in my top ten.

In an age of brown gray hyper-serious overly-scripted sleeping pill shooters, Perfect Dark has only gotten better with the passage of time. We have plenty of "Boomer shooters" in 2020 that take inspiration from classics like DOOM, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3D, to create new experiences from their base, but nothing yet that has reached for the eccentric heights of Perfect Dark. In other words, there isn't anything like it.

But if you want the fun of being a superspy cyberpunk dealing with evil corporations, cheesy one-liners, and strange aliens named Elvis, then don't pass it by.

Games like Perfect Dark validate the existence of video games as a medium. Fun is fun, and they don't come much better than this.