Friday, March 6, 2020

Indie Short Fiction: Alpdruck! by Michael Reyes and Pour Down Like Silver by Cynthia Ward

In our project of reviving pulp fiction, or of revolutionizing it or revealing it or revolting against the modern world with it, it's not always firm what pulp is.

(It's paper, basically. Cheap paper. Print a story on it and your plots are 60% more masculine and adventurous. Try it and see if it works.)

It's not that we rediscovered the fistfight. It's not that the strong male archetype was wiped out by court order. The pulp mojo was in something else, something not easy to classify. One aspect is what I like to call "thrift," by which I mean how many words are used to express each concept, or how many outside sources you need to have read to get what's going on.

Pulp stories were very light, even with some very involved worldbuilding - it was expressed through action, implied through tone, or just left for your personal letters with HP Lovecraft or whatever. The modern trend, though, ever since Lester del Rey pulled a Tolkien ripoff from the absolute trash slush pile and made it a bestseller, is to do the opposite, what I'll call "contingency." Thrifty fiction doesn't need you to bring much to it, just an English vocabulary and the sort of literary knowledge a high school graduate in 1930 would have. Contingent fiction wants you to learn its vocabulary, and be educated in it.

I believe thrift is one of the aspects of pulp that makes it so powerful to modern readers. We're processing fiction in ways we're not used to. It's like cutting a food you're allergic to out of your diet. Read these two stories, the first two in the new Cirsova issue (when it's released in two weeks) and tell me if you know what I'm getting at. They meet the Cirsova admissions criteria very well, they have action, they are punchy, they take place in extraordinary environments, and they are modern.

The issue starts with Alpdruck! by Michael Reyes, and is apparently part of a series about supernatural problem-solvers in the hidden world of the sixth sense (often called "urban fantasy" but this doesn't happen in a city, does it, would you shelve a story about a Roman ghost detective in urban fantasy, that's what I meant, anyway).

The protagonist of this story is a chaote named Clock, who wears a coonskin cap and fights evil in Dreamland: A Phantom City. His very southern friend Trace is a Track-Herald who informs him that two of his party members have been kidnapped by the Black Sickle, and Clock will need to leave his Sutratma with Trace while he follows some Dream Travelers to Urulu for-

OK, I'm exaggerating. These terms are explained in context, enough to get what's going on but not so much the story's completely stopped. It's not an objectively bad way to tell a story, and it's what the kids are doing these days. Chaotes are Chaos Wizards, the Black Sickle is an organization of serial killers, who can steal their victim's souls and put them in private purgatories, which is a pretty cool idea. The serial killers in the story are name drops, people we already knew from pop culture, which I guess is a thrifty sort of thing but it feels modern so I'll call it that.

There are a lot of name drops in this short. Not an awful lot happens in it. There are two action scenes, but one of them happens in the first three pages of the sixteen-page story, where Clock bangs a succubus and fights off a bunch of alps, which are apparently a sort of German mischief spirit. The alps and the succubus aren't relevant. Nobody has to make uncomfortable sacrifices. Go to place, have action scene. Sometimes that's all you need.

The best part was just after the vestigial opening, when Clock and Trace are astrally projecting and talking exposition in front of a German tourist with sleep apnea, who can see into their cool urban fantasy world but not do anything about it. Good situational comedy, and a great way to start a novel, which this was not. It's mainly a) a teaser for people who haven't read Michael Reyes yet (it worked on me) and b) a bonus feature for people who have. Again, nothing wrong with that. That's the way we do things now. Remember that the next time you read a pulp short.


Pour Down Like Silver
This one isn't part of a Verse as far as I can tell. There aren't as many fantasy words to learn and also the characters' actions have an effect on the world they live in, which you can't do in a side story because you'd confuse the novel readers. Rhesanna the Swordmaiden is a swordmaiden named Rhesanna who's from an order of warrior nuns who demand suicide for failure, and she refused suicide and went questing instead.

The reason for this is given in a lengthy flashback with an action scene, which is another feature of contingent fiction. We're reading a short story about Rhesanna seeking the Tower of Ancient Time, but to read that story we need to read another story, contained in this story, about Rhesanna and her partner fighting a demon. This is prime "show, don't tell," but in my opinion this is one of those places where an exception could have improved things. It's actually the only action scene in the story, which has to compete with itself and doesn't come out ahead.

The Tower of Ancient Time itself is more of an endurance and illusion kind of thing, which is excellent, but it's sadly very short. We spend more time finding out why Rhesanna is doing this than we do watching her solve it, which she does in a cool way that ties into the established setting/themes and leads into a sequel hook (extremely contingent!) but it could have been much heartier, more efficient, if it was just one story.


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