When I was growing up there were plenty of books to be had in my house. My parents owned a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but that wasn’t what kept me up past my bedtime. I never read any of my mother’s paperback romance novels, either. No, for the most part I started by reading books by Paula Danzinger, the adventures of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, and flipping to the back of the newspaper for the latest Calvin & Hobbes. As I got a bit older, I found myself curious about a few dog-eared paperbacks my dad owned, penned by one Mickey Spillane. So I guess I really have him to thank for this writing thing I have going on. In addition to the book that got me juiced to write in the first place, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, he introduced me to a guy by the name of Mike Hammer.
Mike Hammer, a private detective and somewhat caustic fellow, is most often described as “hard-boiled.” His rage, violence and rather selfish outlook on life and the law are far more emphasized than in the likes of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. His influence can be felt throughout Frank Miller’s Sin City and in modern, more esoteric detectives like John Constantine and Harry Dresden. My curiosity about this form of storytelling is probably where my fascination with pulp really began.
This interest grew when I discovered Robert E. Howard and his musclebound sword and sorcery heroes, Conan and Kull. These blood-soaked tales were quite different from others I’d experienced growing up. In addition to the sex and violence, though, was the difference in protagonists between Conan and, say, Luke Skywalker. Like Mike Hammer, Conan was not a hero that I always liked. There were times he struck me as a complete selfish jerk. Thus pulp adventures introduced me to the concept of the unlikable protagonist.
But most of all, pulp showed me how concepts and settings that might seem weird in other, more straightforward works could be pulled off with bombast and appeal. Specifically, Flash Gordon’s world of Mongo and the Mars in which John Carter finds himself are filled with exotic aliens, dangerous creatures and shockingly beautiful women; in other words, they’re fantastic places to which many would love to escape. They showed me that no world is beyond creation, that with refinement even the most screwball idea can yield something interesting to read.
Time has passed and we live in an age that tends to be a bit more cynical and straight-faced, with such flights of fancy often looked upon as juvenile or even sophomoric. The failure of pulp-flavored adventures on film like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sucker Punch haven’t helped matters. Call me sentimental, but I feel there’s still room for the pulp in which my fascination with writing is rooted today. I know I have enough on my plate as it is, but in the back of my brain there’s something going on involving rayguns and war rockets.
Then again, that could just be my daily coping mechanism.