Pulp Fiction Cannot Be Killed

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The pulp fiction era had ended before I began reading. Although there were several shops in my neighborhood that sold used comic books, they did not also sell used pulp magazines. Or, if they did, I don’t remember them. I much preferred books anyway.

Used comics were, as I recall, two for a nickel, but the retail shop in the apartment building where I grew up sold used furniture and had a bookcase on the street in which were offered real books, in hardcover, for a dime. These adventures of Tarzan, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Fu Manchu, and similar volumes, were, to my adolescent mind, much more thrilling and formed the beginning of my library.

Like others born too late to be enthralled by the tidal wave of pulps in the 1920s and 1930s, I came to these stories and writers indirectly, reading Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, and the best of the rest in book form, before knowing what a pulp magazine was. Appreciating the liveliness of the prose, the exciting plots, and the visceral joys of battles between good and evil inevitably resulting in a big “W” for the good guys, I eventually developed affection for many other pulp writers and heroes.

Some years later, I had the good fortune to meet Walter B. Gibson, the creator of the most famous pulp character of them all, the Shadow, which he wrote using the house name Maxwell Grant. We became good friends, I got to publish several of his books, and, toward the end of his full, rich, and largely happy life, became his literary agent for a few years, pushing, wheedling, begging, arm-twisting, and helping to plan his autobiography, which sadly never came to pass.

Gibson and several other important pulp writers figure as the protagonists in a new novel by Paul Malmont with the appropriately pulpy title “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril” (Simon & Schuster, 367 pages, $24).

Deciding which books to review in this column is a tricky business. You know the mantra: so many books, so little time. The title drew me to it, of course, and when the flap copy listed the two major figures as Gibson and Lester Dent (the creator of Doc Savage under the house name Kenneth Robeson), I was hooked.

Seeing real-life figures swing into action in fictional sagas, despised by many readers, is often a treat for me. This literary gimmickry generally works only if their roles, and the activities they carry out, are (or at least seem to be) true to what is already known about them in their actual histories.

Mr. Malmont doesn’t achieve this because it clearly was not his intention to make any portion of his novel remotely realistic or even believable. He has written a pulp novel, and most pulp fiction has as much credibility as O.J. Simpson.

If I try to encapsulate the plot, you will stop reading. Set in the late 1930s, it involves the hideous murder of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest of all horror writers, whose only success came after his death at an early age. It also involves Chinese warlords, the Japanese military menace, New York’s Chinatown and the tong wars that raged there, a young L. Ron Hubbard, a surprise appearance by Robert Heinlein, some wonderful magic tricks by Gibson (a good magician in real life, as well as the friend and ghostwriter for Houdini, Thurston, Blackstone, Dunninger, and others), and a horrific poison gas, developed in 1917 and now sought by a maniac who intends to use it for world domination.

One of the great strengths of pulp novels is their ability to sustain nonstop action for 45,000 words – just the right length to get a reader into the story, throw in the villain and his heinous obsession, narrow escapes, big scene (explosion, conflagration, chase through an exotic locale, etc.), and denouement.

Mr. Malmont’s book is three times that length and, especially in the first half, seems every bit of it. Getting the good-size cast of characters introduced, giving each some set pieces, and adding some piffle about a feud between Gibson and Dent that has no bearing on the rest of the story takes a long time to push the plot up the hill. However, once it hits the pinnacle, it careers furiously the rest of the way.

The greatest fun is the indulgence of individual scenes in which one or another hero is attacked by zombie-like creatures who have inhaled the vile gas, is caught in a burning theater while trying to avoid a weapon comprised of a whip chain with a spike at the end of it, or is trapped in a ship’s cargo hold with undead monsters clutchingly close and a gang of murderers above.

Three minor elements of the fictional narrative troubled me. While I did not know Gibson in 1937, for the sake of his memory I take exception to the portrayal of him as an opium addict. I don’t think it was true, although Mr. Malmont is clearly a devotee of pulp fiction and his list of sources at the back of the book displays a serious dedication to research.

Second, Gibson is referred to repeatedly as short, and much is made of the fact that he was 5 feet 8 inches tall. At that time in America, this height was at least average, and perhaps a bit above.

The third is a simple misstatement of fact. Woolrich certainly did not get his start in Black Mask magazine, as stated here. His first appearance there was in 1937, by which time he had already published six novels and scores of short stories.

There are many bright spots between these covers, however, and one is an exchange between Gibson and Litzka, the woman he’s courting. “Pulps,” she says, “have a bad reputation. Like actresses.” He responds, “That’s because they’re both fast and cheap but they look good doing it.”

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual “Best American Mystery Stories.” He can be reached at ottopenzler@mysteriousbookshop.com.

The New York Sun

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