Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Pulpitations

In a certain type of horror film, a troubled but basically normal chap turns out to have a deformed, lunatic brother living in the attic of his country house. It's not difficult to see the pulp horror tradition as the maniac bashing about in the attic of the traditional ghost story, causing untold embarrassment and much distaste, but also generating some much-needed excitement at times.

Supernatural fiction of various kinds was of course the life-blood of many of the pulp magazines that appeared between the wars in the US. Weird Tales is the best-known example but there were dozens of other titles. Pop over to the Pulp Magazines Project for a look - it's fascinating stuff. You can check out interiors as well as the covers. The pulps are of course associated with early science fiction and thrillers of the 'hard-boiled' school, but they published a goodly number of ghost stories, plus stuff about vampires, werewolves, and all things spooky. What's more, they brought much late Victorian popular fiction to the attention of younger readers - pulps often reprinted H.G. Wells's stories, for instance.

Of all the pulp writers who emerged during that pre-WW2 period I find Fritz Leiber by far the best. He stands alone, for my money, as the only writer of his day to have produced first rate works of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural fiction. His books deserve a place on anyone's shelves. In Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness he managed to pull off the very difficult feat of sustaining a supernatural tale to novel length. In You're All Alone he tackled the kind of paranoia found in the Matrix movies long before it became fashionable (and CGI tedious).

Among Leiber's many short stories, I recommend 'The Black Gondolier', 'Smoke Ghost', 'The Dreams of Albert Moreland', 'Four Ghosts in Hamlet', and 'A Bit of the Dark World'. There are a lot of others worth reading, though. One of the great virtues of an author who excelled across a range of genres is that sometimes you can't be sure what you're getting - for me, a good thing. Sadly, Leiber's short stories don't seem to be collected in a reasonably-priced volume (or two), and selections are a bit of a lottery. But all of these stories are out there.

Leiber was an unusually thoughtful writer, for my money. His theories about the nature of the supernatural give already effective stories an extra dimension of interest. In the classic 'Smoke Ghost' (1941) a normal wage slave (with the intriguing name of Catesby Wran) finds his attention drawn to a particular object on a roof that is visible from New York's elevated railway. The object may just be a dirty old sack or a bundle of rags. But Wran begins to speculate that this thing might be a dangerous entity produced by the combined energies of the city - a ghost, but of a very different kind to those envisaged by the Victorians. For a story driven by ideas this one is pretty disturbing. You can read the story in its original pulp magazine form here.

Having stressed how scary his stuff can be, I should add that Leiber brings urbane wit and warmth to his fiction. I always feel better after reading one of his stories, even if it has a bleak ending (and many do), because I feel I've been in touch, at some level, with a very decent human being. I get a similar reaction - though perhaps not so strongly - with the second of our pulpsters, Robert Bloch.

Bloch wrote Psycho, and his reputation will always be bound up with that of Hitchcock's film. But Bloch's long career saw him churn out a great many novels and stories, quite a few of which ended up on screen in one form or another. Focusing on his supernatural stories, he managed to produce a classic of the genre quite early in 'Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper', which offered what was then a genuinely new twist on the subject. The idea, that the Ripper was seeking some kind of supernatural power from his crimes, has become hackneyed, but Bloch was the first to use it and he did a good job. (He went on to use the Ripper in a Star Trek episode, and a story for Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Dangerous Visions.)

Bloch's work for film and television was considerable. He either scripted or had stories adapted for the films Asylum, The House that Dripped Blood, Torture Garden, and The Skull, while he contributed to the Rod Serling's Night Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among many other series. Some of us still remember quite fondly two made-for-TV movies from the Seventies - The Cat Creature and The Dead Don't Die. Bloch had a low opinion of both.

It isn't easy to get a decent collection of Bloch's short fiction. His early stories, much influenced by Lovecraft, appeared in The Opener of The Way, from Arkham House. However, there was a cheap paperback edition from Panther and copies seem to crop up regularly here and there. The Best of Robert Bloch is another good paperback, with stories selected by the author. A second hand copy can be reasonably priced.

At its best Bloch's fiction bears comparison with that of Ray Bradbury, another writer who started his career contributing to the pulps. I'm not sure a lot needs to be said about so famous a name, except that The October Country is a collection that surely belongs in our spooky library. It contains some of the most distinctive of the author's early tales - 'The Wind', 'The Jar', 'The Man Upstairs', and 'The Jar' all helped establish Bradbury as a worthy successor to Poe. A great American fabulist, he wrote few if any ghost stories in the ordinary sense, but his characters are often haunted - or indeed hunted - by stranger things.


Aonghus Fallon said...

Robert Bloch wrote a great little horror story (with certain similarities to 'Psycho') called 'Enoch'. I read it in anthology of horror fiction years ago and came across it again recently - I thought on the site which you mentioned, but actually it was another similar site:


valdemar said...

I remember it well! And I should have mentioned it, thanks.