July 6, 2013

Pulp Fiction Black Style

I took a break from reading Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January detective series to read a collection of pulp stories by several African American writers. In the introduction of Black Pulp, (edited by Tommy Hancock, Gary Phillips, and Morgan Minor) Walter Mosley notes that pulp “stories got right to the point on the first page and kept your heart rate up until the final word.”

The pulp magazines published genre stories--crime, horror, westerns, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, romance, and thrillers. The stories did what the editors, publishers, and readers wanted them to do. They entertained. What wasn’t in the magazines were stories by African American characters that featured Black characters. No editor or publisher would accept any stories by Black or White writers in which the hero was Black because their White readers wouldn’t accept them. Moreover, Black writers and readers were too busy fighting for civil rights, which required great mental and physical effort, to write and read for mere entertainment.

Unfortunately, the pulp magazines died in the 1950s. If they were alive today, editors and publishers certainly would accept the stories in Black Pulp. The dozen stories are of varying degrees of quality, but are readable and enjoyable.

Something you wouldn’t have expected in the pulps during the golden age is a story by a woman featuring a Black Female heroine. “Agnes Viridian And The Search For The Scales” by Kimberly Richardson is the only story by a woman in the anthology. The heroine of this fantastic story is private investigator Agnes Viridian. She doesn’t know she is an agent of the gods when a man hires her to find his brother and retrieve a set of “very old scales” the brother stole from him. She is a kickass woman who I wouldn’t want to tangle with in a dark alley.

Another surprising story is “The Lawman” by Ron Fortier. It is a fictionalized version of the exploits of the real African American U. S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves, whom Fortier says was the “greatest western lawman of them all.” In the epilogue, Fortier claims Reeves “brought in over three thousand felons, was involved in fourteen major gun battles and only wounded once.” Yes, we helped open the west.

Tarzan, was he White or Black? In Charles R. Saunders’s story “Mtimu” (Wild Man), he is Black and named Yeke. In the opening is a bit of Black history as Mtimu rescues the Black woman aviator, Enid Brown, a character based on the first Black female flyer Willa Brown. Yeke was raised by a Black scientist, the Lost Professor, who had come to Africa to study wild life and by a group of Soko apes. Mtimu is a good adventure story using the Tarzan trope.

While most of the stories are very entertaining, the adventure story “Rocket Crockett and the Jade Dragon” by Christopher Chambers merely irritated me because of how badly it is written. Rufus “Rocket” Crockett is a black navy aviator involved in recovering a Jade Dragon artifact stolen from Korea by the Japanese during WWII and bringing to justice a Japanese gangster who is really a wanted war criminal. The gangster is a caricature, and speaks Hollywood’s version of how a Japanese pronounces English words, especially “r”. He says “brack” for “black.” Clichés abound, as do black and white stereotypes: Ship captain a good old southern boy who, surprisingly, respects Rocket. Padding, plenty of it.

Sometimes I wonder if certain types of books are necessary. In Black Pulp, the writers seem anxious to prove they can do pulp fiction. This would be a good thing if the pulp magazines were still alive and flourishing. However, if you enjoy reading genre fiction, especially the old pulp stories, you’ll like Black Pulp. The stories are good. I just don’t think Black writers in the 21st century have to prove they can write the type of stories that were prevalent during the golden age of pulp fiction.


Kelly Robinson said...

I'm a huge fan of some of the old pulp stuff. Some of it is pure junk, but some really good writers came out of the pulp mags. This seems interesting. Though I agree with you that there's nothing to prove, it's neat to imagine what it would have been like to have black characters in the original pulps.

Christopher Chambers said...

I'm sorry you found Rocket Crocket and the Jade Dragon annoying. It was supposed to be a brief homage to what my granddad read in the 40s and 50s but hey. So if you hated it, you will really hate this, endorsed by the way, by Gary Phillips and Louis Bayard

If you want a review copy of Rocket Crockett and the Shanghai She Devil, let me know. There will be two more and a f/u in Black Pulp 2.

Chris Chambers