Thursday, November 9, 2017

Weird and Wonderful: an appreciation of Broadswords and Blasters

In a couple of months, I’ll have a story published in the pulp periodical Broadswords and Blasters.

“Pulp” is a writing form that had its heyday in the early-to-mid 20th century and which is experiencing a contemporary revival at the semipro level.  While there’s a general agreement that pulp stories are action-focused and a shared appreciation for the classics of the genre, there’s no one fixed definition of what the term entails, and markets such as CirsovaStoryHack, and Broadswords and Blasters exhibit marked contrasts in their overall feel.  Whereas the former two periodicals seem to work primarily with authors who identify as members of the #PulpRev movement*, B&B editors Matthew X. Gomez and Cameron Mount have used social media to make clear that they don’t wish to be confined by any particular label.  Instead, they identify as a “pulp magazine with modern sensibilities”.

Some have implied that this is an implicit criticism of the undertones of classic pulp and therefore constitutes “pulp shaming”.  I think I agree with the former assessment and disagree with the latter.  Gomez and Mount, as far as I can tell, affirm the quality of even controversial classic pulp, such as the stories of Lovecraft.  They do not, however, accept the premise that all of the subtext of those stories--such as Lovecraft's racism--is necessarily intrinsic to the greatness of the work.  Indeed, there’s a certain irony in this criticism:  Gomez and Mount’s definition of pulp is meaningfully broader than that of editors who call for “stories with heart” or who expect story outcomes to be “superversive” in their affirmation of modern concepts of virtue.  This frees up B&B to greenlight darker material that might be rejected by other markets--see, for instance, Sara Cordair’s “Soul Plantation” in issue two, or C.R. Langille’s explicitly Lovecraftian homage “The Deep Well”.

Some readers within the new pulp community won’t find B&B’s horror-pulp stories to their tastes.  There’s nothing wrong with that; more markets means more satisfied readers.  I myself enjoy both takes on the subgenre, and I find that the Gomez/Mount approach has one intrinsic advantage over the narrower formulations of pulp:  as a reader, I’m less able to guess how the story is going to end.  What’s most important to me as a reader is that the editors and authors of B&B honor the most important principle of new pulp:  the purpose of the story is to entertain the readers, not to lecture them.

I had the opportunity to review B&B #2 and B&B #3, and found them both to be worth my time.  My overall impression is that the earlier issue lacked some of the self-assurance of the later one, which is understandable in that any new periodical will take some time to find its feet and shape its identity.

Cover design is a bit of an issue for me.  Cover artist Luke Spooner is certainly gifted.  His style is very busy, which isn’t a problem in and of itself—but coupled with the editors’ decision to include big blocks of text, the information density is a bit much to grapple with:

This is an even larger problem when the covers appear in thumbnail form in electronic formats.  The masthead attempts to use a font shift to convey an archaic/futuristic dichotomy, but it feels a little clunky to me.  If it were somehow possible to transfer about 25% of the filigree on the cover to the internal layout--not the actual content, but the general ornateness of the thing--I think I’d be happier with both.

Story concepts are a strength of both issues; the authors are an imaginative bunch.  In issue two, there’s an occasional contrast between the quality of the ideas and the execution of those ideas; the writers are mining diamonds but occasionally leaving them incompletely polished.  I'm not trying to sound superior when I say this; as a developing writer, I struggle with the same problem in my own work.

A standout exception is KAUAHOA VS. THE MU by PATRICK BAKER, a heroic tale set in Hawaii prior to European contact.  Baker has researched his setting out six ways from Sunday, and I don’t envy him the task; the spelling issues alone would kill a lesser writer.  He compliments his excellent world-building with a magic system unlike any I’ve encountered elsewhere.  There are people who argue that authors shouldn’t “appropriate” cultural milieus outside of their own; I am damned glad Baker ignored those people.

In issue three, Gomez and Mount announce in their editors’ notes that they have “a much better sense of the kind of stories [they’re] after,” and I agree with their assessment.  B&B takes on a much more distinctive identity with this issue, and let me tell you, folks, that identity is WEIRD.  Herein you will find tongueless cowboys with skinless faces, computer code laced with magic, and cities which morph into constantly shifting Rubik’s Cubes.

The general quality of the prose and storytelling feels a bit more polished than was the case in issue #2, and elements such as dialogue and story structure play a larger role in making the stories fully immersive.  My personal favorites included:

MOSS by WILL BERNARDARA JR.—the tale of a cursed pirate with apparent access to a thesaurus.  Bizarre, loquacious, utterly original.

COMPARTMENTS by JOHN WAYNE COMUNALE—Set in a city in which all outdoor areas have been entirely enclosed, this story metaphorically explores the walls we build against the people with whom we are forced to spend time, and eschews the happy-sappy take on that concept in favor of something a bit spicier.  Both character and concept-driven; the writer has a gift for juxtaposing realistic dialogue with surreal circumstances.

VALERO SERVES A HUNGRY GRAVE by COY HALL—a fairly standard western, but extraordinarily well-written and cunningly structured.

Broadswords and Blasters makes me glad to be a writer in this day and age, and even gladder to be a reader.  There’s a whole world of terrific imagination out there, and there’s never been more of it in print.  That a subgenre such as pulp could have so many different iterations, could cater to so many different tastes, is a tribute to the free market and to artistic inspiration in general.  I just hope I don’t let down the side when they put out my story in issue four…

*  (EDIT:  Cirsova disputes this categorization, as they discuss here.)