Wednesday, December 18, 2019

For Your Consideration: My Favorite Pulp Stories of 2019

You can't handle the New Pulp.

There's just too much of it, for one thing. There's something like a dozen publications with a pulp focus, and new ones springing up like weeds, all of them churning out action-focused stories in a zillion different subgenres, from crime fic to cyberpunk to sword-and-planet. That's to say nothing of the novels prominent genre authors churn out, or the free-floating stories on blogs or subscription sites.

At one point there was an embryonic movement to create a jury prize for modern pulp. As far as I'm aware it never gained traction. How could it? I mean, who reads a sufficient fraction of the genre output to serve as a juror? And how do you compare a Burroughsian retro-fic novella to a tech noir flash piece?

I can't make any reasonable claim to speak for New Pulp as a whole, but I do think that I read more widely in the genre than do most reviewers. In 2019 I purchased and read over a dozen issues of seven different publications, as well as assorted pulp stories at sites that don't offer up their pulp in chunks. Having followed the movement for a while, it's apparent to me that all involved are getting better at producing quality fiction. Editors are cranking out issues that blow their offerings from a couple of years ago out of the water. Reports from multiple markets suggest that the number of submissions is increasing dramatically. As a result, bad stuff doesn't make it into print nearly as often anymore; the ceiling in terms of story quality is rising, but the floor is rising faster. The core authors in the movement are doing their best work ever; new stars are emerging, and established authors from other genres are dropping in for a piece of the action. It's a great time to be a pulp reader.

This is my celebration of the best short-form pulp fiction I read in 2019. Call it a year-end awards post if you like. My influence is minimal, but I genuinely believe that every story on this list is worthy of any award anyone would care to throw at it.


1.  I'm defining "New Pulp" as fiction with a visceral focus. Stories with a strong literary element are not excluded from my definition of pulp, provided that the visceral part of the story is foregrounded; Poe, Lovecraft, and Doyle would be considered pulp authors under my definition.

2.  This list considers short-form fiction only and independent publishers only. Baen and Tor don't really need a pat on the back from me.

3.  As mentioned above, I read only some of the New Pulp that was published this year. I don't call this "The Best Pulp of 2019" because I'm not in a position to make that judgment. I don't thing anybody is.

4.  All decisions are subjective. My tastes run strongly towards speculative fiction. There was, for instance, a lot of gritty crime fiction that I read this year which I could recognize was of high quality, but which didn't ring my bell, because I just don't swing that way.

5.  If your story isn't on the list, that doesn't mean I disliked it! Even my issue reviews tend to leave out fiction I enjoyed, as I focus on three or fewer stories per issue. This list is several degrees more exclusive even than that, and cutting it to a manageable size was excruciating.

6.  List is alphabetical by story title. Ranking them proved impossible for me.


*THE BOOK HUNTER'S APPRENTICE by Barbara Doran (Cirsova v2 i1)*

There's different ways to approach cultural diversity in literature.  I've read some modern work, especially YA, in which authors attempt to shoehorn a pastiche of superficially diverse characters into the narrative as if they were casting a 1990s Benetton ad. I'm also told, by writers both famous and obscure, that there's a real fear among mass-market authors that to engage in representation of cultures other than one's own is to risk one's career, that the safe thing to do is to "stay in your lane."  I find New Pulp's attitude far healthier. Writers are expected to research thoroughly and to represent respectfully, but exploration is encouraged. Readers are invited to experience the world as a place full of wonder, and to value the many different ways of being human. The atmosphere is one of bridge-building, of imaginative empathy.

I don't know a thing about Barbara Doran's ethnicity, but a glimpse at her Amazon author page reveals that she traveled the world as the child of a military parent, and her catalog is full of modern and historical fantasy exploring the interaction of East Asian and American perspectives.  Here she offers a tale set in pre-modern China, wherein a kitchen slave with an inexplicable talent for teleportation accompanies a mysterious bookseller in a quest to steal a tome of wondrous power. The story is an intricate puzzle-box with more twists than a dragon's tail. Her familiarity with, and respect for, the storytelling traditions of the culture echoes in every sentence. Doran has taken me to a world I would not otherwise have a chance to visit, and I'm grateful the experience.

*CAMERA OBSCURA by Rex Weiner (Broadswords and Blasters #9)*

Rex Weiner has been to the mountaintop. He has published work at pro rates in national periodicals and has even had his stories adapted as a major hollywood movie. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who's felt validated by his active participation in the indy pulp scene this year. If a writer of Weiner's stature feels like hanging in our company, we must be doing something right.

Weiner published widely in New Pulp this year, including a number of noteworthy crime fic pieces featuring police inspector Skull Snyder. To my taste, though, this was his best work of 2019. "Camera Obscura" sends a hotel developer to a decaying former plantation on the Baja coast of Mexico, then charts his degeneration as his perception and principles slowly become backwards and inverted. A literary piece with a deliberate pace, the story offers subtle flavors of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe.

*THE ELEPHANT IDOL by Xavier Lastra (Cirsova v2 i1)*

A fascinating authorial experiment--a story told entirely from the perspective of a blind character. The master thief Auger invades an opera house in pursuit of a diva’s love trinket--but in seizing it, arouses the supernatural wrath of her would-be lover.  Having unraveled his own reality, Auger will require all of his skills to escape—and will discover that in a realm full of sights unfit for human eyes, his disability may prove an advantage. Lastra's ability to portray action without using visual imagery is impressive. He takes his readers on a fascinating journey into unexplored realms of human perception.

*HER NAME WAS LARCENY by CW Blackwell (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

I mentioned above that, in general, I'm not a fan of gritty crime fiction. Part of the reason is that I often feel like authors pack the grime into the story in order to serve audience expectations or as a sort of internal competition to see Who Can Get Nastiest. I have never felt that way about the work of CW Blackwell. In his work, the ugliness isn't a prop or a patina; it flows outwards from the motives and decisions of his characters. And in Larceny, the story's antagonist, Blackwell has crafted the character of the year, a tornado on two legs who tears through town after town, committing transgressions small and large,  leaving a trail of dumbfounded cops and chintzy statuary behind her.  Blackwell is always great with dialogue, but he exceeds himself here; the story is propulsive enough on its own merits, but the repartee adds a welcome note of levity that keeps the pages turning.

*THE LIVING TEXTS OF SILDEEN by Benjamin Chandler (Broadswords and Blasters #11)*

An antique dealer's principles are tested by an encounter with a young fugitive. The moral arc of the protagonist makes for an interesting story in itself, but there's two other major reasons to love this one.  The first is the author's ability to string together beautiful sentences; the prose is just gorgeous.  The second is the story's magic system, or rather, its lack of one.  I often find that fantasy stories both inside and outside of the New Pulp genre are confined by reliance on the tropes provided by magic systems in existing properties.  When I encounter a new magic system, as in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles or Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, I'm often impressed.  Chandler has done these authors one better by more or less throwing out the rules entirely.  Marosh's shop is a carnival of exotic wonders in which any item--a needle, a comb, a tattoo--may hold secret properties accessible to a knowledgeable user. I want to read more stories set in this world.

*MODESTY by Albert Tucher (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

One struggle pulp writers sometimes face is how to make a protagonist simultaneously formidable and vulnerable.  We know that our mythic swordswomen and steely-eyed space rangers are going to overcome most obstacles, so how to convey a sense that the odds are stacked against them?  Well, by golly, Albert Tucher's found a way.  In "Modesty", hard-nosed and sharp-witted sex worker Diana Andrews finds herself on the run from serial killers. While naked. As in: completely bare-ass naked, from start to finish.

Placing the reader perspective squarely in Diana's shoes (stiletto heels, natch) keeps the prurient elements from overwhelming the story, and keeps the reader's focus on the action and character beats. I was reminded of the mid-sixties film "The Naked Prey," which places an African safari guide in Diana's position.  As with that film, I walk away impressed with the protagonist's resourcefulness and a bit curious as to how long I'd last in the same situation. Best guess: roughly sixteen seconds.

*THE SPIRIT OF ST. GEORGE by Damascus Mincemeyer (Storyhack #4)*

World War One fighter aces battle dragons over Colorado.

I will repeat that.


One of the great things about pulp is that sometimes an awesome story concept is enough to elevate a story all by itself. This is, needless to say, such a time. Mincemeyer doesn't merely rest on his core concept, though. He has painstakingly researched 1920s aviation and fills the page with fascinating detail. He lards the text with alt-historical references and inclusions of figures both famous and obscure.  He stacks the odds against his protagonists, then delivers a thrilling action climax, while layering the whole thing with subtle wit.  This is adventure pulp at its finest.

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