Sunday, November 22, 2009

Son of Retro Pulp Tales edited by Joe R. Lansdale and Keith Lansdale

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

In 2006, author/editor Joe R. Lansdale collected a selection of short stories written by various authors in the style of the old pulp magazines. Retro Pulp Tales was that rare anthology that was almost universally acclaimed, and it shared the Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology for that year. It is therefore not surprising that Lansdale and Subterranean Press have come out with a sequel, appropriately titled Son of Retro Pulp Tales and appropriately edited by Lansdale and his own son Keith.

The anthology starts off with a bang with Joe Lansdale's own contribution. (He sat out the first round.) "The Crawling Sky" features Reverend Jebediah Mercer, the hero of a novella (Dead in the West) and two other short stories collected in The Shadows, Kith and Kin. It concerns a caged lunatic, a house with "haints," a magic book, and a man-eating Shmoo — you know, your average everyday Western (at least as seen through a Lansdalean filter).

David J. Schow chronicles "A Gunfight," as his hero Proctor (with apologies given to the late Donald E. Westlake, a.k.a. Richard Stark) is run through the wringer for the sake of a few bucks. Schow never lets the action stop, and the result is reminiscent of his Hard Case Crime novel Gun Work. James Grady offers an action-filled tale of Crows, crutches, and a cocked Colt set in the other kind of "Border Town."

Mike Resnick brings the funny in the pulp-adventure parody "The Forgotten Kingdom." It's his latest story to feature the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones, man of the cloth and seeker of half-naked High Priestesses. Jones is not too educated, but he has a sharply developed sense of irony, which makes his narration a hilarious read. Cherie Priest delivers creepiness to spare with her Weird Tale of "The Catastrophe Box" (stolen from a paranormal investigator) and its effect on a doctor and his wife.

I wish I could praise William F. Nolan's "The Perfect Nanny," since it seems so personally significant in his introduction, but it is unfortunately so cliche and predictable that there's really nothing to recommend it. Also, Christopher Golden has a beautiful germ of an idea in "Quiet Bullets" — a spectral cowboy teaches a fatherless boy how to defend his home — but the short format requires him to skimp on its development and bring it to its conclusion too quickly.

Timothy Truman serves up "Pretty Green Eyes," the "first piece of all-prose fiction sold" by one known primarily for his illustrations. (He also did the terrific cover.) Truman digs into his Appalachian roots and comes up with a story that delivers the punch of a Mickey Spillane novel in just 12 pages. Matt Venne tries out his version of the Steve Costigan boxing stories of Robert E. Howard — only with Joe Louis fighting Himmler ans his Nazi werewolves during WWII. "The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the SS" is one of the more exciting stories in Son of Retro Pulp Tales due to its climactic scene in the ring; just watch out for the schmaltzy ending.

Stephen Mertz pays homage to another pulp master by writing "The Lizard Men of Blood River" according to the formula reportedly used by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent. What results is one hell of a pulp story. It has a strong and fast hero, Speed McCoy, a scantily clad damsel in distress, and a highly unconventional villain. It's also unbelievable, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, highly imaginative, well written, and most of all, exciting. "The Lizard Men of Blood River" is undoubtedly the high point of Son of Retro Pulp Tales, and this Mertz fellow was obviously born in the wrong decade.

Ending the anthology is Harlan Ellison's "The Toad Prince, or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes," a highly imaginative — though disappointingly linear — piece of sci-fi involving pieces of six and a whore called Sarna. Ellison offers a great deal of suspense and creative detail along with a sort-of surprise ending that caps off another worthy selection of pulp pastiches.

Though it doesn't have the fully fledged atmosphere of its celebrated parent, Son of Retro Pulp Tales is actually more representative of the broad range of genres published during pulp's heyday. It also offers a similar success rate, with at least one true gem and only one true dud. Those seeking to recapture the past with fiction of the present need look no further.

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