Monday, September 29, 2014

S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler's s debut western novel, A Congregation of Jackals was nominated for both the Peacemaker and the Spur awards, and his western screenplay, The Brigands of Rattleborge, garnered him a three-picture deal at Warner Brothers, topped the prestigious Black List and is now moving forward with Park Chan Wook (Old Boy) attached to direct, while Michael Mann (Heat & Collateral) develops his nasty crime script, The Big Stone Grid at Sony Pictures. In 2011, a horror movie that he wrote in college called Asylum Blackout (aka The Incident) was made and picked up by IFC Films after a couple of people fainted at its Toronto premiere. In 2013, his brutal western novel, Wraiths of the Broken Land was published by Raw Dog Screaming Press. Currently, Zahler navigates preproduction on his directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk.

His new novel is Mean Business on North Ganson Street.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Zahler's reply:
Brittle paper life forms from the earlier part of the previous century are filling up my apartment.

Reading pulp magazines has changed from a growing interest to an outright addiction.

During my explorations of the pulpwood vastness, I read the May 1st 1931 issue of the Adventure pulp magazine, which will be the subject for this article. This highly-regarded publication is loaded with tales that were written by actual adventurers and well-traveled, worldly experts of that era. So yes, this publication is less "pulpy" than my favorite pulp magazines—The Spider, Operator #5, Dime Detective, Weird Tales, and Terror Tales—but I do not use the term "pulpy" in a pejorative sense, though many do. Melodrama and implausibility often cause something to feel "pulpy," but for me, creativity and passion regularly trump realism, so I enjoy reading fiction with a “pulpy” approach. (Norvell W. Page, C.A. Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Max Brand, Donald Wandrei, Bruno Fischer, Carroll John Daly, and David Goodis are some of my favorite authors.)

This May 1, 1931 issue was my first experience with Adventure, though I have read two good books culled from this magazine, one by Harold Lamb (Durandal) and the other other by J. Allan Dunn (Barehanded Castaways). I had only finished a fraction of this pulp issue before I had ordered another: the verisimilitude does make some of these tales very vivid and the breadth of the publication is quite impressive.

Of course, the stories vary in quality, though there is no bad or even mediocre material (excepting perhaps the one incomplete serial, which I did not read). There are some light trifles (eg. "What No Sound?"), some short and informative nonfiction pieces, some more substantial stories that detail an event or two ("The Laughing Fox," about seal hunters, and "Two Rounds," about military frugality), and then the two much bigger tales ("Jiggers" and "Bush Devils"), which prove to be the unquestionable highlights.

The few negative comments I have for the magazine (which is 192 double column pages in small type, so around 400 trade paperback pages) have to do with the quantity of okay or unadventurous material that lie between the glossy ends. The few trifling stories do not enhance the reading experience overall, though the letter column and short nonfiction articles do. Additionally, some of the stories lack adventure—Georges Surdez's very, very predictable French Legion tale and Ganpat's "Two Rounds" are really just an event or two in a remote location and are not especially transporting. Both could have been in a war magazine and lack the spirit of adventure.

The highly-regarded author Talbot Mundy provides a decent pirate story called "Black Flag," but the tale seems like the condensed version of a much more substantial story and is awkwardly paced (and contains a surfeit of nautical terms). As is, the frequent switches in perspective and the oddly summarized incidents make it feel like the retelling of a longer tale and somewhat incomplete, though it has its moments and a couple of laughs.

The two best stories in the issue wholly validate reading all of the other decent, albeit unexceptional, material.

Arthur O. Friel, who was admired by many (including Robert E. Howard), delivers a big novelette adventure called "Bush Devils," wherein an explorer and a troubled guide hunt diamonds in the jungle while cowing some indigenous folks. This is very vivid adventuring, written by a man who lived this sort of thing, and the questions about the characters’ motives are also quite compelling. I've been a fan of R.E. Howard for 30 years, but his stories seem simple and sparse compared to something like "Bush Devils." (I imagine all REH fans would like this story, even though it does not have a fantasy element.)

Then there is "Jiggers" by L. Patrick Greene. Why isn't this terrific English author much better known? The narrative of this African treasure hunt is interestingly arranged and has a great trajectory and works very well as an allegory without being pedantic. And like the other material of LPG that I've read (his wonderful, funny, and well-plotted stories of The Major), "Jiggers" displays a good sense of humor and an interesting exploration of race relations as well as some fine ruminations about the adventurer's psyche. There are surprises at every plot point, and the author puts the reader on the front line of this fast moving and obliquely told tale of greed and providence. Like "Bush Devils," "Jiggers" is a complete and transporting success, and another reason that I will read more issues of Adventure.

Currently, I’m reading The Pathless Trail by Arthur O. Friel, a rich story that also came from the pulpwood pages of this justly acclaimed publication.
Visit S. Craig Zahler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue