The term “cheapjack” is a late nineteenth century term used to describe travelling peddlers who sold cheap merchandise. They were pretty much the Wal-Mart of their day, providing second rate goods, but at prices that served the poorer strata of society. Cheapjack Pulp takes that word at attempts to reclaim it – unabashedly selling itself as, “in the spirit of the penny dreadful, the pulp magazines of the industrial age, and the travelling tinkers of old.” Edited by David Ulnar Slew, Issue #317 features five stories by five different authors with settings that run the gamut from clockwork future western to modern day voodoo to modern day boxing!
Given the wide spread in genres, the relatively high cost to page ratio ($2.99 for about 100 pages of content), the natural question – and the one we reviewers (pretend to) get paid to answer is, “Is it worth it?
Before getting into the quality of the writing, let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. There aren’t 316 other issues available. The issue number is a reference to the month and year of initial publication. As of this review, there are eight other issues available through Amazon. Which is still a good sign. The earliest issue listed is the March 2015 issue, so you’re looking at a magazine that has generated enough interest to have survived better than two years, and has been produced at roughly quarterly intervals. That’s a good sign.
So how’s the writing? It ain’t bad.
The opening story, Lord of the Serpent by Derek Muk, features a classic urban magic tale of a woman kidnapped by a houngan – that’s voodoo priest for those unfamiliar with the term – and held for ransom. The ransom is a suitably Lovecraftian tome that really should be kept out of the Houngan’s hands for the sake of the rest of the world. It’s a classic damsel in distress and modern-magic tale with sharp writing that suffers for a couple of eye-rolling moments. The tension of the climax gets blown out by the hostage pulling a “get out of trouble free” card from her pocket that would have been better spent when she was initially captured. With no “Chekov’s Gun” moment to set up her miraculous escape, it feels cheap and adds a plot-hole that sucks the reader out of the story.
My personal favorite of the magazine was also the shortest. Fifty Million Yen by Matt Hlinak is a short, short story about a palooka boxer working the Japanese circuit. A former contender, his job is to add a famous name to the card, and let the up and comers earn an easy win against a fighter on the wrong side of his peak performance. It’s a slice of boxer life tale with an obvious twist ending, but it’s fun nonetheless.
The longest story, the cover story in face, The Clockwork Bullet by S. A. Cosby presents a revenge story set in an interesting steampunk style future. Heavy on the back story and world building, it features a fantastic antagonist in Quentin Free. A one armed bandit with a full clockwork replacement arm, he comes across as the evil twin of Long John Silver from Disney’s sci-fantasy Treasure Planet. The genre has a bit of a weird west feel to it, but bridges the gap between that and steampunk with a reasonable explanation for why the gas guzzlers have all been set aside for steam powered vehicles. The downside to the story is a protagonist with only light characterization, and clockwork machines that come across more as magical artifacts than reasonable extrapolations of steampunk technology. Still, the flaws are heavily outweighed by the solid writing.
The detective story in the collection, Dogs on the Pine by Gary L. Robbe, starts off as a fairly bland action set piece, but the early reveal that that the characters are all residents in an old folks home turns everything on its head – in a good way. This story is Geritol-noir. The setting is so clever and well done, and the image of octogenarians wobbling around and engaging in crime syndicates and revenge hits and all of the usual noir shenanigans so different that it turns what would be standard fare into something far greater than the sum of its parts. In particular the complete refusal of Robbe to explain whether the torch singer really is who she claims to be, or is just an old woman with dementia, is a nice touch.
Ambiguity is wielded to lesser effect by Joseph Rubas in the last story in the collection, Night of the Zombies. You get just what it says on the tin, but told from the point of view of the first zombie to rise from the dead. Or…maybe the point of view character isn’t a zombie. He retains all of his memories, and lacks the desire for brains and mayhem that the rest of the horde possesses, and he can communicate with the living. It’s not entirely clear where he stands on the living-zombie spectrum or why, and that confusion works the story’s detriment. It does include some nice, smaller, touches. Like the fact that, having been dead for six decades, the protagonist struggles to adapt to the modern world in a number of clever ways, but that mystery never gets the payoff that would have elevated this story from flawed to magnificent.
While this collection is not without its flaws, it contains a wide variety of solid stories with some clever touches. It may be a little over-priced*, but overall Cheapjack Pulp gets a solid recommendation for those looking for new authors and for those willing to overlook a few off-notes. Cheapjack Pulp doesn’t rise to the level of the better Pulp Revolution works out there, but it also doesn’t plunge headlong into the usual pitfalls so often encountered in the fully converged short story marketplace. It has no badass magic girls who don’t need no man. It has no morality plays that hit you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It has no literary frippery designed to get you to notice the author’s cleverness rather than the fun of the story. It’s just a solid collection of fun and adventurous stories written to entertain.
*You can find some much longer novels for the same price.