Short Reviews: Cichol’s Children, From “Pulp Nova”

Wednesday , 26, April 2017 10 Comments

Pulp Nova represents James Desborough’s attempt to recapture the spirit of the Golden Age of Science-Fiction.  Written back in 2013, Desborough recognized even back then that the self-publishing made possible by changing technology was creating a publishing environment similar to that of the pulp era.  The easy cost of production gives free rein to writers to experiment with new and unusual forms of storytelling unencumbered by the heavy burden of massive back-end costs. No doubt, his experiences in the self-publishing corners of the role-playing game industry played a role here – Desborough has maintained a solid and successful presence with the RPG hobby for years.

While he likely views the growing Pulp Revolution with a touch of wry amusement, he is a savvy enough marketer to recognize the Johnny Come Lately’s within that movement as a collection of fans tailor made for Pulp Nova.  Lately, he has offered Pulp Nova as something for Pulp Revolution fans.  So let’s look at how well his stories fulfill that promise.

Cichol’s Children kicks off this collection with a whimper, and that’s no insult.  Desborough chooses to begin his collection with a rather sedate, but unusually successful, homage to the pulp era’s weird tales grandmaster, H. P. Lovecraft. Cichol’s Children begins:

Geneaology, that’s the thing. People like to know where they came from and who they’re related to, what their heritage is, and what it means to be them.  It’s nonsense, of course.  Who we come from doesn’t make our destiny, doesn’t dictate what we do.

If you’ve read Lovecraft, you know our narrator is in for a rather rude awakening. Desborough has a clear understanding of what makes Lovecraftian fiction work, choosing to slowly ratchet up the tension with a near fatal accident which strands the narrator in a remote sea-side area where is only source of solace is a sea-side inn managed by a family that seems a little off.  He checks off all of the usual checkboxes that hint at the influence of primordial creatures from the sea, ancient gold, dusty tomes, churches buried by the tide, and even a few hints at human-other breeding.

His prose isn’t at Lovecraft’s level, but that’s hardly a mark against this work. Desborogh’s prose is very good, and his chooses his setting and descriptors carefully.  He doesn’t fall back on the typical mistake of using needless obscure words, but manages to convey the same sort of off-beat creepiness of a place not-of-the-human-world just fine without them.  Consider how Desborough describes a meal among the seaside innkeeper and his family:

Butter melted over the potatoes, even though they were barely done. If formed a slick, oily puddle around the limp, white fish that squatted on the plate, taunting me.  The edge of the fork wouldn’t cut it, it was barely cooked at all, I had to tear at it with my knife to pull translucent, rubbery mouthfuls from the fillet.  Not that this seemed to bother my hosts whose open mouthed chewing surrounded me without any sense of shame or manners.

Nothing in that passage is otherworldly, but when you pile descriptions like these up on top of each other, one after the other, what you get is a very creepy household. This entire story is built like this, just a gradual descent into the depths that results in a vague sense of doom for our poor narrator, but one that is as certain to be unpleasant as it is left to the reader’s imagination.

Desborough doesn’t make the usual mistake of shining too bright a spotlight on the menace. The final confrontation ramps up to a wonderfully evocative moment not fully remembered by the narrator.  (It does leave him with an understanding that his own fate lies at the bottom of the sea, one way or the other.)  Desborough’s ability to convey significant detail with minimal description allows the reader’s own imagination room to fill in the details.  It’s an old trick, but it’s one that is harder to implement than it is to describe.  And his skill here is a refreshing departure from the ‘in your face’ and blatant style of Lovecraft pastiche that is all too common today.

All of this adds up to a solid introduction to Desborough’s take on the pulp ethos. If the rest of the stories in this collection live up to the high mark set by Cichol’s Children, then this volume will be worth a read.

10 Comments
  • deuce says:

    This sounds promising. Looking forward to reviews of the other tales. A glance at the table of contents/blurbs indicates that Desborough has covered most of the classic pulp genres. It will be interesting to see how the level of quality maintains itself. This *could* be an excellent demonstration of the pulp ethos/aesthetic working across various genres.

  • john silence says:

    It would be interesting to see more reviews of the neo-pulp, “new pulp” stuff. There was a significant amount of such content some years ago (though, it seems to have dies down before entire PulpRev thing started?), but I never went into it aside from few stories here and there and one novel (Quest of Frankenstein).

    • Alex says:

      I’m reading an anthology of New Lovecraft stuff I was sent to review. It’s mostly flash fiction, so I don’t think I’ll be reviewing it story by story; it’s been uneven, the stories that are a) just long enough to feel like stories and not tableau that b)do no virtue signal their politics and c)do not namedrop mythos shit have actually been pretty good.

      My favorite so far was one that was, admittedly, not really a story, but a fake magazine article about an industrial band that had devolved into weirder and weirder occult stuff and noisier and noisier sounds until at one show the vocalist flipped out and beat the programmer to death in the middle of a show. I can relate because in my own industrial band, I am the grounding force that keeps us in the SF weird realm without going too far down the O.T.O. rabbit-hole.

      (Fun fact, I’m pretty sure that Schuyler Hernstrom is the only person in the world to have actually bought our last album!)

    • deuce says:

      John, back around 2009-2010 there was kind of a PulpRev “False Dawn” with blogs like Grognardia and The Cimmerian pushing pulp pretty hard and getting a lot of traffic. However, both of those more or less shut down by about 2011. Meanwhile, during that same period, a lot of the “pulp” small presses got rolling, like Black Dog, Airship 27, Altus, Hard Case Crime and Black Coat. Pro Se came later. They’ve been forging ahead, but not gaining that much traction. Hopefully, that’s about to change.

      I started a thread on “New Pulp”/PulpRev stuff about 6mo ago that looks at a lot of them. You can check it out here:

      http://swordsofreh.proboards.com/thread/383/new-pulp-retro-fiction-revolution?page=1

      • Alex says:

        Pro Se is actually kinda local for us. I’d like to be able to create some synergy with them here in Arkansas, do something for the pulp scene here.

      • Jeffro says:

        Yeah, one reason I did Appendix N was that the conversation on it seemed stillborn. But the pulp impulse did not merely stall. It is suppressed through some sort of low grade social coercion. It takes persistence, critical mass, and a consistent reframing of the narrative to alter the status quo.

        • deuce says:

          Appendix N was certainly needed. As far as those two blogs are concerned, I can definitely say the Cimmerian blog shut down for purely personal reasons. Regarding Grognardia, from what I understand, Mal had family matters to attend to.

          I would say that seven years ago was the beginning of Peak PC-ness, so I’m not sure the time was really right for a PulpRev. I think there needed to be a few crises like GamerGate to really start pissing people off and get them thinking. You also had to have the rise of indie/online publishing and the easy availability of original pulp texts. That was all just getting started 7yrs ago. Look at the uphill climb the PulpRev is facing right now. I think we’ll win this time, but it won’t be easy.

      • Jon Mollison says:

        The earlier pulp movements had a lot of promise, but they never delivered. Every foray that I made into their wilds left me feeling like I hadn’t gone anywhere. My experiences were with stories that felt hollow and empty. At the time, I didn’t have enough exposure to the original pulps to be able to put my finger on what it was they lacked. (I also didn’t have the gentle guiding hand of our host and his maniacal twin, Daddy Warpig.)

        There is a (so far unstated) method to my madness.

        Of course, as a reviewer, my main goals are to alert readers to works they should seek out and works they should avoid. I’m also looking to help writers improve their craft by reminding them of what works and what doesn’t.

        But why the focus on new works in the pulp mold?

        One of my intentions in reviewing newer pulp works that lie outside the circle of the Pulp Revolution is to delve deeper than my earlier forays. To verify that my previous inclinations were correct, and to determine exactly where previous writers lost the pulp plot.

        That would be a pretty low motivation, though, so I’m also looking to find those instances that I missed the first time around. I’m hoping to dig up stories that regressed harder before regressing harder was even a thing. “Cichol’s Children” and much of “Swords of Steel” are demonstrations that such stories have been waiting for me, and that I just didn’t look hard enough.

        But I’m finding these to be the rare exception. Most of the pulp that I’ve read falls flat. The authors write wahoo stories all right. They right with a breathless style that eschews the ivory tower literary gimmickry. But their heart is still firmly planted in modern day notions of morality and vanity that leave the works feeling like a Hollywood set – all front, no substance.

        I don’t care if your ‘pulp’ story features a 1930s two-fisted and masked hero punching black masked and turtle neck clad goons in a dank alley if you can’t resist him doing so alongside his ninja lesbian stripper too-independent-and-not-really-into-labels-to-ever-call-her-a-girlfriend who doesn’t need no man and can save herself without his help, thankyouverymuch. That’s not the pulp I’m looking for.

        But that’s largely the pulp we got prior to the Pulp Revolution. And I aim to either prove that or prove myself wrong. I am honestly hoping the latter wins out, but only time will tell.

        • caleb says:

          My own experience with them is limited to few stories I’ve encountered on various blogs and podcasts (like this one, that went defunct due to lack of interest http://www.starshipsofa.com/protectingprojectpulp/).
          It was such that I didn’t actively pursue more of them. Firmly set in modern day notions is a good description of it – check the blogs of few new pulp authors that were featured on that podcast, like Travis Heermann, and you will understand why their stories don’t “feel” right and fail to attract any attention.

      • deuce says:

        Quite honestly, I haven’t read that much of the “new pulp” that has come out in the last 7-8yrs. I’ve been almost exclusively devoted to catching up on what I needed to read — or reread — from the century encompassing 1880-1980. Despite my reading pulp from the age of 8, there were gaps. Plus, I’ve always read a lot of non-fiction.

        Anyway, as I said, I haven’t read all that much “new pulp”. I have always been a cheerleader to one extent or another. On the whole, I’ve depended on reviews to get an idea of what’s worth checking out. Out of the books I’ve been sent to review, William Patrick Maynard’s Fu Manchu novels are better than Rohmer and just excellent in their own right.

        https://www.amazon.com/Terror-Manchu-William-Patrick-Maynard-ebook/dp/B007D7OZZO/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=94HRC0B0ZPJC78GM9RSB

        Christopher Paul Carey’s “Opar” books are also great pulp adventure:

        https://www.amazon.com/Hadon-King-Opar-Khokarsa-Book-ebook/dp/B06X1CD9S1/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1493251878&sr=1-1&keywords=opar

        CPC has his ERB/Haggard-style adventure pretty well down.

        One genre that never really lost the pulp plot was hard-boiled detective fiction. For whatever reason — probably because of its predominantly male audience — hard-boiled fiction stayed the course. The Western genre has held a tight grip on its pulp roots as well. James Reasoner, a big REH fan, is a modern-day pulpster. He’s cranked out a million words a year several times in his long career. Jim can be counted on to provide a good, fast-paced read with old-school values.

        Obviously, SFF wandered far off the reservation. Just some of my observations.

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