Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:
Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars. His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction. Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended. In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel. Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.
Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon. While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative. He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining. If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves. It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.
H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect. His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors. I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS! Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror! Read him, you’ll understand. They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have. You doubt me? Google the Necronomicon. A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination. Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.
Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!