Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #4 – The People of the Black Circle

Weird_Tales_1934-09_-_The_People_of_the_Black_Circle

By: Robert E. Howard

Appeared in: Weird Tales (serialized) September, October, November, 1934

Character/Series: Conan

The king of Vendhya (the Hyborian Age equivalent of India/Pakistan) has been slain through foul sorcery. The neighboring kingdom of Turan has employed the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha to murder him and pave the way for their invasion of Vendhya.

Seeking vengeance on her brother’s murderers, the king’s sister Yasmina journeys to the province of Peshkari hoping to recruit the aid of Conan; a barbarian adventurer from the distant land of Cimmeria who has risen to a position of leadership amongst the wild Afguli hillmen. Before the offer can be put to him, Conan abducts Yasmina and rides off into the hills, aiming to ransom her for the lives of several of his tribesmen who languish in the dungeons at Peshkari.

Conan takes Yasmina to a village in the mountains but finds that the Afguli have turned on him. Forced to flee deeper into the mountains, Conan and Yasmina draw perilously close to Mount Yimsha and its dreaded sorcerers of the Black Circle.

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Illustration by Gary Gianni

More complex than the average Conan story, People of the Black Circle easily makes the top five stories of most Conan fans. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Conan yarn; an exotic setting, plenty of sorcery, an evil cult and a battle with a giant serpent. What makes it stand out is the large cast of characters and their conflicting interests but also the female lead. Howard’s writing is often criticised for being a little on the sexist side with most of his female characters falling into one of two camps; 1. the bratty, spoilt princess who finds herself in the wilderness and in need of Conan’s help or 2. the busty, tough-as-nails warrior woman who proves a match for Conan (this ‘Red Sonja’ type has become a staple of the genre in more recent decades). The Devi Yasmina refreshingly falls somewhere in the middle of these two categories. She is a princess but is strong-willed, takes no crap and the story is more or less based on her wish for revenge. She seeks Conan out.

conanConan has joined the company of Tarzan and Zorro as one of the few pulp heroes who have really stood the test of time. There were two Conan movies in the 1980s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a more recent version with Jason Momoa as the mighty-thewed Cimmerian, but Conan fans have yet to see one of Robert E. Howard’s original stories on the big screen.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #3 – Red Harvest

black_mask_192711By: Dashiell Hammett

Appeared in: Black Mask (serialized), November, December 1927, January, February 1928

Character/Series: The Continental Op

An unnamed narrator working for the Continental Detective’s Agency arrives in the mining town of Personville at the request of a newspaper publisher. The publisher is murdered before the Continental Op has a chance to meet him and he instead agrees to work for his father, Elihu Wilsson who wants to find out who killed his son.

Wilsson is an industrialist who previously used several gangs against the unions to cement his political control over the town. Since then, the gangs have more or less taken over and Wilsson wants the Continental Op to bring them to their knees.

Working on information passed to him by Dinah Brand – one of the gangsters’ molls – the narrator starts a gang war which brings a bloody ‘red harvest’ to the town. But when the narrator wakes up in bed next to the dead Dinah, holding the ice pick which was used to murder her, he finds himself floundering in a town so crooked he barely knows which way is up.

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Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel melds the western and the gangster story perfectly in its depiction of a dusty Montana town soaked in blood and corruption in which the color of everybody’s hat is a shade of gray. There are no heroes here, not even the protagonist. Like Hammett’s later anti-hero, Sam Spade (protagonist of the more famous The Maltese Falcon), we rarely get a glimpse inside the Continental Op’s head and are left to judge the character on what he doesn’t say.

Cold, detached and laconic, he shows a dogged perseverance to get the job done. His actions perhaps mirror the author’s disgust at political corruption and its thuggery towards labor unions. Hammett was a strike breaker for the Pinkerton Agency in his younger years but as he grew older his politics leaned ever more to the left, eventually landing him in hot water in the McCarthy era (he did six months in prison in 1951 for refusing to name names).

Red Harvest defined the emerging hardboiled detective story and has been the basis for a number of movies, beginning with Roadhouse Nights (1930) which was only loosely inspired by it. The plot also bears a striking similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick Yojimbo (1961) which itself was remade as a western; A Fistful of Dollars (1964). There was even a sword and sorcery version of the tale set on a distant planet; The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984). Two movies in the 90s brought the tale back to prohibition era America beginning with the Coen brothers’ mobster masterpiece Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Last Man Standing (1996) which was an authorized remake of Yojimbo.

 

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #2 – Tarzan of the Apes

allstoryBy: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Appeared in: All-Story Magazine, October 1912

Character/Series: Tarzan

John and Alice Clayton (Lord and Lady Greystoke) are shipwrecked on the western coast of Africa and are forced to build a shelter where Alice gives birth to their son. A year passes and Alice dies of a fever while John is killed by the king ape Kerchak. the infant is adopted by Kala the ape, and brought into the tribe where he is given the name ‘Tarzan’ meaning ‘white-skin’.

Tarzan grows to boyhood and regularly visits his parent’s dilapidated hut where he sees photographs that prove there are others like him and by studying his father’s books, he teaches himself to read. At odds with Kerchak (who has grown envious of Tarzan’s popularity in the tribe) Tarzan eventually fights and kills him and takes his place as lord of the apes.

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Illustration by Frank Frazetta

A party of strangers arrive including the professor Archimedes Q. Porter and his beautiful daughter Jane. Tarzan watches over them and saves them from several encounters with the jungle’s hostile residents. But another member of the party is William Cecil Clayton, cousin to Tarzan and the current Lord of Greystoke, who desires Jane’s hand in marriage.

Not much can be said about Tarzan that is not considered general knowledge. The character is the most famous to emerge from the pulps and Burroughs penned 24 sequels. Along with Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan is one of the most filmed fictional characters of all time but a truly faithful adaptation of this first novel has yet to be made. The current favorite with regards to authenticity is arguably Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) starring Christopher Lambert. tarzan

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #1 – The Call of Cthulhu

Weird_Tales_February_1928By: H. P. Lovecraft

Appeared in: Weird Tales, February 1928

Upon the death of his grand-uncle, Francis Weyland Thurston is given a key to a mysterious box of letters and artifacts that tell a chilling tale of bizarre and seemingly connected incidents building up to an apocalyptic event.

Among the documents is an account of a troubled art student in New York whose strange dreams manifested in a bas-relief of a cyclopean city of “titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror”. Other accounts are of wicked cults in New Orleans and Greenland centered on human sacrifice to a winged, octopus-like idol.

Thurston decides to continue his grand-uncle’s research and tracks down the widow of a Norwegian sailor whose vessel ran aground on a strange island previously uncharted. There they discovered a ‘cyclopean’ city strewn with seaweed and unwittingly awake the monstrous Cthulhu who has slumbered for eons in his sunken kingdom.

Michael Komarck's illustration for Call of Cthulhu collectible card game.

Michael Komarck’s illustration for Call of Cthulhu collectible card game.

Although Lovecraft considered the story to be one of his lesser works, the tentacled Cthulhu has become the figurehead of the author’s entire literary career and the story is an excellent example of ‘weird fiction’. The ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, coined by publisher August Derleth, is a shared universe based on the pantheon of the ‘Elder Ones’ created by Lovecraft and expanded by fellow Weird Tales alumni Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Derleth himself and Robert Bloch among others. The Mythos is as popular as ever with anthologies and games coming out every year, keeping Lovecraft’s bubbling imagination a current element in pop culture.

The story was adapted in 2005 as an excellent independent production by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLS) in the style of a silent movie circa 1928.