Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Double-Ought Pulp: The New Wave of Military Fiction

Most who read New Pulp Fiction probably understand where the term "pulp" came from, how pulp fit into the publishing industry, who the big-name authors were and, obviously, that pulp is making a comeback (though on an as-yet undetermined scale). But not much is written about pulp's offspring, which itself enjoyed a Golden Age (or was it merely pulp's Silver Age?) that finally fizzled out in the late 1980s.

Before television, video games and the internet decimated literacy amongst the demographic which once made pulp fiction thrive, pulp magazines were succeeded by mass-market paperbacks, spanning many genres, all packaged as "men's fiction." They could be found at drug stores, truck stops, supermarkets and even some hardware stores. The publishing industry declared pulp fiction dead, but there was a lucrative, related market right under its nose. Don Pendelton's Executioner busted the door down and major publishers flooded through to saturate that market with action-adventure, western, war, paramilitary, post-apocalypse, science fiction and even fantasy series.

Action was plentiful and often graphic (same with sexual content, come to think of it). Moral ambiguity was rare. Protagonists didn't spend pages or chapters wrapped up in introspection--they were too busy having fist fights, knife fights or gun fights with heavies of varying importance. Antagonists were just plain evil, and rarely was the excuse for their villainy revealed in print.

The generation of authors cranking out those vintage paperbacks had grown up when what we consider "the classic pulps" were displayed at drug stores, truck stops, supermarkets and some hardware stores. Wouldn't it make sense, then, that among the authors of the new pulp renaissance are some who grew up devouring the men's fiction paperbacks?

I met Jack Murphy after he reviewed the e-book version of my debut novel Hell and Gone. He was still writing the rough draft of his own military thriller, Reflexive Fire, at the time. Receiving positive reviews of a book is a welcome event to any author; but for me a review from somebody who "gets it" and loves the genre is even better than a positive review from someone who starts off by saying, "I don't normally read this sort of stuff, but..."

We've since become friends, and gradually have discovered scores of others who appreciate the fiction we grew up on.

Reflexive Fire has met with encouraging success for a previously unknown/first time author; and Jack's PROMIS series has shown...um, promise, among a rapidly growing reading audience. Jack recently took some time to participate in a Q&A, which you are now privy to via New Pulp Fiction.

HANK: Do you consider yourself and your books part of the new pulp "movement?"

JACK: I think they fit into that genre fairly well. My books have a lot in common with the pulp genre but are updated and more topical to today's world. While the structure is somewhat similar to say, Mack Bolan, or other action-adventure and military fiction novels, I draw on my own experiences and current events so in this regard I think they are definitely new pulp.

HANK: Where do you fit within new pulp? Where does your fiction belong on the bookshelf or what other authors do you compare yourself to?

JACK: I think it is too early to answer this question with any kind of legitimacy. I've only been published for six or seven months so how my books will fit into the overall picture (Jack Murphy is like a cross between author x and author y type thing) really remains to be seen. I think that I'm part of the first wave of independently published former soldiers so it will be interesting to see how my books compare or contrast to others in the future.

HANK: It's very cool to be in the spearhead of what I hope will be a significant creative force.

JACK: I've already been contacted by at least a half dozen prospective writers looking for some advice, so there really is a flood coming in this genre and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it develops.

If I were to speculate on how I hope to fit in, or what I hope to accomplish, I would say that I'm trying to take the genre to the next level by digging deeply into real-life covert operations. I'm drawing on information that is taboo in many ways not just in the genre but even by historians. In doing this I hope to educate people as well as create sub-genre in of itself that is unlike anything that even the most jaded readers have seen before.

HANK: Some are quick to point out that in fiction like ours, it's all about the action. The firefights and exploding cars make or break the book, according to this logic, so why even bother with so much research and controversial backstory, anyway? After all, the reader just wants to escape, right?

JACK: Reality-based fiction can turn off some readers. I acknowledge that a certain segment of readers are simply looking for entertainment or escapism but I think most readers are looking for more. I try to respect the intelligence of my readers and write for them accordingly. Today readers are much better informed about Special Operations Forces. They know which side of an M16 has a forward assist on it; they know that Glocks don't have thumb safeties. With the ongoing War on Terror I don't think there has ever been so much interest in Special Operations. People are curious about the men, the mission, and of course all the "cool guy" go-to-war gear. Understanding this, you can't really get away with all that Steven Seagal ninja stuff these days (except in parody or satire) and that's fine with me since I'm not interested in writing that type of material.

Alongside the increasingly technical awareness of even non-military readers, I think that audiences are also becoming more politically and historically savvy. I don't say that to endorse one political view or another, but people are increasingly aware that the world doesn't quite work the way as it was presented to them in the schools and by television. They don't want to see a writer do a drive-by shooting on history, and they expect that we do our due diligence when writing about wars--especially in regards to specific military units.

So yeah, it's about the action and the adventure, but when you write military fiction you are going to be held to a higher standard and that's fine with me.

HANK: Our fellow soldiers-turned-authors you mentioned...what kind of stuff are they writing?

JACK: It runs the gamut from A-Team-type fun adventure stories to hard hitting reality-based thrillers.

HANK:You'd have to have your head buried in the sand not to notice the changes e-books/e-readers are making in the literary landscape. How do you see this affecting the new wave of military fiction specifically or new pulp in general?

JACK: I think that we are going to see a kind of New Pulp Renaissance with the popularity of e-readers. Authors are no longer limited by genre or commercial constraints by big publishing houses. Now we are moving into a type of libertarian model. It's a free-for-all and everybody gets an invite, I think that's really exciting and part of the reason why I decided to start taking my own writing seriously.

With e-readers, authors are no longer limited as far as content is concerned. You write as much as it takes to tell the story, nothing more and nothing less. Five hundred pages or twenty, it doesn't really matter anymore since either option is viable and able to reach the market. I've taken advantage of this by serializing some of my work as the PROMIS series. It is military fiction that takes place in the recent past starting with the Vietnam war and progressing through Rhodesia, South Africa, and eventually into the Middle East and Europe as the career of professional mercenary, Sean Deckard, is chronicled. I think it is a lot of fun to publish this series as episodic issues in the format of novellas. Readers don't have to wait as long and I can treat each story as a snapshot of a different conflict that adds up to a larger story arc.

With more and more veterans coming home from overseas, a lot of them are going to be looking for something to read. They will want to turn to material that they can relate to, books that have something to do with the real world, not another literary piece about some dude who falls in love with a prostitute. Some of these readers are going to want to write and I think this is where the bulk of the New Pulp military fiction sub-genre will come from. It's a niche of a sub-genre, but the internet makes such targeted fiction fun and viable for both readers and writers.

HANK: What are some of your favorites among the growing new pulp library out there?

JACK: Well, you know I've been partial to the writing of this editor (Hank Brown); but aside from you, I like Jack Silkstone as I've mentioned before as well. Former Special Forces officer Bob Mayer is plenty talented too. I know there are a lot more but I've been so busy with school, my family life, and trying to write that I'm afraid I haven't delved deeply in as many author's works as I would like to.

HANK: Thanks for that! Among the classic pulps, who are your favorites?

JACK: Mickey Spillane, one damned powerful writer who wasn't afraid to shoot from the hip. Robert E. Howard is another of my all time favorites, he knew how to put you in the saddle right there next to Conan and make you feel like you were on the adventure with him. That level of immersion is something I hope to accomplish in my own writing one day!

HANK: I have to agree on both counts. I didn't even know you read Spillane. You continue to surprise me. Which of the Robert E. Howard characters do you like best?

JACK: Conan for sure--he is the archetypical warrior. As a barbarian you'd think that he wouldn't be very interesting but Howard had his ways. For a simple person, Conan had a strong moral code and besides, he didn't take no shit from no one.

HANK: Just like John Wayne Toilet Paper, pilgrim. I wonder if Conan is considered an antihero? Perhaps we can pontificate on this matter once we are both billion-sellers. Anyway, when did you first start reading pulp and how did you come by it?

JACK: My first real experience with pulp was the modern day variety when I bought a Mack Bolan novel in a CVS when I was 13 or 14 years old. I immediately identified with the character and was hooked. I followed Bolan's adventures religiously for years and years. Today I still dip into the series on occasion when I find a book from one of my favorite authors like Douglas Wojtowicz (Devil's Playground, Cold War Reprise, Outback Assault and Splintered Sky) or Chuck Rogers (Devil's Mark, Blood Tide, Lethal Compound and Trial by Fire).

HANK: Wow--that is so similar to my own experience. For me it was The Sergeant #4 by Gordon Davis (AKA Len Levinson) in a Seven-Eleven. I'd never read anything like it before, and it blew me away.

I don't know why, but I hadn't seen a Mack Bolan (or anything similar) on the rack in so long, I assumed he had died off along with his legion of imitators and competitors. It's thanks to you that I discovered his adventures are still being published. Do you see yourself straying from military fiction into a more retro-pulp vein at all?

JACK: Right now I'm solidly into military fiction, both contemporary and set in recent history. I prefer to write what I feel or think is happening in the world around me rather than attempt to recreate the works I admire from the past.
That said, I did have a novel planned that was a retro-pulp Indiana Jones-type adventure that dealt with alternative history, ancient aliens, and all types of existential terror. Maybe one day I will dust the idea off if I feel up to it.

HANK: Probably a solid plan. I'm far from alone in finding your books not only enjoyable, but with a commitment to technical accuracy which surpasses the material that inspired us both.

Thanks again, Jack, for answering these questions.

Jack Murphy's PROMIS series is available for the Kindle. Reflexive Fire is available both for the Kindle and in trade paperback.

In addition to serving as columns editor at New Pulp Fiction, Hank Brown is the miscreant genius mastermind behind Virtual Pulp Press. Midwest Book Review calls his military thriller Hell and Gone "an exciting action and adventure novel, highly recommended." He has also authored new pulp adventures such as heroic fantasy The Bloodstained Defile and post-Civil War tale Radical Times.


  1. One other place I used to find a lot of Mens Action paperbacks were airports. Why? A lot of military used them to travel from one base to the next.
    I remember the paperback shops near military bases were goldmines for action novels as the base guysw were always dumping their book stashes when they were reassigned.

  2. I got spoiled because the PX always had a selection. And , just as you said, there were places right off-post that were treasure-troves of used books. I have fond memories of one of them--it was like my oasis.

  3. The last couple years I noticed that even the PX stopped carrying Mack Bolan books. I really wonder what the future of the series is. Gold Eagle has embraced the Kindle, which is how I read Bolan these days, but the books are still expensive considering the short word count of The Executioner novels.


  4. I suspect that might be the only format they're gonna survive in, one day. Not because there aren't enough fans, but because Gold Eagle doesn't seem interested in selling (or marketing) them. And yeah--they're kinda' pricey for e-books.

    I sure love that cover art, though.

  5. I keep looking for some books I used to read as a private in the Army. They were about the American Foreign Legion, but beyond that I dont remember. Can anyone here give me any info on these. They were definitely pulp fiction.
    Thanks all


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