Thursday, February 14, 2013

So Why Pulp? - For The Love of Pulp

For The Love Of Pulp

You know, your average pulpster can pull a story out of just about anything. You need some sort of big adventure backdrop, a hero, a villain, and a cause to triumph for. Pulp is a very straightforward and uncomplicated way of telling a tale, which is what makes it so universally appealing. Pulp spins a rousing good yarn where you can easily tell the good guys and the bad dudes apart, and even though things look grim and the battle becomes an uphill struggle to survive, the swashbuckling champion eventually triumphs over the foe, no matter the cost. It’s the stuff legends are made of, and the reason pulp stories and their very colorful characters remain so near and dear to our hearts. People love a good story.

Oh but sweethearts and love—tis the season for such things! Today is Valentine’s Day, the traditional holiday celebrating all things romantic via gifts of lacey cards full of syrupy sentiment, expensive flowers, big boxes of chocolate, little candy hearts with snappy sayings, and all sorts of amorous notions. Yes, I know; it’s a holiday theme that is cloying to the point of nausea, trite and very over-commercialized. Yet before the diamonds and roses industries latched onto the term ‘romance’ to sell you overpriced jewelry and hothouse flowers, that word once referred to heroic deeds of derring-do in big, bold exploits filled with excitement. Yeah, so romance is actually pretty darn pulpy!

Valentine’s Day itself also has pulp in its background, if you understand the story behind it. There are several versions; which is really no surprise, since a lot of this comes down through the same storytelling traditions that lead to the pulp we’re reading and writing today. So rather than taking everything historical as absolute fact, see it as a grand accounting of a bygone era passed along and embellished through the ages. With some skillful writing, a lot of the backdrop for Valentine’s Day would make some incredibly pulpy tales. So please, read on…

In the era when the Roman Empire and Christianity were solidly in conflict, an Emperor named Claudius decided that young men bound to the army were better off remaining single. I would think the idea behind that was that men without familial ties would more readily throw themselves into bitter conflicts and dangerous situations, and be willing to overlook the inhumanity toward innocents that always accompanies warfare. The story has it a single priest named Valentinus defied the decree and continued marrying willing young couples. He also refused to stop ministering to his flock, and was eventually imprisoned, where he continued his subversive activities by holding services and helping his brethren escape. There in the dungeons of hell-on-earth he endeared himself to a freeborn young lady—who reportedly may have been the jailor’s own daughter—by healing her, and they fell in love. When his execution time came, he wrote her a goodbye note and signed it, “From your Valentine.” The priest was martyred, and the church gained a new saint, but who can say how many other romantic heroes he inspired? Now what parts of this are fact or fiction I can’t say, but it sure puts a brand new dynamic spin on all the schmaltzy commercialization of the holiday of love.

Can you see a rousing good pulp story in all that? I sure can.

How about the timing of the holiday? While some claim it was set in mid-February to memorialize Valentinus’ martyrdom, there is some overlap with the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which also is fertile ground (pun intended) for some pulpy finagling. The premise behind Lupercalia seems to have been twofold—a celebration of Faunus, the god of agriculture; and recognition of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were raised by a she-wolf. The story goes that animals were sacrificed at the mouth of the sacred cave where the orphaned boys once lived with their lupine foster mother, and afterward strips of hide dipped in blood anointed women and the fields to bless them with fertility. There is some speculation that names may have been drawn at random for couples pairing off in hopes those encounters would result in children later in the year.

Interesting, huh? I don’t know about you, but my inventive little brain is running overtime on how to turn that legend on its ear and into another pulp story. So what if this unnamed ‘she wolf’ was the reason Romulus and Remus actually became the first werewolves, and the ongoing yearly sacrificial offering was to continue placating them with a tithe of local protein? In that case it would be a maiden drawn by lottery (the one who gets the ‘be mine’ card or inscribed heart loses) and she now has to be given to the beasts to play with, sating them for yet another season that their people love them well enough to give up one of their own. Her blood would anoint others so that the wandering undead beings of the night would pass over Rome and into the countryside. Someone might object strongly to said sacrifice of this particular young woman; perhaps an enterprising hero and warrior priest named Valentine, who by interfering, now has to defeat the bestial founders of Rome before they sally forth to take back the land for their kind. Kind of a Solomon Kane feel to this one, isn’t there?

You see how easy this is? A little imagination applied to an existing mythos goes a long way toward laying out another pulpy story to share. Valentine’s Day in history really isn’t all sentimentally sweet, though loving sacrifice is certainly at its core. Hmm, that’s pretty much one of pulp’s favorite stomping grounds!

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the rather ‘ripe for the picking’ Canterbury Tales, is credited with popularizing Valentine’s Day as a holiday of love in one of his poems. Whether that linkage is a bit stretched or not, Chaucer’s storytelling has quite a pulpy slant to it, and his idea of bringing pilgrims together on a journey and having them telling stories as part of a contest is a rather unique ‘tale within a tale’. So, what if in that New Pulp tradition of bringing authors directly into their own adventures, we set Master Chaucer off on a pilgrimage of his own, and have him encounter all kinds of interesting folks living out their tales in his travels? You could have entire anthologies filled with Chaucer & Company. Certainly there’d be a few love stories amongst the action scenes.

The Medieval era right through the Victorian period witnessed a great surging in the idea of courtly love, which goes hand in hand with things like feuds, duels, murder as a crime of passion, and despairing suicides leaving lonely ghosts of highwaymen and maids of sorrow haunting hills and moors. Love that is either unrequited or happily-ever-after consummated, and used as the basis of a heroic adventure, is a great underpinning for many a rousing good tale. Don’t overlook it as inspiration for one of yours.

So while you’re sitting there staring at the blinking cursor, wondering what to write and trying to get that kitschy little holiday built around hearts and flowers out of your head, give some thought to the actual background of Valentine’s Day. Then push the button to give it a big spin in the tale blender, add in a huge heaping helping of high adventure, a hearty glug of heroic acts, and several pinches of some old style romance; shake well, and pour it onto the page. I don’t know any finer way to celebrate a day of romantic notions by doing something you truly love—writing a good old pulpy story.

I suppose a little dark chocolate wouldn’t hurt though…

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