Five Classic Pulp Stories to Keep You Cozy This Christmas
The Arbo Files
It sure is cold out there this Christmas. Like many of you, I’m hunkered down for a while because the world outside is nothing but snow and ice. Heck, even while driving into work this morning (yes, some of us have to work around the clock, even on holidays), I could hear the crack of ice and the grind of frozen gears as I made the simplest of turns. Such mornings make me wish I was somewhere warm.
During this deep chill, pulp cultists should embrace the spirit of hygge and carve out some time this weekend to indulge in a little reading. Namely, you and your fellow travelers should cozy up to the fire or wrap yourself in blankets and read these five stories. Each one has been selected by me to maximize your comfort during these trying times. I would also suggest that you read while listening to a perfect blend of dungeon synth and atmospheric black metal for the peak winter experience. If you don’t like either, well then that’s your loss.
The Shunned House by H.P. Lovecraft
“The Shunned House” is a frequently anthologized story by the master Lovecraft, but few give it the respect it deserves. Written in October 1924 but not published by Weird Tales until several months after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, “The Shunned House” represents Lovecraft early, pre-Cthulhu period. The story concerns a strange house in Lovecraft’s native Providence, Rhode Island. The abandoned house of the story was based on a real colonial residence located at 135 Benefit Street (you can visit the house yourself, if you dare). As such, “The Shunned House” includes a lot of great local color, including discussions about Rhode Island’s involvement in the American Revolution and Edgar Allan Poe’s many connections to the city. The unnamed narrator is part of that history given his bloodline and his relationship to the famous local physician, Dr. Elihu Whipple.
“The Shunned House” recounts the strange history of the house, with a special emphasis on the abnormal fungi growing in its basement. In many ways this story is a Lovecraftian love letter to Providence. “The Shunned House” showcases the Old Gentleman’s vast historical knowledge, even including a reference to the Mercy Brown case of Exter, Rhode Island. It also includes a few scenes of two-fisted action, as the narrator and Dr. Whipple do battle with the unnamed horror in the house’s basement. They are armed with scientific weapons like carboys of sulfuric acid, flamethrowers, and modified Crookes tubes.
Overall, “The Shunned House” has been overlooked for too long. Read it for yourself and see why it is one of Lovecraft’s best works.
The Gutting of Couffignal by Dashiell Hammett
Published in the December 1925 edition Black Mask, “The Gutting of Couffignal” by American maestro Dashiell Hammett is one of the best hardboiled detective yarns ever committed to pulp paper. While the Bizarchives does not do detective stories, all pulp cultists should appreciate the importance of Hammett and the genre that he helped to spawn. As Raymond Chandler, himself a pulp writer and acolyte of Hammett, put it: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” In other words, Hammett, a former private detective with the Pinkertons, wrote realistic crime stories that exuded the harsh, streetwise attitudes of Jazz Age cops and crooks.
“The Gutting of Couffignal” features the Continental Op, the stocky, bulldog-like private eye of Hammett’s early stories. The Continental Op’s mission to guard wedding presents at a lavish party goes haywire when the entire island of Couffignal is placed under siege. The Op, armed only with a pistol, takes on a team of thieves armed with patrol boats, dynamite, and machine guns. Not helping matters is the interference of the wedding guests, most of whom are White Russian immigrants that fled to San Francisco to escape the Bolsheviks. The Op solves the case thanks to his grit and not much else.
“The Gutting of Couffignal” is a great combination of action and mystery, plus Hammett’s writing is superb and littered with excellent one-liners. The culprit is unexpected, and the very last line from the Op is black comedy at its finest.
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by M.R. James
This entry is slightly cheating. You see, M.R. James was never a pulp author. James (1862-1936) did however influence many pulp writers, especially Lovecraft. A medievalist, antiquarian scholar, and provost at prestigious schools like King’s College, Cambridge and Eton, James was a reclusive reactionary through and through. Whilst living through the electric age, James kept alive the old firelight tradition of Christmastime ghost stories. His deeply English tales are quiet, slow-building, and Gothic horror that is chilled to perfection. “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” may be the best example of Jamesian artistry.
Published as part of the 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” is told from the perspective of a Cambridge professor named Parkins, who stumbles across a medieval artifact while on holiday in Suffolk. The object is a bronze whistle found inside the ruins of a preceptory formerly belonging to the Knights Templar. Parkins discovers a Latin inscription on the whistle that translates to: “Who is this who is coming?” Parkins blows the whistle while on the beach, which kicks up a strange gust of wind. Later that night in his hotel room, Parkins begins to have disturbing dreams and visions of himself being chased by an unknown specter. These visions become so powerful that, even while awake, Parkins sees his undead tormentor.
“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” mostly operates in the realm of suggestion, and like all the best horror, it is like an unseen kiss in the dark. It is quite possibly the perfect ghost story for this Christmas.
Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper by Robert Bloch
Long before writing the hit novel Psycho, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled account of the crimes of Wisconsin necrophile Ed Gein, Robert Bloch was a pulp writer who filled the pages of Weird Tales in the 1940s and 1950s. Bloch corresponded with Lovecraft and others while still just a teen, and as such he had the honor of “dying” in one of Lovecraft’s final stories. The prolific Bloch may have been influenced and partially instructed by Lovecraft, but by his twenties, he had a unique style all his own.
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” first saw publication in Weird Tales in 1943. The story would later see an adaptation on the small screen as the first episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The story concerns a string of murders being investigated by the British official, Sir Guy Hollis. Hollis seeks the help of Chicago psychiatrist John Carmody. Specifically, Hollis wants the psychiatrist’s help in discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper. No, not the historical killer. Rather, Hollis believes that the killer of 1888 is still alive and is indeed an immortal murder machine.
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” would inaugerate other Ripper stories from Bloch, some that include big dallops of science fiction. This story is a good entry point into the diverse world of Robert Bloch’s creations. It is also a good rundown of the real Ripper crimes, as well.
Double Z by Walter B. Gibson
The greatest pulp hero of them all, The Shadow, is enjoying a minor renaissance right now thanks to the neo-pulpsters. Created by Walter B. Gibson, who penned most of the Shadow novellas under the name of Maxwell Grant, The Shadow is the original masked vigilante who provided the blueprint for Batman and others. 1932’s Double Z sees the Shadow investigating a string of murders and bombing outrages that rock New York City. Given the use of bombs and given that the murders target a journalist and an international banker, the initial suspicion is that the crimes are the work of Italian anarcho-communists. However, the criminal begins signing his work. Double Z is the murderer’s name, and his penchant for cruel jokes and taunts makes him both one of pulp’s earliest supervillains and something like a serial killer.
Double Z is an action-packed novella that can be picked up and put down in a single sitting. Gibson does not get enough credit as a writer, and Double Z is a clear example of purple prose down well. Read it and live it, Agents of the Shadow.
I hope this Christmas finds you well-fed and well-read. All of us at the pulp HQ of the Bizarchives want to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. No matter what you do or celebrate, remember to always keep it PULP KVLT to the max.