The Thrilling Tradition of the Pulps is Alive and Well in John Pelan’s “Darkness, My Old Friend”

(Purchase Darkness, My Old Friend.)

My dear unknown friend,

I am not old enough to have first hand knowledge of the pulps. The closest I came was a subscription to Asimov’s SF Magazine purchased for me by my mother in the 80s. However, thanks to John Pelan’s new collection Darkness, My Old Friend I now feel as if I understand the absolute warmth, delight, and high esteem with which the form’s many fans hold it. By all means if you are already one of those aforementioned fans I’m sure you do not need my words to spur you to action. If like me you have not gone beyond dipping your toes in the water, this collection will hopefully be our shared gateway for I am well and truly hooked.

DarknessMyOldFriendFirst let me get this out of the way: This book is beautiful. I’ve said before that I’d rather see a bookshelf stuffed with dog-eared well read paperbacks and a tablet stuffed with files than a collector’s bookshelf where all of the books are bagged in plastic, organized by publisher then height, all unread. This still stands, yet I am not immune to the attraction of a beautiful book. More importantly, as someone who grew up in rural Vermont and spent more time than I wish to admit in hard physical labor, a well crafted tool exerts a pull over me that is difficult to explain. Fedogan & Bremer has accomplished precisely this with Darkness, My Old Friend. This is a reader’s book. It is elegant yet sturdy, pleasing to hold and makes you happy to physically read a book. I was not reading an expensive collector’s version either, rather the hardcover trade edition. If anything the feel reminded me of the library books of my youth. Combined with the illustrations of Allen Koszowski, it is far too easy to lose yourself within the pages of this book.

Darkness, My Old Friend kicks off with an introduction by none other than Ramsey Campbell himself. If there were any doubts in your mind that should quash them right then and there. Having Ramsey Campbell write the introduction isn’t so much the old chestnut of a “gun and a knife fight”. It’s more along the lines of a Bugs Bunny bit, that ends with Daffy Duck’s bill on the wrong side of his head.

John Pelan

Ramsey Campbell’s intro is entitled “Pelan, Prince of Pulp” and he does a great job running through John Pelan’s work as editor and curator keeping obscure treasures of both the American and British pulp tradition alive. Then he gives us a nice overview of the stories that await. Ramsey’s introduction strikes a marvelous balance of being thorough so that you know this was not phoned in yet he does not overstay the welcome. I could not help but think of Mark Twain’s story of the preacher and the collection plate. In this case the collection plate would have been up $400, not missing a dime at the end of the night.

The collection starts with “The Sailor Home from the Sea”. I am admittedly predisposed towards this story because in the late 80s early 90s I had close friends that worked the fishing boats and still have fond memories of the bars in Ballard, full of fishermen and trade workers. Even without that connection most will delight in this tale of watery revenge from beyond the grave that would not be out-of-place in an issue of Creepy updated for our modern age.

scanned-page“The Sailor Home from the Sea” is told by Ian, proprietor of the pub The Smoking Leg. Both Ian and the pub are present in a fair number of these tales. I enjoyed this framing device, especially the concluding piece “Curly’s Story” about a patron of the bar who is there so frequently that he should probably pay rent. I look forward to the next collection where hopefully we will find out the reason why the bar is called The Smoking Leg.

For the Lovecraftian, there is the explicit, as in “An Outsider” which effectively uses that most dreaded of tropes, the pastiche, to bring the Mythos into the current age as a politically relevant force. “The Mystery of the Worm” pulls off an even harder task. Here I know the ice I’m skating upon is thin indeed for this is a short story that combines the Mythos with Sherlock Holmes. I am all too aware of the prickly nature of Holmes’ fandom so let me just say that to my admittedly unrefined palate this was one of the best Holmes/Mythos stories I have read so far.

That covers the explicit. However there are traces shot through others that will send thrills of recognition. “An Antique Vintage” stood out for me in this regard. The story in the beginning is very suggestive of “The Rats in the Walls” before it veers. To tell more would be to ruin it for you dear heart and this story is too much fun to wound it so. “Out West” may be read as a companion piece to “The Mystery of the Worm” as if Robert E. Howard had decided to take a stab at one of Uncle Howie’s creations. This is the level of joy I feel went into the creation of these stories and the enjoyment that awaits any reader with more than a passing interest in the genre.

I do not wish you to think those are the only tales on offer. I merely highlight them first due to the nature of this website. Actually, “Armies of the Night” which concerns collectors and their collections, will strike a resounding chord with a large number of readers as well. “Old Songs Waken” ventures into territory Machen devotees will feel quite comfortable with and one of my favorite stories, “Blind Chivvy, Green Door” details an absinthe fueled evening in which the poet Ernest Dowson and his companion Enoch Soames play a game of “Blind Chivvy” through the streets of fin de siècle London.

nightmarealleyIt is this wide-ranging pool of knowledge that finally allowed me to place my finger on why I enjoyed John Pelan’s work so thoroughly. He reminds me strongly of one my favorite writers, William Lindsay Gresham. Gresham is mostly known for his novel Nightmare Alley yet he also wrote fiction and nonfiction pieces for pulps or “men’s magazines” as the market was coming to be known in Gresham’s time. Both men utilize a very clear, direct style of writing, draw upon the aforementioned wide-ranging pool of knowledge, and just when you have grown comfortable with this will leave you absolutely gobsmacked with an exquisitely executed turn of phrase. I also feel a cocktail (or five) with either man would be a fascinating way to spend an afternoon.

I hope that I have conveyed just how much fun I had with Darkness, My Old Friend. This is a book that was lovingly crafted from the ground up to be read. I spend a lot of my life around books. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit in Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. I lose my mind over writers that experiment with surrealistic forms, books filled with stunning art, pages of heavyweight expensive paper, and sewn in book ribbons. Yet Darkness, My Old Friend charmed the hell out of me by stripping everything back to concentrate on what matters most. Bravo.

(Purchase Darkness, My Old Friend.)

For a soundtrack I happened to be listening to Townes Van Zandt when I first cracked open this collection and they worked so well together from then on I kept queuing one album after another. As a long time fan it was not exactly a hardship.

Regards,

-A

This review was written by Acep Hale.

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