Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pure Pulpy Plot Power

Cover of Weird Tales (October 1936).
I don't always have time to read but I want to encounter a wide range of literature. Enter podcasts, and if you're interested in classic pulp fiction, you'll love Protecting Project Pulp, which each week serves up a pulp classic in the sci-fi, adventure, or fantasy genres. It's good stuff and you can forget all about the dishwasher or those potatos you're peeling while you trek through the frozen north or wander the dark side of Venus.

As I burned through the archives, I came across a couple stories that warrant comparison:The Tree of Lifeby C. L. Moore and Raiders of the Spaceways by Henry Kuttner. Both stories were published in Weird Tales: Moore's in October 1936 and Kuttner's in July 1937. What's fascinating about these stories, especially if you listen to them back-to-back, is that they're essentially the same story.

"The Tree of Life" concerns an adventurer on Mars who is lured into an alternate dimension controlled by a "being" named Thag whose physical representation is a tree that consumes other creatures. Thag doesn't hunt it's prey. It calls its victims and draws them to it. When Thag calls, you must answer.

“Raiders of the Spaceways” takes place on Venus and tells the story of a man and woman captured by a space pirate who escape only to confront an even worse foe, an amoeba-like being that remains stationary and calls all living things that can move to it through some sort of telepathic suggestion. Eventually the hapless victims leap into the amoeba which consumes them.

The details and feel of these stories are radically different. "The Tree of Life," for instance, incorporates fantasy elements while “Raiders of the Spaceways” is pure science fiction. But these stories were published in the same magazine less than a year apart. There's something inherently powerful about the plots of these stories, in particular the concept of something nefarious that draws you to it despite your efforts to avoid it. You know it's deadly. You know it will destroy you, but you can't resist it. Does this remind you of any counterparts from everyday life? From a religious perspective, this sounds a lot like sin. On a more down to earth level, it sounds like drug addiction.

These two stories are entertaining for their elements of adventure, the strange places that they describe, and the clever ways the protagonists discover to foil the "monster." Entertainment value doesn't make them classics, though. It's the power behind that plot, the connection to a struggle that everyone faces at some level. The heroes are fighting our struggle and we desperately want them to win.

Cover Attribution: James Allen St. John [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I sometimes think that publishing has become too niche oriented, a bit like cable tv. The smaller the niche, the smaller the readership.

    1. Yes, and if you write in various niches, your work gets chopped up like you multiple author personalities.