Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril

Return to the days of daring adventure in the crowded streets of exotic cities. Return to when a woman's kiss inspired men to fisticuffs, when villains threatened the world, and magic and mayhem were always in the pages of the pulps.

The pulp magazines were cheaply printed periodicals sold by the tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands in the 1920s-1950s. Many of these pulps showcased various genres, such as cowboy stories, science-fiction, risque adventures, and horror tales. Well-known writers like Ray Bradbury, Jack London, and even Harry Houdini (well, supposedly authored by the famous magician but really ghost-written) appeared in the pages of the pulps.

But the most famous pair of writers of that era was Walter B. Gibson, who penned The Shadow and Lester Dent, who wrote the Doc Savage series. These men, who could sit down and type 100,000 words in a month without fear, are two of the heroes in the clever novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

The book is an homage to the Pulp Era. However, you don't have to be an expert on the writers of that time to recognize many of the names mentioned: both H. P. Lovecraft and L. Ron Hubbard (pre-Scientology) are important secondary characters. The author's treatment of Hubbard was a pleasant surprise: boastful, yet sympathetic.

The novel begins with the retelling of a famous murder in New York's Chinatown past. A murder that has never been solved--both in culprit and method. It fascinates both Gibson and Dent to the point of obsession--this is an old tale without a proper ending, a maddening condition for writers. This story is the catalyst that throws both men, as well as the beautiful women that adore them, and several of their peers, into a greater and more dangerous mystery.

All the important elements of the pulps are in the book--and what guy could resist secret military weapons, monstrous zombified sailors, ancient cults, martial arts and gunplay, plenty of punches swung, and some conjuring magic.

The first third of the book is a bit slow compared to the rest--author Paul Malmont spends a good deal of time (perhaps too much) setting the stage. Lovers of the pulps and historical fiction will be able to immerse themselves quickly and easily; readers new to the topic might have to wade through a bit to get to the good stuff. But there is plenty of good stuff--did I mention those creepy zombies?--so be patient.

I kept pausing after every other chapter to hit up Wikipedia and learn more about the pulps and who these men and women were--so actually the book led to some education. How cool is that?

Now I want to buy some of the reprints of those old pulp stories, build a fort out of the sofa cushions, and read them by flashlight.

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