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June 20, 2003

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McSweeney's (not so) Thrilling Tales

So I was in the bookstore the other day and I ran across this really coolMcSweeney's Thrilling Tales looking anthology.  It was called "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales".  Now McSweeney's, if you didn't know (and I didn't), is a periodical that tries to be very hip and weird, each issue different from the others.  For example, one issue was sold wrapped with an elastic band, another came with a CD, that sort of thing. This particular issue was done up as a homage to Pulp-era fiction.  Everything about it screamed Pulp, from the painted cover showing a masked hero fighting a panther-man, to the illustrations inside done by comics legend Howard Chaykin. Then there was the roster of contributing artists.  Such luminaries as Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Nick Hornby and Stephen King.  The title itself, of course, capped it off. This was to be a grand return to yesteryear, to stories of adventure and suspense and horror...Thrilling Tales!

So why did I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach even as I plopped down my 21 bucks and bought the damn thing?  Why did I know, deep down inside, that it was all a sham and I was, once again, doomed to disappointment?

The introduction by editor Michael Chabon should have had me giddy with anticipation.  Chabon explained the reason behind this anthology arose when, recently, he had taken a look at his own critically-acclaimed stories and found they were lacking something.  They were "plotless and sparkling with epiphantic dew".  To Chabon, the same something was lacking in most literature published since, oh, about 1950.  Where, he asked, had gone the stories that were about something, stories with plots -- pulp stories?  Modern fiction seemed to offer endless streams of the same-old same-old, nothing but "quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory" stories. And remember, this from a guy who writes the stuff and wins awards for it. I nodded my head in sympathy.  You tell 'em, Michael, I thought.  You tell the world!

And so McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales was born. Chabon asked some of fiction's top authors to write him stories in the old style, stories of adventure and suspense, stories with plots. In his own words, stories that would make great movies. Some of the authors he approached you would expect to be easily up to the challenge. Michael Crichton, for example.  You don't get pulpier than Jurassic Park.  Then too, Chabon himself refers to Stephen King as the "Last Master of the Plotted Short Story".  Many of the other names though were less certain. Nonetheless, it sounded like a noble experiment. Could modern writers recapture what was lost so long ago?  I have often wondered myself -- do we have the stories we have today because that is all modern authors know how to write or because that is all they want to write?  We were about to find out...

And yet, like I said, I didn't believe a word of it.  I've been burned way too many times to be taken in so easily.  Oh, I'm sure Chabon himself was quite sincere when he started the project.  He really was hoping to put together a collection of "Thrilling Tales".  He really did believe that authors who think "pulp" is a synonym for "trash" could write good pulp if asked to politely enough.  But what I want to know is, once the stories started arriving and it became obvious to Chabon that not one of his authors had written a story even approaching the stated criteria, not one of the stories could be said to be "Thrilling", didn't he recognize that his noble experiment had failed?

Not according to the introduction.  Chabon tells us that he received giddy e-mails from his authors telling him they had forgotten how much fun writing a short story could be. Well, maybe so. After all, many of those authors, like Crichton, don't normally work in that area of fiction writing.  They may simply have meant they were enjoying writing short fiction, period...not specifically pulp fiction.  Either that or they were lying, because those are the only two explanations I can come up with to explain their unjustified excitement.

But how do I explain all the reviewers who gave the anthology full marks for recapturing the spirit of the pulps?  Was I the only one who thought McSweeney's, far from putting together a homage to the Pulp-era, had produced something more along the lines of an insult to our intelligence? Thankfully (for my sanity), a visit to and a glance at the reviews by average readers assured me that I was not alone in my disappointment, not by a long chalk.  Most readers were in agreement.  And remember, I'm not saying the stories tried and failed, I'm saying I can't believe they even tried.

To let you know what I'm talking about, here's one example.  The first story is called "Tedford and the Megalodon", which sounds pulpy enough.  After all, the Megalodon is an extinct shark the size of a whale.  It has recently cropped up in some reasonably readable adventure novels such as Meg, The Trench and Extinct.  Jaws, of course, did honking big business with a great white shark and the Megalodon is considerably bigger.  Then too, the illustration by Chaykin shows our steely-eyed hero in a kayak, brandishing a rifle as a giant dorsal fin cleaves the water toward him.  How could it miss?

Give it to a modern author, that's how.  Instead of a thrilling pulpy adventure, we are presented here with an introspective mess in which our hero goes in search of the fabled Megalodon, spends most of the story interminably waiting in his kayak, and then is gobbled down in the climax.  Along the way, we are told an unrelated story about how the hero was very close to his brother but, inexplicably, said brother refused to see him when he lay in his deathbed.  This mystery is never answered, even though it was the only question in the whole damn story, and how it related to a man being gobbled down by a giant shark I am at a loss to explain although I am confident it made sense to the author.  At least, I hope it made sense to the author.

I said I wanted to know whether we have the stories we have today because authors don't know how to write anything else, or because they won't write anything else.  In the end, after slogging through McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of (not so) Thrilling Tales, I still don't know the answer. I can't believe the authors were really even trying to write "Thrilling Tales".  It is obvious in every written word that they, one and all, think they are above such "trash", that they see themselves as "real" authors not pulp "hacks", and that they only took this assignment either because they wanted to show how much better they are than the old pulp scribes, or because they needed the money.  Either way, I curse them all.

In the end, only one good thing came out of this collection.  At least I will forever treasure Chabon's introduction for daring to say what we are all thinking...The world could do with a little pulp...Too bad this wasn't it.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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