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August 25, 2003

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Ah...the Fairer Sex!

As I am wont to do from time to time, I was recently visiting various Robert E. Howard sites on the Web.  Howard, as you almost certainly know, was the Pulp-era author who brought us a plethora of two-fisted heroes in the pages of Weird Tales, the most famous, of course, being Conan the Cimmerian.  A great many writers published in the Mighty PDF have listed Howard as a major influence on their work and I myself run a fan site featuring reviews of most of his hero stories.  During recent visits to other Howard sites, I began to notice a common phrase popping-up with remarkable regularity.  Howard's heroes, we were told, were "all cut from the same cloth".

Now, there's no doubt that, physically speaking, Howard's heroes did display a monotonous conformity -- most were big, muscular, black haired and blue-eyed.  But, if they really were all "cut from the same cloth", why is it that I enjoy the Conan tales more than anything else Howard wrote?  For that matter, why is Howard forever known as the "creator of Conan"?  Why not the "creator of Kull" or the "creator of El Borak"?  Granted, the difference may simply lie in the Conan tales being better written than the tales featuring the other heroes -- the twenty-one Conan stories were written late in Howard's all too brief career, after he had had time to perfect his technique.  On the other hand, the El Borak tales were produced during the same period as Conan and are nearly as well written.  But, while I consider them a close second to the Conan tales, they remain forever...a close second.  And not really that close.

No, I think those who say all Howard's heroes were "cut from the same cloth" are missing out on a vital lesson.  Conan is different from Howard's other heroes -- in fact, amongst the whole gang of Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, El Borak, Kirby O'Donnell, Solomon Kane, etc., etc., I would say that Conan was unique, for Conan had one trait which the others all lacked.

Conan liked girls.

Think about it.  Can you imagine the brooding King Kull putting aside the cares of Kingship to spend a night frolicking with a comely Valusian maid?  Wouldn't happen.  Or the Gaelic sea-reiver, Cormac Mac Art -- he might go to great lengths to avenge a woman's honour, but when it came to appreciating their charms, he couldn't see past the horned helms of his Viking compadres.  And don't get me talking about Solomon Kane.  That dour Puritan would go literally to the ends of the earth to rescue a fair damsel in distress, but when it came to noticing a pretty face, he had a stick up his butt a mile wide.  El Borak at least consorted with the fairer sex from time to time, but he treated them with all the affection he showed to his Afghan allies.  We can imagine the conversations Howard neglected to transcribe: "Of course, I like you, Yasmeena.  You're like a sister to me.  What?  What did I say?"

This difference between Conan and Howard's other heroes reminds me of the similar difference to be found between Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Captain Pike who was the hero originally intended to helm the Starship Enterprise in the series' unaired pilot episode (later used, as all good Trekkies know, in the episode "The Menagerie").  Captain Pike, when tempted by the obvious charms of a green Orion slavegirl, reacted with all the Puritanical disgust of a futuristic Cotton Mather.  If he had simply objected to the slavery angle, that we could have understood, but Pike treated her like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden...if he had stepped on that fruit and was now trying to scrape it off his heel!  Now contrast that with Captain "anything with a pulse" Kirk.  Kirk too started out as all business, but it wasn't long before the show's producers had him making goo-goo eyes on a fairly regular basis.  They knew what the audience wanted and they delivered.  And Star Trek was the better for it.

I repeat: Star Trek was the better for it.  And so was Conan.

Now, I know there are plenty of you out there who would fiercely contest those claims.  Both the Conan fans and the Star Trek fans can be divided up into those who like a little romance with their adventure and those who feel it demeans the entire thing.  A great many Conan fans -- particularly those who consider themselves serious "scholars" -- will tell you Howard's "Beyond the Black River" was one of the best Conan stories precisely because there was nary a comely wench in sight.  Conversely, there are those, like me, who feel it was a weaker offering for that very same reason.  To us, Conan is simply a lot more fun and laid back when he's allowed to appreciate the fairer sex.  Howard's other heroes seem so fixated on being heroes, they have forgotten how to be human.  We can too easily imagine them as lonely, old, embittered men, gulping down Tums by the fistful, and cursing their damned ulcers.  But not Conan.  Conan seems content with his lot in life.  So long as he has a drinking jack in one hand and a lithesome maid on his knee, he's in heaven.  And, sure, there are faults to be found in such a lifestyle, especially from the perspective of our modern AIDS-conscious era, but there's a lot to admire about it too.  It simply seems healthier, from an emotional point of view.  And, in the end, it makes for happier characters and for more emotionally involving plots.

This brings me to my main point.  Looking back over the many stories which we have published since this mighty e-zine began -- whether serials or Two-Fisted Tales or Shuddersome Shorts -- I find that there is a surprising dearth of stories involving romance.  I don't mean Romantic stories -- this is an adventure e-zine, after all.  I simply mean stories which, like the Conan stories, allow the hero to appreciate the fairer sex from time to time.  That absence is all the stranger given that romance was such a big feature of pulp fiction.  There are those who will tell you that "that mushy stuff" is "for girls".  Real men don't need sex!  And yet, look at Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan books as well as several other fantasy series.  No one would deny that Burroughs appeals to the testosterone-inclined among us, but romance was his bread and butter.  John Carter of Mars had the Incomparable Dejah Thoris.  David Innes of Pellucidar had Dian the Beautiful.  Carson of Venus had his "mate" Duare.  And, of course, Tarzan had Jane.  Smitten, every man-Jack of them.  And, oh, how the readers ate it up.

Or consider even the seemingly romance-less Doc Savage stories.  Apart from Doc's cousin, Pat, there were no regular or semi-regular female characters in those stories, but attractive females still put in appearances as either the victims, the witnesses or the perpetrators of crimes.  Doc himself never overtly indicated any appreciation for the opposite sex, but, in the presence of said sex, he invariably became tongue-tied...and we knew.  Moreover, his side-kicks, Monk and Ham, went positively goofy at the sight of a pretty face, especially Monk, who was surely the most likeable -- most human -- of the bunch.

What I find most interesting about romance as presented in the Pulps was the oddly contradictory way it was handled.  On the one hand, the Pulpsters sometimes seemed to have nothing on their mind but sex.  On the other hand, they went to amazing lengths to avoid actually coming right out and saying so.  For example, nudity was common, but it was never explicitly described.  You could search long and hard and never find the word "nipple", or even the word "sex" for that matter.  But contrary to what critics might claim, this wasn't because of some deep seated Freudian fear of womanly unmentionables.  It was because, as with all things, the Pulpsters were selling fantasy and, where fantasy is concerned, less is often more.  With the single word "supple" a master like Howard could work miracles.

The one pulp form which still exists and in which sex still makes an unapologetic appearance is the modern western -- specifically those series westerns like the Trailsman books.  But while I would heartily recommend those books to anyone looking for unabashed modern pulp, I find myself put off by their overly heavy use of sex.  Basically the books read like exciting Pulp westerns, but every now and then the entire thing screeches to a halt for five or six pages of detailed -- extremely detailed -- graphic bump-and-grind as the various characters get to know each other in the Biblical sense.  Obviously, whether you like that sort of thing or not comes down to a matter of personal preference.  But, as I said, to me there is an appeal to the "less is more" philosophy.  Like impressionist paintings, the more we leave to the reader's imagination, the more magical is the final result.

But why is romance so rare in modern pulp stories, including in the pages of our own humble e-zine?  I could spend an entire editorial trying to answer that question -- the excuses are legion.  Some critics will say that romance is inherently sexist, reducing female characters to mere "objects of desire" -- "sex objects".  They will say that such notions as "love at first sight" and "undying love" are archaic and outmoded; the whole thing is a childish fantasy created by guys who can't get laid.  They will say a lot of things, but, in the end, it all gets down to one thing.  Embarrassment.  Previously in these editorials I have said that the main thing which keeps modern writers from writing pulpy stories is a fear of embarrassment, a fear of appearing childish in the eyes of the literary community.  But however great is that fear where pulp writing is concerned, it is a thousand times worse where romantic pulp writing is concerned.  When you describe a beautiful woman in a story, you are working without a net.  You are revealing personal preferences and personal passions -- and, if the readers laugh, they aren't just laughing at the story.  They are laughing at you.  And that can hurt.

But, I hope, if I have gotten across any message with these editorials, it is this.  Life is too short to worry about what people think.  If you try it and it doesn't work, remember this quote from a Peanuts cartoon my high school math teacher, Mrs. McCay, used to keep taped to the blackboard -- "Two hundred years from now, who willl know the difference?"

On the other hand, it has been nearly a century since John Carter first met Dejah Thoris under the hurtling moons of Mars.  I'd lay pretty good odds their romance will still be enjoyed by readers a century from now.  I don't know if such romantic nonsense is outmoded; I don't know if it's sexist; I don't know if it's written by guys who couldn't get laid.  I just know it makes the story better.

And isn't that the point?

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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