Feature: Keeping it real in pulp fiction and B-movies

Blighters coverTim Major is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford. His time-travel novel, You Don’t Belong Here, will be published by Snowbooks in September 2016 and his novellas include Blighters and Carus & Mitch, which was shortlisted for a This Is Horror award. His stories have appeared in Interzone, BFS Horizons and numerous anthologies. He is the Editor of the SF magazine, The Singularity, and blogs at Cosy Catastrophes.

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Pulp fiction. B-movies. Two phrases that fill me with happiness, conjuring up fantastical experiences, unfettered by mainstream ‘rules’ whilst, often, slipping comfortably into pleasing genre forms. Unpredictable cosiness.

The term ‘pulp’ derives from the cheap paper used for fiction magazines of the first few decades of the 20th century – crime, fantasy and SF magazines containing lurid tales written hurriedly by writers paid by the word rather than (necessarily) the quality of their stories. B-movies are the closest cinematic equivalent – supporting features designed as a warm-up for the more respectable main feature in a double bill.

Many of the original stories have worth, of course. Edgar Rice Burroughs may have written his Barsoom series at lightning speed, but even now this results in the books providing similarly immediate pleasures. Picking an example from my own childhood, Guy N. Smith’s series of Killer Crabs novels are joyful in their trashiness. I adore golden-era B-movies like The Killer Shrews or Robot Monster for their no-holds-barred dedication to providing genre thrills, in spite of the obstacle of the filmmakers’ ambitions outstripping their budgets.

There are others that stand out in particular, for me. Though not a bona fide ‘B’, and arguably a poor adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man on Earth is an outstanding depiction of the grim tedium that might come with the destruction of the human race. Similarly, Roger Corman’s (unrelated) The Last Woman on Earth reduces the issue of a near-total wipeout of the human race to a ridiculous spat between two would-be male suitors of the single remaining female. Herk Hervey’s Carnival of Souls is a relentlessly ghoulish and gloomy account of the aftermath of a fatal car crash. What all of these have in common is that they eschew many of the conventions and campness of other B-movies, they’re downbeat and meditative (I guess that’s just my thing) and they feel oddly realistic despite their outlandish scenarios.

The terms ‘pulp’ and ‘B-movie’ have stuck around. Now, particularly when short stories are as likely to be delivered digitally rather than printed on paper of any texture, ‘pulp’ tends to be used to refer to either low-quality or sensationalist fiction. ‘B-movie’ is used to describe any film that settles into genre conventions or that has a tiny budget. But I think genre fiction can have the qualities of pulp and B-movies without being disposable or broad-brush in its approach.

When writing my novella, Blighters, I was keen to retain the pulp/B-movie aesthetic, whilst aiming to provide realistic settings and characters. To put it another way, there’s a giant slug on the front cover, but the tone of the story is more akin to a kitchen-sink drama. As with John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, I loved the idea of an alien invasion that has already occurred and been dismissed as benign. The giant, armoured Blighters have landed around the world and then… nothing. No harm inflicted upon anyone – in fact, anybody standing near to a Blighter feels a profound sense of contentment. The novella itself is concerned entirely with the trials of a young Cumbrian woman, Becky Stone, to whom the arrival of the Blighters is incidental, as unreal as anything else experienced only via TV or the internet (until she finds a Blighter herself).

More and more, I find that this is the type of fiction I enjoy writing – that is, placing pulpy, B-movie concepts in a world that’s recognisably our own. It’s that predictable cosiness again, I suppose. Or, looking at it another way, the thrill of discovering horror in the familiar.

Blighters is out now from Abaddon Books. Click here to order from Amazon.co.uk

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