Book Look - The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, by Paul Malmont

The premise of the novel is that a cast of pulp writers find themselves entangled in a pulp-like adventure of their own, complete with evil Chinamen, mysterious islands, superweapons, monsters, opium dens, golden gods, and flesh-oozing zombies. What results is a deliberate tangling of fact and "pulp", which is the author's stated intention.

What's real: most (but not all) of the info he includes on the writers, their lives, and the industry. His cast of characters reads like the "regulars" list of the coolest 1940s nightclub ever: Walter Gibson (author of The Shadow series), Lester Dent (author of the Doc Savage series), Howard Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard (the author is clearly enjoying foreshadowing his eventual career as bad sci fiction writer and scientology founder), Louis L'Amour (aka "Lew" here), Bob Heinlein (aka "Otis Driftwood" here), Cornell Woolrich, Robert Howard (author of the Conan series), Blackstone the Magician, Orson Welles, Al Capone and more. Loved learning more about their lives, their relationships, and the pulp industry.

Ironically, however, it's the "pulp" parts of this tale that disappoint! I begin to understand why pulp magazines have to be so preposterous: it's because their elements just don't hold up to being modernized/psychologized/philosophized. Evil Chinamen (albeit horrifically un-PC these days) are wholly satisfying villains ... until, it turns out, you endow them with sympathetic backstories and passivist souls. A superhero (the Shadow) who uses "the power of his mind" to elude notice seems perfectly credible ... until, that is, you start reimagining him as a sort of trickster god, preserving us from violence and fear by selflessly absorbing them into himself. And it's hard to go wrong with zombies ... except, come to find out, when you try to provide credible scientific explanations for their oozing flesh and blood-lust.

Happily, Malmont's a much better writer than his pulp writer protagonists. With just a few brushstrokes he creates scenes, characters, conversations that feel authentic. I also like how he incorporates narrative arcs with a light touch, rather than pounding us over the head with them - to appreciate just how deftly, make a point of rereading the first few chapters after you've done and appreciating how deftly he's wrapped everything up. However, the chapters devoted to the more "pulpy" parts of the story felt sometimes insufficiently set up, overly busy, and rushed.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that by failing to convince me that pulp can "legitimized," Malmont has inspired in me more respect for the genre than I possessed before! What writers like Walter Gibson and Lester Dent did so effortlessly - making us believe that bravery, chivalry and humanity would always be enough to triumph over evil - turns out not to be so effortless after all.