Tuesday, June 10, 2014

BEAT to a PULP and Heath Lowrance

If you are a fan of this blog, you probably know BEAT to a PULP. If not, you should. You should leave this page, visit theirs, and then come back. Now that you've dropped some cash on their stuff, let's talk.

Recently I talked to David Cranmer, who is head honcho over there, and instead of just posting the interview outright, I'm going to reveal the answers as we talk about some books. I've talked to a lot of people recently, a lot of people you'll really like if you don't already. I'll give you all their answers like this. What will emerge as a result is, I hope, a relatively comprehensive look at why I'm so damn excited about the pulp/crime/noir scene these days.

Discussing his childhood reading habits, Mr. Cranmer says, "It really started way back when I read The Hardy Boys as a kid and that transitioned into Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler. Crime, detective, and mystery style fiction has always been a favorite of mine. Along the way, thanks to my dad, Westerns became a big part of my reading diet along with science fiction which I discovered on my own." He also mentioned the influence of "Ernest Hemingway, Ross Macdonald, Agatha Christie, Larry McMurtry, James Reasoner, Charles Bukowski, Jean Didion, Patricia Highsmith..", saying what is clear based on the names he has cited in addition to the books he publishes, "I've always enjoyed a smorgasbord when it comes to authors. A good book is a good book regardless of genre."

These influences loom large over the mindblowingly terrific catalog of books at BTAP. Superhero tales, westerns both weird and wonderful, and science fiction all share a home there. Indeed, the one constant thread connecting the books is incredible quality. When I first got into BTAP, I couldn't help but wonder how such a unique thing came to be. Thus Spake The Cranmer:

"So when I decided to start BEAT to a PULP in 2008 I wanted to include all these genres and a few more. The pulp/crime/noir scene was very strong at the time though the webzines that hosted these writers had a habit of closing shop like a case of hit-and-run. I had several of my stories at various webzines that abruptly went belly up, that's when I decided to start BEAT to a PULP. I knew I had longevity in my veins especially when it comes to something I love, and here we are five years later -- still in the ring." 

And how could he not love the books that were coming across his desk? Take, for instance, Thomas Pluck's BLADE OF DISHONOR. If you knew me when I stumbled upon Pluck's great book, you know all about it because I couldn't shut up at the time. It floored me. You're going to hear me say that SO MUCH when I talk about BTAP but, boy, is it true! BLADE OF DISHONOR follows 'Rage Cage' Reeves (if that doesn't interest you already, we probably aren't friends) after he returns home from war. He goes to live with his grandfather, a badass in his own right, who has been entrusted to keep safe a samurai sword. When the sword goes missing, the story proper is set into motion and it will throw a shuriken right at your balls if you've got 'em and if you don't it will give you balls just to then have a shuriken thrown at them. Pluck writes about ninjas and samurai and WWII and so many tough-as-nails people that you wonder: has Pluck actually fought ninjas? I mean, the dude seems pretty damn tough but is he actually a character from a Sho Kosugi movie? I think he might be.

I'm not the only one who loves the hell out of BTAP's catalog. Cranmer himself shares the love when I ask about his current influences:

"This past year, Vladimir Nabokov [has influenced me] in a big way. My nephew, author/poet Kyle J. Knapp, was a huge aficionado of the Russian-born author, and after Kyle's death I've plunged head first into reading books like DESPAIR, TRANSPARENT THINGS, and PNIN. Also many of my peers have had a huge influence on me like Steve Weddle, Frank Bill, Alec Cizak, Garnett Elliott, Jake Hinkson, Heath Lowrance, Patti Abbott (to name a few), and they continue to hit their high marks." 

Many of these people are featured in the anthologies that BTAP has released. Take, for example, BEAT to a PULP Round 2. Literally nothing can prepare you for the outstanding quality of BTAP's anthologies and this is as good a starting point as any. Just take a look at the writers who have stories in this thing: Craig's Book-ends favorite Chris Holm, Charles Ardai, Anthony Neil Smith, Alec Cizak, James Reasoner, Jake Hinkson, Patti Abbott, and a look at Pulp Art by Cullen Gallagher. That's just a look at who is in this anthology. Impressive doesn't even begin to describe what it is.

One story that I am especially fond of is James Reasoner's "A World You Don't Know" which takes the familiar story of a drifter coming in to a small town with a corrupt politician and helping out the common man and puts a terrific spin on it. Reasoner is one of the masters of pulp fiction and he puts those skills on full display here. Since these are short stories, I won't elaborate any further on the contents of this anthology, save to say that you really need this in your possession. You really need all of BTAP's anthologies. They've got one exclusively featuring tales about superheroes, for instance, and they ALWAYS feature this level of talent.

Since Cranmer is such a powerful force in modern pulp, I wondered what he might like to see change in the scene. He said, "Instead of bloated novels, I'd like to see pithier releases. Too many writers think they have Stephen King blood in them and try to pen these magnum opuses that just go on and on. Cut 'em down. Long live the novella."

Long live the novella, indeed! I've already talked about my love for the short, tight, mean noir novellas of Mike Monson. However, there is another man that reigns supreme in writing short, no-bullshit stories. That man: Heath Lowrance.

One of the best books I read this year was a book called Axeman of Storyville by Heath Lowrance. In fact, it was the one-two punch of Thomas Pluck's Blade of Dishonor and Heath Lowrance's AXEMAN OF STORYVILLE (that actually turned into a five-six-seven-eight punch from BTAP, but I digress) that really made me sit back and realize that I needed everything BTAP. It doesn't stop there for Lowrance though. I would count him as one of the best writers out there currently and one writer who is writing things that literally no one else is, the sort of thing that I wish there was more of.

Since that time, I have had a number of correspondences with Mr. Lowrance, confirming him as every bit as cool (or cooler) than the books he writes. He hosts a blog in which he occasionally writes ABOUT pulp fiction just as well as he writes the fiction itself. I knew he was a guy that I needed to talk to so I shot some questions over to him. At the time, I was practically a Heath Lowrance fanboy and almost incapable of talking about it rationally. In fact, it's taken me this long to be able to review his work. Obviously I did not want the entire interview to consist of comments like "You write good, heh heh heh heh!"

Luckily, that didn't happen. First though, let's talk books again!

AXEMAN OF STORYVILLE is something of a horror western based on a real serial killer that lived and killed in New Orleans, Louisiana. A Louisianian myself, I have long been fascinated with the story of the Axeman. Apparently, I wasn't alone. When I asked, Lowrance said:

"I first read about the Axeman murders in New Orleans when I was in my late 20's, and thought it was an amazingly creepy story and I couldn't understand why it wasn't as well known as Jack the Ripper or the Torso Murderer. Granted, the body count racked up by the Axeman wasn't as big, maybe that had something to do with it. But the sheer weirdness of it more than makes up for that, I think. And also the fact that, to this day, the case remains unsolved. Regardless, it intrigued me to no end, and I always sort of wanted to write a fictionalized account of it. So when David Cranmer (aka Edward Grainger) suggested I write something about Gideon Miles in his later years, New Orleans, early 20's, it seemed like a perfect fit." 

What's this Edward Grainger/Gideon Miles business? Well, Grainger (as noted above) is a pen name of Mr. Cranmer himself. Under this name, Cranmer wrote about the western adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. Various other people have been enlisted to write other tales featuring one or both of these characters. AXEMAN is one such tale and it is my favorite non-Grainger tale involving one of the duo.

Gideon Miles is one of the first African-American US Marshals and AXEMAN finds an older Miles in New Orleans in the 1920's trying to settle down and run a night club. Of course, Miles is a Real Badass and those types can't ever settle down for long. Miles gets caught up in the Axeman murders and the resulting stories is one of the best reads of 2014. Seriously, I might be downplaying it because I'm afraid of hyperbole, but this joins the ranks of the books I truly love. Lowrance does some really great things with Miles' character and I asked him to elaborate on this. Here's what he had to say:

"I'll tell you honestly, I LOVE Gideon Miles. Just love him. His partner, Cash Laramie, is maybe a bit more glamorous as the bad boy lawman archetype, but Gideon has depths that not too many fictional characters have. This whole thing started when David put his characters on the table for me and a handful of other writers. I felt honored to be included, but I knew immediately that Gideon was the one I wanted to write about. Fortunately, David trusted me with his toys and gave me leeway to develop not just a narrative for Gideon, but some back-story and fresh motivations. I built on what David established, and it was immensely satisfying. So far, I'm the only one aside from Edward Grainger who has worked on Gideon and I'd be lying to you if I said I haven't gotten a bit possessive of him." 

I implore you, reader, to buy this book. I feel confident that if you like the things I've recommended so far, you're going to love this. It's brilliant. Lowrance is so damn good. However, there's one more character that Lowrance has written about that I need to talk about: Hawthorne!

The weird western is a western subgenre that mixes in elements of horror. I'm not sure if Robert E. Howard was the first one to do it but he was certainly the first one to do it well. For a long time, the only other guy to do it right was the incomparable Joe R. Lansdale. Now, however, we have Heath Lowrance and the badass character of Hawthorne.

All the stories to-date about the mysterious figure have been collected in HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST, also from BTAP. How do you know straight off the bat that these stories are must-haves? Take a look at the introduction to the collection, it's by James Reasoner. If Reasoner, a man who knows pulp westerns almost better than anyone alive, approves then you know it is worthy of your shelf. Like any good weird western tale, the stories included in WEIRDER WEST good westerns and good horror. The enigmatic character of Hawthorne reminds me of another Robert Howard creation, Solomon Kane. Apparently, Lowrance had that in mind too...

"Hawthorne is huge fun to write about because he is so single-minded. He doesn't question what he does. He doesn't have pity or remorse and there are no shades of gray. He kills, that's what he does. It's as simple as that. To be able to write a character like that is immensely freeing; you can put all your own rage into him and it becomes cathartic. Of course, there is more to Hawthorne than that, but he doesn't carry it around with him all the time and I, as the writer, don't have to slow the narrative down to explain what he does or why he does it..." 

He goes on:

"I've made no secret of the fact that Robert E. Howard was the biggest inspiration for the Hawthorne stories. Not just his weird western tales, but his character Solomon Kane; a roaming man of action, driven by a burning need to combat and destroy evil wherever he finds it. In some ways, Hawthorne is a wild west take on Solomon Kane. Without the religious mania."

You really, really need to buy this book. If you don't know Howard or Lansdale, chances are you've never been exposed to the weird western. This is probably the best possible introduction to the genre. If you have read Howard and Lansdale, you probably have yearned for more westerns with a horror bent. You will love WEIRDER WEST. You will read it again and again, just as I have. You will write letters begging Lowrance to write more. You will build a straw effigy of him, take a photo, mail it to him, and tell him that if he doesn't do more Hawthorne, the dolly gets it! (Ok, don't do that last one. It didn't work out well for me. I mean, not me. This guy I know who did that. He told me it didn't work out well. Lowrance won't even talk to him anymore. PLEASE BE MY FRIEND, HEATH!)

So what's next for Lowrance?

"There won't be a sequel to AXEMAN", he tells me, "not exactly. But I do have plans to return to Gideon Miles very soon, catching up with him shortly after the events in 'Miles to Little Ridge'. There's more to be told to that tale, and I suspect it will play out in novella form. Hawthorne is also far from done. I'm currently working on a novella-length tale that explores, among other things, the events that led to his obsession with destroying supernatural evil. There's also a Cash Laramie/Hawthorne cross-over in the works that Edward Grainger and I will write jointly. There will be the occasional unrelated short story, hopefully to round out the year. After that, I plan on spending most of next year working on my third full-length novel before visiting either Gideon or Hawthorne again."

Whatever he does, here's hoping that Lowrance keeps writing for years and years to come and shares that writing with us. Here's hoping that he gets the legions of adoring fans that he deserves. Our modern world is drowning in so many voices, Mr. Lowrance has one that truly stands out. We should all do what we can to support that voice and read his remarkable, brilliant, fun, thrilling tales. He is a man equally comfortable in many genres, saying "I've probably shot myself in the foot, career-wise, but not settling into one thing, but honestly, I'd rather be obscure to the point of ridiculousness than be forced into writing one sort of thing forever and ever. Maybe eventually I'll find the niche I can stay comfortable in long-term, but it hasn't happened yet."

The same can be said about BTAP as a whole. As I said before, the common thread is quality. I have barely even scratched the surface of what you can and should get from BTAP. I haven't mentioned Garnett Elliott's Drifter Detective novels. You'll love those. I haven't talked about THE DAME, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVICE which features a collaboration of many different writers including Chris F. Holm and Chad Eagleton. I haven't talked about the poetry of Kyle J. Knapp. However, I will talk about that last one later this week and I'll review BTAP's newest, THE LIZARD'S ARDENT UNIFORM which is inspired by Knapp and features, in true BTAP form, an unbelievable amount of talent.

If this is your introduction, I believe in time that you'll find, as I have, that every single BTAP release should be a blind buy.


  1. Lowrance has definitely produced some very fine stuff. I still have Axeman to read but really enjoyed his Hawthorne works.

  2. Thank you, Craig. I enjoyed the interview and the way you presented it here.

  3. Thanks a lot for commenting, folks, and thank you, Mr. Cranmer, for the interview. I really love what you guys are doing at BTAP. Keep up the amazing work.