Challenge 354 Response
““A Dish Best Served Cold””
D. A. Madigan
Just a note on “A Dish Best Served Cold,” in passing:
In the Challenge, you inquire, “How does the style indicate that the story is a tongue-in-cheek parody of comic books and pulp adventure fiction?” While I’m not questioning your perceptions (readers often see things that writers never intended) I wanted to note that in fact, “A Dish Best Served Cold” is not meant to be any kind of parody. It was written because I love pulp, and my intention was simply to write a pulp pastiche... something as close to a Golden Age Pulp Heroes adventure yarn as I could, from the lofty remove of the early 21st Century.
To the jaded, post ironic modern eye, of course, any “gee whiz” pulp adventure seems like parody... you just can’t take that stuff seriously any more. Pulp isn’t at all a literary form and isn’t trying to accomplish anything particularly important, all pulp is trying to do is make the reader feel something... it’s extremely visceral. It’s meant to thrill, to set the pulses pounding and the senses spinning, to knock the wind out of you. To that extent, it’s very much like pornography... all it’s trying to do is stimulate some kind of sensory response in the reader.
Now, to do that, classic pulp writers resort to extremely vivid “purple prose,” and will shamelessly use any whiz-bang plot or story element, no matter how hopelessly hackneyed or cliched, that accomplishes these goals. And that’s why these various plots and story elements are cliches... because no matter how many thousands of times you read about a sentient white gorilla or an ancient Pharaoh who styles himself The Last Son of the Gods or the Lost Emperor of some Ancient Polar Empire, or bodiless intelligences that will brook no disrespect to the timelost Himalayan valley where the dust of their bones yet rests, these remain story elements that widen your eyes, that raise your hackles, that dilate your capillaries and get your pulses pounding.
Pulp is big-picture story telling. It’s vivid, it’s garish, it’s painted in extremely broad strokes. It’s larger than life, and concerns itself with archetypes and tropes. The characters of pulp simultaneously transcend reality and embody it; the characterizations are two-dimensional at best, because everything is secondary to the story, and the story is always built around some enormous existential conflict, some vast thematic fulcrum.
Pulp isn’t just about Good vs. Evil, it’s also centered on Old vs. New, and all the endless nuances of that eternal battle: Tradition vs. Innovation, Superstition vs Reason, Science vs. Magic, the Individual against the Collective, Mind vs. Body, Law vs. Crime. Nearly all of Robert E. Howard’s work, for example, works around the last two, with Conan, Kull, or Solomon Kane always embodying a single, healthy, primitive, physical individual taking on either a Collective of somewhat lesser sorts, or an intellectually superior ‘egghead’ sorcerer who is physically much punier than the brawny, brawling hero.
Doc Savage’s stories, on the other hand, are all about Law vs. Crime and Science vs. Superstition, with Doc, the ultra-athletic super-scientist always or at least often battling some apparently supernatural menace which, in the end, turns out to be just a gangster of some sort using some kind of unorthodox science to simulate evil magic. (To this extent, the more modern characters Scooby Doobie Doo and his gang are cartoon incarnations of Doc and his crew.)
Every pulp story has at its heart a heroic protagonist who stands as a larger than life avatar of whatever that particular pulp author thinks is existential Good — Law and Order, Science and Reason, the Individual, the Healthy Body — and a villainous antagonist, who embodies the hero’s polar opposite. This is why the great pulp heroes have the appeal that they do; it’s because, from their very first appearance, they resonate with their audience on some basic, nearly pre-conscious level. These heroes strike a primal chord, and as long as they continue to resonate around that core appeal, they remain immensely popular.
John Commander is meant to be that kind of hero; the guy whose first appearance was a 1500-word short tucked into the back of some garishly covered periodical called Amazing Adventures or He Man Action or something, but that story got a big reader reaction, so in the next issue the editor ran a full 6,000-word novella, and after that, he got spun off into his own magazine, and he’s had dozens if not hundreds of stories written about him by the time “A Dish Best Served Cold” came out, and we’ve seen him battle all these weird foes, and travel to distant planets and dimensions, we’ve watched the grisly murder of his wife that has transformed him into something much grimmer and harsher than he used to be.
And all his adventures appear under one byline, but there are actually five or six house writers that use that byline, and true John Commander fan can always tell which one is pounding out a particular story because the tropes will change along with the author... he’s that kind of hero. The sort whose appeal is all but eternal, because he represents some specific ideal that appeals to a large audience — the idea, perhaps, of one human individual able to consistently triumph over any and all adversity through the use of his towering will and his unstoppable intellect. He is the way we’d like to see ourselves, distilled down into a single character. He represents Us, and his adversaries always represent Them... malevolent, often inhuman foes that wish not just to kill him, but to enslave him, to manipulate him, to use him for their own purposes, against his express desires.
The White Pharaoh embodies that last to its logical extreme: he wants to destroy the mental aspects of Commander entirely, and simply possess his body, but all the various villains the narrative mentions briefly have similar agendas. None of Commander’s enemies simply want to kill him. They want to mess with his head, and make him do their bidding.
The fact that Commander not only resists this kind of meddling manipulation but does so successfully in every installment is what would give him his perpetual popularity... always assuming, of course, that he was actually that sort of hero and not just a character I made up for a pulp tribute story I decided to write one day for an internet e-zine.
So with “A Dish Best Served Cold” I was not trying to write a parody, I was trying to write pulp... it’s just that, to the contemporary perception, pulp is parody. Read any Doc Savage story now and try not to chuckle knowingly to yourself; it’s nearly impossible. But still, that’s what I’m going for here.
D. A. Madigan
Copyright © 2009 by D. A. Madigan
Thank you for the spirited characterization of a genre you obviously love, D. A.
If the heroes you describe are typical of pulp fiction, then it might be better named something like the “popular epic.” But that’s practically redundant: the epic has always been “popular.” And it has always bordered on or strayed into outright fantasy.
Please don’t take “parody” as demeaning. Parody is basically exaggeration used as a literary device. And the Challenge question is answered for all practical purposes by the last question in the set, the one that invites contributors to take inspiration from your list of story plots.
“Dish” itself could conclude without that list, but it’s not really anticlimactic. And I find it’s all the more fun for passing the pulp genre in review. It’s the genre squared, so to speak.
More power to you and your “pulp” heroes! As long as you enjoy them, so will your readers. “A Dish Best Served Cold” has certainly made a hit here at Bewildering Stories.