Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Pulpy New Year!

Kick some butt, Baby New Year!
by I.A. Watson

New Year is probably the most popular specific time of year for pulp fiction. That’s when Honest Jack Action huddles in the corner of a smoky bar, lost in booze and the past, almost oblivious of the classy dame shimmying towards him. It’s exactly when Dr Destructo intends to set off his Mindworm Devices to conquer the Earth. It’s when Vic Valiant has to chase the villain across the snowy rooftops while Big Ben tolls midnight and the fuses burn down around the Commissioner’s daughter.
 
Christmas is a competitor too, because it’s fun to juxtapose those warm log fires and yellow-lit interiors with the bleak blizzard outside, and dark deeds seem that much darker against a cosy yuletide backdrop. But even Christmas can’t match the pulpy power of the year ending and a new one starting for good or ill.
 
Most stories set on Earth either ignore the season or generalise. Maybe the weather had to be bad for plot reasons, or there’s a specific season for a pathetic fallacy; falling leaves are excellent for that, and so is frozen earth (especially round graves). But I’m hard pressed to think of any story that takes place on New Year’s Eve or at Christmas by accident.
 
That’s because fiction has to be more believable than real life, and because writers need to focus their readers on only those things relevant for the story they have to tell. In the same way that the hero doesn’t bump into a neighbour who’s on his way to the laundry and get into a chat about his maiden aunt’s lumbago unless it fiendishly turns out to be somehow plot-relevant in the end, so remarkable weather and notable times of day distract from the story and are thus omitted.
 
For example, how would “Farewell, My Lovely” been improved by Christmas trees? In what way would “The Problem at Thor Bridge” have been bettered by occurring at New Year? Any stories accidentally happening at Easter, Hallowe’en, or any solstice or equinox are simply impossible.
 
That’s because some holidays and some extreme weather forms are so distinctive that they have a narrative pull all of their own. New Year’s Eve can never be a neutral backdrop. The characters simply have to react to it or seem unrealistic. Unless the hero spends a moment with his old regrets or the villain is motivated by a burning resolution to wreak vengeance before the calendar turns, the time seems like a distraction, a nagging plot thread that doesn’t fit. If it’s New Year, or Christmas, or thunderstorming, or blizzarding, or a heatwave then it has to either be plot relevant or mood-setting. Literary convention insists on no less.
 
On the other hand, stories that do avail themselves of readers’ expectations of an intimate family Christmas or of the countdown to the next millennium have a powerful tool. The problem is it’s a much-used tool. If the writer wants to present a Christmas ghost story then the Ghost of Dickens Past peers over his shoulder. Any fictional teens who decide to spend a night making out in the old abandoned mansion on Hallowe’en must beware cliché as much as the mad old groundkeeper. And archvillains about to launch the New World Order as the year turns had better book their place in the rota early, because there’ll be a queue.
 
As 2013 approaches, we ignore the fact that our calendar is somewhat arbitrary and take the opportunity to reflect upon joys, sorrows, and sins past, upon achievements and failures, upon lost friends and precious memories. We’re also drawn to the future, to hopes or fears for the days ahead, to new resolutions, to changes that the coming days must mark. New Year is a birthday that the whole world shares, with similar celebrations and self-analysis. And so it is for our characters, with all the dramatic potential that offers. A writer’s challenge is to use the setting as skilfully as any other pulp trope – the driving rain, the teeming railway platform, the unrelenting desert heat, the funeral of a friend etc – and make that countdown… count.
 
Let the world tremble. The hours comes! 


Oh, and Happy New Year.