So I Accidentally Wrote a Pulp Novel: A Confessional Manifesto

Robert Isenberg
Nov 27, 2015 · 19 min read

By Robert Isenberg

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In January, I will release a book of pulp fiction. The book is called The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion, and it is a collection of adventure stories that take place in 1921.

What do I mean by adventure stories? I mean that there are bootleggers and spies, car chases and a zombie outbreak. One of the characters is a Hungarian swordfighter with a patch eye. A dog falls out of the sky. A bumbling concierge may actually be a deadly assassin. Danger lurks behind every corner — cryptographers, gangsters in pinstripes, and a seductive killer aboard an airborne zeppelin.

At the heart of these stories is Elizabeth Crowne, my ideal heroine and one of my finest creations. She is bookish, agile, and wisecracking. She lives in a world both fantastical and real: Elizabeth is a paranormal investigator, but she resides in a brick-and-mortar neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She battles vampires, but she also rides the streetcar and hangs out at the Carnegie Library. Elizabeth is an avid birdwatcher and enthusiastic stoner, at a time when cannabis was legal and liquor was not.

It begs the question: Where did this come from? How did a freelance journalist end up writing a pulp novel about a flapper detective?

The answer may seem surprising, even to close friends. The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion started as a pastime, but it has since become a labor of love. The stories are campy, but they also celebrate my lifelong obsession with esoterica and adventure. I have written richer plays, smarter stories, more emotional monologues, and vastly better nonfiction. But the exploits of Elizabeth Crowne hit closer to home. They are the natural extension of my boyhood daydreams. They are, in many ways, my most personal works.

Such Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

What inspired this project? A lot of things. But you could say it all started with a “forbidden” book.

In 2011, I was finishing my MFA, and I was frantic. Like most grad students, I had come to despise my thesis. I was busier than I had ever been in my life — a full course load, teaching a class of my own, writing for five different news outlets, and doing various theater projects at night. I loved my masters program, I loved the mentorship and camaraderie, but I had read only nature essays and postcolonial novels for two straight years. I was exhausted. I had reached my breaking point.

So I did something crazy: I found a free audiobook of King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard.

I picked the book at random. The title was familiar, but I had no idea what it was about. All I knew was that it sounded like brawny Victorian fun. I assumed it had something to do with hidden treasure and explorers in pith helmets. I downloaded the book and listened to it every day. And I loved it.

For grad students in their final semester, pleasure reading is unheard of. English majors in particular learn to hate reading anything at all. I’ve met many literature students who were so shattered by their programs that they have basically avoided all printed words ever since. Once you’ve read your twentieth coming-of-age novel about a tormented youth battered by her patriarchal society, you barely want to wake up in the morning, much less pick up a book.

So King Solomon’s Mines came as a relief: In it, three Englishmen embark on an expedition across the sub-Saharan outback in search of some fabled diamond mines. Allan Quatermain is a callused mercenary, and he leads Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good into the wilderness, guided by a dubious legend. Their chaperon is Umbopa, a native African with a mysterious past. Together they hunt elephants, climb mountains, start a tribal war, and search for Sir Henry’s long-lost brother. The book is pure schlock: In one scene, the explorers are taken prisoner, but they trick their captors by pretending to block out the sun — because an almanac tells them that a solar eclipse is expected that very day. (This gimmick was so delicious that Mark Twain later used the same twist in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

A book like King Solomon’s Mines would be torn to shreds in a grad school classroom. The writing is wordy, unsubtle, and comically Anglo-centric. But I treasured my little pulp story. It was a fluffy relief. Indeed, when King Solomon’s Mines debuted in 1885, copies immediately sold out. Critics dubbed it “the most amazing book ever written,” an epithet that (at the time) should have been reserved only for the Bible. The book helped launch an entire genre of “lost world” novels, most set in far-flung places.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a ridiculous read. The writing is imperialist in tone, and the descriptions of inland Africa are gallingly false. But Haggard’s chronicle isn’t nearly as prejudiced as I’d anticipated. There is a moment, early on, when the Englishmen make camp and stay up late, smoking pipes and talking about life, death, and the universe. It is then that Umbopa, their guide, offers his two cents:

“Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.”

I would be hard-pressed to find a more stirring monologue in Victorian literature. Over a campfire, huddled with friends, I have thought roughly the same thing, but never so eloquently. And there it is, a black African telling these self-important Englishmen what it’s all about. Umbopa is the wisest of the four, the most dignified, and by far the most appealing. The book may have been written by a popular English hack, but even today, years later, I still love those words.

King Solomon’s Mines was more than a quick diversion. The book awakened my love of old-fashioned adventure stories. I realized how much these tales had meant to me in my childhood — classics like Treasure Island, Call It Courage, Tarzan of the Apes, Hatchet, The Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on. I devoured Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventure, and as I grew older, I embraced more challenging works: Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, among countless others.

King Solomon’s Mines revived long-forgotten memories. I remembered spotting a Louis L’Amour paperback in the local supermarket. I’m was probably eight or nine years old. The book was one of his “frontier stories,” and there were naturally cowboys on the cover. I cracked open the volume, smelled the inky paper, and had an overwhelming desire to see my own name on the cover of a book. When we got home, I begged my parents to pull out their typewriter and teach me how to use it. I typed a few short paragraphs — about a gun-battle at sunrise in a nameless Western town. I remember describing the sound of the pistols as “Snap! Snap!” I have no idea what happened to this early draft, but the pleasure of typing, of drafting a plot as I went, is a sensation I’ve never forgotten.

Suddenly, I wanted to write pulp stories.

Please understand, I love literary fiction. I have a degree in literary fiction. I have published literary short stories, and nearly all my stage-plays are the brooding character studies of “serious theater.” I have no axe to grind with academia or the literary establishment.

But I wanted to try something different, something fun. I wanted to create an ongoing story, a saga both thrilling and clever. I wanted a playground for all those old-fashioned tropes — lost treasures, femmes fatales, tommy guns, mummies, time travel, secret passages, duels, tiger pits, speakeasies, truth serums, pontoon planes, robots and extra-terrestrials. I could tie someone to railroad tracks, or write my way through a Mexican standoff. Even the language of pulp stories is freeing: Characters could speak in that faux-English dialect of Golden Age cinema. I could use adverbs, run-on sentences, and forgotten phrases like “Come off it, old sport!” and “I’ll be jiggered!” If a graying professor needed to explain the plot in one breathless monologue, I could write that monologue with impunity. Would I include mad scientists? Dickensian coincidences? Hollowed-out books? A poison dart? You bet I would. And I would relish every second.

Grrl Power, Flapper-Style

Above all, I knew my hero had to be a woman.

First and foremost, Elizabeth Crowne is everything I love about a good protagonist — she’s brilliant and resourceful, and she’s full of zingers. Like a lot of authors, I wish she was real so that I could hang out with her. As people have read the manuscript, they seem to like the stories, but they really like the main character.

“I love Elizabeth!” they exclaim, as if I have introduced them to a new girlfriend. “She’s so cool!”

This reaction is my pride and joy, and no personal agenda could possibly be that important to me. But there is a personal agenda. Creating a female character was a conscious choice.

My wife and I have this recurring conversation about mediocre TV shows with quirky-yet-brilliant men and their frigid female sidekicks. They’re everywhere: Castle is about a quirky novelist teaming up with a no-nonsense female detective. The Mentalist is about a quirky psychic teaming up with a no-nonsense female detective. Elementary is about a quirky private investigator teaming up with a no-nonsense female physician. In each case, the charming male lead uses an eccentric approach to solve a problem; the gorgeous female partner says he’s being crazy and inappropriate; but the male lead eventually proves her wrong, and the gorgeous female sidekick is forced to apologize.

Sidekicks aside, the number of tall, handsome, able-bodied, heterosexual, Caucasoid male protagonists is beyond overwhelming — it’s boring. I have loved watching Jack Bauer and Agent Cooper and Captain Kirk and Jason Bourne all these years, and I have always loved reading about Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Henry Seldon and Bruce Wayne and Aragorn Son of Arathorn. But the last thing pop literature needs is yet another moralizing hunk, or bad-boy father figure, or super-genius Great White Hope. Individually, there is nothing wrong with these characters. Collectively, they are the same demographic, the same sensibility, over and over again.

My initial model for Elizabeth Crowne was Dorothy Parker — a witty, intelligent woman full of secret sorrows. While the 1920s was a superficial and materialist decade, the Flappers were some of the most liberated and dynamic women in world history: They held jobs, they partied, and they waited a while to marry and procreate. Even if they weren’t Flappers, exactly, women of this decade had unprecedented chutzpah. Amelia Earhart was taking flying lessons as early as 1921, only two decades after the airplane was invented. Agatha Christie would become one of the best-selling authors of all time. Zelda Fitzgerald was wildly self-destructive, but she was also captivating (and probably co-wrote many of her husband’s books). Fictitious characters were just as phenomenal: In The Great Gatsby, Daisy is fine and all, but for me, it’s Jordan Baker who steals the show. The same goes for Roxie Hart, the conniving antihero at the heart of Chicago. And at the top of the pantheon, Dorothy Parker set the standard for Flapperdom: hilarious, promiscuous, social, and fashionable, Parker helped define the Twenties. The Flappers were unfazed by male aggression. The “modern woman” made feminism fun. Without Lois Long, there would be no Carrie Bradshaw. Without Clara Bow, Madonna would be wearing a corset.

Two of my favorites were (for me) recent discoveries: I knew that the journalist Nellie Bly had infiltrated a “madhouse” by pretending to have a mental illness, but I didn’t know that she had traveled around the globe in order to beat the record set by (the fictional) Phineas Fogg. In the course of her travels, Bly partied with geishas, hung out with snake-charmers, and adopted a pet monkey. Her travelogue is gutsy and surprisingly funny, and by the time Bly returned to the U.S., she was followed everywhere by crowds of adoring fans.

A friend recently recommended a biography of Gertrude Bell, a well-heeled Englishwoman who spent much of her life on diplomatic missions in the Middle East. Bell learned Arabic, created a vast network of Arab sheikhs, and rode camels across battle-worn deserts during World War I. It was no coincidence that she was close friends with T.E. Lawrence, and without Bell’s brilliant work behind the scenes, there would be no “Lawrence of Arabia.” Both of these women started their careers in the Victorian era, when even having a career was considered inappropriate. The idea that a woman could travel the world alone, interact freely with men, and then publish books about her adventures was shocking.

But Elizabeth Crowne has become more than just a Parker-Bell-Bly wannabe. She has action hero skills: She can swim, ride a horse, and speak several languages. She’s a talented armchair detective, but she’s not afraid to stab an assailant with a stake. She also has weaknesses: Elizabeth can’t drive, she’s a lousy shot, and she’s bad with emotions. Her wit can sting and alienate people. She’s surprisingly lonely.

This has long been my problem with many pop-heroines: Characters like Evelyn Salt, Lara Croft, and Violet Song Jat Shariff aren’t “women” so much as men with curves. They’re simple and violent, and a male character could easily replace them. If a female character exists only to show off some kung-fu and prompt sexy Cosplay outfits, I feel that she is designed to titillate men, not energize women.

This is why Katniss Everdeen, Buffy Summers, Sydney Bristow, Sarah Manning, and Phryne Fisher are all so exceptional — they’re tough, they’re sharp, and they’re clearly female. No man could ever substitute for them. These are the heroines I hope my children will admire as they grow older. They live in complex worlds and neither deny nor dwell on their gender. Indeed, being a woman is an asset, a point of pride, an opportunity to do things that most men can’t.

Vintage Cool

The period between 1920 and 1929 goes by a lot of names: The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, The Lost Generation, The Flapper Era, The Prohibition Era, The Interwar Period, and so on. Wedged between two colossal tragedies — World War I and The Great Depression — you could argue that not much happened during this decade. Even the thinkers of the time were unimpressed with their contemporaries. Businessmen overreached. Technology improved. Mobsters smuggled booze. The free-for-all of American capitalism made way for the stock market’s collapse. Compared to the Dust Bowl, The Wizard of Oz, and the rise of Hitler, the Twenties seem like a juvenile prelude to more important times.

Yet I love the Twenties on many levels. The Victorians had mapped the world and wrestled it into submission, yet they didn’t really understand their own empires. It took a sensitive filmmaker like Robert J. Flaherty to document Nanook of the North, and it took a hardened obsessive like Percy Fawcett to pursue The Lost City of Z. Meanwhile, as black sharecroppers escaped the Jim Crow South, African-American culture began to truly thrive for the first time, and the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to nearly all popular music composed ever since. (Two of my all-time favorite novels, Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, provide breathtaking descriptions of the early 20th Century blues scene. One of my favorite plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is August Wilson’s gritty homage to the overlooked jazz singer).

Then there is the story of organized crime, a sprawling soap opera filled with tommy guns, mobsters, and molls. We owe much of our popular culture, and the American identity, to the smuggling and street battles that dominated the 1920s. Names like Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and John Dillinger are some of the most mythic in American history.

To this day, Flapper fashion still allures me, and I gravitate toward bars that look and act like speakeasies. I am so enamored of the Algonquin Round Table that my writing workshop in Pittsburgh first called itself “The Rahnd Table.” I am an obsessive New Yorker reader, and I routinely flip through my “Talk of the Town” anthology, especially the short articles by Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and E.B. White. (I have modeled scores of my own news articles on their peculiar style). Books like Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast describe an epoch of revelry and excess, bohemian antics and sexual abandon. Hollywood churned out movie stars, even though their voices were never heard. Scandals were colossal, especially crimes of passion and torrid affairs.

And then there’s the fiction. The author Joshua Glenn calls this period “The Radium Age,” and I love his definition:

It emerged when the speed of change in science and technology was inducing vertigo on both sides of the Atlantic. More cynical than its Victorian precursor yet less hard-boiled than the generation that followed, this is sci-fi offering a dizzying, visionary blend of acerbic social commentary and shock tactics. It yields telling insights into its context, the early twentieth century. Plus, it is fun to read.

This wasn’t just pulp, and the audience was more than teenaged boys in propeller-beanies. Everyday people read serialized stories in magazines like Collier’s, and families listened to radio dramas with the same casual pleasure that modern families watch Lost. The appeal of these stories is still felt today: The movie True Grit is based on Charles Portis’ novel, which was originally published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post — and there are dozens more examples of famous characters and stories, still beloved a century later, that found their roots in periodicals.

In the Elizabeth Crowne stories, I have taken cues from those very pulp writers, and I have studied these Victorian and Radium Age tales with zealous fervor. In the past few years alone, I have read a dozen of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, two Agatha Christie novels, and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, about monstrous vivisections on a remote tropical island. I read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu, about an ancient monster-god at the bottom of the ocean. I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is, at its dark heart, an adventure story. Doyle’s The Lost World imagined a secret land of dinosaurs on a South American plateau. My appetite for pulp was so ravenous that I downloaded Fifty Thrilling Stories, a 25-hour audiobook that collects all kinds of classic tales, from Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw” to Guy de Maupassant’s “Mademoiselle Fifi.” I read stories of demonic cats, portended murders, robot gigolos, and haunted houses — and I loved every second of it.

I read a small library of nonfiction as well, like Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, about Henry Ford’s failed utopian town in the Brazilian jungle, and Bill Bryson’s One Summer, about Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth and other flapper phenomena. I thumbed through old copies of National Geographic and Popular Mechanics. I read the articles, but I also studied the advertisements for tobacco and pomade. As pulpy as the Elizabeth Crowne stories are, I wanted an authentic atmosphere as well: If someone traveled from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1921, what was it like to drive a car down a highway that was really just a long dirt road? If someone picked up a telephone receiver, what would they dial?

As I’ve revised the stories of Elizabeth Crowne, I can find a secret reference or inside joke in almost every line. When Elizabeth says she can swear like a Pullman Porter, I’m referencing Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. When someone asks about Margaret Matzenauer, he is referencing a real opera singer of the time. Fuente de la India is a real statue in Havana, which I saw myself during a student visit to Cuba. My description of an airship is based on real photos and schematics of the Hindenburg. While it sounds like comic book fare, “Black Chamber” was a real organization, and it really was moved to New York City after the war, and it really did monitor Western Union transfers. I would love to say that a secret cryptoanalytic task force like MI-8 is some kind of wild conspiracy theory, but it’s really just Wikipedia.

A World of Possibility

This is just a start, of course. The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion isn’t just a book, but a doorway into a vast new world, which I plan to cultivate for years to come. The foundation has now been laid, and it will expand in every direction at once: Early on, Elizabeth casually mentions “my friend Greta,” who will star in her own story in a few months. Elizabeth alludes to a past love affair, and she carefully guards a secret ring. These things are all left unexplained; they are all hints of stories to come.

There is plenty to loathe about the 21st Century, but it’s a wonderful time for DIY creativity. The ability to blog, podcast, create videos, build websites, distribute ebooks, and ultimately spread the word on social media is an unprecedented power. As a guy who likes to dabble in everything, I see no reason why I shouldn’t put these tools to the test.

What I love about such serialized fiction is that the worlds grow and evolve over time, and fans are swept up in their narrative current. Stargate started as an eccentric science fiction film in 1994; there was no telling that the two-hour movie about extra-terrestrial pharaohs would launch a colossal franchise, including a 10-season TV show and regular “cons.” When Raiders of the Lost Ark hit theaters in 1981, critics saw it as an amusing homage to old-timey action flicks. Today, Indiana Jones is mythic. The trilogy was a cornerstone of my childhood. It has perpetually affected every aspect of my life — not because I race Nazis to biblical tombs, but because Indiana Jones infused me with a sense of globe-trotting adventure. From Dr. Jones, I learned that to study languages, understand cultures, face danger, read obscure books, and make friends of all colors and nationalities was to live (real) life to the fullest.

A Parting Anecdote

Like all fiction, the stories are filled with personal touches, and the best example is Maude. She is Elizabeth’s assistant and sidekick, but I actually came up with her first. You could say that Maude is the reason this world exists at all. And it is by far my favorite story of inspiration.

Many years ago, I applied for a writing job at ModCloth. The start-up was conceived in a dorm room at Carnegie-Mellon University, and at the time it was rapidly growing. ModCloth sells vintage-style clothing online, and I dreamed of spending my days writing web copy among cute hipster girls. The hiring managers seemed to like my work, so they gave me a test: They wanted me to write a “sample blog.” I was supposed to come up with a theme and style. I should write a couple of posts as examples of the blog in action.

A sample blog? I thought. For an Internet clothing company?

I hit a wall. All my ideas felt wrong. Blogs were extremely popular at the time, but few of them were destined to last. After all, a successful blog needed more than just news and updates. It needed a personality. Fashion is full of personality, of course, but I felt that ModCloth needed a human mascot, a protagonist, a character.

So I came up with Maude — a pun on ModCloth — a chic, smart, sociable girl living in the big city. She would be endearing, but also shy and even clumsy. After all, who buys vintage clothing online? Shy people. People nervous to shop in public, because they might knock over the rack of sunglasses. The blog would follow Maude around town, meeting friends, drinking coffee, doing karaoke at the bowling alley, and maybe even finding Mr. Right. Since ModCloth is more about obtaining cute boots than knocking boots, the romance would be subtle and sweet. Maude would encounter people at parties and hangouts, and a very loose story would unfold. In each scene, Maude could showcase a different outfit. (A going away party? For Esther? This calls for a raspberry sweater-coat with detachable wool belt…)

I thought it was the most brilliant idea I’d ever had, and I instantly fell in love with Maude. She was like Betty Boop and Olive Oyl and Ellie Kemper and Alyson Hannigan rolled into one lovable young woman.

But ModCloth rejected the idea. And I didn’t get the job.

All told, I applied for ModCloth three times in two years, using a different strategy with each attempt. They never hired me.

Which is fine, because I relish my consolation prize — a fictional character more resonant to me than Superman and Hawkeye and Don Draper put together. Maude has far outlived her original purpose, and she gets more interesting with every turn of the page. Early in the book, we meet a meek and obedient girl. Maude is a pushover, a wallflower, a lightweight. But as Elizabeth’s aide-de-camp, she toughens up. Her confidence grows. She uses her noggin. By the end of the book, she has grown:

There were times when Maude found herself sitting in one place for an hour or more, and she realized how much it vexed her. She had spent so much of her life doing precisely this — perched on a sofa, knees locked together, hands in her lap, waiting for something to happen. She didn’t like this feeling of merely occupying space. She looked forward to fresh air, open skies, movement, momentum. She felt a sudden desire to climb mountains, ford rivers, fly in an airplane. She heard a voice inside her call out, What are we waiting for?

And there you have it — the point of these stories. Maude pines for adventure, and I hope that readers to do. For their sake, I offer a few thousand words of sheer escapist fantasy. By June, I’ll have a few thousand more. The floodgates are open. The gun has fired. Buckle your safety belts. It’s going to be a crazy ride.

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