I’ve been feeling better lately, more positive in general. I’ve started exercising again, working harder—back on top of my workload, and so on. And I’m also a little nervous about how much like the dreaded reviews these things are starting to sound. So for this week’s look back at “weird” fiction from the mid-20s, I’m going to focus only on the positive.
Our next story from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales is “Luisma’s Return: A Tale of Haiti” by pulp stalwart Arthur J. Burks (Estil Critchie). What’s good about “Luisma’s Return”? What works? What can we, as authors working ninety-four years in the future, learn from this story in a positive way? What can we emulate? What might inspire us?
Even if it starts with a bit of a contemporary history lesson or “scene setting,” in the first page we see that this is a story about people. What a screenwriting teacher would call the “inciting incident” is right up front, too: the evil emperor has taken the woman Luisma loves. On page one, our hero is personally, emotionally involved in what has happened so far, and so is the only other character we actually meet, Madeleine’s mother. This is a story about relationships, right from the get-go.
And here’s something to chew on…
Every story, at least every story worth reading, is about relationships.
That’s not only true for romance, but every single genre, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror. What this “inciting incident” means to the people in the story drives everything, and is always—always—more important than robustly detailed worldbuilding, scientific accuracy, and other things that can support your story, but can’t become a story in and of themselves.
Oh, and we also very clearly know exactly who the hero is (Luisma) and who the villain is (Christophe, aka Henri). Might be a little unsubtle for some modern tastes, but especially in a genre short story, this is a good thing. We have characters in conflict, and the hero is emotionally invested in that conflict.
A positively speaking, it’s okay, I think, to also take a certain measure of joy in old stories like this and the way language has changed so that common usage in 1925 (or whenever) now sounds like…
Luisma hurried away, walking erect and unafraid.
Then the very next paragraph:
Luisma stood erect before his emperor.
Cue Beavis & Butthead, laughing.
But that’s okay. We can take a second to smile at stuff like that and still remain erect in our love of mature literature.
The immediate reversal of Madeline’s comes without delay, and has the effect of, as Lester Dent might say, piling grief upon the hero. Poor Luisma’s bad day is only getting worse, and as a result, “Luisma’s Return” is only getting better.
I hereby promise, even if it be a one-man crusade, doomed to inevitable failure, that I shall do everything in my power to return the phrase “Have you taken leave of your senses, man?” to popular usage.
I promised to be positive so will skip over the flagrant racism in this line: “He was slow of thought like all his kind, with the fatalist’s belief that all things are foreordained and that his own time must come in the end.”
In the scene in which Luisma, resigned to his fate, dutifully drills the soldiers under his charge we see the villain being a villain, which is something you know I feel strongly about:
“That one, the blackest one in the rear rank, Luisma,” the monster would say, with a judicial air, “he does not seem to keep step with his mates, exactly. If he were hurled over the cliff we believe that it would improve the appearance of the guard!”
Then we’re shown this poor soldier’s terrible fate and now we see why people, including Luisma, are so afraid of Christophe. He doesn’t just steal people’s girlfriends, he casually orders the unwarranted summary execution of his own soldiers. This only puts us more on Luisma’s side while we also fear the same fate awaits our hero should he step out of line—but then we want Luisma to step out of line and defeat the villain. That, maybe in its simplest, least subtle form, is called: dramatic tension.
And then whoa—plot twist!
Luisma was the first man over. He stepped off into eternity without faltering.
Our hero just marched off a cliff, leading his own men, at the command of the villain. Lester Dent might call this a “complete surprise twist.”
But our hero lives. I was almost going to type, But of course our hero lives. But remember, we’re reading Weird Tales here. He might just die and come back as any number of avenging spirits in a Weird Tales story. This is where genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction can really work in your favor. There’s no way for a reader of these genres to assume… anything, really. Maybe “Luisma’s Return” means “Luisma’s Return from the Dead.” We can be kept guessing, staying in the story even when in any other genre either Luisma clinging to life or continuing the story without its hero would be the only choices. In fact, in that context, the fact that he survives is actually a bigger surprise.
And I absolutely adore that the envoy takes Luisma for some sort of undead creature when he heaves himself up over the edge of the cliff to confront the murderous emperor. Note that in this vivid, wild paragraph of pure pulp description, the pronoun is it:
Slowly, like a great black serpent with a broken back, the red-visaged apparition slithered up and over the edge. Its ghastly eyes were staring fixedly at the face of the emperor. Atop the precipice at last, the jelly-like creature slithered toward Christophe and the envoy, leaving a snaky red trail in its wake, dragging the crushed legs, dangling red things, behind.
Speaking of pure pulp, I doubt any of us would get away with this in 2019, but I loved this weird look into the poor envoy’s unfortunate future, POV be damned:
The envoy fled, nor stopped his mad flight until he reached Port au Prince and told his wild tale to Boyer himself. Boyer, knowing that his envoy’s mind had gone, placed him in an asylum, where he spent the rest of his days, happy because he knew that crawling things could never get through the bars to haunt him!
In fact, its madness that wraps up the whole thing—and, arguably, madness that started it.
I promised to stay positive so won’t bemoan an ending someone who hadn’t promised to be positive might have called “rushed,” but the story wraps up nicely, with the hero having defeated the villain not by killing him or arresting him and throwing him in jail, but by haunting him, figuratively speaking, until the villain’s mind snaps under the weight of his own guilt.
This, right here, is why I love reading pulp fiction.
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