Feeling a bit off-kilter this morning so I need a little fun pulp fiction. Let’s dive back into our read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales with “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye La Spina.
I have to admit this is another author I’m unfamiliar with, and the name screamed “pseudonym” to me, but a quick Google search and there she is, Greye La Spina, who, according to Wikipedia “was an American writer who published more than one hundred short stories, serials, novelettes, and one-act plays.” Born in 1880, she was forty-five years old when this story was published, six years after her first publication. So if you’re in your late thirties and suffering over the fact that you haven’t been published yet—hang in here!
Greye La Spina is her actual (married) name, and I even found a photograph of her! You can read more about her at Weird Fiction Review.
Pulp authors often get more than their measure of grief from critics of their time and ours. And having read a lot of pulp fiction myself all I can say is that as much as I adore the whole wild and crazy mess, it can be a bit more of a mess than most readers circa 2019 are going to be prepared for. I’ve read full-length Doc Savage stories. I’ve witnessed how much a single sentence can be padded, then go right to the next shockingly padded sentence in a palpably desperate effort to get to the target word count. I’ve read stories that are flat out racist, absurdly sexist, and so on. But can we take a moment, please, to note that the pulp tradition also gave birth to the genres we know and love, some of our most important authors, and true gems of the written word like this:
We have seen the soul of a drowning mouse emerge from its body, in a spiral coil of vapor that wreathed its way out of the water to lose itself in the etheric spaces that include all life. We have watched the soul of a dying ape emerge in one long rush of fine, impalpable, smoke-like cloud that wound upward to become invisible as it, too, amalgamated with the invisible forces of the universe about us.
I don’t know about you, but I find that beautiful.
In the past I’ve cautioned authors not to forget that the best fiction balances art and craft. I talk mostly about craft here, and that’s simply because craft can be taught, practiced, adopted… but art is what you bring to your writing from somewhere inside you, from a place no writing teacher or editor can access. All we can do is encourage its expression and applaud its presence when it makes itself known, and absolutely yes, including in a genre story—any genre story.
And don’t be an asshole and point out that she follows that up with the dialog attribution: asseverated the doctor, musingly.
No one’s perfect.
The pulps are also, mostly correctly, considered an all-boys club, and all white boys, at that, but there were a number of women writing for the pulps, and despite lurid covers and other stories that showed women as essentially lower life forms, Greye La Spina breathes considerable life into the long-suffering Elena:
Elena did not reply. She loved too deeply, too passionately, too irrevocably. And the only return her husband made was to permit her assistance in his laboratory work. Her eager mind had flown apace with his; not that she loved the work for itself, but that she longed to gain his approbation. To him the alluring loveliness of her splendid body was as nothing to the beauty of the wonderful intellect that gradually unfolded in his behalf.
Early 20th century gender roles mostly intact, Elena is still afforded a functioning mind, and motivations of her own, not the least of which is an effort to save her husband from working himself to death. Instead of another story in which the dashing white male hero saves the hysterical white girl from the clutches of the evil non-white male villain, here’s a story about a woman who is so determined to bring what we’d now call “work-life balance” to a man she loves that her own health suffers as a result. Meanwhile, the man in question holds firm to all the old saws of the day. Women are frivolous distractions that should never come between a man and his work.
“She’s very nervous, I know. She disturbs me inexcusably with silly demands for kisses and caresses, actually weeping when she thinks I don’t see her, because I refuse to humor her foolish whims. I’ve been obliged, more than once, to drive her away with cold looks and hard words, because she has tried to coax me to stop work, insisting upon my talking with her.”
Yes, definitely don’t kiss or talk to your wife. Keep working on trapping souls, because you’re clearly the hero of this story… or are you?
I love “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” in particular as an example of how and why to put the personal above the procedural. On its surface this is another in a (very) long line of pulp-era mad scientist stories. We’ve already read more than one in this single issue of Weird Tales. But what sets this story apart is that the experiment may be the plot of the story, but the way the characters are personally involved with it is what makes it a story worth reading. This isn’t the story of an experiment in trapping souls, this is a story about a man who trades on the love of his wife, and a wife who sacrifices herself for the man she loves, using the experiment as a vehicle. If all you have is an experiment (or a murder mystery, or a war mission, or an artifact to recover, etc.) all you have is a list of plot points. Make those plot points matter to your characters, make it a matter of personal immediacy, so that there are no plot points without them. Then you’ll have a story.
Lesson learned, Mrs. La Spina.
Finding the Personal in the Procedural
A deeper dive into show vs. tell, and making your story matter to your characters first!