Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: David Fingerman
David Fingerman, author of Two Degrees Closer to Hell, is a man a wee bit out of time. Well, actually about 75 years.
In the “golden age” of pulp fiction, when publications like Astounding Science Fiction and Thrilling Wonder Stories captured the imaginations of post-Depression America, Fingerman would have found a home (and likely a steady income). The kind of horror story he writes – bare-bones exposition, surreal settings, minimal dialogue, plot-driven mis-directions, and endings that twist like a whirling dervish – formed the spine of the corpus of speculative fiction that fueled the imaginations of writers like Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg.
That era has been preserved in the over-worn phrase “pulp fiction” – a descriptor that nonetheless captures nicely both the figurative and the literal style of those magazines. Printed on cheap, “pulpy” paper – though usually containing elaborately drawn, garishly colorful cover illustrations – these magazines contained outlandish tales featuring mysterious characters, exotic settings, and bizarre, unexpected endings. The genres that thrived the most in the pulp fiction era were those that offered the greatest escape from the still-smarting world of mundane economic struggle: science fiction and horror. And the majority of the writers of those stories worked fast and cheap, cranking out weekly horrors for an audience eager to be frightened by other-worldly encroachments.
Though still extant into the 1950s, the majority of the pulps began losing steam – and readers – when the real-life horrors of World War II supplanted the imagined horrors of the often-pseudonymous writing staffs of these publications. What arose was a horror literature more sophisticated, more psychological, and more “literary,” with many of the new wave of speculative fiction writers trained in university writing programs, some having returned from the theatre of war with a new understanding of what actually constituted “horror.”
Such a timeline suggests that the pulp fiction style was somehow lesser, or inadequate, but that’s too reductive and simplistic an interpretation. Many of those stories still hold up well today – lots of them are great fun to read. The writers of those stories didn’t see themselves as a corps d’belles-lettres. They wrote to entertain, to surprise, to give a quick fright.
Fingerman strikes me as that kind of writer. Eschewing the decorative prose of a Peter Straub, the rhetorical intensity of a Stephen King, or the poignancy of a Ray Bradbury, Fingerman is instead all about the story. Most of the entries in Two Degrees Closer to Hell are brief – think half-hour “Twilight Zone” episodes. He’s a very efficient writer, establishing his eerie worlds quickly. It’s no indictment of his style to say his prose is workmanlike. The focus is on the plot -- and the dark, unpredictable twists that await readers at the end of his stories, which vary wildly in time, place, and situation (though a certain sameness of narrative voice does weigh down the collection just a bit). In our MFA-besotted world of “finely-wrought” stories, groaning under the weight of literary significance, there’s definitely a place for writers like Fingerman. He’s something of a literary throwback, and for readers who enjoy a campfire tale or power-outage scare session, Fingerman’s brisk-moving story-telling will provide plenty of delights until the lights come back on, and the sheen of modern literature blinds us with its calculated brilliance.
Pulp fiction is dead – long live pulp fiction!
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