Thursday, August 11, 2016

exploring the popular culture of the past


For a while now I've been pushing the line that not only is modern popular culture poison, it's a poison that can be avoided. The popular culture of the past is easily accessible, is relatively free of political correctness and it's a lot more fun than today's trash.

So I suppose what I should do is give some examples of fine pop culture from the past. It will at least make for a more light-hearted and optimistic post! As it happens I run a couple of blogs that focus exclusively on pop culture from the past - Vintage Pop Fictions and Classic Movie Ramblings.

One recent read that I think is definitely worth checking out is G.K. Chesterton’s The Wisdom of Father Brown (in which the little Catholic priest uses his spiritual insights to solve crimes).

For those who enjoy golden age detective fiction I’d recommend Christopher Bush (a very neglected writer whose The Body in the Bonfire is a particularly fine mystery, Freeman Wills Crofts (whose Inspector French is possibly the most dogged and methodical of all fictional detectives). All the early Crofts are excellent, with The Sea Mystery and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey being especially good. John Rhode is another unfairly overlooked mystery writer of the golden age. I particularly enjoyed The Motor Rally Mystery. J.J. Connington is also excellent with The Two Tickets Puzzle being representative. 

There are also a couple of criminally neglected American detective fiction writers from this era - Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Circus Queen and Rufus King’s Murder Masks Miami are wonderful. King’s nautical mysteries such as Murder by Latitude are also superb.

If you’re a fan of thrillers you can’t go past the British thriller writers of the interwar years. Leslie Charteris is terrific. His early Saint stories are all tremendous fun with The Saint Meets His Match being a good example. The Saint stories should if possible be read in sequence. H.C.McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond books are equally enjoyable. They absolutely have to be read in sequence, starting with Bulldog Drummond. Among the postwar thriller writers Alistair MacLean is a standout. MacLean was a surprisingly complex writer and he’s quite fond of throwing in unreliable (or partially unreliable) narrators. Night Without End might well be his best work but all his stuff up the early 70s is excellent. If you enjoy submarine adventures (with spy dramas as well) then MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra is very highly recommended.

I was for many years a keen science fiction fan. These days I confine myself entirely to science fiction written before 1960 but still there’s plenty of superb stuff to choose from. I’ve recently enjoyed revisiting John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. If your tastes run more to space opera there’s Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space

Any genuine science fiction fan must also read Rudyard Kipling’s science fiction stories. Kipling’s With the Night Mail is one of the most important science fiction stories ever written.

I’m personally quite partial to stories featuring diabolical criminal masterminds. Australian writer Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola was probably the first of all villains of this type. The most famous is of course Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu and the Fu Manchu books are enormously enjoyable. The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of the best in this series. Rohmer created another equally interesting diabolical criminal mastermind in the person of Sumuru who wants to create a world without violence and ugliness even if she has to kill everybody to do it! Sumuru first appeared in The Sins of Sumuru.

The two giants of pulp fiction are of course Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lovecraft seems remarkably prescient today with his concerns about cultural decline and disintegration (as outlined vividly in stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth. When it comes to sheer imagination no-one can hold a candle to Burroughs. I’m inordinately fond of the Caspak Trilogy, starting with The Land That Time Forgot, and the Pellucidar novels (starting with At the Earth's Core)

One pulp writer who must not be overlooked is A. Merritt, the master of the lost world story (The Moon Pool is a good place to start). 

As for historical fiction, for my money no-one has ever surpassed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The White Company is one of the masterpieces of the genre. 

I've only mentioned the better known writers - in all these genres there are lesser know authors who are often every bit as good.

Whatever the genre that appeals to you there is an absolutely enormous wealth of top-notch fiction from the past that can be obtained very easily and generally quite cheaply. There's simply no reason to bother putting up with the politically correct sludge of today.

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