To simplify things greatly, modern literature finds itself stuck between the six-headed Scylla of the mindless action thriller (where knife goes into man, frigid maiden becomes pliant, and story comes last), and the sucking whirlpool of literary fiction (e.g. the "middle-aged English professor musing about cheating on his wife" genre). If you have action you obviously don't have depth, if you have depth you obviously don't have action, but published books somehow seem to have neither.
The glory of the old pulps was that they had both, and in spades, and were mass-produced. Looking back, we discover they have It, the special sauce, the secret ingredient that makes stories actually good, and we now construct our bamboo cargo planes to try to pry the secret of flight from the gods.
Let's examine one recent example of fiction published under the #steempulp tag: Fire on the Bayou, a short story in six installments by @jimfear138. The author takes us right into the action: a man is in a swamp, battling an orc (without context I assume these are some kind of orca-men). The orc has a sword, the man has a shotgun, the orc, and then more orcs, learn too late not to bring swords to shotgun fights. Vincent, the protagonist, is shockingly cruel to the orcs, mutilating a survivor to torture it for information, which he doesn't even seem to need. This world, we learn, is cruel.
So far it seems more appropriate to a 1990s comic book than a pulp magazine with "Brackett" somewhere on the cover, but the author remembers where he's trying to go and gives us some nice dark imagery:
The swamp gas had turned it a sickly green, and it looked like the pregnant belly of some demoniac creature, ready to birth new horrors on the world.
This is the sort of thing that transforms the Punisher into Solomon Kane, from a man out to be more edgy than the edgy world that created him into a true creature of the night, of the mysteries just outside our sight. This is Fantasy, and without it we're just glorified fanfic authors who think we invented action.
Vincent cleans up from the orc attack and resumes his journey, which we find is to drift around post-apocalyptic settlements and do Western things. This is fine. It's a very distinguished archetype. And find a post-apocalyptic settlement that needs a nameless man to save them and then ride off into the sunset he does, complete with the child that he's fast enough to stop from picking his pocket but who earns the Cowboy's respect with his gumption and the tough-as-nails frontier woman that needs a man tougher-as-nails than she is.
There's a misconception that these things are cliches, that including them makes your story bad, and that perhaps you ought to let the child not earn his respect, or make the frontier woman weary of tough guys trying to take advantage of her, because that would make your story original and thus better. This is an insidious fallacy. While it is possible to improve stories by playing on expectations, it is also possible to improve them by leading your readers exactly where they expect to go - you just make it feel like somewhere else.
Which is why I was so disappointed that the bayou seems to have disappeared. In the first installment we began in a swamp. Nobody sloshed through any water or heard any distant alligators. An orc was in a bush, but then again there are also bushes in suburbs. The saloon sells squirrel soup, but there are also squirrels in suburbs. This frontier town/post-apocalyptic fortress settlement could be anywhere. Vincent has valuable salt that he can trade for supplies, which seems to be a lead-up to vampires at some point, but one of the supplies he can trade for is fresh water. Why? Is this a dry swamp? Did I miss something?
The author neglected to add links to the next parts from part 3 on, so it becomes more difficult to navigate from here. Vincent has a flashback, this is a good time for it, where he remembers his wife being quite brutally murdered by gnolls, as The War was apparently with the Monster Manual. I did not appreciate the level of detail in this scene. It does provide him with motivation to make sure it doesn't happen again, as he returns to protect the village from the Orcomanche.
And this is where the true failure of the story happens. With milquetoast explanations of why Vincent has to look so cool, he rides into the town on his motorcycle shooting orcs, a scene straight out of a Frazetta cover, but it's hemmed and hawed and justified to pieces - rather than something like "long hair streaming in the wind," he pointedly comments that there is no time for a helmet, which is why he is not putting one on. This trips up the pace.
The orcs can apparently obtain and maintain cars but not shotguns of their own, and one of their vehicles provides him a convenient ramp, which he duly makes a jump from. And here's where I want to make an aside.
The goal of good fiction is not only to provide the exhilaration of the jump but to provide the support of the ramp - to provide everything necessary to make it seem that nothing has been provided. Otherwise our suspension of belief is bruised and we remember that the event was a the author deciding that it was time to make a motorcycle jump. This was the failure of those mid-2000s Newgrounds animations competing with each other to describe more and more epic situations with ninjas, pirates, and Chuck Norris. That literary revival was stifled when it became a game of make-believe where each succeeding author could merely repeat the last with a greater superlative.
Make no mistake, the motorcycle jump must be provided, for holy Catharsis' sake, but it must also be provided for. We must understand, ourselves, that there is no time for a less-sick move, there is no easier way for the hero to make his entrance. This work must be done before the jump, without the author's apologia included, in the details we previously thought were mere decorations.
The author explains that he does not provide detailed descriptions so that the reader can create theirs, much like the chef who delivers a plate of raw ground beef and dry noodles out of respect for his customers' skill. It is the nature of prose that the final image is the reader's own, but it is the task of the artist to specify details on that image, groundwork for better things down the line, so that they realize along with the hero that the time has come for a sick jump.
This is It. The special sauce is when the epic becomes inevitable, when the action and the detail and the soul are inextricable. It's very hard.
Why did the pulps lose their power? Did people forget that action is good? Did John W. Campbell and Lester Del Rey personally assassinate the pulp greats? Or perhaps did it have more to do with how much those people wrote, with how much they built their skill, writing so much every day for years, and let me remind you that many of those people never got good.
At least they knew. And at least they got paid.
Does Fire in the Bayou have It? No. Can @jimfear138 get It? We can wait and see. The beautiful thing is that he's trying, and getting paid for it. If the pulp era truly will return, this is where we'll see it happen. Fire on the Bayou did not stoke my fire and was starved for bayous but the author already has something new out, presumably building on what he learned from the last one. Work ethic is the first step on the Pyramid of Pulp, and none of the rest could stand without it.