I’m wistful for the days where an author was more likely to write everything. A vintage image comes to mind: the writer hunched over their typewriter, hustling action-packed stories – westerns, sci-fi, detective, fantasy, pockmarked teenage delinquent cautionary tales – the more far-out the pulp, the better. This type of writer didn’t stifle themselves by specializing in a genre because they were trying to see what would stick; to see if a varied, prolific factor to their output could turn those peanuts they’d get paid per story into something substantial by force of sheer accelerated will. And maybe, just maybe, because they simply loved to write.
As if it was an emergency where if they stopped, so would their heart.
It brings to mind my favorite writer of all time: Harlan Ellison. No one could quite keep up with Ellison since he moved like a shark, bouncing from one genre to the next while tangling the fishing line they tried to reel him in with. Then before they knew it, he had tied all the genre’s together with that attempted restriction. He defied any tag – even the science fiction corner that won him most of his awards – because he insisted he was simply a writer. In fact, he was the best writer because he didn’t limit his trajectory.
But then the internet came along and limited the adventure in a writer’s wild horizon. The advent of search words, hashtags, and algorithm did much to dampen a budding author’s full potential, with the shortsighted encouragement to be a some sort of specialist in one genre as not to confuse people. The objective was that they’d have an easier time “finding you” in your literary niche where you were expected to be a narrow-minded connoisseur of that one little world. Which, as we know often results in echo-chamber backscratching, cancelling out any combustable element that might push the genre forward, so really – why do we bother?
The good news is that there’s the New Pulp movement stirring things up, and Matthew X. Gomez is among it’s finest purveyors. As the co-editor of the sorely missed Broadswords and Blasters multi-genre literary pulp rag, he helped propel three-years of fresh voices to the forefront. Now with his own short-story collection God In Black Iron, he roars with his own accumulated tenor.
Before a word is read, the cover itself is intimidatingly beautiful, executed in near-graphic novel style by Luke Spooner of Carrion House. There’s masterful line-art inside as well by Ran Scott to further evoke the images the author describes, but Gomez is so detailed with his narration that the art almost seems superfluous when you consider the vibrancy of these stories. Yet there’s also nothing wrong with going over the top in a collection of cyberpunk, medieval/fantasy drama, weird western, and crime.
For a genre I rarely dabble in, Gomez makes the slices of fantasy really attractive for us more hard-boiled types (although crime-writer Richie Narvaez brought up a good point recently at Bouchercon’s Future of Noir panel when he said, “Crime-fiction has always been fantasy writing – ‘I’m an amateur but I know way more than the police so I’m gonna go out and solve this crime!’”) Take the title story for example, where Gomez’s crime-writing experience informs an intriguing tale a wayward sword-wielding couple who stop to rest at a piss, vomit, and ale-soaked inn before getting mixed up with the wrong crowd of robe-clad “cultists.” The story ends with an unlikely victim getting unceremoniously beheaded, mirroring a classic noir morally ambiguous twist. It’s genre-transcendent – just fantastic, effective storytelling arcs here if you can let yourself go a bit.
Some of these stories are simply unclassifiable, like “The Whalebone Cane.” A mercurial tale of antique wonder turns body horrific with little to no explanation – like Lynch at his most bizarre. Remember, not all mystery’s need to be solved to be effective.
But if there’s one thing that Gomez excels at it’s how well he depicts action scenes in all of these short stories. Every move is dissected surgically so you know he knows a thing or two about anatomy, physics and human behavior; yet he does this without slowing down the movement. Dialogue is another one of his strengths, like in the nihilistic police procedural “Hello, Scum.” The back and forth is sardonic, whip-smart, and it doesn’t limit itself to the conversation – even when he’s doing exposition to support communication between the characters, it’s rhythmic. He’s letting you know he knows the jive.
A cool, sneaky move putting a serial to “Hello, Scum” towards the end of the book, out of sequence – though “Galatea in the Garden of Eden” has enough backbone as a stand-alone, originally appearing in the celebrated Switchblade: Tech Noir anthology last year. We catch up with Tremblay again, still on the hunt for Nikki through the barren underbelly of a city’s apocalypse-in-progress. Heavy Bladerunner vibes here, showing Gomez’s well-versed explorations into wetware/cyberpunk.
“Call of Vengeance” is as cinematic as words get, where we’re a fly on the wall of a dark ritual in progress. We see her self-administered slit wrists between the flicker of candles, among allusions to sibling incest and devilish master/servant relations. This one recalled the vibe of the late 80s adult comic book series Faust, which was the most magnetic contraband to me as an death-obsessed teenager.
The visionary scope of Gomez’s imagination is really something to celebrate, really convincing the reader of all these alternate fantastical realities like the one in “Serpent of Smoke. We can almost see a map in our minds of this desert-warrior Hellscape he’s created, as we follow armed scavengers Asif and Zhaleh’s chance meeting in the city of Dariza. They encounter said serpents, transparent in their form yet deadly in their guardian strike. They barely make it out alive – Zhaleh gets what she wanted while Asif is empty handed, until Zhaleh invites herself over to his place…
If his prolific output hasn’t already, God In Black Iron and Other Stories should cement Matthew X. Gomez as a master of the short story, now that his best work has been properly aggregated into one sturdy spine. We can only hope he’s working on something longer form to blow our heads back even further.