November 7 story: The Dreadful Writer, Part II

The second half of the interview with the fictitious writer James L. Cunningham. Part I is here.


Weber (editor): Does that come from your years in the army? You fought in Sudan, correct?

Cunningham (writer): Yes, against the Mahdists. Although ‘fought’ is not the best word for what happened there. Keep in mind that, when I was young, I read stories and tales of our Empire’s wars in the Far East. The ones from the Indian Rebellion of 57 were my favourites. Soldiers still fought duels back then. Not many, true, but it was not unheard of for men of both sides to single each other out for combat. But when I fought in Sudan… that was not the era of the duelist anymore, but the era of the Maxim gun. The closest I ever got to an enemy was perhaps thirty meters, a very angry Dervishe who became the inspiration for my first published story and, I guess, the original seed for many other.

W: Which one was that?

C: ‘Off the road to Damascus‘ Originally it was Khartoum, but I realized Damascus would sell better. The story was about a Mahdi-like prophet, a madman riling up the Islamic masses against the White Man. The hero, a Pinkerton detective, gets captured by the sadistic Madhi and, in the process of breaking out of prison and beating up the mad prophet, liberates the beautiful daughter of the villain, who was kept as a virtual prisoner in the palace.

W: And you based the villain in that man in what way?

C: “Based” is not the right word. It was his anger, really; it shocked me. He was really far away, but I could almost feel the waves of anger (impotent anger as he was mowed down soon,) surging from him. He, like thousands of others at the battle of Omdurman… they just charged at us with spears, and we had rifles and machine guns. I still don’t understand that. The fanaticism, the desperation, —their faith, I guess too, that our weapons shattered. I put something of that in the story, or tried. However, in my piece, the final confrontation is a more straightforward exchange of fisticuffs. I like to believe that was my way of giving him, them, a fighting chance, which they didn’t have in life. I feel they deserved it.

W: And you do that with all your villains?

C: Not all [he laughs] I have written many, many short stories, and I did shoot a lot of enemy soldiers, but I don’t think I have killed that many… Still, some of them, yes. It’s strange, because I change pretty much everything else, but internally, I still like to believe they are the same people, that those distant silhouettes I barely even saw are the same flamboyant characters, villainous but honourable in a certain way,  I put in the stories.

W: And you give them a fighting chance.

C: Sure. They lose, of course, they have to because they are the bad guys, but still… I feel they deserve to make the hero suffer. Besides, it makes for better stories if the hero is barely able to grasp victory.

W: You would consider yourself a realistic writer?

C: Oh, no, in no way. If I wanted that, I’d publish my war diaries, like that fellow Jünger did. Or Churchill. I did try my luck with that sort of stories but, they weren’t well received, or even accepted. But I like to put in all of them a small, even if minuscule, piece of my personal experiences in each one. I like to believe it makes the stories better, and that those referenced, even if dead, are somehow aware of it. Perhaps they get the joke and like it.

W: Do you believe the pulps would get better with writers with a better understanding of what they write?

C: I believe the widespread motto amongst our class is something like “facts only get in the way of a good story.” I’ll just leave it at that. Really, if any of our reader went out to “rob banks and kill Indians” using our stories as a guide, as some people have claimed that’s what we teach, they wouldn’t get very far.

W: I have always seen you as a writer of fantastic adventures anyway, not of morbid journalism, as some of your critics seem to believe.

C: These critics, and the penny-catchers, politicians, and book burners that follow them are imbeciles — and this country would be much better without all the bluenoses, Comstocks, and the many variants of dry crusaders that keep popping up with unerring frequency. Seriously, the amount of morons one has to wade through…

W: Well, there are the ‘Spicy’ pulps…

C: Which are quite harmless and tame. Like the ‘shudders’. It’s really just the covers. And you know very well these are drawn even before there’s any story ready to publish. Fine, perhaps the titles are a bit excessive…

W: ‘Satan is my lover’?

C: [laughs] Something like that. “Purveyors of sex perversions” I believe is what I read in a newspaper. But really, the stories are tame, if not ridiculous. Write fast, publish fast, read fast. And repeat. I usually don’t write for those specific magazines anyway, at least not under my own name… I prefer more grounded stories, or openly, unashamedly fantastic like Weird Tales.

W: There are rumors of calls for censorship.

C: You are an editor; you should know. And you know there’s already censorship… or guides of style, at the very least. It’s internal, naturally. There are things that aren’t written, things that aren’t shown, things that cannot be told. Not that I would, but I couldn’t publish my war diaries, for example. And there’s nothing ‘weird’ or ‘supernatural’ in them, no terror-mystery to scare and pervert faint-hearted children.

W: What would you say to the concerned parents?

C: I don’t know. “Read more,” perhaps? Honestly, I find those stories childishly charming. I don’t know what manner of sheltered life one must have had to find those things dangerous.

W: Well! That may not have been the most diplomatic answer, but I feel it’s a great way to end the interview.

C: It’s a good epitaph.

W: It has been a pleasure, and I’m sure we will see you and your stories soon.

C: Let’s hope so.

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