Pulp Friday: Wild Beat, a tribute to Australian pulp writer Carl Ruhen, 1937-2013

The Rebels

Most people think of pulp publishing as American. But for several decades in the second half of the last century, Australia had a significant pulp paperback industry that produced a large range of popular fiction.

By the mid-to-late sixties, Horwitz, Australia’s largest pulp publisher, was producing up to 16 titles a month with initial print runs of 20,000 copies. Black magic, hippies, juvenile delinquents, spies, bored suburban housewives looking for thrills, and evil Japanese and German prison guards – nothing was off limits. Local pulp publishers pounced on mainstream society’s fantasies, fears and obsessions and turned them into cheap, disposable paperback thrills.

Carl Ruhen was at the centre of this industry and continued to ply his trade as a writer until the late eighties. AustLit, the Australian Literature Resource database, credits him with 78 books. He also penned numerous short stories and magazine articles.

On November 28 last year, Carl Ruhen died after a long illness, aged 76.

I’ve long been aware of Ruhen’s work. Unfortunately, I never met him. I found out about his passing in late December when an acquaintance who’d been in sporadic contact with Ruhen emailed me with the news. The only mention I’ve been able to find of his death was a short notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated December 2, 2013.

Carl Ruhen was born in New Zealand in 1937 and arrived in Australia in 1947. His father, Olaf, was a prominent Australian writer in the years after World War II, the author of a series of well-received books on local and Pacific history.

One of these, Minerva Reef, published in 1964, about a group of Tongan men shipwrecked on a reef for 102 days, saw him become something of a cult figure in that country. According to an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly in April 1966, Carl accompanied his father on a visit to Tonga, stayed six months and returned to Sydney with a Tongan bride. The relationship did not last.

Carl Ruhen got his start, like many aspiring local writers in the early sixties, submitting short fiction and articles for Man Magazine, a local version of what were known as ‘barber shop magazines’, popular in the United States at the time.

Import restrictions on foreign print material, in place in Australia since 1938, began to be lifted in the late fifties. Increased competition saw many local pulp publishers close. Others, such as Horwitz, readjusted their business model, stopped relying on reprinted overseas material and published more Australian books. Ruhen was part of a stable of authors put together by Horwitz. The group also included James Holledge, J.E. Macdonnell, W.R. Bennett, James Workman, Leonard Mears and Rena Cross.

Ruhen’s first Horwitz book, Curse of the Nekhen (1966), featured the playboy explorer Sigismund Flack. (‘A sophisticate who never allows the peril of the moment to upset his suavity’.) It was billed as the first of a series, but further Flack books never eventuated.

The Violent Ones, published later in 1966, was the first of several books by Ruhen dealing with out-of-control youth gangs, a theme popular with Horwitz and pulp publishers generally.

It was followed, in 1967, by The Rebels and Wild Beat. (‘They were only kids, but they were capable of murder – and worse. The story of today’s violent generation.’) The Crucifiers, the first of many biker novels Horwitz published, appeared in 1969.

Set amid the vice and crime hotspot of Kings Cross, The Rebels demonstrates Ruhen’s skill. The story is told in the first person by working class 17 year-old, Bernie. He spends his weekdays living a boring suburban existence with his parents and working as a storeman in a CBD department store, and his weekends in a blur of sex, alcohol, car theft and fighting.

During one of these weekend jaunts he meets Sandra. She challenges Bernie’s masculinity and understanding of women. She’s upper-class, from Sydney’s North Shore, is learning to speak French and wants to travel. But she also likes the wild life, including driving her mother’s car at dangerous speeds. She takes Bernie to a North Shore Mod party where a group of men beat him up. Swearing revenge, Bernie and his gang return the following Saturday, which is when things get out of control.

Like a lot of pulp, much of The Rebels now reads as clichéd. But the prose is clean and crisp and the story has a rough cultural authenticity. Also notable is the way Ruhen eschewed the heavy-handed moralising of similar juvenile delinquent stories that usually saw the characters realise the error of their ways and embrace mainstream society, in favour of a much more sombre, dark ending.

Carl Ruhen 1985

Carl Ruhen, 1985

Ruhen was an editor at Horwitz from 1968 to 1969. Prominent expatriate Australian writer John Baxter, who worked as a manuscript editor at Horwitz around the same time, recalled, ‘In my day Carl made all the decisions.’ Presumably this included having a hand in establishing Scripts Publications, the subsidiary Horwitz used to release its more adult-oriented material, in 1969.

From 1969 to 1971, Ruhen edited Man Magazine. He also worked as a publisher for Ure Smith, from 1972 to 1973.

The size of the US pulp industry (by 1960 Americans were buying more than one million pulp paperbacks a day) meant many budding writers used it as a training ground before going on to make a name for themselves as mainstream authors. Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg and Marion Zimmer Bradley are just some that come to mind.

Like their American counterparts, many young Australian writers wrote pulp fiction to hone their craft with an eye to undertaking more significant literary pursuits. Many were ‘waylaid’ by the process, as a writer from the time once described it to me, and had to produce books quickly to pay bills and support families.

Four hundred dollars per manuscript was the going rate at Horwitz in the late sixties. Good money at the time, but a writer was only as good as their next book.

Australian pulp publishing in the fifties and sixties was a tough, fast-paced business, far more commercially minded than mainstream publishing at the time. Publishers like Horwitz turned books around quickly, sometimes in as little as a month, in order to take advantage of the latest media sensation or moral panic. For authors this meant long hours and high stress. Many lived in tough material conditions. Cigarettes and alcohol were often their only affordable escapes.

Very few local pulp writers I am aware of went on to mainstream literary careers. Some wrote for the burgeoning television industry. Most either gave up writing or resigned themselves to churning out pulp to make a living. Despite his talent, it appears Ruhen fell into the latter camp.

Paper Empires: a History of the Book in Australia 1946 – 2005 cites Ruhen as one of Horwitz’s most prolific authors. In addition to writing under his own name, he worked under numerous pseudonyms, across all sub-genres.

The introduction of the ‘R’ classification in 1971 meant mainstream films, books and television increasingly dealt with subjects that were once exclusively the preserve of pulp. To compete, pulp became increasing salacious and sexually explicit.

Ruhen spent the seventies writing smut for Scripts Publications and another Horwitz offshoot, Stag Publications: titles such as Orgy Farm, Bar Stud, Sex Parlour, Saturday Sex Club, Wife Swap Orgy, Porno Girls and Society Stud. He also wrote horror under the pseudonym Caroline Farr, and romance as Alison Hart.

He wrote film paperback tie-ins, popular before the advent of VHS, for Alvin Purple, Mad Max 1 and 2 and Melvin Son of Alvin, and paperback versions of Australian television soap operas such as The Young Doctors, Neighbours and Sons and Daughters, for the UK market. He also wrote children’s books and local histories. He even wrote a book on baby names.

The last book credited to Ruhen on the AustLit site was the ninth book of the Neighbours series, published in 1989.

The passing of such a prolific local author without comment illustrates the extent to which Australia’s pulp publishing industry, once a huge part of our entertainment culture, has been forgotten.

This article first appeared here in the Wheeler Centre’s dailies, March 25, 2014. Many thanks to the Centre for the permission to republish it on this site.

Curse of the Nekhen

Wild Beat

The violent Ones

The Crucifiers 1979 Stag Publishing

Mad Max

Book review: Galveston

GalvestonNic Pizzolatto’s first novel, Galveston, was published in 2010. Prior to that he wrote a book of short stories that appeared in 2006. It’s fair to say most people didn’t hear about Galveston until the screening in January this year of Pizzolatto’s groundbreaking television show, True Detective.

Since then I have not been able to move on social media for the number of people talking about how good Galveston is (which begs the question, is True Detective the longest book trailer ever made?).

Given my obsession with True Detective (which I reviewed for the Overland Journal site here), I was keen to read Galveston as soon as possible.

The short version of this review is that if you like True Detective, you’ll love this book. It’s as simple as that. The book and the show have a number of things in common, including the same rural southern US setting, a number of similar plot devices and the writing style.

Roy Cady is a bagman and thug for a New Orleans’ mobster called Stan Ptitko. The same day a doctor tells Cady he has terminal cancer, Ptitko orders him and another man to visit the president of the local dockworkers local, now the target of a federal criminal investigation. Ptitko tells the two men to lean on the target, make sure he gets the message not to cooperate with the probe.

They enter the target’s house to find he’s already dead. There are also two women present, one of whom is near dead and three armed masked men who kill Cady’s partner and are about to do the same to him. Cady manages to kill all three men and escape with the surviving woman, a young prostitute called Rocky, and a folder full of cargo manifests and other paperwork.

They flee, only stopping to collect Rocky’s little sister, Tiffany, from a run down house in the woods. They end up in a flee bag hotel by the beach in Galveston, Texas. Cady plans to dump the woman and her daughter and keep running, but something prevents him from leaving.

PIzzolatto uses a similar plot device to one he used in True Detective, flash-forwards of Cady in Galveston twenty years later. He is preparing for a huge storm that is approaching town, when he notices someone watching him from behind the wheel of an expensive looking car.

One one level, there is nothing particularly new or complex about this book. The main character is a washed up violent criminal who has no fear because he already believes death is only a matter of time due to his cancer. Rocky is a damaged hustler who can’t stop herself from engaging in harmful behaviour to herself and those around her. Pizzolatto adds a cast of supporting characters, other residents of the motel, some of who are kind while others are dangerous

What makes this book so readable is the writing, which is terrific, if at times a touch over done. Pizzolatto is particularly in his element when describing the run down beauty of Louisiana and Texas, a ghostly landscape populated only by the old, the criminally inclined and those too poor or sick to leave.

As was the case in his television series, the story is messy and a lot is left unexplained. Things just happen, people act certain ways. Pizzolatto doesn’t feel the next to explain why this is, as in real life, shit just happens, often very quickly and things immediately move on.

If you don’t like that this book will probably annoy the hell out of you. I loved the True Detective series and I devoured this book in a couple of days.

True Detective

true-detectiveLong before it was a television series, True Detective was the name of an American magazine that specialised in lurid, sensationalised stories of real-life crimes, often told from the point-of-view of the grizzled police veterans who investigated them.

This reference point is important when discussing the television incarnation of True Detective. The central thread and internal mythology of the show – two tough, damaged police detectives, hell-bent on avenging the murder of innocent women and children in the face of considerable official complacency – owes much to the true-crime magazine genre. It’s also been a standard trope in crime fiction since the 1930s.

The eight-part series (and careful, some spoilers follow) begins in Louisiana in the mid-90s. Two police detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his new partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman. Particularly shocking are the presence of strange occult symbols on the woman’s body and surrounding crime scene. All we know about the woman is that she was a drifter and a prostitute. With the exception of Marty and Rust, no-one wants to spend too much time and energy finding out what happened to her.

As the investigation proceeds, the detectives begin to link her killing to a string of apparently unrelated disappearances across the huge expanse of rural Louisiana. A lone serial killer with occult tendencies or the head of a fundamentalist Christian church that funds schools in poor rural areas are two possible culprits.

Interspersed with these events are flash-forwards of Marty and Rust, older and much worse for wear, being interviewed separately by police about their recollection of the case. Why is not made clear until the halfway mark of the series. The two detectives thought they had solved the case back in the 90s, but killings with the same occult signs are still occurring.

You can read the rest of my review of True Detective at the site of Overland Journal.

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder

Red Ryder poster

This week I’d like to welcome someone to the site who knows more about seventies popular culture that many people have forgotten, Melbourne’s own maestro of pulp sleaze, John Harrison.

I recently managed to catch the very rare 1979 Milton Katselas film, When You Comin’ Back Red Ryder. I was keen to review it for Pulp Curry, but doing a bit of research I stumbled across this piece by John that really says everything there is to say about this lost classic and more. John was nice enough to allow me to reprint it in full on my site.

Like John, I first caught the film on late night television in the eighties and it’s fascinated me ever since. I’m thrilled to be able to post such a comprehensive piece about it on Pulp Curry.

The review originally appeared on Harrison’s own excellent site, Sin Street Sleaze. It’s a great resource on horror and grindhouse movies, as well as John’s own unique brand of pop culture observation.

Welcome John.

Based on a stage play by Mark Medoff (who also penned the screenplay for this cinematic adaptation), When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder is a hard film to categorise. Social commentary, psychological thriller, dark character study, seedy grindhouse exploitation film – all of these are applicable, yet none of them seem wholly suitable.

I first stumbled across the film on late-night television in the mid-1980s and was instantly captivated and seduced by it, sparking off a fascination with that only increased with time and multiple viewings (when I didn’t have a VCR, I’d book a media booth at Swinburne University and watch it there with headphones instead of going to class).

Set amongst the grim, depressing surroundings of a small New Mexico border town during the dying days of the 1960s, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder casts Marjoe Gortner as Teddy, a Vietnam vet who takes out his violent frustrations, and unleashes all of his inner demons, on virtually anyone who crosses his path. Accompanied by his hippy chick girlfriend Cheryl (cult favourite Candy Clark), who is always being driven to her wits’ end by Teddy’s disturbing behaviour, he rips off a quantity of cocaine from two Mexican drug dealers and hightails it back over the border, where he seeks refuge in a greasy roadside diner.

Holed up while he waits for his broken down VW van to be repaired, Teddy decides to amuse himself by torturing – first psychologically, then physically – the inhabitants of the diner: Angel (the plump, naive waitress), Stephen ‘Red’ Ryder (the sour, angry night cook desperate to escape his stifling world), Lyle (the stroke-addled owner of the motel/gas station next to the diner) and Richard and Clarisse Ethridge (the repressed upper middle class couple who are passing through on their way to a concerto).

At first little more than an annoying, insensitive nuisance, Teddy’s behaviour becomes increasingly more mean spirited and violent, until he finally holds his unwitting audience in a grip of sheer terror and pleading for their lives. By the end of the film, however, Teddy emerges almost as some kind of cathartic angel (though this interpretation is certainly open to debate, and there is an element of ambiguity to the ending).

Prior to his arrival, all of the characters at the diner are portrayed as either lost, weak or tired souls, all unhappy and yearning for something else but lacking the courage to break out and reach for it. By Teddy breaking down their will and forcing them to face their own frailties and self-truths, they (at least, Angel and Red) ultimately emerge stronger for their ordeal, and ready to face the future with renewed confidence and honesty.

Despite its theatrical elements (the film’s stage origins are certainly reflected here), When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder is full of memorable moments and passages of protracted tension and suspense, with director Milton Katselas (Butterflies are FreeReport to the Commissioner) making great use of the confined diner setting – where the majority of the film takes place – to create an effectively stifling and claustrophobic ambience. (Trivia – Milton Katselas was played by James Franco in Sal, the 2011 biopic of murdered actor Sal Mineo, which Franco also directed).

Without doubt, the strongest element of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, and the glue which holds the whole film together, is the galvanising performance of Marjoe Gortner as Teddy. Gortner (who also served as producer on the film) was one of the more interesting exploitation personalities of the 1970s, a former child evangelist and, at age four, the youngest-known ordained minister. After spending his teenage and young adult years living the typical counterculture lifestyle of the day, he returned to the revival tent circuit in the late-sixties, modelling his new flamboyant stage routines on Mick Jagger.

In 1972, Gortner and his pioneer preaching ways became the subject of the rivetting, Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe, in which Gortner, supposedly feeling remorse over his manipulation and swindling of vulnerable people in the past, allowed the filmmakers to utilise hidden cameras to expose the oft-suspected truth about evangelism, the tricks and cons used to whip people up and get them to gladly empty their pockets, and the feeling of emptiness he’d have inside him afterwards (though he admits that the guilt faded whenever his wallet grew lighter).

Whether his motives were genuine or not, Gortner used the success and controversy generated by Marjoe (many theatres in the Bible Belt refused to screen it, fearing the outrage it might cause) to launch both an acting and singing career. While his singing career stalled after one album (1972′s Bad But Not Evil), Marjoe’s thick shock of curly, dirty-blonde hair, muscular physique and piercing blue eyes, made him a strong and charismatic screen presence, which was put to good use in films like Earthquake (1974), Food of the Gods and Bobby Joe & the Outlaw (both from 1976, and the later being infamous as the film in which TV’s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, revealed her impressive assets).

Gortner was also in the tacky Evel Knieval biopic Viva Knieval! (1977, starring Evel as his Christ-like self) and Luigi Cozzi’s psychedelic Italian space opera Star Crash (1979, also starring David Hasselhoff and Caroline Munro, another famous 1970s glamour gal).

Unfortunately, Marjoe never got another opportunity to display the sort of raw intensity and sheer dominance which he showed in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, with his subsequent career confined to roles in mostly low-budget and direct-to-video fare like Viva Knieval! (1977), Jungle Warriors (1984), American Ninja III: Bloodhunt (1989), and on television shows like Circus of the Stars. His most recent performance was a brief turn (appropriately enough, as a preacher) in Walter Hill’s 1995 western Wild Bill. There can be little doubt that Marjoe utilised many of the tricks of body language, voice projection and eye contact that he employed as a preacher to bring Teddy to life with the depth that he does.

While it is Gortner who clearly dominates the film, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder also boasts a very fine supporting cast, including the previously noted Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth and the 1988 remake of The Blob), Hal Linden (best known as the lead on the long-running sit-com Barney Miller) and a magnificent Lee Grant (familiar to fans of 1970s studio genre films through her work in Airport ‘77, The Swarm and Damien: Omen II). There’s also Pat Hingle (a veteran of several Clint Eastwood films and Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s Batman movies) and Bill McKinney (so good in 1967′s She-Freak but best known as the creepy hillbilly who rode poor Ned Beatty into the mud and made him “Squeal like a pig” in 1972′s Deliverance). Relative unknowns Stephanie Faracy and Peter Firth hold their own amongst this strong ensemble, and as Angel and Red Ryder respectively have some strong scenes and a great chemistry together.

Filmed in El Paso, cinematographer Jules Brenner really catches the grimy roadside diner ambience, as well as the heat and barren dustiness of the external locations, and a genuine feel of Small Town, USA (Brenner also photographed the 1970s TV mini-series Helter Skelter and Salem’s Lot, as well as the classic 1984 horror/comedy The Return of the Living Dead).

The film also has a terrific soundtrack featuring cuts by The Doors, Tammy Wynette, B.B. King, Hugo Montenegro and others. Soundtrack licensing issues are supposedly the reason why When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder has never seen release on DVD or Blu-ray. The film did appear on home video in the 1980s in some countries (including a rare release in Australia on the Roadshow label), and DVD-R burns of these VHS releases can be found for sale or in trading circles, but hopefully one day the film will be given the treatment and respect which it deserves.

Along with Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts & Children (1971), it’s one of the great unsung – and currently unavailable – pieces of American cinema of the 1970s.


South Korean cinema influences

Today, I’m very happy to welcome Chris Irvin to Pulp Curry.

Chris is a short story writer, one of the editors of the great short fiction site, Shotgun Honey, and the author of the recently released novella, Federales. Federales is  about a Mexican federal agent, drugs, and politics. It’s on my to-read list and I’m pretty certain it should be on yours, too.

Chris wanted to write about how South Korean crime cinema has influenced his own crime writing. Welcome Chris.

And by the way, if you are interested in winning a copy of the Federales e-book, just leave a comment on this post. I’ll pick a winner from among them a little later in the week.

fullsizephoto254644Perhaps like many fans of South Korean (Korean) Cinema, I was first introduced through Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003), a brutal revenge tale adapted from a Japanese manga.

Revenge is central to many Korean thrillers Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002), I Saw the Devil (2010), Bittersweet Life (2005), etc.

But take a step back and look at the common themes that set Korean films apart from their American cousins, and what I find inspiring and influential to my writing.

I find many themes and layers of Korean cinema to be fascinating, especially those informed/influenced by Korean history/society, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on three:

The Dysfunctional Family – The dysfunctional family bands together to defeat the foreign menace and overcome its own natural flaws. When a crisis occurs, Koreans tend to want to believe they can turn to their own family members for support.

The natural dysfunction in a family can create great tension in these moments, The Host (2006) being a perfect example. The Host follows a family consisting of a hardworking grandfather and his lazy son (who run a snack bar together), the son’s daughter, sister (a medal-winning competition archer – with confidence issues), and brother (drinking heavily and unemployed) who must band together in order to save their youngest who has been kidnapped by a giant monster.

On the surface, The Host is a monster movie, but the real story is the family’s internal struggle. This familial concept is also very important to Korean gangster and corporate films – look for it to play a prominent role alongside the broken illusion of the perfect family.

Black Humor – I love Korean humor, the dryer, the blacker, the better. Actor Song Kang-ho is famous for playing the role of the dunce in many films, The Host, The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), Memories of Murder (2003) Thirst (2009 – to some extent). His usual silliness is often paired with very dark/bleak scenes: a rampaging monster in The Host, an investigation into a serial killer in Memories of a Murder, a new vampire “exploring” her newfound abilities in Thirst – or to be more specific, as a vampire, drinking blood from an IV out of a patient’s arm who is in a coma (trust me). None of the aforementioned films are comedies, and that makes the use of humor all the more effective and important.

Measured use of extreme/intense violence - Regular folks in seemingly non-violent professions suddenly take ferocious turns when the situation demands it. Korean thrillers aren’t for the squeamish.

However these films are nowhere near what some critics would classify as “torture porn,” the tag often stuck with violent modern American (and European, for that matter) thriller and horror films. Instead, these moments of intense violence often rise out of great sequences of tension, a slow burn punctuated by short spurts of violence. Take I Saw the Devil, where a secret agent tracks down a serial killer and tortures him as he tortured his victims. Or The Chaser (2008) where a former-detective-turned-pimp must track down a man who has been kidnapping and murdering girls. Or better still, the parental group participation in revenge toward the end of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The violence is brutal – overly so, that vengeance requires the avenger to dehumanize and in the end everyone will be worse off. And it is necessary.

New to Korean cinema? Check out some of my top picks:

The Host


Memories of Murder

The Chaser

A Company Man

And some on my radar I have yet to see:

The Yellow Sea (2010)

Pieta (2012)

federalesfrontcoverThe Suspect (2014 -Not yet released in USA)

Snowpiecer (2014 – Not yet released in USA)

Mother (2009)

Bio: Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of  short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey.

Federales has just been released in print and digital formats through One Eye Press and is available here.

He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. For more, visit www.christopherirvin.net.