Lupoff at Shorter Length
a feature by Claude Lalumière
It's hard to believe that the forty-eight stories gathered in Richard Lupoff's three retrospective collections are all the work of a single writer. (These collections are: Before ...12:01...and After, Fedogan & Bremer, 1996, 374 pages; Claremont Tales, Golden Gryphon, 2001, 290 pp.; and Claremont Tales II, Golden Gryphon, 2002, 298 pp.) What is remarkable in these books is not only the diversity but the skill with which Richard Lupoff tackles this wide array of genres and sub-genres. Even more remarkable is the deftness with which he adopts a new voice in each tale. That said, Lupoff is not necessarily at his strongest with every genre.
The weakest of the triptych is the first one, Before...12:01...and After. Although, like its successors, it is quite diverse, spanning, to list a few of the genres here, sardonic spoofs of comics and pulp characters ("Boom!" and "God of the Naked Unicorn," to name two), affectionate homages to past writers (for example, Dick in "The Digital Wristwatch of Philip K. Dick" and H.P. Lovecraft in "The House on Rue Chartres" and "The Doom that Came to Dunwich"), big-idea science fiction ("After the Dreamtime" and "12:01 P.M."), crime fiction ("The Woodstock West Killer" and "Dogwalker"), and light satires; this last genre makes up most of the book. The biggest difference between this book and the two Claremont Tales volumes is that it is made up of shorter fiction; the latter two contain more novelettes. And, from the evidence in these three volumes, Lupoff's fiction comes most alive at novelette length, where, instead of relying merely on the idea that sparked the tale and satisfying himself with stock characters, he gives himself room to create nuanced characters and intriguing juxtapositions.
Claremont Tales -- the strongest of these collections -- both begins and ends on superlatively high notes. From the science fiction/mystery hybrid of the first volume's opening story, "Black Mist" -- a suspenseful tale of Japanese culture in outer space -- to the mind-warping final piece, "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" -- a thoroughly (post)modern update of H.P. Lovecraft combining space exploration and strange sexual permutations -- Lupoff displays a profound understanding of the short story and popular fiction. The ghosts of the great fiction magazines -- The Strand, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories -- and the voices of legendary writers -- Arthur Conan Doyle, James Thurber, Olaf Stapledon -- haunt these tales. The collection does, however, lull a bit in the middle, where its three weakest selections are clustered: "Lux Was Dead Right," a meandering and overly convoluted portrait of the book-collecting life in an unconvincingly imagined future setting; "The Child's Story," a far-future story of transcendence written in a mushy mystico-poetic style that reads too much like an experiment and not enough like an alien consciousness; and "The Tootsie Roll Factor," a noir tale that starts off with a bang, continues in a charming voice, but, sadly, ends with an all-too-obvious cliché.
Still, in Claremont Tales alone, that leaves nine other exciting stories of murder, mishap, exploration, and terror. Although these stories do evoke writers and stories of the past, they are in no way simply postmodern pastiches. In each text, Lupoff strives to create a fresh, fully engaging world with vivid characters to entertain and stimulate his readers. In the stories collected in the two Claremont Tales volumes, he succeeds more often than not.
Claremont Tales II is structured to evoke its predecessor. Its opening tale, "Green Ice," reintroduces Mr. Ino from "Black Mist," and the closing piece, "The Turret," is, as was the case in the first volume, a Lovecraft pastiche. Throughout, Lupoff once again dazzles with his metamorphic virtuosity, although this time the overall effect is somewhat dimmed because the two bookend novelettes suffer from an overdose of unconvincing cosmic transcendence.
A close look at all three volumes allows a certain insight into Lupoff's obsessions, strengths, and weaknesses. Lupoff's passion for the history of popular fiction fuels his chameleon-like powers. Detective pulps, weird fantasies, Victorian mysteries, New Wave SF, and more all jumble together to create and re-create diverse modes of short fiction and, when Lupoff is at his best, genrebending combinations.
In his introduction to "The Devil's Hop Yard" (in Claremont Tales II), Lupoff confesses to never having gotten over reading H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" at age eleven. His obsession for the signature author of Weird Tales is certainly evident. Each of the three volume contains two explicitly Lovecraftian pastiches: "The House on Rue Chartres" and "The Doom that Came to Dunwich" in Before...12:01...and After; "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" and "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" in Claremont Tales; and "The Devil's Hop Yard" and "The Turret" in Claremont Tales II. And, as mentioned above, Lupoff gives Lovecraft further prominence by ending each Claremont Tales volume with one of these.
Fortunately, Lupoff is not satisfied with merely replicating Lovecraft. Indeed, his admiration for HPL's work does not blind him to its faults: a penchant for melodramatic overwriting and a repugnant blend of racism and classism. Lupoff merely ignores HPL's stylistic self-indulgences, but he tackles his bigotry head-on. In fact, all six of Lupoff's Lovecraftian pastiches pointedly give voice and agency to characters Lovecraft would have dismissed as sub-human. In doing so, Lupoff spins new fictions that celebrate HPL's legacy while creatively critiquing its shortcomings.
"The Turret," the least of Lupoff's Lovecraftiana collected in these books, suffers from the same weakness that mars a number of Lupoff's tales. Lupoff sometimes imbues his stories with a kind of vague cosmic transcendence reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke. Unfortunately, while Lupoff's stories shine with many qualities, they lack both the mythic grandeur and the emotional intensity to pull off such moments.
In Claremont Tales, only "The Child's Story" suffers appreciably from this, but Claremont Tales II has more casualties: the Mr. Ino story "Green Ice" promises a fascinating story of corporate investigation (in the same future as Lupoff's outstanding "Black Mist" from the first volume), but loses focus and ends up meandering into mystic vagueness; "31.12.99" sets up a potentially interesting parallel dimension scenario, but, again, loses itself in a quagmire of mystical physics; "Stream of Consciousness" -- the story of a piss that becomes an isolated moment of near-infinity -- satisfies itself with stating the idea but fails to turn into a story; and "The Turret," in which all of the fascinating details of the story (the remote location, the eccentric firm, the confusing relative; the villagers) simply peter out, subsumed by a deus ex machina cosmic epiphany.
In Before...12:01...and After the story that suffers most from Lupoff's occasional tendency to lose himself and his stories in an ungraspable pseudomysticism is "Nebogipfel at the End of Time," a sequel of sorts to Wells's The Time Machine. Lupoff's story is ambitiously oblique, but lacks the evocative power to make such a technique resonate with the imagination.
A few other stories with a whiff of fuzzy cosmic mumbo-jumbo -- such as "At Vega's Taqueria" in Claremont Tales and "A Freeway for Draculas" in the sequel -- manage to escape being overwhelmed by it.
After years of toiling in the SF field, Lupoff finally found, in the 1990s, a measure of commercial success in the mystery field. Each volume contains a few examples of his forays into that genre. For the most part Lupoff's crime stories fall into the cozy or near-cozy categories; a style of crime fiction that lacks both urgency and high emotional stakes. Occasional attempts at something a bit edgier, "Dogwalker" (in Before...12:01...and After), "The Tootsie Roll Factor" (in Claremont Tales), and "You Don't Know Me, Charlie" (in Claremont Tales II) show the author uncomfortable with that mode and resorting to characters who conform too easily to stereotypes.
However, when Lupoff marries an investigative narrative with another genre, his imagination seems more fully engaged. Examples abound in the two Claremont Tales volumes. The aforementioned "Black Mist" is an exemplary SF mystery. The investigative aspects of the Lovecraftian "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" give it a page-turning edge. Lupoff's several combinations of the crime genre with historical pastiche -- "The Second Drug" in the first volume, and "News from New Providence" and "The Adventure of the Boulevard Assassin" in the second -- all show off Lupoff's skill as a literary entertainer.
If "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" -- a genderbending protocyberpunk space opera -- gives us a glimpse of an imagination capable of challenging gender roles, Lupoff's social satires, on the other hand, seem to point towards an author whose fiction reinforces gender stereotypes. When Lupoff defends the casual sexism of several of his stories by saying, for example, "It is not advocacy, it is reportage" (introduction to "Saltzman's Madness," in Before...12:01...and After), it fails to convince. I would counter by saying that fiction -- even realist fiction -- is not reportage and that if sexism in an integral part of a character or a setting -- if an author chooses to make it so -- then its consequences need to be at the very least hinted at.
In the introduction to "Triptych" (also in Before...12:01...and After), Lupoff mentions that many of his stories involve "skirmishes in the ongoing War of the Sexes" -- and perhaps in that very formulation lies the problem at the heart of Lupoff's domestic satires. By formulating an adversarial relationship between the sexes without questioning that confrontational segregation, its causes, or its consequences, these satires come off as somewhat meatless and dépassé. Lupoff invokes James Thurber as a model (here, and also in the introduction to "The Adventures of Mr. Tindle" in Claremont Tales), but unlike Thurber -- whose quirky characters defy easy categorization -- Lupoff peoples his satires with stock characters replaying cliché conflicts of outdated sexual politics.
This weakness only emerges in Lupoff's short satires -- a genre that dominates Before...12:01...and After. The Mr. Ino stories from the two other volumes and the Lovecraft pastiches in all three books, to name the most striking counterpoints, seem to indicate that the basic problem is not one of sexism on the part of the author -- for the characters and situations here show the author exploring gender issues with intelligence and sensitivity. I'm led to conclude that the sexism in Lupoff's lighter pieces is a failure of comedy, of satire not coming across as such. As with much of his crime fiction, Lupoff lacks the pointed edge necessary to make his comedies disturbing enough to rise above cliché and to offer readers something to ponder.
Lupoff's science-fiction stories often challenge the traditional ethnocentric future of American pulp SF and its descendants. Going far beyond simply populating his stories with tokens of cultural diversity, Lupoff speculates on the futures of various contemporary cultures.
In that spirit, "After the Dreamtime" (in Before...12:01...and After) explores imaginatively the fate of Australian aborigines in a future in which colonial bigotry is still festering. "Stroka Propekt" (also in Before...12:01...and After) follows the travails of Soviet spacers. The Mr. Ino stories in the Claremont Tales volumes speculate on a future Japanese people still at the strange crossroad of rigid tradition, corporate culture, and embracement of the cultural changes brought on by rapid technological change. And "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" -- a story that seems to do everything well -- charts a near future resplendent with the diverse cultural forces at work shaping human history.
Despite the shortcomings of several of his stories -- mainly, a lack of visionary power that makes his attempts at cosmic transcendence fall flat and too soft a voice to make most of his crime and humour sufficiently ferocious -- Lupoff is a writer capable of creating excellent fiction in a number of genres. I'd like to conclude with a brief look at my personal choice for a Lupoff top ten. All these stories are gems, brilliantly fashioned and full of the love for fiction that is at the heart of Richard Lupoff's work.
piece first appeared in The New York Review
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web:
Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
support this site - buy books through these links:
top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]