Obverse Books
Wildthyme in Purple
A Collection of Short Stories

Edited by Stuart Douglas Cover image
Published 2012

Synopsis: Iris Wildthyme meets pulp fiction.


A Review by James Burton 1/9/12

Thoughts on the work as a whole, first.

Looking back, I reckon this is my favorite of the Obverse Iris books so far. It could just be that the subject material happens to resonate with me particularly strongly - but no, I think it's just of a particularly high quality and consistency. Which, when applied to Obverse's very high standards, is pretty damn good indeed.

You could say that I'm slightly unsure of the exact nature of the "brief" of the collection. The cover - and the variety of works being parodied and referenced - seem to say that "Iris does pulp" is the theme. However, so many of the individual stories address the notion of fiction vs reality, of a place or a time where the one becomes (or is indistinguishable from) the other, that I can't help but feel that this was part of the overall theme as well. If so, it can't have been a requirement since not all of the tales herein address that notion specifically.

I love pulp. I'm hardly a connoisseur, or even necessarily widely read in the area, but it's an age and a genre that reaches right for the pleasure center in my brain. Whether it's The Shadow (sadly missing from this Iris collection, I am sorry to report; odd since to me he is pulp fiction itself), Sam Spade, or films spawned from the pulps like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (possibly my favorite serial) or those glorious 50s B-movies. So Wildthyme in Purple is right up my street - especially since it loves its source material, too, and lovingly mocks rather than viciously skewers.

It appears that the original intent was to have Steffan Alun's Amser Gwyllt open proceedings, with the English language version to close. This makes sense, and taken by itself would be a much better way to approach it than as it is now, with the original Welsh version immediately followed by the English one. However, for reasons that hopefully will be made clear in my "review" of the segment, Jim Mortimore's The Big Crunch really had to go first. I agree with the way the book is now presented, but it does damage Amser Gwyllt even while benefiting the book as a whole.

Oh, regular readers of mine (hah!) might recall that I usually have a little piece of praise for Cody Quijano-Schell, who always manages to get the best line in the book (usually an atrocious pun). I wish I could say the same this time (he does have a marvelous Trial of a Time Lord-related one) but two other authors have him beaten in this regard. (Sorry, Cody.) Simon Bucher-Jones wins it, for me, with a groan-inducing reference to an antelope, but Geoffrey Hamell must also get an award for a truly deliciously awful Second Doctor misquote. Bravo gents, all of you!

The Big Crunch by Jim Mortimore

What can you say? It's Jim Mortimore. I can't help but feel that Stuart and/or Cody asked for Mortimore to submit an Iris story about pulp fiction, only for him to pitch a tale about fictional worlds colliding. "Very good," they may have said, only to have Jim drop this on their desk, making their jaws drop.

This may not have been what happened. But this certainly isn't just a story about pulp fiction. Nor is it just a story about levels of reality colliding. It's a massive, complex, sprawling concept of reality-bending where even our title characters must face up their own possibly fictional status, and confront a Ubik-like "god" at the heart of creation to prevent the destruction of everything. There's no way a story like this (as if there could ever be such a thing as "a story like this"...) could be part of an anthology collection.

There's two things that can be done with it. Either put it at the end, as a marvelous coup de grace (where it will appear overlong and possibly even look like an attempt to "one up" the prior tales) or lead off with it, knowing that there's almost nowhere else to go after this and everyone else will be left scrambling in the dust trying to pick up the pieces.

Stuart and Cody went - wisely - with the latter approach. A hell of a way to start off the book.

The short version is: Iris and Panda journey to the center of the Earth where they find similarly subterrestrial-bound travelers all conglomerating, and as multiple universes and levels of reality collide, the Big 'Brane Crunch threatens everyone's destruction.

Wow. There are so many references here that literally no one (prove me wrong, someone!) could catch them all. I have no idea how many of them are pulp-related (I have a hard time classifying Thunderbirds as strictly "pulp", myself...) but it's a truly ingenious clashing of realities. In the beginning, when it appears to be a collection of fictional travelers to the center of the Earth (including my favorites: Dorothy and Eureka from "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz") we think we see where it's going. But as more and more varieties of fiction collapse into this one, it all becomes much larger than we feared.

The Big 'Brane Crunch (look it up; never has a story about a threat to various fictional universes sounded so plausible!) brings together (as mentioned above) the Thunderbirds, a group of Jungle Men led by the most famous one, Frankenstein's monster, and many more. It's only when the Wizard of Oz theme gets repeated, that things start to look even more threatening to Iris and Panda's reality than before.

Oh, there's a sneaky cameo from a certain floppy-haired medic from the BBC's number one televisual science fiction drama...

I don't know what else to say. In giving away details, I've already said too much. In analyzing the text, I have barely said anything. Read it for yourself - please! - and marvel at it. An astonishing piece of Iris fiction.

Frank Reade Jr's Amazing Time Canoe; or, The Search For the Origins of Steampunk - A Remarkable Adventure in Time and Empire by NONAME

Seriously. Steve Mollmann doesn't seem to have taken credit for this story, instead attributing the text (like the original Frank Reade, Jr stories) to a writer called "NONAME".

I can't say I'm terribly familiar with the character of Frank Reade, Jr in particular, but this type of story is familiar to everyone. In this pastiche, however, Iris and Panda team up with a steampunk enthusiast to explore the roots of the genre - and, to his dismay, find that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

This is a good story, well-written, and the parts that are supposed to, ape the Frank Reade, Jr texts well. In large part, this story is about exposing the racist tone of this type of steampunk tale. And while the moral isn't a simple "racism is bad, mmkay" message, it still ultimately feels like a bit of preaching to the choir.

And I can't help but feel Mollmann is succumbing to a bit of the same trait that he is criticizing. Characterizing the Americans of the era as being a group of racist imperialists whose attitudes were so strong and unanimous that they begin to threaten the cosmos is a bit much for me. I suspect, however, that the point is to make us examine those attitudes in ourselves for the danger they cause, rather than to outright condemn an entire society for attitudes that were by no means universal among them.

Fun, funny, smart. A very good story.

Dance of the Voodoo Valkyries by David A McIntee

Anyone expecting instances of actual vodoun here (given the author's prior Doctor Who-related experience) will be disappointed. I think McIntee did this on purpose!

Something I forgot to say in my preamble (I could go back and add it, but instead will place it here) is that the inspirations for this short story collection go beyond the traditional "pulp" label, and broaden to related works like dime novels and penny dreadfuls. That's where this story comes in: an English horror tale in the tradition of cheap British publications. The text itself references William Hope Hodgson, who is undoubtedly an influence on this tale.

Rather overlong for what (in the end) the story actually is, nonetheless a lot of fun is had on the way in exploring the characters and their interactions. I loved the central notion of a haunting where one can see the feet and cuffs of the ghost beneath the stall door of the bathroom, but nothing when looking where the rest of the apparition ought to be. It's marvelously spooky, but amusingly apt when it comes to the resolution.

Given the length of the piece, I would have enjoyed some more input from a few of the secondary characters (some of whom barely deserve the descriptor "character"), but this seems like a churlish complaint. It does what it does rather perfectly in aping a specific type of ghost story, but doing it in a distinctly Iris Wildthyme way.

Unlike the antagonist of the piece, this story is solid. (Tap-tap. 1-2-3, is this thing on?)

Iris in Dead Man's Gulch (or the Magnificent Iris) by Paul Ebbs

I admit that I was never a reader of Western dime novels. Some of my relatives had quite a collection of these, but they were never quite to my taste. (Neither did I ever watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Maverick... any of those TV westerns that proliferated for a certain period on American television.)

That said, I have always had a fondness (though not a love) for movie westerns. Anyway, Ebbs seems to have captured the spirit and flavor of the old west in this fun little tale. It is, for Iris, something of a "pure historical". Rather like old Billy Hartnell used to, Iris gets her space-time vessel stolen from her while trapped in Earth's past and has to go confronting the local humans on their own terms to get it back.

When it first happened, I was taken aback by a bit of Frankensteinian experimentation on the part of Iris, but as it was both short-lived and humorous I was able to enjoy it while expecting such abilities to never come up again. It bonds her to the protagonist, though, who isn't quite the hero Iris had hoped he might be. And the god-like appearance and abilities of Iris have a nice resonance with a theme often visited by Doctor Who on the telly.

There's not a lot of thoughts for me to note down on this story, except to say that "it wuz gud".

Her and Allan by Simon Bucher-Jones

Time for me to do an about-face.

I haven't gotten on with Bucher-Jones' work in the past. Just not my cup of tea. But this, this was a piece of magnificence, so much credit to the author for a fine bit of work.

Once again, I have to admit to scant familiarity with the source material. I've never read an H. Rider Haggard novel, and my only experience of the character of Allan Quatermain has been in a couple of movies. (King Solomon's Mines. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) And I have no idea how faithful those portrayals were.

Nonetheless, this has the air of authenticity - and certainly feels natural and truthful. Bucher-Jones adopts the tone and style completely, presenting a magnificently authentic-feeling text.

As the story itself admits, the title is an allusion to the novel "SHE and Allan" (a crossover tale!); in this case, it is Iris who is being treated as a goddess, rather than Ayesha (SHE). Together, HER and Quatermain must free some native Zulu greys from a familiar-seeming life-giving fountain of fire that threatens their existence.

Not only faithful in tone, but a great story, Bucher-Jones takes Quatermain on a journey of revelation to a world of science and aliens, taking in vampires along the way. It's a novel's worth of ideas, packed into one highly-effective short story. And if it's anything like the tales it was spawned from then I intend to pick up a Haggard novel sometime very soon.

As I mentioned above, it also has a truly dire and wonderful pun, just near the end. Fantastic.

Running With Caesars by Geoffrey A Hamell

This opens with (as previously stated) the runner-up for "best line in the book". A groan-worthy (I literally did groan) twisting of a classic Who quote.

And... that's the best thing about the story, really. Oh, the title's great too.

I'm not familiar with there being a vast quantity of pulp fiction about ancient Rome. Is there? I dunno, maybe.

Anyhow, this story ropes in several well-known historic figures and mocks them gleefully. It's quite amusing, even if rather plotless, but ultimately doesn't really do very much.

I enjoyed it, but without much of a point - and without aping any kind of pulp style that I'm familiar with - it does just kind of sit rather uncomfortably in the middle of this book.

Amser Gwyllt by Steffan Alun

I mentioned in the preamble (that would appear to have now become my "official" word for the general thoughts that come at the beginning of my "reviews") that I think this story got gutted by the presentation. It would have worked a treat when split up as bookends, but, as mentioned, Jim Mortimore had to go and blow that by writing a story so big, so good, and so exhaustive that it could only go right at the beginning. So poor Amser Gwyllt has to suffer.

Because as it is, it's a bit slight. And having the Welsh bit immediately followed by the English bit causes one (or, me at least) to simply disregard the first half and skip right to the English part. The "real" part. Which then puts too much emphasis on a short tale whose gimmick can't hold up the rest of it.

It's a nice little idea. A character not too far off of Ghost Light's Light, can't stand the evolution and qualification of his native tongue, and seeks to convert all the universe to it in order to keep it alive and pure. But a language cannot live in a state of ubiquity, and merely stagnates. To truly live, it must evolve.

It's all very nice, but it only exists as a concept and a gimmick - which I'm sure is all it was ever meant to. But as it stands in the book now, it just seems too slight to be worthy of being told twice.

I repeat again that it's not a criticism of the text, which I suspect does everything it meant to. And I imagine if you're Welsh and get more of the jokes, then it's a lot funnier...

The Bronze Door by Dale Smith

You couldn't do one of these pulp-inspired collections without a hard-boiled detective tale, could you? (Mind you, I would have thought you couldn't do one without "The Shadow", so what do I know?)

Here we follow author Raymond Chandler as Iris and Panda take him literally into his own fictional universe to discover who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

If you're not familiar with the story behind the Big Sleep mystery, then you may be as lost as someone this week commenting on listening to The Kingmaker without any knowledge of Richard III...

Using the author himself to dive into the hard-boiled mindset is more interesting than if Iris and Panda had merely met Philip Marlowe. And going bodily into the fictional world nicely echoes the themes of several other stories in the collection. There are also some nice ideas involving other authors, but I don't wish to spoil the plot too much.

If the story doesn't really get to thoroughly examine any of its ideas, or really dig into the film noir mood, then let's blame the limitations of the story's length. (Thanks, Mortimore, for hogging all the word count!) It's highly enjoyable, still moody enough, with some great ideas.

Flash Roger Conquers the Universe! by Richard Salter

Copying an actual Flash Gordon title but swapping the surname for that of another movie serial hero also played by Buster Crabbe doesn't exactly make this the most amusingly clever of all the titles in Wildthyme in Purple. That aside, it's a wonderfully fun piece.

Look, it may shamelessly rip off Flash Gordon more closely than a "tribute" ought to. But when you love the character as much as I do, this seems more like a plus than a minus. There are references to other serials, though, like King of the Rocket Men (including a fun use of the character name "Commando Cody").

This tale takes an intriguing look at an actor who loves the fiction more than the reality, and chooses the former. He goes to great lengths to keep the fiction going, even roping a certain transtemporal adventuress and her fluffy ursine companion into his game. When things go awry, the fiction gets deadly and the group of actors must try to help Iris save two worlds at once.

It captures the spirit of Flash Gordon brilliantly - if perhaps only by being too literal with it - and so can't help but be enormous fun. There's also a deliberate touch of Star Trek which this Trekkie also finds irresistible.

Not the most original or compelling of the stories in this book, but a hell of a lot of fun.

The Web of Terror by Iain McLaughlin

The type of 50s SF you would get in magazines like "Amazing Stories", or in the kind of movies Joel and the Bots enjoy mocking, this story sees Iris and Panda in Nevada facing a threat that the government wants to keep covered up.

Is it an alien? A mutant? A secret government experiment? Either way, it's bound to be a giant insect of some variety...

When a lady just wants to get her bus to Las Vegas to see the Rat Pack, the only way past the barrier is around the barrier. And straight into danger...

Those of us who can't get enough of sci-fi schlock will love this tale. There's even a perfunctory romance (not enough kissing goes on in Iris stories for my liking). It doesn't do anything astounding, but it is very fun with some surprises along the way.

(I also enjoyed the Doctor Who references...)

The Many Lives of Zorro by Richard Wright

What better way to win over a guy than beginning with a Dark Tower reference that's also a witty gag? Take me, Richard Wright, take me now!

There are a couple of references to that series, actually, and whether by accident or design it really resonates with the story. Not just the way the "Dark Tower" series played with levels of fiction and reality, but Zorro's mental anguish when faced with two co-existing but mutually exclusive histories seems to mirror Roland's plight in "The Waste Lands".

Anyway, in this story Zorro is plagued by his own conflicting history. His blatantly contradictory backstory with its myriad continuity flubs is only worsened by all of the media his story has been adapted to. Although I enjoy Zorro, I can't pretend to be as educated on the subject as Wright clearly is. Nonetheless, he keeps us abreast of everything we need to know to comprehend the story he's telling.

There's a nice reference to Iris and Panda being aware of their fictional status that is surely a reference to The Big Crunch at the head of this anthology.

This story is written in such a way as to make us feel the pain of a man whose history rewrites itself by the second, who is torn between realities. But it also keeps us amused and entertained by the cleverness of the concept.

The way the issue is resolved by Iris and Panda is nothing short of ingenious. A very witty, very smart, and very well-written piece that is clearly one the highlights of the tome. Very well done, Richard Wright.

Fantomville by Nick Campbell

The only genre in this book that I have close to zero conception of, going in. (I once read a Fantomas screenplay, but that's it.) Once or twice the writer nearly lost me, given my complete ignorance of the source material, but I hung on and stayed engaged through almost all of the story despite my lack of knowledge.

It's clever, and seems evocative of something (so I assume it's evoking the pulp roots of the character well) even if the ending almost loses me (but doesn't quite). Peopled with striking characters, and full of ideas, there's plenty in this short story to keep you entertained and engrossed. Though I can't say it particularly made me want to seek out more of Fantomas.

The Devil Wears Panda by Cody Quijano-Schell

Ah, Cody Quijano-Schell. Always reliable for giving us a rollicking good story.

Perhaps straying a little from the Boys' Own feel of traditional pulp, and into the chick-lit genre (that and "romance" being the softer side of pulp), this glorious tale still retains elements from the pulp-SF side by building this story on the back of the '78 Body Snatchers remake. You know that space where alien invasion tales and adventurous businesswoman heroines overlap? No? That's because there wasn't one. Until now...

I admit there's a bit of a schizophrenic feel at times, swapping between the "gosh, isn't New York so exciting!" protagonist, and the transtemporal adventuring. But the tale itself hangs together, even if I personally feel somewhat jolted every time we move from one POV to the other.

(You ever watch Season One of Joan of Arcadia where we switch between the warm tones of the modern day Joan of Arc, homesteady story, to the cool blues of the daddy cop sections? Well this is nothing like that, so thank goodness.)

The setup does feel largely like it exists in order to justify the frankly excellent title, but so what? The story is so much fun, with adventure and enthusiasm and jackalopes; everything you could want from a story in fact! And seeing Panda as the villain (for the second time in this book - but this time for reals) is disconcerting but oddly hilarious.

Despite being outdone in the "pun" tournament (good job aiming for the "ultimate" pun, though, Cody) the writer still wins through by having one of the best stories in this book. I do feel like I'm missing out on a reference at the end, though. If those 118 outfits don't have the measurements for you-know-who... who are they for? Will I find out when I read his own short story collection?

My after-comments will be limited to a few.

  1. Sorry if I got a bit brief towards the end there. I have now spent 2 and a half hours writing this silly little "review", it's after midnight, and I'm tired and want to go to bed! (But wanted to get my thoughts out while most of them were fresh.)
  2. Wot, no Stuart Douglas story?
  3. Buy this book.