An interview that originally appeared in the Home News Tribune,
Courier News, and Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.


Area publishers among those using the Internet to revive fiction genre

Staff Writer

It was a balmy August morning when Jason Butkowski, of Freehold, and Anthony Schiavino, of East Brunswick, stepped into the dimly lit conference room in the back of the old East Brunswick fish wrapper that I sometimes used as an office.

Their eyes were only half open from the late night before, but they did not have to say a word – the package in their hands did all the talking.

I leaned back in my chair, keeping a toe on the worn-out purple carpet beneath me, as I picked up the book they slid before me: “Episodes from the Zero Hour!, Volume One, featuring ‘KNUCKLES’ – Tough Guy for Hire.”

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Who is this Knuckles? When is the zero hour? And what did these two good-for-nothing scoundrels in front of me have to do with any of this? I tried not to act interested, hoping they would serve up the information I needed without revealing the ace up my sleeve.

We stared each other down until, after a few quiet seconds, their lips finally loosened.

They said their book was in fact a piece of pulp fiction — a take on the hard-boiled crime stories from the turn of the 20th century. These stories were once immensely popular, appearing in pulp magazines — named for the cheap paper they were printed on — before and during the Depression and in paperback books after World War II.

Now the stories were making a comeback — a pulp fiction revolution of sorts through the seedy electronic streets of the Internet, where the only rules are the ones you make for yourself. Butkowski and Schiavino, a pair of friends from their days at the College of New Jersey, were among the trailblazers.

I called a man I had on the inside to tell me more.

“Before television, people actually read for entertainment,” said Charles Ardai, an author and the founder of Hard Case Crime, a New York-based publisher of pulp novels. “For 10 cents and later a quarter, people could pick up these magazines on their way home from work and escape to another world, whether it be a crime story, romance, adventure, mystery — just about everything you could think of.

“During World War II, the magazines basically disappeared as the country conserved paper,” he continued, his voice tickling our gravely phone connection. “When the soldiers came back from war and the country began to recover from the war effort, the hard-boiled crime stories that were popular in pulp magazines began showing up as paperback books.”

The returning G.I.s, hardened from the war overseas, related to the stories of hard-edged vigilantes living in a world were everything was not so innocent. The books were hotter than the tip of a lit cigarette.

Still, I needed to know more. What is this revolution they talked about? Why are these stories popular now? Who is reading them?

I got back on the phone and dialed another source.

The phone rang twice.

A voice on the other end answered with a sandy New England accent.

“The Internet made it all possible,” said Ron Fortier, 60, an author of pulp stories from Somersworth, N.H. “In 15 minutes you can find a hundred other people with the same interests as you, no matter what it is. That’s what happened with pulp fiction. Fans of the books got together on message boards and blogs and shared their love of the genre.”

They also started writing themselves. Some took older characters like Domino Lady and The Black Bat, whose copyright expired years ago, and created new adventures for them. Other writers, such as Butkowski, created new characters and wrote them in the old style, a form Fortier calls “new retro.”

“Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era,” said Butkowski, 27, a speech writer for the Democratic Party in Trenton as he looked across the table at me. “I mean, I have a fedora on a hat rack inside my house. Not many people can say that today.”

Schiavino, a graphic designer at the Home News Tribune, takes a sip from his coffee as he looks at his cohort. The two look young, but share a love for a different era.

They met on Sept. 11, 2001, as college students. Butkowski was driving near school when he saw a sign calling for revenge in response to that morning’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

He went into the student newspaper office calling for a photographer. Schiavino answered. The two became fast friends soon after learning about their love for pulp novels.

“I made a student film featuring Tommy “Knuckles” McNichols and his exploits in Federal City,” Schiavino said, noting that Butkowski played Knuckles in the six-minute film that was filmed backward. “My professor said he liked it, but he needed more.”

Instead of making a longer-film, Butkowski and Schiavino decided to turn the project into a book, reminiscent of the pulp fiction or crime noir books that inspired that character to begin with.

Butkowski, along with consulting from Schiavino, wrote four stories chronicling Knuckles. That project became the published book I was holding in my hand. They’ve said they have at least three more in he works, including “A Father Michael Ryan Story,” about an Irish-Catholic priest and World War II veteran, who acts as a two-fisted advocate for his flock.

“There is a reason these books are still being read 80 years after they were popular,” Butkowski said. “No one is going to be reading Danielle Steele in 80 years.”

I nodded my head in agreement.

“There is something that is just fun about these books,” he continued. “They take you to a different place and a different time where the heroes are not always good and the villains are not always bad.”

The stories also bring a little violence and sex appeal, with sometimes graphic language and illustrations throughout.

Butkowski and Schiavino publish their stories online through their Web site, which has become common in today’s pulp world. They also shill their books at conventions or promote them through various online message boards.

As they continued to talk it became clear the underground world of pulp was coming back. I began to get nervous.

Butkowski and Schiavino finished talking, slyly answering my questions about the genre. They left the meeting room with smiles, hoping I could write a story to shine more light on this movement for the masses.

The only question now is where does this go? Will pulp become mainstream again or primarily stay in the online underworld? No one knows, not even the Shadow. The only advice is to be ready.

A Blinding Force Productions Serialized Feature

and http://www.lulu.com/zerohour

Episodes From The Zero Hour!, their stories, characters,
logos/artwork are © and ™ Blinding Force Productions.


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