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What We’re Reading: Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines; Mystery Mark

2016 March 3

What We're Reading

My to-read shelf is full of spooky stories I failed to read in October and downer Scandinavian novels—it’s stuff that I don’t dare read in the gray unkindness of winter. Luckily, stuck between a glowering omnibus of a Sigrid Undset tetralogy and 1,000 pages of Hawthorne, I found a holdout of pulpy genre books.

buffalo_bill_mark_rapaczBuffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines by Mark Rapacz (self-published)

The magazine-sized Buffalo Bill is part of Rapacz’s impressive Pulp Curios package, a collection of handsomely printed novellas and magazines. In the Gallery of the Machines is a loyal homage to the Street & Smith dime novels, detailing the waning days of Buffalo Bill’s show and his commitment to the world around him.

Part of Bill’s show is the Patagonian giant, Boneshriek, and most of the short story’s conflict comes from his desire to leave the show due to recurring existential ennui—he isn’t sure where he comes from or where he belongs. Bill is adamant that Boneshriek’s place is in the show, breaking railroad ties and flipping carriages. Bill’s retention of Boneshriek becomes paradoxical, though; while the giant will benefit the Wild West Show, it also benefits Bill’s foil, Thomas Edison, who plans to use Boneshriek to exhibit his new direct current electricity. By keeping Boneshriek, Bill also contributes to the advent of electronic entertainment, displacing the human-powered show that keeps Bill and his show afloat.

Tragedy ensues, but it’s more immediate than anything Bill could have assumed. Bill’s drunken plodding toward the horrific ending makes In the Gallery of the Machines feel like a Greek tragedy; whether Boneshriek stayed or left, it would have been at Bill’s behest, and either way, Bill loses.

Rapacz keeps a careful handle on the dialogue, never slipping into the over-apostrophied renditions of bad Western slang. Buffalo Bill himself code-switches between the overblown speech patterns of the dime novels and the cosmopolitan accent of a tired soldier and world traveler. The narration flirts with the original pulps’ purple proses, but it shows enough restraint for modern readers.

He had seen a cold calf born in the dead of winter upon a field of snow. Saw it come sliding, half-froze, out of the mother. Watched it fall like a log into the bank. No steam rising from it. Its fluids thick and cold and jellied upon it.

If the Buffalo Bill’s electric tragedy isn’t enough, there’s bonus story at the end: “Crookstone,” is a creepy coda to the book. In the vein of Ambrose Bierce or Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Crookstone” is about an abandoned baby who won’t die, a backwoods kaiju, and the unknowable nature of the wild.

mystery_mark_josh_wagnerMystery Mark by Josh Wagner & Theo Ellsworth (self-published)

Where In the Gallery of the Machines is a modern iteration of a pulp, Mystery Mark is a shadowy echo of New Wave sci-fi. It feels like a Philip K. Dick adaptation of a Bruegel painting that’s been edited down to a blacklisted television pilot.

The book is a back-and-forth game of telephone between Wagner and Ellsworth—Wagner wrote words based on Ellsworth drawings who drew more based on the words and so on. It’s a quick read and is roughly the story of a scared man rediscovering hope, but it all takes place in a world of skeleton spies, spider safecrackers, face replacement surgeries, and a possibly sentient stuffed animal.

Wagner’s prose is straightforward—we’re told exactly what happens and how characters feel. In a naturalistic novel, this would most likely be a detriment, as we expect subtlety and metaphors in literary dramas. In Mystery Mark, though, the world itself is subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) metaphor, so the clear prose acts as a sugar coating that helps the oddness go down. Put another way, Ellsworth’s drawings lend the world a strange texture to which Wagner’s writing can play the straight man.

They were the best there ever wasat least that’s what they told each other, and got no argument from anyone. But jobs were scarce these days and competition was fierce. A skeleton had to stay on top of his game.

My one complaint regarding both Mystery Mark and In the Gallery of the Machines is the lack of lady agency. Each book contains a single woman. In Mystery Mark, it’s a snuggly nurse with nary a line of dialogue. Buffalo Bill gives us the legendary Annie Oakley, but we’re repeatedly told how she’s changed since she’s had kids. In the end, Bill narratively emasculates her, taking her gun to use in the fateful denouement. It felt like an aborted case of Chekhov’s gun; we’re shown this sharpshooter but never allowed to see her shoot. While it’s great to see older genres tweaked and reinvigorated, it’s too bad those genres’ gender politics weren’t updated too.

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