The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril

by Paul Malmont

Cover image

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-7432-8786-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 367

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The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril starts with a conversation between Walter Gibson and Ron Hubbard in a bar in 1937. Gibson has decided to tell him a story, to prove that life can be like pulps. The story, of the Sweet Flower War, is about a gang war in Chinatown, a mutilated wife, a gang leader who fights by randomly shooting until everyone flees, and a locked-room murder. It's a great story, but it doesn't have a great ending, as Lester Dent is there to point out, sparking a fight over old grudges.

Meanwhile, Howard Lovecraft is going to die.

Walter Gibson is better known by the house name he used, Maxwell Grant, while writing the pulp series The Shadow. Lester Dent, aka Kenneth Robeson, wrote Doc Savage. Ron Hubbard is, of course, L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer who went on to found a religion. And H.P. Lovecraft is now famous for Cthulhu, despite his difficulty selling work during his life.

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril is a pulp story of daring heroics, improbable escapes, dark figures, secret plots, and grand adventure, with pulp writers as the heroes. Malmont populates the book with the popular fiction writers of the 1930s, writers whose work was printed on cheap newsprint, who wrote hundreds of books in the same series with the same heroes and basic formulae, and who had to deliver stories at a rate that left no time for editing, let alone slow crafting, if they intended to make a living at it. In addition to the ones mentioned, a famous SF writer who started in the SF pulps shows up, originally under a pseudonym (that anyone familiar with SF history will find easy to penetrate once he gives his backstory), and there is a cameo appearance by Doc Smith of Lensman fame.

Malmont does well with such an audacious idea. He draws on the real background of the writers and gets all the details I knew or investigated correct (although he does mess with things a little to get them all in New York at the time of the story). He also sticks them in adventures that are appropriate to their writing. Lovecraft is involved with death and shambling horrors and horrific discoveries. Gibson is haunted by the nature of his creation, the Shadow, and while investigating Lovecraft's death, discovers a man who looks just like his hero. Dent, meanwhile, uncovers secrets of Chinatown in pursuit of the real ending of the Sweet Flower War.

Hubbard spends the book calling himself The Flash, with a capital T, and acts like an egotistical, overly-excitable ass. I thoroughly enjoyed that part.

As a novelist, Malmont goes into deeper characterization and more psychological and interpersonal issues than a pulp novelist would have. Gibson, also a magician, is having an affair with a stage psychic. Lester's wife Norma recently lost another baby and hasn't left the house in some time when the story opens. Walter and Lester have a long-standing fight over a Shadow book that Lester wrote and Walter had killed. Both of them have to sort out their lives and their goals over the course of the book.

But while that level of modern novel characterization is present, pulp rules this plot. The plot is developed with some care, with each of the characters seeing an appropriate chunk of a story that slowly pieces itself together, but the situation and villains have a remarkable pulp feel. The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril thrives on its sense of atmosphere and never misses a beat or breaks that pulp sensibility.

I find it difficult to describe what that feel is if you're not familiar with it. It's not as simple as stark good versus evil contrasts or unrealistic stories. It's more a pervasive sense of weirdness and excitement, of cliff-hanger stories (if the people in this book aren't having them, they're telling them) and the sort of adventure that involves mysterious Chinese secrets, black ops military officers, Asian warlords with swords, long-lost secret military weapons, and chemically created zombies. The good guys are always on the edge of serious harm, are always taking risks to figure out just what's going on, and prevail through sheer determination, guts, and honor, not to mention the occasional strong right hook.

How successful this is as entertainment depends mostly, I think, on whether you want to read a pulp story. I enjoyed it at first but tired of the plot before I reached the end of the book. At some level, we've all read this story before. Malmont's plot is new, but it's a pulp story — you know that the heroes will triumph in the end, but only at the last dramatic moment and in the middle of as big of an explosion as the author can muster. Almost everyone they meet turns out to be integral to the story in one way or another, and the characters tend strongly towards the archetypes they write.

I think The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril's best audience will be those who read and loved pulps as a kid (or adult). I'm not in that target audience; my only experience with pulps is reading early SF stories, and then for their place in the SF field rather than for the pulp plot. I've never read Doc Savage, and my only exposure to the Shadow is through pop culture osmosis. I think that's why I got a bit tired of it. The only bits for which I had previous references were the ones that connected directly with SF, but most of the focus is adventure and mystery (with a bit of Lovecraftian horror).

For me, therefore, the book was a neat stunt, written with admirable skill and with a few neat parts, but not horribly successful as a novel. I don't regret reading it, but I wouldn't seek out more like it. However, your mileage is likely to vary considerably if you're a pulp fan for which this sort of book evokes a sense of fond nostalgia. If you are, seek this one out; if you're more like me, it all depends on what mood you're in and how interested you are in the history and feel of pulp storytelling.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-01-02

Last modified and spun 2017-11-15