I was at the post office the other day when an overwhelming sense of impending dread crept over me. The unexpected feeling didn’t initially register with me but on a subconscious level I knew it was there. As I got in line to purchase some stamps, I noticed that my palms where sweating. This was starting to get weird because I’m not a nervous type of guy and I certainly don’t get anxious very often. Then the unthinkable happened. I looked toward the counter and made direct eye contact with the kindly old gentleman donning the uniform of a postal worker. My bowels clenched and my heart started beating out of my chest. All thoughts of buying stamps left me as I made my way to the door in hurried fashion. When I finally arrived home safely, I gave this bizarre event some thought. I was looking for a possible reason for the extreme reaction to this pretty common situation and then it hit me.
The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Bentley Little and his yarn, The Mailman. Now for those don’t know, Bentley Little writes some of the best modern pulp stories that you are likely to find. Sure, his books proclaim him as the next Stephen King and other such nonsense but make no mistake my friends, Bentley Little is the master of crafting a pulp story. His tales do what pulp was meant to do- take everyday occurrences and sensationalize them to the point of being entertaining. As a point of reference, pick up any of the old Gold Medal Pulp titles and they are nothing more than everyday events which happen to spiral into a series of extraordinary events. That’s what made those stories so damn fun and that is what makes Little such a special talent. The Mailman represents Little wearing his pulp influences on his sleeve and completely terrorizing the reader in the process.
The story obviously hits home for anyone with a mailing address. The mailman can be an angel or a devil depending on the day. We get elated when he walks to our doorstep with that package we have been waiting for but tend to cower behind the curtains when we catch him dropping off that past due bill. Little masterfully exploits the emotions associated with the latter and crafts a frightening tale around it. In The Mailman, the town of Willis has been assigned a new mailman after the bizarre suicide of their previous package handler. The new mailman, John Smith, appears gleefully distant with his pale skin and red hair. Everything starts off swimmingly as the residents of Willis discover that there is no more junk mail and many of their long-lost acquaintances are now sending them letters. How odd. The good vibes slowly fade as a rash of lost payments result in utility outages and eventually the mail takes a much more sinister turn when letters from dead relatives start arriving in the mailboxes around town. All of this is directly linked to the new mailman as the residents notice some peculiar changes at and around the Post Office. Things begin spiral out of control quickly as one horrifying event after another assault the reader with Little ratcheting up the tension at an excruciating pace. The story quickly leaves the realm of reality and takes the reader to a very dark place filled secrets and shadows. All of this culminates with some real life horrors that were reminiscent of the worst bits in Laymon’s The Cellar. It is a brutal way to bring the reader back down to earth and make them realize that even the most fantastic events are possible.
The Mailman is so good at delivering the terror that I never really saw it coming. Sure, I cringed a few times during the reading but I was never truly terrified. Well, I wasn’t scared until I went to the post office and all of Little’s brilliance manifested itself in my heart. That is the power of pulp writing. It is so approachable and entertaining that the reader never realizes how much it is influencing them. I can’t even count the amount of times that I’ve read a hardboiled detective story and picked up a bottle of Jack on the way home. These stories are just so simple, yet so effective. On the surface, many of these books may be considered silly (Little’s titles included) but that is where their power lies. Their unsuspecting nature allows us to welcome them into our lives, only to find that these stories are really ticking time bombs just waiting for the right moment to explode.
The Mailman is no different. There are some genuinely silly moments in the story that keep your gurad down. I’ve heard people site the “dancing mailman” scene as too silly to be taken seriously. Little knew what he was doing when he wrote that. He is lulling you into a sense of security. As with many things in our beloved genre, too many readers dismiss him because they don’t understand the subgenre in which his writing is steeped.
The Mailman is a brilliant tale that I encourage all of the Dreadful Tales readers to check out. Also, if you’re looking for some good pulp stories to familiarize yourself with the genre, check out the public domain titles over at Munsey’s.