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Publisher: Bluejack

November, 2004 : Feature:

Pulp Frisson

It is one of the sorrows of my little writing career that such evocatively named pulp magazines as Planet Stories, Dime Detective, and—most evocatively named of all!—Thrilling Wonder Stories are forever closed to me as markets. They closed, in fact, years before I decided I wanted to be a writer, before I even discovered that I was much of a reader. Some of the best fiction published in their highly perishable pages (and some of the worst, too) has since found its way between proper book covers, and some of that has found its way onto my bookcases, where it jostles Real Literature. Yet I love the pulps themselves, and have a closetful of the crumbling ancient things, and usually keep one on the bedside table with whatever else I'm reading. An ideal mix for me is one brow-furrowing title, e.g., William James' Varieties of Religious Experience or whatever volume of Proust's gigantic work I'm up to, an issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries or Argosy or the like, and some comics. (My tastes even out; I'm approximately middle-brow.)

For the benefit of any reader who has no idea in hell what I'm talking about, I cannot do better than to quote Charles Beaumont, who, unlike me, knew and loved these things first-hand:

The Pulps.
What were they?
Cheaply printed, luridly illustrated, sensationally written magazines of fiction aimed at the lower- and lower-middle-class American male.
Were they any good?
No. They were great.

Although the pulp magazine's lineage is traceable back through the dime novels and weekly story papers of the nineteenth century, it took form under the rough hand of Frank A. Munsey, whose closest modern counterpart is probably the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Munsey ventured into publishing in 1882 with The Golden Argosy—"Freighted With Treasures for Boys and Girls," e.g., fiction by Horatio Alger—and by the end of the decade had managed to run up debts exceeding twenty thousand dollars. In desperation, he remade his faltering children's magazine into The Argosy, an all-fiction periodical aimed at literate or at least semiliterate adults, printed on cheap pulpwood paper, and wrapped in a cover of coated stock. The new format caught on. Munsey became a millionaire and eventually a newspaper magnate who, as the noted editor William Allen White famously put it, "contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker." Along the way, Munsey also launched more pulp magazines and, inevitably, inspired other publishers, including Street & Smith and the Butterick Company, to compete fiercely for market share.

The 1954 edition of The Consolidated-Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary: A Library of Essential Knowledge (Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers; Franklin J. Meine, Editor-in-Chief) saw the light of day when the last stragglers of the pulp era were being hurried into oblivion by the pulps' own bastard offspring, the comics magazine and the paperback book. Nevertheless, on page 226, under the heading "Writing to Sell," we find:

The magazines printed on pulp paper—"pulps" in writers' parlance—publish fiction almost exclusively. They buy love stories and detective stories, tales of mystery and adventure, particularly in its "western" variety. But each "pulp" publishes only one kind of story. A magazine may be wholly devoted to adventure stories about aviators, or tales based on future scientific developments—"science fiction." Pay ranges approximately from ½ to 1½ cents a word (1940). A rapid-fire style, easy to read, with shrewd, terse characterization is desired.

It would be pedantic of me (but what the hey) to point out that perennially popular pulps such as Argosy and Blue Book published almost every kind of story during their long careers, incidentally embedding a number of iconic figures in the public consciousness, including Tarzan, Zorro, Horatio Hornblower, and Dr. Kildare. During the pulps' heyday, between the world wars, the trend was toward specialization—Detective Fiction Weekly, Love Story Magazine, Railroad Magazine, Fight Stories, with some pulps specializing in specialized heroes, e.g., The Shadow, The Masked Rider, Captain Future, and Bill Barnes, Air Adventurer, or in hybrids: Ranch Romances, Rodeo Romances, Romantic Range. The "rapid-fire style" encompassed everything from what critic Algis Budrys has termed H.P. Lovecraft's First Person Delirious technique—

The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!

—to the crisp understatement of Dashiell Hammett:

The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the middle of Personville's main intersection—Broadway and Union Street—directing traffic with a cigar in the corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.

You almost couldn't go wrong as a pulp fictioneer, however, as long as you remembered that characters did not merely say anything, but sneered, rasped, gritted, or husked it, depending upon the situation and, well, upon their characters. Story blurbs, written in what can only be described as Third Person Delirious, could be counted on to take up any slack:

Dave Ketterey climbed the Rosin Trail, propelled by the force of his fists, and a love for a fight that burned in his heart by the right of his heritage. Strange shadows cross the path of this kid; reach with hands from the past. As Red Leather Lightning storms from its stool, the first round opens fast! (Knockout Stories, 1937)
Only mangled human bodies and the pitiful, smouldering fragments of wood and iron told young Steve Lynch the grim and tragic story of his own prairie caravan. Yet, from their unmarked graves, the souls of his kinsmen rose, to lead Steve against the three loot-mad renegades who had betrayed them into the jaws of a wilderness battle-hell! (Dime Western, 1938)
The Things would come again when the Comet was in the northern sky, the thirty girls famous for their beauty would disappear one by one—Bob Dean knew he could never save his own lovely fiancée, for the murderous phantoms were Satan's own stepsons, they'd been spawned in the wake of the Comet and they'd thrive there forever! (Uncanny Stories, 1941)

The ranks of pulp fictioneers were as varied as the pulps themselves and included, of course, writers who simply wrote—and wrote, prodigiously. Frederick Faust, the most famous of whose many pen names is Max Brand, produced words by the tens of millions; H. Bedford-Jones, who could keep several typewriters warm simultaneously, may have outproduced Faust by a substantial margin.

Hammett, though, worked as a Pinkerton detective before he began writing about private eyes. William Lancaster Gribbon was in the British Foreign Service in India and hunted big game in Africa before Adventure's readers got to know him as Talbot Mundy, and Adventure's first editor, Trumbull White, had bicycled across America, canoed through the hinterlands of Ontario, served as a newspaper correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and traveled extensively in the Pacific and Central Asia. During World War I, Robert Sidney Bowen served in the Royal Flying Corps and Robert F. Hogan was an air cadet in the U.S. Army Signal Corps; predictably, when they took up writing, they wrote aviation stories. Less predictably, an ex-cavalry officer named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson went from writing adventure stories to publishing Adventure Comics—at which he went broke; his creditors took over and made a go of it by purveying the exploits of Superman and Batman, whose pulp antecedents are obvious.

One particularly accomplished pulp fictioneer was Roger Sherman Hoar, Harvard-educated descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and in his own right a teacher of mathematics and engineering, inventor of a system for aiming large guns by the stars, Massachusetts state senator, and author of the unpulpy Constitutional Conventions: Their Nature, Powers, and Limitations and Patent Tactics and Law; as Ralph Milne Farley, he also authored Argosy serials about Myles Cabot, the "Radio Man," who had accidentally transmitted himself to Venus.

Hoar eventually moved to the Midwest, where he worked as a corporation lawyer for Bucyrus-Erie and devoted his leisure time, according to one squib, "to his stable of horses, to breeding iris, to raising tiger-lizard, and to writing." In 1938, offered the editorship of Amazing Stories (at seventy-five dollars a week) when that ailing magazine was purchased by the Chicago-based Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, he politely declined to accept, but did recommend a Chicagoan, Raymond A. Palmer, for the job.

Palmer, an active science-fiction fan during the 1930s who had produced the first amateur journal devoted to the genre, The Comet, promptly reversed Amazing's fortunes by remaking it as an altogether livelier magazine, albeit one with a distinctly juvenile slant. The following year, he launched a companion magazine, Fantastic Adventures, which was more of the same. Although Palmer did publish work by established pulp fictioneers (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, Edmond Hamilton) and luminaries-to-be (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Robert Bloch), the bulk of the interchangeable Amazing/Fantastic inventory was provided by a small cadre of interchangeable hacks who turned out reams under a bewildering array of pseudonyms. Some of the pseudonyms were interchangeable as well; to this day, no one is quite sure who wrote many of the stories attributed to Alexander Blade. Palmer himself wrote copiously for the magazines, signing himself Henry Gade, G.H. Irwin, Frank Patton, J.W. Pelkie, Wallace Quitman, A.R. Steber, or Morris J. Steele.

Then, with the publication of "I Remember Lemuria!" in the March 1945 Amazing, he began promoting a series of stories by another remarkable character, Richard S. Shaver, who insisted that he was not writing fiction at all but presenting the truth about human origins and the machinations of a race of subterranean fiends, the telepathic deros, who cause all human crimes and ills. With an eye to increasing sales, Palmer averred that he, too, believed the so-called "Shaver Mystery" to be true, and sales did in fact increase so dramatically that Amazing enjoyed, for a time, the highest circulation ever achieved by a science fiction magazine.

In 1948, while still working at Amazing, Palmer launched his own magazine of the occult, Fate, followed in short order by Other Worlds, which featured science fiction but also exploited the flying-saucer craze. He finally resigned (or was fired; no one seems sure) from Ziff-Davis in 1949, and during the ensuing decade was involved in one capacity or another with a succession of magazines—Imagination, Universe, Science Stories, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers From Other Worlds—increasingly, and at last, exclusively devoted to UFOs and the occult. The collective history of these later Palmer publications, with all their title changes and interrupted numeration, is tortuous.

The Shaver Mystery repelled science fiction aficionados even as it shot Amazing's circulation into the stratosphere. Fortunately for them, there were other science fiction magazines to be had, consistently more readable ones at that: Better Publications' Startling and Thrilling Wonder, Fiction House's Planet, and Street & Smith's Astounding—actually, from the late 1930s on, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding. Like Palmer, Campbell had been an early fan and a prolific fictioneer before finding himself, while still in his twenties, charged with revivifying a failing magazine. Where Palmer avidly attracted impressionable adolescents and credulous adults, Campbell sought a relatively sophisticated readership. He assembled his own lineup of authors—Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester Del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov—who virtually defined science fiction for a time.

Also like Palmer, however, Campbell proved susceptible to pseudoscientific fancies. Some Astounding readers and even an Astounding author or two proved susceptible as well when Campbell ran L. Ron Hubbard's first article about dianetics. Subsequent Campbell enthusiasms included the Dean space drive, supposedly capable of negating Newton's laws of motion, and psionics, electronic machines with extrasensory perception, which promised, as Martin Gardner wrote in his Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science,

[T]o be even funnier than dianetics or Ray Palmer's Shaver stories. It suggests once more how far from accurate is the stereotype of the science fiction fan as a bright, well-informed, scientifically literate fellow. Judging by the number of Campbell's readers who are impressed by this nonsense, the average fan may very well be a chap in his teens, with a smattering of scientific knowledge culled mostly from science fiction, enormously gullible, with a strong bent toward occultism, no understanding of scientific method, and a basic insecurity for which he compensates by fantasies of scientific power.

Ah well. Wartime paper shortages, rising production costs (up seventy-two percent between 1944 and 1947), and competition from paperback books, comics magazines, and television killed the pulps. They were, to be sure, a little while in dying off, but early on more than a few readers must have felt a chill of foreboding when, for instance, the price of Popular Publications' Dime titles went up to fifteen cents. Both Astounding and Amazing Stories survived by shrinking to digest size, and as it happened the first science fiction magazine cover to imprint itself indelibly on my tender young brain was the fairly lurid one, painted by Ed Valigursky, adorning the September 1958 Amazing: a space-suited fellow has just used a gold ingot to bash in another space-suited fellow's fishbowl helmet. Argosy, Adventure, and Blue Book survived by mutating into testosterone-charged men's magazines—"armpit slicks," or, if you prefer, what The National Lampoon satirized as "Real Balls Adventures." The rest of the pulps simply went extinct.

And now, whenever I do leaf (carefully) through a pulp, pausing here to contemplate a contents page studded with the names of forgotten scriveners, there to admire an illustration by an artist who cannot possibly have been paid enough for the effort he put into it—and despite trying all the while to bear in mind the words of the prolific pulp fictioneer Norman Daniels, who said "there isn't anything glamorous about writing in any medium"—I am helpless in the grip of a yearning, quasi- or pseudo-nostalgia, if you will, for something I never had.

Copyright © 2004, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.


Oct 25, 23:03 by John Frost
Discussion of Steven Utley's article.

(For the article itself: click here.)
Oct 26, 03:09 by Michael Bishop
What a ride, Steven! And Steven's not lying, folks, about owning a variety of the pulps himself. I've seen them stacked in boxes in a closet in his house in Smyrna, Tennessee, each one heremetically sealed (or nearly so) in plastic covers, although he does in fact pull them out and read them even as he's plowing through a volume by Proust, Henry (or William) James, or Edith Wharton. And I, too, wish that I could have placed a story in some of those now defunct publications. Good work, friend.
Oct 26, 03:20 by Carey McGee
Sorry for the off-topic comment, but there really seems to be an overrepresentation of Tennesseeans here at IROSF. I recall that in the introduce yourself thread that most of the people had some connection to TN. What's with all the Vols? (I ask this as a Tennesseean myself, though only in spirit, since I've been out of the USA for the past five years.)
Oct 28, 08:22 by Lou Antonelli
Great article, Steve! Enjoyed it! By the time was into science fiction, like when I was 12 (that Golden Age) these mags were gone. I never really saw them in the wild.

Lou Antonelli
Circa 1957

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