The pulp fiction magazine.
Chances are that if you were walking by a newsstand in the first half of the twentieth century, you would have been looking for a dime to purchase one. Their covers were dynamic. Their stories were bold. And from 1896 until just after World War II, they constituted one of the most successful and powerful forms of reading entertainment in North America.I didn’t become fully aware of the pulps until my later teen years and I eventually found out that some of my favourite writers, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Richard Matheson wrote primarily for the pulps. Now I can’t get enough. I recently spoke to three pulp fiction enthusiasts about the history and aesthetics of pulp fiction magazines.Jamie Fraser is the owner and operator of Jamie Fraser Books in Toronto, which specializes in pulp magazines and also sells used and rare books in the science fiction, mystery, and horror genres. Neil Mechem runs Girasol Collectables in Mississauga, which also specializes in pulp magazines and related materials, even reprinting editions of various pulps. Don Hutchison is a Toronto-based writer who has written extensively about the pulps and whose book, The Great Pulp Heroes, is an exciting study of the hero characters from the pulp magazines.
I. Misconceptions Defeated!
Derived in spirit from the story papers and dime novels of the mid-nineteenth century, the pulp magazine was born when an enterprising publisher, Frank Munsey, decided to use pulpwood paper, thus lowering his printing costs and increasing the amount of printed fiction for his adventure story magazine, The Argosy in 1896.“If you wanted to read something, you had a choice of reading either a hardcover book or magazine like the slicks, let’s say Colliers or the Strand or National Geographic, which were printed on high quality paper. And then there were pulps,” explains Jamie Fraser.The term “pulp fiction” is easily misunderstood. Many people think of the paperbacks of the ‘50s, but these would come much later and are dissimilar to pulp fiction magazines, though they were certainly spiritual successors. One book I read, True Crime, True North, mistakenly identified the cheap true crime magazines that flourished in Canada during the ‘40s as pulp fiction.“They were a different size,” says Don Hutchinson, “[They] weren’t printed on pulp paper and were, in theory, all true stories, whereas pulp fiction is for pulp fiction magazines printed on pulp paper. A different animal, really.”There was no such thing as a typical pulp magazine — almost every possible taste was catered to. There were detective stories, western stories, sci-fi, horror, weird menace, aviation stories, army stories, adventure stories, and even adult-flavoured “spicies.” Companies like Street & Smith and Popular Publications became legendary fiction factories, feeding the hungry imaginations of millions of loyal readers.There were also the hero pulps, magazines dedicated to crime-fighting supermen who predated their later incarnations in the comic books. The Shadow, who started life as the narrator for Street & Smith’s radio series Detective Story Hour, was given his own magazine in 1931. Walter Brown Gibson, a magician and journalist, would pen the majority of the Shadow’s more than three hundred and twenty-five adventures. The Shadow would later get his own radio show, with Orson Welles the first to take the role of gangland’s doom.
II. Thrills and Chills Galore!
Since they were printed on cheap pulpwood paper, publishers were able to keep costs down and sell a one hundred and twenty-eight to one hundred and sixty page magazine of fiction for as little as ten cents. During and immediately following the Great Depression, that was a great bargain, especially for working-class readers. “They were essentially the first form of affordable fiction for the masses,” Mechem explains. “Books were relatively expensive at that point. It was the first way the average person had access to a cheap read.”At one time there were over one hundred and fifty different well-established pulp fiction magazine titles publishing, and all of them were actively competing with the other for newsstand sales. This resulted in bold cover designs.“I think the first thing that strikes a lot of people is that it is a very bold style,” says Mechem. “With the better quality stuff, it’s a very dramatic approach to selling a magazine. The cover had to compete on the newsstands and so you get a lot of impact for it. It’s also relatively early in colour printing, so the colours tend to be a little more basic, not so subtle, they tend to go for more primary colours, a lot of strong reds and strong yellows.”The best pulp cover illustrators brought a certain artistry and audacity to their work. For example, Frank R. Paul would define early sci-fi with his optimistic and thoroughly modernist covers for Amazing Stories, the first sci-fi pulp magazine. The November, 1928 issue of Amazing is one of his best covers, featuring several people exiting a rocket ship on one of Jupiter’s moons and gazing in awe at the gas giant as it hangs in a bright blue sky.The Canadian artist, Hubert Rogers, would also stand among the American greats, making his name doing covers for Astounding Science-Fiction, which ushered in the “golden age” of sci-fi. Hailing from Alberton, P.E.I., Rogers would do fifty-nine covers for Astounding between 1938 and 1952. Featuring everything from strange time paradoxes to alien observatories and giant, rusting space ships, his covers had a more somber and muted colour palette, and were evocative of the new maturity that Astounding’s Editor John W. Campbell brought to the science fiction field.Most pulp artists used simple oil on canvas. One of the few female pulp cover artists, Margaret Brundage, used oil with pastels for her very sensual covers for the horror magazine Weird Tales. Much of her work featured vulnerable, scantily-clad, or, in some cases, nude women being menaced by a leering villain.Innovative covers certainly helped sales, but what kept people coming back for more was the thrilling writing. “People thought the pulps were for the average Joe or Jane, basically,” says Fraser. “But really, an awful lot of well-known writers today, such as Earl Stanley Gardiner; Perry Mason; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Walter Gibson, who created The Shadow; Lester Dent, who did Doc Savage; got their start writing for pulp magazines. And if it weren’t for the pulps, a lot of these authors would have never been published.”While looked down upon by the intelligentsia in communities across North America, younger readers got in on the fiction revolution reading now-classic stories by writers like Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Robert E. Howard.
III. Canadian Content!
Although a definitively American medium, there were numerous Canadian contributions to the pulps in various forms. The passage of the War Exchange Conservation Act by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1940 actually created a domestic pulp fiction industry during the Second World War. There were at least three pulp fiction publishing companies here in Toronto during that time.“Adam Publishing was on Spadina Avenue and they published pulps like Skyblazers, College Sports, and even something called Bill Wayne Western,” says Hutchison. “Not John Wayne Western, but Bill Wayne Western and Uncanny Tales. […] There was another company called Daring Publication on Wellington Street and they published Daredevil Detective Stories and Dynamic Western. And there was a company called Duchess Printing and Publishing Company on Sherbourne Street. And they did something called Private Detective and Real Western Stories.”“There are very few strictly Canadian titles,” says Fraser, “and they weren’t very well distributed in Canada. Most of the pulps available during the war years were those in the US printed in Canada on Canadian paper.”“They’re pretty much based on their [American] cousins,” elaborates Mechem. “There wasn’t really anything particularly innovative going on during that period here. It was strictly a protectionist attitude that put them out there. The unfortunate part about it is that what really distinguishes them is that they are terrible. I guess the idea was that they would hire strictly local talent. They were probably doing it on the cheap.”During that period, Hutchison says that Uncanny Tales was really the best out of the strictly Canadian pulps with many of the first few issues being wholly written by a Toronto-based writer named Thomas P. Kelley.However, there was a subtle contribution by one Canadian writer during the pulp era. His name was Frank L. Packard, and he created a character named Jimmie Dale, also known as The Gray Seal.“Packard was definitely Canadian and his influences on the hero pulps were immense. His books were pretty much used by Walter Gibson in doing The Shadow and also in The Spider. […] Even the style he used was very, very similar to the Jimmie Dale books.”Much like The Shadow, the Gray Seal wore a cloak and slouch hat, was a master of disguise, an expert criminologist, and maintained the persona of a bored, wealthy bachelor. Comic book characters like Batman and the Green Hornet would also take their cue from the template provided by Packard for the hero pulps.
IV. High Impact, Bold Culture!
The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy houses over 23,000 pulps with titles like Black Mask, Astounding, Weird Tales, and the best Canadian pulp, Uncanny Tales, all available for study. The Merril Collection also hosts the annual Fantastic Pulps Show and Sale, which will be taking place on May 14.“A number of people, myself, Don Hutchison, and the Mechems, and one or two other people approached the Merril Collection with the idea of creating such a show,” says Fraser.“A group of us thought, ‘Well, we really should think of having a small event here, and get some excitement going,’” says Mechem. “At that time a couple of the people we were talking to were involved with the Merril Collection. So it seemed like a good tie-in to base it out there.”What of the impact on popular culture? “You can isolate certain things,” says Hutchison. “Science fiction existed before the pulps in terms of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It was very minor. It wasn’t even seen as a genre. So when Amazing Stories started in the 1920s they really invented the whole idea of science fiction being a genre.“The impetus of the magazines where the writers could, in a sense, be inspired by each other, and get together, and develop ideas — I think sci-fi could have ended up being only a minor literary form. The detective magazines were able to take writers like Dashiell Hammett and invent the American detective story, particularly the hard-boiled detective story.”Even Scientology, also known as “Dianetics,” has pulp origins. “L. Ron Hubbard […] got his start in the pulps,” explains Fraser. “And in fact, he actually [tested] the whole idea of Dianetics in the pulps by putting the idea in some of his stories, as well as taking out advertisements in the pulps and asking for feedback.”The pulp fiction magazine was a revolutionary form of entertainment that ensured the average person could access a good read. The pulps fired millions of imaginations, created three whole genres — hard-boiled detective, horror, and sci-fi — and created an avenue for some of the twentieth century’s best writers. Their creative visions remain with us today and we’re all still living in the midst of a pulp culture.