Saturday, February 16, 2019
The Pulps And Their Time
THE PULPS AND THEIR TIME
Pulp magazines were originally called such because of the pulpwood paper used to print the magazines. Frank Munsey’s ARGOSY is considered the first of the magazines to be printed on this cheap wood paper in 1896. The stories in the magazines ran from western to romance, mystery and science fiction. Johnston McCulley introduced several gentlemen thieves in the early days, including costumed Robin Hood types that robbed from the rich crooks and gave to the poor. One of his long-lived characters was Zorro. By the 1920s, the Roaring Twenties ushered in the gangster titles and for the next decade the newsracks were filled with the genre.
After the Stock Market crash of ’29, the reading masses were tired of mob rule, whether real or in their fiction. With little work, and less money, they were no longer in the mood for gangsters in expensive suits and flashy automobiles. Although cheap hardbacks could be bought for 8 cents, 10-cent pulps were the cheap literature for the masses. And it was those lurid covers glaring from the pulp magazine racks that drew their attention. Publishers recognized the trend, and in 1931 The Shadow made his debut. He was a costumed crime fighter, patterned somewhat after McCulley’s Zorro and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other pulp hero characters quickly followed, many taking the mantle of the gentleman thief, robbing from the rich crook and giving to the poor. It was what the readers had been waiting for!
After reading Johnston McCulley’s 1913 story in TOP-NOTCH Magazine, Force Inscrutable, I was struck by the difference in the moral acceptance within stories from that period to the heyday of the pulps, just two decades later. In this story, Betty Gladstone and Dick Wellington worry over the fact that traveling together by train could be construed as immoral, since they were only betrothed, and not married. Now jump ahead twenty years, to 1933, when Dick Wentworth (The Spider) and Nita Van Sloan are apparently living together – betrothed but not married. In the teens, we were treated to gentlemanly thieves, which gave way to the violent Roaring Twenties, molls and gun rule. With the 1930s came the heroes and heroines, who were equally as tough as the mobs, and we now saw a milder drop in the moral appearance between men and women. This would be the ground rule for the next two decades, until the pulps began to fade, and the age of the paperbacks brought sex and profanity to the printed stories. It wasn’t long until the Aggressor novels threw out all semblance of morality in the new fiction. Today’s new pulp appears to be anchored in a mixture of the original and the modern, sometimes difficult to recognize, but the readers in 1913 likely felt that way about the 1930s.
However, there remains a subtle difference in the original pulp story and the stories today. Our heroes and heroines seemed more pure, without hang-ups, and a clear vision between right and wrong. Even through the 1930s & ‘40s publishers and editors would have rejected manuscripts outright that contained sex and profanity. Plus, it was made clear that drugs and crime were wrong.
There were problems, of course, as every generation has them. There was very little political correctness back then, though the editors tried to eliminate most blatant stereotypes of minorities. Still, there was a certain acceptance of the current views. However, the pulps entertained the racial masses for sixty years. The heyday of the pulp heroes was from 1931 to 1953. Twenty-two years. Which wasn’t a bad run. They gave rise to the comic book super heroes, and the 1960s’ Aggressor paperback novels. Some of the pulp heroes, like Doc Savage and The Shadow, are still popular today.
I’m thrilled that the new generation is calling their work pulp, for it means the essence of the old pulp magazines will live on. But I certainly want to remember where my influence comes from, and honor those who came before me.
I created The Black Ghost as homage to The Shadow in honor of Walter Gibson, a man I greatly admired. Perhaps The Shadow, more than any other fictional character has been my greatest influence since I listened to his adventures on the radio as a child in the 1940s. I met Walter Gibson in the mid 1970s, and we corresponded until his passing. I wrote the first Black Ghost story in 1995, however he was originally called Compere before the underworld gave him his nom-de-guarre. His stories appeared in Clancy O’Hara’s PULP FICTION MAGAZINE. (Clancy was a friend of Quentin Tarantino at the time, but later they parted ways.) The Black Ghost was the name that stuck!
The Black Ghost is set in contemporary times, as is my Man In The Black Fedora, and both seem to prove that characters written in the pulp tradition can still be a success today. However, I do love the classic period of the 1920s through the 1950s, and prefer my pulp reading in those long ago times.
Whatever your preferred reading, there is a large variety of new pulp out there. Most of it good, and worth reading, with some excellent new writers. Give it a chance, and find special authors to follow. Let’s face it, we love those wild pulpy action novels with over the top heroes and heroines and blazing automatics. Long live the pulps.