Long ago, before Quentin Tarantino’s great film, before I was born in 1951, before television, there was pulp fiction. It was called pulp fiction because of the grade of paper the stories were printed on was called pulp, and a whole entertainment industry was built around selling magazines with short stories and serialized novels wrapped in crude color reproductions of what is now called pulp art.
When I was young I often met older science fiction fans that collected these magazines, but surely, most of the kids of the generation before me, who grew up loving to read pulp fiction, must be very old, if still living, and the pulp fiction generation surely must be dying out. Yet, over at Fantasy & Science Fiction they are running an article, “The New Nostalgia: The Classic Pulp Story Revival” by Dave Truesdale that chronicles how several small press publishers are keeping the pulp fiction tradition alive with quality hardbound reprints. This article is well worth reading on many levels because it renews memories of a few old authors and their best stories and informs about the sub-culture of the small press publishing.
Pulp fiction has also been kept alive by the legacy of comic books and their impact on the movies with all the classic super heroes being reinvented every year, and reoccurring pulp action films like the Indiana Jones series or the remake of King Kong. Comics are the direct descendants of pulp magazines that featured cruder art and stories for the younger readers on the same pulp paper. Pulp fiction was never literary but a few fine writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the tradition. Most of the prose was purple and all action, and aimed at the poorly educated, often featuring very politically incorrect attitudes about race, gender, ethnic groups, and foreigners. Society and the well bred looked down on the lowly pulp fiction fan.
Evidently, old pulp fiction is finding new younger readers through the popularity of action movies, reprints and inherited nostalgia. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s much of the best pulp fiction, including mysteries, westerns, science fiction, adventure, spy, thrillers and other genres were reprinted as cheap paperbacks for 25 and 35 cents, but now the buy-in price are $40 deluxe volumes.
There was always a tremendous vitality to pulp fiction, which explained why titles included words like astounding, thrilling, amazing, wonder, adventure, fantastic, and that wink-wink keyword, spicy. Science fiction really is a child of pulp fiction, and I think many readers hated the change that the New Wave brought to the genre during the 1960s, where emerging writers tried to force science fiction out of the gutter and into the classroom where the revolutionaries wanted it to wear literary robes. Today science fiction is often represented in the minds of the public at large by Star Trek and Star Wars, but those stories owe a lot to two pulp fiction superstars: E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edward Hamilton.
If you want to sample classic science fiction pulp stories, and not spend too much money, I recommend tracking down copies of two anthologies: Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. These books collect some of the best SF short stories from 1931-1945. You can find both at ABEBooks.com, but watch out, both fat original hardback anthologies were often reprinted as multi-volume paperback books, and it would be worth your while to use the advance search and specify hardback editions, thus saving you on total costs and postage. These two books will give you a great education about the foundation of science fiction.
The URLs linked to these titles also give you table of contents for the stories which if you are really hoarding your gasoline dollars might find on the web for free. Now, as you read the stories, consider these issues:
One, are they still fun to read? Are they as fun as reading Harry Potter or any of your other current favorite writers? Second, do the ideas seem stupid, in the light of modern knowledge? Third, do you notice why I call them politically incorrect? Fourth, can you tell the difference between pulp fiction writing and modern MFA writing (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), or even modern genre writing (Charlie Stross and John Scalzi)? Fifth, are these stories worth preserving? Sixth, are they worth your reading time over reading newer stories?
All fiction from 1900-1950 is thinning out fast in our collective memories, and few stories from that era get reprinted. I’m not just talking about pulp fiction. If you can, find a copy of Best American Short Stories from before 1950 and some original pulp magazines. Most of the contents from either will never have seen print since the original publications. The small presses that are reprinting classic pulp fiction stories, are really just rescuing one story in a thousand, maybe one in ten thousand.
Looking at the periods 1800-1850 and 1850-1900, only the rarest of stories are still read by modern readers. Baby boomers can remember the famous books they read from 1950-2000, but how many of the following generations know about those best selling titles? My guess is the pulp fiction nostalgia is for the boomers who can remember reading pulp fiction from its first generation of reprints. I would imagine, out of all the genres only a handful of novels will become classics, like The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, and Riders of the Purple Sage. But how many kids under 16 discover these tales?
I occasionally enjoy reading an old pulp story and appreciate these small press publishers bringing back old favorites by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard and Jack Williamson that I first discovered in used editions of Ace Doubles. I think my identity is partly based on pulp fiction, and I feel I help keep these old friends alive by continuing to read them. I know all of my generation and the stories we loved will soon pass on and be forgotten, but it’s pleasant to think a few of the stories will survive and future generations will enjoy them and wonder about their fans.
- Pulp Magazine at Wikipedia
- Pulp Fiction Central
- Pulp Magazines
- The Pulp Gallery
- The Terrifying and True Tale of Pulp!
- Pulp Magazine Cover Gallery