Pulp Fiction

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.

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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.


6 thoughts on “Pulp Fiction”

  1. Although it may be ridiculous at age 39 to consider myself young, I feel some hope in pulp continuing to live on in that it has only been in the past decade that I’ve discovered my own interest in it and have really enjoyed the stuff I’ve read. At comic shows, etc. I still see pulp magazines and books selling and an older friend who grew up with the pulps swears that the pulp cons he attends are still going strong. I think alot of that is due to the older generation still having enthusiasm, but like anything I think that enthusiasm can be passed on if you can get the younger generation to spend some time with the older. I think the internet and its ability to get things in front of multiple eyes ultimately helps keep the possibility of pulp living on a reality. So many people post about stuff like this and folks young and old come across it…my hope is that they then take the time to actually sample it, try it on for size, and hopefully become fans!

  2. I agree with most of what you said in this article, including the merits of ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE, a very good book. While I have never read Asimov’s BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE, I do have Damon Knight’s SCIENCE FICTION OF THE 30S and Sam Moskowitz’ THREE STORIES BY MURRAY LEINSTER, JACK WILLIAMSON AND JOHN WYNDHAM, three novellas from the 30s as well.

    I recently bought the British collection SEA-KINGS OF MARS, by Leigh Brackett, which is post-30s but still pulp of the finest vintage. I might take advantage of some of those other new pulp collections, especially those by Paizo Publishing, such as C.L. Moore’s NORTHWEST OF EARTH. Good stuff.

  3. Bob, I have both the Knight and Moskowitz anthologies, and I thought of mentioning them too, but the other two are very fat juicy pulp collections that have always been my favorites. Moskowitz also had a another great collection called Science Fiction by Gaslight covering stories from the earliest years of the pulp era.

    Moskowitz wrote several books about the history of science fiction that cover decades of pulps magazines and the greatest of the pulp writers.

    Carl, I think 39 is very young. You should ask your friend who attends pulp cons if any of the old collectors plan on scanning their old pulps that are out of copyright and putting them on the net. Pulps are all going to turn to dust soon, so it would be great if they got digitized.


  4. Actually, I have all the Moskowitz books too, since they made good research for my overview of sf WHO SHAPED SCIENCE FICTION?

    Name-dropping for a moment, I knew SaM when I was a member of Eastern Science Fiction Association in Newark. He was a fascinating story-teller about the history of Sf.

  5. When I was younger I wanted to know as much about science fiction as Mr. Moskowitz. Your site makes me think you had that dream too. I didn’t know you had written a book. So you really are following in his footsteps. I need to find time to spend reading your back pages on your blog, and get a copy of your book, I’m sure you’ll cover a lot of stuff I’m interested in.

    On one accidental find, I saw you talked about All-Story Magazine. Early years of that mag should be out of copyright and suitable for reprinting on the web. Has anyone done that?


  6. I will do that James, I’ll try to remember when I see him on Wednesday next week. Your question ties in with an interview I heard on NPR yesterday with a couple of art conservationists. They brought up very good points about the nature of art and how all the various pieces will eventually succumb to the forces of destruction, etc. It gave rise to some interesting thoughts…one about whether or not I preferred the romantic tragedy of the idea that great works pass away with time or whether I prefer that things be preserved…and at what cost. Do I want things to be preserved at the cost of them not being open to the public for viewing, etc. (and here I’m thinking more of historic sites like the pyramids, etc.)

    This then gave rise to thoughts about fiction (it is a wonder I could drive at all with the conversation I was having with myself). I started thinking about both Tolkien and Howard and how I really like that both of them wrote stories in which the current civilization is built upon the remains of old, lost, and sometimes completely forgotten peoples, cultures, etc. I like the idea of their being remains of temples, buildings, etc. that are so old that no one actually even remembers who built them…or maybe there are rumors about those civilizations still in existence. I think that kind of world building can really lend a great deal of depth and historical authenticity to fiction.

    Anyway, just thought I’d share.

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