Tuesday, December 31, 2019

End of the '10s

From Reddit

It's time to say goodbye to the '10s. I've been waiting for this for a good while now. So let us sum up just what's been going on, and what will be happening next.

To start with, this isn't the end of a decade.There was no year 0 AD, so we are not entering a new decade until 2021. That said, the way we talk about decades today to make it straightforward is to talk about decades in clumps containing the final two digits. Obviously, everyone knows the '80s, '90s, and '00s, and now we are leaving the '10s. It makes it easier to discuss it this way. Starting in 2010 and ending in 2019, it's not a new decade, but it is the end of a grouping we will look back on.

So the question is, how were the '10s? Compered to the other decades I've been alive, has it managed to become worse?

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you might be surprised at my answer here.

Oddly enough, I would say on an objective scale for myself it was a better decade than the '00s. I can repeat myself next year for 2021, but the fact of the matter is that there was quite a lot of movement this decade. More than expected, actually.

For one, I became a writer. In 2011, I made my first move to learn writing and by 2016 I had begun to get a grip on it and put out my first proper book. It was also the same year the Pulp Revolution began, and I learned where to direct my writing towards. I have much more written, in editing, and in the pipeline, and it all started at the beginning of this very decade in earnest. Next year I'm planning to get 3 books out, and a bunch more short stories, so here's hoping I can manage to keep it going.

This wasn't where I expected to be when I thought of the future back in 2010.

The '10s have been a weird one socially. The chart above does show some good and bad, but it doesn't point out how discourse has changed. It's tempting to say (and I have) that the issue with the '10s is that basic conversation has been destroyed, but that's not really true. That happened much earlier.

The '00s was marked by 9/11 and the fallout from it. This might be hard to imagine, but that even in New York City had worldwide repercussions and shattered many people's delusions of where the modern world was heading. No Utopia was coming. Very slowly did the populace begin to understand as the oldest generation began to die, leaving the generation in charge that was promised a word they would never have.

This bitterness marks the atmosphere of the '00s heavily. Social interactions and divisions only grew harsher with the reality that that empty humanism was a lie, and there was no future ahead for it. This led to a simmering hatred that played itself out through a characterless decade which ended in nothing at all. We might as well be going from 2019 to 2000. That entire decade was the equivalent of a boiling pot.

The crazy overblown theatrics in world politics comes from a decade of frogs boiling in pots and wanting to jump out while others demand they stay. Every side understands this, but no one will work to change it. The '10s didn't start this, it was merely the inevitable end point of this deteriorating attitude. And for that it at least has something going for it that the previous decade of rot did not.

But things have change a lot in such a short time. I can't imagine going back twenty, or even ten, years and telling myself that just about every piece of art worth engaging in would be independent while corporations cratered due to outright, and blatant, hatred of their audience. This is how they're dealing with the death of the old paradigm. It's a glorified temper tantrum. What is happening in the arts appears to be a microcosm of what is happening in the world right now. By 2030, any semblance of the 20th century we knew and grew up in will be gone.

It is a long time coming, but what might finally see the end of the post-modern age sooner than originally thought.

As author David V. Stewart said in one of his Writestreams, we are no longer in the Corporate Period of art. It's just about dead. I've linked this before, but I will post it again because it never stops being interesting. This is his theory of where the arts are at this very moment:

Very good video

So, as I've said, while this decade might have its issues, I can easily say it is a step up from where we were in the dead years of the '00s. If you are a believer in Progress™ then even you must have realized what a nothing decade that was. And yet all of the bad things from this decade from the degradation of the video game industry to the extinction of rock music all originated in the '00s and had their roots in the '90s.

This is merely the natural endpoint of that era.

The new ideas that have come up within the '10s from Retrowave's explosion to anime's refocus on heroics to the Pulprev, and grassroots efforts in crowdfunding comics and books, has shown there is plenty out there worth being excited for in the future. Fresh art exists, and it is getting more and more prevalent by the day, unshackled by the corporate behemoths that ruled your childhood and are now dying around you. The reason they are appealing to your youth to sell to you now is because they have nothing to offer anymore but scraps of another age. Their time is running out.

And they know it.

To be perfectly honest, and without getting into specifics, I started the '10s without any hope at all. We ended the '00s with a whimper, and nothing looked to change anytime soon. It's difficult to remember the climate of the time, but after a decade of nothing it was difficult to imagine any sort of recovery for such a bad time period. And nothing did happen, at first.

However, looking back it is easy to see that just like other decades the '10s began to throw off the influences of the previous decade within two or three years. While it hurt the '90s, it has helped the '10s tremendously. Think about it. Tossing aside nostalgic properties, as they are both a crutch and not actually new, when it came to new ideas the '10s was actually very good at being fresh. The weaker new products? They came from corporations and those obsessed with reliving the past. Should you look underneath the surface you will find much new to celebrate.

If we look back on this decade for anything besides surface level complaints, we should find it was a decade of change. And I believe that change is going to lead to better things, in the long run.

Retrowave exploded in this decade

So what does that leave for the rest of us? Pop culture is dead, it can't exist anymore. We are entering a post-pop world, one that the Boomers and younger generations could never imagine. The entire landscape is changing right under our feet and we still need to regain our balance. As the band has said, Pop Will Eat Itself. It did, and we need to leave the carcass behind. There is more to life than bonding over old commercial jingles and television theme songs. We're all about to find out just what that means, ready or not.

No, this isn't the world Star Trek predicted, neither is it the society John W. Campbell nor the Futurians wished for. They were looking at the way things could be if their particular God of Progress™ was still alive and Utopia was obviously a stone throw and deviant jailing away. Technology was getting better, we were getting fatter, and now we could do anything we wanted. It was time to throw away those old outdated ways and get with the times. Their vision was hopeful, in a way, but naive.

But they were wrong, and hedged their bets on the wrong horse. For their reward, they are being erased by their successors decades later. Human nature never evolved, despite what they predicted, and it won't. We still want romance, we still want adventure, and we still want True Happiness. There is more to all that than repeating shopworn '60s slogans and failed textbook theories from losers. Perhaps that is the one thing that we will have learned throughout the '10s that we can look back on when 2030 rolls around.

I started this blog in the center of the decade, 2014. It was five years ago, and even then I had a feeling that a bigger online presence would be necessary in the future. I had spent my time avoiding the online space due to how detached from reality all felt, but soon realized that avoiding the inevitable wasn't going to help. Society was heading this way, and being prepared was a necessary move.

My shift turned out to be a good idea as I've met a wide range of fascinating people and learned far more than I would have otherwise. It turns out that there were many people just as lost as I was and others who knew what they wanted and were aiming for it with everything they had. That's not something I saw very much in the '00s. Times were changing, and for the better.

However, times have changed. It's not very obvious, and on a surface level walking out into public gives the impression that we're still living in 1999, but we aren't in those '90s anymore. And, thank the Lord above, we are no longer in the '00s. We just went through a decade of very subtle change that has begun to boil up around us. The 20's should be something quite different, and I'm excited to find out what that means.

This is why I have a book coming out in the first month of 2020. I'm going to get an early start on this new era.

Coming in the back half of January!

My conclusion is simply that it was a much better time than we will remember it being, at least at first. We're just to close to the times to realize that right now. That's nothing new, though. Give it a few years and you'll see that this was the start of something new and better.

Of course, it wasn't a perfect time, not even close, but you will never go through a decade in your life where something doesn't go wrong. However, there is a definite difference from where we were even back in 2011 compared to now. You can't really say the same with the characterless blur that was the '00s. Where we're going next is a mystery, but at least it feels as if the path can really go anywhere from here now. That's not something I thought I would have said a few years ago, but that turned out to be the case today.

Now for the future!

So let us send off the strange, bizarre decade that was the '10s off with a bang. It deserves it if only for being such a roller-coaster of weird. To the good times and the bad.

I will see you all again in the '20s, and I hope you have a very pleasant New Year's celebration. You earned it for making it this far.

Goodbye, 2019. It was certainly an experience I won't ever forget. Now for 2020 to show us what it's got. Be prepared, because things are about to get really exciting.

The end of 2010's best album

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Licensed to Thrill: A Pulp History (Part III: The Odds & The End)

Welcome to our final installment of this short series on Ron Goulart's Cheap Thrills history of pulp book. Even though it has only been three entries, we have been through much. But now it is time cover what I believe the majority of the readers of this blog have the most interest in.

In this last entry we will cover the concluding three chapters of the work, hopefully leaving us with one last impression of what the pulps were truly about. In the previous post I discussed the majority of the book to show just how many similarities there were between the old and the new, and how heroes and hope were the mainstays of the form. As a result that entry was more of a summary than anything else, though still important in the long run. Heroes and adventures were the bread and butter of the pulps.

Now we are going to talk about how weird fiction gets into all of this. Even though much of what we have already discussed has weird elements, it hasn't been explained just what they are or why they are so necessary in pulp fiction. There isn't really much in the way of "normal" when it comes to the pulps. Aside from pastiche and parody, it is all pretty bizarre material.

Before we get to that I need to rewind a bit back to my previous series on this sort of topic. That's right, it's back to my posts on Fandom.

One thing we learned from Sam Lundwall's book is that not only were the pulps absolutely wretched without any sort of redeeming quality and read by the illiterate, they were also an aberration on what came before. Note that he said this despite showing their clear connection to Marchen stories of romance, fairy tales, and the Gothic. He destroyed his own premise in his own book. He did this because he had a party line to follow. 

The pulps were, however, also aligned with the moral tradition of storytelling showing good as good and evil and as evil without intentionally muddying the water to propagandize the reader into some new view of the universe. The pulps were no deviation from what came before, in fact it is this "pure" science fiction he championed that was. His movement was even advertised as doing such at the time!

To this day, wonks still celebrate the mutation of science fiction into some grand thing bigger than its past that allowed "respectability" for the genre by people who don't care about science fiction and who, at this point, don't even exist anymore. If they ever did. The fact is that genre fiction used to just be lumped in with everything else until those who found it a useful weapon to warp the modern world seized control of it and began teaching you it in classrooms and fanclubs. And now the loser-led style of message fiction is the lowest selling of all. Despite this failure, there has been no move to correct course.

Still we cling to this outdated definition of genre fiction that has only been successful in shrinking audiences while we have an ongoing reading crisis in the western world. At the same time adventure stories are the only successful ones in the mainstream, adventure has been barred from the literary world. There has been no course correction despite this obvious knowledge. Appeal to the clique, ignore than common man. At this point, we can surmise the suppression of that better tradition is being done out of spite since no one with an honest compulsion to tell stories would go out of their way to ignore the majority.

This is a loser mentality by those in the industry, and it ties in to why the genre has become such a failure since the back half of the 20th century. It continues its decline to this very day.

All this started from lying about the pulps, lying about the past, and continuing on this sham new tradition that is currently eating itself and purging unwanted parts like a leper rotting in real-time. At the expense of adventure and weird fiction, sf fans began to believe they were special and above others, and set about putting their genre above others as something unique--something better than adventure. If you don't believe it then you just haven't been paying attention.

An artistic rendition of what fandom actually believes John W. Campbell did to science fiction.

But we now know better after learning about the pulps era of fiction. Science fiction is just another form of weird and adventure fiction. The tools used to make it do not change what the core purpose of the strange adventures are meant to invoke in the reader. Sf was later spit off for the same reason Unknown magazine was created: to strip the weird and the wonder from the fantastical. If readers are being awed they won't pay attention to the very important messages they need in order to become a Good Citizen. It is a very important Bezmenovian tool for social engineering, and it is more important than being entertained.

I'm not speaking out of turn. These people admit it. Sam Lundwall outright said so in his book, and he still has ties with fandom to this day. All you need to do is chase out any semblance of normality, and fetishize one aspect of the genre above all others, and you too can destroy your link to the wider world while leading the field into self-destruction and irrelevancy. Its a purity spiral of the worst sort.

But it wasn't always this way. There was a time when we didn't hate each other. It was a time you have been trained to blindly hate without giving a first glance to. If you get anything from this series it is that the pulps were made for normal people, written by normal people, and sole by normal people. That's such a strange concept to swallow, but it's true. Genre fiction was normal.

As Mr. Goulart begins his chapter on Super Science:

"The pulp magazines were selling science fiction years before they knew what to call it. Back in the first decades of the century, the Munsey pulpwood magazines were printing stories like "Under the Moons of Mars" and "Beyond the Great Oblivion" and labeling them "different stories."

These were not, in fact, much different from weird fiction or general adventure except with a world more wondrous than one might expect. It was editor Hugo Gernsback who first used the term "science fiction" in 1929 in Amazing Stories, but today no one would call what he ran by that title. That would be admitting a dirty truth about their perfect "genre" fandom does not want to admit about it.

But why did this definition change? Why can no one to this day agree on what it is? Why is there such undeserved arrogance in certain circles of fandom for writing to smaller audiences? We know why. It is because the original definition is not what it is today. Fandom's sleight of hand changed it long ago.

Now we come to the real definition of what "science fiction" is, and a lot of people aren't going to like it. Keep in mind this book was written before the late '70s and a certain movie came along to make fandom's concocted definitions fall apart. Even back then definitions still weren't defined.

And they never will be.

"The term science fiction came to serve as an umbrella under which were gathered the many types of imaginative and speculative stories that had been appearing in the general adventure pulps, both scientific romance and scientific speculation."

You can just imagine the bow-tie tugging generated from that quote in your mind. "Speculation" is but one aspect, not the whole of the genre. So what happened to the other half? Why are stories in the second half of that definition now the only ones labeled as science fiction? There is, after all, nothing particularly "scientific" about adventuring.

Perhaps that was the problem.

Mr. Goulart continues:

"Science fiction could accommodate planet-hopping adventure, satiric thoughts about the future, trips through time to the past. Spacemen and monstrous aliens, fragile princesses, mad scientists, absent-minded professors and dedicated researchers. Hymns in praise of technology and dire warnings about the perils of the machine. Utopia and anti-Utopia."

Wow, all this before the magical year of 1937. This sounds like a genre with a lot of elbow room and potential. What a trip!

But here's the killshot. He continues:

"Hard science, pseudo science and crackpot science. All in all the science fiction pulp was potentially more catholic in scope than most other genre pulps. In the first decade of so of science fiction magazines this wide potential was overlooked more often than it was taken advantage of. The emphasis tended to be, particularly in the 1930's, on action and heroes."

Oh boy, this is not a definition we could use today in our world of mundane hard science fiction or bust. "Hard" science is not required to be science fiction. Uh oh! So this means someone changed the definition to be more restricting, and no one is allowed to question it to this day. New Wave itself went through this purity testing.

But you can't blame them for their rebellion. After all, someone without any authority to do so tinkered with this genre definition, and now we must comply with it for no discernible reason. We must, after all, bow to the purveyors of the lowest selling genre--the ones who changed this successful formula into a sales loser to begin with. 

We have to do this because for some reason science fiction authors are easily penned up and more obedient than others. At least, this is the way they come off. How else would you explain this mess we are currently in?

As if it isn't clear by now, the terms made up in the 1940s and later are bogus. There is no such thing as science fantasy, for instance. It was invented by puritans so their precious social fiction genre wouldn't be infected by the adventure virus. They needed to get rid of heroes, and get rid of them they eventually did. No one had any right to do this, but they did it nonetheless. And no one said anything against this madness.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Please let us begin where the pulps did.

"Before there were science fiction pulps, the Munsey magazines--Argosy, All-Story and Cavalier--ran a sizeable amount of science fiction material, due in good part to the editorial philosophy of senior editor Robert H. Davis. The favored type came to be the scientific romance, the story mixing action with a little technology and a little love interest. The star performer here, from 1912 onward, was Edgar Rice Burroughs."

Burroughs has always been the elephant in the room for those who discuss what "real" science fiction has to be. It does feature a plot point in its setup that contains magic, after all. That's against the rules! The truth of the matter is that actual science has no bearing on what makes a science fiction story. It didn't back then. The Burroughs tradition meant adventure and romance mattered more, and general audiences agreed. At one time the majority of readers mattered. What a time that must have been.

But Burroughs wasn't writing in a vacuum. There were others in the adventure tradition.

"During the ascendancy of Burroughs, several other authors mined similar ground for Munsey. George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, J.U. Giesy, A. Merritt and Otis Adelbert Kline all wrote scientific romances, using remote places and planets and a smattering of science."

All authors ignored by Sam Lundwall's book. Isn't that strange. So why was this very popular aspect of science fiction ignored years later when readers of the pulps were still very much alive?

Who knows, but according to Mr. Goulart, it wasn't Hugo Gernsback who did the damage in this aspect. He apparently didn't have much in the way of preference when to came to scientific romances.

"Hugo Gernsback was much too eclectic in mind to stick to any limiting definition of what a science fiction pulp had to be."

Mr. Gernsback loved science as we all know, so stories that just featured it in some aspect would be enough for him. And it appeared to be enough for readers. Amazing Stories was, after all, the most popular magazine of the fantastical throughout its entire run. It didn't get there by ignoring what the readers wanted.

The prime pulp example

But there was another aspect of science fiction adventure we must talk about, and it is one that came about not that long into the life of the pulps. Spaceships, cadets, kingdoms, and aliens abound!

You see, big is big, and size was an important part of the pulps. A very crucial aspect of wonder is how large things can potentially get. Not just in ideas, but in action and concept. Scale was king in the pulps.

This led to a very important segment of the science fiction pulps that were disparagingly called space opera. This is a subgenre that took the adventure part to even great heights. Things could always get bigger. The pioneer of this new subgenre? That would be E.E. "Doc" Smith.

"Edward E. Smith was one of the major engineers of the space opera. Smith was born in 1890 and grew up in the Northwest. He majored in chemical engineering and in 1919, with the help of money from relatives and spare time jobs, he got his Ph.D. This hard-earned degree impressed him and when he began appearing in the pulp magazines he used it the way Adventure contributors used their military rank, always signing himself, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D."

Yes, there were writers who cared about science before John W. Campbell came around, and they were writing adventure stories on a scale like the Lensmen. This is not the story that gets passed around these days.

Smith finished his first novel, The Skylark of Space, in 1920, but it took him over seven years trying to sell it before Amazing Stories picked it up. The world just wasn't ready for adventure of this size! He would write for the pulps well into the '30s, and even running in a pre-Campbell Astounding Stories. Until recently he was looked at as one of the most important writers of the genre.

Speaking of Astounding, it came out not long after Skylark itself began serialization.

As Mr. Goulart puts it:

"This new science fiction pulp was "unabashedly an action adventure magazine.""

Running through F. Orlin Tremaine's tenure, and even at the beginning of Campbell's run, Astounding never lost sight of its original aim. Many different adventure stories were told throughout the first decade of Astounding's existence which quickly allowed it to gain a foothold. This focus on wonder is what made it big.

In the '40s, gimmicks began to take hold as the magazines spiraled in popularity, first pushed by John W. Campbell and his new purity testing. Eventually the magazine would change titles, as it was no longer astounding or very wondrous at all. This change allowed the popularity of the pulps to decline further among the masses.

One of the few successful gimmicks of the 1940s was the Shaver Mystery, spearheaded by Raymond A. Palmer. This was a story style by Richard S. Shaver who created a sort of story about secret races living under the earth and such mystery stories. What secrets did science hold to its breast? This led to the rising scientism of the era that would peak with Scientology.

Although it should be said that this era also hammered in how it wasn't the audience anymore that decided the direction of their magazines, but a small clique of editors who did what they wanted instead. After Raymond A. Palmer left his magazine, the following editor, Howard Browne, stopped running Shaver Mysteries. Why? Well, it wasn't due to declining sales.

"I thought it was about the sickest crap I'd run into. Palmer ran it and doubled the circulation of Amazing within four months. When I took over from Palmer, in 1949, I put an abrupt end to the "Mystery"--writing off over $7000 worth of scripts."

It goes without saying that this tactic did not help Amazing Stories. But at some point the audience began to come last, and when that happens a decline is not too far away.

As for the pulps themselves, it was clear by the '40s that they were on the way out. Times were changing, and far more competitors began to emerge for cheap bucks. Though some revisionism from the time period still remains, even in Mr. Goulart's book.

"Fortunately for science fiction, not all editors courted the lunatic fringe and the youth market. Or at least not the early teen age side of the youth market. After some changes in title, format and editorship, Astounding came under the control of John W. Campbell in 1937."

The irony overload is poisoning this reader. Campbell is the one that closed ranks, changed the magazine, and chased off adventure fans. He was simultaneously worshiped for changing the field and hated for not warping it in the correct direction. The one thing he didn't do was make it more open. He courted a lunatic fringe of his own, one that no longer has any use for him.

This is how John W. Campbell's legacy has ended up:

Tarred and feathered forever

Not bad for closing the definition of what a genre could be, and creating a legacy that no longer exists and will be purged from the genre within the next decade.

But at least we got rid of those pesky adventure stories.

Mr. Goulart couldn't have known this at the time of writing his book, but the common reader must have sensed it, at the time. Astounding Stories never recovered from Campbell, and (literally) became a very different magazine under his guidance far from where it started. Those who like what came before? No one ever thought twice about shoving them out of the place they created. They were in the way of progress.

Unfortunately, the chapter on Super Science ends with a final paragraph on John W. Campbell's warping of the action adventure genre to his tastes and, once again, frames it as more or less a good thing.

This obsession with science above heroism and wonder diluted what was once a place where a writer could steer between tropes and ideas effortlessly now had a straitjacket on their creativity. This is what led to the death of science fiction, and why it has never, and will never, recover the popularity it once had outside of elitist and ever-shrinking nerd circles.

It is odd that after the first World War audiences wanted adventure and heroes, and they got it. But when the second rolled around the new authors decided to spit in their faces instead. Something isn't right here.

As he ends this chapter:

"The new trends in science fiction spread in the 1940's. In 1945 there was Hiroshima, that terrible monument to the best and worst of science. It was difficult for science fiction writers to be satisfied after that with simply making the technological predictions that might come true--and impossible to write about galactic heroics with atomic ray guns. Even the Thrilling Wonder Stories grew up and readers found Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, John D. Macdonald and Henry Kuttner, to name a few, thinking about the future of people. Heroics seemed less of a necessity."

And in 1977 we learned with the success of one movie that this was obviously not the case with readers. They wanted heroics and adventure, and got nothing in return for their pleas. So who orchestrated the change and what gave them the right?

Aside from Planet Stories, a magazine that was hounded by the clique from its creation to its death by those who hated adventure, the field abandoned these readers. And no one asked their opinion on this.

The editors could have turned this around at any time, but as we learned with the Shaver Mystery the editors no longer cared what readers wanted. Those dumb customers needed their mandatory gruel servings instead. By the 1940s this was what the super science pulps had become. This is no Golden Age.

This is one of the reasons the audience of the pulps began to scatter during the 40s, even before economics from the war shut them down. The content that made them what they were: the content that made them popular was no longer being made. They wanted that "Buck Rogers stuff," and were being given dry lectures instead.

"Heroics seemed less of a necessity" in a genre that was built on heroics.

At some point, you get what you deserve.

On other side of the coin were the "horror" magazines, as Mr. Goulart calls them. At the same time super science was on the rise, so were fantastical chillers of faraway, and close by, lands. This is the story of the weird tale.

It should be mentioned here that there were no "Fantasy" magazines, because there was no "Fantasy" genre. It was a made up phrase to bin all the J.R.R. Tolkien clones that spun off in his wake. It is a concocted genre meant to strip the weird from the fantastical, and put a formula and an otherwise out there style of fiction.

Before Tolkien clones, the Weird Tale was the fantastical: a strange beast that combined aspects of horror, super science, and fantastical legends and lands. It is a very catholic genre that could do anything. This is the tradition that went back into Poe and Fairy Tales and as far back as we can track, and it was the pulps that kept this tradition alive where the mainstream industry was attempting to strip the mystery and wonder from it. As can be told from one trip to a bookstore today, this segment no longer exists.

"The pioneer here was Weird Tales, a perennially tottering Chicago-based pulp. The first issue appeared in 1923 with a cover illustrating that month's featured story, Ooze. A rallying point for every sort of monster, ghost and fiend, Weird Tales was edited in the '20's and '30's by Farnsworth Wright . . . Weird Tales was always in financial trouble and never made anybody, even its publishers, rich. . . The pulp, in its nearly (I believe he means "over") thirty years years, offered readers a smorgasbord of horrors . . ."

It was at this point reading that it became clear to me that Mr. Goulart was not much of a fan of these sorts of stories. That is fine, we all have our tastes, and I do enjoy that unlike Mr. Lundwall, that he even mentioned them at all, but he does not spend much of any time on these stories nor does he mention their clear Gothic influence, which is a bit more than the hokey horror cliché that era is painted as with silly skeletons and sheet-wearing spooky ghosts.

The lack of focus on this segment of the genre is the first real strike against the book. Mr. Goulart's disinterest shows, and it is a shame. There is much here that could have been expanded upon.

Weird Tales contained mysteries, adventures, poetry, tales of super science, action, and horror stories, and sometimes even combined each of these into one piece. The reason it retained a loyal fanbase unlike the science fiction magazines is because they never strayed from their premise until their closing days in the mid-'50s long after those other magazines had disappeared. It remained true to what it was for over thirty years, and it is still remembered as one of the best pulp magazines.

It even established its link to the past right out of the gate:

"There were contributions from a profusion of authors, both living and dead. Early issues contained reprints of Daniel Defoe, Bulwer-Lytton, Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe along with new material by Otis Adelbert Kline, the Burroughs-doppelganger, as well as Austin Hall, E. Hoffman Price, Vincent Starrett, Frank Owen and C.M. Eddy, Jr."

I will admit to being puzzled that I have yet to read any history of pulp that covers this specific corner of the era, which has done much to influence the culture around us. This link is not an insignificant one, but it is one that has been deliberately buried by many genre "scholars" and "historians" who wish to downplay the Gothic edge that links all genre fiction together under one banner. It all links.

I am aware this refusal to discuss it is intentional, though Mr. Goulart does not appear to indulge in this tactic, but it would be informative to hear more about it.

However, even he is also prone to misunderstand Lovecraft, in certain ways.

"Though much of Lovecraft's work is spoiled now by an unwitting silliness, some few of his stories--"Cool Air," "The Rats in the Walls"--still have the effect intended."

This is one of the few times Mr. Goulart interjects his opinion into the proceedings, and just as Mr. Lundwall did in his book, shows he does not quite understand this author's appeal whatsoever. Again, this is fine for taste, but it adds nothing to the work. It merely makes it clear that he does not like weird tales.

Just as he says Clark Ashton Smith was "straining to be pretty" (he clearly was not), this is what leads me to believe Mr. Goulart's disinterest with weird fiction is what led to this section being as dry as it is.

It is a disappointment.

"In its three decades Weird Tales also gave room to such writers such as Seabury Quinn, C.L. Moore, Henry Kutter (I believe he means "Kuttner"), Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury, who, like Lovecraft, used the horror story to exorcise his childhood traumas."

That is quite the lineup of authors. Though, again, there was more to Weird Tales than just the horror aspect. He did not touch on Robert E. Howard, for instance, or those like Edmund Hamilton or Donald Wandrei that wrote for the magazine and others. Most writers went between the magazines effortlessly as if a scientific romance came as easy as a dark horror tale did.

There were other weird magazines, but most just dove straight into the horror, missing the Gothic edge that made Weird Tales so very good. They became focused on baser elements. None of them ever reached the level of Weird Tales, as a result. And none are really talked about today, either.

Some of those include Dime Mystery, Dime Terror, and Dime Horror. Others are Uncanny Tales and Mystery Tales, and Strange Detective Stories. They began to focus more on more on the explicit elements, cranking up the sex and violence at the expense of the wonder and awe, eventually becoming what we know of as Weird Menace.

Weird Menace was the equivalent of the most base slasher movies. All flash, no substance. A focus on lurid covers, explicit sexuality, and gore, replaced the terror of the mystical and the alien. They always explained away the supernatural elements as some convoluted trick. Everything that made a weird tale what it was became stripped away. Horror had lost its purpose.

It was no longer about the loss of the soul, but about the fear of being murdered in a gruesome fashion. This gave it a more limited shelf life. The issue is that the former is always going to be more terrifying that the latter. That's just the way it is, but at some point the industry lost sight of that.

But audiences understood this rather quickly. If being killed is all you are scared of then your horror output suffers tremendously. These magazines simply never stacked up.

"There is considerable torture carried on in the latter day horror pulps and a great deal of fascination with pain. Deformities, maimings, disembowelings are all present in explicit, often loving detail. You'll have to take my word for this, since this is the one genre I am refraining from quoting. Various civic pressures, and the real horrors of the new World War put an end to most of the horror pulps by the early '40's. Fortunately, unlike what has happened in the case of the relatively literate Weird Tales, none of the material from any of the weird menace pulps has been preserved in books or elsewhere, and the gruesome stuff is now as defunct as a mad doctor at the end of a Dime Mystery novelet."

If anything tainted the reputation of the weird tale, it is weird menace and its baser obsessions. To this day the weird tale is still thought of as explicit horror stories when they are meant to be more than that. This is the opposite of what they are.

But straying from defined roots is a common problem the pulps suffered from by this time. The weird magazines were no exception.

However, there were other genres of pulps not yet covered. Sports pulps and romance stories were also big. In fact, Love Story, was Street & Smith's biggest selling pulp of the 1930s. Even back then romance was big, and women were a large chunk of the reading demographic. The pulps spread the seed of what would be the romance novel industry not long later they died.

So much came from the pulps that we have today. There is even more that we have completely forgotten over the decades that hasn't been covered in this book. It is a shame that we take them for granted, because they offer much more than our modern industry of entertainment does. We owe them everything.

As Mr. Goulart says when he finishes off the chapter:

"Before the pulp magazines declined and fell, some editor or publisher had put forth a title devoted to almost anything you can think of. There were Oriental Stories, Dr. Death, Railroad Magazine, a pulp called The Wizard that starred a financial manipulator, Foreign Legion Adventures, a pulp called Big Chief Western with nothing but Indian stories, Fifth Column Stories and even Zeppelin Stories. Then, abruptly, there weren't any pulps at all."

It is amazing how much this simple, cheap form that last for a bit over half a century managed so much with so few limits with an influence that still lives to this day. Those that sprang from the ruins of the pulps never had half the freedom they did, and the constricting nature of later efforts is what led to their eventual death before the 20th century even closed. Nothing had quite the impact pulp fiction had.

Though it would be easy to talk down about cheap stories made for the common Joe Sixpack's beer money, the fact of the matter is they enjoyed a greater variety of fiction than the current corporate paperback industry of Oldpub does, and with much better prices. You got far more bang for your buck back then, and there was something for just about everyone.

Now, however, if you want pulp-inspired fiction you have to scrounge around online and hope for the best, or dig around used book stores. The death of the pulps is a tragedy that we will never fully adapt to since that is where much of what we enjoy today originated from. As a result we are floundering and wondering where to go next with out silly stories of saucers, sorcerers, and silent assassins. To go forward we need to go back.

Mr. Goulart ends his book with a series of interview notes he accumulated from many of those who were around during the pulp days, but we will not be looking into those here. The re-release from over a decade ago apparently has expanded interviews, which means you would be better served reading those instead. The common refrain is that the pulp days weren't magical, they took much hard luck, much work, and a lot of weird happenings to get going. It wasn't as simple as many today think of it as being.

As for the end of Cheap Thrills, I will close it out with this paragraph from Mr. Goulart:

"Nobody noticed it at the time, but the pulp magazine was one of the casualties of the second World War. The mystery men chuckling in their capes and the bronze geniuses leaping out of penthouses didn't fit very well in the world as it was after Hitler and Hiroshima. By 1946, though there was still a large public for cheap thrills, they were beginning to want them in new shapes and new formats. "The paper back book had offered itself as an alternative," explains a history of popular magazines. "The comic book, and later television, provided the same sort of romantic and adventurous escape . . . Then, too, during and immediately after World War II, publishers of pulps were hit especially hard by swiftly rising production costs, which increased 72 percent between the end of 1944 and mid-1947. Their revenue was no longer enough to support them." So a combination of economic factors, a restless and, to some extent, more sophisticated public and new competition combined to do in the pulps. Some of the publishers folded up completely, others switched to slick paper magazines. A few found out how, as Kellogg's has always been able to do, to package corn in new ways. By the early 1950's, as the Eisenhower years dawned, the pulps were gone."

It was more or less just the pulp magazine's time to end. Most of what it inspired did move on to television and comics, and eventually video games, while other countries which imported pulps began having the same transformation. The main difference is they didn't have a Campbell to gate-keep the prose segment of their cultures and purge the old ways from their ranks. As a example, this is why manga and light novels still sell so well in Japan, just as France still has a booming industry.

The pulp influence still exists, and it probably always will as long as the modern world exists. Fast-paced adventures focused on wonder and awe will always have their place, and it will always be what audiences want in their hearts, even if they are taught to hate it. The day we lose that is the day to give up all hope.

So here we are over half a century removed from the end of the pulps, and we're still talking about them. They've never died, despite so many attempts to do them in. The ideas they propagated and the techniques they taught us still exist, and their influence remains.

While Mr. Goulart's book is more focused on archiving the events of the era, he did show us just how little things have changed when it comes to the human heart, and what they love. This is a book worth reading and, even with some warts of its own, is still the best book on the pulp age I have come across. Definitely seek out Cheap Thrills if you want to read more about the pulps. You can do much worse. I have.

Though the fandom obsessives have been trying hard to dilute and destroy adventure since the pulps first reared their head in Munsey's Argosy so very long ago, they have failed. They can usurp IPs and clog the airwaves with their subversive ant anti-heroic pap, but it will never be enough to change what we all want deep down inside. It's never going to go away.

While the self-appointed genre guardians are telling you the true definitions of things they have no right to define, you can remain safe in the knowledge that they will eventually eat themselves into irrelevancy as is currently happening right now. At the end of the day, the pulp spirit of action, adventure, and wonder, will remain.

This is a revolution that will never die, and we are glad to have it.

My book Gemini Warrior is a pulp-inspired romp through a distant planet with heroes, lizard men, magic! It is my proof that the pulp spirit will never truly die.

Find it Here!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Update!

My next release!

It's been quite a year! Hope it's been good for you. 2019, and the '10s, are about to draw to a close, so I thought you might enjoy an update on what I've been up to, and have planned for next year. This isn't everything on the docket, but I can let you in on what I hope to get out there as of this date.

And yes, this Thursday will still have my third, and final, post in my look into Ron Goulart's Cheap Thrills, so please look forward to that giant piece. I haven't forgotten about you!

So how was 2019? For me, it was a step up from 2018.

First, Gemini Warrior, the debut book in the new Gemini Man series, as part of Silver Empire's Heroes Unleashed, came out this year. I hope you got yourself a copy, but if not I can say it is easily my most action packed adventure yet! Two down-and-out guys acquire special bracelets that end up giving them incredible powers. Oh, and they end transported to a whole new alien world, and must have their way out again through lizard men and a crazed woman with insane magic of her own. It's a blast, and it's getting really good reviews.

The sequel to Gemini Warrior, entitled Gemini Drifter, has gotten past the first draft stage and is in edits right now. You'll know when it's out when I do. For now, you will have to wait for 2020 for any updates! I promise, it will be worth it. If you've read my stuff, you know you're going to get some curve-balls in the sequel.

Oh, that's right. We're entering the '20s! Hard to believe. The twentieth century had an interesting '20s. Did you know that Black Mask magazine was created in the 1920s? I suppose if you're reading my post series on Cheap Thrills you would know. This was the pulp magazine where you first got writers as big as Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett--writers who invented the hard-boiled noir you know so very well. It was one of the most influential pulp magazines in an era where influential pulp magazines were everywhere.

Well, that has something to do with my first (yes, first!) book coming out at the start of 2020. I'm going to get this one out quick. Someone is Aiming for You & Other Adventures, an anthology of stories, will be out on January 23rd, 2020 if all goes as planned. Yes, that is soon.

The Kindle version of the cover is at the top of the post. The very work-in-progress paperback edition is here:

Not final.

It's a bit more elaborate than the Kindle version. I like to give a bit more to those willing to go with a physical product since it does cost more. Either way I quite enjoy the design I came up with to match the stories inside.

This is a collection of my Hero Magic short stories, of hard-boiled heroes in a city where a war between powers and magic rages on in the shadows. It's very dark, but not nihilistic, and stars a wide cast of characters in the city of Summerside, which is the center of this war. I was very inspired by the old pulp works with these tales, and as such these aren't so much superhero stories as they are vigilante tales, where Justice operates on a harsher scale. This anthology is about the battle between those who wish to devour the city, and those who wish to save it from destruction.

These took a good bit to come together here, considering the period when they were written. Those who have written shorter stories know that length doesn't make them any easier to write than novels. They still take time. I've been trying to get this anthology out for awhile, and I'm very excited to present it to you today.

I wrote these 7 stories over the last four years. It started ever since my first book, Knights of the End, came out in 2016, up to more recently after finishing off the first draft for the Gemini Warrior sequel, Gemini Drifter. These were written amidst many other projects and short stories, but I always kept coming back to this series as my first attempt at pulp-inspired material. The dark city with light shining from the shadows just kept attracting me back again and again for more visits.

These tales range in different lengths from between just over 2000 words to full novelette length, and form an overarching story centering on a handful of heroes as they deal with diabolical demons, desperate gangsters, and sinister magic, as the world is falling down around them. Still, these men will fight back against the darkness regardless.

Included stories:

  • Someone is Aiming for You -- The very first short story I ever wrote, which ran both in Volume 3 of the Crossover Alliance and in Silver Empire's Paragons. This is about a vigilante named The Seeker, a Crusader (term for vigilante) with haunting green eyes who can change your life with a single touch.
  • Endless Nights in Villain City -- The tale of a man who wishes to be a monster, and instead becomes something much worse. This is a dark one, and rather gruesome. It ran in the first issue of DimensionBucket Magazine.
  • Under Suspicion in Summerside -- This poor story was supposed to come out about two or three times over the previous two years, but something always fell through at the last moment. Now it finally gets its time to shine here. Meet Flatline and Concrete, heroic hired muscle that are a force to be reckoned with, as they deal with a bank robbery!
  • Knives in the Night -- Released only on Amazon and as a bonus for mailing list subscribers (I'll try to get you guys something else as a replacement!), my editor helped polish this one up further, making it even sharper than the original version. Pun not entirely intended. In this one, an invisible man fights a force no one believes exists.
  • Last Exit to Shadow City -- The longest story here, a private problem solver finds himself lost in the deep end of a shadow world after crossing the wrong end of the tracks. For those who want to know about the dark side of the villain city of Summerside, this one is for you. It's not for the feint of heart.
  • Lucky Spider's Last Stand -- Written for the PulpRev Sampler, this is suitably the shortest piece here. A gangster finds himself with his back against the wall and confronted by a Crusader who wants him dead. Does he have a chance, or will he have to face the music?
  • When the Sunset Turns Red -- The story of an ex-hitman who finds himself back in Summerside and entangled in something deeper than even he thought possible. This is the conclusion of the anthology, and is almost as long as Last Exit to Shadow City as a result. I guarantee you'll be thrilled at the craziness in this novelette. I had a bit of fun finally putting a bow on this group of tales with this story.

There's a lot to dig into here, and I know you'll enjoy the whole thing. This package has been a long time in the works. Big thanks to Kukuruyo for the cover illustration--it is just what I needed to complete the design, and L. Jagi Lamplighter for being my editor on these stories. These two are very good at what they do!

If everything goes according to plan, you won't have to wait that long for this anthology! The end of January is the plan. 2020 will start with a bang.

In other news, I am currently more than halfway through the first draft of Brutal Dreams, which I hope to have out by next year, as well. I also have an outline for a Grey Cat Blues sequel, if I can get to that amidst the many things on the way! I also have other ideas to decide if I want to write or sit on for now. Time management is tricky when you're a writer.

But two things I can confirm is that I will have stories in both StoryHack #5 and Planetary Anthology: Uranus, both of which will be out in the very near future! More on those stories when their releases are confirmed. I also have a host of other completed shorts to submit to other magazines, as well as one I am debating turning into a free newsletter perk. Needless to say, I won't be slowing down with short story writing anytime soon.

So there's a lot of content on the way, with even more to come beyond that. I'm aiming to have three books out in 2020 starting with Someone is Aiming for You & Other Adventures at the end of January. Cross your fingers and give me a prayer that I can manage all this!

Whew, that was an update! I hope you have a Merry Christmas, and I will see you again on Thursday. There we will conclude our exciting series on the pulp magazines before we welcome the end of 2019.

The Roaring '20s are sure to be interesting!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Licensed to Thrill: A Pulp History (Part II: The Heroes & The Adventure)

Welcome back to the world of adventure! That's right, it is time to return to the world of the pulps!

In our previous entry we went over the origins of the pulp magazine and how it ended up taking over everything in the early 20th century. This time we will cover what exactly was started at the time the format launched into the newsstands.

The majority of Cheap Thrills will be covered in the following entry. Here, Mr. Goulart explains the different sorts of heroes that starred in these magazine to draw in readers. We do not to dig as deep in these chapters. This is straightforward material. Most of them have a common unifying theme. Unlike modern action adventure stories, these relied on a shared cultural understanding on what it takes to be a hero, and why we should live up to them.

Outside of the beginning and end of this book, Mr. Goulart spends his time discussing the various brands of the mainstream pulp magazines. So for this entry I will simply be going over each example as he comes across them. There isn't much to discuss that would warrant separate article entries so it should make for a satisfying piece just discussing these all at once. Because there are many examples of what made the pulps so successful, even beyond what is included in the book.

What is more important is covering what the pulps were actually about: Adventure! And what better way to continue our trek through the pulp jungle than with the first adventure hero, the explorer?

We shall start where Mr. Goulart does. He begins with a quote from Action Stories.

"To be a member, a man must possess the staunch heart of an adventurer, tried and tested on the far-flung out-trails, or have a desire to be one. 
"Members of A.E.F., and Allied Armies, the foreign Legion, the Army, Navy or Marine Corps, the Aviation Service--all are eligible for the ranks of the World Adventurers' clan. Others must prove they are adventurers of the real stripe. If you've undergone some grueling experience, hunted thrills in distant climes, been close to the horrors of shipwreck, railroaded, stalked game, explored beyond the mast, ridden behind the "joy stick"--in fact, rubbed shoulders with danger in any form--you're entitled to enroll in the Brotherhood of He-Men. 
"To apply for membership, fill out the coupon below."

That seems almost alien to us today. But the pulps were made for adventures and those who found such things as the above exciting. In fact, the first pulps that chased after Argosy and All-Story out the gate went for the eclectic approach over genre purity. They were not separated by any sort of genre or boxed-in ghetto, but went with the idea that those who bought these magazines just wanted a dose of thunder. High adventure. And it must have worked for them since these magazines kept this format all the way until the pulps were finally shredded in the 1950s.

As examples he uses Adventure, Short Stories, Blue Book, Popular, Top-Notch and People's. You might even recognize the names. They did stick around for quite a long time. Most of this first chapter is focused on said magazines and how they formed and their sudden spread.

They didn't just run fiction, either. Some included non-fiction adventure stories and biographical information that was just as exciting as the normal material you would find in its pages. Adventure, after all, is universal to everyone. It is more realistic than we might think today with our de-saturated grey goo obsession.

Unfortunately, at the adventure magazine's end they were a pale shadow of where they began, focused purely on non-fiction exclusively and no longer the bright, wondrous books of creativity they once were. That is quite the typical endpoint with what happened to the pulps. Once the mainstream audience leaves, it is the fringe players that get the focus. Of course, it never worked, and the product died a slow death regardless. If the 1900s had a theme, that would be it.

Another example is the premier modern superhero: The Shadow. Starting from humble beginnings, he soon broke out and took over the world. The Shadow was a character that read detective stories on the radio, but became so popular that listeners demanded he be given his own series. Walter B. Gibson, as Maxwell Grant, created a pulp series based on the character as a masked vigilante with a mysterious aura dressed in black, and sporting dual .45s to dispense justice on the evildoers of the city. The same time the radio show was put on, the pulps ran these dark and violent stories.

Part detective story, and part adventure, The Shadow was as flexible as he was fascinating. The mystery behind him added a wonder to the character that endured throughout his existence in the era. They would go on to create countless pulp novels, radio shows, and he became an icon. The Shadow more or less created the modern superhero genre, so much so that Batman's creative team stole most of the character from him, a fact that DC has done great work to cover up over the years.

However, to this day, The Shadow still remains the premiere idea of a hero beyond the law and standing for a higher ideal. He is an icon. The "humanization" of heroes in the Silver Age of comics were the first to get away from the purity of this idea and to dilute them into just men with capes. If you want to know why superhero comics no longer have any muscle or weight, it is because they forgot the building blocks of Justice that The Shadow put down back in the pulps. There is a reason he inspired so many copycats when he was first unleashed on the forces of evil so many years ago.

In fact, much of a chapter is focused exclusively on all the hero pulps The Shadow inspired. From copycats to original ideas for vigilantes, there was much to come out of the masked hero explosion. During the pulp era it was, however, more about dispensing Justice and returning to the status quo, not so much about over-the-top theatrics and convoluted soap opera drama. However, the genre began properly with The Shadow.

But aside from the Masked Man, was another hero that emerged during the pulp era. Combining both the quest for Justice and the wondrous nature of the Adventure pulps, Street & Smith came up with a new hero to rival their very own Shadow. This would be the big Man Of Bronze himself: Doc Savage.

The Shadow and Doc Savage by Alex Ross

They could not have been two very different as heroes, but Doc Savage's author, Lester Dent, had a background not too dissimilar to a chunk of those who wrote for the pulps. He had hoped to write big books for the big brains, but ended up writing adventure stories instead--and he got rich off writing them. Lester Dent is one of the highest selling authors of the 20th century thanks to his pulp writing. For twenty years Dent wrote Doc Savage, and even came up with a formula for pulp storytelling that many writers use today. It is, of course, called the Dent Formula.

For those who don't know, Doc Savage is a one man wonder, a man of incredible strength, guile, and intelligence, who uses his unbelievable talents to surmount insane plots that could only have come straight out of the pulps. The magazine ran for 16 years, all told, though Dent died only 10 years after he put down the character. Nonetheless, Doc Savage might be the most pulp character ever created, and one of the most archetypal of its era.

A similar type of hero to Savage was the secret agent. You almost certainly thought of James Bond with that one, but he did not come at the beginning. First there were characters such as Operator 5.

"Just the titles of some of his cases would have scared the average 1930's G-Man off. It's not everyone who wants to tangle with the "Winged Hordes of the Yellow Vulture," "Hell's Yellow Legions," "Death Call to Arms," "The Suicide Battalion" and "The Army of the Dead." Operator 5 began his career in the middle of the Depression in one of the several Popular Publications which were extravagantly alert to the possibility of foreign invasion."

There were other secret agents such as the aptly named Secret Agent X that littered the field. These were men that preformed espionage in deadly paces in strange locations to save you from the terror hiding just out of sight while you were busy dealing with daily life. There is always someone fighting for you, so don't worry. As Orwell said, "Rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." These are the rough men. I fact, that is the appeal of the majority of the pulps.

But the super-spy stories were popular for an obvious reason. Who wouldn't be engaged with the idea of a secret battle between good evil going on just out of sight of our daily lives? It isn't as if that doesn't happen every day.

Of course, in the 1930s the Yellow Peril became a hot topic again, after creating such inventive characters such as the diabolical Fu Manchu back in the '10s, a second wave based on current international tensions was natural. The reason it came back was due to Japan's invasion on Manchuria in 1931, a place that was soon to be a very real enemy for those in the west in a war the would put an end to these very pulps. But, at the time, it offered an opponent for those who enjoyed writing stories of intrigue and mystery in far away, and unexpected, places.

But what about at home? What about the streets? What about the dark and dusty corners of the city? That is where we must look to next.

This leads to what might be the most enduring creature of the pulps, the one that still gets play today even in mainstream Hollywood productions, even if they tend to miss the point. You've seen hundreds of parodies from cartoons to movies, but still the character type stands strong. That would be the Dime Detective.

"The private eye was born in the early 1920's and flourished in the decades between the two World Wars. The private eye could only have happened first in those years after World War I, the years of Prohibition. There had always been aggressive, straight-shooting fiction heroes. But it took the mood of the '20's to add cynicism, detachment, a kind of guarded romanticism and a compulsion toward action. The disillusionment that followed the war, the frustration over the mushrooming gangster control of the cities affected the detective story as much as it did mainstream fiction."

Playing off of the GI generation's exhaustion with the wearing and trying modern world, the pulp detective was as modern a hero as you could get while still remaining rooted in deeper truths of tradition. He is a man that cuts through the dark to show the light hiding behind the ramshackle curtains of the modern world's darkest places: out back yard. But he always fights for Justice, and despite the crushing defeats he suffers, he still comes out on top in some manner.

You can instantly see the difference when perusing a modern detective story versus the ones that used to run back in the pages of Black Mask. The original mainstream appeal came from a staunch, tough traditionalist kicking in the doors of muddy grey world that was slowly smothering everything to death. It's still relevant today, which might be way he slides into other areas such as Cyberpunk so very easily.

It's not a pulp story if it doesn't have clear cut morality outside of the characters that reside in it, and you can't avoid it in a Dime Detective tale, though many have tried. The battle of dark and light is how the genre operates, it can't ever be fully shed.

Mr. Goulart goes into it further:

"A private eye would always help somebody in trouble, though he would downplay his compassion."I could have walked away. I started to walk away and then the sucker instinct got the best of me and I went back." Taking action was important, even if it wasn't well planned always. Though the private eye was not always hopeful, he stuck to his word. "It wasn't worth it, but then it was a deal.""

Despite the reputation of the hard-boiled detective being a jerk and "grey", the reality was a bit more interesting than that. Men need strength, fortitude, courage, and a sense of justice to be what they are. The Dime Detective exemplifies that. He has, unfortunately, been rendered impotent of what he once was in recent years of post-modern clever kids and limp-wristed modern Hollywood adaptions. But for a long time, this was what the detective story was known for and why it gained the steam it did.

The source of these stories mainly came from Black Mask. It was started by H.L. Mencken as one of his many attempts to get money out of the pulp market. By 1920 it was off the ground and, once again, the creator involved was not that happy about his detective magazine. He sold it not long later, all too happy to be away from writers like Dashiell Hammett.

But still, early Black Mask detective stories contained more purple prose and were far away from what they became known for. The success did not come overnight.

It was in 1923 when Carroll John Daly introduced a tough talking, no nonsense detective named Race Williams. It gave the detective tale a western bent it was sorely looking for to compete in the pulp field. This is a character that seeks Justice more than law, is willing to cut through the crap and red tape, and we love him for it.

Race Williams was the first of the hard-boiled type that later went on to include the likes of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Dan Turner, and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, among many, many others. This is a character type that still lives on today, and retains his dignity despite the entertainment industry trying their best to destroy him. They will probably never truly fade away: tough guys never do.

Hard men, hard dames, hard action, hard world

The cowboy-style detective also meant that westerns fit right at home in the pulps. There were, of course already western magazines and stories around at the time, but the pulps went all out with the genre and brought it to a new wave of popularity. New writers hopped aboard to add that punch a true action adventure tale needed to succeed in the new magazines.

Western Story was the first true western pulp, transferred from its original periodical form as New Buffalo Bill Weekly. The first issue in its new form came out on September 5th, 1919 right in time for the golden age of the magazines. It soon reached three hundred thousand in circulation and inspired many others to come in the roaring '20s.

Fitting in among the dime detectives, swashbuckling heroes, and noble knights, the hard-riding cowboy's popularity just couldn't seem to cool off in the pulp era. The western remained as such until around the end of the 20th century. But the pulps were probably the last giant spike in popularity for the genre as a whole.

One of the biggest names to come around during the pulp era of westerns was a man named Frederick Schiller Faust. His first story, one of a cowboy named Dan Barry, was released in All-Story in 1918 under the name of Max Brand. He was the most unique name name to come out of this era, with his poetic bent towards Shakespearean drama and hot fire action he soon carved out a niche for himself. At the time this book was printed, Max Brand had over 200 books in print, despite his death in WWII. The man just couldn't be stopped, even after death.

What he had to say about action:

"Action, action, action is the thing. So long as you keep your hero jumping through fiery hoops on every page you're all right. The basic formula I use is simple: good man turns bad, bad man turns good. Naturally, there is considerable variation on this theme. . . . There has to be a woman, but not much of one. A good horse is much more important."

Just like the other genres spoken about so far, this is one that relied on a strong protagonist clashing with an overwhelming evil that would otherwise be unmatched. Westerns as a genre deal specifically with the border between law and lawlessness, and civilization and barbarism, so they make perfect fits for tales of two-fisted action. Where else can you get a good quick draw duel for a dime?

It is all about the action and the adventure, the true spirit of romance.
Speaking of barbarism, the final chapter of the book we will cover this time is on Tarzan, specifically the jungle adventure tale, and his wild man archetype. Of course the man most would known for this style of tale would be Edgar Rice Burroughs, the king of the pulps. No one was more well known in the adventure genre than he was.

In October, 1912, the issue of All-Story featuring Tarzan of the Apes was first published. Fiction would never be the same again.

Contrary to the reports of many Hard Bros. out there, Burroughs wasn't very interested in being realistic. When he started writing Tarzan he knew absolutely zilch about Africa, and based it on what he thought it was like when playing around as a kid outside in the West and what he had read in romances. It was purely fictional based on romances of high adventure. This allowed him to shape Tarzan and his world as he wanted to. He did much the same with John Carter of Mars. There is a reason the man's sense of adventure is unmatched; it was unrestrained by any rules fanatics would come up with years later to shrink the genre.

Of course this led to other wild men and barbarians to come around, though none quite reached Burroughs at his best back in the day. He remained that standard, and the one to imitate. Even whole magazines were made based on the jungle adventure as a format, but none stuck.

The big one to mention, and Mr. Goulart does, is Robert E. Howard's Conan. First appearing in Weird Tales, December 1932, he was the first one to come around since Tarzan to really change the game of wild men heroes.

Using Burroughs' approach of fantastical lands merged with his own magical pseudo-historical take, Howard created a whole new world of magic and wonder, and sword and sorcery. A place of adventure, and danger, awaited readers.

Of course, it wasn't Howard's first rodeo--he had created Solomon Kane in 1928 and not to mention Kull, among others. Howard had a bit of darker take on the heroic genre than Burroughs did, his tales dripping in more blood and unspeakable horrors hiding around each bend. But the hero coming out on top remained in tact.

It is truly a shame that Robert E. Howard killed himself at such a young age. As Mr Goulart says when he ends the chapter:

"In 1936, Howard, just thirty, killed himself. His stories of Conan, epics of adolescent fantasies and fears, were forgotten for nearly two decades. Then they gradually began coming back into print. In the 1970's the Conan character is more popular than he ever was in his pulp years."

This is because there was much buried treasure in the pulps, much more than you were lead to believe. Even just with this post I have carelessly skimmed over so many genres and magazines that it took great restraint to exclude in order to keep this post short. Should you want to go more in depth on biographies, dates, and personae, I suggest reading the book. It will give you all the information you could ever want about the minutiae of this era. But I am her to merely give you the long and short of it.

It is fitting that Mr. Goulart ended the chapter here, just dipping his toe into the weird pulps, because that is what we will be covering next time. I decided to save that for its own entry for the purposes of the blog, and since I'm sure that is what most reading are most interested in.

However, remember that the pulps succeeded for three very real reasons.

  1. They were cheap and easy to find
  2. They featured stories of pure imagination without limits
  3. They were pro-social and encouraged those who read them in their daily lives

The mainstream world no longer does any of those three, and that is why they will never reach the heights of the pulp era.

But that is all for this time.

Our final post in this series will be about weird tales and the odds and ends of the book. It's going to be fun. I hope you're enjoying our trip through the cheap thrills, because it's about to get even weirder.

I am also writing weird fiction! Gemini Warrior is a fast-paced run through alien world with super powered twins! The pulps may be gone, but their spirit is still alive.
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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Licensed to Thrill: A Pulp History (Part I: The Beginning)

At the beginning of the year I created a 5 part series on Sam Lundwall's history of science fiction book from 1977. It was a big series of posts that spread far and wide. I was a bit taken aback by the reaction, but it was overwhelmingly positive. That wasn't the end of my trip through the past, however. I've recently been looking back on where the fiction world has come over the last few decades since that book was first printed and realized how bad it has gotten since. The roots had been dug up, and the former forest left a landfill.

So much has happened since 1977 that has been an unmitigated disaster. That book shows the source of many of the issues we still face today. Nothing he predicted ended up happening.

Mr Lundwall's book was the blueprint for a future that not only never came to pass, but was a Utopian fever dream that could only have come from that spiritual wasteland of the '70s. What occurred instead of his vision ended up being a spectacular belly flop of misery. Over the past year I've come to understand that the pulp revolution is needed now more than ever.

Take, for instance, one of the offspring of his ideas. As of 2019, the Mundane Science Fiction movement is 15 years old. Never heard of it? Then you understand how much of a success it was.

For those that don't know, mundane science fiction was a movement spearheaded by the Clarion Writer's Workshop to tell writers what their imagination needs to be focused on in order to shape the future properly. You pay money for this sort of advice. The result has led to an already low selling genre bottoming out and losing to independent Space Opera series in sales. Despite being a 15 year old movement, it has yet to produce a single hit, despite having the entire Oldpub machine behind it. That's the legacy this movement has.

These are pathetic times we live in.

But in order for the usurpers to cling to their cardboard thrones, they needed to make sure that escapism was off the table for up and coming writers. Want to get published by the big boys and have your big books sold in big book stores? Then you better get the hint, and write accordingly. After all, you won't have prisoners attempting escape from their cells if they believe there's nowhere to escape to. This is how you get the lowest selling genre.

From 2016

They reshaped the field in their image, and got nothing but goose eggs. This push was not a success, but they seized control anyway.

Part of this just involved a lot of lying. Just recently, for instance, John W. Campbell had his name erased from an award named after him because he was critical of Communism. How controversial. There are people in SFWA who have committed far worse acts, some involving prison time, but for some reason Campbell was the one that needed to be focused on and ousted, having his name erased. But why focus on him? This is because Campbellian Science Fiction is on its way to being whitewashed from the field by the current Fandom cultists. If you unperson the originator of a movement, and make his name a dirty word, you can make it so that they are ignored and float away into nothingness so no one will engage their ideas or even be influenced by them. It's a dirty, cowardly move, but you're dealing with fanatics, not normal people. They care about victory, and nothing else.

This isn't unwarranted paranoia: it's happened before. In fact, that was partially the reason I reviewed Lundwall's book to begin with. Erasing the past is something the 20th century was good at, and it's only continued since then on a far worse, and less successful, scale. The first thing it started with in the fiction sphere was with the erasure of the source of all your favorite pop culture nuggets you still look at fondly today.

I'm referring to the Pulps. They were the very first target of this purge. You've been lied to about pulp fiction your entire life to make sure you wouldn't take them seriously and give them a real shot beyond your preconceived notions about them. You can read my original series on Mr. Lundwall's work to see just how. But just because certain cultists lie, it doesn't mean there weren't those attempting to spread truth amidst the constant attacks on the past.

This time, I'm going to talk about author Ron Goulart's book on pulp history: Cheap Thrills. From 1972, this book was intended as an overview of the departed pulp era of fiction from its creation up until its death. In essence, Cheap Thrills is the missing chapter of Sam Lundwall's book, in that it tells you a true overview of what the pulp era was like without the constant, and unwarranted, shots. It's been out of print for a good while. Surprise.

Ron Goulart, for those unaware, is a prolific author of varied works from non-fiction books such as this, as well as his own fiction. He even wrote science fiction! A man of many talents, he comes into this as one eager to share all he has learned. He also keeps his biases on the form hidden, and just tells you the facts.

Disclaimer: I have the original hardcover version, so whatever was changed in the later edition is not something I am privy to. What is more important is what it said when it was printed in 1972, five years before Lundwall's book, and when those who wrote and read the pulps were still alive and able to tell you what it was really like back then. Mr. Goulart certainly takes advantage of this chance to gather what he can and let us in on. This makes Cheap Thrills an interesting piece that can't quite be done today.

The first place to start would be the book blurb on the flap. Take your mind back to 1972 and imagine just who it is the writer and publisher is trying to attract with the following passage.

Bridging the years between the dime novels of the 19th century and today's paperbacks, pulp magazines provided millions of readers with their first and only taste of "literature."
Pulps were printed on the cheapest paper and housed lurid covers that made P.T. Barnum's circus posters look like charity appeals. They horrified schoolmarms, moralists and mothers. They were undignified, boisterous, storytellers who endangered the reading habits and besmirched the pure thoughts of young America. And they were shams. 
Lightly, sardonically, expertly, noted science fiction writer Ron Goulart exorcises the myth of the pulp magazine. In Cheap Thrills, he shatters the long-cherished belief that pulps were somehow invidious, if not downright nasty. On the contrary, he shows that most of them were more straitlaced than the Boy Scout Oath. As he delightfully defends the whipping boy of Mrs. Grundy, he brings to life the long-vanished era of newsstand fiction, when adventure and excitement could be had every month for a dime or 15¢. 
Here are all the astonishing species of pulp fiction: the cowboy story, the detective story, science fiction and fantasy, love, sports, and adventure. Words and pictures recall:
  • The Shadow
  • Doc Savage
  • Black Mask
  • Adventure Magazine
  • Weird Tales . . . and many more!

It should be mentioned that this is the only time the word "fantasy" is used in this book, and it was assuredly added by the publisher. You won't see it outside of this passage in the entire work. Something to think on.

That aside, there are a few things to take note of in this description before we get started.

Many myths that float around the pulps to this day were still around as early as the early 70s, and even back then those such as Mr. Goulart had to be the ones to set things straight despite the constant assault of a million Peggy Charrens. Isn't it odd that nearly 50 years later that those in the Pulp Revolution still have to expose the continual lies? It is almost as if it is willful ignorance at this point.

It is good to see him point out how straitlaced the pulps were compared to what we have now. No swearing or crass language, no glorification of evil, no obscene amounts of gore, and no pornography, were needed to sell adventure stories in the pulps. When we are told how horrible they are for X and Y reasons, it is rarely stated where X and Y preside in their pages, nor is it admitted that they didn't need A and B as a crutch to sell like many stories do now. It was a different time, and not one as bad as you've heard.

The magazines chosen in the flap might speak to Mr. Goulart's tastes (I doubt it, but we shall talk about that later), but it appears to be using these specific magazines to sell to potential buyers flipping through the store shelves. The Shadow and Doc Savage were monster hits for decades, and Black Mask was the premiere hard-boiled detective fiction magazine, Adventure Magazine is in the title . . . and then there's Weird Tales. Not even Amazing Stories is here. Weird Tales is really the only "genre" magazine listed, which is an interesting choice for those of us years later to chew on.

Though Mr. Goulart focuses on an overview of pulp history, he only spends time talking about certain magazines, presumably the ones readers cared about back in 1972 that wanted to learn about the pulps or were trying to nostalgically relive them. Either way, it is probably an honest representation of what those who read pulps actually read and remembered the most years after they had been scrapped.

As a matter of fact, here is the back of the book. These are the magazines used to sell to potential readers in the book store.

What a list. I would say anyone who knew anything about pulps back in the early '70s would be attracted to that group.

Take note how the titles sold these pulps. Common words and motifs: Adventure, Wonder, Amazing, Astounding, Detective, Dime, Western, Horror, Fight, Mystery, Love, Planet, Spicy, Strange, Super, Sport, Romantic, Terror, Thrilling, Uncanny, and Weird. Phrases not used: Science Fiction and/or Fantasy.

Pulps were sold primarily on awe before anything else. The romance of adventure and the terror of action were the selling points to those who wanted their escapism. You read pulps for excitement, for hope, for wonders, for horrors, and for love. You read them to be taken to higher places, and away from your troubles.

Clarion would not approve of this wild usage of imagination! It's just plain unseemly! The Mrs. Grundy's of the world would need to form groups to protest this morally dubious venture.

But enough about the packaging. Should we not try to dive inside? There is much more there. It's about time we take a look at how pulp magazines were perceived by the general audience who actually read and enjoyed them for over half a century. After all, if we don't do it: no one else will. Time has proven that notion right.

An excerpt from the preface:

"That detailed period [the one Mr. Goulart is focusing on for his book] is that between the two World Wars, roughly from 1920-1940. In those years the private eye was born, the masked avengers had one of their periodic flowerings, Lester Dent wrote a hundred wacky novels about Doc Savage, G-8 took to the air with his Battle Aces and Frederick Schiller Faust changed his name to Max Brand. It comes as close as any span of years to being the heyday of the pulp magazine. 
"Dozens of people, many of them survivors of the pulpwood era, have helped out by providing information, anecdotes, memories and back issues. I thank them all."

The descent of the pulp magazine was the 1940s, of which we shall most likely get into later, before the last of them died in the 1950s. For now we should clarify that the '20s and '30s are considered the peak of the pulp world by experts, and where the majority of the pop culture you still consume today comes from even near a century removed. This would seem a very important thing to document in our world of pop culture obsession.

But Mr. Goulart doesn't begin his book there. It took much effort to get to those days. He begins just where he needs to: the origin of the pulpwood magazines.

The very first line of the book proper:

"Nobody liked Frank A. Munsey."

The man died in 1925, but he was the one responsible for creating the pulpwood magazine that took the world by storm and yanked the ties of so many stuffed suits. Throughout the chapter Mr. Goulart explains the process from which Mr. Munsey came about the format off the ground. It took some time getting finances, but his hard work eventually paid off.

When Frank Munsey wanted to do was create a cheap weekly magazine of inspirational stories for children. Something they could easily pick up and read. So it only stands to reason that the first pulp magazine would be just that. It didn't happen over night, however. Mr. Munsey's experiment took years to perfect.

On December 2nd, 1882, the first issue of Golden Argosy, Freighted with Treasures for Boys and Girls was released. It was thin at a mere eight pages, but still it remained the original, and very first magazine, he put out. Munsey already had much competition, as papers already had such stories in them and dime novels existed. Because of the progress of the Industrial Revolution it eventually led to the process of creating cheap means to distribute larger magazines, so there were many options. Not only did Mr. Munsey have to compete with general papers, but with said dime novels on top of it. This required thinking a bit outside the box.

Altering the name of his magazine to Argosy in 1892, he changed the format to an All-Fiction, all-ages format and used wood pulp for printing as he thought the stories more important than the paper they were printed on. Changing his mindset on production is what made the biggest difference. This is the first pulp magazine.

It was a wonderful idea in that they saved on postage, could be sold for next to nothing, and were easy to stock up on. This was truly all about the stories inside, and not for appearances.

There were no rules as to what Munsey could run in his pages. Being that it was now for all ages instead of children, he had no notion of genre and boundaries when running it. You could have everything from romance to adventure to detective fiction and everything in between in Argosy's pages, and no one would bat an eye. It truly was an all-fiction format for an all encompassing audience. Needless to say, others would jump on this bandwagon, though it would take time for many to catch on as well as Argosy did.

Street & Smith followed not long after Argosy's success with their own attempts. By 1923, the dime novel had all but vanished and were replaced with the much cheaper pulp format Munsey perfected. Everyone wanted in, and everyone did get in. This made the stories included inside these magazines a total free-for-all. As mentioned above, genres didn't really exist in the pulps. You were more interested in wowing and attracting the audience with adventure than showing off the paint job. By the middle of the Great Depression there were over 200 pulp magazines in print, which brings a whole new meaning to the argument that pulp readers were too stupid to know true strife and misery. They just wanted their wonder.

The first chapter goes into just about every publisher that got into the game, how they fared, and what they went on to do with it. The amount of information Mr. Goulart delivers is dizzying, but fascinating. Pulp magazines really did become their own large industry.

There is also the invention of many clubs around certain magazines and characters (Note: they were not called "communities") and letter columns, many of which would eventually come around to destroy the unity the original pulp magazines had by hyper-focusing on minutiae a tiny percent care about at the expense of the wide net these stories cast.

The point is that the pulps were about everything and had everything. With a cheap cost and low barrier to entry, everyone could get in on it, and everyone would find something they want. They could truly sell anything, and did. Even the ads were suitably loony.

As Mr. Goulart ends the chapter:

"The pulps sold fountain pens, contraceptives, hamsters, false teeth, giant toads, radios, eyeglasses, education, ventriloquism secrets and Tillie & Mac comic booklets. 
"But they also sold heroes."

Much of my argument for being pro-pulp has been for this very approach of limitless possibilities around simple frameworks. But he does touch here on one important aspect of the pulps, and that is what the majority of the pulps were actually about: heroes.

In the second chapter Mr. Goulart explains the main characters--the ones that attracted people to these stories. Normally just average folks caught in weird situations, they had to put up with insane plots that drag them from their everyday, and normal, lives. The leads of these adventures were just normal guys like you or me. This was partially due to the need of children and teenage readers needing role models to look up to, and what better than those who strive to do the right thing? At the same time, there is something universal that pulls us together when a man strives to do good despite the evil facing him down. An adult can relate just as well. And without the reliance on extreme explicit content, anyone could read, and did.

Naturally, for a magazine format centered on thrilling and awing the audience, the hero is an invaluable part of this formula of universal appeal.

Of course, pulp magazines weren't the first to feature heroes. They just made them an industry.

"Heroes had begun to become increasingly accessible back in the early 19th century. From the early 1800's on, the people of America grew more literate and printing grew faster and cheaper. As the century progressed, more and more people were able to, and wanted to, read about famous men--politicians, soldiers and celebrities. The word celebrity was first used as a noun in the 1850's, when improvements in communications were making it much easier to be well-known . . . Magazines blossomed . . . Cheap books became abundant, and heroes multiplied until the end of the century-- Old sleuth, Frank Reade, Jr, Nick Carter, Frank Merriwell, Deadwood Dick and even Roaring Ralph Rockwood the Ruthless Ranger."

These dynamic and magnetic personalities are what drove readers to the pulps. Western heroes naturally fit like a glove, as did the burgeoning detective story. Many of these were normal people with a high skill level, perhaps even near-superhuman, used to fight for the common man--for their country, and for civilization. Yes, these were white hats used to unite the readers under one banner where we could all root for the same team. The pulp magazines were very pro-social.

However, that also doesn't mean it was shallow as many insist today. A common refrain of today's smrt set is to declare a story with clear heroes and villains as not murky or grey enough for their refined tastes. Ironically, this comes from not understanding what a white hat actually is. They haven't actually been done correctly in mainstream entertainment for a long, long time now.

A white hat is just someone who knows what good is, and fights for it. That is all. It doesn't mean they don't stumble, or fail to do the right thing at times, but that they will always attempt to do what they know is right, sometimes without even knowing it themselves. The reason the pulp hero has endured for over a century is because he is immensely flexible outside of this set up. He's just a man like you or me, at the end of the day.

Nowhere is this flexibility more evident than the hard-boiled detective genre that emerged straight out the pulps. You want normal guys pushed to the limit? Then this genre is for you. But that will have to wait for the next part in our series.

What is important is that these building blocks: Clear morality, dynamic protagonists, focus on action and adventure, and awe-inspiring locations, is what carried the pulp magazine into ruling what would become pop culture not long later. This does not even factor in the cheap price, ease of availability, and vivid cover illustrations, to carry the load, of those who just wanted escapism. This winning combination is why they had their success.

By the 1920s, the pulps were ruling the world.

"Building on the story paper and dime novel background and on these basic types, the pulp magazines became, particularly in the decades between the two World Wars, one of the major packagers of fiction heroes. There was competition, from the movies and from radio, but until the 1940's the pulps were the best cheap source of thrills and heroics. And while the pulp audience was by no means limited to juveniles, it is safe to say that without the schoolboy reader the pulps would never have flourished as they did. Hundreds of different pulpwood paper magazines came into being from 1920 on and they offered every possible kind of hero. The pulps sold cowboys, detectives, lumberjacks, spies, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, sandhogs, explorers, ape men, aviators, phantoms, robots, talking gorillas, boxers, G-men, doughboys, spacemen, Foreign Legionnaires, knights, crusaders, corsairs, reporters, Masked Marvels, ballplayers, doctors, playboys, pirates, kings, stuntmen, cops, commandos and magicians--usually for ten cents and never for more than twenty-five cents."

And no story was limited to any of those--they could be any and all, or none, of those things if they wanted. There was no limit of imagination to what you could print. That would have to wait nearly a century later for Clarion's expert advice on how to revive a market they never understood to begin with. It is about the wonder, not the mundane.

This is where I will leave you with this first part of this mini-series. Otherwise this post will never end. There is just so much to go into.

The long and short of it is that the pulps have an important piece in Western culture (and, eventually, worldwide among many different countries and places) for not only offering the biggest bang for the buck, but by letting anyone in who wanted to read and use their imagination. They were for everyone. They promoted the good and the true, and they lifted readers out of their doldrums while doing it. All this for mere pennies.

Coming up next we're going to look at some of the different styles that came out of the pulp world, and maybe see where so many famous writers got their big breaks. Don't worry, there s still more to come.

I'll see you next week when we continue our look through this intriguing book. It's only going to get more interesting from here.

Speaking of interesting, I've found some inspiration in this sort of material myself. Gemini Warrior is a super-powered action tale with plenty of planet-hopping adventure! If it weren't for the pulps I would never have been able to write it.

Find it Here!