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!


  1. I'll definitely be reading follow-up posts. Thank you for this.

    It may be OT, but I read on Steve Sailer's blog a long time ago that he'd found a niche for writing about high-brow concepts in low-brow affectation. Instead of being a pejorative, I see the phrase "low brow" as tapping into something primal and fundamental in man, unrefined by the hoity-toity set, who CS Lewis called "men without chests." Pulp is the epitome of low brow. It's the crude, muscular, impolite manly virtues that make the world go round.

    1. That's a very interesting angle. I think there's definitely something to that.

  2. Mundane Manifesto, TL;DR Version:
    "We are dull and boring. Please buy our stuff."

    Sheesh! What a bunch of ultra maroons!

    JD, this was a great entry! I don't doubt this will be the first of another must-read set of reference posts for where fun and entertainment in the written word was derailed by those screwdriver-wielding geniuses wearing Campbell Beanies.

    Write on!

  3. I'm also looking forward to the follow ups on this.

  4. I'm a writer and reader so this was educational. I've heard the argument before that Pulp was a better world than the one we have now, and I am glad to see this more fleshed out.

    1. They certainly had a bigger audience. When the "big men with screwdrivers" stuff took over the field, literary science fiction became a ghetto for those of us who are a tad on the geek side. The pulp stuff had (and still have) a much broader appeal.

    2. Yes, most of the early pulps were all ages in both content, and in not caring about genre. All they had to be were adventure stories.

  5. A truly fascinating deep dive into pulp history. Even I didn't know a lot of this stuff!

    1. You are welcome. It is a very informative book.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. What does “big men with screwdrivers” mean? I understand that it refers to stuffy and boring fiction, but I don’t get the context.

    1. "Big Men with Screwdrivers" is a term invented by author Brian Niemeier to describe the change from heroics via weapons and action towards tools and non-action.

    2. Ah, got it! Captain Kirk gives way to Doctor Who, basically.

    3. Doctor Who was actually very pulpy, so maybe that doesn’t work. Ah well.

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