The pulp magazines of the first half of the 20th Century defined a large segment of the U.S.’s popular culture, and their influence continued on through radio, movies, paperbacks, and television into gaming. Our conceptions of genre fiction and its distinctions were defined by the pulps. The genres of science Fiction, horror, westerns, adventure, and romance were established in the pulps and continue to describe our reading habits today.
Pulp Culture is a large format, 27 x 28.5 cm, full-color art book celebrating the pulps. It gets off to a great start with a cover featuring the Shadow looking over his arm, the red lining of his cape flipped up just above the wrist cuff of his suit. Each chapter opens with a full-page signature photo enlarged so that you can see the color dots. After the first page of text, the text falls away to a column or less as covers from the pulp take over. The covers are presented in a range of sizes from digest down to matchbook with most being slightly larger than a paperback. Each cover is identified by magazine name, publication date, artist, and a sentence of commentary.
The covers really are Pulp Culture’s main attraction, illustrating the diversity and creativity of the pulps. From the sports and exploration of the adventure pulps to the landscapes of the westerns, the cityscapes of the crime pulps, and fantastic visions of Weird Tales and others. Tarzan wrestles a lion. Male and female djinn ride a giant tiger. A detective fires a pistol through his newspaper at the reader. A close-up shows a hand cocking and drawing a revolver from a holster. A hunter paddles a canoe in early morning light in a cover by N.C. Wyeth. Bears, cowboys, sailing ships, biplanes, serpents, women in test tubes, and large, green, grasping hands adorn other covers.
The Introduction provides a context for the pulps, describing other entertainments available at the turn of the century and reading habits. It introduces the authors and artists of the pulps. The next chapter, In the Beginning, discuss the start of the pulps in the late 1880s and the initiation of magazines specializing in specific subjects, starting with The Railroad Man’s Magazine, devoted to fiction and facts about railroading, in 1906 and The Ocean in 1907. Next came Nick Carter Stories, Detective Story Magazine,, and Western Story Magazine (previously published as Buffalo Bill Weekly.
The next chapter, Tales of Timbuktu, focuses on the adventure pulps that featured globe-trotting fiction, often based on the authors’ personal experiences. The readers of Adventure took their interests beyond the page by enrolling in “The Adventurer’s Club” and by organizing the American Legion in 1915 in response to concerns about the U.S.’s lack of military preparedness. The magazine’s letters forum featured readers comments and arguments on whether an author was correct with the facts of his story, including historical accuracy, type of weapons, geography, etc. (Not that different from many of today’s forums).
Next up are Gals, Gats, and Gumshoes, mystery and detective stories. In 1915, the Nick Carter Stories dime novel was changed into Detective Story Magazine, the first all-fiction pulp to specialize in a particular genre. Mystery and detective stories were one of the most popular fiction genres and included subgenres concentrating on gangsters and government agents. Westerns were another popular genre from the 19th Century and the dime novels that carried over into the pulps.
Super heroes, though, were unknown until 1930 when the Detective Story Magazine Hour came over the radio with the words: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows . . . .” A pulp featuring “The Shadow” was soon available. In 1933, Doc Savage arrived, closely followed by The Spider, G-8, and others.
While the science fiction pulps may not have had very many readers, they were some of the most ardent readers. Science fiction and fantasy stories were included in some of the early pulps, but it was Hugo Gernsback who popularized science fiction, first with stories in a series of popular electronics pulps then, beginning in 1926, with Amazing Stories. The golden age of science fiction began when John W. Campbell took over as editor of Astounding in 1937 and began publishing stories by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Ray, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and others. Astounding survived the pulp era and was converted to a digest in 1949, the same year its publisher killed all of its other pulp titles.
Other featured genres include sports stories, all manner of war stories, and various niche genres such as jungle stories, sea stories, oriental stories, and ghost stories.
In addition to offering a great visual record and history of the pulps, Pulp Culture offers an interesting business history of the pulps, following the publishers as they attempted to track the interest of the reading public and tracking the authors as they moved between publishers. One omission is the limited discussion of the pulp’s predecessors, the dime novels.