Pulp Renaissance: Hard-boiled, cliffhanger stories viewed as collectible American fiction

Blazing six-shooters and galloping horses. Screams in a fog shrouded alley. Green-skinned aliens towering over a scantily clad woman. Sleek silver spaceships cutting a path across the star specked universe. Tales of adventure in the far-flung Orient. These are but some of the indelible images that thrilled a generation of pulp magazine readers during its heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The pulp magazines derived their name from the inexpensive wood pulp paper on which these magazines were printed. Their cover illustrations were bright, often gaudy representations of the interior stories. And the stories themselves were action-packed adventures that plunged the readers immediately into a world of thrills, spills, and romance. The stories were noted for their often lurid depictions, violence, brisk pacing and simplistic plots. This style of writing is now referred to as “hard-boiled” and it was exemplified by the stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. These stories were so popular they were sometimes reprinted as hardcovers and later as paperbacks.

At the time, such fiction was frowned upon in academic circles by critics who dismissed them as juvenile adventures. Today, the hard-boiled pulp stories of the ‘30s and ‘40s are viewed as a remarkably creative collection of American fiction. During its heyday a pulp magazine might sell as many as a million copies per issue, although the authors made as little as half a cent a word.

John Goodwin, president of Galaxy Press, explained to me the allure of pulp fiction: “It’s important to realize that fiction written in the first half of the 20th century – pulp fiction – was specifically designed to transport readers to another time and place. It was called escapist literature. There was the depression, two World Wars and a record level of unemployment. There was no TV. This was before paperback books.

“With pulp magazines, a very small investment could take you to far off lands and distant stars. They could present situations where characters – not unlike how you fancied yourself to be – were faced with life-threatening situations that they somehow managed to survive and things got better as a result. This was high-action, pulse-pounding, non-stop entertainment. And what made it so good was that you could swap it with someone else’s pulp magazine, again and again, and get considerable pleasure with that 15 cent or 25 cent investment,” Goodwin said.

Chief among the popular writers from that era were Walter B. Gibson, L. Ron Hubbard and Lester Dent.

Walter B. Gibson was born in 1897 and is best remembered as the man who authored nearly 300 novels featuring The Shadow, perhaps the most popular character in pulp history. Writing under the pseudonym “Maxwell Grant” he was capable of producing upwards to 10,000 words a day, an astonishing output by any standard. Gibson shared this distinction with other prolific writers such as Hubbard and Dent. These writers could not only sit at their typewriters and produce a large body of work, but it was good. In fact, few writers could produce such a high volume with lasting value. Gibson, Hubbard and Dent beat the odds.

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These facts are all the more astonishing when you realize these writers were working with manual typewriters. In an age where the word processor has replaced not only typewriters, but carbon copies and “white-out” corrections. Gibson, Hubbard and Dent were often called upon to produce a saleable story without corrections in one sitting. And they did, time and time again.

The first Shadow story was published in 1931. Originally created as a character for radio, it was Gibson’s pulp version that helped establish the Shadow’s mythos, which remains a source of scholarly study today. With pulp stories, radio programs, comic books, and film appearances, the Shadow epitomizes the pulp era’s allure.

This was entertainment with a capital “E.” Depression era audiences were hungry for escapism and Gibson produced it.

The novels were legendary: The Living Shadow (1931), Gangdom’s Doom (1931), The Ghost Makers (1932), The Crystal Buddha (1938), The League of Death (1941) and Jade Dragon (1948) to cite but a few representative titles. Gibson also penned The Return of the Shadow (1983). Gibson is credited with writing 282 of the 325 Shadow stories. Other writers on the series included Lester Dent, Theodore Tinsley and Bruce Elliott. But Gibson’s contribution had the strongest influence.

For decades the Shadow magazines were highly sought after collectibles, but time has ravaged the pulp era magazines. Although prices can still range from as low as $50 a copy to several thousand for a pristine copy, the sobering fact remains that after 60 years the paper is crumbling into brown dust. Many of the copies available to collectors are unreadable, preserved in Mylar bags as time eats away at a vital part of our cultural past.

Gibson’s Shadow stories have never gone out of favor with fans and under the auspices of renowned pulp scholar Anthony Tollin, the Shadow stories are eagerly sought after by a new generation of fans. Sanctum Books offers restored text, original illustrations and slick production values for one of the pulp era’s better known crime-fighters.

With titles becoming available in the public domain due to lapsed copyrights, while other titles are still handled by various publishing firms, a renaissance has emerged that once again brings the pulp stories alive for a new generation of readers. At the forefront of this revival are several key companies: Sanctum Books, Galaxy Press, Adventure House, and Black Dog Books are all producing high quality reprints at affordable prices.

Goodwin said this preservation project doesn’t stop with Gibson’s work. “At Galaxy Press, we are republishing the fiction works of L. Ron Hubbard, who with his own and 15 pen names, was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the 20th century. As a world adventurer – explorer, pilot, mariner, etc. – he was able to take his readers on exciting adventures. An editor from Thrilling Adventures magazine put it this way: “I guess L. Ron Hubbard needs no introduction. From the letters you send in, his yarns are about the most popular we have published. Several of you have wondered, too, how he gets the splendid color which always characterizes his stories of the faraway places. The answer is, he’s been there, brothers. He’s been, and seen, and done, and plenty of all three of them!”

L. Ron Hubbard was born in 1911 and raised in Montana. His youth was filled with an extraordinary amount of adventurous travel which served him well when he began publishing pulp stories in 1934. During his formative years he traveled to Malaysia, China, the Caribbean and ports in between. He was a barnstorming pilot and later a member of the prestigious Explorer’s Club. Hubbard recognized no boundaries and throughout his life he studied philosophy, literature, physics, religion and mathematics. As a student at George Washington University he studied Einstein’s theory of relativity and impressed the faculty with his ability to explain complex theorems in layman’s terms. His writing career took off at high speed with the publication of  “The Green God” in Thrilling Adventure magazine.

While many pulp writers worked in multiple genres, including Gibson and Dent, the majority of them focused on one or two specific genres, solidifying their careers in that genre in which they felt more comfortable. Hubbard, on the other hand, tackled a variety of genres and produced a now legendary output of stories in every major (and minor) genre. He wrote Westerns, swashbucklers, air adventure, mysteries, espionage thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, tales of the Orient, sea tales, and even Yukon tales in the tradition of Jack London.

Several of these stories made such an impact they were reprinted to great acclaim. In 1940 he published Final Blackout, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, three books that have been reprinted numerous times. In 1950 he published “To the Stars” in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The book and its opening line are now widely considered classics of science fiction: “Space is deep, Man is small, and Time is his relentless enemy.”

But until recently the bulk of Hubbard’s amazing work was only available to collectors with a budget to purchase the now brittle and disintegrating magazines where his stories first appeared. In 2008 Galaxy Press began a five-year program to reprint the bulk of Hubbard’s stories.

In “Man-Killers of the Air” Hubbard revels in the act of flying. Here, his character Smoke Burnham, glances at the ground “where people looked like pepper strewn on wrapping paper” and the single-winged two-seater races at full throttle, a “stubby racing ship” that was “all metal, and when the sun struck it, people had red spots before their eyes for hours after.” This is Hubbard at his best, the experiences of his youth coalesced with his imagination to produce one knock-down hard-boiled classic after another.

Other titles being reprinted by Galaxy Press include The Iron Duke, Hostage to Death, Cargo of Coffins, Brass Keys to Murder, and Under the Black Ensign.

“Because he was such a master with the written word, he was able to convey his stories in some of the most exciting prose you will find,” Goodwin says. “We have found that readers of all ages are drawn to his storytelling, which is age appropriate from middle-school on up to those who remember reading these same tales when they were first published. So we have undertaken the republication of our Stories from the Golden Age line of books and unabridged theatrical audio books, containing 153 stories written in the 1930s and ‘40s.”

With the successful reprints of Gibson’s and Hubbard’s work it was only natural that Lester Dent would once again find an eager audience. Black Dog Books, headquartered in Lombard, Ill., has published several collections of Dent’s stories to wide acclaim. Their first volume, Dead Men’s Bones: the Air Adventure Stories of Lester Dent reprints eight tales from the 1930s. The second volume, The Skull Squadron, was equally successful and was quickly followed by Hell’s Hoofprints, a collection of Westerns. Dent’s popularity is at an all-time high and Black Dog Books has announced plans for additional volumes.

Tom Roberts, president of Black Dog Books, said his company is one of the few publishing houses that produce books of adventure fiction. “I have released mystery, horror and science fiction titles too,” Roberts said, “but the adventure genre is where my own personal true interest lies. I have always tried to assemble quality fiction from sources not easily obtained by the average consumer, and I think this has become our growing reputation.”

Roberts went on to explain Dent’s enduring popularity: “Dent was an exceptional writer of action stories, and action scenes in general. He had a way of weaving pseudo-technology into the works so that it came across as plausible. That is what made his Doc Savage novels so successful. His stories are told in a straightforward manner, and move along at a rapid pace. They never lack for excitement. But yet, at the same time, they do not rely on melodrama. They’re just well-told, two-fisted adventure stories. That type of story always seems to have an audience.”

While Gibson, Dent and Hubbard remain the pre-eminent choice for connoisseurs of the pulps, they are by no means the only writers being republished.

Black Dog Books has taken the lead in re-introducing a variety of pulp writers whose work might otherwise have been forgotten. Other highly sought after titles include City of Corpses by Norvell Page, Lust of the Lawless by Robert Leslie Bellem, In a Righteous Cause by Talbot Mundy, and Demons of the Night by Seabury Quinn.

Roberts shared with me some insight into his best-selling title: “Our best-selling recent title has been The Golden Goshawk, by H. Bedford-Jones. This short collection assembles the adventure of Captain Dan Marguard and his escapades in the South China Sea region. These stories originally appeared in pulp magazines that are nearly impossible to lay your hands on (Danger Trail and Far East Adventure Stories). It took me several years to acquire photocopies of the stories for this collection. The book received a couple online reviews, has been well liked by readers, and is doing well.”

Adventure House is yet another reprint company specializing in the pulps. Their line of include detective, mystery, Western, science fiction and horror titles. Hard to find titles such as Vice Squad Detective are enjoying a resurgence of interest. With their focus on sensationalism, Vice Squad Detective published stories such as “Nudist Gym Death Riddle” by Jack Gray, “Marijuana Vice Trap” by L. S. Worth, “The Call Girl Murder Mystery” by Peter Abbot and “Pajama Party Killer” by Don Lawrence.

The lurid illustrations – sometimes depicting women in danger – were considered daring by 1930s standards and the stories were nearly always cranked out under pseudonyms. Other Adventure House titles include Uncanny Tales, The Phantom Detective, Thrilling Mysteries, Planet Stories, Saucy Romantic Adventures, Spicy Adventure Stories, Far East Adventure Stories and High Seas Adventure. Most of the titles were published between 1929 and 1939 and emphasized hard-boiled action, sex and violence. Unlike other publishers that are reprinting their pulp inventory as newly typeset editions, Adventure House has chosen to publish exact reproductions that include all of the original pages with advertisements.

These publishers have tapped into a gold mine of cultural wealth and have set a high standard for future publishers of pulp reprints. And today’s adventure writers are well acquainted with their pulp forebears.

Writer Ron Fortier is currently producing a series of critically acclaimed stories featuring some the era’s popular characters. Books featuring Sherlock Holmes, Captain Hazzard, The Green Llama and The Masked Rider have been warmly greeted by fans.

Working with Fortier is Rob Davis, an artist who designs and illustrates each book. These books are released under the Airship 27 imprint in conjunction with Cornerstone Book Publishers. Co-written with Andrew Salmon, Fortier recently released Ghost Squad: Rise of the Black Legion, a retro-style adventure featuring new characters. A gem of an adventure that is certain to please fans of the pulp era, Fortier and Salmon have created an immediately likeable cast and placed them in the middle of a high-octane adventure. 

The pulp magazines have been responsible for some of the finest writing and memorable characters in literary history, and with the advent of new publishing technologies along with a demand for entertainment, these fantastic tales are once again thrilling a generation of grateful fans. ?

Thomas McNulty is the author of Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, and Death Rides a Palomino. Visit him online at thomasmcnulty.com.


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