I was listening to the rain coming streaming down as I was finishing Cheap Thrills: The Amazing! Thrilling! Astonishing! History of Pulp Fiction (also known as An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine) by Ron Goulart. It wasn’t the flash flood thunder storms that seem to be typical of this year. Rather it was the steady stream of rain, like it’s supposed to be. I love that sound. However, it is irrelevant to this post. It’s just an aside.
I’ve said this several times in this blog, there are two components to the pulp fiction of the 1920s to 1950s. One is the incredible writing and the other is the incredible artwork. While each of the two books mentioned here relay the history of pulp fiction, Cheap Thrills concentrates on the writing while The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines by Peter Haining concentrates on the artwork. They each also illustrate the copycat mentality of pulp publishers. If one type of pulp magazine is doing well, say hard boiled mystery, then every other pulp publisher attempted to copy the format. And if one is not doing well, publishers did not hesitate to abandon it for something else.
Cheap Thrills covers most of the genre types such as soldier of fortune, detective, science fiction, western, horror, concentrating on the major successes such as Tarzan, Doc Savage and the Shadow. Mention, however, is also made of some of the less successful attempts. Goulart also includes reminiscences from some of the writers, editors and publishers of the time.
Goulart, as does Haining, emphasizes that many of todays acclaimed writers started in pulps, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. Goulart gives many examples of their writing, such as Walter Gibson writing The Shadow:
“Long Island Sound lay blanketed with a dense, sullen mist. From the shore, the heavy fog appeared as a grimy mass of solid blackness. The scene was one of swirling, impenetrable night, for not a gleam of light disturbed the omnipresent darkness.
No eye would have discerned the spot where the shore ceased and the water began. The rocks beside the beach were invisible, and so was the man who stood near them. The only token of his presence was the sound of his slow, steady breathing, broken by the low, impatient growls that came muffled from his throat.”
Haining, on the other hand, provides tons of examples of both the interior black and white and exterior color artwork. I wish I could provide an example here but I haven’t really found any on the internet. He discusses the artists, their backgrounds and their techniques. He discusses the trend to mildly seductive scantily clad women on the covers, run-ins with the law regarding the illustrations and the reversal of that trend. Each artist had his/her own style—yes there were a handful of women in the field.
Haining, too, mentions the various genres and the related illustrations. One genre not really covered by Cheap Thrills but discussed in The Classic Era is Spicy pulps. There were Spicy Mysteries and Spicy Romance and Spicy Westerns. A little titillation for America’s male species of the era. Obviously, the cover art mimicked (to some extent) the stories inside.
To sum it up, I can’t get my fill of pulp era writing, primarily mysteries and cover art. The Classic Era and Cheap Thrills are great additions to any pulp aficionado’s collection.
My next pulp mystery? The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. Let’s see how it compares to the movie with William Powell and Myrna Loi.