Wednesday, August 5, 2009
I push open the door of the Antiques Bazaar on Broad Street and step in out of the heat. The first thing that hits me is that the air conditioning is busted, and they’re running the place on fans. The musty odor of old attics, bars, dives and garage sales washes over me, and even the ghosts are suffocating. The air is full of emotion, a sense of homelessness and nostalgia. Antique stores creep me out a little, because I’m old enough to know a lot of the junk here when these things weren’t considered antiques. A life size cardboard standup advertising Blue Hawaii with Elvis. A bin of old LP records, most of it by people I’ve never heard of. Some old radios. I come here sometimes looking for old fountain pens, which I like to collect and fix up. I pass by the junk cases where the pens usually land, but there’s nothing there. Some kitschy souvenirs from Florida that invoke images of small motel cabins off the county roads where men and women hid themselves and made love with an electric fan in the window. A sword on the wall, which may or may not be an actual Civil War cavalry saber. Golf junk. Augusta is home of the Masters tournament. Lots and lots of golf junk. Then I see the typewriters.
The typewriters always draw me in when I pass them and I stop and take a look. A black Royal Portable in fairly good shape, just like the one I had in high school when I used to pound out stories thinking I might be a writer someday. There is a romance, a panache about old typewriters a laptop cannot attain to. The typewriter is the axe of the old school writers and newspapermen. Grim faced, cynical men working late in the night at news office desks onesey twosey finger pecking at the keys the way I do, cigarette butts floating in coffee cups, working the phones with scribbled note pads. Fiction writers, a guy in a rented flop house room at a little table, a cigarette dangling from his moving lip as he mutters the dialogue, a bottle of beer or something stronger on the floor and his fingers snap snap snapping the keys, working like a dog for peanuts. I love typewriters the way I love fountain pens. I love the old technology for its soulfulness. I run my hands over the black round keys, dipping them with their little white letters as the hopeful steel bars rise, and there is a sense of calling out. Write on me again. Use me to dream, darling. Let me be good to you.
The books and magazines are kept in the back, on the perimeter, probably because they have the most turnover. Some of the books are antiques too. Odd, forgotten stuff. "The Misplaced Daughter” by some guy named Hamilton. The Webelo Boy Scout manual from 1956. “The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore” by Laura Lee Hope. Now, I vaguely remember owning that book when I was a kid. And there were these Whitman Books for kids you bought at the grocery store, like “The Diamond Cave Mystery”. It’s spooky to see these things that had their halcyon time and then fell forever. Dead dreams. Some authors are immortal, but most of us sink out of print and are forgotten. Every one of these books was a masterpiece to the person who wrote it. Every writer took what the story fairy gave him or her and ran with it as far as they could go.
I pull out the Bobbsey Twins book and thumb through it looking for pictures. I hold the pages close to my nose and smell the stale old paper. I feel sorry for the books like this one that are in perfect shape. Those are the virgins, the spinster aunts. The ones that sat on the shelves for decoration but were never opened up by kids with peanut butter on their fingers and read.Near a box of old radio vacuum tubes there’s a real surprise.
A little pile of pulp magazines.
Most of them are old detective stories, which I don’t read. I thumb through the pile hoping for a copy of "Weird Tales", or "Thrilling Wonder Stories". There’s a copy of "Amazing Stories" which has a big crack running down the middle. I check the date on the yellow brittle title page and its 1939. Augusta was a mill town back then, shipping textiles down the Savannah River, with trolley cars on rails running from the houses to the mill factories. The guy who bought this in a drug store in 1939 had folded it and stuffed it in his jacket pocket to read on the train or on his lunch break with a Moon Pie and an RC Cola, maybe sitting outside away from the racket of heavy machinery. He read this old thing and escaped from a hard life for a little while. This isn’t something a bank manager would read in his office.
There has always been a high-brow low-brow class structure running through magazines and books from their earliest days in this country. Except for the Bible, books were more the providence of the wealthy and educated. High minded stuff like Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Parlor books for show, many of them bookcase virgins like the Bobbsey Twins book. Now this, this was a working man’s magazine. He read it on his porch with a pipe and a glass of tea in the muggy Georgia night in one of the little shotgun houses by the Canal. If he had money, there might have been a radio playing.
The pulp magazines were the descendents of the 19th century dime novels and “penny dreadfuls”, sold for - yes – a dime or a penny respectively. These were hairy chested stories of high born ladies in the hands of mustache twirling ne' er do wells, and the chaste and selfless heroes who rescued them as “an excellent example to youth”. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, an avid fan of the true crime penny dreadfuls of Czarist Russia, tried his hand at writing for them and came up with “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” instead. The pulps and dime novels are the ancestors of popular fiction and romance fiction. We on this list - they are our shared heritage.
The 19th century represented the first time in American history – or anybody’s history – when the common man was literate. A postal service was created for the armed forces of North and South so men could receive letters from home. War memoirs and diaries by Union and Confederate soldiers were written and preserved. Union soldiers camped at Gettysburg, read dime novels by fire light of the adventures of Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok. Later their sons, the factory workers, field workers and railroad men traveled and labored with stories printed on cheap wood pulp paper of wild escapes and adventures tucked in their pockets. Popular fiction had its super stars too. People lined up around the block of the publishers of “Argosy” for the latest installment of a new Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the offices of The Strand magazine for the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure.
"Serious" fiction segregated itself into the new catch-all genre of "literary fiction" meaning anything other than the sensational pulp fiction stuff. It represented a minority, if not an endangered species. With the advent of television the pulps began to fade away and now are almost extinct except for a few hold outs.
But just as the dinosaurs evolved into modern birds, the old pulps evolved with the times into the modern anthology. Short story anthologies are pulp magazines with class, particularly the “Mammoth” anthologies which are still printed on something close to wood pulp. It’s still the place to go to read your favorite writers, including some of the ones on this very blog. These days publishing is witnessing the appearance of a new creature – the digital book.
Digital books are in many ways the great grandchildren of the pulps. They are geared to the common man and woman. They represent the same cheerful anarchy of the old dime novels and pulps, because they are the showcases for the hungry new writers, writing for the old popular genres of romance, adventure and sex. But they also represent the disintegration of the old literary structure.
With digital books, I think the game is changing and becoming more egalitarian. The book isn't confined to a bookstore in a mall, but can be found by readers all over the world if they know where to look. It relies on promotion. The investment in a digital only book is much less than a print book, so the expense and attendent risk to the publisher is much less. It opens the field to crap but also to some real surprises. Anybody can play. Including guys like me, whom big name publishers would never drop a dime on, but who now have an opportunity to carve out a niche for ourselves with a small fan base.
We’re the new pulp fiction writers.
If you'd like to see a gallery of old pulp fiction magazine covers, go to:
If you'd like to read some of the old stories downloadable in digital format check out: