Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Reader (Why I love the Pulps)

Walking down Fenwick Street in my town, I pass the old Enterprise mill, which in my lifetime had once employed hundreds of people, spanning generations of fathers and son, mothers and daughters, weaving cotton into textiles.  I always wondered why General Sherman in his march to the sea spared Augusta, which was home to the Confederate Army’s gunpowder works, armory, arsenal, cannon casting facility, and virtually all of its textiles, all of which were easily stashed on a steamboat to the Savannah river and down to the sea, or on a fast train to Atlanta.  If any place in the south needed burning down it was this place.

The mill is closed now.  It is in what Tibetan’s would call a “bardo”, an in-between place between incarnations.  Sometimes almost a colony of hipster condos, then no, maybe a trendy office building.  Still a mill a hundred years old on the outside, inside undecided.
 I pass the old shotgun houses, now mostly inhabited by poor black families.  A shotgun house is a distinctly southern architecture, before the invention of air conditioners, or even electric fans.  It’s a long narrow, almost barracks like structure, with doors on either end opening onto a hallway that transfixs the house, so that when both doors are opened a strong cross breeze provides a little coolness.  Many of them have inviting little porches.  The hipsters have not yet discovered and gentrified these houses, though someday that will probably happen.
 The shotgun houses were built by the mills for the mill workers.  My maternal grandfather was a cotton mill worker, who later died of lung disease as so many did.  If you worked for a mill, you could get in the door with a grade school education, be trained to do one or two things, might be offered a house within hiking distance, or an electric street trolley ride to the mill and you were pretty much set for life.  Generations passed this way.

In the junk shops around here, on a lucky day you might find a box full of pulp magazines.  Most of them are dated back to the 1950s and 1940s.  They are among the ghosts of these little houses.

The pulp magazines I love were written for these people.  They weren’t for the snooty Harpers or Atlantic Monthly crowd. They were pure escapism, solely to take you someplace else. They were cheap and disposable, like the readers who loved them.  Meant to be rolled up in a jacket pocket, read on a lunch break with an RC Cola and a Moon Pie, or read on a porch in a rocking chair with Charlie McCarthy or the Shadow or a boxing match on the radio along with a sweating glass of ice tea, in the cool of the evening, maybe accompanied by a pipe, and clouds of bugs circling the porch light.  You might lift your head to Halloo to someone passing on the sidewalk, invite them up for a glass and a chat by the radio.  And when they disappeared again down the sidewalk into the urban dark, back to the world of the story.
This is what reading is like when you’re a kid.  Falling into the world of the story.  Books and pulps gave you worlds to be lost in.  People would call your name, call you to supper or a scolding, and you just wouldn’t hear them.  Because you were over there, where you rightly belonged except for a cruel trick of birth; smashing swords on the plains of Mars, swinging an axe into somebody's face in Cimmeria, or bedding a Pirate Queen on Venus. This is where I began, my literary heroes are names to conjure with; Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and others.  They may not have won Nobel prizes, but they knew storycraft.  My short story structure was built on theirs, and the one and only commandment of the great pulp writers was “Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Reader”.  

 The opening scene of the pilot episode of Breaking Bad began with Walter White in only his underwear and a gas mask, flat footing a Winnebago filled with dead bodies, chased by police sirens – that’s the legacy of the pulps.  The Star Wars saga began with a starship being boarded by storm troopers and a towering caped figure in black, a samurai from Hell, with a sword of light and deep-sea diver wheeze – that’s the legacy of the pulps.  Jurassic Park began with an ominous crate furtively unpacked at night with cranes and spotlights and an unseen beast inside that snatches a screaming workman as a park ranger with a bazooka yells “Shoot her!  Shoot her!”  that’s the legacy of the pulps.  Drop the reader in the middle of the action and never let go.  Vincent Gill, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, these are the grown-up children of the pulps.

With the advent of Television, the pulps began to die.  In the late 60's they were revived by fly-by-night paperback publishers looking for public domain stories that didn't require royalties.  John Carter of Mars, Conan, Tarzan and the others were given a new lease on life.  Edgar Rice Burroughs was briefly resurrected by Ace Paperbacks in tiny pocket-sized editions with timeless covers by Frank Frazetta.  Turned out there was gold in them thar pulps. The success of these stories was quickly followed up by pretty much every character ever invented by Robert E Howard.   These were all formula romance novels but written for guys.  And I loved them.
   Don't let any literary Academic types ever talk you into giving up the sword fights, panting maidens in distress (and undress) and zap guns on distant planets.  Love is where you find it.
My advice to aspiring writers isn't so much "write what you know", but rather "write what you love".  I love the pulps.


  1. A glorious post, Garce! And the covers are unbelievable. Where did you find these images?

    1. Aren't they fun? I just google the images. Other people besides me love these things too, they really are a cult item.

      Anyone who wants to read one or discover them for the first time, one of the main sites you can find them is:

  2. I wasn't allowed to read stuff like this! Mom thought comic books were too low-class for me. The only ones she allowed in the house were like today's graphic novels: illustrated versions of classics like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde...the cover alone scared the shit out of me! I hid it in the house, safely out of my room where I slept, lest the characters invade my dreams!

    But I did read quite a few Burroughs books, including the Mars stories. Mom and Dad both had loved Zane Grey when they were young, part of why Dad came to the USA, to see the west for himself. But I've never been a fan of cowboys, so I didn't like those. I preferred sci-fi, always.

    Are the covers from your personal stash? I love the scantily-clad females, to suggest the hinted coitus (was it ever described, or did you have to imagine it?)

    The first real romance book Mom gave me was "The Sheik" by E.M. Hull, and then "The Sons of the Sheik." I devoured both of them, aging, leather-bound books that had been in her family forever, and all of the sisters had loved them. Published in the 1910's or early 20's, I think. The pages are now brittle and yellowed, but I still have plastic bags. Of course they are rampant with racism, since the big reveal at the end of the first book is that though the hero is a Sheik, he's really an Englishman whose parents were killed in a plane crash, and he was adopted as the favorite son by the real Sheik. Then he was left in charge. So that makes it alright that the heroine, a white woman, falls so deeply in love with him. Lots of bondage stuff suggested, hot sex, quasi-rape, definitely suggested, but nothing depicted graphically, to my chagrin back then, when I was wondering how "the whole thing" worked. Mom had explained sex to me when I was 9 and got my first period, but I still had no idea how tab A actually would fit into slot B.

    Did the pulps help "little you" figure it out, or was it all left to your imagination also?

    1. I remember Classics Illustrated! Those were great. I still have a couple. Some of those were my first exposure to the great books.

      Most of the pulps came pretty close to sex but it never happened on those pages. The rough part about the old stories, as you pointed out, is the terrible racism that pervades the Robert E Howard and Lovecraft stories. They were products of their time.

      The Spicy pulps were much more explicit, though not as explicit as the stuff we write. You can find them and even download them by googling "Spicy Pulps". Strangely, where I really learned about sex when I was a kid wasn't from lurid literature but from a much more high minded book called "The Naked Ape" by Desmond Morris. There is a chapter that explains the sex act in tremendous physiological detail from beginning to end.

      Still kind of turns me on.

    2. I didn't read The Naked Ape until I was in my 50's and Dad passed away. While going through all of his old books, I found all of Morris' books, and I kept them. I also pulled out a few I'd given him, that he'd complained about since after he read them, he had no one to talk to about them. One that I read, The Ape That Spoke, is so wonderful I've read it twice. I like to write notes to the author, as I read non-fiction books. To my surprise, I found notes in Dad's cramped, British-school writing, where he'd written to the author also! So it was like I was reading what the author wrote, and what Dad thought of when he read it. I, of course, added what I thought of when I read it!

      I tell students that reading a book is the only way to crawl inside someone else's mind, and experience what they're thinking. I regard that as marvelous! Especially when that someone has been dead for many years!

    3. Oh, and Garce? Only someone as cerebral as you, would get turned on by reading Desmond Morris! I love his writing and his ideas. But not that much...though now you've piqued my curiosity and I may have to reread at least part of The Naked Ape, to see what you're talking about! Grin!

    4. I kind of thought The Naked Ape was a turn-on, too, Fiona!

      I discovered Lovecraft in my twenties, when I was living in his native town of Providence. My dad and I were fans together. But I never read his work in pulp format.

  3. Great post, Garce. As others here have noted, "pulp" covers a lot of ground (or paper) since literature from before the Golden Age of Pulp could be adapted to that format. I have a 1956 paperback copy of The Well of Loneliness (first published 1928) with a cover in the style of the ones you've posted.

    1. Hmm, I wonder what readers hooked on The Well of Loneliness by the pulp cover thought when they started to read it.

    2. Apparently some were very disappointed by the lack of sex scenes! :(


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