Mike Ashley's 'The Golden Age of Pulp Fiction'

Pulp magazines, initially an American phenomenon, have received a great deal of bad press over the years and are still generally dismissed by many as of little merit. Whilst it is true that during the 1930s there were some appalling pulp magazines of dismal quality, that is not true of most pulps, and indeed in their early years, especially just before and after the First World War, the magazines carried much of interest and significance. Cheap and produced on poor quality paper, the magazines were always seen as ephemeral and thus copies in anything like good condition are hard to find.

Today the phrase 'pulp' is used to refer to anything hardboiled and tacky. Originally, a pulp magazine was one that was printed on paper made directly from wood-pulp which rapidly yellows and becomes very brittle leaving a shower of confetti on the reader. The pulps were originally a standard size, roughly 10x7 inches, but in later years some publishers changed to a 'large pulp' or 'large flat' format, roughly 11x8 inches, to match the size of the slick magazines on the stands. Sometimes the paper was upgraded to a thicker or slightly coated stock. Strictly these magazines aren't 'pulps', but tend to be grouped together because they are often continuations of existing pulp magazines.

The age of the pulps lasted roughly from 1896 to 1955. By the fifties the pulps were being replaced either by illustrated men's magazines, usually in the large flat format, or digest magazines in the smaller format, roughly 7x5 inches. Both of these are sometimes also referred to as pulps. The digests often used pulp paper, but strictly speaking they are a different category.

Another factor that distinguishes the pulps from other magazines was the lack of any bulk advertising. The pulps were produced cheaply and sold cheaply (initially 10 cents, occasionally only five cents, and seldom more than 25 cents, even in the later years) and relied wholly on revenue from sales. Another distinguishing feature is that the pulps ran almost entirely fiction. The paper did not lend itself to photographs (though some publishers tried) or detailed artwork, though they did run line drawings.

The earliest pulps grew out of the tradition of dime novels and boys' magazines, so were from the start tainted with a juvenile image. The first pulp was The Argosy published in New York by Frank A. Munsey. It had started as The Golden Argosy, a weekly boys' adventure magazine in dime novel format, in Dec. 1882. The title became The Argosy in Dec. 1888, trying to move away from the younger readership, and from Apr. 1894 it shifted to a monthly schedule, aimed at the same readership as Munsey's Magazine which Munsey had started in Feb. 1889. For two years The Argosy was similar to Munsey's, but in Oct. 1896 Munsey dropped the articles, making it the first all-fiction issue and, from Dec. 1896, the paper was all pulp.

The contents at this time were almost all serials, four or five running together, betraying its boys' magazine origins. It was several years before the balance of short fiction increased but throughout its pulp life The Argosy always ran two or three serials consecutively. Even though it would soon be serializing novels such as Upton Sinclair's In the Net of the Visconti (Jul.-Nov. 1899) set in Renaissance Italy, the emphasis generally remained upon adventure. Munsey's formula of solid adventure fiction at a cheap price clearly worked because by 1902 he was claiming that The Argosy was third in circulation amongst American magazines, rising to second by 1907, when it boasted a circulation of half a million.

Such claims did not go unnoticed, especially when Munsey started a second pulp, All-Story, in Jan. 1905. This placed emphasis on complete stories in each issue, though it also ran several serials at the outset, including the work of Albert Payson Terhune and Mary Roberts Rinehart. By now Munsey's main rival had also entered the field. Street & Smith had been a prodigious publisher of dime novels but, recognising that the writing was on the wall, they had expanded into the popular fiction market with Ainslee's Magazine in 1898 and Smith's Magazine from Apr. 1905. These were not pulps in that they were on better quality paper, but the distinction was narrow and in later years both did become pulps. In Nov. 1903 Street & Smith had started a boys' periodical, The Popular Magazine, but seeing it was not reaching its market they revamped its content, doubled its page count, and converted it to an all-adventure pulp from Feb. 1904, making it the first direct rival to The Argosy.

Whereas Munsey had relied mainly on his dime-novel writers, Street & Smith called in the big guns. From the Jan. 1905 issue they serialized H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha, the sequel to She, and the next month H.G. Wells's Love and Mr. Lewisham began as The Crowning Victory. Soon the magazine was running stories and serials by Rafael Sabatini, C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne, E. Phillips Oppenheim and William Le Queux—all noticeably British and all major names. The Popular's circulation more than trebled to 250,000.

More magazines tumbled into the market. The Monthly Story Magazine appeared in May 1905 (it would become better known as Blue Book Magazine from May 1907) published by the Story-Press Corporation in Chicago, and a companion to the slick Red Book, which had started in May 1903. Blue Book was from another line of evolution, since it did not emulate the boys' magazines or dime novels. It did run serials but the emphasis was on a wide range of short fiction, often of the 'clever story' category devised by The Black Cat, a Boston-based magazine launched in Oct. 1895. The Black Cat was a small magazine composed entirely of short stories, and was not a pulp at all, though it did shift to pulp format for a few years from Sept. 1913. Its success led to similar magazines not least The Smart Set (from Mar. 1900) and 10-Story Book (from Jun. 1902). The latter did subsequently become a pulp.

In 1906, Munsey added The Scrap-Book (Mar. 1906-Jan. 1912) to The Argosy and All-Story. Four months later Street & Smith created The People's Magazine (Jul. 1906-Aug. 15, 1924) as a companion to The Popular. This toing and froing continued for some while, each publisher adding further titles.

Amongst them was The Railroad Man’s Magazine issued by Munsey in Oct. 1906. Although its fiction ran the full gamut of adventure fiction it was, in theory, all linked to the railways, and so was the first specialist pulp. The title continued, despite various changes, mergers and manifestations, until Dec. 1974 though it had dropped all fiction in 1954. For its last twenty years it was a hobbyist magazine, and since 1975 has continued in that format as Railfan & Railroad Magazine.

In Mar. 1907, Munsey introduced another specialist pulp, The Ocean. This short-lived magazine of sea stories was subsequently retitled The Live Wire (Feb.-Sept. 1908), which also had a short run.

In 1908, Street & Smith acquired Gunter’s Magazine (Feb. 1905-Sept. 1910), and here published Rafael Sabatini’s The Avenger the following year. Also in 1908, The Cavalier (Oct. 1908-May 1914) began publication as an offshoot from Munsey’s The Scrap-Book, running for six years before being absorbed by All-Story in 1914.

In Nov. 1910 the Ridgway Company, which published the highly influential slick Everybody's, launched Adventure. One of its earliest serials was John Buchan's Prester John. Adventure was exactly what its title implied, and it became a major publisher of writers such as Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb. It soon became regarded as the leading pulp magazine.

Adventure, Argosy and Blue Book are often called the 'Big Three' and a complete set of all three would provide a significant cross section of the best quality pulp fiction.

One of the most significant events in pulp-fiction history happened in the Oct. 1912 All-Story which published Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This issue remains the single most collectable of all the pulp magazines. In 2006, a copy was sold for $59,750 at auction.

The impact of Burroughs's work—both his Tarzan stories and his Martian adventures featuring John Carter—revolutionised the content of Munsey's magazines, esp. All-Story, which regularly featured fantastic adventures. In the decade after the first Tarzan story, a whole generation of writers specializing in fantastic fiction emerged through the pages of Argosy and All-Story, including Abraham Merritt, Victor Rousseau, Homer Eon Flint, Murray Leinster and Ray Cummings.

In addition to Tarzan, the Munsey magazines gave the world several other iconic heroes. Zorro debuted in The Curse of Capistrano, a five-part serial by Johnston McCulley, starting in the Aug. 9, 1919 issue of All-Story. Horatio Hornblower became a regular in Argosy. Also, although the first two Dr. Kildare stories by Frederick Faust (as Max Brand) appeared in Cosmopolitan, Faust reworked the character so that the Kildare we all came to know from the cinema and TV was reborn in Argosy in 'Young Doctor Kildare' (17-31 Dec. 1938).

Until the First World War the pulps ran the whole range of fiction, seeking to appeal to a wide audience, but from 1915 onwards a new generation of specialist pulps emerged. Street & Smith took the lead here, converting their existing dime novel series into pulps. The first conversion had been with Top-Notch Magazine, launched in dime novel format in Mar. 1910 but reformed as a pulp from Oct. 1910. This same uncertainty prevailed nine years later when The Thrill Book—one of the most highly prized of all pulps—also started in dime novel format in Mar. 1919 before converting to pulp after four months. Between these two titles New Tip Top Weekly became the pulp Tip Top Semi-Monthly in Mar. 1915, Nick Carter Stories became the first true specialist fiction pulp Detective Story Magazine in Oct. 1915, and in Sept. 1919 Western Story Magazine, a retitling of New Buffalo Bill Weekly, changed to the pulp form.

With Street & Smith setting the lead and the success of Munsey's titles, the post-war period saw an explosion of pulp magazines across America, with an increasing number becoming specialist. It is these specialist titles that tend to be the more highly collected, along with some of the more esoteric and unusual titles like Zeppelin Stories (Apr.-Jul. 1929) or the risqué sex titles like Spicy Stories (Dec. 1928-Jul. 1938), which were usually sold 'under the counter'.

The big three fields were westerns, detective stories and romance. Street & Smith led the way with all three, launching Detective Story Magazine in 1915, Western Story Magazine in 1919, and adding Love Story Magazine to their roster in Aug. 1921, which claimed the highest circulation of any pulp in its day, peaking at around 600,000 in 1929. The combination of westerns and romance produced one of the longest surviving pulps, Ranch Romances (Sept. 1924-Nov. 1971).

One of the most important of all detective pulps was Black Mask (Apr. 1920-Jul. 1951), which published both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Black Mask serialized Hammett's The Maltese Falcon between Sept. 1929 and Jan. 1930, while Chandler made his authorial debut in the Dec. 1933 issue. Other detective pulps of interest include Mystery (15 Nov. 1917-May 1929, which also started in dime novel format and switched to pulp in 1926), Clues (Oct. 1926-May 1943) and Flynn's (20 Sept. 1924-Aug. 1944, which became Detective Fiction Weekly after Jun. 1928).

The detective pulps spawned two hybrid forms. First were the weird-menace pulps, in which their victims—usually women—found themselves being hunted and tortured by sadistic villains. The first of these was Dime Mystery (Dec. 1932-Oct. 1950), from Popular Publications, which was soon followed by Terror Tales (Sept. 1934-Mar. 1941), Horror Stories (Jan. 1935-Apr. 1941) and Thrilling Mystery (Oct. 1935-Winter 1951).

The initial rather more gothic menace soon gave way to more titillating villainy with the leading titles Spicy Detective Stories (Apr. 1934-Dec. 1942) and Spicy Mystery Stories (Jun. 1935-Dec. 1942). Their most notorious contributor was Robert Leslie Bellem whose affected prose style has brought his work a cult following. They also featured covers by H.J. Ward, Norman Saunders and H.L. Parkhurst. These magazines all became more conventional crime magazines during the 1940s.

The other child of the detective pulps was the hero pulp. Street & Smith led the way again with The Shadow (Apr. 1931-Summer 1949), a spin-off of a radio series. Other hero pulps include Doc Savage (Mar. 1933-Summer 1949); The Phantom Detective (Feb. 1933-Summer 1953), The Spider (Oct. 1933-Dec. 1943) and Operator #5 (Apr. 1934-Nov. 1939). Many of these pulps and other similar titles later converted into comic books with which they shared a common market.

The hero pulps often featured fantastic adventures and were allied to the science-fiction pulps. The first of these had been Amazing Stories, started by Hugo Gernsback in Apr. 1926, though strictly with its large flat format and heavy duty paper the early issues are not really pulps. The first true science-fiction pulp was Astounding Stories, dated Jan. 1930, published by William Clayton but, from 1933, taken over by none other than Street & Smith.

Amazing Stories survived until 2005, but Astounding (renamed Analog in 1960) is still with us today; though Analog has long since shed its pulp clothing, it remains amongst the oldest surviving pulp titles. Other science-fiction pulps included Wonder Stories (Jun. 1930-Winter 1955; retitled Thrilling Wonder Stories from Aug. 1936), Startling Stories (Jan. 1939-Fall 1955) and Planet Stories (Winter 1939-Summer 1955). It was in these pulps that writers such as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard first made their names.

Both Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories were revived in 2007, and Startling is still going today.

The SF field had its own hero pulp in Captain Future (Winter 1940-Spr. 1944), though amongst the rarest, and most coveted, of all SF pulps is the single issue of Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine (Dec. 1936). Also cherished is Famous Fantastic Mysteries (Sept. 1939-Jun. 1953), which reprinted many lost classics, including early stories from Argosy and All-Story. It also had beautiful cover art and interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay and Lawrence Stevens.

Closely related to the SF pulps are the weird fiction and fantasy pulps. The grandfather of these is Weird Tales (Mar. 1923-Sept. 1954) which published the majority of the best stories of both H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, including Howard's Conan series. Other notable titles include Bernard Macfadden's Ghost Stories (Jul. 1926-Dec. 1931) and Street & Smith's Unknown (Mar. 1939-Oct. 1943), a highly regarded companion to Astounding.

By the 1930s the newsstands were saturated with pulp magazines, but already their domination was being challenged by comic books and paperbacks, whilst women readers were lured away by the big slicks.

The Second World War considerably depleted their numbers and survivors were shadows of their former selves. Argosy switched in emphasis to a men's adventure magazine and dropped the pulp format from Sept. 1943. It continued in that form until 1978 but has refused to die and has been resurrected 3 times: most recently (Fall 2003-Spr. 2006) in a neat digest format. It has seen over 2,000 issues.

Adventure likewise made the switch to a men's magazine in 1953 and Blue Book, after trying to be a men's service magazine in its last few years, folding in 1956, was revived as a lurid men's magazine in 1960.

The pulps had virtually all vanished from the stands by the mid-fifties victim to all manner of afflictions—comics, paperbacks, television and eventually the withdrawal of their major distributor. Those that survived did so by converting to the digest format, whilst online magazines, or 'virtual pulps', like Ray-Gun Revival continue the pulp formula even though readers cannot feel or smell the woodpulp.

There have been many books devoted to the pulps, some such as Frank M. Robinson's Pulp Culture (Collectors Press, 1998) and Peter Haining's The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines (Prion, 2000), beautifully illustrated. A most valuable study of pulp writers and their characters is the six-volume Yesterday's Faces by Robert Sampson (Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1983-1993) whilst a useful checklist of issues is Bookery Fantasy's Ultimate Guide to the Pulps by Tim Cottrill (Bookery Press, 2001).

Mike Ashley

This essay has been revised—by permission of the author—from an earlier version on pulp collecting which first appeared in Rare Book Review 32:4, (May 2005).