Rare Book Review’s Mike Ashley on the golden age of pulp fiction

Pulp magazines, initially an American phenomenon, have received considerable bad press over the years and are still generally dismissed by many collectors 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 these days.

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 also 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 December 1882. The title became The Argosy in December 1888, trying to move away from the younger readership, and from April 1894 it shifted to a monthly schedule, aimed at the same readership as Munsey's Magazine which Munsey had started in February 1889. For two years The Argosy was similar to Munsey’s, but in October 1896 Munsey dropped the articles, making it the first all-fiction issue and, from December 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 (July-November 1899) set in Renaissance Italy, the emphasis generally remained upon adventure. Copies of these early Argosys are not common but neither are they avidly collected, and ones in reasonably quality may be found for around £15-£20. 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 January 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 April 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 November 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 February 1904, 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 January 1905 issue they serialized H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, the sequel to She, and the next month HG Wells's Love and Mr Lewisham began as The Crowning Victory. Soon the magazine was running stories and serials by Rafael Sabatini, CJ 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.

One other factor played a part at this stage. Both The Popular and All-Story -- and The Argosy from October 1905 -- sported full-color painted covers to help their visibility on the stalls. Whereas bound volumes of the slick magazines tend to be without their covers, the pulps are almost always collected in single issues, and the condition and quality of the cover and its artist is important in determining the magazine's value.

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 October 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 September 1913.

Its success led to similar magazines not least The Smart Set (from March 1900) and 10-Story Book (from June 1902).

In 1906, Munsey added The Scrap-Book (March 1906-anuary 1912) to The Argosy and All-Story. Four months later Street & Smith created The People's Magazine (July 1906-15 August 1924) as 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 October 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.

It continued, despite various changes, mergers and manifestations, until December 1974 though it had dropped all fiction in 1954 and for its last twenty years was a hobbyist magazine.

In November 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.

Adventure soon became regarded as the leading pulp magazine. Early issues, in good quality, are seldom less than £15 each and more often £40-£50.

Adventure, Argosy and Blue Book are called the ‘Big Three’ and a complete set of all three would not only be extremely expensive but 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 October 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, with such few copies as survive commanding prices up to £6,000.

Thankfully for those interested solely in the contents, a facsimile edition was released in 2000 which can be found for £20 or so.

The impact of Burroughs’s work -- both his Tarzan stories and his Martian adventures featuring John Carter -- revolutionised the content of Munsey's magazines, especially 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. Issues containing their stories, especially Merritt's and Burroughs's, always sell at a premium.

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 August 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 December 1938).

Until the First World War the pulps ran the whole range of fiction, seeking to appeal to a wide udience, 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 March 1910 but reformed as pulp magazine from October 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 March 1919 before converting to pulp after four months. Between these two titles New Tip Top Weekly became the pulp Tip Top Semi-Monthly in March 1915, Nick Carter Stories became the first true specialist fiction pulp Detective Story Magazine in October 1915, and in September 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 (April-July 1929) or the risqué sex titles like Spicy Stories (December 1928-July 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, adding Love Story Magazine to their roster in August 1921. Although Love Story claimed the highest circulation of any pulp in its day, peaking at around 600,000 in 1929, neither it nor any of its rivals are much collected today. Although the western magazines have a hard-core following in the States they too have lost their once dominant appeal. The combination of westerns and romance produced one of the longest surviving pulps, Ranch Romances (September 1924-November 1971), though with a few exceptions, it’s difficult to even give copies away today.

The detective pulps, however, are still highly sought after, and the most collected of all is Black Mask (April 1920-July 1951), particularly those issues featuring Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The five issues which serialised The Maltese Falcon (September 1929-January 1930) can command up to £2,000 in total. The first appearance of Chandler makes the December 1933 issue worth over £500. Other detective pulps of interest include Mystery (15 November 1917-May 1929, which also started in dime novel format and switched to pulp in 1926), Clues (October 1926-May 1943) and Flynn’s (20 September 1924-August 1944, which became Detective Fiction Weekly after June 1928).

Copies of these magazines in their early years average around £15-£20 reducing by about a half in their later years.

The detective pulps spawned two hybrid forms which are even more highly collected. 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 (December 1932-October 1950), from Popular Publications, which was soon followed by Terror Tales (September 1934-March 1941), Horror Stories (January 1935-April 1941) and Thrilling Mystery (October 1935-Winter 1951). Early issues of these magazines can command up to £100 each. The initial rather more gothic menace soon gave way to more titillating villainy with the leading titles Spicy Detective Stories (April 1934-December 1942) and Spicy Mystery Stories (June 1935-December 1942), copies of which can command well in excess of £100.

Their most notorious contributor was Robert Leslie Bellem whose affected prose style has brought his work a cult following. Covers by HJ Ward, Norman Saunders and HL Parkhurst add to the value. These magazines all became more conventional crime magazines during the 1940s. The other child of the detective pulps was the hero pulp, which are amongst the most cherished of all. Street & Smith led the way again with The Shadow (April 1931-Summer 1949), a spin-off of a radio series. The first issue can fetch up to £3,000 and other early issues range between £150 and £250. Other hero pulps include Doc Savage (March 1933-Summer 1949), the first issue of which is worth around £2,000; The Phantom Detective (February 1933-Summer 1953), The Spider (October 1933-December 1943) and Operator #5 (April 1934-November 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 April 1926, though strictly with its large flat format and heavy duty paper the early issues not really pulps. The first true science-fiction pulp was Astounding Stories, dated January 1930, published by William Clayton but, from 1933, taken over by none other than Street & Smith. Early issues of both magazines are valued at around £200. Both Amazing Stories and Astounding (renamed Analog in 1960) are still with us today and though they have long since shed their pulp clothing, they remain amongst the oldest surviving pulp titles. Other notable science-fiction pulps include Wonder Stories (June 1930-Winter 1955; retitled Thrilling Wonder Stories from August 1936), Startling Stories (January 1939-Fall 1955) and Planet Stories (Winter 1939-Summer 1955). It was in these pulps that writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard first made their names.

The SF field had its own hero pulp in Captain Future (Winter 1940-Spring 1944), though amongst the rarest of all SF pulps is the single issue of Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine (December 1936) which is valued at around £300. Also much cherished is Famous Fantastic Mysteries (September 1939-June 1953). It appealed to the collector because it reprinted many lost classics, including early stories from Argosy and All-Story, but it also had beautiful cover art and interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay and Lawrence Stevens. Copies can still be found in reasonable condition for around £10-£20.

Closely related to the SF pulps are the weird fiction and fantasy pulps. The grandfather of these is Weird Tales (March 1923-September 1954) which is amongst the most valuable of all pulps. It's difficult to find early issues for much less than £1,000 today and a complete run of the 279 issues of the original magazine will be worth in the region of £40,000. It was here that both HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard sold the majority of their best stories, including Howard's ŒConan' series. Bernard Macfadden's Ghost Stories (July 1926-December 1931) is far less valued, though individual issues can command between £30 and £40. The same prices relate to the issues of Unknown (March 1939-October 1943), the highly regarded companion to Astounding, and another Street & Smith title.

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 the survivors were shadows of their former selves. Argosy switched in emphasis to a men's adventure magazine and dropped the pulp format from September 1943. It continued in that form until 1978 but has refused to die and has been resurrected three times with a current neat digest format. It has seen over 2,000 issues, and the pulp issues (which account for only half this run) are avidly collected whilst the post 1943 issues are hardly collected at all.

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.

Most pulps that survived did so by converting to the digest format, whilst the pulps themselves virtually all vanished from the stands in the mid fifties victim to all manner of afflictions -- comics, paperbacks, television and eventually the withdrawal of their major distributor.

Collecting pulps has become big business in recent years, especially in the United States. 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 University Popular Press, 1983-1993) whilst a useful checklist of issues and values is Bookery Fantasy’s Ultimate Guide to the Pulps by Tim Cottrill (Bookery Press, 2001).

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