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Hooray for the Pulps

Mommy, Mommy, It's Eating the Linoleum

Vampire Master cover

Note the NRA Blue Eagle upper-right. In this case the NRA is the National Recovery Act (1933), not the pistol-packin’ survivalists.

There was a time when I was barely old enough to slip in under the tent flap to watch the show. I was a kid standing in line at Elroy Keller’s drug store on Center St. in Milwaukee waiting for the news agent’s truck to arrive, chuck its wired-together bundles of the latest pulps, and speed thence to distant suburbs where legions of kids like me waited hopefully. The ladies on the shiny covers didn’t wear much in the way of clothes, heady stuff for a 7th grader. This was the 1940s, remember? We now call it the golden age of the pulps. Their pages were raggedy-edged and they were expensive. Well, twenty-five cents mostly, thirty-five cents by the time I was in high school while comic books were still a dime. But they were thick with full color covers — tumbled towers, space ships like the Skylark of Valeron, heroes like Doc Smith and Conan the Barbarian, and captive maidens a-quiver with unspeakable horror inside their leopard loincloths and spandex space suits. Tales of wonderment and awe, a life of adventure and romance down at the corner drug store. Good stuff.

And here we are, awash in the 21st Century, tomorrow enough for a kid from the 40s — now what do we do? Until cheaper, faster modes of transporting non-mass-market, limited edition, small press titles from writer to reader comes along, I’ll opt for the e-formats. Our reach should exceed our grasp, else what’s a heaven for?

Feng Shui Fo-Fum

We who crouch over a flickering monitor, squinting past corrective lenses to find the word that will say it all... Oops, excuse me. Forgot the word. Shift, F7. Ahhh, the thesaurus. Now where was I? Yes. Can we ever hope to run with the writers who decorated the age of the pulps? The pulps were a dream. You can’t outdo a dream armed with but the puny technologies of today’s science.

My humble proposition is: e-format publishing is Millennnial America’s take on the pulps of my childhood. These eBooks are the new pulps. And inside? The pulp pieces we would have written long ago if we had been around then to write them, surpassing perhaps even the period pulp-fiction where we lived our secret dreams. (A note: to be sure I had used the term Feng Shui as I meant it to be understood, i.e. a balancing of our human selves between heaven and earth, I abandoned typing and slipped away for some quality Google time. Top of the list: “Attract more Health, Wealth & Love. Secrets they don’t want you to know.” Ahh... not quite. I got back to things.)

This is Exurbia. Teardrop-shaped Cars of Tomorrow strain at their tethers, hovering beside perfectly manicured shrubbery, miniature robot aphids scuttle relentlessly, devouring their flesh and ichor cousins, through roundabouts and cul-de-sacs designed to please — but not arouse — the eye. Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver  flicker abandoned, guttering blue-gray images on a neglected TV. Where are the children? Why with their identical Moms in their identical yards, of course, out back past the swing set, waving farewell to a platoon of male parents as they blast off. “Careful — Janice, Timmy. Daddy’s backwash, remember?” With military precision a line of rocket-suited Dads ascends from the back patios of Anytown, USA to zoom to the City.

Ah, for the days when a writer didn’t have to figure out how a gizmo worked, just had to come up with a concept and a name. Skimmer, anti-grav, terraforming, collective intelligence, ornithopters, hyper-drive. In the 1930s and 40s there was a pavilion of wonder called the pulps and their cousins, the Sunday supplements and Popular Science. We have the Internet and cable TV. And with any luck the interregnum separating us from the last golden age is about to end. If you compare the cost of today’s e-rendering of the pulps I once waited for with a quarter and two nickels clutched in a sweaty palm, the price has — even figuring for inflation — gone down! The pulps are thriving and well, thank you, in the new millenium.

The anthology I didn’t get in

or, the authors of the disappearing Otherworlds anthology

Otherworlds — a pulp anthology from SpecFicWorld.com, a publisher now inactive — was a PDF download. Nope, didn’t happen. On the plus side, in an amazingly short twenty years, we have all figured out how our computers work. Electronic books are cheap, easy, and get where they’re supposed to go most of the time. Nice. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was at one time signed on as a contributor to Otherworlds with my novella, The Runaway Bungalow.) Publisher Doyle Wilmoth shut down the SpecFicWorld endeavor shortly thereafter. SpecFicWorld had a good run for an early online ’zine: ten years or thereabouts. I don't seriously believe the black-holing had to do with the quality of the authors who were left high and dry(reviewed below).

How’s about sex with alien vegetable life-forms? Uh... in our heyday of political correctness we would have to call it “inter-species hanky-panky.” Mercurio D. Rivera calls his tale “Sleeping with the Anemone.” And a case of intra-species hanky-panky, none dare call it “incest,” a word I had not yet heard in the 40s, in the surprisingly crafted “Hermaphrodites Are from Mercury” by Trent Roman. The offerings of Otherworlds — including Ian Faulkner’s “Cadmus Graves and the Missing Clone,” Lawrence Dagstine’s “Human Transfer,” Mercurio Rivera’s “Sleeping with the Anemone,” and “Heramphrodites are from Mercury” by Trent Roman are... well, pulpy. These guys have tapped the magic well of pulpitude: Slurp, slurp, slurp, Cadmus Graves is on the case as a badly molded jelly baby stalks the night in Faulkner’s comedy noir private eye piece. And referencing a post-climate-disruption apocalypse, but without flogging the departed horsemen shows a fine touch. In Dagstine’s “Human Transfer” citizenship deportation papers for the North American Peninsula will cost $70,000...

A footnote on the pulps

For those of you who are unfamiliar with pulp fiction (uncapitalized) as a free standing phenomenon at a three-generational remove from Quentin Tarantino’s film, some explication from Lester Dent on what lies lurking inside the shaggy covers:

“...this is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

“No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

“The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else. Here’s how it starts:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

“One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.”

...from “The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” itself an addendum to Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage by Marilyn Cannaday (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990), a biography of Lester Dent. You may want to check this one out.

copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

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