The period between the two world wars was the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. This was a time before television, or (of course) the Internet. Entertainment options were limited. (Heck, they barely had radio in those days.) Many people therefore turned to magazines that specialized in quickly written and fast-paced stories of romance, western adventure, crime, science fiction, or horror.
What happened to pulp fiction? The pulp magazines weren’t the victims of television, as is commonly thought. They were the casualties, rather, of the cheaply printed paperback. Modern paperback books were first introduced in 1935, but they really caught on during and shortly after World War II. The paperback completely changed the publishing and bookselling landscape, much as Amazon would about sixty years later.
Some of the original pulp content is still with us, of course. Horror fans who adore H.P. Lovecraft may not know that favorites like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “Dagon” —and most other Lovecraft stories—were originally published in Weird Tales, a pulp magazine founded in 1922. (Note: Weird Tales technically still exists, though its format has undergone some modifications; the magazine has a site on the Internet.)
I’ve read and reread Lovecraft’s oeuvre as much as I care to. So when I was recently in a mood to do some reading off the beaten path, I decided to indulge in a bit of vintage pulp crime fiction.
Or actually, quite a lot of vintage pulp crime fiction. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps contains forty-seven stories and two complete novels. Writers represented in this collection include well known names like Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). There are also plenty of stories by writers who are long forgotten.
Why read pulp fiction? Well, you probably already watch pulp television.
I’m a longtime fan of pulp TV, in fact. During the 1980s, I regularly tuned in to action television shows like The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf, and the original MacGyver. These shows were all escapist television, with plots that roared out of the gate like a 1981 DeLorean or a 1987 Toyota Supra.
My favorite was The A-Team. An episode of The A-Team kept you on the edge of your seat. Each episode ended with a blazing gunfight, in which no one was usually killed or seriously injured. The A-Team made absolutely no attempt to provide any sort of messaging on social, political, or philosophical issues. The other aforementioned 80s-era pulp TV shows were done in a similar vein.
Most of these shows did not age well. For nostalgia’s sake, I recently tuned in to a few old episodes of The A-Team and the original MacGyver. In the MacGyver episode, the eponymous hero found himself in the Soviet Union, where everyone conveniently spoke English. The Russians even spoke English with each other. I managed to sit through about twenty minutes of this. Life is too short.
The same might be said of the stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. You can detect the literary and storytelling skills at work; but you can also tell that you’re reading fiction produced in a different era, when expectations were very different. My 1980s pulp TV shows did not have to compete with Netflix. The writers whose work is collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps did not have to compete with Michael Connelly or Lee Child.
The stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps are interesting as artifacts of the pulp era, in the same way that a Ford Model T is an interesting artifact of automobile technology in the 1920s. But as entertainment for present-day audiences? Keep in mind that some of these stories are more than eighty years old. You had might as well ask me if I would like to use a Model T for my daily commuting needs.
I suspect that this massive tome (more than one thousand pages in print) is so massive for a reason. The editors knew that the phrase “your mileage may vary” would be very applicable here.
What about their usefulness for writers? Those of us who write fiction are always thinking of a story in market analysis terms, after all.
I wouldn’t recommend that any twenty-first century writer try to imitate the style of these stories, exactly. At least a quarter of these tales contain plot holes that you could drive a Model T through; and almost all of them contain hackneyed dialogue. (“He’s on the square!” “The place looked swell.”)
And oh, the eyebrows that will be raised among the finger-wagging social justice crowd. While these stories aren’t intentionally sexist, they are the product of a different time, when ideas about men and women were different. They overflow with gendered terminology that would make any writer the target of an online pitchfork mob today (“honey,” “doll”, “sugar”, “dame”, etc.).
The female characters in these crime stories are mostly props. But then, so are most of the men. These stories are all about plot, plot, plot.
And that is where this book may be instructive for writers who have found themselves too immersed in navel-gazing literary fiction. The writer who suspects he is spending too much time on flowery descriptions and internal monologue may learn something valuable here: how to get to the point, or to the plot. The pulp-era writers were certainly good at that, despite their other shortcomings.