Pulp fiction is not just the title of a vastly overrated Tarantino movie, it was a style of writing for an entire generation of youts (not a typo) from the 1920’s through the 1950’s*, a style that was both verbose and lurid, ridiculous and vivid, startling and safe, low class and sophisticated.
The pulps were named such because of the pulp paper they were printed on, cheap in both quality of physical product and of printed material but in reality were a signature style of (mostly) male adventure fantasies played out as low cost thrills. With lurid and alluring painted covers featuring stark imagery sure to draw the attention of any passerby these economical stories shaped an entire generation of both readers and writers to the open minds of space invaders stealing our women, of hell creatures from the depths of the earth, of worlds shorn of civility roamed by barbarians, of battles with the elements and the creatures of nature, of crimes so evil they scarce come from the mind of man, harrowing space adventures the like of which even the farthest reaches of the imagination can not foretell and most of all of tales of high adventure.
The pulp magazines provided the start to many of the writers we hold today as the true innovators in the field(s) they so casually command. Harlan Ellison, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Charles Beadle, Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, Arthur C. Clarke, August Derleth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, O. Henry, Frank Herbert, Robert E. Howard, L. Ron Hubbard, Fritz Leiber, Murray Leinster, Jack London, H. P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, Jack Vance and H. G. Wells (among a list of many others too numerous to name) all started their craft in the pulps… first as readers, then as writers. The pulps would take any story, from any writer and without the pulps many of those our generation grew up reading would nary have been able provide us with the stories of our youth. The pulp magazines were more base than comics and also aimed at a wider and therefore older audience to which the main problem befell these publishers… parents. Those covers grabbed kids, and make no mistake these stories were full of murder, sex and most of all male power fantasies usually involving women having some nasty thing done to them. All of this drew the ire of parents and watchdog groups alike. The pulps continued strong (despite minor setbacks) until World War II when the cost of paper rose and so did the price of the material and this trend eventually killed what we think of as the Pulp Magazine.
Going back and reading these old magazines is a great way to step into the past and to visit a different era of both storytelling and of what “geek culture” truly was. Looking at these pulps from 2014 eyes with our modern sensibilities makes them seem quaint or even goofy but if you can divorce yourself from what you know now and place yourself in the time of the pulps you garner a different perspective that is enlightening to say the least. A time when losing oneself into another world was something that millions of people did every week and a time when grave-robbing replicons from beyond the moon seemed plausible and perhaps even likely. A time when super-villain criminals were stopped by the likes of the elusive and enigmatic avenger known only as The Spider. A time when nazi henchmen lurked around every corner and only the ever vigilant hero could ferret them out. A time when mother nature was all about killing you in any manner possible and only the skill and vigor of the hero could prevail that day. John Carter, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Sheena, Conan, The Spider, Doc Savage, Ka-Zar, Kull, The Shadow and Solomon Kane might not all be huge names today but without them we would not have Snake Plisken, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Herbert West, John McClain, The Predator, Robocop, Hannibal Lector, The Joker or even Batman. None of those characters would be here today were it not for their pulp ancestors (and yes, I know that Herbert West is actually a pulp character, but the modern version is so far removed from the pulp version that they are able to be separated). Even if you have never read a pulp story rest assured that the people responsible for your favorite characters did and you nonetheless owe the pulps a debt of gratitude.
My question now though is why do these stories tend to fail when modernized or even simply brought to a modern audience in their original pulp style? John Carter failed to energize it’s audience. The Phantom was a disaster on every level. Flash Gordon was a flop upon release and only found it’s audience decades later. Sheena was a disappointment as both a movie and a TV series. The Shadow missed every mark it could have. Every attempt at an accurate Tarzan film post 1970 has been met with critical and financial yawns. Conan had to be radically altered to find success. Buck Rogers and Doc Savage have both been in development hell for almost 20 decades now. The 1980’s Defenders Of The Earth cartoon which brought Mandrake into the same fold as The Phantom and Flash Gordon was only a moderate success and that was also greatly altered to give an 80’s audience what it needed. Why is it so hard to make these old pulp characters/stories work today? Is it the fault of the audience who is unwilling to accept the outlandish way the pulps stories play out? Is it simply that the pulps are a product of their time and just can not be translated well to this (far more discerning) time? Have we lost the ability to place a story into context and have fun with it?
The entire modern sub-genre of “Paranormal Romance” is basically pulps for girls. Comic books are now and always have been pulp stories. Exploitation films (especially those of the 70’s and 80’s) are pure pulp works. These all have huge audiences and yet the older style pulp works are viewed as something to scoff at or worst of all just ignore. In recent years we have been having a huge resurgence of throwback movies which tend to fail. Grindhouse being the prime example of this trend. Grindhouse was a loving throwback to the exploitation films of old and the audience of today simply didn’t care. Even back in the 80’s you had films such as Firewalker, King Soloman’s Mines or Treasure Of The Four Crowns which all were (essentially) pulp adventure stories and the viewers watched something else instead. They were completely uninterested. Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars are pulp films through and through and yet seem to be the only true success stories to come from a relatively modern time and I feel those were flukes over anything else as history has shown that they may have been the progenitor but their offspring were shunned by the public.
I have been going back and reading pulp stories (I also grew up reading magazines, both old and new, such as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and the like) and I noticed quite a few things that just seem to be roadblocks for this particular sub-genre becoming popular again. Sure the stories lack real depth and/or any kind of sub-text (unless misogyny, unintended racism and latent homosexuality are sub-text) but they are unadulterated in their technique, unfettered in their sense of wonder and most of all in their entertainment value. I dare you do go and read an old science fiction story from one of these magazines and not be thoroughly entertained by what you read. The science might be wholly insane, the characters might be broad stereotypes (archetypes really) but you will enjoy yourself and most of all you will see the history that the movies you love today were built on.
In the overall scheme of things the pulps are dead for all intents and purposes but in the same way that death was hardly the end in a pulp story so true is it that dead for all intents and purposes is meaningless when it comes to the pulps. You can find many of the old pulp magazines either in cheap reprint volumes or online for free. I recommend you do this and experience the wonder and fantasy without the cynicism that today’s engenders.
*Actually dating back to the late 1800’s but really enjoying a popularity unrivaled starting in the 20’s.