A Brief History of Fantastic Pulp Fiction

A brief history of pulps and the pulp era, and a brief history of the major pulps which published speculative fiction: Weird Tales, Amazing, Astounding, Wonder Stories, and others.

What with the Hard Case Crime and Planet Stories reviews (and rampant fanboyism), it’s no big secret that I’m a huge fan of pulp fiction.

Magazine stand, circa 1939. See how many pulp magazines you can spot... several Amazing's, Weird Tales, The Spider, and dozens more.

Dominating the reader’s market for almost half of the twentieth century, the pulp magazine is a noteworthy stepping stone in the history of writing. Not necessarily literature, as pulps fell clearly into “genre fiction,” and weren’t generally well-written. To focus was on action, adventure, a build-up to some kind of happy ending (or perhaps, in terms of endings, a trick one). Their authors were paid by the word, and had tight word limits; it wasn’t uncommon for crime writers to build a marvelous setup, only to tear it all down with a deus-ex-machina because they only had two-hundred words left.

Pulps get their name from the cheap paper they use—a kind of wood pulp that’s lower quality than newsprint. And if you’ve never seen these things, they’re huge. The average pulp was around 7”x10”, a bit bigger than today’s trade paperback book in size, and easily over a hundred pages thick. Not bad for ten to thirty cents, huh? For the most part, they were geared towards the young male audience, what we’d consider today the teen and 18-35 brackets.

The pulp magazine was the direct antecedent to the Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and carried on the tendency to serialize novels over several weeks or months. Most early pulps were weekly “all-stories,” featuring a variety of genres of fiction, and usually including several serials. Famous titles included Argosy, All-Story Weekly, and the amazingly creative Argosy All-Story when the two magazines merged. It wasn’t uncommon for the “all-story” magazines to include multiple genres in each issue, with an early SF robot yarn butting up to a jungle adventure story, a ranch romance, a “true crime” detective thriller, or even a tale about racing.

The pulps kept with the mixing-pot style of magazine for a few decades, but by the 1920s magazines were emerging dedicated to specific single genres, and soon, pulps devoted to every genre imaginable appeared. Obviously, the staple genres included hard-boiled detective fiction and westerns, but there were also a number of sports pulps, romance pulps, railroad pulps, war pulps, “spicy/saucy” pulps (basically softcore porn), and a hodge-podge of horror, weird tales, and science-fiction,  The style of content changed as well: serials were largely dropped in favor of full-length novel-sized stories, or a mix of short fiction and novellas. The other big change was in reoccurring characters, appearing with at least one story per magazine, such as Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Avenger, Captain Future, and The Spider.

Pulp magazines were numerous, with dozens of major and minor publishers. Each had at least one magazine devoted to a major genre, and sometimes had multiple in-house pulps competing against each other. The glut of different magazines was further complicated when many of them went bankrupt or were pulled, leaving nothing behind but a handful of issues. For example, the “sky ace” pulp grew in popularity during the 1920s and ‘30s to contain dozens of titles: Sky Birds, Dare-Devil Aces, Battle Birds, Battle Aces, Flying Aces, Sky Raiders, Sky Fighters, Battle Stories, Sky Rider, War Birds, Aces, and Wings, just to name a few. And that’s just a niche genre; I’d be here all night trying to list all of the detective pulps.

In terms of speculative fiction… pulps were an early breeding ground for authors and ideas, even before the pulps moved towards single-genre formats. Many famous proto-SF writers, including H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, were serialized in the early pulp magazines. Even names like Murray Leinster popped up from time to time. A. Merritt was one of the most notorious, with such works as The Moon Pool and The Metal Man serialized in All-Story; along with The Ship of Ishtar. Fantastic fiction began to get its own voice, starting in 1923 with Weird Tales. Three major SF publications followed it—Amazing, Astounding, and Wonder Stories—and would dominate the market until the early 1940s. Compared to even the “sky ace” pulps, speculative fiction was small; less than a dozen major magazines existed between 1923 and the late 1940s.

Weird Tales (1923)

True to its name, Weird Tales published a variety of strange fiction, from sword-and-sorcery to science fiction, though most of its tales were a unique blend of the supernatural and the horrific. It’s hard to pinpoint “weird” exactly, but anything under that label fit the bill, from mad scientists to lost alien gods, and supernatural creatures to grisly murderers. Its big three writers are the now-legendary Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, though numerous other authors showed up in its pages: Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, pulp legends Seabury Quinn and Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert Bloch, writer of Psycho and various crime mysteries. Otis Adelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs, serialized his Venus books in Weird Tales, and modern legend Ray Bradbury had several early stories appear in Weird Tales.

The magazine hit its high-water mark in the 1920s and ‘30s and began slowly declining in popularity, having lost Howard and Lovecraft but keeping up past submissions and reprints to keep their names on covers. When the pulp market died and was replaced by digest magazines, Weird Tales didn’t make the cut, ending its days in 1954. Several attempts followed to re-start the magazine, in the 1970s, and in the mid-1980s, all failed, though a 2007 restart has been going well. While no longer a major powerhouse, the small-press magazine has received some good reviews and acclaim.

Amazing Stories (1926)

Not long after, in 1926, a young editor named Hugo Gernsback formed his own magazine dedicated to the ungainly-titled “scientifiction stories,” designed to enlighten his readers as well as entertain. The magazine was Amazing Stories, and its focus was fantastic fiction steeped in science, tales of spaceships and robots and martians. Today, most of the stories seem quaint, filled with their obsolescent theories and impossible uses for existing elements and minerals, but back in the 1930s it was cutting-edge; without Amazing setting the roots, science fiction as we know it wouldn’t exist. The first issue was full of reprints, from Wells to Poe to Verne, but after that featured a widely diverse pool of talent, from scientists to writers to amateurs. The 1920s and ’30s were filled with stories pushing the bounds of known science, with authors writing extensive letters and footnotes explaining the theories behind their science, from gravity belts to a plasticized mineral screen around the Earth. By the mid-1940s, the magazine had began to include anything which could possibly be considered “amazing,” from more traditional fantasies to a number of “lost era” stories about cavemen, Vikings, and everything in between. When the pulp era ended shortly after World War II, Amazing made the merge to become a digest magazine, surviving until the 1980s in first the digest and then the slick magazine formats.

Astounding Stories/Astounding Science Fiction (1929/1938)

Amazing was the first in its field, but was quickly faced with stiff competition from Astounding Stories in 1929. Its initial contents were in the same vein as Amazing—introducing many of the inventions and ideas SF writers take for granted today—only much lighter in content, less “scientifiction” and more pure entertainment. In 1938, it featured its first major name-change; its new editor, legend John W Campbell, thought it was too childish, and renamed it Astounding Science Fiction. With its “adult” name came a new focus, and much of ASF’s material was of higher quality; the magazine eventually grew to have a reputation as the premiere SF magazine of the time. Astounding writers included many names which would become high-profile in the 1950s and beyond: Asimov, Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt, E.E. Smith, Murray Leinster, Frank Herbert, and Lester del Rey. The magazine became a digest in 1943, and when many of its contemporaries struggled to survive the great pulp dieout, ASF picked up steam during the 1950s. In 1959, the magazine changed names yet again: to Analog, the magazine which still exists today. Analog would go on to serialize Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune, proving the serial format not quite dead.

Wonder Stories (1929)

Hugo Gernsbeck, the mastermind behind Amazing Stories, eventually lost control of Amazing when his company went bankrupt and saw its properties scattered. Undaunted, he came up with the Wonder Stories magazines, including the short-lived Air Wonder Stories (after all, how many tales can you write involving aircraft?), equally short-lived Science Wonder Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Like Amazing, they had an immediately solid reputation with readers, but were geared towards a younger audience than the “serious” Amazing. Most of the magazines went defunct by the 1933, though Thrilling Wonder trucked on through the mid-1950s. By the 1940s, it had managed to rival Astounding in quality, in no small part due to big-profile writers like Heinlein, Sturgeon, and Van Vogt, along with writers such as Ray Bradbury and Philip Jose Farmer, only to die off shortly after this peak.

Late 1930s/1940s Grab Bag

It wasn’t until 1939 that SF pulps really began to take off, with a number of major magazines starting in that year. The SF of the 1940s was typified in authors such as Henry Kuttner, CL Moore, and Leigh Brackett: Space Opera and adventure tales, a cross between swords-and-sorcery and the romance epics of myth. These swashbuckling “planetary adventures” featured luridly bright and action-packed covers, with scantily clad women and a host of bug-eyed monsters. The magazines earned a poor reputation for schlocky content, not “scientific” enough for most critics, though they contributed directly to the science fantasy and space opera genres.

Many of the magazines to pop up in the ’40s, such as the popular Startling Stories (1939-55), were of the swords-and-rayguns variety: beautiful women in distress, a bevy of nasty alien monsters or enemy thugs, and a hero with a chiseled jaw and raygun in hand. Startling itself had a sister magazine, Captain Future (1940-44), a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon type interplanetary adventurer, and when that magazine died Startling carried on the character in infrequent occurances.

Planet Stories (1939-55) was similar, with tales of lost alien treasures and rescuing space vixens from bug-eyed monsters, and replacing the raygun with a sword much of the time. Contributors included Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, and Alfred Coppel; in addition, Philip K. Dick published several early stories in the magazine. By 1955, what the public wanted was hard-SF, not ray guns and space vixens, so the magazine folded with many other pulps.

Super Science Stories had two brief runs, from 1940-43 and 1949-51; while it also featured a lot of Space Opera talent like Leigh Brackett, it’s noteworthy for first publishing Asimov’s I, Robot. Another noteworthy point is that its first nine issues were edited by Frederik Pohl, who would later go on to become not only a famous SF writer, but the editor of Galaxy and If.

Fantastic Adventures (1939-54) was to be the little brother to Amazing; its focus was on lighter fantasy stories (“frothy” being the term used). Eventually the two magazines would end up publishing the same kinds of material, with Fantastic Adventures getting the more fantastic stories, and the SF going to Amazing. It was eventually rolled into Fantastic to cut costs, during the end of the pulp era.

Unknown (1939-43), by Street & Smith, was a rather short lived pulp in the same vein as Weird Tales, but cut from a different cloth. Unknown was also edited by Astounding’s John W Campbell, and the two shared many authors, and like many other magazines, was the dumping ground for the more fantastic stories its SF big brother didn’t want to print.  It had its share of Viking and cavemen stories, but also had a number of supernatural ones about werewolves and mermaids. Though, many of these stories used science fiction themes rather than supernatural ones. Wartime paper shortages ended up killing the magazine rather abruptly.

End of the Pulp Era

If you’ve noted that a lot of these magazines ended publication in the mid-1950s, then you’re on to something. The wartime paper shortages hurt pulp magazine publishers, and a post-war emphasis on science—as in, hard science, as in Hard SF—over more lighthearted zap-pow stories helped the market dwindle. By the mid-1950s, the pulp format was out, to be replaced by the two contemporary forms: slick magazines (represented today by glossy-paged magazines like Time, Outdoor Life, US News and World Reports, and whatever else is sitting around in your doctor’s office) and 5 ½” x 8 ¼” digest sized magazines (best represented today by Reader’s Digest, and until 2005, TV Guide).

The other death knell was a change in the market. Until the 1950s, the  prominent way to read SF was the pulp. Generally, pulps were the route of reading for most people, as they were cheap to produce and cheap to buy. But a new development—the mass-market paperback—blew pulps right out of the water. Paperbacks had a boom in the 1950s, where we get things like Ace Doubles and Gold Eagle. Similarly, the younger audience for pulps was eaten away by the surge in new comic books, many of them featuring fantastic or supernatural themes (best represented by pretty much all of the non-MAD E.C. library, Creepy, Eerie, etc.). As TV became more commonplace, reading dropped in comparison, and new TV shows and movies helped lure the pulp market away.

Between the changing themes in SF and the change in the industry, many magazines didn’t make it. Those who did change became digest magazines, continuing to struggle through the 1950s and ’60s against new giants Galaxy, Worlds of If, and Fantasy and Science Fiction. But that’s another story…

Reading Pulps Today

Many pulps didn’t survive the century—they’re not called pulps because the stories are pulpy, after all—and they have become rarities and collectors items. Pulps with famous authors or stories can go quite high; even relatively unknown pulps can go upwards of $9. And considering they are, to put it politely, worn totally to shit… it’s a hefty investment. Pulps appear frequently on eBay, and show up in used book stores and flea markets, though don’t be surprised if they’ve been battered into oblivion.

Of course, there’s a reprint market for pulps, but those can be quite expensive, and only focuses on the popular titles. Weird Tales gets a number of reprints, but many of the other early pulps involving speculative fiction get the shaft. Adventurehouse lists quite a number of modern reprints, from around $7 per to upwards of $30. TheVintageLibrary is another good resource, offering .pdfs for around $5 and hard copies around $10 or more.

Age of Aces Books offers a number of compilations, each related to a particular air ace or group of aces, most of them priced around $16.99. It’s not cheap, but they are fairly sizable, around 200-400 pages per book. Girasol Collectibles is one of the most expensive; it caters to the collectors market I guess. I found one of their The Spider collections used, and was disappointed to find out they normally cost $20-35 per book. In comparison, Nostalgia Ventures is offering reprints of Doc Savage and The Shadow for $13 per book, with 2-4 stories per book. If you have a Bargain Books near you, go hit it, because they’re usually chock full of these things and charge $7 for them. I made a nearly complete 1-20 collection of each during last year’s New Years Day half-off sale.

Since many pulps are now under public domain, you can find quite a few of them around. The aforementioned Age of Aces offers a number of pulp ebook downloads in .pdf, though without illustrations, save for the downloads which are all illustrations. Pulpgen is the longest-living, and largest, pulp ebook resource out there; there’s a little of everything included, though there’s a notable bias towards detective stories and comedies. The site for Black Mask Online, one of the original detective/crime pulps, also has a few downloads up.

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