Reading Popular Literature part 4: The Pulp Era (1920-1941)
Edit: Corrected some embarrassing factual and spelling mistakes
This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.
Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.
Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.
Advances in publishing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to huge numbers of cheaply produced magazines written to appeal to the widest possible audience. By the 20s and 30s, before television and with radio still new, these magazines were a primary form of home entertainment and sold in the millions of copies. They typically cost 10 cents and were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, and thus called "pulps" to differentiate them from the more expensive, glossy-paper "slick" magazines.
The argument could be made that much of what we think of as popular fiction today was codified in the 1920s and 1930s during the boom period of the pulps. Hard boiled crime fiction, romantic stories both sentimental and lurid, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror all become recognizable in the pages of various pulp magazines. Indeed, before the pulp era, "genre" was a word commonly used to differentiate forms like poetry from prose. It was magazines like Astounding Stories (for science fiction) and Weird Tales (for horror and fantasy) that created the notion of categories of fiction separate from one another, with sets of common tropes and history. In the letter pages of these magazines and in the burgeoning hobby of ham radio, the first genre fandoms begin to arise, as people with common interests begin to find each other and communicate and eventually form the first "fan clubs."
The pulp era ended more-or-less in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's subsequent entry into the Second World War. Paper shortages caused by the war made pulp paper much more expensive, causing many of them to shut down or change format and pricing. (The war had similar impacts on the production and distribution of popular entertainment in other parts of the world as well.) Soon enough comic books, television and the paperback revolution rose up to take pulp's place as providers of cheap entertainment for the masses.
A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsey (United Kingdom - 1920) (Not finished)
I had heard a lot about David Lindsey's novel about a man who travels to a distant planet. Critic Colin Wilson called it the "greatest novel of the 20th century" and it was praised by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. Critic Harold Bloom liked it so much that he wrote a sequel, which he has since disowned.
But dear Lord did I dislike this book. I had much the same problems with it that I had with Dante way back in 2006. This book is all description and philosophizing without any care for things like plot and character, though Lindsey doesn't have anything like Dante's talent for style and poetic language. After meeting a strange man during a séance, the novel's human protagonist travels to the planet of Tormance in the Arcturus system, whose different regions are meant to represent different philosophical systems that the character moves through on his way to a kind of gnostic revelation. This movement is accompanied by weird physiological changes-- growth of a tentacle or a third arm or third eye. There are a number of fascinating notions and ideas at play here, and there's even a scene where the character flies on the back of a flying beast with a local woman past floating mountains, which seems to anticipate Avatar, but the bad writing coupled with the lack of plot and character meant it failed to hold my interest.
R.U.R. by Karel Čapek (Czechoslovakia - 1921)
One of the few plays in this series, R.U.R. (or Rossum's Universal Robots) is chiefly known for introducing the word "robot" to the world. Deriving from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor, the robots in R.U.R. are not electric machines but more like genetically engineered clones, humans scientifically built for slavery. The robots ultimately rise up and overthrow their masters, killing all the humans but one, their creator, but in the process ironically losing the instructions for creating more of themselves, thus dooming themselves to extinction. The criticism here of the recent Communist Revolution in nearby Russia is pretty explicit.
The play isn't particularly good, but is notable not only for the invention of the word but for giving the world the first robot uprising along with it.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Soviet Union (samizdat) - 1921)*
One of the early dystopian novels, We was censored by the Communist government it criticized and only published in samizdat in that country until 1988, though an English-language edition appeared in the UK in 1924. We is one of the primary influences on later books like Brave New World and 1984-- Orwell even wrote a pre-1984 essay comparing and contrasting We and BNW and openly admitted that he used We as the model for his book.
The novel takes the form of a diary that the protagonist (named D-503) is writing for inclusion on a spaceship that will be sent to an alien planet and proclaim the glory of the One State Government of Earth. In this future, everyone lives in glass buildings, so everyone can see what everyone else is doing. Marriage is illegal but people may apply to the government for sex visits, which tend to be impersonal and brief. However, outside the walls of the One State some few refugees live in savage conditions and plot rebellion. D-503 meets a rebel and is introduced to the revolutionary underground. Gradually, he is converted to the cause, and helps bring about the revolution, but is captured in the process and is given an operation that uses x-rays to destroy the parts of the brain that create emotion and imagination. Thus reintergrated into society, he witnesses the revolution in full swing and see that the future of the One State is in doubt.
It would be pointless to rattle off all the works influenced by various elements of this book besides Orwell and Huxley, from the film THX to Judge Dredd comic books and on and on ad infinitum. Influential, important, and most of all genuinely a good book.
The King of Elfland's Daughter by Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany (United Kingdom/Republic of Ireland - 1924)*
One of the early fantasy novels in the modern sense of the term, Lord Dunsany's novel takes the tendencies we've seen in previous novels of harkening back to a romantic medieval time that never was and firmly injects into it Elves and magic and enchantment from Brittain's Nordic past. Without The King of Elfland's Daughter, you simply do not get Tolkein and everything that came after. Here Dunsany gives us a witch and a magical rune-covered sword and an etherial faerie princess and a distinctive style that's still imitated by fantasy writers.
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (Soviet Union (samizdat) - 1925)*
Another samizdat text not published in its home country until the 1980s, when it was made into a film, Bulgakov's book is a reimagining of The Island of Doctor Moreau as satirical social parable. An enterprising scientist, Dr. Preobrazhensky, takes a stray dog and replaces his pituitary gland and testicles with those of a dead criminal. The dog begins to transform into a man, and proceeds to act like a horrible person, cursing and carousing and humorously causing trouble for everyone. To the doctor's horror, the dog is given a job strangling cats for the government and even marries a co-worker. The doctor persuades the woman not to marry him, and he responds by denouncing the doctor to the secret police.
It's a very funny book, and a good example of how science fiction can be used for satire.
Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirlees (United Kingdom - 1926)*
Lud is a beautiful, haunting fantasy that, in an alternate world less medieval and more rural 18th century, tells the story of ancient faerie powers reemerging after long exile. Much less arch than Dunsany, Mirlees paves the way for the mix of humor, simple language and everyday horror that would characterize the work of Neil Gaiman, who championed this book and helped bring it back into print.
"The Call of Cthulhu" by H. P. Lovecraft (America -1926)*
H.P. Lovecraft's work, with its lurking horrors and eldritch creatures, has come to define Horror fiction as we know it. This story, which Michel Huellebecq calls the first of Lovecraft's "great texts", introduced his most famous monster-- the elder god Cthulhu who sleeps beneath the ocean in the sunken city of R'lyeh, waiting to one day rise again and destroy the world. The tale is told through a labyrinth of stories within stories (Lovecraft would later influence Borges, who dedicated a story to him), tracking back clues to the ancient, terrifying truth of the creature's existence.
There's much you can criticize Lovecraft for, he was an inveterate racist (whose monsters often become stand-ins for his racial fears) and his adverb-rich style can be purple and subtle as a brick to the face. But stories like this one or "At the Mountains of Madness" or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" prove that he's every bit as chilling and imaginative a writer today as he ever was and makes it clear why he was so influential.
Armageddon 2419 AD by Philip Francis Nowlan (America - 1928)
Armageddon 2419 AD is best known for introducing the world to Anthony Rogers, who would become "Buck" Rogers in a later comic strip. In the book, the character is a WWI vet who discovers a mysterious gas in a cave that puts him in suspended animation until the titular year. There he discovers that America has been conquered by the Chinese, and joins the rebellious white folk as they take back the country using ray guns and belts that let them jump to incredible heights. Somehow, Rogers' early 20th century military experience gives him just the edge he needs to almost single-handedly overthrow the villainous Asians. The whole thing is little more than a cheap knock-off of A Princess of Mars made much, much more racist and is a painful reminder of a time when fighting for white power because of the natural superiority of the white race was a totally mainstream idea.
"Buck" Rogers is, however, an excellent example of how something derivative can morph through numerous adaptations into something much more interesting. As the character evolved over the course of comics, radio shows, television shows and movies, he turned into the iconic man-out-of-time we think of him today. It also shows how easy it is to draw a straight line from A Princess of Mars to modern fare like Farscape or Avatar. After all, Everything is a Remix. It's just how creativity works.
Gladiator by Philip Wylie (America - 1930) (Previously read)
Gladiator, on the other hand, has markedly different take on the John Carter model, placed firmly in contemporary Earth. A scientist secretly injects his pregnant wife with a formula of his own invention, giving his child superhuman strength, endurance and stamina. However, unlike other pulp figures, this does not make him a hero, but rather a pariah and perennial misfit, who only feels comfortable when he's destroying tanks in WWI (which he almost ends by himself). This is a morose and melancholy superhuman, if still melodramatic and poorly drawn, that anticipates the more thoughtful and 'realistic' takes on superheroes that would mark comics in the 1980s. It's also said that when Shuster and Siegel first tried to sell Superman in 1938, many publishers turned them down because they thought they'd be sued for selling such an obvious knock-off of Gladiator
The Strange Case of Peter the Lett by Georges Simenon (Belgium - 1931)*
One of the writers I mentioned when I discussed the five bestselling writers of all time, Simenon was one of the big crime novelists of the pulp era. This book is the first to feature his most famous detective, Maigret. So what makes this book different from the mystery/crime fiction we've discussed until now? For one, the detective works for the police and is not a Holmesian rogue agent. Nor is he absurdly virtuosic at his job. If anything, his main advantage is his dogged persistence against all odds. In the course of the investigation, one of his young officers is murdered horribly and he himself is shot, but he refuses to go to the hospital until the case is done. When the villain is finally revealed, his criminality is a result not of simple greed or evil propensity, but of a relatively complex psychological disorder, explained in scientific terms. Indeed, Maigret repeated refers to what he is doing as the science of investigation. He is, in other words, a fully 20th century man involved in a gritty, hard-boiled case, leading the way for writers like Hammett and Chandler.
Like many pulp writers, Simenon made his living by pumping out huge numbers of books and stories, reportedly upwards of 60 to 80 pages a day.
The Living Shadow by Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson) (America - 1931)
Mix the grittiness of hard-boiled crime fiction with the outlandishness of books like Fu Manchu and Zorro (created in the pulps in 1919) , and what you get is The Shadow, perhaps the most iconic of the pulp heroes of the 30s. In contrast to Fu Manchu, here it's the hero who is the creeping terror of ingenious ability, preying on criminals like a monster in the dark. The Shadow is so stealthy he can be in the same room as you without you even knowing it. His mastery of disguise is so complete he can make you think he's someone you've known for years without you ever doubting it. In the radio show, where he was portrayed by Orson Wells among others, the Shadow gets a magic ring that "clouds mens minds," but here in the original books he's so skilled he doesn't need any such thing. He's also a hero with distinctive branding-- a cloak, long-brimmed hat and hawk-like nose, a terrifying laugh and even a catch phrase-- "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? The Shadow knows."
Batman is such a blatant rip off of The Shadow that his first story in 1939 is a straight, unauthorized retelling of a Shadow story. Though preceded by John Carter, Tarzan, Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel, among other similar characters, The Shadow has a credible claim to being the first superhero.
Brave New World by Aldus Huxley (United Kingdom - 1932)*
A book commonly made required reading in schools (I was assigned it in 8th grade), Brave New World takes the Utopian threads of the time period, including free love (the 30s version), Socialist equality, and the overriding belief that science will solve all social ills, and handily skewers them. In this book, people are engineered for certain intelligence levels from birth, stupider people widely cloned and given menial jobs (like the robots in R.U.R.), while more intelligent people run the carefully ordered society. Humans are mass-bred in factories and as adults practice free, pregnancy-and-std-free love, drowning any sorrows in a perfect drug called soma. Sleep hypnotism ensures everyone behaves appropriately and is happy with their lot and social status. Into the world comes a primitive from a reservation, who revolts at its cow-like, docile people.
This book has influenced so many others it's hard to track them all. Even contemporary block-buster The Hunger Games, with its primitive regions and decadent and exploitative Capital owes quite a bit to this book.
The Man of Bronze by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent) (America - 1933) (Previously read)
If The Shadow leads directly to Batman, then Doc Savage, even moreso than Gladiator (which influenced it too), leads directly to Superman. Created to capitalize on the success of The Shadow (much as Batman was created capitalize on the success of Superman), Doc Savage, the titular Man of Bronze, is in many ways the other's opposite. While The Shadow skulks in the darkness and hides his identity, Doc is a public figure, widely admired and written about. Bred by his father to be in every way the pinnacle of human achievement, Doc is at once the strongest, bravest, smartest, most capable man in the world. His adventures are usually a matter of him and his crew facing down some new villain and methodically beating down every obstacle. Doc has a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic (nakedly ripped off by Superman) where he conducts scientific experiments and refines his keen skills. He also has his own custom prison facility when he rehabilitates those he fights against, usually through the means of a handy labotomy (Doc is indeed a medical doctor and on top of everything else one of the world's foremost surgeons). To a modern reader, Doc, of course, seems too perfect. Philip Jose Farmer wrote an interesting fake biography called Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which suggests, for instance, that Doc's repeatedly emphasized celibacy (he's married to his work) is from a deeply repressed homosexuality, which instantly makes him a much more developed character and adds layers of meaning to his behavior.
I've discussed Dent's system of writing before. He was another alarmingly prolific writer, who was known to churn out 200,000 words a month until he eventually had a nervous break-down. Moorcock calls him one of the first hard-boiled crime fiction writers.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (United Kingdom - 1934)*
Another from my most popular writers list, this book is an exemplar of the locked-room cozy mystery that Christie pioneered and excelled at. Obviously, there is a murder. On the Orient Express. It must have been one of the people in the same car as the victim. But who could it be? Methodical and scientific detective Poirot interviews each of the suspects one by one, making careful notes, charts and maps as he goes (markedly different from Holmes, who can keep everything in his head by dint of his own genius). At the end, Poirot gathers the suspects together and reveals the culprit, which reveal is at once satisfying if highly contrived.
There's probably no better single example of the codifying of genre than Christie. She takes what has come before and deftly organizes it into simple, repeatable tropes that can be used again and again without making them any less fun or readable.
The Thin Man by Daschiell Hammett (America - 1934)*
It's easy to compare Hammett to Earnest Hemingway. Both wrote around the same time period and mastered an extremely terse, adjective-light and dialog-heavy style that exemplified the show-don't-tell mode of writing. In this style, everything must be done through dialog or action, with lots of subtext and subtleties loaded between the lines. Hammett was the signature hard-boiled 30s detective writer, and while The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles may not be quite as famous as his other detective, Sam Spade, they spawned their own long series of movies. Unlike working-class Spade, husband and wife Nick and Nora are wealthy American aristocratic types who get involved in the tawdry scandals of their fellows in ever more complicated ways, with emphasis on gritty realism, lots of implied (but not depicted) tawdry sex, and buckets of witty banter.
Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith (America - 1934, 1937-38) (previously read)
Space Opera, that genre of science fiction that includes Star Wars and Star Trek both and is generally defined as melodrama in space, was invented by E.E. "Doc" Smith in his two series The Lensmen and The Skylark of Space, both serialized in Hugo Gernsback's Astounding Stories. Triplanetary is the first of the former series (a "fix-up" from stories written in 1934) and Galatic Patrol the second (serialized in 1937 and 1938), and they depict the early formation of a galactic police force armed with incredibly powerful "lenses" mounted on their wrists. These are provided by a strange, amorphous immortal species of light and good fighting an eternal battle against another strange, amorphous immortal species of darkness and evil. Under Gernsback's wing, Smith became one of the key science fiction writers of the era, and once again influenced works are too numerous to mention. You really don't get modern science fiction without him.
Unfortunately, while a very imaginative writer, Smith was also a very bad one. I mean, really, comically bad, and it was a struggle for me to get through these books. I can only imagine, though, if I were a 12-year-old when they were new and bright and shiny, I might have loved them.
The Conan stories of Robert E. Howard (America - 1932-1936)*
Robert E. Howard (like Simenon and Dent, a frighteningly prolific pulp writer) loved writing historical adventure fiction, but had trouble making a living at it and didn't have the time or resources for the heavy research involved in doing it right. Why not, he thought, write a fiction set in the time of Atlantis, before some great cataclysm wiped out civilization and it had to start again, and so he'd have a historical-type milieu without having to worry about research or anachronisms. Thus he created Kull, exile of Atlantis, and when his stories didn't sell very well, he moved the action up a few centuries and created Conan the Barbarian.
Michael Moorcock, in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance, calls Conan the first noble savage as hero. While Tarzan clearly predates and influences Conan, he is still at root a European in a savage world. In Burroughs, as well as Haggard and others, the true savage is always the Tonto-like sidekick. Conan is, however, savage through-and-though, hating and distrusting civilization even in the odd adventures when he's made ruler over it. Of course, this being 1930s America, Conan is still white, a northerner whose conception owes much to the Picts that once lived in Scotland. He is a man's man, the prototypical badass fantasy adventurer who can defeat any monster and sweep any damsel off her feet (though Howard himself eventually played with and subverted this trope). He's also remarkably amoral for a hero of the time, thinking nothing of killing those who displease him or stealing, pirating and plundering when it suits him. His stories form the template of the rollicking sword-and-sorcery adventures that would be heavily imitated, parodied and subverted in the decades to come.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein (United Kingdom - 1937) (previously read)
Tolkein would eventually transform Howard's sword-and-sorcery into what we now call epic fantasy, but not with The Hobbit, which is really a children's book not far in tone and style from Dunsany. Here a cute little Hobbit is carried off on a quest with an old wizard and bunch of dwarves to steal treasure from a dragon. It takes it's fantasy-world-before-our-world setting pretty liberally from Howard's Conan the Barbarian's Hyborian Age, but adds in lots of details culled from Tolkein's scholarly interest in Norse ethnohistory and mythology, making his world much more coherent and unified than Howard's (which the American pretty much made up as he went along).
The Sword in the Stone by TH White (United Kingdom - 1938)
The hyperbolic back copy of my edition of this book claims it is "The fantasy masterpiece by which all others are judged." In fact, there is a fantasy masterpiece by which all others are judged, but it's a trilogy written by the author of the previous book. White's Once and Future King series is popular, though, especially among children and was made into an animated film by Disney. In truth, though, I found myself disappointed by this classic retelling of the story of King Arthur. It starts off promisingly enough with young Arthur stumbling upon Merlin (who's dressed in the cheesiest possible wizard outfit complete with pointy hat and stars and moons on his robe), a wizard that seems to live backward and knows the future but not the past. But the famous scenes where Merlin educates Arthur by transforming him into animals become hopelessly didactic and boring and the final climaxes where Arthur defeats Morgan-le-Fey and then pulls the eponymous sword from the stone are so contrived and foregone that they don't really have any suspense. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd read this as a child, but for me at least, this isn't one of those books that holds up to adult reading, especially compared to The Hobbit which, for all its many faults, is at least fun to read all the way through.