Earlier this summer, I spent a vacation surrounded by thousands of old pulp magazines and about 400 collectors, readers, writers and artists.
Every year, I take a week off in July and head for Columbus, Ohio, where the annual Pulpfest convention is held at the Hyatt Regency downtown.
Pulpfest is a four-day event dedicated to the fiction magazines published from 1896 to 1958, when Texas Rangers, the last pulp, ceased publishing.
I love reading this stuff, and I have everything from copies of 1920s Argosy issues to 1930s hero pulps like Doc Savage and The Shadow.
The pulps covered every genre imaginable, from adventure to detective, horror, science-fiction, western and romance.
Issues were printed on rough wood-pulp paper, which gave them their name, and contained novels and short stories by a variety of writers who were paid 1 or 2 cents a word. Artists painted bright covers that usually depicted an action scene from one of the stories.
Many pulps serialized novels in five, six or seven installments to get readers coming back every week or every month.
It’s hard to believe that writers such as H. Bedford-Jones and Talbot Mundy were once among the most popular in the nation, yet today few have heard of them.
Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who died this year, got his start writing for pulp magazines. So did Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Hopefully, readers of this newspaper have heard of at least some of those guys.
Howard created Conan of Cimmeria for Weird Tales Magazine, and a new Conan movie came out a couple years ago. Burroughs wrote about Tarzan of the Apes in All-Story Magazine, and a new Tarzan movie is in the works now.
Burroughs’ other creation, John Carter on Mars, had his own movie in 2011, but the studio, Disney, didn’t promote it very well, and it died at the box office. Good film, though.
The 1912 issue of All-Story that Tarzan debuted in is the most valuable pulp, and copies go for $5,000 and up. Nothing else in all of pulpdom fetches prices like that, though.
At Pulpfest, I paid $10 for a 1938 issue of Argosy with a Theodore Roscoe novella, “Ghoul’s Paradise.” That’s probably an average price for a pulp, with prices dropping for issues through the 1940s and ‘50s.
Roscoe was another celebrated author of the pulps, and his biographer, Audrey Parente, was at the conference. Her book on Roscoe, who was her neighbor in New Jersey, is in print from Altus Press.
Roscoe’s zombie novels would probably be popular today, if they were in print. “A Grave Must Be Deep” gave me the shivers when I first read it; it was serialized in Argosy in 1934, and reprinted once in the 1980s.
The other one, “Z is for Zombie,” from 1937, was never reprinted. Parente thought we should get the rights and see if bringing Roscoe’s zombie stories back into print would sell many copies. Roscoe’s Thibault Corday of the Foreign Legion stories that Altus reprinted in four volumes are selling really well, publisher Matt Morning told us at the convention, so maybe there’s something to that.
“Theodore Roscoe was my neighbor, but I didn’t know who he was,” Parente said. “He told me he used to write for the pulps, so I read some of his stuff. He was really good, and after that I decided there should be a book about his life.”
Zombies were a popular theme in the pulps, and I just finished “The Shriveling Murders,” a novel from the third issue of Doctor Death Magazine in 1935.
In the Doctor Death series, a madman with the ability to revive the dead and call forth supernatural creatures decides to turn the world away from technology and starts a campaign of destruction. If you really had those powers, world domination would be an anticlimax, I think.
The level of technology available in the 1930s also doesn’t seem very high to us now, but I guess it’s all relative.
Anyway, Altus also has those in print, including two written by author Harold J. Ward but never printed in the magazine before it folded.
One of the most popular pulp-magazine heroes was Doc Savage, a genius whose father raised him from the cradle to be a protector of humanity. He was skilled in every science and took a daily regimen of special exercises intended to keep him in fine physical shape.
He needed to be in shape, after encounters with villains who could dissolve human flesh, create clouds of absolute darkness, command hordes of large vampire bats and turn men mad with a strange blue meteor they’d found in Tibet.
The titles of some of the 181 novels are still thrilling: “Resurrection Day,” “He Could Stop the World,” “The Man Who Fell Up,” “The Vanisher,” “The Spook Legion” and “Land of Always-Night.”
A Doc Savage movie is in pre-production now, with Shane Black set to direct. Black says he’ll keep the setting in the 1930s, because that’s where the stories belong. Doc Savage Magazine ran from 1933 to 1949, when publisher Street & Smith canceled all of its pulps except for Astounding Stories.
One facet of Pulpfest is the dealer room, where dozens of vendors sell pulps, old paperbacks, cover paintings, reprints and even T-shirts with popular pulp heroes silk-screened on the front.
I always wander around and visit with many of the dealers and publishers who’ve become my friends.
Ed Hulse runs Murania Press, and he is a respected authority on old movie serials and silent films. He publishes Blood ‘n’ Thunder Magazine, a quarterly journal devoted to pulps and old films.
“Pulpfest continues to be Ground Zero for devotees of the escapist fiction that has mightily influenced our pop culture,” Hulse said.
“This is the 80th anniversary of the 1933 hero-pulp explosion that gave us Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and His Battle Aces, The Phantom Detective, Pete Rice, The Lone Eagle, and the revived Nick Carter. The single-character magazines not only energized the Depression-weary pulp industry, but they continued to influence pop culture long after they ceased publication.”
Walker Martin is one of the top pulp collectors in the country, with complete runs of Black Mask, Dime Detective, Adventure, Unknown Worlds and others.
I’m also one of the few with a complete run of Unknown, which printed some of the finest fantasy ever between covers. The 2007 movie, “The Last Mimsy,” was based on a story by Henry Kuttner from Unknown.
Martin arrives with other pulp collectors in a big white van they rent for the occasion in New Jersey.
“Since I couldn’t sleep the night before, I got up at 4 a.m. and waited for the van to arrive,” he said. “We have to rent a van because a normal car will not hold all our acquisitions.”
Martin’s favorite pulps are the big four anthology titles: Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book and Short Stories.
“When I think about the pulps, which I have been collecting for many decades now, I’m impressed about the excellent quality of much of the fiction,” he told me. “We now live in what I call the Golden Age of Pulp Reprints, and there are several publishers reprinting some fine material. You don’t have to be a collector of the magazines to be a reader of pulp fiction.”
Newsstands, something now found mostly in major cities and Barnes & Noble stores, were everywhere in the first half of the 20th century.
“We sometimes forget that at one time, pulp magazines ruled the newsstands, and the buyer had his choice of dozens of titles,” Martin said. “I mean, think of it, for almost 30 years, Short Stories magazine came out every two weeks like clockwork. From 1921 to 1949, the magazine published all sorts of excellent adventure, mystery and western fiction.
“The great detective pulps like Black Mask or the great science-fiction magazines like Astounding were full of great fiction that is now being reprinted so many years later.”
Martin puts Weird Tales and Unknown in the top 10, but his favorite is Adventure.
“If I had to pick the best fiction magazine ever published it would be Adventure, especially during the 1920s, when editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman paid top rates for the best adventure fiction.”
Pulp historians say it was television that killed the pulps. The first network shows appeared in 1948, and suddenly people found they could tune in to a variety of programs to be entertained, instead of sitting around reading fiction that required a lot more intellectual effort.
Me, I still like to read.
Email Lohr McKinstry:firstname.lastname@example.org
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For more information, visit www.pulpfest.com and www.pulpcomingattractions.com.