Old Men and Spicy Pulps

This Saturday, I spent a couple of hours with a bunch of old men looking at pulp fiction. Not the movie Pulp Fiction, but the genre of books that I (half-)wrote about a while back. Yeah, the smutty ones.

But did you know that pulps weren’t always smutty? No siree! From the 1920s to the 1940s, pulps were actually pretty conservative, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the smutty pulp we all know and love became the norm. Pulp collectors and dealers refer to smutty pulps as the “spicies.”

How do I know this? I learned it at the Fantastic Pulps Show & Sale.

The image on this poster is R.G. Harris‘ cover art from October 1937 issue of Doc Savage. 

I don’t know much about pulps. I don’t claim to know much about pulps. When someone asks me, “Hey, do you read pulps?” I respond with something along the lines of, “No, but I think the covers are pretty.” The other person usually slinks away, thinking I’m superficial and wondering why I’m even bothering to look at the pulps when I don’t read them. But there’s just so much incredible cover art in pulp fiction that it’s hard to pass up a good pulp show or sale.

So there I was, looking at the book displays in the basement of the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (and sniffling constantly, because of all the dust), when one of the vendors asked me, “Hey, do you read pulps?”

Crap, I thought. I’m going to look like an idiot if I say no, but I’ll look like even more of an idiot if I say yes and he catches me lying the second he asks me who my favourite author is. Lose-lose, but I chose the option where I lost less. “No,” I replied. “But I think the covers are pretty.”

Maybe it was because he couldn’t go anywhere lest his table be left unmanned, but Peter didn’t slink away to judge me. Instead, he launched into a brief history of the pulps, listing his favourite authors and recalling how he got into collecting the books in the first place.

Peter was particularly passionate about author H. Bedford-Jones, “King of the Pulps,” who wrote more than one million words per year. He even deemed him the most prolific pulp writer ever. But have you heard of H. Bedford-Jones? I sure as heck hadn’t, and I told Peter as much. “It’s because he wrote under so many pseudonyms,” Peter explained. Apparently Bedford-Jones had so many pseudonyms that he once wrote almost an entire issue of Blue Book, but under a bunch of different names. This is kind of like when you go to the grocery store and you think you’re choosing between buying Kellogg’s cereal, Kashi bars, or Bear Naked oatmeal, but they’re all actually owned by the same company. It’s about maintaining the illusion of choice.
Peter told me that, at one point, Bedford-Jones had four different typewriters on the go, each for working on a different story. When Bedford-Jones ran out of ideas for one story, he would simply get up, move to another typewriter, and work on another story he ran out of ideas for that one. Then the cycle would repeat. Because he was like a frickin’ Duracell Bunny, Bedford-Jones was one of the few authors who could actually make a comfortable living wage by just writing pulp fiction.
Just as Peter was wrapping up his Ode to Bedford-Jones, an announcement was made that a pulp fiction slideshow presentation was about to begin upstairs. Peter informed me that “you don’t wanna miss that.” I had to walk up four flights of stairs for the presentation, so we quickly said our goodbyes. Right before I turned away, though, Peter added that I just had to Google Virgil Finlay‘s art (some pulp, some not) when I got a chance. I’m glad I followed his advice – here’s a sample of some Finlay:


Instead of walking up the four flights of stairs, I took the elevator. I was just not feeling the stairs that day.

As I reached the presentation room, I flopped into a chair and waited for the presentation to start. Realizing that I should be ready to take notes (yes, I’m that person), I pulled out a pen and a bunch of old receipts to write on.

Ian from Giasol Collectables, “the finest in pulp magazine reprints,” gave an informative and enjoyable 45-minute slideshow presentation, in which he spoke about some of the most notable pulp books and their covers. Often, he mentioned, pulp covers would have little – or even nothing at all – to do with the stories inside the books. Other times, two books would have similar enough stories that the same cover art could be used for both, with only minor changes. To illustrate this, Ian showed us two of Dime Mystery Magazine‘s covers – one from May 1940, and another from November 1941. The covers had the exact same foreground image, but the first background image had been changed from mermaids in tubes to a poison gas silo and an angry lady. I would love to post the images here, but I can’t find them both online. (This is why we need more digitization, people!)

That was basically what the presentation was all about, so I won’t bore you with any more details. But, rest assured, it was a good presentation. The 45 minutes flew by.

In short, on Saturday I learned a lot about pulps.

Thanks to a bunch of old men.

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