Why PULP? Why PULPable?

25 Oct

pulp (n.) […]
1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.

pulp (n.)
7. A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.

PULPable has written elsewhere about the original Pulp magazines and paperbacks, and about the world that gave birth to them. But why, I hear you cry, is pulp still relevant? How does it fit into daily life, and why on Earth should you read this humble blog?

These are good questions, so hold on to your fedoras.

More important than the Pulps themselves is their legacy, a legacy of 3D movies and wizarding academies, of Dragon Tattoos and vampire novels. Whether you bought a romance paperback for 25 cents, or subscribed to Black Mask magazine to read about PIs and femmes fatales, you did so because Pulps offered the comfort of familiar, escapist entertainment. And they achieved this by being generic. Put succinctly, the Pulps gave birth to genre fiction and genre film.

At their worst, detective fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy or westerns were a “soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter” both figurativelyand literally: lacking focus or depth, they were lowest common denominator fun packaged in affordable, mass market form. But their popularity set the bar for the burgeoning entertainment industries, who recognised that, if you wanted it to be successful, it had to be generic.

For better or worse, this is still used a yardstick in the entertainment industries. Of the current top 5 hardcover and paperback books, there are arguably only a couple of titles that are not genre fiction, and half of the top ten are crime fiction. The highest grossing movies of this year tend toward fantasy, and the highest grossing movie of all time – Avatar – is a distinctly ‘soft, moist, shapeless’ heap of science fiction. But literary fiction or film doesn’t sell. To be successful, a movie or novel needs a hook, and more often than not that hook is genre.

So the Pulps gave birth to popular entertainment, and thus to pop culture. A catch-all term for a collection of modern, mass media myths and symbols – TV characters, artworks, and commercial logos, of movie quotes, video game franchises, and theme tunes – pop culture has become a short-hand for communicating about ourselves. One reference to a pop culture phenomenon immediately connects you to someone else, sets a common frame of reference, all thanks to pulp.

Why should you read PULPable? Well, because we run the gamut, from the original Pulps to politics, from art to comic books (sometimes in the same post), and from pop music to Shakespeare. If you’re new to pulp, why not check out some of our greatest hits:

And stay tuned for features on some original Pulp paperbacks, coming up later this week.


The legacy of pulp is difficult to escape: movie franchises breath new and popular life into vampires and wizards, 3D glasses return to cinemas, and bestseller lists swarm with Hornets’ Nests and Dragon Tattoos.

PULP Peril: Choose Your Own Adventure & Save the Day!

19 Jul

Welcome to the beginning of the first paragraph of the latest PULPable post. You decide to:

1. Continue reading: Then go to the second paragraph.
2. Stop reading: Then go back to the beginning of the first paragraph.
3. Scan the post without really reading it: Then go to the last paragraph.

If you’ve made it this far, then congratulations. It’s most likely, if you did choose option 1, that you grew up in the 1970s or ’80s, at the height of the Choose Your Own Adventure books’ popularity. Either that, or you are a loyal reader (and you shall be rewarded.)

Though the original CYOA series was conceived in the late 1960s by Edward Packard, the stories

Prisoner of the Ant People

owe as much to pulp adventure tales, comic books and schlock movies as to Packard’s unique format for entertaining his kids. The story in any given book is mainly there to provide a backdrop for the readers’ own choices and actions, and as such, genre fiction was the author’s friend. Taking detective noir, science fiction and westerns, pirates, historical fiction and fantastic quests, each writer could play out stock tales whilst still allowing the reader exciting choices at the end of each chapter or page.

The greatest advocate for the series after Edward Packard vacated the author’s chair was RA Montgomery. Though Montgomery saw the series primarily as an educational tool, his books reveled in pulp silliness. The blurb for Prisoner of the Ant People, a sci-fi CYOA with a B-movie title, tells us in the customary second person:

You and your Martian friend Flppto are members of the Zondo Quest Group II. Your group’s mission is to combat the Evil Power Master, who is slowly but surely working to gain control over the entire Universe. Your group battles on tirelessly and often succeeds in stopping the Evil Power Master’s plans. Today, though, most of your team members turned up missing. Have they fallen into the clutches of the Ant People, who are some of the Power Master’s most faithful minions?

Whether or not you defeated the Bad Guy, he was to return in a sequel the following year, a CYOA book with an equally brilliant title: War with the Evil Power Master.

War With the Evil Power Master

Over the years, the number of possible endings that readers were given declined, and the stories became increasingly linear. Whether Packard’s concept had created a more decisive generation or not, it had, at the very least, kept their imaginations fertile by populating it with pulp.

Since the early 1970s, when the Choose Your Own Adventure concept first took off,  popular entertainment was about to tip over into total pulp: from Star Trek to the Star Wars franchise, from spaghetti westerns to detective dramas, all the way up to the Harry Potter series, pop culture has kept pulp genres at the forefront of kids’ minds. It’s no wonder, then, that CYOA titles such as The Phantom Submarine, Secret of the Pyramids and Volcano! have survived, that they have been reissued, and that some now even appear on the Amazon Kindle.

For those of you who chose option 3, welcome to the last paragraph. You’ve reached the end of this particular Choose Your Own PULPable Post, and have missed all the excitement of aliens, ninjas, mummies, phantoms and heroes. All that’s left is for you to go to PULPable’s sister site, [untitled], home to “Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]“, a detective noir Choose Your Own Adventure. Do you:

1. Click through to [untitled]
2. Go back to PULPable‘s homepage
3. Save the day, and become a hero.

DLR, 7.19.10

PULP in Print: A Nearly First Edition “The Big Sleep”

15 Mar

There is most likely an equation out there which calculates how much a first edition book is worth based on the popularity of the title in question. If you plugged in Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep, this equation would turn out a rather large figure.

The Big Sleep first adorned pulp fan’s bookshelves in 1939, and first editions of Chandler’s first novel fetch absurdly high prices on an inflated, interactive marketplace such as the internet.

Forum Books 1st ed. "The Big Sleep", 1946

But with the release of the Bogart and Bacall picture in 1946, Warner Brothers and Forum Books reissued the novel, replete with a slimline dust cover featuring stills from the movie and a bold, colour-blocked pulp design. And I unearthed a 1946 first edition of this original movie tie-in this weekend in Boston’s Brattle Bookshop, which was then purchased for me, kindly and as an early birthday gift, by Darby O’Shea.

Published by Forum Books, the cover boldly proclaims it:

“The novel from which the Warner Bros. film was made, starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall.

The inside front cover, with black and white movie stills

Humphrey and Lauren adorn the cover as detective Philip Marlowe and femme fatale Vivian, but the inside front and back covers feature pulpy stills from the film, the edges of each image blurring into black and fading into another image beside it. The inside front cover blurbs the story in a fashion which Chandler would be proud of:

“Marlowe, the detective, – shrewd, strong, and incorruptible, the healthy force amid the shadows and whispers – is called in to break a blackmail case and ends up to his neck in a series of murders.”

The Cast of "The Big Sleep". Click to enlarge.

Being a movie tie-in series (and, no doubt, one of the first publishers to team with a studio in reissuing titles that were being filmed), the book proper begins with a list of the movie’s cast, from Bogart and Bacall all the way down to Taxicab Driver.

I shall enjoy its ruffled and discoloured pages sleeping the big sleep on my bookshelves.

DLR, 3.15.10

PULP Pictures: Sometimes, Judge a Book by its Cover

23 Feb

Pulp is, if nothing else, all about style. Though the writers who came to be to pulp’s  greatest stars – Chandler, Conan Doyle and Hammett among others – paid their dues at Black Mask, The Strand, The Argosy or Ellery Queen, their subsequent success was borne as much of pulp stylings as of their own literary abilities.

Today PULPable is taking a look at some of pulp’s progenitors and at some unliterary, lurid, and outright entertaining pulp books found in the PULPable library.

The Crime of  the Century, or the Assassination of Dr Patrick Henry Cronin

The Crime of the Century

A definite predecessor to pulp magazines and a testament to the fascination with both detective and criminal (think Les Miserables and the Jack the Ripper fever gripping London), The Crime of the Century is the true story of Dr Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish immigrant to late 19th Century Chicago, who was murdered and found stuffed into a trunk abandoned at the side of a dirt road.

Published in 1889, the inside front cover of the book has a testament from an official as to its accuracy as a record of the crime and trial of the Cronin case, however the official is never identified and the reader is not informed just how official our official is. As the front pages tell us (see the picture below),

Frontispiece for The Crime of the Century. Click to enlarge.

Apart from its value as a history of a celebrated case, the story itself is of thrilling and fascinating interest.

There is so little documentation on this book that it must be a one-off record by a no-name journalist (though author Henry Hunt is “A noted journalist” according to the inside cover). But the lurid descriptions and intimations of Chicago mob involvement do make this an enjoyable case of “A Crime That Shocked a Civilized World”!

Man’s Grim Justice: my life outside the law, by James Callahan

Less rare than noted journalist Henry Hunt’s book is Man’s Grim Justice,

Man's Grim Justice: My Life Outside the Law

which may win the award for best pulp book title of the 20th Century. Published in 1928 by Kingsport Press in Tennessee, there is once again a preface by an official, namely Ex-Governor and D.A. for New York state, Charles S. Whitman, attempting to affirm the validity of the tale.

However, Whitman seems less interested in the truthfulness of Jack Callahan’s story of gang-crime spreading across the US than in what the tale might tell us about criminal prosecution:

I have never met the author and have never before heard of him. The book itself is by no means a literary production. The narration of very dramatic incidents may seem to some at times unconvincing… Disagreeable as the narrative is, I hope that this book will be widely read.

If you only read one chapter of one quasi-true pulp biography this year, make it chapter 6 of Man’s Grim Justice, niftily titled “Nitroglycerine comes into Vogue”.

The G-String Murders

Purportedly written by infamous burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (though, once again, this is an issue up for debate),

The G-String Murders

The G-String Murders was published at the height of pulp magazines’ popularity in 1941. Backstage at the Old Opera burlesque club, strippers are being murdered, strangled with their own g-strings, left hanging from the theatre’s rafters. The lurid cover speaks to the lurid, hilarious and surprisingly graphic descriptions of bumping, grinding, and dying found throughout Gypsy’s pages.

The story starts as it means to go on:

Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway… As long as I live, I’ll remember seeing that bloated, bluish face, the twisted, naked body, and the glitter of a G string

Gypsy Rose Lee

hanging like an earring from the swollen neck.

Whether our burlesque beauty was indeed the writer of The G-String Murders, the book is a much more entertaining piece of pulp fiction that it has any right to be.

Death of a Doxy

Though he never ascended to the heights of Hammett or Chandler, Rex Stout’s writing spanned a period from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s and as such lived through and beyond the era of pulp magazines and schlock short stories that had been the birth of his genre. His protagonist, Nero Wolfe,

Death of a Doxy

was a detective as much of the mind as of the fist, and Wolfe almost exclusively conducted his investigations from within his own house, leaving the legwork to his assistant (and narrator) Archie Goodwin. But Wolfe could still crack wise like his predecessors:

“My sister was a what?”
“D,O,X,Y, doxy. I happen to like that better than concubine or paramour or mistress. I don’t —”
“I stopped because I had to, to protect my face.”

Published in 1966 – a late Wolfe novel – Death of a Doxy displays proudly its ’60s origins in boxy, colour-blocked, square-lettered design. The thoroughly modern PI, Wolfe used books and his well-read, well-mannered style to detect the killers.

And, like Wolfe, even the best detectives know that, sometimes, you have to judge a book by its cover.

DLR 2.23.10

PULP Peculiarities: Robert B. Parker’s “Poodle Springs”

22 Feb

With the death of Robert B. Parker this January, the last of the old-school, hard-boiled detective authors may have joined his predecessors in sleeping the big sleep.

Robert B. Parker had been a fixture

Robert B. Parker

on the noir scene since his debut novel in 1973, The Godwulf Manuscript.Clipped, swift and flatly descriptive, and yet with a Chandleresque penchant for a pun, Parker’s prose was clearly influenced by both Ray and Dashiell Hammett. And beyond Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Parker’s protagonist Spenser (immortalised in Spenser: For Hire in the ’80s) is probably the most popular PI in detective fiction.

But Parker’s most peculiar novel was destined to feature Marlowe. In 1958, Raymond Chandler was working on a tale he had named “The Poodle Springs Story”. Though his previous novel, Playback, had not been a great hit, Chandler decided that Marlowe was to pair off with Playback‘s femme fatale and marry.

The first of just two editions of "Poodle Springs"

Left unfinished at his death in 1959, Chandler’s estate approached Robert B. Parker in the 1980s to complete the book.

Poodle Springs is a strange beast. With only four chapters completed by Chandler, the remainder of the novel becomes, gradually and understandably, Parker’s. Marlowe in the 50s comes close to merging with 1970s-80s Spenser, the wisecracking Boston private eye who is dedicated, unlike most PIs, to one woman.

Yet it is not Marlowe’s uncharacteristic marriage that grates as much as it is the locale: you can take the man out of LA,

Raymond Chandler and Taki, his Persian cat

but you can’t take LA out of the man. Chandler wrote as much about Los Angeles as he did about Philip Marlowe, just as Parker’s descriptions of metro Boston are as important to the Spenser novels as his protagonist.

In the end, it is not Poodle Springs that places Parker beside Chandler in the line of noir succession, but his lean, wisecracking prose and his breathing literary life into this city. Though Ray, clearly, did not agree, saying “I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday.”

DLR 2.22.10

Pulp Pictures: Guy Ritchie & “Sherlock Holmes” Detective Fever!

21 Dec

When Sherlock Holmes comes to the silver screen this Christmas, brace yourself for howls of protest. Guy Ritchie’s revisionist Holmes will no doubt unearth a school of Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiasts happy bemoan both the homoerotic subtext and the protagonist’s anachronistic headgear. But, trilbies and sex aside, this particular detective is the most portrayed movie character and is clearly an icon as durable as they come.

PULPable‘s previous forays into the icon of the detective placed the real-life detective police of Victorian England at the beginning of a pulp time line. Scotland Yard’s finest fascinated Charles Dickens, who described them as “respectable-looking men of unusual intelligence”. From their inception in 1843, the detectives employed phrenology, physiognomy and psychology to reconstruct crimes, foreshadowing Darwin’s belief that “every complex structure [is] the summing up of many contrivances”. For more on the original gumshoes, read PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction here.

“Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist was the maestro of summing up contrivances and reaching a natural conclusion.

Original illustration for the death of Holmes, by Sidney Paget

Conan Doyle had begun writing in the Pulp magazines of the late 19th Century, and in 1887 readers first picked up The Strand Magazine to read his Holmes and Watson stories. The good Doctor related Holmes’ tales, while the detective strung together in turn his own narrative from the smallest deductions. Illustrations breathed life into an icon and created the archetypical sleuth. What Guy Ritchie’s detractors may be forgetting is that Dime Magazines and Penny Dreadfuls were very much the mindless action movies of their day.

The 20th Century embraced the detective zeal: Pulps such as The Strand and The Argosy blended familiarity and exoticism in the name of entertainment, inventing genres in just about every issue. Dashiell Hammett became the dean of hard-boiled noir in Black Mask and “gave murder back to the people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse”, while Philip Marlowe slummed it with ne’er-do-wells and strutted with Hollywood actresses while exposing the underside of L.A. in the early 20th Century.

In his original issue trenchcoat, the noir detective brought to the cinema aisles a black and white moral certitude. As much as Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant might bring stylised masculinity and self-conscious hamminess to their films, the Holmesian mechanics of mystery made their way onto television in the form of classic whodunits and scene-of-the-crime detection shows ranging from Columbo to CSI. Forensics and post-Freudian psychology had grown in importance and while the 1940s heydey of detective noir had waned, Conan Doyle’s sense of “eliminate the impossible…” had become accepted science, bolstered as it was by forensic evidence and the discovery of DNA. Bringing justice to an increasingly anarchic world, all in the name of entertainment, the detective had survived.

In the first true detective novel, The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins asked his readers, “do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.” No matter how bad the movie may (and almost certainly will be), who in all honesty could object to Robert Downey, Jr. playing himself, playing a movie producer’s comic book version of Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s Victorian London? The fever, it seems, has yet to be fully extinguished.

PULP Pop: David Bowie, the Deconstructing Star

8 Dec

It is 1996, and onto the stage amid flashing spasms of light and a near-deafening crush of guitar noise and thumping drums steps a slender figure in a tailcoat and topped with a red field of spiked hair.

The music is hectic, noisy, industrial, the words paranoiac and obsessing over the end of the century, and the singer—who has made a career out of performing as a schizoid cultural commentator—is David Bowie.

When the album Outside was released in 1995, it was both a culmination of and an attempt at deconstructing the various themes that Bowie had focused on for much of his career. As Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke he had been a single character made out of composite parts, but on Outside he was playing many characters in order to compose a layered narrative. The sleeve notes showed Bowie in the guise of each character—“art detective” Nathan Adler, victim Baby Grace, “female goodtime drone” Ramona A. Stone and old man Algeria Touchshriek—but the songs did not move linearly through a storyline.

Instead, Bowie’s listeners were co-opted into a cyberpunk noir, where Nathan Adler investigated the “art ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue”. The result was a sprawling, overly-long album with spoken word tracks and guitar and drum-heavy textures created in the studio by Bowie and his band—notably guitarist Reeves Gabrels—alongside former collaborator Brian Eno. The fin-de-siècle worries were clear in refrains such as I Have Not Been to Oxford Town’s “Toll the bell, pay the private eye/ All’s well, twentieth century dies”, and it was never clear which character was the voice of each song.

Part musical theatre like Diamond Dogs, greatly performative like Ziggy Stardust, but this time more fragmented, Outside deconstructed David Bowie’s own thematic history and dissected his former personas—Major Tom, Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke—until they were mere sonic and verbal fragments of the twentieth century.

From the outset, Bowie had been conspicuously aware of his influences and content to poach elements from other sources in order to create a stage presence. His early albums, David Bowie (1967) and Space Oddity (1969) moved from music hall camp to an attempt at Dylanesque folksiness—Bowie even sporting a sandy blond perm and an acoustic guitar—and then to proto-heavy metal on The Man Who Sold The World (1970). With 1971’s Hunky Dory Bowie wore his influences on his sleeve, with songs for Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, his half-brother Terry and Bob Dylan filling the second half of the record.

But with Ziggy Stardust he became an arch constructor of pop out of fiction, philosophy, music and anything else that was found on the cutting room floor of 60s rock ‘n roll. Ziggy was based primarily on Vince Taylor, a singer whose decline into drugs and religious delusion no doubt played a major part in Ziggy’s messianic message, but Taylor sat alongside Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan in the mix. “I’m an instant star,” Bowie has said. “Just add water and stir.”

The first genuine rock star of the 1970s, just as David Bowie was interchangeable with Ziggy Stardust, images of Bowie or Ziggy were interchangeable with the real thing. Performing as a rock star equated, in essence, to being a rock star. As the 1990s red-haired, bespoke-tailored and svelte version of Bowie took to the stage during the Outside tours, there was little doubt that his appearance was referencing the style of both the Ziggy and the Aladdin Sane tours more than twenty years earlier.

During 1996 the Outside touring band took to the studio to record new material that had been written on the road. Released in 1997, the result was Earthling, an album that captured the vitality of the band while infusing some energy into the less accessible parts of Outside. Techno beats and electronic instrumentation were welded to more traditional rock song structures, and where its predecessor included split personas, Earthling focused on Bowie’s status as an ‘outsider’ in a more personal way.

Battle for Britain and I’m Afraid of Americans placed ex-pat angst in the foreground, and Dead Man Walking and Seven Years in Tibet referenced films while in turn acknowledging that, “now I’m older than movies”, this particular earthling had tipped over into his 50s. Little Wonder and Looking for Satellites also poked fun at Bowie’s search for the spiritual other, for escape into the alienesque, all to the pump of jungle beats.

The main contributor to the moody atmospherics and hollow guitar crunch of Outside, Brian Eno was absent for the Earthling sessions. In 1977, Eno had helped breath some electronic life into Bowie’s songwriting by collaborating with him on Low. Though Bowie had killed off Ziggy in ‘73, his spectre lived on through Diamond Dogs (1974) and was only drowned in alcohol and cocaine as Bowie recorded Young Americans and Station to Station in 1975 and 1976. Low amounted to sonic rehab for a rock star whose interest in the artifice of pop music had turned him into a real-life drug-addled wreck.

Drying out in Berlin, Bowie turned to Brian Eno’s synthesizers and eccentric approach to studio musicians to help debunk and banish from the process his various personas. The resultant trilogy, Low, “Heroes” (also 1977) and Lodger (1979) were free of the constraints of a second personality hanging over both Bowie’s songs and the band’s tours. As another step in the recovery program, several Ziggy Stardust tracks were performed on the 1978 world tour in the original album sequence.

And with Mike Garson back on board from the Aladdin Sane era, the Outside and Earthling tours pulled the dust covers off some older tracks and incorporated them into the new sets. Aladdin Sane’s title track resurfaced, as did Andy Warhol, instrumental V-2 Schneider (now a techno track) and Repetition, from the Lodger album. Bowie’s band revisited these songs, often performing them in vastly different versions and integrating into them the industrial noise and desperate drum and bass lines from the two last albums.

By Outside’s release in 1995, Bowie had begun again to take the role of outsider, a role that he had stepped away from during a mostly mainstream and predominantly bad 1980s. He had turned himself into a rock star through pretense and aesthetics, and had then been consumed by Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke until a sonic rejuvenation with the Berlin trilogy. By appropriating his own history and reconstructing it piece by piece with Outside and Earthling, he had performed a similar feat of revival.

Outside juxtaposed Bowie’s commentary on the end of the century, on the end of life and on a new kind of art with dehumanising industrial sounds and overwhelming guitars. When Earthling picked up the baton, lead guitar solos and choruses had returned, the deconstructed sonic landscape had begun to reform, and the album felt more vital, more punchy, happy to be an earthling again, but happier still to remain on the outside, looking in.