What is pulp fiction, anyway? Immediately the lurid color illustrations of pulp magazines covers depicting a damsel in some sort of distress or at least dominating the picture plane and advertising an unspoken prurience come to mind. For many, the bygone era of pulp fiction was reading entertainment before movies, radio and then television replaced that particular skill. No one reads anymore, but despite that fact, writers still write. The kind of fiction that appeared in the pulp magazines of the 20s, 30s, postwar 40s is still being written but it has been resurfaced and streamlined to reflect much more of society and the world at large than the underworld demimonde that was largely the subject and landscape of the pulp genre’s narrative. Whatever designation anyone might want to tack on to it, pulp is a unique American prose style based on the economy of storytelling needed to fit into the word count constraints of the magazines that published them. Many of those pulp writers were also journalists skilled in succinctness and cutting to the chase. While much of the writing could be considered uncouth, déclassé, or trash, the penny-a-word hacks churned out a kind of fantastic storytelling that’s been around since practically the invention of writing (if one is to believe Mikhail Bakhtin). In more modern times it can be traced to the serials of Alexander Dumas appearing in the popular press and the cheap editions of Jules Vern’s fantastical adventure novels. Crime fiction itself has an American origin, in Baltimore, from the pen of Edgar Allen Poe. The superstars of that genre, Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner, were published in the highly respected Black Mask Magazine but also in magazines like Dime Detective, and Spicy Detective. To get an idea of how those stories stand up to today’s postmodern standards, Otto Penzler’s anthologies, The Big Book of Pulps and The Big Book of Black Mask Stories are a good place to start. An abundance of irony and a certain cynicism set the requisite tone. There are only bad people and less bad people and they don’t even think of themselves in that way. The modern gaze is blurred in discerning right from wrong because we inhabit the age of relativity. It’s all very dark, particularly after the war, some might even say “noir.” Crime fiction and westerns are where the tough hombres and mujeres live, lines are drawn in the sand or around corpses and someone is always on the wrong side (or so it seems). In the early pulps, those shady characters were roughly drawn, sketchy, succinct, the dialogue terse, wisecracking, the action constant.
See what we’re talking about: