Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Pulp Magazines Project

The kind of fantasy fiction best loved by many of us in the old school originated in the magazines popular in the early 20th century known as "pulps" because of the low-grade paper that they were printed on. Aside from the most assiduous collectors, most of us only read the pulp stories out of context, reprinted in anthologies or web pages that frequently lose the original artwork and never have the context - the editorials, the letter columns, the advertisements, and the other stories that surrounded them.

Fortunately, the Pulp Magazines Project fixes this for us. It's a terrific resource, collecting pulp magazines that have gone into public domain for one reason or another. It's fun to read and flip through these in PDF form (the "flipbook" reader is a bit annoying for me), and soak in the classic magazines.

Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories is a major touchstone in science fiction history; it basically created the genre, even giving it its name in the early form of "scientifiction." The site only has a handful of issues from Amazing's run, but still manages to capture its very early days and crucial material. It started with reprints, but pretty soon had seminal authors.

For fantasy fans, unquestionably the most important magazine here is Weird Tales. This was the magazine that was home to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, and the literary circle around them – Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith. Howard committed suicide in June 1936, and Lovecraft passed of an illness in March of 1937; this happens to coincide with the period of Weird Tales that are on the Pulp Magazines Project archive. The loss of its two leading lights put Weird in hard times, and Farnsworth Wright left the magazine, which went under the stewardship of Dorothy McIlwraith. It had other worthy authors under McIlwraith, including Leiber, Kuttner's wife C.L. Moore, and Manly Wade Wellman.

It's worth reading Weird Tales closely, because it helps to put Howard and Lovecraft in context. Read in their context it's clear that they were the farthest-sighted of a like-minded group of authors. For instance, Seabury Quinn's occult detective stories featuring Jules de Grandin are quite clever and told in a gripping pulp fashion, but don't have the same level of transcendence as Lovecraft's work. Yet, side by side, we can see that Lovecraft was very much a part of this milieu.

Of course, you didn't think I'd let you get away without mentioning Planet Stories, did you? Of course not. This was very much not a pioneering magazine in the same sense as Amazing Stories or Weird Tales; the original sword & planet adventures had been published in The All-Story by Burroughs. But Planet Stories is where both Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury developed their tales of Mars, inspired of course by the Barsoom stories. Late in its run, Planet Stories also discovered a writer named Philip K. Dick, who published his first story there. Its pedigree did also include writers such as Asimov, Simak and another Appendix N writer, Frederic Brown. The emphasis on adventure didn't stop harder science fiction ideas.

I like these magazines for three reasons. First, they're full of great adventure stories. Modern genre fiction is too wrapped up in epics and has trouble just getting down to a good adventure where the protagonist is in trouble pretty much the whole time. You get it in the old, short novels that were often just several stories strung together by a thread of a plot, but it really is lacking in bigger and more complex novels.

Second, you wind up reading authors you wouldn't have otherwise. This is a great side effect of the anthology form, and it's more pronounced here. There are people in these magazines I've never heard of, but with a short story it's always worth giving them a try. Even anthologies are only preserving selected authors who appealed to the anthologist; reading the raw form of the pulps gets you some good obscure authors, and also some clunkers

Third, I am always fascinated by seeing these things in their original context. Advertisements of all sorts litter the pages; a sophisticated reader might filter them out, but it's worth pausing once in a while to drink in the environment where the stories we love originally appeared. Similarly all the letter columns, where curious readers inquire about stories and offer their opinions; it's a bit of a lost art nowadays. And of course those wonderfully pulp illustrations.

So there you have your weekend's reading, and perhaps for many weekends to come after that. Enjoy, and feel free to point out any great finds in the comments.


  1. Great post. Thanks for the pointer on that site, I'd never heard of it before. Any particular issues of Weird Tales you'd recommend starting with?

    1. The second issue they have up there (Oct. 1936) contains stories by Bloch, Kuttner and Moore, so that's as good a place as any to start.


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.