Sand Roughs #5

Winter Solstice, 2002


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 Stars of the Pulps


1. Introduction


I’m not sure when or where I first heard of "pulps." Most likely I read of them when reading about the history of comic books but I didnât take any real interest in them until Marvel Comics published Conan the Barbarian and I became hooked on the work of Robert E. Howard. Once I started reading Howard I also started reading his fellow pulp authors H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (all in paperback reprints, of course). I wanted to know more about the pulps and Weird Tales in particular. I bought Tony Goodstone’s The Pulps to satisfy this curiosity.


From reading Goodstone I learned that the first pulp was publisher Frank Munsey’s The Argosy. His was the first magazine to print fiction on rough wood-pulp paper. Other publishers followed this cost saving moneymaking formula and the era of the pulps was in full force. The pulps lasted from 1896 to 1953. The pulp hey-days were the 20s, 30s and 40s. There were 100s of different titles being published covering every known literary genre and creating some new ones in the process. The end of the pulps came in 1953 when a major distributor refused to distribute anything other than "slicks" and digest sized magazines.


After reading Robert E. Howard and other Weird Tales writers I proceeded onto Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs seems a little less the pulp writer to me than Howard for a few reasons. Not because his writing is any better but because Tarzan made a successful transition to books and movies years before I was born. Also Burroughs lacks anything like Howard’s pulp connection to Weird Tales. Weird Tales is of interest to me not just because of Howard. His camaraderie with H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Dereleth and others makes me want to read the lot of these pulp writers.


2. Weird Tales


"Few publications of any kind can claim greater artistic integrity, commitment to an audience and persistence in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles than Weird Tales." Weird Tales was started in 1923, lasted 31 years, and never made a profit. Publisher Clark Henneberger sold Weird Tales to another publisher after a year. Editor Edward Baird was replaced by Farnsworth Wright. Weird Tales was sold again in 1938 and Dorothy McIlwraith replaced Wright. The magazine suspended publication in 1954.


The best years for Weird Tales readers were arguably under Wright’s editorship. (H. P. Lovecraft was offered the job of editor before Wright but he didn’t want to move to Chicago where the editorial offices were.) Wright published the first weird fiction work of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Tennessee Williams, among others. But McIlwraith’s reign was definitely not without merit as she published Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others.


Weird Tales also had some of the finest artists in the business: Hugh Rankin, Hannes Bok, J. Allan St. John, and Margaret Brundage, among others. One of the most popular covers is the much-reproduced "Bat-Woman" painting that appeared on the October, 1933 issue. This cover is reproduced in most pulp cover collections and was used as an album cover for rock group Golden Smog’s album titled "Weird Tales."


Seabury Quinn was the most popular writer according to the then current Weird Tales readers. Quinn appeared in 165 issues of the magazines 279 issue run. Seabury Quinn’s tales of Jules deGrandin, a supernatural detective, were consistently voted the issues favorite story. Another popular write was Rev. Henry S. Whitehead. Whitehead’s stories sometimes featured a West Indies background. He was an Acting Archdeacon in the Virgin Islands, a Harvard graduate, and an ordained deacon of the Episcopal Church. But modern readers have picked H. P. Lovecraft to be the graduate with honors.


Lovecraft first appeared in the October 1923 issue of Weird Tales and was featured in several following issues. These were stories that had been written years earlier. The Nameless City written in 1921 is considered the first Cthulhu Mythos tale although the tale that gave the mythos its name, The Call of Cthulhu, didn’t appear in Weird Tales until February 1928. Lovecraft corresponded with his fellow Weird Tales writers and they contributed to his pantheon. "The Unique Magazine" produced a unique body of work.


After Lovecraft died in 1937, August Dereleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House to keep Lovecraft’s work in print. "Dereleth’s tireless championing of H. P. Lovecraft eventually paid off in some rather surprising ways. All those weird fiction anthologies he edited served not only to keep Lovecraft’s name alive, but to spread his fame among somewhat more literate circles than those of the readership of Weird Tales."


Today H. P. Lovecraft can be found in any chain bookstore with other best-selling horror writers. His work has been packaged in trade paperbacks, Penguin classics, fannish collections from publishers like Chaosium, and collected in an impressive book edited by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joyce Carol Oates.


3. The Hero Pulps


A few years passed and I started reading (then popular) science-fiction author Phillip Jose Farmer for his Tarzan related stuff and got hooked on Doc Savage and other pulp heroes in the process. After trying Doc, I tried the Shadow, the Spider, G-8, and the Avenger. I only read one book a piece for most of these other characters though. Perhaps I like the idea of "hero pulps" more so than actually reading them.


The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison is a nice history of the major and some minor hero pulps. The book gives a nice introduction into just what these "cheap pulp paper sandwiched between eye-searing covers" product meant to the masses that bought them. Luckily a lot of the best work from the pulps was reprinted in paperbacks decades later. Following the layout of The Great Pulp Heroes, I will go over some of the major pulp heroes.


One of the most popular pulp heroes was The Shadow. The Shadow sold well and spawned comics, big little books, and several movie serials. The Shadow started as a mysterious voice on Street & Smith’s Detective Story radio show. The radio show was used to publicize their magazine line. Fans of the radio show became interested in this "Shadow" character.


Walter Gibson, a newspaperman and part-time magician, was given the task of creating this "Shadow" character in print. The first story kept the Shadow in the shadows and featured Harry Vincent as a desperate man who becomes involved with the Shadow and his band of operatives. The story, The Living Shadow, appeared in the first issue of The Shadow dated April 1931under the Maxwell Grant pseudonym and was an immediate hit. Gibson went on to write 283 Shadow adventures (only a fraction of his output as a writer!)


The Shadow became the star of his own radio show that was even more popular than the pulp. The radio Shadow and the pulp Shadow were slightly different in that on the radio the Shadow was Lamont Cranston. In the pulps Lamont Cranston was a ruse identity. The Shadow was really an aviator named Kent Allard. (Phillip Jose Farmer in his book Tarzan, Alive suggested that Kent Allard had multiple personalities and was also the pulp heroes, the Spider and G-8; he backtracked from this after fan disapproval.)


Sales of the pulp declined as ratings for the radio show increased. Elements from the radio show crept into the pulps. An author named Bruce Elliot replaced Walter Gibson. Gibson was brought back in 1949 for three issues but the end was at hand. After 325 issues, The Shadow pulp was no more. The radio show lasted until 1954, lingering in the public’s mind even longer.


The Shadow was unable to sustain his popularity but the vigilante hero remains a standard fixture in popular entertainment. Batman, being the Shadow’s most obvious successor. (Of course, the Shadow had his precedents in characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro.) The Charles Bronson character in the Death Wish movie series is a good example of a modern vigilante hero. There is a brief Shadow reference in that film if you look hard enough. The Shadow was resurrected for a movie in 1994. Alec Baldwin played Lamont Cranston/The Shadow in a movie directed by Russell Mulcahy of Highlander fame. It was a mildly entertaining movie that mucked with the Shadow’s history to the dismay of hardcore fans.


The next most popular hero was Street & Smith’s Doc Savage. Clark Savage, Jr., the scientific superman was created by Lester Dent, writing under the house name, Kenneth Robeson. Street & Smith, head honchos, Henry Ralston and John Nanovic created the basic outlines of the character in a 30 page outline given to Dent.


Dent added his own unique outlook, Doc’s five helpmates (and later Doc’s beautiful cousin, Patricia Savage) and created the first Doc novel, The Man of Bronze published in the March 1933 issue of Doc Savage magazine. Dent wrote 165 of the 181 issues. Doc was never as successful as the Shadow in other mediums but the pulps sold just as well and sometimes better. Doc’s magazine began a sales descent in the 40’s. Doc’s adventures became a bit more realistic and less was seen of his five comrades. Doc’s final adventure in the summer of 1949 was a blast back to the science-fiction fantasy of earlier days with Doc venturing into Hell to fight evil at its source.


Dent died years before Bantam’s paperback reprinting of the series. The James Bama covers were a hit with new Doc fans but the old guard criticized them. "Phillip Jose Farmer wrote that Bama’s Doc looked to him like a 55-year-old ex-Mr. Universe down on his luck."


Doc Savage: Arch Enemy of Evil by Larry Widen and Chris Miracle is a great reference to Doc’s adventures. The book gives a nice introduction to Doc and his amazing 5 plus Pat Savage. The book proceeds to reproduce each one of the 181 pulp magazine covers (B &W, alas; I’m a big fan of the covers from the "Science Detective" period and would have loved color reproductions) and gives a brief synopsis of each adventure. It then gives a short bio of Lester Dent. The book then goes onto discuss the Bantam paperback reprints. The artists, particular James Bama, are discussed. Bama is to Doc as Frazetta is to Conan. Bantam published a "found" adventure, The Red Spider, as part of the series, giving Doc a total of 182 adventures.


As mentioned before, Doc Savage was a successful pulp but never really a successful crossover to radio, comic books, or movies. Street & Smith altered the Doc character in comics to make him more of a standard superhero in the 40’s without success. Marvel Comics adapted the character in the 70’s using the James Bama look. Doc was finally brought to the movie screen in a 1975 movie produced by Science-Fiction movie pioneer George Pal and starring ex-Tarzan actor, Ron Ely. The movie was a low-budget affair and probably because of this "camp" elements were added. A John Phillips Sousa music score was the worst offender. The movie is fine when it adheres to its pulp source. The post credits opening scene with a Mayan warrior scaling a skyscraper attempting to assassinate Doc is effective and the chase scene that follows is a real highlight. Some of the "camp" elements are even good. Doc and Monja’s "love scene" works well. Doc, instead of kissing her, cutely taps her chin and says, "Monja, you’re a brick." This is genuinely funny and consistent with Doc’s pulp persona. All of the actors are very good but the campy tone and low budget really hurt the whole production. The movie was a box office failure and most Doc fans cringe at its mention. Rumors persist of a new Doc Savage movie usually associated with Arnold Swarzenegger or Bruce Willis in the role.


Doc was pastiched by Phillip Jose Farmer in both straight and pornographic versions. Doc is given a biographical treatment in Farmer’s, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Farmer also wrote a (mostly) straight Doc Savage adventure called Escape from Loki that is very entertaining. This novel introduces a 16 year old Clark Savage, Jr. and tells the story how he met his amazing five comrades. Farmer created his own "Doc Caliban" character in The Mad Goblin and A Feast Unknown. A Feast Unknown is a genuine marvel filled with bestiality, buggery, and other bizarre sexual episodes. Will Murray (a fan turned writer, sort of an excellent combination of Glenn Lord and L. Sprague de Camp) wrote a few Doc Savage adventures based on Dent’s outlines in a short lived series of paperbacks. What the future holds for Doc, not even the Shadow knows.


Another popular character was the fighting aviator, G-8. G-8 re-fought WWI for 110 issues. Popular Publication’s head, Henry "Harry" Steeger teamed with writer Robert J. Hogan to create G-8 and his Battle Aces. Hogan’s stories were particularly gruesome. Much more bloody than even the results of the Shadow’s twin .45s. Hogan was able to avoid using a house name and wrote all of the G-8 adventures. G-8 was reissued as paperbacks in the late 70’s. After reading the reprinted Docs, Shadows, and Spider’s perhaps G-8’s adventures were nothing new. The reprint series was not particularly successful.


The Spider was once described to me as if Robert E. Howard wrote the Shadow. I think that overly compliments Norvell Page’s prose but the Spider really is one grim character. The Spider was also a brainchild of Popular Publication’s Harry Steeger. The first two Spider novels were written by the son of a popular Canadian writer, R. T. M. Scott II. He introduced the readers to Richard Wentworth (the Spider), his paramour Nita van Sloan, and Ram Singh. Norvell Page, under the house name Grant Stockbridge, took over and the Spider darkly blossomed. Page wrote 91 Spider novels. Another writer, Wayne Rogers, wrote some later adventures. Hollywood made two Spider serials and some radio shows were done. The Spider novels have been reprinted in several paperback incarnations.


Operator #5, Jimmy Christopher was a pulp superhuman James Bond without the various women of course. The stand out of the series was a 13 novel series called "The Purple Invasion." Rudolph I of Bulkaria invades the U.S. with devastating consequences. The real authors of these Curtis Steele novels were Frederick C. Davis and later Emile Tepperman. Tepperman wrote the "Purple Invasion" stories. Operator #5 was also a Popular Publications pulp. Wayne Rogers was the last writer for the series.


The Phantom Detective was the Sherlock Holmes of the pulps. The Phantom was Richard Curtis Van Loan, a wealthy playboy, who just thought crime was bad. The Phantom Detective was published by Ned Pines. His publishing company was variously called Standard Magazines, Beacon Magazines, and Better Publications; but better known as "the Thrilling group" because of editor Leo Margulies’ love of titles like Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Adventure, and so on. There were 170 Phantom Detective adventures. The first 11 credited to G. Wayman Jones and then Robert Wallace. The adventures were actually written by a wide variety of pulp authors including Henry Kuttner and Ray Cummings.


The Black Bat was another Ned Pines’ publication. Norman Daniels wrote most of these tales. Batman and The Black Bat appeared almost simultaneously. There was talk of lawsuits but nothing happened. Tony Quinn, the Black Bat, was a blind ex-district attorney who gained the ability to see in the dark and had acute senses. (More like Stan Lee’s later Daredevil character than Bob Kane’s concurrent Batman.)


Star Wars fan might like to read the adventures of Captain Future. Edmund Hamilton wrote these popular science-fiction yarns. Captain Future was Curtis Newton. The son of a scientist raised by The Brain (a scientist, Simon Wright, whose brain was in a special serum case), Otho the super android, and Grag the robot. In his final adventure, Captain Future rejects a chance for godhood. A lot of science-fiction fans felt the pulp adventures of Captain Future hurt the genre. They might have taken refuge in Ed’s marriage to Leigh Brackett, who is considered a SF great.


Street & Smith put together another Kenneth Robeson character in 1939. The Avenger was actually written by Paul Ernst. The Avenger was a little better written than the average pulp but the Avenger was still essentially a Doc Savage/Shadow knock-off. Richard Henry Benson, a millionaire adventurer, forms Justice, Inc. after his wife and child are killed in a criminal act. Benson, in shock, turns literally white-faced and emotionless. His face becomes a static mold that enables him to be a master of disguise. The Avenger had his band of operatives also. The operatives included an educated black couple. This was unique for the pulps, which usually portrayed blacks in a negative or humorous light, if at all. The Avenger lasted only 24 issues.


Covering each and every hero of the pulps would be a long and undoubtedly enjoyable pastime but one too time consuming to accomplish in a short article. There were plenty more "hero pulps" but the ones discussed above are arguably the most popular. The even more popular heroes like Zorro and Tarzan are usually not referred to as "hero pulps" because they did not have monthly magazines named after them. Zorro, the Californian Robin Hood, was the creation of Johnston McCulley and first appeared in the August 9, 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly in the novel, The Curse of Capistrano (later published in hardcover as The Mark of Zorro after the re-titled Douglas Fairbanks 1920 movie.) Zorro was the justice seeking secret identity of Don Diego Vega, the son of a wealthy landowner. Zorro was an immediate success and had a varied enough career to fill a book. Most today, remember Zorro from the Disney TV show starring Guy Williams. Zorro had a brief comeback in 1998 with the Antonio Banderas film, The Mask of Zorro. The movie intriguingly incorporated real elements of California history but in the process created a new Zorro (a reformed bandit, trained by the original Zorro). The movie was only a modest hit so Zorro will probably rest for several more years. Tarzan also had a varied career. Burroughs’ novel, Tarzan of the Apes was first published in the October 1912 issue of All-Story. Tarzan was an immediate hit and the character appeared in a decades long string of films. The MGM movies with Johnny Weismuller left an indelible image on the public. Tarzan is currently popular as an animated character in Disney films.


Few pulp fictioneers became very successful in their lifetime: Johnston McCulley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frederick Faust (Max Brand) and Dashiell Hammett are a few exceptions. But even the lesser-known writers made more than a decent living during the depression, although their literary accomplishments went without reward or recognition.


4. Conan and Robert E. Howard


I covered weird pulps and hero pulps. Howard’s Conan is definitely an amalgamation of two. One of the first books I’ve seen that recognized this is Pulp Heroes of the Thirties edited by James Van Hise. This collection of articles about the pulp heroes of the thirties includes an article by Jim Van Hise called "Conan in Weird Tales: A 1930’s Treasure."


Conan first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales in the story, The Phoenix on the Sword. Conan was popular with most of the readers. Critics like Robert Bloch called him Conan the Cluck and damned the sameness of the stories though. Howard fans like Kirk Mashburn soundly criticized Bloch. Another fellow named Fred Anger never missed a chance to criticize Bloch thereafter. Bloch recounts this whole episode in his introduction to the Robert E. Howard collection, Wolfshead, published by Bantam Books.


As I said earlier, Van Hise’s article was the first time I saw Conan directly connected with the hero pulps. It isn’t a good fit in some ways but it is a real fit in other ways. Conan is not a hero in the Doc Savage mold. He is an anti-hero whose charisma captivated his fans. The Doc Savage series, at 182 short novels with later additions by Phillip Jose Farmer and Will Murray, probably still has the edge in total word count but Conan is catching up. Conan novels are still being published today, the TOR pastiches numbering around 30. The bulk of the Doc Savage novels were primarily written by original author Lester Dent, but the paperbacks still used the Kenneth Robeson pseudonym. Howard only wrote 25 Conan stories (including the fragments) and one Conan novel. Other authors have now written the bulk of Conan wordage but Howard’s name was always associated with the stories that he wrote (and some posthumous collaborations). The main thing Doc Savage and Conan have in common is that they resurfaced in the 1960’s in a popular paperback series with great cover art. It revitalized both their careers.


Part of the appeal of pulps to fans is the cover art. Action oriented, sexual, and graphically violent these covers undoubtedly play a part in having most respected critics refusing to embrace even the best pulp authors as writing true literature. It isn’t hard to see a connection from pulps to comic books. Some of the pulp publishers were also comic book publishers. Conan was only one in a line of pulp characters to be adapted to comic books. Tarzan, Zorro, the Shadow, and even Doc Savage appeared decades earlier. But once Conan was adapted to comics and later film his popular culture ranking soared while attempts to look at the stories in a literary light plummeted. Literary recognition for Howard seems to be following the Edgar Rice Burroughs type route. No real "literary" recognition but recognition that the author created an iconic figure and some ripping good yarns in the process. Right now, Edgar Rice Burroughs is represented in Penguin’s 20th Century Classics, a Signet Classic, and has numerous University of Oklahoma reprints. Howard is currently only readily available in British collections of Conan and from specialty publishers like Wandering Star and Chaosium. Clearly Robert E. Howard has some catching up to do.


The popularity of Conan has eclipsed Howard but it hasn’t obliterated him. Still, Conan comics, Conan novels, and Conan movies are only a pale shadow of Robert E. Howard’s fiction and the Howard name appears usually in small type, if at all, on these products. Whether these products lead fans away or toward "real" Robert E. Howard is a matter of debate and will never be clearly resolved. (Obviously you never ever hear from fans that were led away, unless they return via another source.) Despite the increasing distance between Howard and Conan (or perhaps because of it), Howard has a dedicated fan base of energetic and talented devotees.


Marcelo Anciano of Wandering Star is Howard’s current best hope. The Wandering Star productions are prototypes for mass-market books and contain scholarly articles as well as Howard’s gripping prose. Perhaps Howard will soon rightfully stand beside Lovecraft, Burroughs, Hammett, and others in classic editions and university presses. It would not be just a victory for Howard but one more for the "pulps" as well.