Before Al Gore invented the internet, prior to the blitzkrieg of television, way back when talking films were silent and radio was in its infancy, Josephine Average found her daily entertainment in the guise of ten-cent pulp magazines filled with exotic and lurid tales of adventure.
It was a time when The Shadow, Black Mask, Magic Carpet, and Spicy Adventure blanketed the walls of newsstands everywhere. When penny-a-word writers churned out story after story hoping that publishers would throw a few more pennies their way. Jobs were scarce, downtrodden-ness was plentiful, and pulp magazines provided welcome escape from a none-too-desirable reality.
The most successful pulp writers penned thousands of words per day, leaving little time for rewriting, and their breathtakingly exciting plots were often punctuated with prose as logical as a taco on the D-Train to Nowheresville. Walter Gibson, who as Maxwell Grant authored some 300 novels featuring The Shadow, wrote an astonishing 10,000 words per day. While his readers eagerly consumed story after story, they also listened to Orson Welles as the voice of The Shadow on the radio.
Gibson has become quite active posthumously, swashbuckling about and solving fantastic mysteries in recently penned novels. He sets out to clear Orson Welles of murder charges in Max Allan Collins’s The War of the Worlds Murder, a pulp story written in 2005. One hour before the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a receptionist is found murdered in the Columbia Broadcasting building. Welles asks Gibson to solve the murder while he goes on the air with his radio play.
In The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, author Paul Malmont creates a convoluted adventure involving not only Gibson but fellow pulp writers H. P. Lovecraft, Lester Dent and L. Ron Hubbard. This novel, set in 1937, is a tale of murder, secret Chinese societies, and unethical medical experiments, all of which pervade the lives of Gibson and Dent. The two authors are thrust into a web of intrigue pulled from the pages of their own stories, but unlike their fictional creations, Gibson and Dent are mortal.
Incidentally, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson’s chief pulp rival, penned 43 Doc Savage novels in addition to radio shows, stories for the “slicks” (higher class magazines), and other novels such as Honey in his Mouth.
Another master of pulp suspense was Cornell Woolrich. His short stories, some of which are available in Night and Fear, are paragons of perfection. Typically, he set up a situation in which death is a likely outcome, and then left it to the protagonist to either thwart death or not. Happy endings sometimes, others times not so much. Knowing that the author is willing to kill off his creations (or perhaps not) turns each story into a wild hurricane of nail-biting and perspiration. Woolrich also wrote many stories which were adapted into movies, most notably Rear Window.
Still looking for more fun? Recently, a series called Hard Case Crime novels has been published in an attempt to revive interest in pulp stories. A few of these titles include:
And if you’re more of a visual learner, why not try the DVD Best of TV Detectives, a collection of programs from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Many early TV shows were written by accomplished pulp writers and this anthology includes an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents written by Robert Bloch, author of the archetypal novel Psycho.