The name “pulp fiction” comes from the cheap wood pulp that was used to print the magazines these stories featured in. Other, the phrase “pulp magazine” will also be seen. These magazines contrasted with those printed on more expensive, glossy paper (known as “glossies”). The first pulp magazine was Argosy. It featured around 200 pages per issue and was printed without illustrations. The Popular Magazine followed, featuring colored covers. It acquired the rights to several interesting stories, including Ayesha by H. Rider Haggard.
Pulp magazines were small publications, around 7” x 10”. They were, as noted above, cheaply produced, so it was common to see them with untrimmed edges, sometimes even ragged looking. Usually, pulp fiction is regarded as low quality, low-class literature that does not appeal to those who were highly educated. In reality, these stories had a broad audience and have been incredibly influential on today’s literature and film industries. Additionally, there were many highly respected writers working for pulp magazines while they were published. They penned some of the most popular characters of the day (some of which are still written about today).
Explore Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction Definition
Pulp fiction is a term used to describe stories published in pulp magazines from 1896 to the 1950s.
These stories were highly dramatic and penned to gain and keep the reader’s attention. They featured over-the-top protagonists and antagonists who got into entertaining and shocking situations. Sometimes, the stories were lurid and explicit. At times they’ve also been described as exploitive, taking advantage of sensitive subject matter in order to sell magazines.
Pulp fiction magazines often published serialized stories, one week at a time, until an entire novel’s worth of storytelling was complete. The magazines peaked around the 1920s-1940s, selling up to one million copies per issue. These magazines became one of the most important forms of entertainment during the Great Depression. The market declined due to paper shortages, and the resulting price hike, during World War II. They were also beat out by comic books, the spread of paperback novels, and television.
Examples of Pulp Magazines
Below are a few of the most popular pulp magazines during the peak of their publication between 1920 and the end of the 1940s.
- Love Story Magazine
- Blue Book
- Short Stories
- Western Story Magazine
- Weird Tales
- Marvel Tales
- Oriental Stories
- Flying Aces
Examples of Pulp Fiction Characters
Throughout the history of pulp fiction, some notable characters arose. Below are a few examples of these characters and their traits.
The Avenger was a fictional character who was first featured in the pulp magazine of the same title. It ran for 24 issues between 1939 and 1942. Other standalone stories appeared in Clues Detective. He was a character who combined some of the features of other popular pulp fiction characters. He was a traveling adventurer who, throughout the issues, went around the world, found gold, lead native armies, discovered rubber, and more. In the stories, the Avenger, whose real name is Richard Henry Benson, loses his family. His face becomes paralyzed, and his hair and skin turn white due to this loss. Strangely, his facial skin also becomes malleable like clay. Below is an excerpt from the story “The Smiling Dogs” that describes Benson:
[…] dead, like something dug out of a cemetery. The muscles were paralyzed so that never, under any circumstances, could they move in an expression. This dead, weird face was as white as snow – as white, in a word, as you’d expect any dead flesh to be! In the glacial expanse of the face were set eyes so light-gray as to seem completely colorless.“The Smiling Dogs” by Kenneth Robeson
Doc Savage was a hero who featured in a pulp magazine of the same title from the mid-1930s to the 1940s. His real name was Clark Savage Jr., and he was a doctor, scientist, all-around adventurer, and detective. The character went on a series of adventures during which he tracked down villains and stopped catastrophes. His character has also appeared in comics, movies, and more.
Nick Carter was another pulp character who had his pulp magazine. He first appeared in dime novels in 1886 but then expanded to pulp magazines. He was revived due to the success of other characters, like Doc Savage. Books featuring Nick Carter appeared starting in 1964. Throughout the history of the character, numerous authors have contributed, including John R. Coryell, Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey, George C. Jenks, Eugene T. Sawyer, and more.
Why is Pulp Fiction Important?
Pulp fiction popularized action-packed adventure stories that inspired a generation of novelists and filmmakers. These stories were the peak form of entertainment during their time and still exist today in the form of comic books, superheroes, detective, and western films. They appealed to readers of all ages from all socio-economic backgrounds.
Pulp fiction is action and story-based. It often features over-the-top and outlandish characters who accomplish impressive feats of strength. The stories could take the form of westerns, science fiction tales, horror stories, fantasy stories, and more. Detective stories were also incredibly popular.
This type of fiction was and still is so popular because of the way it can excite readers. These stories feature sensational subject matter, outrageous acts and are meant to be pure forms of entertainment.
Pulp fiction helped develop the popularity of genre fiction, like western and science fiction, while also inspiring the development of comic books.
Related Literary Terms
- Paraliterature: written work that is not defined as “literature.” It is dismissed as lesser for one reason or another.
- Dime Novel: a form of short, cheap fiction popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States.
- Penny Dreadful: cheap, serialized form of literature popular in the nineteenth century.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based in science.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Read: A History of Dime Novels
- Watch: Pulp Fiction – The Golden Age of Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Adventure
- Watch: Pulp Magazines in the 1920s