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September 9, 2003

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When Pulp was King...Again!

Recently I was reading one of those Robert E. Howard stories which were "based on a fragment and notes found among his papers after his death".  I got to thinking the subject of such posthumously completed works might make a suitable topic for one of these editorials.  (And I probably will write it eventually, so don't think you're off the hook that easily!)  But then I remembered -- that story was completed way back in the 1970s.  Surely it's a little late to be discussing it now.  And that thought got me thinking about something else, something that had never really occurred to me before.

There was a second Pulp Age -- and I experienced it.

Pulp and Dagger is an e-zine dedicated to the memory of the Pulp era, which ended about, oh, say 1947.  In my editorials, therefore, I get all mushy and nostalgic for those halcyon days of yore, as if they ended in 1947 and we shan't see their like again.  But such wasn't the case.  After all, my own introduction to Pulp literature didn't arise in the original Pulp era, but rather in the years between 1975 and 1985 when I was a kid.  I never experienced the thrill of picking up a copy of Weird TalesCover by Ken Kelly containing one of the Conan tales -- but I did experience the thrill of picking up the Berkley Medallion edition of Conan: Red Nails -- with its terrific Ken Kelly cover and fold-out poster -- in the late 1970s.  (If you'll forgive an autobiographical digression -- I still recall riding in the school bus returning from music camp.  I was reading one of the Tarzan paperbacks when an older kid leaned over the seat from behind and whispered conspiratorially, "Conan could take Tarzan any day."  I looked back in surprise, blinked owlishly and enquired with only mild interest, "Conan who?"  The next thing I knew I found myself in the local public library opening a big hardcover edition of The Hour of the Dragon.  I never looked back.)

At the same time, the whole thing is complicated by the fact that what I experienced in my misspent youth was only the tail end of a much more impressive phenomenon which began way back before I was born.  For the "second Pulp Age" actually began in the early 1960s and lasted for two decades until it expired in the mid-1980s, many said, from its own excess.

What started it all, I don't know for sure.  Robert E. Howard fans will tell you the whole thing began in 1966 when Lancer Books, with the editorial assistance of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, took a chance and published a series of twelve collections of Conan stories made up partly of the original 21 Howard tales, and partly of pastiches written by the editors themselves.  Each book had a series title like Conan the Usurper, or Conan the Adventurer.  They will also tell you it wasn't the stories alone that triggered a world-wide obsession with anything and everything Pulpish, but that it had a lot to do with the cover illustrations done by the famous Frank Frazetta.

Cover by James BamaBut things may not be that simple.  Bantam Books began publishing paperback editions of the original Doc Savage novels starting in 1964.  These too were a terrific success, thanks in no small part to the ultra-realistic cover illustrations by James Bama, who portrayed Doc in a trademark perpetually torn shirt, with muscles on his muscles.  Those books preceded the Conan series.

At the same time, it is also known that the Conan books only got the go-ahead because in the early 1960s, Ace Books had already taken a chance on paperback printings of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, including his Tarzan books.  Like the Conan books, those Burroughs books also had titles like Tarzan the Magnificent and Tarzan the Invincible, covers by Frazetta, and they too sold very well indeed.

Finally, even more interesting is the claim that Burroughs only became big again at that time because in 1959 Florida State Librarian Dorothy Dodd tried to have the Tarzan books banned from libraries in the mistaken belief that Tarzan and Jane never tied the knot and were depicted as living in sin!  The resulting publicity triggered renewed interest in Burroughs and his many series.  So, we may have the misguided Ms. Dodd to thank for everything that followed.  Makes you think, huh?


Whatever started it, sometime in the mid-1960s, the reading public went wild for Pulp.  After that, the various publishing houses couldn't keep up with the demand.  Just about everything from the Pulp era was rushed into print, from famous names like the Spider and The Shadow, to more obscure entries like William Chester's Kioga and Howard's Three-Bladed Doom.  I have already mentioned Doc Savage.  Strangely though, for all that I remember seeing those torn-shirted Bama covers constantly cluttering the book shelves, I never thought to pick one up, nor did I really know anything about Doc and his exploits until many years later (specifically, when Buckaroo Banzai hit the theatres and my brother explained that it was a homage to the Doc Savage stories).  For some reason, I had been under the mistaken impression that they were Right Wing Military-type stories along the lines of the Executioner series.

While the initial Burroughs novels were published by Ace with Frazetta covers, my own introductionCover by Michael Whelan to Burroughs came via my brother who collected the John Carter of Mars books published in the late 1970s by Del Rey with equally fantastic covers by Michael Whelan.  He also managed to collect the entire run of Tarzan books with covers both by the great Boris Vallejo and by comic artist Neil Adams.  Then there were Burroughs' Venus books, his Pellucidar books, his "The Land that Time Forgot" books, and a whole slew of more obscure Burroughs novels like The Eternal Savage and The Moon Maid.

While my brother concentrated on Burroughs, I remained fixated on Howard.  And, even if the Pulpster from Cross Plains wasn't quite as prolific as the creator of Tarzan, he had still produced enough product during his lifetime to keep me busy for much of mine.  Both Berkley and Ace brought out Howard collections, which included a mix of previously published stories and stories which, for one reason or another, had been rejected during Howard's lifetime.  (Certainly, many of those rejected stories probably should have remained rejected, but many of them were still a lot of fun, if not entirely up to the standards of his published tales.)  The publishers felt the public wanted "name" heroes to headline their series, just like Conan, and so most collections were sold as if they featured a series character, even if Howard had only really written maybe one or two stories with that character, neither of which was actually published during his lifetime!  Hence, we had The Swords of Shahrazar, which featured the Irish-American Lawrence of Arabia wannabe Kirby O'Donnell; and Sword Woman which featured Agnes D'Chastillion; and Black Vulmea's Vengeance which featured the pirate Black Vulmea.

Now, all this reprinting of great Pulp literature was a lot of fun, but there was more to the second  Pulp Age than mere reprints.  Because it wasn't long before the publishers, unable to meet the demand for vintage Pulp, began encouraging new writers to try their hands at writing more of the stuff.  In that field, no one was probably more prolific than Lin Carter.  Carter, as I mentioned, was co-editor on Lancer's Conan series, but he soon turned his hand to writing his own imitations.  I remember reading the first two of his Prince Zarkon and the Omega Men series -- books written in obvious fond imitation (or parody) of Doc Savage -- books with the arresting titles: The Nemesis of Evil and The Volcano Ogre.  Philip Jose Farmer probably came in second, turning out endless imitations including his own series homage to Doc featuring Doc Caliban and his sidekicks Jocko and Porky.  The most commonly imitated character, however, was of course none other than the big guy himself -- Conan.  Conan wannabes were everywhere, from John Jakes' blond hero Brak the Barbarian (whose short stories actually started much earlier, but who appeared first in paperback after the Conan books in the late sixties) to Imaro, a black barbarian hero created by my fellow countryman, Charles R. Saunders.  And then there was John Norman's Gor series...

Ah, yes, what can one say about Mr. Norman and Gor?  The series -- which seemed to run forever --- was an imitation of Burroughs' Mars books, but set on a Counter Earth hidden away on the opposite side of the sun.  But, whereas Burroughs' Mars novels were romantic adventures, John Cover by Boris VallejoNorman's vision was more like a planetwide S&M shop.  The central premise was that, on Gor,  women were treated as little more than sexual slaves -- and they loved it!  Whips and branding irons seemed always at hand, with the woman proving her love for her "master" by calling breathlessly for one or the other.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  What's not to like?  But, believe me, even on its own sordid level, those novels were boring.  The problem was, Norman seemed to take the whole thing way too seriously, constantly stopping the story for an extended lecture wherein he would expound his theory of the true relationship between men and women.  And what a theory.  I only read a couple of those books before giving up, so why, you may wonder, do I remember them  so fondly?  Once again, because of the terrific cover art by Boris Vallejo.  Boris's covers featured ultra-realistic women, draped with smoke and filmy veils, set against an exotic background of weird, otherworldly beasts and fat, oily villains.  You just looked at those covers and it took a real effort to keep your money in your pocket and remember how bad was the writing inside!

You'll notice again and again I have commented on the cover artists.  Just as cover artist Margaret Brundage is inseparable from the legend that is Weird Tales, so too was the second Pulp Age heavily reliant on the magic worked by a few gifted artists.  Even as a kid I knew the names of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, probably the top of the heap.  Then there was Ken Kelly who did the covers for the Berkley editions of Howard's stories.  James Bama's Doc Savage covers have already been mentioned.  Michael Whelan's Mars covers made you want to spread your arms and be whisked away to Barsoom.  (Interestingly, Whelan portrayed the "red" Martians as having really red Cover by Frank Frazettaskin, whereas based on the stories, I think Burroughs was using "red" in the archaic sense of a "red skin" Indian.  If so, Whelan's vision made the reading experience all the more alien and interesting.)  Finally there was Sanjulian, who, while not quite up to the par of the others, still did great things for many of the Howard books missed by Kelly.  What all these artists had in common was their hyper-realism, even when depicting fantastic scenes of impossible beauty.  In fact, so realistic was Boris, as a kid I often thought maybe they were actual photographs!

But among the Big Three of original Pulp giants, I have left one name until last.  That was horror author H.P. Lovecraft.  That's because, when it came to longevity, Lovecraft was in a class by himself.  Ever since his death in 1937, Lovecraft's memory had been kept alive through the devoted efforts of August Derleth who founded the Arkham Publishing House specifically for that purpose.  So, when interest in Pulp began to rise in the early 1960s, Lovecraft was one of the first to take advantage.  Starting in 1963, Lancer Books began publishing paperback collections of his tales and Ballantine followed in 1971.  It was through the later editions of the Ballantine books that I was first introduced to the master's work and, of course, to the "Cthulhu Mythos".  And today, long after the second Pulp Age has ended, those Ballantine editions alone remain on the bookstore shelves.  The Internet is thick with Cthulhu Mythos sites and Lovecraft, it seems, has never been bigger.  Like a tentacled version of the Energizer Bunny, Lovecraft just keeps going and going and going...

But it did end.  To those of us old enough to remember, we hardly even noticed when it happened.  Sometime around about the mid-1980s, Pulp began to disappear from the stores.  Both the vintage Cover by Sanjulianreprints and the modern imitations faded away.  Even Burroughs and Howard became harder and harder to find.  Another fellow countryman (or woman, rather) once sang, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."  I doubt Joni was talking about Brak the Barbarian, but it was so true, just the same.  Today, a visit to the various fan sites on the Web yields a litany of gloom and despair.  Everyone comments on the difficulty of finding the original Conan stories now, and when, on occasion, a company such as Wandering Star brings out a collection, it is heralded as the Second Coming!  But when we were in the thick of it, when the stores were stocked with the stuff, did we appreciate it?  Not very.  Sure we enjoyed collecting Conan and John Carter, but we didn't appreciate how lucky we were.  We thought it would go on forever.  And, as for the modern Pulp novels, they were never good enough, never up to the standards set by the masters.  One after the other, book after book, we were doomed to disappointment.  And yet...

Looking back, I miss those days when you could pick up a book by Lin Carter and know it wasn't Cover by Don Maitz written with one eye on the Nebula or the Hugo Award.  When authors wrote what they damn well liked and didn't care who laughed at them.  When the stories were unapologetic escapism, featuring brawny heroes and lithesome heroines.  When a novel could come in at an efficient two hundred pages and still be called a novel.  When the covers by giants like Boris and Frazetta seemed to be literally everywhere, promising unimaginable wonders and otherworldly adventures the authors could never hope to deliver.

Several of the emails we have received here at PDF have commented on how "unjaded" our stories are.  That is the best compliment anyone could give us.  Fantasy literature has never been bigger than it is today, but I still feel there is a tone to the writing that leaves me disappointed.  Modern fantasy strikes me as "jaded", as cynical, too worried about what the larger society will think.  I don't know why that is -- if I did, I'd know why the Second Age of Pulp ended.  Perhaps fantasy was a victim of its own success.  From time to time, a fantasy story rose above the pack to claim the brass ring, a Hugo or a Nebula.  Once they could taste respectability, everyone wanted a piece.  Now they can't stop.

I miss the days when it wasn't like that.  But if it happened twice, it can happen a third time.  Perhaps, just around the corner, there lurks a third Pulp Age, a time when the stores will fill to bursting with whole new heroes and villains, new cover artists and new legends.  There are stories out there just waiting to be told, and someday someone will tell them.  You can bet on it.  In the meantime, we here at the Mighty PDF will do what we can to keep the spark alive.  And maybe, just maybe, some of the authors published here will turn out to be the giants of that future Pulp Age.  And maybe, by then, even reprints of John Norman's Gor will be looking pretty good to me...

Yeah...probably not.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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