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November 11, 2003

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  Of Rupture Relief and Magic Money-Changers

Break out the bubbly, it finally arrived!  That's right, Faithful Fiends, at long last I hold in my psuedopods my very first, authentic, hot-off-ebay edition of an honest-to-Betsy Pulp magazine.  Granted, it was published in the winter of 1950, which puts it on the nethermost fringes of the Pulp era, but a duck is a duck and, Ladies and Germs, this baby quacks.

Now, it probably comes as a shock to many of you to find that the Supreme Plasmate, heroic publisher of the Mighty Pulp and Dagger, has never hitherto laid tentacle on a real Pulp magazine ere this moment.  Well, get over it.  I haven't, okay?  I've read oodles of Pulp stories reprinted in anthologies, but to collect good condition original Pulp magazines calls for a profuse amount of something called "real money", a commodity of which I am sadly in short supply.  This particular Pulp magazine I got for a song namely because it was in less than pristine condition.  Nevertheless, it has all its pages and most of the cover and, most important, it is readable.  Which, after all, was the whole idea behind the Pulp phenomenon in the first place.

The Pulp era reportedly began, in the last decade of the 19th Century, when a man named Frank Munsey got the marvelous idea that maybe the story was more important than the paper it was printed on.  He began publishing on cheap "pulp-wood" paper, which allowed him to keep costs down, which meant for the first time the average Joe on the street could actually afford to read what was sold at the newsstands.  When Munsey began his marvelous experiment, he was probably simply trying to create a market where none had existed before.  He was just out to make a quick buck.  In the end, though, he did something far more important.  Before the Pulp era, reading was something only the wealthy did for fun.  The prevailing wisdom -- not surprisingly, put forward by the wealthy themselves -- held that this was because the poor sod on the street didn't have the brains to understand literature.  Munsey proved that this was, to put it delicately, bull ca-ca.  Build it and they will come.  And come they did.  In droves.  Once the ordinary Joe could afford the average magazine, the ordinary Joe was only too happy to plunk down his twenty cents for a chance to read about the latest exploits of The Shadow or Doc Savage or the Spider.

Of course, the wealthy weren't about to take this revolution lying down and so they fought back in the only way they could.  They decreed that Pulp literature wasn't "real" literature, it was "hack".  They denigrated it at every turn and they did such a good job of denigrating it that, even today, lo these many eons later, the very word "Pulp" is still synonymous with "trash", with "cheap" (in the qualitative sense), with "juvenile".

But that's another story...

I'll tell you, for a while there I thought my magazine was either lost in the Starry Void Between the Spheres known as the Postal System, or that I had been ripped off by the seller at ebay.  I go through that unbearable hell every time I buy anything off ebay, but this time the wait was particularly protracted.  But arrive it did and I am now the proud owner of a Winter 1950-51 copy of North West Romances.  To those of you who read my earlier editorial, "Looking For Dudley Do-Right", you'll know how much that particular title means to me and thus why it should be the first Pulp magazine I would deign to buy.  But, FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE...

In 1925, early in the Pulp era, someone had the bright idea to publish a magazine devoted to stories set exclusively in the Far North, in Northern Canada and Alaska -- tales of sled dogs and prospectors, trappers and lumberjacks, birch bark canoes and gold mines, and Mounties...especially Mounties.  The magazine was called North West Stories and later North West Romances and it did very well indeed, as is amply demonstrated by the fact that my copy was published in 1950, fully twenty five years later.  As a Canadian, I find myself particularly drawn to these stories which painted my homeland to be the most exciting, most romantic place on the planet and portrayed the red tunic wearing Mountie as a sort of superman of the bush.

I should hasten to add, though, that not all Canadians feel as I do about these so-called "Northerns".  Many Canadians are hyper-sensitive and see these stories as the equivalent of painting up white guys in black-face.  Because most of these stories were written by Americans (although there were Canadian Pulpsters who contributed to the Northern genre), modern Canadians tend to react with over-sensitivity, endlessly grousing about factual errors in those stories -- as if the Pulp stories set in the US were paragons of factual accuracy!  Worse though, to my thinking, is when Canadian critics will pick on perceived "errors" which are not errors at all, but merely differences of opinion.  The conversation runs as follows:

Detractor (rabid and frothing): That story was so factually inaccurate.  Why didn't the Americans bother to do their research?

Pulp Reader (mildly perturbed):  What do you mean "factually inaccurate".  I didn't notice anything inaccurate about that story.

Detractor (frothing a little more):  Just look at it, you dolt.  The story has the Mountie shooting it out with the evil lumber baron.  We didn't have shoot-outs in Canada because the Mounties maintained LAW AND ORDER.  The author has read too many Westerns.

Pulp Reader (with a mild tic below the left eye):  That's a rather sweeping generalization.  Surely you're not saying the Mounties never fired their guns in the whole history of Canada?

Detractor (reformed by impeccable reasoning): Oh my God, I see your point!  How could I have been so blind?  Can you forgive me?

Pulp Reader (bravely):  I'll try.

Now, you might be asking -- what's so special about having an original issue of a pulp magazine?  After all, I just said that the story is more important than the paper it's printed on.  Surely, it doesn't matter whether I read an old pulp story in a modern anthology reprint or in the original magazine.  Of course, it doesn't.  A story is a story.  Just the same though, for a long time I've read about the Pulps and only now do I have the chance to see one for myself.

For example, the whole reason they were called Pulps was because of the pulp-wood paper they used.  But what is pulp-wood paper?  I always wondered.  So, as soon as I opened the envelope, the first thing I did was examine the paper.

As I said, this particular issue is in pretty rough shape.  The edges are frayed and chunks are missing from North West Romancesthe front page.  I'm guessing that the yellowing is caused by age and not the original colour of the paper.  But the paper itself is kind of like the sort of stiff paper towel you find in public washrooms.  The edges (apart from the fraying) seem kind of rough, the sort of edge you get when you fold a piece of paper to create a seam, then tear by hand along the seam.  Strangely, the cover seems too big for the pages inside.  Was that common to pulp magazines?  And then there's the smell.

I had read before about the distinctive aroma given off by old pulp magazines.  It is indeed a remarkably pleasing musty smell.  In fact, it's just the sort of smell you find in the basement of old libraries where they keep the hundred year old books.  Which leads me to suspect this isn't the magazine's original smell but more likely just the scent given off by paper as it ages.

Something else I was interested in checking out was the advertisements inside.  I remember reading a facsimile reprint taken from the Pulps a few years ago which included the ads.  One ad really stuck in my mind -- an ad for "rupture relief".  Now, until then I had never heard of a "rupture" but it certainly sounded unpleasant and, whatever it was, there must have been enough of them to justify advertising "relief" in a pulp magazine.  Reading that ad, I concluded that a rupture was an old word for a hernia.  Yuck.  Anyway, no sooner did I flip to the back page of my newly purchased Pulp original than what should I find but..."The rupture-easer"!  Jiminy Crickets, the place must have been lousy with ruptures!

This was an ad for some sort of strap-and-brace affair presumably designed to hold in whatever was "rupturing".  To be honest, this was all a little more information than I needed to know, but it certainly tells us something about the perceived readership of North West Romances.  There must have been a lot of readers who did a lot of manual labour and heavy lifting.  And yet, at the same time, in this same magazine was an ad reading "Have fun!  Be a magician!  Change nickels into dimes!" -- a kid's magic trick, kind of like the old "paper-money changer" they used to advertise in comics when I was a kid in the 70s (right next to the "sea monkeys").  Now, I don't know for sure, but I think it's a safe bet that the Rupture-easer wasn't aimed at little Johnny paperboy.  Nor was the coin money changer aimed at Jock the dock worker.  From ruptured manual labourers to little kids -- apparently the pulp publishers felt they were casting a pretty wide net!

Then there was also an ad for "Rita red-headed drink and wet doll".  Even little girls were apparently included -- at least, I hope Rita was for little girls.  The reason there is any doubt in my mind is because of another ad which I can only charitably describe as outré.  This shows a drawing of a naked Barbie-type doll in a tiny bathtub.  The copy reads (and I kid you not):  "AMAZING NEW NOVELTY BLONDE in...(out) of the bath tub."  It then goes on to tell us:

"Keep everyone guessing.  The lovely blonde will stay in her bathtub for you -- but not for others.  She always pops out.  Your friends will marvel that you're the only one she obeys.  It's a thrilling new novelty that will be the life of the party.  Send for yours today -- and learn the amazing secret of how to make the lady behave."

Oh, yeah, definitely a little more information than I needed to know...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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