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November 25, 2003

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  Do Pulp Stories Have to be Set in the Past?

Here's an interesting question.  To be considered as "Pulp", does a story have to be set in the "Pulp era"?  That is, does the time period in which the story occurs have to be set around the 30s and 40s?

I received a recent email from a reader who, having read my editorial criticizing McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, suggested I try instead the Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction edited by Maxim Jakubowski.  So, I surfed over to to check out the reviews posted by average readers.  One of those reviews felt Jakubowski's anthology was overall pretty strong, but that the stories from the 70s and 80s weren't as good as the "real" pulp stories found in the same anthology from the "real" pulp era.  That review started me thinking about the aforementioned question. 

Now, first off, let me say I have a slight pet peeve with including stories from outside the pulp era in a book which specifically calls itself a "Book of Pulp Fiction".  Jakubowski must surely know that readers who pick up such a book are looking for vintage stories from the Pulp era, not stories "in the style" or "in the spirit" of the Pulps.  Like it or not, "pulp fiction" has a definition, and refers specifically to stories printed in pulp magazines from the 1920s to the early 1950s -- and even that is stretching things a bit.  I've seen all sorts of authors labelled as pulp writers, simply because they wrote a long time ago and specialized in genre fiction -- Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, to name a couple -- but they were not.

Just the same, I will concede that I am being unnecessarily nit-picky in insisting on such a strict definition and I will concede that the editor of the Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction simply wanted to compile a collection of stories in the spirit of the Pulps, modern stories included, and I should stop griping and be thankful for that --  after all, isn't that what we are trying to do here at the Mighty PDF?  You can bet I'm still going to ask for the Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction for Christmas!

So, the question then turns to the quality of modern "pulp" stories.

That's reaction was perfectly in keeping with my own reaction virtually whenever I have encountered supposedly modern examples of "pulp fiction".  It is rare for a modern writer to recapture the special something that made the vintage pulp stories work.  Why is that?

One possible answer is that the examples of vintage pulp stories which have come down to us out of the distant past were preserved and endlessly anthologized precisely because they were the very best the Pulp era had to offer.  In other words, comparing modern pulp stories to vintage Pulp era stories is a false comparison because we are comparing the average modern story with the exceptional pulp.  Of course, modern stories can't compete under those circumstances.

And yet, I'm not sure that entirely explains the weakness in modern stories.  I often find, when reading modern "pulp", that the authors' hearts just don't seem to be in the exercise.  Often there is a sense that the authors consider themselves better than their material, or at least better than the material which they are imitating, dooming the effort from the get-go. 

And yet, just the same, I have read modern authors whose hearts clearly were in the project, who had dedicated their lives to worshipping at the Pulp altar, but whose own examples of the species still fell far short of the mark.  Often in those cases, on a technical, nuts-and-bolts level, the author may seem to have done everything right -- and yet, still, somehow the story didn't work.  It wasn't "pulp".

Oftentimes, those modern pulp stories are set in modern times and, because the author otherwise seems to have done everything right, I find myself asking the question with which I began this editorial.  Is the problem simply that a "pulp" story needs to be set in the past to meet my approval?

Certainly, a pulp story -- whether written today or seventy years ago -- does have certain appealing aspects when set in the Pulp era, aspects which it would not have had were it set in modern times.  All pulp stories are, basically, fantasies -- they deal with fantastic events and fantastic characters (or at least characters capable of fantastic feats).  The women are impossibly beautiful, the men impossibly manly and the villains  impossibly vile.  To the modern reader, a story set in the 30s benefits from a milieu which is essentially just as fantastic because it is alien to our present experience.  The differences between society back then and society now aren't huge, but they are just enough to help us to distance ourselves and so suspend disbelief in the fantastic events which are made to take place in that environment.

But this distancing has another, perhaps more important benefit.  Because the story concerns events set in the distant past, those events don't carry the same emotional and political baggage which modern events would carry.  Thus the reader is able to sit back and enjoy the ride, without worrying about real life concerns, which, after all, is why pulp stories are referred to as "escapist literature" -- the reader is able to escape from present day concerns.  For example, we can watch a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, concerning Nazis just before the Second World War, and enjoy the thrill-ride in a way we could not enjoy the same adventures were they set in the far more recent, more politically charged framework of the Iraq War.

A third advantage to setting pulp stories in the long ago is that the author can tap into an already existing body of symbols which the reader will instantly recognize -- recognize because of the many vintage pulp stories which have gone before and used the same symbols.  For example, when the author describes a character dressed in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, the reader immediately understands that that character is headed for adventure in some isolated wilderness far from civilization.  The character is also probably a fairly rugged, manly individual, most likely the hero of the piece.  That is what the jodhpurs and pith helmet "say" to the reader.  Of course, through exposition the author could have told us all this, but through such symbols he/she was able to convey all that far more subtly. 

But perhaps there is a fourth and even more important advantage to setting stories in the past.  By using symbols that are specific to the Pulp era, the author can also tap into the reader's expectations of excitement and adventure which are associated with vintage pulp stories.  For example, to use the Raiders of the Lost Ark again -- that movie was set in the 1930s precisely so that audiences would recognize its kinship to the real pulp stories which it was imitating, and thus would be primed to react in the same way -- without the cynicism which they might have shown to a similar story set in modern times.

So far I have listed four advantages to setting a pulp story in the Pulp era.  What is interesting about the first two of these -- to suspend disbelief by setting the story in a "fantastic" environment and to allow the reader to escape from more recent real-life events -- is that they only apply to modern readers.  After all, to readers who lived in the Pulp era, the 1930s weren't the far distant past, but the world they experienced every day.  They had only to open the newspaper to find real-life explorers decked out in jodhpurs and pith helmet.  No doubt there was still an element of "exoticness" to a man in a pith helmet, but it was not nearly so alien to their experience as it is to the modern reader.  And events such as the Second World War were as recent and politically charged as the Iraq War is to the modern reader.

But what about the question of symbols?  In that case, I suspect Pulp era-readers probably took the same meaning from those Pulp era symbols as we do today -- at least once the Pulp era got well and truly rolling, say by the 1930s.  By then, a hero in jodhpurs and pith helmet probably "meant" the same thing to them as it does to the modern reader -- manly adventure in the farflung wilderness!  The same can probably be said for the use of such symbols to provoke certain expectations and emotional reactions in the reader.  Whether then or now, readers probably saw a story about a hero decked out in jodhpurs and pith helmet and thought, "Hot dog!  This is going to be an exciting story!" -- a result of having previously read countless pulp stories which had already delivered on that promise.

So, what is my conclusion?  Does a pulp story have to be set in the Pulp era for me to enjoy it? 

In spite of my griping, I have occasionally run across modern writers who set their stories in modern times and whose stories still thrilled me and met my definition of "pulp".  One example is James Rollins, author of Excavation, Deep Fathom, Subterranean, Amazonia and Ice Hunt.  I would also say Clive Cussler, doomed forever to be known as the author of Raise the Titanic!, fits the bill (he even included an exclamation point in his title -- you can't get more pulpy than that!).  Although I have problems with Mr. Cussler's politics, I certainly think he carries the modern pulp banner with gusto.  To this list I would add Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child, the dynamic duo behind Relic, one of my all time favourite novels which I have read more times than any other book.  And, while I'm at it, I would toss in the English author Wilbur Smith.  His novels often are set in the past, but even when firmly rooted in the present they still read like old fashion pulpy adventures.  But, of all these, James Rollins most closely meets my idea of "pulp", with wildly imaginative thrill-rides that have the research and plausibility of a modern "technothriller" married with the two-fisted, non-stop action and far-out science fiction speculation of a vintage pulp -- in which literally anything can happen, from time travel to amphibious piranhas.

Of course, here at the Mighty PDF, while the lion's share of serials are set in the past -- usually the Pulp era -- we have occasionally published serials set in modern times.  Both "Goblin's Gold" by D.W. Owens and David Reeder's H.P. Lovecraft homage, "Beneath the Glacier", are modern yarns and I hope you will agree they do not suffer for the fact.  Indeed, much of the appeal of "Beneath the Glacier" lies in its use of modern high tech weaponry (and military grunt jargon) to create an air of plausibility in an otherwise fantastic horror story.

In the end, in answering my question, I can only say I think there are certainly advantages to a pulp story being set in the Pulp era, but I don't think it is absolutely necessary.  It all depends on what effect the author is going for.  Whether set in the past or set in the present, the important thing is to tell a fast paced, rousing yarn. 

Next week..."How to Write a 2000 Word Editorial and Still Not Answer the Question"...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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