Ephemeral Assays: Pulp Frisson


There are many excellent print and internet resources on pulp magazines, and I wont rehash the essential features here, but just take a look at http://thepulp.net sometime if you want a good crash course in all things pulp. Ill use this space instead to relate some personal stories about the genre.

I kind of liked staying at Grandma Elizabeths in a small upstate New York town hard by the side of the Upper Delaware River. It was a landmark house, centrally located at the bottom of a slight incline leading up to Main Street, well shaded with a wide turnaround in front for horses, though by then the old stone hitching post was just ornamental. It was filled with brooding antiques, however, particularly Victorian furniture and cut crystal, and we always felt in danger of breaking things. Even years later, when the contents were sold in an onsite auction our branch of the family did not get enough advance notice on, I had no remorse whatsoever. Looking back now, I sorely wish I could have attended for the family heirlooms and the bargains, as this was all pre-Antiques Roadshow. Years later some jackass installed a woodstove where it didnt belong and the whole thing burned down.

Anyway, old pulps my Dad and his three brothers collected back in their youth were lined up along a second floor landing in a pile two deep, and about four feet high by twenty feet long. He did manage to score about fifty of those before the auction, where the whole massive pile probably went for well under $100, and I remember him trying to market them back in the 1980s by laboriously sending lists to collectors and dealers advertising for same in the backs of magazines. Invariably, they just wanted one or two famous cover artists like N. C. Wyeth, and they only wanted to pay $5 or so each. I have one left from the original horde, with our family name in pencil on the front cover as that is how they were held at the country store.

In the intervening years I would see these puffy and nicely musty missing links between magazines and comic books at auction, usually in poor condition due to their cheap manufacture, and I followed the prime pulp market from afar, as prices and interest went through the roof. I received a very fortuitous though expensive phone call not long ago from a family that wanted to clear out two full van loads of pulps, magazines, and newspaper comic sections, primarily from the 1920s through the 1950s, and this opened a rare and thrilling door into the lost world of pulpdom which I had missed all those years before.

In this case, the boy whose name was penciled on many of these was lying in a hospital bed at an angle in the middle of the living room, attended there by various machines and visiting doctors and nurses, well toward the end of his long road. He fixed one rheumy eye on me somewhat balefully, as in a Poe story, as I whisked out load after load on a very hot summer day. I could not tell if he was taking note of this, or was long past such earthly concerns, but I enjoyed my visits with this family, which drove a hard but fair bargain.

For a paper and periodical freak, it was great fun cracking open these dirty old cardboard boxes out on my gravel driveway work tables and sorting the hundreds of pulps by title and year. While I had been hoping for top of the food chain titles like The Shadow, I was well pleased with what emerged anyway, and they were all basically new to me. Many of them were in fairly long runs, which is the best way to understand any periodical. They were in good to very good condition with the covers attached, though edgewear on old pulps is almost inevitable, as the covers overshot the text block. Some even showed up in duplicate and triplicate for some reason. A large portion of the lot (which must have been his favorites) was composed of Ace-High Magazine, largely western and pretty collectible, and Short Stories, which is less sought-after but interesting. Every Short Stories cover had to have a large red orb . . . usually the sun but sometimes a gigantic crystal ball or something along those lines. Dozens of people associated with this pulp from artists to ad men must have discussed and dealt with that red orb branding mandate, but does a scrap of that publishing history survive?

Research quickly proved that the monetary value was in the titles themselves, the cover artist or art, prominent contributors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and, as always, these factors were all leavened by condition. Some of the common titles with boring covers died on eBay, but most went for an average of $25 or so, with some of the coolest detective examples up around $100. I quickly learned who the core group of pulp buyers were at that time, their bidding habits, etc. I accommodated them by running up long tallies, in order to save on shipping and bookkeeping efforts. Once I sent collecting rivals the wrong issues, but instead of swapping they just kept them, as the price was about the same and they were just upgrades anyway. All the lesser examples were consigned to paper auctions, and eventually it was over.

I saved the images though, and some are presented here. Once again, they are not the most spectacular examples ever published, but by the same token their covers may be more unfamiliar. Pulps had only a few moments to sell themselves, like comic books did years later when people like my other Grandmother tapped her foot while we quickly decided how to spend our small change. The best covers were lurid, colorful, and full of the promise of action, adventure, and mysteryproviding an almost pleasurable sensation of fright. Youngsters were transfixed by images of the Wild West, the Far East, the steamy south, the frozen north, inner cities, and outer space, not to mention beautiful women who seemed to be in peril or bondage more often than not. Though pulps had their origins at the turn of that century with the publication of Argosy, many consider the 1920s and 30s the true zenith of the art form. When I hit the boxes from the 1940s, when paper rationing and sanitized patriotic themes held sway, I felt a bit like boys such as my Dad must have back then when the thrills of childhood and promise of adventure were replaced by drab uniformity and duty. Some of the pulp titles sputtered through the late 1940s, but the world was a much smaller place after WW II, and TV dealt the fatal blow. The exotic mysteries and adventures of pulp readers receded from the mind and back into the earth, save for those happy cases where they were physically preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.

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