As I’ve noted earlier on this site, pulp fiction was quite unlike what people commonly think of it today. This form of popular fiction from approximately the late 1910s to the late 1940s is associated today in the public mind with mere sensationalism, a false notion conveyed by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction movie and by a common conflation with lurid 1950s paperbacks, which were not pulp fictions.
Instead, pulp fiction, though often sensational, was marked by a great variety of subject matter—everything from Westerns to historical adventures to mysteries to science fiction to “saucy” romance stories—characters in action at critical turning points in their lives, and a strong sense of personal responsibility and the effect of individual character on both oneself and others. Pulp fiction was exciting and sensational on the surface but generally wholesome underneath.
These fictions made a huge impact on the culture of the time, with the mass popularity of characters such as Zorro, Tarzan, the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Black Mask hardboiled detectives, and many, many more.
Many people still read these stories and serialized novels, which now seem (and are) as old as the yellowing, flaking, crumbling, deteriorating paper on which they were printed long ago. The values of the fictions still ring true for many people, and in fact seem much truer than the ideas conveyed by contemporary popular culture on the whole.
As a result, there has been a rapid rise of reprinting of authentic pulp fictions of the past, in both print and etext forms, in the past decade or so. Many of these are available for free (notably at the Online Pulps site, http://pulpgen.com/pulp/downloads/index.html), and many can be bought for very reasonable prices at amazon.com and other retail outlets, including brick-and-mortar stores.
Unfortunately, this boom has been suppressed significantly by confusion over copyrights, and by the greed of some copyright holders who imagine that the publications and author estates they control are worth much more than they really are—basically, they’re hoping for a big windfall from someone buying movie rights to their characters and stories, so that the reputation of pulp fiction can be further destroyed by idiotic modern reinterpretations, meaning vulgarizations, of these works of the past.
Hence it’s great news that Steeger Properties has acquired the rights to almost 150 pulp magazines originally published by Popular Publications, Inc., one of the top publishers of pulp fiction. Here’s an excerpt from Steeger’s press release about the purchase:
Now claiming ownership to most of the pulp stories and characters published by both Popular Publications and The Frank A. Munsey Company, Steeger Properties, LLC, has accrued the copyrights to an estimated 6,000 issues and 30,000 stories. . . .
Pulp fiction began in 1896 with Frank A. Munsey’s The Argosy Magazine. The 192-page magazine had untrimmed edges and the stories within the pages offered entertaining genre fiction ranging from adventure and mysteries to science fiction and westerns and everything in between. In six years, the magazine went from publishing a few thousand copies per month, to well over half a million copies. Argosy’s success was partially thanks to the variety of recurring characters it published, such as Tarzan and Zorro. Popular Publications, Inc.—the most successful pulp magazine publisher of its time—published such well-known authors as Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury and Erle Stanley Gardner within the pages of its own titles. In 1942, Popular Publications acquired The Frank A. Munsey Company.
Fast forward to 2014. While the popularity of pulp fiction has fluctuated over the years, the stories within the pages are classic fiction and are as influential to American pop culture as ever. They are fast paced, well-written short stories and novels featuring classic characters. There’s a huge audience that hasn’t had contact with these stories. By reintroducing them using today’s technology, these classic hard-boiled detective, mystery, western, and science fiction stories will be available for generations to come.
Having one place to go to for rights to so many pulp magazines should aid immensely in the ongoing growth of the pulp reprint market. I, for one, look forward to the possibility of much greater access to Detective Fiction Weekly, and aficionados of other genres will surely appreciate an upcoming expansion of availability in those subject areas as well.