Cheap Thrills

I love this book, Cheap Thrills by Ron Goulart. It came out in 1973 from Arlington Press. Does that house even still exist? It’s a history of the pulp magazines, and it features no illustrations, no reprints of the loud, bright, nightmarish covers we all know so well, just words. It is Goulart’s history of the era based on interviews with the people who created the pulps from the 1920s through the early 1950s. The chapters are divided into topics per genre—“Heroes for Sale,” “Thank You, Masked Man,” “Dime Detectives,” “Tarzan and the Barbarians”—you get the idea. There have been plenty of books published since 1973 about the pulps; Robert Lesser has apparently cornered the market on promoting the wonderfully sexy and violent cover paintings that promoted these monthlies during the Depression, and Lee Server’s Danger Is My Business, from 1993, is breathtakingly well designed, with good background and historical information, lots of reproductions of interior black-and-white illustrations, and plenty of photographs of the great writers of the period. And I still think that Tony Goodstone’s coffee table volume The Pulps, which was everywhere in the early 1970s, especially once it was remaindered, served as a kind of lodestone to attract attention to that period of popular writing.

But Ron Goulart interviewed the publishers and editors and writers and artists. And one of the best parts of this book for me is the section of excerpts in the back taken from conversations with the pros who worked on these magazines. This is Ken Crossen:

I was married in 1936 and answered an advertisement for a job. I was hired to work on Detective Fiction Weekly. The Munsey Company was an interesting place when I went to work there. Although Frank Munsey was dead it was run in much the same fashion that he had, since he was known for evaluating the worth of a manuscript by how heavy it felt on his hand.”

This is Richard Wormser:

That year of 1933 was a desperate time. There was no chance of getting a newspaper job. The number of N.Y. papers had halved in the past few months. One of my duties had been the reading of short stories to fill the back of The Shadow, which used four shorts an issue to back up Walter Gibson’s 60,000-word novel. I knew we had been searching desperately for a 1300-word story, and also a 1700-word one. We had been laid off at five o’clock on Friday. Monday at eleven in the morning, I laid a 1300-word story on John Nanovic’s desk. He read it and sent through a voucher for thirteen bucks. At four I put a 1700-word story in the same spot, and by closing time had made thirty bucks, which had been my salary the week before. And here I had four more days in which to scrounge.”

These people were my heroes. Still are. There was a revival of interest in the pulps in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which coincided with a general mood of nostalgia in the country then. In particular, there were paperback reprints of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and Max Brand, the Shadow and Doc Savage, and tons of crime fiction and Westerns. This nostalgia was reflected in the movies of the period, as well—The Day of the LocustThey Shoot Horses, Don’t They? based on the novel by Horace McCoy, Hard Times with Charles Bronson, Murder on the Orient ExpressThe StingPaper Moon. This mood extended to television (Banyon), recordings (Bette Midler’s Songs for the New Depression), and Broadway (a revival of 42nd StreetMinnie’s Boys, about the Marx Brothers). I am convinced that it’s no accident that this nostalgia for the 1930s occurred during the terrible recession of the early and mid 1970s, because that period was one of hard times, too. Not as bad as the Great Depression, but the worst we’d seen in a long time.

Until now. Even if we are not clinically in a depression (although the jury is still out on that), still, we are in hard times. And tough, grotesque, earthy, weird fiction seems to come on strong during periods of economic downturn. It happened in the 1970s, and we’re seeing it now, too. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Is their any real difference between the terror pulps of the late 1930s, in which mutants terrorized trapped women while their boyfriends were chained in the dungeon, and the Saw and Hostel movies? Isn’t there more similarity than difference between all of the vampire-werewolf-gothic detective and romance novels now and what was published in Weird Tales and Strange Tales? In the Depression, you had to rely on science fiction pulps and adventure magazines in order to vicariously fight aliens and foreign armies; now we do it with PlayStation and online. So the technology used to deliver the thrills has changed; pulp magazines were cheap and quick in the 1930s, and DVDs and video games are similarly as cheap and quick now. Our attitudes are more lax than they were then; nothing like the Saw movies would have been allowed on screen in the 1930s. But the argument holds: hard times calls for extremes in fiction. So we have our own cheap thrills today.

Still, because I am of a certain age and grew up reading outlandish fiction, or what was then considered to be outlandish fiction, I turn back to the printed page more often than not for my cheap thrills. In his chapter “Dime Detectives,” Goulart refreshes our memories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and many another topnotch writer whose names, most of them, have not, alas, become so commonplace in the seventy-five years or more since this fiction was new—Horace McCoy, for example, and Lester Dent, Erle Stanley Gardner, Cornell Woolrich, Hugh B. Cave. Hammett and Chandler were the stars of Black Mask, a pulp started by the famous H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and it made them rich (along with such naughty, under-the-counter zines as Saucy Stories and Parisienne). Goulart quotes a passage from a story by Raymond Chandler:

I went out of the bar without looking back at her, got into my car and drove west on Sunset and down all the way to the Coast Highway. Everywhere along the way gardens were full of withered and blackened leaves and flowers which the hot wind had burned.

But the ocean looked cool and languid and just the same as ever. I drove on almost to Malibu and then parked and went and sat on a big rock that was inside somebody’s wire fence…. I pulled a string of Bohemian glass imitation pearls out of my pocket and cut the knot at one end and slipped the pearls off one by one.

“To the memory of Mr. Stan Phillips,” I said aloud. “Just another four-flusher.”

I flipped her pearls out into the water at the floating seagulls.

They made little splashes and the seagulls rose off the water and swooped at the splashes.

This is good writing. More than good—it is perfect. It’s writing that is as American as jazz and baseball and driving down endless roads, and for as many things as the pulps got right in their heyday of cheap thrills, bringing us writing such as this is the best thing they got right.

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