The Classic Era Of American Pulp Magazines – Peter Haining

One of the most painful truths in American publishing is that genre fiction is better than literary fiction. There are two basic reasons for this. One is the market angle: detective stories outsell “quality” novels at an exponential rate. The second is tougher to defend, but it’s the truth. The writing’s just better. Genre fiction, by providing a steady diet of sex, violence and adventure, and little or nothing more, serves the reader in a way that so-called “quality” literature can’t approach. No short story in Harper’s or The Atlantic could ever be described as “gripping” or a “page-turner.” And since all storytelling rests on the inherent fascination of the tale, not the finesse with which it’s told, it can finally be stated here: Raymond Chandler is a better writer than John Updike.

Peter Haining addresses the hidden history of magazine fiction in this excellent book, which is simultaneously a history and a defense of the pulp magazines which flourished between World Wars I and II. Haining goes beyond discussion of the stories and focuses his attention on the men who published the magazines, and what they thought of their work. Particularly interesting is the story of H.L. Mencken’s love-hate relationship with Black Mask, which he published because it enabled him to subsidize his other, better-regarded but much less profitable venture, The Smart Set. Haining admits being a lifetime pulp-fiction fan and collector, but he recognizes the inherent artistic limitations of the pulps, and that keeps the book from devolving into mere fanboy worship. A gentle sense of humor permeates the text, particularly when commenting on the lurid cover illustrations which often had little or nothing to do with the adventure stories contained within.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this book is the scope of Haining’s reading and research. Many horror, mystery and science-fiction fans know the names of a few of the old pulp magazines; Black Mask and Weird Tales are often cited, as they gave early starts to writers like Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and John D. MacDonald. But how many people know about tiny, forgotten pulps like Thrilling Detective, Ace G-Man Stories, or Famous Fantastic Mysteries? They’re here; Haining even reproduces the cover of the only published issue of 10 Story Fantasy. This is a detailed, and lavishly illustrated history of the low-rent, lowest-common-denominator (not that either of those is a bad thing) magazines that published some of the most interesting writing in American history. Literary magazines have always been around, and will always linger as long as there are university writing programs to provide wan, enervated stories of suburban anomie. But the era of the hard-boiled pulps is gone, and that’s too bad. Peter Haining’s book provides a fantastically entertaining look back at this lost, and underrated, genre of writing.

Phil Freeman