The Pulp Ethos: It Really Is MAGIC!!!

Thursday , 15, June 2017 13 Comments

Whole swaths of my commentary gets accused of being “errors of pattern-matching”, but the thing is… there does turn out to be more than just coincidence involved in the connections and trends I’ve been pointing out. And as this episode of Geek Gab: On the Books reveals… sometimes there’s an explicit connection even in places where I never imagined there would be:

Nathan: Stage magic’s actually pretty interesting once you go into the actual authors themselves. A good many of the pulp writers were amateur magicians so they brought that misdirection from the stage into their pulps…..

Brian: Okay, you just made a huge connection because guys like John C. Wright and Jeffro have likened the process of writing– and achieving that surprising yet inevitable kind of twist– to stage magic. And so now you’re saying, that’s literally true. That stage magicians figured out how to write that into their stories.

Nathan: The biggest one that comes to mind is Walter Gibson, Maxwell Grant of The Shadow, basically. The shadow has all of those tools of misdirection from magic and he’s taking a little bit from a gentleman thief– of like an Arsène Lupin– and giving a little different aim and all those misdirection tricks to create something new.

Brian: That makes so much sense that I can’t believe I missed it. You just gave me the surprising but inevitable twist; well done!

Mind. Blown.

  • Nathan says:

    Will Murray pointed out the connection in his introduction to the reissues of the Diamondstone stories:

    “FOR some unexplained reason, magic fascinated the pulp writers of the 1930s and ’40s.

    “The king of them all was Walter B. Gibson, who created The Shadow out of a mesmerizing radio voice and his close association with Blackstone, Thurston, Houdini, Dunninger and other notable magicians. Gibson was as famous for his books on stage magic as he was for his prolific pulp output. He knew all the tricks, from Hypnotism to escape stunts, and employed them freely in spinning his Shadow stories.

    “If being a denizen of the Pulp Jungle made a writer part of a special subculture, then there was a subset of that subculture where pulpsmithing and sleight of hand intersected. An amazing number of them were amateur or performing magicians.”

    Fleming-Roberts, G.T.. Diamondstone: Magician-Sleuth . Altus Press. Kindle Edition.

    Here is a short list of stage magic-inspired pulpsters: Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, Norvell Page, Paul Ernst, “Curtis Steele”, Ken Crossen, Clayton Rawson, G. T. Fleming-Roberts, H. P. Lovecraft.

    And the intersection between stage magic and mystery is natural, as Murray points out, “Misdirection is the stock-in-trade of the performing professional illusionist and escape artist. Mystery writers also employed it to keep their culprits before the eye of the reader, yet unsuspected until the climax.”

    • Nathan says:

      For the science fiction fans, add Issac Asimov to the list of magician-authors as well. He was part of a New York social circle known as the Witch Doctor’s Club, a collection of writers and magicians that included many of the names I previously mentioned as well as Orson Welles. Like a stage version of Fight Club, if it was your first night, you had to perform a stage magic routine…

    • deuce says:

      Legendary multi-genre talent, Jim Steranko, was also in the Witch Doctors. He was actually a pro escape artist at one point. He was a partial inspiration for Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle. It goes without saying that Steranko has been connected with pulp-oriented projects for his entire artistic career.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        I knew that Steranko was an escape artist, but had not heard that he was a member of the Witch Doctor’s Club.

        Multi-talented indeed.

  • Thanks for the signal boost, Jeffro! Glad you liked the show.

  • Street magicians Vs wizards. I’ll place my bets on the street magicians of Pulp because the wizards of modern Fantasy are tired, addled, and out of touch with the ancient magics they no longer comprehend.

  • What I find fascinating from a standpoint of linguistic archeology is that the old Carny lingo still survives in two places–the jargon of stage magic, and the jargon of professional wrestling. I have long wanted to write a secret magic story in which the spectacle of professional wrestling with its blood and drama is a form of cultic magic–a kind of symbolic human sacrifice. All of the elements are there–the masks and false names, the fire and blood, and of course the hysteria of the crowds. I just haven’t quite found the hook to put it all together.

    • Nathan says:

      Lucha Underground kinda does an Aztec version of that with their Grave Consequences matches.

      Some of the carnie speak made it into the Family d’Alembert science fiction novels. (Avoid the Russian remakes.)

      • Andy says:

        Lucha Underground as an entire concept is basically that. On the surface it’s a just grungy wrestling show run by a sleazy, violence-loving Spaniard, but the backstage vignettes show the TV viewer that the matches are all happening within a fantasy context of ancient Aztec gods and prophecies.

    • Could your “hook” be a villain voodoo/santaria wrestling promoter? He might hold wrestling matches to summon an elder elemental titan from the void. The crowd itself could be in on it, everyone but the poor sap matched against the spine chilling Papa Boogey about to make sacrifice of the protagonist.

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