The Pulps Were Not Kids Literature

Thursday , 27, April 2017 17 Comments

Black Gate has a great post up about Famous Fantastic Mysteries, an anthology drawn from the magazine that kept the classics of the early days of fantasy and science fiction in print with top flight covers that could rival the likes of Margaret Brundage and Frank Frazetta. Put together in 1991, it represents an extremely good introduction to the science fiction and fantasy canon:

  • Appendix N authors A. Merritt, Lord Dunsany, August Derleth, Margaret St. Clair, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard are represented. (And given St. Clair’s relative obscurity today, her inclusion with this lineup is all the more remarkable.)
  • Lovecraft disciple Robert Bloch and Leigh Brackett protege Ray Bradbury are included.
  • Major influences on Appendix N authors such as Francis Stevens and William Hope Hodgson are included. (The latter also being part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.)
  • Conspicuous omissions from Appendix N such C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner are included.
  • Literary precursors to pulp fantasy are represented by the likes of Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jack London.

In short, this volume looks absolutely fantastic and is absolutely worth tracking down. Certainly, the A. Merritt selection is among his best works. If the rest are as well chosen, this has to be one of the best reads anywhere.

The comments on the piece are, however, a first rate example of educated aliteracy.

James McGlothlin: I must be naive but I’m always a little taken aback at how racy some of these 1920s (or earlier) magazine covers and inside artwork were. When they’re not just being purely titillating (which I get for marketing purposes), they are actually very effective and powerful.

John O’Neill: That’s absolutely true. That’s what centuries of sexual repression will get you… highly sexualized, erotic artwork on the covers of what’s essentially kid’s literature.

There’s lot of folks who’ve examined this in detail, of course, but the basic premise seems to be that slick magazines and hardcovers were considered highbrow, and thus held to much stricter standards, whereas low circulation pulps and paperbacks were considered lowbrow, and thus artists had considerably more license. And yes, there were certainly readers people who found the gratuitous erotic imagery in poor taste even at the time, but there was absolutely no refuting that sex sold magazines.

This is so wrongheaded it’s positively baffling.

In the first place, the pulp covers from the 1920s and earlier are fairly tame. The notoriously racy covers of Margaret Brundage came out in the thirties. And the positively sizzling Virgil Finlay covers from the Black Gate post are of course all from the 1940s.

Secondly, pulp authors like Francis Stevens and A. Merritt did not write “kid’s literature.” They created first rate entertainment for an extremely broad audience comparable to the target audience westerns or of later films like Casablanca or The Big Sleep. We do have kids magazines from era and Argosy and Weird Tales were not among them. Anyone that doubts who the intended audience of these stories were can simply read through the letter columns to confirm this. You’d basically have to have never read an actual pulp magazine in order to be unaware of this.

Finally, the accusation that this artwork is sexualized says more about the commenter than it does about the work itself. Romantic. Idealized. Titillating, even. But sexualized? Sorry, no. If you want sexualized, go read Marion Zimmer Bradley or Piers Anthony. Coming from a generation where something as ludicrously stupid as “My Sex Junk” is presented on fake science shows aimed at children, this is absolutely absurd.

And this is actually worse than people sitting around congratulating themselves for being saner and more sophisticated than the dead authors and artists they routinely and unfairly psychoanalyze. Indeed, it is we that are the generation of predominantly repressed and psychologically damaged people. Going back and actually reading the old pulp stories…? It’s an awesome experience that is almost precisely like climatic scene of Cinema Paradiso where the guy plays the reel containing all the scenes from the movies that had been cut out by the censors.

It’s mind blowing.

As much as we have made our forbears into bugbears of prudery and repression, it is people of our times that have been denied seeing tales that are epic, fantastic, awesome, and inspiring. The fact is, today’s censors are far more exacting than the old commissars ever dreamed of being.

17 Comments
  • caleb says:

    Yeah, Black Gate is good for news and the like, but certain of their contributors are… eh… worthy of Tor’s blog. And commenters are no better.

    Anyway I don’t own this particular volume, but number of these pulp anthologies appeared in 80s and early 90s, and they can be tracked down for cheaps.

  • caleb says:

    Also, ’tis rather cute how that conversation there ignores your own comment. It is as if their brains just block out this stuff, automatic protective mechanism of sorts. One of many, too. Like one that allows modern far leftist to talk about centuries of sexual repressions whilst at the same time he complains of overly sexualised pulp covers.

    • deuce says:

      Interesting, isn’t it? The same commenter regularly informs the world about how he has never read this or that essential/classic SFF author “until now”. Not to worry. He has read every story Asimov ever wrote. Twice.

    • deuce says:

      Also…they managed to find TWO artworks by Lawrence Stevens depicting “sleeping beauties” and the magisterial verdict is rendered that such are a “thing” for Stevens? Stevens created literally more than a HUNDRED covers and illos. Hardly any have “sleeping beauties”. Check out this link and decide for yourself:

      http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?27810

      • Jeffro says:

        Beautiful women in peril is the one thing contemporary sff covers cannot depict. It’s like a religious thing or something. Covers have to have people just standing around… looking cool!

        People that pretend that the drab, dull, and generic illustrations of today are good simply can’t handle the awesomeness of the pulps. So they have to have something smart sounding to say. To the pure, all things are pure…. So people that react with this sort of “critique” are projecting.

        I love the cognitive dissonance: “So weird that this ‘kid stuff’ is wrapped up in covers that are loaded with adult themes. YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN IT!!”

        Bwa-ha-ha!

  • keith says:

    Damn, but that table of contents is pure gold. Every single story that I am familiar with is great.
    Any idea if this also includes original illustrations? I actually own one of Dziemianowicz & co compillations, Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, and that one contains original illustrations from WT.

  • Andy says:

    Next time on Black Gate: Did you know that Looney Tunes used to play in movie theaters? For adults?! The mind boggles!

    An interesting example of this sliding scale is the Hard Case Crime imprint, which brought back Robert McGinnis as a cover painter. McGinnis’s cover paintings from the 50s and onward often featured outright nudity, but for Hard Case he said he had to restrain himself because the imperative to sell books through huge family friendly chains like Barnes and Noble makes nudity a dealbreaker.

  • Blume says:

    I love that cover. It’s classic universal studios mummy imagery with a pin up quality dame. And the artist clearly new what he was doing. The contrast is great and draws the eyes to her face,and breast with the small detail of the ankh brand. The hand seemingly cupping the breast focusing the viewer again at the ankh and hinting at much more. The artist was very skilled and knew how to titilate with the best of them.

  • Morgan says:

    I remember there being a stack of the FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES book at Taylor’s Bookstore in Dallas in 1990. I picked that up new along with the other Weinberg/Dziemanowicz bargain anthologies.

  • Vlad James says:

    Love that you included the link to that article on the rise of educated aliteracy, one of the most revealing articles about current trends in reviewing and criticism.

    Before, when someone offered a nonsensical, baseless view on a book, author, or genre, I thought it was just poor comprehension or intrinsic bias. Now, I question whether they have read it at all.

    That’s certainly the case with these self-satisfied, utterly wrong comments about pulp on Black Gate.

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