Before you get all excited about a potential discussion about Uma Thurman, John Travolta, and Samuel L Jackson let me rein you in touch. Today, we’ll be talking about real pulp fiction. Popular stories such as Flash Gordon, Indiana Jones, Tarzan, heck, even Star Wars, all started out as stories that appeared in pulp magazines which were printed on cheap wood pulp paper. They had a distinct smell and feel to them, which pulp fiction enthusiasts have come to love.
My friend, Jay Barnson, is a true pulp fiction aficionado. So much so that he has published several stories in modern pulp publications, such as Storyhack and Cirsova. His new book, Blood Creek Witch, takes the engaging action elements of a good pulp read and weaves them into a fantastic urban fantasy. Jay and I go back to, you might have guessed it, Xchyler Publishing. In 2015, that’s where all the cool local writers hung out.
What draws you to pulp fiction? (and how has it influenced you…?)
When I was a kid, my primary sources of science fiction and fantasy (which they usually dumped on the same small shelf back then…) were libraries, and occasionally used book stores. This meant I wasn’t reading the newest stuff, and a lot of what I read was anthologies or novel reprints of “classic” science fiction and fantasy — much of which was originally published in pulp magazines. While my friends were discovering Lord of the Rings, I was discovering Conan of Cimmeria. I was into pulp SFF before I even knew what it was! These were the kinds of stories that inspired me. They were the kinds of stories also that inspired some of my favorite movies as a kid, too, like Star Wars (originally three films) and Indiana Jones (um, ditto).
Flash forward to today, and what I want to read (and write) today hasn’t changed much. Stories of the pulp age were well-told yarns focused on escapism and entertainment. The pulp masters made a living writing these things, by producing a constant stream of stories that readers wanted (and would pay for) – through the intermediate layer an editor. It wasn’t about producing an annual book in a series and having a publisher market the crap out of it, or gaining the marketing cachet of a major award or Oprah’s Book Club, or anything else from later eras that drove a “hit.” It was all about entertaining the audience, over and over again. Their stories had to be riveting from page one with nothing else to prop them up except maybe the reputation of their pen name and the name of the magazine.
Since I started getting published, I’ve gone back and read a lot of the original pulps and reprints (and I’ve even picked up a few original paper copies on eBay). Many popular misconceptions about pulp stories can be resolved simply by reading a bunch of them. Yeah, there are plenty of stinkers out there – I’ll be the first to admit that not everything was gold back then. Once you get past the cultural and language barriers of stories from nearly (or over) a hundred years ago, you may find these tales stack up well against a lot of modern stuff published today. They work. The storytelling still works. You can analyze it and find that these men and women figured out (often the hard way) the axioms of writing we take for granted today. They wove magic.
An emphasis on action. Character-driven stories. Show, don’t tell. Lurid spectacle. Escapism. Heart. Thrilling twists. Quiet heroism as well as bold fisticuffs. I want to tell those kinds of stories. Not pastiche stories that sound like they were written in the 1930s, but modern stories that embrace the pulp aesthetic. I’ve been happy to learn that there are a lot of readers out there just like me who crave exactly that kind of story, too, even if they don’t recognize it as “pulpy.” It’s just fun.