Pulp magazines were a widespread source of affordable popular fiction in the first half of the 20th century. They were essentially regular periodicals printed on paper obtained from cheap wood pulp (hence "pulp") featuring original text stories, in contrast to the slick magazines printed on higher-grade paper (often called "glossies" or "slicks").
Inside these mags were stories of almost every genre possible depending on a particular magazine's focus. While the Action-Adventure series in the spirit of Indiana Jones or Pellucidar and Proto-Superhero (like The Shadow or Doc Savage) are the best remembered today, there were a vast variety — crime & detective (such as Black Mask), horror (H. P. Lovecraft's stories), romance, fantasy (Such as Weird Tales which introduced Conan the Barbarian) and many others. Notably, the Science Fiction pulps (such as Amazing Storiesnote ) are both credited with establishing Science Fiction as a distinct genre note and blamed for establishing the idea that all science fiction is pulpy Sci Fi and mostly Space Opera, leaving the new genre stuck in the Sci-Fi Ghetto to the chagrin of hard Science Fiction devotees and others. This argument has mostly faded into history these days, but the underlying issues aren't dead yet.
Pulp fiction was often low-quality, cliché-stormed, and short (the magazines had about 128 pages). That's why only the very few people involved in their crafting thought the fiction created for the pulps had real value the way, say, novels often try to. Which included the writers who often were paid a penny a word. However, they weren't entirely wrong — as exemplified by Lovecraft's works, pulp fiction could indeed be of great quality and had the potential of becoming classics. Yet, the pulps were at their best in the wild scenes of furious action, melodramatic romance, and sensational/exploitative plots.
Pulp magazines reflected that in their covers — pinup-style Ms. Fanservice in all her curvy glory, taglines, Badass guys brandishing weapons, menacing villains or wild animals, dramatic scenes of peril, bright colors, and lurid or intriguing scenarios.
The pulps strongly influence their descendant media even today. This can be attributed to the fact many Dead Horse Tropes were new and original back then. For instance, the Super Hero and Spy Hero stories like James Bond owe a lot to the medium's influence.
If you want to look for it, you can read the comic book, Wordsmith, which is about the life and work of a pulp magazine writer in the 1930s with excerpts of the stories he writes. Also, as per The Wiki Rule, there exists a wiki about the topic called The Pulp Wiki.
Eventually, the pulps were killed off by competition from movies, comic books, television, and the paperback novel, newer forms of affordable entertainment. Nowadays, the art of crafting pulp fiction is regarded as a technique to spark creativity and made the act of writing finally happen for those stuck in writer's block. It's said it reminds people how much fun writing stories can be. Especially when one doesn't worry about planning plot threads and complex characters.
Space Opera, Planetary Romance, and Sword and Sorcery became distinct genres in the pulps.
Compare with Dime Novel which along with the British Penny Dreadfuls were the immediate predecessors of pulp magazines. In turn, Airport Novels are the closest modern equivalent, although Extruded Book Product plumbs some of the same depths as the worst of the pulp serials. A point can be made about Creepypasta and Fanfiction fulfilling the role pulp magazines left much better in the sense of being more widespread thanks to the internet and that their authors are amateur writers and, therefore, the stories aren't curated by professional editors.
See also Two-Fisted Tales for works directly inspired by the pulps.
Not to be confused with the band called PULP. The movie Pulp Fiction derives its title and some of its style from stories in pulp magazines of the crime genre. The movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is also a homage to stories from pulp magazines, of the science fiction genre.
Sexy Taglines, Drug-induced Covers, and… Examples!
- The Avenger (1939): Richard Henry Benson has traveled the world seeking the treasures (rubber, emeralds, amethysts, gold) hidden in its little-explored corners and otherwise getting loaded by offering his services (leading native armies, drawing aerial maps). He’s the wealthy pulp hero archetype in all its glory. When he finally settles down, his family is killed by some criminals. The terror leaves his hair and skin white and paralyzes his face in a morbid expression. He sets to avenge his family and everyone who has suffered due to the rampaging crime. Aided by his riches, of course.
- The Black Bat from the Black Book Detective series. The first Black Bat (1933) was cut short — it was only his second, unrelated incarnation (1939) who sprang the character to fame. District Attorney Anthony Quinn gets disfigured and blinded by acid while trying to save key evidence for a case. He decides to delve into vigilantism after that, sticking paper bats on his victims so innocent people won’t be blamed for his actions and to instill fear in other law-breaking people.
- Captain Future
- Conan the Barbarian
- El Coyote (1943): He first appeared as a side character in a Western Pulp, but his popularity promoted him to the main role of the eponymous, wildly popular Spanish series. César de Echagüe is a wealthy Californian nobleman, owner of a large ranch, in the middle of the Mexican-American War. As his secret alter ego, El Coyote, César put on a mask and a traditional Mexican charro costume to protect the native Indians and Hispanics from the invading Anglo Saxons and wrongdoers in general. He's very similar to Zorro, right down to being named after a small dog relative ("Zorro" means "fox" in Spanish).
- The Cthulhu Mythos
- Dan Turner Hollywood Detective:
- Doc Savage: He influenced Superman.
- Doctor Death:
- Domino Lady (1936): Ellen Patrick, a college-educated socialite, has her father murdered, prompting her to become the masked heroine Domino Lady and fight corruption to avenge her father. Which she does armed with a 45-caliber pistol, syringes of knockout serum, and her beauty. After disposing of her targets, she steals their riches which she donates to charity, leaving her signature "Compliments of the Domino Lady".
- Dr Yen Sin: Yen is the poster child of Yellow Peril.
- G-8 from G 8 And His Battle Aces
- Hopalong Cassidy:
- Ka Zar:
- Lord Lister from Lord Lister Called Raffles The Master Thief: German.
- Nick Carter: The character originated in American, Western Dime Novels.
- Operator Number Five: As the storm clouds gathered over Europe and the Far East, pulp hero Secret Service Operator #5 (1934 - 1939) fought attempts by various foreign armies from South America, Europe and the Orient to conquer the United States. The events are completely over-the-top as benefits the pulp genre, except for the time the Japs destroy an entire city (Philadelphia) with their evil atomic bomb. Only Orientals would do such a dastardly deed...
- Sadly, due to the cancellation of the magazine, the "Yellow Vulture" epic was left permanently unfinished at a Cliffhanger.
- The Phantom Detective:
- Secret Agent X:
- The Shadow: Serialized in both pulp magazines and radio programs.
- The Spider: a more bloodthirsty, violent, and (in later installments) more Catholic version of Batman. According to Stan Lee, one of the indirect influences on Spider-Man.
- Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It later spanned its own franchise.
- Action-Adventure Pulps
- Crime and Detective Pulps: It included the Série Noire Pulps and Giallo.
- Fantasy Pulps
- Gay Pulps
- Hero Pulps
- Humor Pulps
- Horror Pulps: It was here that the Cosmic Horror Story was first developed, but there was also plenty of conventional Gothic Horror material here too.
- Jungle Opera Pulps
- Lesbian Pulps
- Miscellaneous Pulps
- Romance Pulps
- Science Fiction Pulps
- Spicy Pulps: Also known as soft porn.
- Sports Pulps
- Western Pulps
- War Pulps
- Amazing Stories published Richard Sharpe Shaver’s stories and conspiracy theories.
- Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine has been active since the 1940s.
- Super-Science Fiction released issues every two months from December 1956 until October 1959.
- Unknown owned by John W. Campbell demanded from its writers to provide some measure of logic to the fantastical, horror elements introduced in the pulps. Sprinkles of humor were welcomed as well. As a result, the magazine gladly printed pulps of the likes of Sinister Barrier and Trouble With Water.
- Weird Tales was a hugely influential magazine with fantastic, horror-themed stories. Authors who had their stories published in the magazine include Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, and many, many others.
- The Witch’s Tales: “Weird dramatic and supernatural stories”.
- Wonder Stories (1929–1954): Science Fiction pulp magazine with a convoluted history of bankruptcy, splitting into three independent magazines, merging, and renaming.
- Young’s Magazine.