March 29, 2023
A century later, pulp magazines still leave their mark on genre fiction
What do cosmic creatures, daring detectives and insane inventors all have in common? Their stories could all be found within the pages of a pulp magazine.
Named after the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed, the pulps were a popular form of entertainment in the early decades of the 1900s, with some selling up to one million copies per issue.
Though they were often known for their sensationalistic stories, a University of Calgary professor says pulp magazines have a much deeper importance to literature.
“Many of the identifiable genres we see today — fantasy, horror, science fiction — their birth was connected to these pulp magazines,” says Dr. Anthony Camara, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of English.
“The magazines gave these genres a level of visibility in the culture that they hadn’t enjoyed previously.”
Science fiction, in particular, came into its own through the pulp magazines. Before the pulp magazine period, Camara says, the term "science fiction" didn’t even exist. Instead, it was dubbed “scientific romance” and was being written by authors like H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley.
“Initially, in the magazines it was referred to as ‘scientifiction,’ but a lot of readers wrote in and said that was a confusing term, so it eventually became known as science fiction,” explains Camara.
While giving birth to various genres, the pulp magazines also consolidated genres, as readers could find similar stories — adventure stories, horror stories or detective stories — together in the pages of one magazine.
One pulp that was especially known for carving out its own space was Weird Tales, a horror and fantasy magazine whose first issue was released 100 years ago, in March 1923.
“The editors were looking for stories that were very much off the beaten path, things that didn’t look like what the typical pulp magazine was publishing, things that were a little off-kilter, in terms of genre,” says Camara.
By looking for the weird, the magazine created a space for writers to experiment with the “weird tale.” Camara says there was also a market for these stories, as Weird Tales was one of the more expensive pulps available, costing 25 cents an issue (equivalent to a little over $4 today), versus the usual 10 cents for other magazines.
While many have lambasted it for being lowbrow, Camara says the magazine gave authors a space to work with genre and between genre in subversive ways that gave rise to a whole new kind of fiction.
“I think horror today would be inconceivable without Weird Tales,” he says.
Influential authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith all had their stories included in various issues of Weird Tales.
It wasn’t just the words either, as the illustrations of artists like Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay have also had a lasting impact on horror as a multimedia phenomenon.
These pulp magazines aren’t lost to the past, either. In fact, UCalgary's Archives & Special Collections is home to the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction, which contains more than 28,000 published items, including runs of more than 400 pulp magazines like Weird Tales.
While originally intended as entertainment for the masses, the stories of the pulp magazines have continued on as both entertainment and a place for deeper academic investigation. Camara is currently working on an article about non-Euclidian and higher dimensional geometry in Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House from the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.
“One of the things that is so compelling about this fiction is the way in which it thinks with an incredibly high degree of sophistication about philosophy,” says Camara.
He says while all people contend with questions like what the nature of reality is and is there anything that exists beyond matter, space and time, the Weird Tales writers had a knack for writing this sort of fiction that had a philosophical grain to it.
“I think that their horror is not only frightening, but there’s also something deeply fascinating about it,” says Camara.
“We don’t want to pull our eyes away from it because it’s almost like pulling back the veil of reality and looking into deeper things, and that’s the attraction of the fiction.”