Texas Pulp Fiction Script Hi! I’m Robert Darden, and your host for Treasures of the Texas Collection at Baylor University. OK, imagine you're a young boy in 1880s Texas. You and your family are returning to the farm after a Saturday in town. You settle in the back of the family's wagon clutching what you've spent a hard-earned six cents for: a 32-page booklet for which you've been waiting a week. As the wagon slowly rocks on the way homeward, you turn the page, which bears the title "Buffalo Bill's Death Trap, or, Pawnee Bill and the Comanche Captive" and start to read, "For the defender, whose single shot picked a Comanche so neatly out of the saddle, was a scout and Indian fighter whose name was second only to that of Cody himself. The unseen marksman was Pawnee Bill." You're entering, again, the imaginative world of pulp fiction, a world that Waco Tribune-Herald Entertainment Editor Carl Hoover says continues to shape much of today's entertainment. Let's start at the beginning, Carl: Where did pulp fiction get its name? The pulp of pulp fiction refers to wood pulp, from which the cheapest grade of paper was made. It's on this that early magazines of adventure stories, westerns, detective tales and more were printed. The term gradually became synonymous with the content of those magazines, the direct descendants of the highly popular dime novels of the 19th century, with stories like "Buffalo Bill's Death Trap."
The American dime novel — and there's a considerable number in the Texas Collection's Pulp Periodicals Collection — mirrored a brand of escapist fiction across the Atlantic, called the penny-dreadful. Aimed primarily at boys, these cheap booklets carried tales of daring highwaymen or sometimes even horror yarns.
In America, the first major publisher of pulp fiction, Beadle and Company, started in New York in 1860 and within three years had a competitor in former Beadle employee George Munro. Munro's dime novels tended to be racier and the fight for readers became even more spirited after Munro's brother Norman got into the field.
Why did dime novels become so popular so quickly? Well, for a number of reasons. The advent of free public schools meant more young Americans could read and were reading. The rotary steam printing press enabled publishers to print tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of copies and the expansion of railroads – plus an expanding postal system – allowed distribution of those copies across the country, far from the cities where they were actually printed. Civil War soldiers with days of free time in camps and in the field got into the habit of reading for entertainment, habits that continued years after the war.
So what were they reading? What sold in New York and beyond were adventures, particularly exotic ones, and Texas offered plenty that was exotic: an unsettled frontier, hostile Indians, invading Mexicans, cattle drives, open plains, railroads, gunfighters, horses and lone heroes.
To give a veneer of credibility to their Texas tales, publishers such as Beadle and Company employed authors with semi-military titles: Col. Prentiss Ingraham, who wrote about the exploits of Buffalo Bill; Capt. Fred Whitaker; and Major Sam Hall, also known as "Buckskin Sam."
Those without service titles often had nicknames : "Roving Joe" Badger and Ed Wheeler, known as Deadwood Dick. Were they real? It's hard to say.
Dime novel publishers soon found supplying weekly stories to avid readers across the country required an army of writers — or at least an army of pen names. The prolific Max Brand, one of best known writers of Western pulps and known as "King of the Pulps," wrote under as many as 80 pen names in his lengthy career. Max Brand, in fact, was a pen name itself: His real name was Frederick Schiller Faust.
The need for fiction developed a market for a new type of writer — the ghost writer who earned money for his or her novels and short stories but without the fame of authorship.
Were they all westerns? In the early days, many were. But competition soon spawned new genres as publishers tried to broaden their audiences. Adventures of young American inventors — Thomas Edison Jr. or Frank Reade — set the stage for science fiction. George Munro introduced the character Old Sleuth for a series of detective stories and although he copyrighted the term "sleuth" to prevent copycats, other publishers soon came up with their own mystery-solvers "Old Cap Collier" and "Old King Brady" — "old" obviously being a word that couldn't be copyrighted.
The growing national attention to baseball led Street and Smith to develop tales of young athletes like "Yale Murphy, the Great Short-Stop." It's interesting to read some of those early sports novels, written before decades of sports coverage with their cliches and shorthand communication. Billy Boxer the Referee, the writer of "Yale Murphy, the Great Short-Stop," for instance, runs out of on-the-field exploits and has to create some post-game bravery, such as when Murphy happens on a street robbery of an old woman at knifepoint. "Are they all cowards that they will let an old woman be robbed and not try to catch the villain?" our hero wonders aloud, before using his superior speed to catch up with the escaping robber, pass him and then tackle him from the front.
Ironically, though the Civil War was awash with actual exploits of bravery and adventure, readers apparently didn't support stories set during that war. A copy of "Soldiers and Sailors" in the Texas Collection features the first-person, pro-Union account "Prison Life in Texas," but its back cover tells the buyer that a portion of its purchase price will go to a good cause, helping soldiers and their families.
More common were series like "The Liberty Boys of '76," in which American boys not unlike their young readers mixed spying on the British with their everyday activities in 1776, not 1876.
Sounds like it was a fertile time for popular fiction. And not just here. Nineteenth century American dime novels provided low-cost entertainment at the same time as some famous English novelists and short story writers had their works printed in magazine serials and short stories during the 1880s and 1890s.
Robert Louis Stevenson gripped readers with his adventure tales "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped." French writer Jules Verne laid the groundwork for what became science fiction with his novels "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "From the Earth to the Moon." Arthur Conan Doyle engrossed thousands of readers with stories about his amateur sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Describe some of the Texas Collection's pretty sizable collection of dime novels for our readers, if you will, Carl. I was struck by how much these novels offered readers within their covers. Sizes were irregular; some roughly nine inches by nine inches, others closer to an eight by 11 inch format, close to the 20th century comic book.
Titles frequently had two parts, the better to snag a reader's interest: "The Bradys and Brazos Bill, or, Hot Work on the Texas Border." "Frank Merriwell, the Lionhearted, or, Checkmating Felipe Lopez. " "Buffalo Bill's Death Trap, or, Pawnee Bill and the Comanche Captive."
While the titles implied more than one story, most dime novels were single tales with mingled plotlines. In "Frank Reade Jr.'s New Electric Submarine Boat 'the Explorer,' " the intrepid young inventor, traveling with heavily-accented Irish and black companions, discovers a Spanish treasure ship, escapes an attacking giant and fights off an attacking Eskimo tribe thanks to a timely rescue by another Eskimo tribe led by an English castaway — all of this in 16 pages.
Ha! More like “mangled” plotlines. That's a lot of action. No ads or pictures? Not at first. Illustrations were frequently limited to a single black and white engraving on the cover. Otherwise, text, in two or three columns per page, filled the inside with no graphical interruption for 12 to 36 pages.
Some covers were hard to resist. On the front of the 1884 dime novel "Texas Chick the Southwest Detective,' or, "Tiger-Lily the Vulture Queen," a commanding young woman in full-length dress, cape and hat addresses four men with rifles aimed at two nervous-looking men hanging in tree branches over a flooding river, with her message in the caption: "If they try to climb higher, shoot both," Tiger-Lily sternly directs her men.
The covers of the pulp publications in the Texas Collection show their evolution. Black-and-white cover engravings start to pick up one or two colors by the late 1800s. After the turn of the century, Street and Smith began to phase out dime novels for thinner pulp magazines with full color covers and multiple illustrations inside, the better to compete with Frank Munsey's magazine "Argosy," and its collection of not one, but several adventure stories.
Faced with such competition and rising costs, dime novel publisher Frank Tousey fired many of its writers, then put new titles on hundreds of old stories. It didn't work … and eventually Tousey sold out.
The shift to pulp magazines in the early 20th century also saw less reliance on name characters to build reader loyalty — at least until movies and radio dramas produced new characters who needed print versions.
Did any of the heroes from the dime novels and pulp fiction of the 19th century survive into the 20th century? Several characters did live well beyond their individual exploits: Buffalo Bill, the western explorer and scout whose fictional adventures far outnumbered his real ones; detective Nick Carter; boy inventor Frank Reade, who preceded Tom Swift by three decades; and the athletic, Yale-educated Frank Merriwell. They were brave, resourceful, skilled with weapons and horses and good-looking to boot!
What? No heroines? Not as lead character in any series, although female characters frequently appear in dime novels, often to rescue the male hero in the nick of time. It's interesting to see how relationships and attitudes change over time. In Ned Buntline's 1869 novel "Stella DeLonea's Comanche Love, or, A Romance of Savage Chivalry," it's the woman, Stella, who explains to the man what love is all about and how it differs from gratitude: "Gratitude is slow and born only of effect, or rather of cause. Love is a tireless steed, which will not bear a rein – springing, in an instant, from nothing into life . . . Incomprehensible as it is powerful — it is life's greatest joy; yet, alas! too often it's greatest curse!"
Alas, indeed. Sheer pulp poetry. A decade later, you have a smart, clever female bandit in the character Tiger-Lily, who tells the gentleman her Texas band has encountered that he's not in Virginia any more.
"Divest yourself of old fogy ideas, sir: you are now in Texas and whether you adopt our customs or not, we shall not adopt yours. I am not a parlor belle to be flattered and fed on politeness."
It doesn't hurt that she's attractive and it's pretty clear the gender that author Mark Wilton is writing for. Listen to how he describes her: "She was a magnificent creature in every way, with a queenly form and a queenly face — a face as regularly proportioned as an artist's model with round, well-colored cheeks, a tempting mouth and great brilliant dark eyes. Raven black hair covered her well-poised head in profusion, forming a rippling crown . . . a scarlet riding jacket fitted so as to show her perfect form and a black skirt just showed one dainty foot as it rested in the stirrup."
Your typical Texas bandit, in other words. Let's just say that the 1990s videogame heroine Lara Croft had predecessors at least a century earlier.
Social conventions of the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that the women and girls in most dime novels ended up getting married or engaged by story's end. That might explain why we don't see female characters heading western or adventure series — boys and young men are more likely to buy tales about single heroes than married couples on joint adventures.
Gender stereotypes continued as movies and radio programs of the 20th century began to retell these action stories. In the 1939 Big Little Book "Gene Autry in the Law of the Range," written by Gaylord DuBois, the singing cowboy is saved from machine-gun toting, truck-driving cattle rustlers —
Truck-driving cattle rustlers? Yep. Technology affected even westerns. Anyway, Gene Autry is saved by a woman Hope Dallas, who explains her motivation in the book's denouement.
"Before Gene's look of wonder, Hope Dallas blushed again and dropped her dark lashes. "I couldn't stay behind when you were headed into such awful danger, Gene Autry," she said huskily. "I — just wanted to be near you, all the time."
She's no Tiger Lily. Pulp fiction publishers in the early 20th century did start developing romance stories as a genre for female readers, and you see magazine series such as "Ranch Romance" and "Western Romance."
Publishers' discovery of a female market may have been a consequence of national debates on women's suffrage in the early 1900s, women's leadership in prohibition and labor movements or simply a proven audience appeal of romance in films.
You mentioned that pulp magazines started to sell more than stories featuring recognizable characters. How did that play out? That's right. After "Argosy," you start to see titles that described the types of stories inside rather than characters or plotlines: "Action Stories," "Fight Stories," "Adventure," "Police Gazette," "Black Mask" which featured crime stories and hard-boiled detectives: "Amazing Stories," which some believe was a key influence in science fiction; and "Weird Tales," which similarly influenced horror fiction.
Then there were hybrid genres aiming at an older audience, which cropped up after the 1920s: "Spicy Detective," "Spicy Mystery," "Saucy Movie Tales," "Spicy Western Stories" — with "spicy" and "saucy" standing in for "sexy."
Pulp fiction would face even more competition in the 1920s and '30s, right? Right. Three media that would siphon off much of pulp fiction's young readership were starting to create their own characters: newspaper comics, movies and radio.
As newspapers grew in size and circulation in the late 18th century and their ability to print illustrations improved, many began running comic strips, some of which offered serialized stories of the West or of exotic adventures. Sunday comic sections contained not only humorous cartoons, but stories told in pictures.
New ways to tell stories soon followed. Motion pictures grew from short visual novelties to stories told in moving images. As studios began to develop to crank out movies to whet the appetite of a public hungry for stories, directors and writers translated the plots, characters and cliches of pulp fiction into movie language.
By the early 1930s, a new story-telling medium was spreading across America: radio. As its technology improved and popularity expanded, its need for programming to fill both nighttime and daytime hours grew as well.
Radio, in particular, changes things.
True. Still, pulp fiction, particularly western fiction, had planted the seeds, inspiring radio programs such as the westerns "The Lone Ranger," "The Cisco Kid," "Hopalong Cassidy" and "Death Valley Days." The pulp magazine "Weird Tales" cast its shadow on programs like "Inner Sanctum" and "Suspense." An audience hungry for adventure stories listened to programs such as "Terry and the Pirates," "Doc Savage" and "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy."
Radio and the movies helped kill off some forms of pulp fiction, but also spawned print versions of their stories. In the late 1930s, a new format appeared on the scene, the Big Little Book.
These hardcover books, roughly 4 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches, were more durable than pulp magazines and could fit in a large pocket. Big Little Books, and the identical Better Little Books, were 430 pages thick and featured the adventures not only of original characters, but film cowboys like Tom Mix and Gene Autry, newspaper detectives like Dick Tracy and space explorer Buck Rogers.
For all their thickness, they were quick reads: left-hand pages carried the text, up to four paragraphs' worth, while right-hand pages were black and white line illustrations.
We've come a LONG way since the dime novel with plenty of words for readers. You can almost sense the market for pulp fiction becoming more driven by visuals. Comic books become a mass medium in the late 1930s, with adventures, westerns, science fiction, horror and superheroes all recounted largely in pictures with dialogue balloons and text panels. Pulp magazine covers also used colored illustrations to snag the eye and a customer's small change. Magazines, particularly ones of western stories, borrowed from film's shorthand: cowboys all wore Stetsons, the good guys wore white and one or more characters had a blazing six-shooter or rifle in hand, although one memorable cover in the Texas Collection features a cowboy whipping an attacking grizzly bear with a rattlesnake.
Whoa! I'd want to buy that issue, that's for sure. Some illustrators made their reputation from their pulp magazine covers. German-born Nick Eggenhofer illustrated many western stories. Norm Saunders painted more than 800 covers for such magazines as "Detective Short Stories," "Super Western" and "FBI Detective." George Rozen did the covers for "The Shadow," which sold more than 250,000 copies bi-weekly at its peak. Chicago illustrator Margaret Brundage, a high school classmate of Walt Disney, became known for her racy covers for "Weird Tales," which frequently featured scantily clad women in peril. The illustrator Frank Franzetta, by the way, helped rekindle interest in Robert E. Howard's 1930s Conan the Barbarian pulp series with his paintings of muscular warriors and full-figured female warriors who wore little in the way of body armor.
Did the pulps ever have any famous writers? Some well-known authors wrote for pulp magazines, then moved on to more literary magazines or novels. Texas writers J. Frank Dobie and Elmer Kelton penned stories for western magazines while Katherine Anne Porter was a ghost writer for magazines shortly after moving to New York City. William Sidney Porter, a North Carolinian with a Texas connection, became best known by his pen name O. Henry. He polished his talent for short stories by writing for newspapers and pulp magazines, and created the Cisco Kid. Even Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard turned out western stories early in his writing career.
Some writers had lives as melodramatic as the plots they crafted. O. Henry moved to Texas as a young man and worked as a ranch hand, a newspaper reporter, a draftsman and a bank teller. Accused of embezzlement, he fled to Honduras, but returned to be with his dying wife. He served three years in a federal penitentiary, then moved to New York after his release and became a prolific short story writer.
Zane Grey, an Ohio native, started a career as a New York dentist before decided he preferred to write about the American west. He didn't actually visit the West until his 30s.
Max Brand, one of the most famous Western pulp writers, wrote up to 20,000 words a day. Since many pulp magazines paid by the word, he earned a considerable amount from his writing and moved to a villa in Italy, where he continued to churn out stories about the West. He died in battle in Italy in World War II.
One of the most famous pulp writers was the Texan Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian.
That Conan the Barbarian? The same. Howard's father, a doctor, moved his wife and only child across the Lone Star State, hoping to attach his practice to an oil boom town and its quick wealth. The Howard family moved to the West Texas town of Cross Plains two years after oil was found in nearby Ranger in 1917. The younger Howard was 13 at the time. Mark Finn, author of "Blood and Thunder," speculates Robert's time in Cross Plains exposed him not only to the fluid, volatile and violent population of a boom town, but one dotted with Mexicans fleeing the civil war across the Rio Grande — all rich material for a story teller.
The young man began writing stories and sending them to magazines in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the early '30s that his stories began to draw a national audience. Like Max Brand, he could write and write fast — he produced around 300 short stories in his brief career. The Texas Collection has several compilations of his collected magazine stories, pieces with titles like "Moon of Skulls," "Black Hounds of Death," "Kull, Exile of Atlantis" and "Worms of the Earth."
Howard also had an expansive imagination, creating worlds not only for Conan the Cimmerian, but Bran Mak Morn, the ancient Pict warrior; Puritan evil-fighting adventurer Solomon Kane; sailor and boxer Steve Costigan; and Francis Xavier Gordon, a Texas gunfighter who went to the Orient and reinvented himself in the Muslim world as El Borak.
El Borak -- boy, Howard had a way with character names. Even his villians had memorable names. Erlik Khan, Bran Mak Morn, Ti Wron, the Sons of Erlik.
The West Texas writer carried on a lengthy correspondence with New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and his adventures buoyed the circulation of the pulp magazine Weird Tales.
As unlikely as it seems, Howard made a living in the Great Depression as a short story writer based in Cross Plains, Texas. Then came a twist ending as abrupt as any found in pulp fiction. His invalid mother, who had suffered from tuberculosis for years, went into a coma in June 1936. Told by a homecare nurse that she likely would not come out of it, Howard walked from her bedside, wrote a short poem, went to his convertible parked outside their house and shot himself. His mother died 30 hours later and the two were buried in a double funeral at Brownwood, Texas.
What finally happened to pulp magazines? The combination of television and comic books in the 1950s and 1960s sapped the vitality — and reader base — of many pulp publications. Ones that survived often were the print version of stories broadcast over the airwaves or projected on the silver screen. The growth of paperback books from the 1930s to 1960s further eroded the market for pulp magazines by offering low cost, accessible reading to millions.
Pulp magazines, however, live on through their stories and style: short, direct storytelling, memorable characters and settings and entertainment above all. Imagine this closing paragraph of the first dime novel about the Western adventurer Deadwood Dick as the last scene of a western movie, a radio program, a television show or a comic book and you can see how fiction created for a throw-away medium has had an enduring impact:
"Grim and uncommunicative, there roams through the country of gold a youth in black, at the head of a bold lawless gang of road-riders, who, from his unequaled daring, has won and rightly deserves the name — Deadwood Dick, Prince of the Road." And with that we close this episode of "The Treasures of the Texas Collection." Thank you, Carl, for sharing about pulp fiction. This has been Robert Darden, Associate Professor of Journalism and if you would like to learn more about Texas in pulp fiction, The Texas Collection on the Baylor University campus has one of the country’s largest collections of Texas-related documents, books, letters, photographs, memoirs and more. Go to http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas/
Treasures of the Texas Collection has been made possible by generous grants from The Wardlaw Fellowship Fund for Texas Studies and by Community Bank and Trust of Waco. This has been a production of KWBU 103.3 FM – public radio for Central Texas.