Whatever happened to the pulps?

Richard Hill Wilkinson, author of over a hundred and fifty stories for the pulps, and wife c. 1945

Richard Hill Wilkinson was one of those authors who filled out the pulps. He turned out about a hundred and fifty stories for the pulps under his own name, starting with the Clayton group’s Cowboy Stories and Ace-High, switching horses to Street and Smith’s Love Story and Romantic Range when Clayton shut shop and hopped saddles to Ranch Romances when the latter title folded.

As the pulps faded, Wilkinson switched to non-fiction, movie screenplays and radio shows (but no paperbacks, I guess he preferred the shorter form). A final burst of appearances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the mid 1960s marked the end of his magazine writing; a career that spanned over forty years from 1926 to 1967.

The pseudonyms mentioned in this article may have been used elsewhere as I couldn’t find a record of them in the FictionMags Index.

By Richard Hill Wilkinson

BACK in 1930 there were on the newsstands thirty-two magazines whose pages were devoted exclusively to Western fiction and Western lore. There were twenty-nine devoted exclusively to detective and mystery yarns. Then came the love and romance magazines, more than twenty of them. Beyond that were the war stories, adventure stories. Northwest stories, sex stories, weird stories, aviation stories, sport stories, sea stories, and general stories.

These were the pulps—so called because the paper on which they were printed was made from wood pulp—and they numbered in the hundreds. Hack writers all over America had a field day. The pulps paid, as a rule, a penny a word. A prolific writer who knew his business, and was willing to work, could grind out from five to ten thousand words a week without overmuch sweat. And he had the satisfaction of knowing that his audience included Presidents, Supreme Court justices, world-renowned surgeons, famous people in every profession, as well as the millions of unknown, but loyal, readers.

It was a living and, in those days, a good one. But more important than that, the pulp writer had something he treasured more than a lucrative desk-job. He had independence, freedom of movement. He could go anywhere, live anywhere. The only requirement was that he bring along his typewriter and pound away at it at least six hours a day. Some, such as H. Bedford Jones and Erie Stanley Gardner, both of whose writing careers began in the pulps, worked longer hours. They had to because of the vast amount of material they turned out. Both were using a bunch of pen names, as were most of us who depended entirely on the pulp market for a living.

I had three pet names I used besides my own. They were R. R. Meredith, Thomas Christie, and Richard Fales. During the Second World War, however, I adopted the name of Lieutenant Harlan Hayford. Somehow it sounded more patriotic. And then occasionally I used the name Faith Prentice. This was for the sexy magazines.

For the most part I struck to Westerns and mysteries. For a period of two years my own name and that of R. R. Meredith appeared every month, on the cover of a Western magazine. In most cases I had written both the serial and the complete novelette.

The careers of many, many writers who later became well known as slick paper writers and best-selling novelists began in the pulps. Among them, besides Jones and Gardner, were the late Ben Ames Williams, E. Waldo Long, Alan Bosworth, Hal G. Evarts, Walt Coburn, Max Brand, and Luke Short. Short. I always felt, was one of the finest writers of the time. As far as I know, he stuck entirely to Westerns. He was a master at creating suspense, building a character, bringing to life a scene or situation so you could feel it and taste it and smell it. His words flowed. For my money he captured the flavor of the old West better than any other writer save, perhaps, the old master Zane Grey.

MOST of the pulp writers were men, although there were exceptions. An agent in New York named Robert Thomas Hardy decided to get aboard the pulp wagon, and published a magazine he named Zest. A bunch of us who lived within an easy train ride of the big city went down to see him with the idea of getting some inkling of his format so we could adapt our material to it without experiencing the formalities of a few rejection slips.

When I arrived in Hardy’s office a young girl was ahead of me. She was slight and dark-haired and vivacious. Hardy introduced her as Vina Delmar. She was then a pulp writer and was turning out as much material as most of the male writers.

There was one thing about the pulps that I always liked. A man didn’t have to do a lot of research. Neither the editors nor the readers worried much about accuracy as to facts, locations, or periods in which the story happened. If it was good entertainment that’s all that mattered. A six-gun presumably contained six bullets only. It was usually a Colt. If a character sometimes fired seven or eight times without reloading, who cared?

One pulp writer had the infamous “Doc” Holliday performing an emergency appendectomy on a pool table in a Western saloon. Neither the writer, nor the magazine editor, nor the motion picture producer who brought the story to the screen seemed to be at all bothered by the fact that Doc was a dentist.

Most of the Westerns I wrote were laid in the Southwest. This was for a personal reason. Having been born and raised in New England I didn’t like snow, and I understood—though I never checked it—that down there in the Southwest it never snowed. The states I referred to for the most part were Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

A great deal of my “research” was done in movie theatres, sitting relaxed and comfortable while watching Western dramas. I also had a picture postcard, sent to me by a friend who was taking an automobile tour of the Southwest, on which was portrayed every type of cactus to be found in Arizona. I pinned this up on the wall above my desk and whenever I wanted to throw my weight around I’d have my hero camp near a sahuaro or a Spanish bayonet, or maybe even an ocotillo.

I had sold more than seventy-five Westerns before my wife and I decided to drive out that way and see what the West was like. Neither of us had ever been west of the Hudson River; we had never ridden a horse or fired a gun.

I was happily surprised to discover that the West was pretty much as I had imagined it and written about it. We did get a couple of shockers, though. The first came in Texas when we saw a mountain called, I think, El Capitan. El Capitan was, to our eyes, completely denuded. It saddened us. It must have been a real humdinger of a fire, we agreed, to have burned a whole mountain. We who had lived in New England all our lives couldn’t imagine a mountain that wasn’t heavily timbered. We learned later, of course, that practically ail the mountains in the Southwest looked as though they were cut out of cardboard.

The second shocker came when we reached the Diamond C, a ranch located in Elgin, about seventy-five miles south of Tucson, where we planned to spend the winter. Although the Diamond C was listed as a dude ranch, it was also a working ranch, which is why we chose it. The outfit ran about 500 head of Herefords on fenced rangeland. When I was first shown the herd I couldn’t believe my eyes. These cattle were a reddish brown in color and had white faces. Up to that moment I had believed that Herefords were black!

Most of us pulp writers adhered to a formula. It started with a so-called Narrative Hook, which went something like this:

Jim Labaree put his shoulder against a post on the veranda outside the Blue Chip Saloon and casually rolled a cigarette. Through slitted lids his ice blue eyes studied the bank across the street. The best time, he thought, as he flicked a match into flame with his thumbnail, for a holdup would be around noon.

The trick here was to capture the reader’s interest by posing questions the answers to which he would have to continue reading to find. For example, the readers subconscious mind, if not his conscious, has already asked: Is Jim Labaree the hero of this story? If so, why’s he thinking about robbing the bank? Bank robbing is for villains. But maybe he isn’t thinking about robbing the bank. Maybe he’s the sheriff and has been tipped off that a gang is going to do the robbing.

Also, the mere fact that a bank holdup had been mentioned promised action, and action was the lifeblood of any pulp Western.

ANOTHER device most of us used to keep our readers tensed up and sweating was the Black Moment. A Black Moment came in a story at that point when it appeared to the reader that the hero had everything under control, when it seemed that he could not fail in achieving his desire, whatever it may be. Then something unforeseen would happen that would completely reverse the picture. The reader would get the idea that the hero didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding in his endeavor.

For example, consider the plight of our hero, Tex. Tex has been paid a sum of money by some responsible men in the cow town of Latigo to get rid of an unsavory character named Bull. Bull is a stinker from way back. He’s fast with a gun. There are so many notches on his gun handle that it feels like the bark of a live oak. He’s the

known leader of a gang of rustlers. He s insulted at one time or another practically every woman in town. He’s a bully and a braggart. Twice he and his cohorts have “treed” the town. Oh, he’s a bad one all right.

Tex lets the word get around that he’ll meet Bull in a fair fight. Tex is our hero and there must be no shenanigans about this. It must be a fair fight.

The time is set for noon on the following day. (High noon, naturally.) It’ll be a dead man’s walk type of affair. (It always is.) One man will start at one end of the street, the other at the other. They’ll walk slowly toward each other until they’ feel they‘re within killing range. Then they’ll start blasting away.

Now, Tex is the “fastest gun in the West.” The reader knows this because the author has already told him so, and that’s good enough for any reader. It’s a lead pipe cinch that Bull is about to get his comeuppance, so let’s get on with it.

But wait! Something unforeseen suddenly happens. Tex, in trying to rescue a child from the path of a runaway horse, sprains his trigger finger. Wow! This is bad. Even the fastest gun in the West can’t do much with a sprained trigger finger. And the reader knows that Tex won’t call the fight off. Western heros weren’t built that way.

So now the reader begins to sweat again, because suddenly there’s doubt about the outcome of this all-important fight. Doubt means suspense and suspense means added reader interest.

However, it’s possible that the writer has painted himself into a corner. Many and many a time I’ve gone out and mowed the lawn while trying to figure some way to get my hero out of the jam in which I’d placed him. There was one thing of which I was always sure. If I couldn’t see the answer at the moment, the reader wouldn’t he able to either, hence I’d still have him on the hook.

The answer to the dilemma didn’t always come easy. The hero had to solve the problem himself, employing only his own ability, skill, intelligence, physical prowess, or what have you. It wasn’t considered cricket to have the problem solved by the introduction of some outside force, such as an act of God, or the arrival on the scene of a troop of United States Cavalry (unless of course the hero, at great risks, had gotten through enemy lines to bring them). The hero had to save the day himself.

The pulps, bless ’em! They’re gone now, but where have they gone and why did they go? They came into full flower in the 1920s. They thrived at their peak during the 1930s. They began to vanish in the 1940s. By the middle of the 1950s it would take a discerning eye to find one on the largest of the newsstands.

What happened? Experts have advanced reasons and explanations most of which I feel are valid. In 1941 we got into a war. The cost of wood pulp soared. Many of the publishers put up a game fight by reducing their magazines to pocket size. But it was a losing battle. Costs were prohibitive.

Second, comic books began to appear on the scene. It was now possible for readers to see the pulp stories in caricature.

Third—and this is the one to which I take complete exception—readers were becoming more interested in factual material than in fiction. This is a noble thought, but it has no basis in fact. The great increase in the purchase, publication, and sale of paperbound novels disproves it but, more important, the production of the old pulp stories on television disproves it. Now, without the inconvenience of having to buy a magazine, the one-time reader can sit back in his own private theatre, his living room, and watch the characters about whom he used to read come to life on a twenty-one-inch screen.

They are the same plots, the same characters, the same backgrounds, the same gimmicks that he once used to read. Only now he can see and hear them. Expert camera work, musical scores, good direction and production, location shots all combine to produce an effect that stimulates a viewer in a manner that could only stir his imagination when he concentrated on what he was reading in the pulps.

The writing isn’t any better. In many cases it’s worse. The gimmicks are no more profound, the plotting no more complicated.

In most cases television productions are limited by a budget. If the sheriff has to go out to the ranch to arrest the heavy it might require an extra day’s shooting, so the script is changed so that the heavy will have a reason to ride into town, where the sheriff makes the arrest. Such forced revisions don’t do anything to increase story values.

The demise of the pulps is complete. Sometime in the dim and distant future they may be reborn. Or in the same future another similar group of magazines may appear on the newsstands which will stir the imagination of armchair adventurers. I hope so. Because I’m still a pulp writer.

Taken from the Saturday Review, February 10, 1962.

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