Pulps, History and Relevance

I’ve got to say that Anthony Tollin and Will Murray are doing a damn good job keeping pulp fiction alive with reprints of The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider and other standouts from the 1930s and 1940s.

I wasn’t a fan of The Shadow originally. The first one I read was The Living Shadow, way back when Pyramid reprinted it. I was a Doc Savage fan, devouring Bantam reprints. The first ones I found were actually the Golden Press hardback editions, and I guess “less cerebral” is the best way to describe stories like The Man of Bronze, Death in Silver, and The Sargasso Ogre. But they hooked me, Bantam was churning out the Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson books on a regular basis and what can I say, I was a teenage boy and adventure fiction fired my imagination. When all you’ve read so far are Hardy Boys mysteries, there’s no real comparison.

Of course, there really shouldn’t be, as each was written for a different audience. Frank and Joe Hardy are a gateway drug, whereas Doc and his Fab Five crew represented the harder stuff.

I’ve got to laugh at my innocence, because Doc wasn’t as gritty as other stories in the pulps. Sure, Doc’s enemies succumbed in interesting ways in the end. One was drowned by his pet squid. Others fell to vampire bats and carnivorous ants. Usually, their own traps turning back against them. If I’d happened across a different edition of The Shadow, perhaps I’d have gotten hooked early on them as well. My father picked up a couple tapes of The Shadow radio shows that were voiced by Orson Welles, but they didn’t grab my attention. I was a teenage boy and didn’t have a radio mind-set then. Now, I love listening to the rebroadcasts by Greg Bell on Sirius XM and its Radio Classics channel.

When Tollin first reprinted The Shadow and Doc Savage several years back, I looked at them as an opportunity add to my Doc Savage collection. My first brush with The Shadow was still fresh in my memory, so I didn’t start collecting those until several months had passed and the Doc Savage reprints with their glossy original pulp covers, interior artwork, and historical essays by Murray felt somehow incomplete without adding The Shadow into the mix.

The first volumes were better than The Living Shadow, starting out with one penned by Lester Dent himself, The Golden Vulture, apparently an early test Street & Smith set him before giving him the job of writing Doc Savage. It was when I got to the sixth volume, which brought together The Shadow’s Justice and The Broken Napoleons, that I turned into a fan. Again, it was the climax and the novelty of how the villains met their end in The Shadow’s Justice that piqued my interest. Probably something about my Catholic school years that subconsciously wants to see bad guys get punished. How I ended up as a writer rather than a police officer or lawyer mystifies me.

Now, I can read The Shadow and other pulps reprints and make my mind give the words a “radio” cadence. Walter B. Gibson’s writing is especially good using that seeemingly spare, clipped style. I’ve even read The Living Shadow again, and appreciated how good it was. I’m accustomed to Gibson’s proxy hero, as The Shadow is just that — a force behind the scenes — in that initial outing that introduced him and his agent, Harry Vincent.

Which brings me back to the point of this entry, how Tollin and Murray are doing a great job reviving and keeping alive pulp fiction. I just finished the second volume of Sanctum’s reprint of two Spider tales — The Devil’s Paymaster and The Benevolent Order of Death. Norvell W. Page wrote those stories, and his style is as different from Gibson as it is from Lester Dent. All their works are still pulps, informed by their time, but each one is as unique as different kinds of chocolate.

The Benevolent Order of Death appears to have been the 93rd Spider novel and the series only ran for a little more than two dozen additional stories, so Page was certainly familiar with his characters and their portrayal at this point. The Spider/Richard Wentworth and his love/companion Nita Van Sloan are less caricatures and realized to the point where you can empathize with their emotions and pain. The peril each faces is front and center. It’s as if you’re sitting in a theater and watching one of the old serials, where the chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Will the hero/heroine make it out? Of course they will, but you’re still left in doubt, just a bit, because what you’re experiencing is so well-drawn, so well-portrayed, that the boundary between page and world has nearly disappeared.

This probably happened because the underlying theme in this story resonates for the post-9/11 and post-Bush Administration world in which we live. I wrote a review on Goodreads that aspects of the storyline to the political climate and maneuverings for power going on now. I don’t often review books, but seeing how a story published in 1941 bears relevance on politics and the world more than 70 years later just needed some additional examination. I couldn’t just give the volume a 5-star review without explaining why the stories resonated. It’s probably considered cliche by some to say “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but that simple philosophy from George Santayana only seems cliche because people overuse it. I challenge anyone to pick up this story and tell me there isn’t an underlying truth within its pages.

An added bonus in this volume is a short story Page wrote detailing the first meeting of Richard Wentworth and Nita Van Sloan. It’s not a traditional story so much as an examination of how people conduct themselves in the world. How they might act so they don’t repeat history. Pulps aren’t religious texts such as the Bible or the Quran or Torah (or any other source of inspiration throughout the world), but day by day they come damn near to becoming one.

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About stephenwnagy

writer, father, husband. not necessarily in that order.
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