Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Praise of Pulps - Part 2

In Part 1 I (hopefully) laid the groundwork for my admiration for the genre of pulp fiction, and why I think it's important.

During the 1930's and 1940's the market for popular fiction seemed unlimited, and a lot of authors wrote a lot of stories very quickly to fill the demand. Most were journeymen, writing forgettable tales with shopworn plots and cardboard characters.

But then there were others, who so thoroughly mastered their craft that they could turn out novels on demand with engaging characters, innovative plots and -- most importantly -- prose that came alive.

Yesterday I provided a sample of the average level of pulp writing. The author, R.T.M. Scott. Scott was hired by Popular Publications to write a 40,000-60,000 word novel monthly featuring their new masked vigilante character, the Spider.

After the first two issues of the magazine, Scott was replaced by Norvell Page, and the character was never the same. And that's a good thing. Because, thanks primarily to Page's contributions, the Spider pulp novels are still being reprinted and discussed here in the 21st century.

Here's the opening to Norvell Page's Spider novel, "The City Destroyer." first printed in 1935

A man and woman stood rigidly against the wall. The man wore rumpled pajamas, the woman's nightgown was green silk and an inset point of lace dipped between her breasts. The window as up and a cold wind flapped the curtains and the woman's nightgown. She was frightened, while the man was very angry.

"For the last time," he said raspingly, "you've got all the papers."

Three men in overcoats faced them and two held automatics carelessly. The third man was scowling at the woman. Abruptly his head jerked up. He whispered words out of the corner of his mouth.

"Quick, Jiggs, the kitchen! Somebody's in there!'"

The man on his right whirled on his toes, took two quick strides, and slapped a swing door open. It banged back against the wood and quivered. Jiggs held it there with his left hand while the muzzle of his gun swept around the kitchen. He grunted, switched on a ceiling light, and looked again carefully. He crossed to the kitchen window and found it locked. Jiggs turned off the light once more and went back into the other room. "Nobody in there, " he reported. "Musta been the wind."

As he left the kitchen, the narrow door of the broom-closet opened and a hunched figure in a long black cape stepped out. Piercing blue gray eyes were narrowed beneath the broad black brim of a slouch hat. There was a thin, mirthless smile on the hunch-back's lips. Without a sound, he glided toward the swing door. His arms crossed; smoothly his hands slid under the cape and two black automatics spouted from his fists. He stepped into the doorway. "Stand still, you three gentlemen," he said softly, "Keep your hands down."
Now this is the reason I'm a fan. Page does a number of things right to bring the reader into the story and keep them breathlessly turning the pages.

First, he starts the story at the last possible moment. The reader isn't lost, but they have questions. In the first two sentences we know something's very wrong. Who is the couple, and why was their home invaded? What papers are the crooks looking for? Who is that strange figure in the kitchen (readers of previous issues would know it was the Spider).

Second, Page shows rather than tells the story. There's very little exposition. Things are happening. The scene communicates the peril, the author doesn't have to turn to the reader and explain that these people are in danger.

And notice how cinematic this is. Can't you imagine this sequence as the opening to a film or a TV show?

The character of the Spider might be a little over the top for today's readers, but I still learn a lot about the craft of fiction writing by studying Page's work. He knows how to move a story along without letting the narration get in the way.

Is pulp magazine fiction the greatest literary genre ever? Hardly. But when it's done well, it can deliver a roller coaster ride of fun and excitement. And who wouldn't want to have that kind of reading experience once in a while?

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