With profound economic uncertainty lingering at home and the clouds of fascism building abroad, Americans were in desperate need of an escape in the 1930s.
So they flooded into movie houses on a daily basis and listened to the radios that offered programs as varied as “Guiding Light,” “Lone Ranger,” “Charlie Chan” and “Father Knows Best.”
They also purchased magazines that offered up tale after tale of adventures far removed from their everyday milieu. The colorful, eye-catching covers of magazines like “Detective Fiction,” “Thrilling Love, “G-Men,” “Fanciful Tales of Time and Space” and “Western Love Romances” beckoned with images of hard-boiled detectives ready to pump a slug into a miscreant’s torso, hard-bitten lawmen pursuing the most ruthless gangsters, square-jawed sheriffs bringing order to chaotic Western towns, slimy monsters emerging from silver spaceships and, almost always, uncommonly beautiful damsels in various states of undress and distress.
Those were the days when what become known as pulp magazines were at their height. Though the first of the pulp magazines arrived in 1896 – they were given the “pulp” designation because they were printed on inexpensive wood pulp paper – they reached their apex from the 1920s to 1940s, before television and comic books stole their thunder. The writers who labored for them cranked out copy for relatively small paychecks, and many languished in obscurity. Some, however, did manage to gain higher profiles and now straddle the line between highbrow and lowbrow, from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke.
Baltimore-based writer and illustrator Mai Lyn Degnan observed in an essay for the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Without these long-lost lowbrow publications, many of our fiction genres simply would not exist. So much of what we watch in film and television, what we play in video games, as well as what we read in books and comics have been direct results of the crazed minds of authors and illustrators during the pulp fiction era.”
The magazines that were once produced so cheaply are now avidly-sought collectibles, and fans of pulp magazines will be gathering this weekend at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Cranberry Township for PulpFest, a celebration of pulp magazines and all things related.
This year, PulpFest is marking its 50th year. It initially emerged in the era when fan conventions first blossomed across the landscape, and followers of everything from “Star Trek” to the Beatles would gather in hotel conference centers to hear guest speakers, watch rare films, grab an autograph, snap up memorabilia and bask in the presence of fellow enthusiasts. It’s moved around the country over the last half-century, setting up shop in Akron, Ohio, Tucson, St. Louis and other cities. PulpFest has been at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Cranberry for the last five years. The site was chosen after Jack Cullers, the chairman of the committee that organizes Pulpfest, and his wife, Sally, stayed at the hotel and were pleased with their experience.
“We’ve been there ever since,” he said. “They’re glad to have us. We had a rough couple of years with COVID. We’re hoping this is going to be a big year.”
About 400 to 500 people are expected to attend, and when they do they’ll find dealers selling vintage pulp magazines, which are now fragile and need to be handled carefully given their age. Discussions are also planned on topics as varied as science fiction pulp stories, “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and the writing styles of Hammett and Ernest Hemingway. A screening is also planned for “Zane Grey’s King of the Royal Mounted,” a 12-part serial from 1939.
Cullers lives in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and said he first caught the pulp magazine bug when he heard his father enthusiastically remember buying them. While he has been thinning out his own collection over the last couple of years, he still is on the lookout for good finds.
“If it catches your eye, you’ve got to have it,” he said.
And, Cullers maintains, pulp magazines could be a good investment, since they are heading up in value, alongside comic books, baseball cards and other relics of 20th century popular culture.
“A lot of (collectors) are getting old, but we are getting a lot of younger people involved,” he explained.
For a schedule and other details about PulpFest, go online to pulpfest.com.