Lantern-jawed heroes. Megalomaniac villains. Hard-boiled crime. Spicy romance tales. Settings that stretched from an ancient, barbaric past into far-off worlds in the distant future. Even if your only knowledge of the term “pulp fiction” comes from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film, you know something about pulp. Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Shadow, John Carter, Conan — all these and more were creations of pulp fiction. And thanks to advancements in technology and the rise of the digital market, pulp fiction is back in a big way.
Today, a new renaissance of pulp is occurring, thanks in large part to the rise of print on demand, technology, and ebooks. No longer limited to traditional publishing houses, many new and even established authors are instead choosing to go through these routes, made possible through services like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace printing, or Ingram’s Lightning Source. These authors are bypassing the traditional gatekeepers and blazing paths for the kind of stories that traditional publishers may find too risky in today’s market.
First, it helps to understand the history of the pulps. Deriving its name from the wood pulp pages the stories were printed on. Similar to the British Penny Dreadfuls of the 19th century, the pulps were cheaply made and cheaply sold, often containing lurid and exploitative subject matter. Many authors wrote for the various pulp magazines, often paid a few cents per word, and the stories encompassed almost every form of genre in existence. Famous names like Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others got their start writing for the pulps. Some publishers used “house names” for their serialized fiction, with many authors writing stories under the same name, such as Kenneth Robeson, the house name Street and Smith Publications used for their popular Doc Savage series.
The format peaked in the 20s and 30s, and then paper shortages during World War II caused a rise in costs and the decline of the pulps. Facing increased competition from television, paperback novels, and comic books., the format began to die out. Many of the classic titles had become defunct and as pulps were the primary market for short stories, this caused a massive shift in the publishing landscape. While a lot of characters have since lapsed into the public domain, some have remained viable and even managed to survive in the form of comic books, movies, and television.
But the spirit of the pulps never really died, even if the format did. Genre fiction continued to live on in the form of novels, while comic books, particularly in their early days, were heavily influenced by their pulp predecessors (especially superheroes). Movie characters like Indiana Jones were very much created with pulp sensibilities in mind, that same kind of globe-trotting, non-stop action that was found in the adventure fiction.
Some of the public domain characters have discovered new life thanks to the efforts of independent publishers like Pro Se Productions, Airship 27, and others utilizing print on demand technology. Other authors are creating their own characters inspired by the pulps of old. Pro Se Productions author Barry Reese has an entire universe of characters including The Rook, Lazarus Gray, Gravedigger, and more. At PulpWork Press, Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon combines elements of Doc Savage and Indiana Jones with comic characters like Nick Fury, wrapped up in the package of an African American hero (something the pulps sorely lacked). White Rocket Books’ author Van Allen Plexico has his own superhero universe in his Sentinels series and also a fair bit of space opera-style fiction.
But it wasn’t until April of 2011 that a name was given to this movement. At that point, Pro Se Productions publisher Tommy Hancock coined the term New Pulp, defining it as “fiction written with the same sensibilities, linear storytelling, pattern of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original Pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists, and publishers. New stories with either completely original characters or new tales of established characters from Pulp past.”
Since then, others have taken notice. The Guardian posted an article discussing New Pulp, and the Huffington Post reprinted Walter Mosley’s introduction to Pro Se Productions’ Black Pulp collection. With many pulp titles priced between $0.99-2.99 for ebooks as well as a cloud-based reading service like iPulpFiction, the modern-day pulpeteers have found a way to get around the prohibitive publishing costs that spelled the demise of the original pulps while still offering cheap entertainment.
New Pulp is an attempt to capture the manic energy of those old stories, freeing up authors to experiment in a wide variety of genres. It’s fun, fast, affordable, and here to stay.