Sunday, 17 February 2008

Southern Pulp Part One

Anyone who knows anything about the history of American pulp magazines knows that New York City was the centre of the pulp magazine industry. After all, it was in New York that Francis Scott Street and Francis Shubael Smith founded Street and Smith, the publisher of dime novels and newspapers who would become the largest publisher of pulp magazines. It was also in New York City that Frank Munsey founded Golden Argosy (swiftly renamed Argosy) in 1882, widely regarded as the first pulp magazine. New York City was the centre of the American pulp magazine industry in much the same way that southern California was the centre of the American film industry. The vast majority of pulp magazine publishers had their home there, and certainly the biggest pulp magazine companies were all based in New York City.

It might then seem a bit surprising for many to realise that some of the most important figures in the history of pulp magazines came not from New York City or even the American Northeast, but instead from the American South (including the Border States of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee). For whatever reason this was particularly true of the Heroic Pulps, many of whose creators and writers came from somewhat warmer climes than New York. Over the years Southerners would create some of the most important characters in the history of pulp magazines and in the end have a lasting impact not only on pulp magazines, but on American pop culture in general.

Indeed, while Southerners' strongest influence on the history of pulp magazines came by way of various writers, there were two important publishers who were from the South. Bernard McFadden (who later renamed himself "Bernarr" because he thought it sounded stronger) entered publishing with the magazine Physical Culture, devoted to precisely that subject (physical culture being the promotion of strength and health through body building, nutrition, et. al.). Eventually McFadden would expand into other areas, including the movie magazine Photoplay, the tabloid newspaper The New York Graphic, and Sport magazine. Quite naturally, McFadden expanded into the pulp magazine market as well, publishing the confessional magazine True Story, the true crime magazine True Detective, Ghost Stories, and so on. McFadden was born and raised in Mill Springs, Missouri, a tiny town in the southeastern part of the state.

The other important publisher to emerge from the South is a familiar name to many Americans--H. L. Mencken, American newspaperman, satirist, essayist, and professional curmudgeon. Of German extraction, Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 12, 1880 and spent nearly all his life there. Although best known for his many writings, Mencken has a singular part in pulp history. Quite simply, it was in 1920 that Mencken founded Black Mask with theatre critic George Jean Nathan. For those unfamiliar with Black Mask, it was the magazine which gave rise to the genre of hard boiled detectives and published many of the early works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Mencken and Nathan only stayed with Black Mask for eight issues before selling the magazine to its publishers (Eltinge Warner and Eugene Crow). Eventually Black Mask would be acquired by Popular Publications, the company which also published The Spider, G-8 and His Battle Aces, and Battle Aces.

It would not be in the realm of publishing, however, that Southerners would leave their deepest imprint on pulp magazines, but in the field of writing. This was particularly true of the Heroic Pulps, those pulp magazines centred around a specific character. In 1931 Street and Smith met with incredible success with their magazine The Shadow, featuring the dark clad crimefighter who had originated simply as the mysterious narrator of the radio show The Detective Story Hour. In the wake of the success of The Shadow, other publishers introduced their own Heroic Pulps featuring their own characters. Significantly, the two most important pulp heroes to emerge besides the Shadow were mostly developed by Southerners.

Indeed, perhaps the most famous pulp hero of all time outside of The Shadow could well be Doc Savage. Contrary to popular belief, Doc Savage was not created by Lester Dent, although he expanded upon the character so much that he might as well have created him. The basic concept behind Doc Savage originated in Street and Smith's desire to follow up on the success of The Shadow. To this end, Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic wrote a broad outline for a new character to be called "Doc Savage." Doc may have partially been based on an actual person. John Nanovic told pulp magazine historian Will Murray about a man named Richard Henry Savage, a modern day renaissance man who was at various times a diplomat, engineer, lawyer, military officer, and writer. As a writer some of Savage's books were published by Street and Smith, just when a young Henry Ralston had started working for the firm at the tender age of 17.

While Ralston and Nanovic provided the initial impetus for Doc Savage, the character would be fully realised by writer Lester Dent. The extent to which Lester Dent expanded upon the character can be seen in that Doc Savage actually shared a good deal in common with the man who chronicled his adventures. Like Doc, Lester Dent was a gadgeteer, not only having been a telegraph operator, but also having passed both electrician and plumber exams. And like Doc he was a bit of an adventurer himself. Among other things, Dent explored Native American cliff dwellings and hunted for treasure in the Caribbean. He even owned his own schooner, the Albatross, and had a pilot's licence. If ever there was a writer born to write Doc Savage, it was Dent.

As many probably already know, Lester Dent was born in La Plata, Missouri on October 12, 1904. La Plata is situated in Macon County, one of the border counties of the area known as Little Dixie because it was thoroughly settled by individuals from Virginia and the Carolinas. Macon County itself was largely settled by people from the Carolinas and even named for Nathaniel Macon, a United States Senator from North Carolina. During the War Between the States, Macon County was very sympathetic to the South, so much so that the county seat was moved from Bloomington to Union occupied Macon City (now simply called "Macon"--sadly, now there is only a marker to even show where Bloomington once stood). To this day the culture of Macon County, including La Plata, is thoroughly Southern (although not quite as much as the counties of Little Dixie). Lester Dent was then for all practical purposes born in the South. Now it is true that his parents moved to Wyoming when Dent was only two, but here we must consider two things. First, while one can take a Southerner out of the South, it is much harder to take the South out of a Southerner. Growing up in a family from Missouri, then, Dent was probably exposed to Southern culture even in Wyoming. Second, the family returned to La Plata when Dent was 15 years old. He completed grade school and high school there. He attended the Chillicothe Business College in Chillicothe, Missouri and even taught there for a time. For a while he was telegraph operator for Western Union in Carrollton. And while Dent's writing career would keep him in New York for quite some time, he and his wife Norma would return to La Plata in 1940, where they spent the rest of their lives. There can be little doubt as to Lester Dent's credentials as a Missourian and a Southerner.

While some might debate whether Lester Dent was a Southerner or not, there can be no such debate regarding the man who most fully realised The Spider, Norvell Page. Although not as well known as either The Shadow and Doc Savage, The Spider is arguably their equal in importance with regards to the history of pulp magazines. Just as Lester Dent was not involved in the basic ideas which would lead to Doc Savage, so too was Norvell Page absent when the idea for The Spider was first developed. In fact, he would not being writing the character until the third issue of The Spider. Like Lester Dent and Doc Savage, however, Page expanded and even changed The Spider so much from the initial concept that he might as well be considered the character's creator.

The initial version of The Spider was created by Henry "Harry" Steeger, publisher of Popular Publications, as competition for rival Street and Smith's The Shadow. To develop the character he brought in writer R. T. M. Scott. Scott was most famous for having created "Secret Service Smith," the hero of five novels and several stories. Smith was an American detective with a Hindu assistant who was deadly with a knife. Curiously, Scott's version of The Spider somewhat resembles Secret Service Smith. For Scott "The Spider" was little more than a nom de guerre adopted by Richard Wentworth as he fought crime as an amateur criminologist. Like Smith, Wentworth was assisted by Ram Singh, a Hindu deadly with a knife. One major difference between Smith and Wentworth was that Wentworth was a bit more bloodthirsty. While Smith always shot to wound, Wentworth would shoot to kill. Wentworth would also brand his victims with the seal of The Spider using a specially made cigarette lighter.

Scott left The Spider after only two issues, whereupon Norvell Page took over as the magazine's writer. Page took the basic concept of The Spider as created by Steeger and Scott and turned it into something entirely different. In fact, in some respects it is hard to say that Page didn't simply create a whole new character. While "The Spider" began simply as a nom de guerre for Richard Wentworth under R. T. M. Scott, Norvell Page would soon make The Spider a distinct identity from Richard Wentworth. Eventually Wentworth as The Spider would dress in a sallow fright mask complete with fangs, a black felt hat, and a black cape, giving him what was perhaps the most frightening appearance of any pulp hero. And while Wentworth was a bit bloodthirsty under Scott's tenure as writer, he became even more so when Norvell Page wrote him. As The Spider, Richard Wentworth was wholly obsessed with fighting crime--one might say he was even compelled to do so. And in his war against evil he showed absolutely no mercy.

Norvell Page made other changes to The Spider as well. While Ram Singh was originally portrayed as Wentworth's Hindu assistant under Scott, Page made him a Sikh who was not Wentworth's assistant, but his friend and equal. Richard Wentworth's girlfriend Nita Van Sloan played a more prominent role, becoming his partner in fighting crime. In fact, Nita Van Sloan would even sometimes become The Spider herself! The final change Norvell Page made to The Spider was in the nature of the enemies he faced. In the two novels by R. T. M. Scott ("The Spider Strikes" and "Wheel of Death"), Richard Wentworth faced rather ordinary criminal masterminds. Page drew upon his own Ken Carter series from the magazine Ten Detective Aces to provide The Spider with a whole new sort of opponent. Carter was a former professional juggler turned detective who fought menaces of an outre nature, such as criminals who use music to kill ("Hell's Music") or who transform human beings into statues ("Statues of Horror"). In the hands of Norvell Page, then, The Spider faced such bizarre menaces ranging from giant robots (Satan's Murder Machines) to a mad genius who could spread insanity (Legions of Madness).

Ultimately, Norvell Page made The Spider entirely his own character. While Steeger and Scott may have created the initial concept and other writers would pen novels for the magazine (including Emile C. Tepperman and Prentice Winchell), there really can't be much argument that The Spider as we know him is largely the creation of Norvell Page. Of course, Page created other pulp heroes besides The Spider. As mentioned earlier, he wrote the Ken Carter stories for Ten Detective Aces. He also wrote two sword and sorcery novels featuring Prester John, also known as "Hurricane John" or Wan-Tengri.

As I said earlier, there can be no debate that Norvell Page is a Southerner. He was born in 1906 in the heart of the South--Richmond, Virginia. In fact, the Pages number among the First Families of Virginia, having settled there in 1650. Those familiar with Virginia's history might recall that there was a John Page who was governor of the state and a U.S. Congressman. Novelist, lawyer, and one time United States Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page was also a member of Norvell Page's family. Norvell Page himself attended the University of Richmond and then the College of William and Mary. Of the classic pulp writers, it can be argued that Norvell Page was the most thoroughly Southern.

Of the three major pulp heroes (The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider), it would seem that Southerners created two out of three of them. But the influence of Southerners on the pulps did not end there. Two lesser known pulp heroes would also be created by a Southerner, in this case another Missourian. Frederick C. Davis was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, the city where the Pony Express began and where Jesse James died. Becoming a professional writer at the age of 22, Davis would create two of the more memorable pulp heroes. The first was the Moon Man, whose stories appeared in the pages of Ten Detective Aces (the first appearing in May 1933). As should be fairly obvious from the following description, the Moon Man could well have had some influence on the later superheroes in comic books. The Moon Man was police sergeant Stephen Thatcher, whose father had been a police chief. While he upheld the law in his every day life as Sgt. Thatcher, he had another life in which upholding the law was not so important. As the Moon Man, Thatcher would don a fish bowl shaped helmet made of one way glass and a black cape. So dressed he would then rob the rich and corrupt to give to the poor. The Moon Man would become one of the most popular characters to emerge from Ten Detective Aces.

Frederick C. Davis would also write the first twenty issues of Operator #5. Operator #5 centred on Jimmy Christopher, a secret agent for the United States. His codename was "Operator #5." What set Operator #5 apart from other pulps featuring spies is that Davis often based his novels on fact, even going so far as to include footnotes! While the Operator #5 novels were always fast paced and featured strong plots, there were always enough facts to make the stories believable, no matter how fantastic the plots may have been.

Of course, Southerners wrote for more than the Hero Pulps. Both Lester Dent and Norvell Page wrote for a wide variety of titles. In fact, perhaps the most famous pulp writer to emerge from the South (well, besides Dashiell Hammett, anyway) did not write for the Hero Pulps, but created some of the greatest heroes in the history of pulp magazines nonetheless. Not only was Robert E. Howard born in Texas, but he spent his entire life there. He was born in Peaster, Texas to Dr. Isaac Howard and his wife Hester Jane. Both sides of his family had long been in the South, with veterans of the Confederate Army numbering among his ancestors. The family moved frequently while Howard was young, to such towns as Seminole and Wichita Falls, among others. When Howard was thirteen, they settled in Cross Plains, where Howard would spend the rest of his short life.

Given the genre in which he worked (he has been called the "Father of Sword and Sorcery"), it should not be surprising that much, perhaps most, of Robert E. Howard's work was published in the fantasy and horror pulps. In fact, his first sale would be to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales. First published in Weird Tales, August 1928, "Red Shadows" marked both the first appearance of Howard in print and the first appearance of his hero Solomon Kane. Solomon Kane was an adventurer living in the time of the Tudors who finds himself travelling the world battling ghosts, demons, and sorcerers. Ultimately seven different Solomon Kane stories would be published while Howard was alive.

Howard's next significant hero was also published in the pages of Weird Tales. Kull was a barbarian from Atlantis living around 20,000 BCE. Eventually becoming the king of Valusia, he would battle such menaces as the Serpent Men and the necromancer Thulsa Doom. Only two Kull stories were published before Howard's death, although others would be published in the anthology King Kull in 1967. In many respects Kull was simply a prototype for Howard's most famous creation, what may be the most famous pulp character besides The Shadow and Doc Savage.

Conan the Barbarian made his first appearance in the story "The Phoenix on the Sword," first published in Weird Tales, December 1932. Conan's adventures were set during a fictional Hyborian Age (about 10,000 BCE). He was from the land of Cimmeria, a rugged place of mountains and dark forests. Tall and dark haired, Conan was nearly superhuman in strength. He travelled the world, working as everything from a mercenary to a thief. Throughout the various stories he faced such opponents as demons, sorcerers, pirates, and other menaces. Even during Howard's lifetime, Conan the Barbarian would prove to be extremely popular. Howard even wrote his own set of guidelines for writing the character. During his lifetime 17 stories featuring Conan were published, all in the pages of Weird Tales. Conan the Barbarian has since appeared in comic books, movies, a TV show, and scores of books written by others.

While the pulp magazine industry was based in New York City, ultimately it would owe a good deal to individuals from the South. Three of the most famous heroes of the pulps (Doc Savage, The Spider, and Conan the Barbarian) were all created by Southerners. Black Mask, the influential detective pulp, was co-founded by a Southerner. The influence of Southerners on the history of pulp magazines would not end there. Not only would writers from the South have a lasting impact on the Heroic pulps, but on the detective genre as well.


themarina said...

I don't know anything about pulp or Southern Pulp to boot but "Heroic Pulps" sure sound a lot like early comic books...

- Row Three

Ms. Wollstonecraft said...

This is off subject but I wanted to thank you for your post on Roy Scheider, and mentioning his "Law & Order" appearance. I actually caught that episode yesterday! (I had made a point of checking out the rerun titles since you mentoned it)

He was fantastic in the role as serial killer. What a great actor. I wish he had gotten the opportunity to do more, but he will be remembered.

ThePulp.Net said...

Marina says:
I don't know anything about pulp or Southern Pulp to boot but "Heroic Pulps" sure sound a lot like early comic books...

A lot of folks think the same thing. But the pulps were fiction magazines, i.e. short stories, novellas, serials and novels, accompanied by a lead illustration and maybe a few spot illustrations every so often. Very few pulps ran any sort of panel cartoon.

True, the pulps had garrish covers, much like comic book, but they had quite different content.

By the way, being a Southerner myself (though no longer living there), I enjoyed reading your entry. Can't wait for the next part.

Yellowed Perils

d. chedwick bryant said...

just stopping by trying to catch up on my blog reading. & learning about pulp--which I am only vaguely familiar with.