The origin of this term can be traced to the monthly genre story publications of the early 20th century, printed on cheap paper that was called “pulp,” hence the term “pulp magazine.”
Everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs to H.P. Lovecraft to Elmore Leonard to Ray Bradbury got started writing for these lurid literary throwaways. They weren’t composed for the sake of prosperity, just profit. Most of the authors were using pseudonyms, so they could hopefully cultivate more respectable reputations with their actual byline while churning out disposable, forgettable tales of sex, monsters, and death, aimed at an insatiable audience starving for affordable escape from brutal reality during the Depression and Second World War.
Then in the 1970s, paperback reprints of the adventures of pulp magazine mainstays like Doc Savage and The Shadow rejuvenated interest in those supposedly ephemeral stories, cashing in on the nostalgia craze while introducing new generations of fans to the work of Kenneth Robeson (the pen name of several contributing authors, mostly one Lester Dent) and Maxwell Grant (the nom de plume of one Walter Gibson). Their prolific efforts were now being met with both popular and critical acclaim, since, like architects, they always did their best work so it would endure at least the initial press run and increase or maintain demand for more, if not stand the test of time.
Which they did, despite all predictions to the contrary, while many of their contemporary, more immediately esteemed works of literature were relegated to the cultural wasteland.
Tales from the Cryptic
Now when most people say the word “pulp,” graphic images of violent behavior and sexual deviance immediately spring to mind. That’s because many of the stories in the old pulps were indeed exploitative in nature, exploring and exposing elements of society and taboo topics forbidden in mainstream media. This led into the 1950s with the creation of the controversial EC Comics Company, whose particularly explicit tales of horror and decadence were finally formally denounced by concerned, and conservative, committees. The publications were soon run out of business, though now they enjoy unprecedented success in new anthologies.
It was just another game of "whack-a-mole," since you can never deny regular people their base gratifications for very long.
In the 1960s, “grindhouse” cinema began to infiltrate the forgotten drive-ins and abandoned urban movie theaters alike, likewise trafficking in subjects of depravity, but visually realized.
Pulp magazines were the literary equivalent, and as time went on, they gave way to equally exploitative paperbacks about everything from suburban sex swingers to serial killers to biker gangs on the rampage.
Basically, grindhouse cinema – now its own marketing niche, partly thanks to the 2007 Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino film – and pulp fiction merged into a single identity, becoming the creatively complementary sanctuary for anyone seeking cheap thrills sans any censorship or regard for “decency,” hungry instead for “art” that reveled unashamedly in its own sensual excess.
So that brings us to me. I write “pulp fiction,” meaning I write noir, horror, science fiction and maybe a few other random genres, but often all within the same story or novel. Since my stuff bends and melds genres, I simply call it “pulp.”
But as I soon discovered after this self-designation, “pulp fiction” is a thriving subculture in indie literary circles, just like “noir.”
Up Is Down, Down Is Up
Bizarro Fiction is perhaps the most popular amalgamation of grindhouse cinema and pulp. There are hundreds of books by dozens of authors on the market. The novels, or rather novellas, all have outlandish titles, outrageous plots, and specialize in the utter defiance of anything remotely commercial or conventional. It’s the punk rock of indie lit. The creativity and freedom are limitless.
That’s my work in a nutshell, except I don’t want to conform to any particular expectations. Bizarro fiction needs to be of a certain short length, and readers demand a certain level of originality in concept and execution. It’s become a very competitive and crowded field, and rather cliquish. I’m a fan, just not bucking for club membership. I prefer to operate as a loner.
Basically, I don’t like to compete with anyone but myself, so I just stick to the broader self-designation of “pulp fiction,” even though my novels are a far cry from the relatively innocuous days of Fu Manchu and The Spider.
For me, “pulp fiction” is about defying borders of both genre and expectations, challenging yourself as an author, as well as your readers, to continually evolve and expand your horizons, without sticking to any one formula or concept. My main sources of inspiration are indeed grindhouse cinema, and my own B movie of a life.
Oh, my stuff has lots of sex and monsters, too. Way more than I personally experience, that’s for sure. The unabashed hedonism has vicarious appeal, even for me.
And that’s as good a definition of “pulp fiction” as any.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO