Pulp magazines, often simply called “the pulps”, were inexpensive text fiction magazines widely published in the 1920s through the 1950s. The first “pulp” is considered to be Frank Munsey’s revamped Argosy Magazine of 1896. Most of the pulp magazines still around today are science fiction or mystery magazines, now in the form of digest magazines.
The name comes from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Magazines printed on better paper and usually offering family-oriented content were often called “slicks.” Pulps were the successor to the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” of the nineteenth century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are perhaps best remembered for their fast-paced, lurid, sensationalistic, and exploitive stories. Parallels between comic books and pulp magazines can be drawn; for example, magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom Detective. Pulp covers were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, usually awaiting a rescuing hero.
Pulp magazines often contained a wide variety of genres. Detective/mystery was the largest genre. Others included science fiction, romance, adventure, war, horror/occult, and more. Many of the pulp heroes actually fell into one or more of these genres.
Authors and pulp magazines today
Many well-known authors wrote for the pulps at one time or another. Note that many people would make a distinction between an author who wrote for the pulps but later went on to transcend the limitations of the genre, and a “pulp author”, who did not.
Well-known authors who wrote for the pulps include:
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Ellis Parker Butler
Hugh B. Cave
Arthur C. Clarke
Philip K. Dick
Erle Stanley Gardner
Robert E. Howard
L. Ron Hubbard
Elmore John Leonard
H. P. Lovecraft
John D. MacDonald
Richard S. Shaver
Clark Ashton Smith
Many classic science fiction and crime novels were originally serialized in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Black Mask. The format eventually declined (especially in the 1950s) with rising paper costs, competition from comic books, television, and the paperback novel, although it is still in use for some lengthy serials, like the German SF weekly Perry Rhodan (over 2200 issues as of 2003).