Friday, February 15, 2019

In Search of...British Pulp.

Something of a departure from my sporadic post-facto postings, a discussion over at the 7TV FB page had me on a quest to answer the mystery of "Whatever Happened to British Pulp Fiction?"

If the Golden Age of Pulp Era is defined as the 1920's to 1930's, and is deemed predominantly American, is British Pulp a chimera? If it isn't, then where are the British Pulps? The short answer is, in the 50's and 60's. The longer answer is a bit more complex.

To begin with, the development of British "Pulp" fiction was hampered by Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe. Harmsworth, "the greatest figure who ever strode down Fleet Street[1]" was owner of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror and challenger of the Penny Dreadfuls, the immediate precursor of British Pulps. From Wikipedia:
"The popularity of penny dreadfuls was challenged in the 1890s by the rise of competing literature. Leading the challenge were popular periodicals published by Alfred Harmsworth. Priced at one half-penny, Harmsworth's story papers were cheaper and, at least initially, were more respectable than the competition. Harmsworth claimed to be motivated by a wish to challenge the pernicious influence of penny dreadfuls. In an editorial in the first number of The Half-penny Marvel in 1893 it was stated that:
"It is almost a daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of 'dreadfuls', followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds, and finished by running away from home, and installing themselves in the back streets as 'highwaymen'. This and many other evils the 'penny dreadful' is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.[5]"
The Half-penny Marvel was soon followed by a number of other Harmsworth half-penny periodicals, such as The Union Jack and Pluck. At first the stories were high-minded moral tales, reportedly based on true experiences, but it was not long before these papers started using the same kind of material as the publications they competed against. A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, once said, "Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the 'ha'penny dreadfuller'". The quality of the Harmsworth/Amalgamated Press papers began to improve throughout the early 20th century, however. By the time of the First World War, papers such as Union Jack dominated the market in the UK.[16]"

In summation, at the point where the Dreads were poised to become the Pulps, Harmsworth killed them. The Strand, The Pall Mall Magazine, etc., went on to print more cerebral, "posher" fiction, some of which could be reasonably termed "weird", but were less lurid and less sordid than the American "Pulps". Harmsworth filled the gap with Union Jack magazine, initially a "Boy's Own Adventure" mag which then developed into a broader, yet still "highly morale" publication.

Contributing to the dearth was the market. Between the world wars, Britain's market was dominated by the Story Paper, also known as the "Boy's Weekly". Thus, from the 1920's, it was financially more viable to import American Pulps, which were distributed by John Menzies in Scotland  and W.H. Smith & Son in London and throughout England. Indeed, eventually, at any train station where WHS had a kiosk, there were American pulps to be found. Adding to the challenge, WWII brought paper rationing to Britain, discouraging publishers and would-be start-ups.

Another discouragement was Scoops: a weekly pulp-paper tabloid aimed at the juvenile market. Failure after 20 issues (from Feb., 1934) led British publishers to conclude that the home market for British pulps was not sustainable.

Despite this pall, by 1937, Tales of Wonder was published (roughly quarterly) by Worlds Work publishing. Also published were Tales of Mystery and Detection and Tales of the Uncanny. Tales of Wonder would be the first sustained British pulp until 1942, when paper costs and rationing would cause it to reduce the page count, and upon the editors calling up for war service,  cease publication. During the initial period, editor Walter Gillings would rely on some American authors[2] to fill his pages, due to a lack of quality home sources. Reprinting American Pulp stories in British  format would become a hallmark of Worlds Work publishing (themselves a division of the US publisher Doubleday.

Impressed by the relative success of Tales of Wonder, Newnes LTD (publisher of The Strand magazine) decided to publish Fantasy magazine in 1938. Fantasy would combine science fiction and fantasy, and would print three editions over three years. Newnes paid better than most, and attracted better writers, such as John Wyndham, Eric Frank Russell, and John Russell Fearn. Once again, the war would intervene, and the editor, T. Stanhope Sprigg, would enlist in the RAF in 1939.

Branching off of Fantasy magazine, Worlds Work would publish Tales of the Uncanny, again, as three issues from 1934 to 1938.

It may become apparent to the reader that British Pulp, having been partially strangled in its crib, failed to gain a foothold in the British market during the 1920's; the same time the American branch was beginning to thrive. By the late 1930's, time was running out. By 1939, time had run out, and the necessities of war consumed what was left of the market, the talent, and the means of production for British Pulp to thrive.

This series of fits and starts would delay British Pulp's development to the 1950's. By then, British Pulps had followed their American cousins and had shrunk to digest formats.  New Worlds, Science Fiction Adventures, and Science Fantasy magazines were prominent, surviving into the 1960's when they would morph again, this time into A-format (i.e. mass-market) paperbacks.

It was the onset of these paperbacks, printed on cheap paper, that would produce the anthologies of Pulp stories. Rescued from obscurity, by PAN Books in the UK and DAW Books in the States, this would serve to spark a renewed interest in pulp fiction during the 1970's. 

And so, the wheel turns full circle...

[1] Lord Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, 1914–1916 (1928) 1:93.
[2] David Keller, Murray Leinster, Jack Williamson